Monday, December 15, 2014

Are You Sure You Want The Advent Joy?

We are in the season of the Christmas party - office or otherwise. Some of us enjoyed lunch as members of the In Touch group last week. The delicious food aside, there on the table were the obligatory Christmas crackers, with their small ‘gift’, party hat and groan-worthy joke.  With that in mind, last week must have been a slow news week, as one of our national newspapers had the time and space to print the 50 best (or worst!) cracker jokes. I had to share a few:

How did Mary and Joseph know that Jesus was 7lb 6oz when he was born?
They had a weigh in a manger!

Why did no one bid for Rudolph and Blitzen on eBay?
Because they were two deer!

What's the most popular Christmas wine?
'I don't like Brussels sprouts!’

Those jokes may not fill you with any sense joy, but deep joy lies at the heart of all that hear and say and pray and sing today.  The irony is not lost on me that this Gaudate Sunday (gaudate which comes from the Latin to rejoice!) and in Advent and Christmas we sing ‘Joy to the World’ as we await the coming of Christ, but this time of the year often generates the highest frequency of incidents of depression and heartache.

For the prophet Isaiah, joy is not about personal pleasure or *my* happiness or even the possession of a gift already unwrapped.  The joy that Isaiah speaks of is rooted in a gut wrenching hope that the struggles and disappointments of life, will one day be fundamentally and finally resolved by God Himself.  That hope and joy rises out of knowing what it is to be burdened and oppressed, to be the little guy, to feel like you no longer matter, or that your number may be up. That no one cares. No one notices. But the good news is that through a person whom God appoints, a new freedom and peace that is deep and satisfying is coming.

As we are bombarded with ads for perfumes and toys and yet all too aware of what the international troops are leaving Afghanistan to, or what is still unfolding in Syria, Iraq the Ukraine or Nigeria, or as we begin to hear of Blue complaining that Red’s policies will not cut it leading up to the election next year: above that clamour, the voice of God echoes down the centuries speaking words of hope for the oppressed, the addicted, the imprisoned, for the broken-hearted, for those who mourn and for those whose lives are blighted by robbery and ‘petty crime.’

To Jewish ears, this is not some pie in the sky political manifesto but resonates with the practice of everyday life.  Through Isaiah, God speaks of Jubilee.

As you know Jewish people observe a Sabbath every seventh day and rest from all work, remembering God doing the same after His acts of creation. Every seventh year is a special sabbath year and involves a similar rest for land, animals and people, but the seventh cycle of these seven years cycles is extra special. It is a sabbath of sabbaths.  It is Jubilee.

These words of God through Isaiah, were first spoken to a defeated and broken people whose city was razed to the ground, whose centre of worship had been decimated, whose loved ones have been slaughtered and raped, whose identity and very existence has been attempted to be wiped from the page of history.  And into the silence following this genocide comes a shout of divine hope.

During the Jubilee, property and people held as payment for debt were returned to the families to which they originally belonged, slaves were freed and sent home, prisoners could be pardoned and so on. The use of Jubilee language in this section of Isaiah’s prophesy is a clear indication that the freedom proclaimed by God is intended to be made permanent.

Though the Jubilee was a rare event -- to be observed every fiftieth year -- God's servant is sent to announce that that our long-longed for liberation is now and that God will act now to free people from debt and oppression. But this freedom isn’t just physical, it’s emotional too - instead of feeling shame at being the defeated and humiliated underdog (heads hanging and wearing funeral clothes) they are to be welcomed as honoured wedding guests - anointed with oil and be-garlanded.

This is a message of hope and assurance in God. This is the sort of message that makes us want to stand up and shout yes please, where do I sign, that makes us sing in spirit: I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God.

All this stands in stark contrast to the jostling to pay at the till for our Christmas shopping.  This Advent hope and longed for joy taps into Archbishop Justin’s shock and shame at the state of a nation and culture that needs foodbanks to feed our nation’s hidden hungry. it is not good enough to excuse ourselves that it’s somehow ‘their’ fault because of choices ‘they’ have made when ‘we’ fail to speak out against or vote out the system that perpetrates it all.

True joy this Advent and Christmas is marked not by jokes but by concrete actions - not by carol singing, but by rebuilding walls and lives and skills and bank balances. It is about dignity for the despised and hope for the hopeless and not just by a passing feeling.

This is the ‘Joy to the World’ that we sing of - but not just in Advent.  This is God’s new way of living.  Always. It begins with us accepting John the Baptist’s call to re-orientating our lives God-wards in repentance. But then it  must focus outwards to others. It is transformative substantive change. It is practical.  It is local in our community.  It will involve us mixing with others who may lack dignity and who feel humiliated by us and others like us.  But it is has divine mandate… still. Jesus did it. Are you in?

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Thankfulness - for baptisms, weddings and funerals (for Remembrance Sunday)

As any Anglican priest will tell you, one of the privileges of parochial ministry is what might be in a throw away phrase termed ‘hatch, match and dispatch.’  It is an honour to help those who come to articulate thanksgiving for the safe arrival of a new life and dedicating them to the God who brings all things into being, to give words to the celebratory love between two people as they commit themselves to each other for the rest of their days, and in a dignified way to acknowledge the pain of a relationship ended by death and to speak and seek hope.

Last week we reminded ourselves that a sense  of thankfulness runs like a golden thread through these weeks of the Kingdom.  As we heard Jesus’ Beatitudes we thought more about a sense of thankfulness for the pilgrim people of God. And on All Saints Sunday, specially the Christian men and women who have heard the call of Christ and who in their ordinary humanity, have been a blessing to others in our journey of faith. It is in their ordinariness that I experience the holiness of God. Through them I continue to see the face of Christ and hear His voice.

Today I am thankful for the church being there at the milestones of life, and in baptisms, weddings and funerals, reminding us of the constant presence of God throughout life, and I encourage you to be too.

Aside from the archaic and maybe even slightly threatening nature of this parable of Jesus - at it’s heart is the story of a wedding. But as anyone will tell you, the time of waiting between fumbling to put the engagement ring on a finger to uttering the closing words of the vow ‘… according to God’s holy law. I the presence of God I make this vow’ can seem intolerably long.  Yet the waiting to wed involves an active waiting with plenty to organise and plan. The privilege of taking a couple’s wedding is meeting a loving couple, establishing a relationship with them, and enabling them to articulate their love for and commitment to each other surrounded by their closest and in the presence of the God of Love, through all things that are to come.

St Paul then brings us to the final stages of life’s dance. Having rejoiced at the enlarging of love as a child is brought into the world - a mystery that induces deep thankfulness in most of us, when our most intimate relationships with others end, we come crashing down.  St Paul, writing to the Thessalonian Christians, speaks of the hope of Christian faith in the face of death because of the Resurrection of Jesus. But as anyone will tell you, the time of waiting between our loved one taking their last breath to the words ‘… earth to earth, ashes, dust to dust…’ can seem intolerably long.  Yet the waiting to commend and commit someone to God involves an active waiting with plenty to organise and plan. The privilege of taking someone’s funeral is meeting with those who mourn, establishing a relationship with them, and enabling them to articulate their love for the person who has died and grief with those who surround them with their love in the presence of God - the Lord of life and death.

Today I am thankful for when the pilgrim people of God - the church - who has helped me to articulate my emotions into words, and walked alongside me as I committed myself to walk with my wife into the future for better or worse, those who rejoiced with us at the arrival of children and consoled us when it gets hard, and who silently wept with us at the death of those whom we have loved as we remember them as we have committed them to God.

The word ‘remember’ literally re-member, means to bring something from the past into the present. It is an emotional act with a strangely physical aspect to it.  As we remember the cost of all war but perhaps this year of all years the human cost of the First World War, and we remember all those who have and continue give their lives in the cause of peace, so we should also remember those who have pilgrimed with us in our life journey.  General Maslov writing at the end of WWII described German children crying as they searched desperately for their parents in a blazing town. ‘What was surprising,’ wrote Maslov, ‘was that they were crying in exactly the way that our children cry.’ After Nazi propaganda had dehumanised the Slavs, Soviet revenge propaganda had convinced its citizens that all Germans were ravening beasts…’

Reflecting on the brutality and inhumanity of Auschwitz, Thomas Merton wrote that in order for something like Auschwitz to happen, ‘…It is enough to affirm one basic principle: anyone belonging to class x or nation y or race z is to be regarded as subhuman and worthless, and consequently has no right to exist. All the rest will follow without difficulty… As long as this principle is easily available, as long as it is taken for granted, as long as it can be spread out on the front pages at a moment’s notice and accepted by all, we have no need of monsters: ordinary policemen and good citizens will take care of everything…’

That is, accepting caricatures of inhumanity can too easily turn ordinary people inhuman. Surely Remembrance must be at least in part about reminding ourselves that other people whoever they are, are not caricatures, not beasts, but other human beings who walk with us in life. These have people children, who cry like our own; who love and commit to love and who grieve at the ending of those relationships by death.  These are women and men, who may be strangers but also could be our friends.

On this Remembrance Sunday I re-member with you those who gave and continue to give their lives in war to maintain our relative peace and long that swords be turned to plough shares and spears turned to pruning hooks and that nation should not turn against nation and not learn war any more as it says in Scripture, but I also re-member all those of God’s pilgrim people - who have rejoiced with us in our joys and weep with us in our sadnesses - including you - those who once were strangers and are now becoming friends as we pilgrim on together knowing the truth of the words of Job revealed in the resurrection of Christ:

“For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,

then in my flesh I shall see God.”

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Thankfulness - for the people of God

The four weeks that lie ahead of us are often called the Kingdom Season.  It is not really a separate ‘season', like Epiphany or Lent, but it feels like one and is often treated as one. 

A favourite image of the Church is of a pilgrim people and throughout  the Church year we travel with Jesus in the readings, sermons and prayers.  We witness the birth of Christ, we listen to his teaching, we are there at his crucifixion, and we celebrate his resurrection. 

Everything we've worked for throughout the year is now coming to its conclusion in the Kingdom Season.  This is when we come to understand what this has meant in the lives of Christian men and women throughout the ages.    

November starts with All Saints' and All Souls' Days, but during the next three weeks 23 Christian monarchs, priests, teachers of the faith, or mystics are remembered by name - and the church remains thankful for their witness with a myriad of others both named and unnamed in the lectionary and in our own lives.  The final Sunday of the season celebrates Christ as King.  God's work is completed and we wait for the New Kingdom to be revealed in all its fullness.

It is this sense of thankfulness that runs, often unseen, throughout these weeks as the Christian year draws to its conclusion and as we long for the completion of the work of God in Christ and in each of us. That sense of thankfulness will be a special focus for our thoughts and in sermons over the next three weeks. So today I am thankful for the people of God - and I encourage you to be too.

Jesus says blessed are those people who find life unfulfilling, who grieve the loss of a loved one, who are unassuming and don’t push themselves forward, who strive for that which is right, who do not retaliate, who are good from the inside out, who bring sections of the community together, who are kicked around by others especially for what they believe - they find the favour of God. They will be happy in the end.

This sense of blessedness, of happiness is not the reward for enduring awfulness now. Blessedness says Jesus does not describe a divine future but a present reality, life in the now, but therefore what sort of a world do they describe? Certainly not our own. 

“Blessed are the meek”, says Jesus, but in our world the meek don’t get the land, they get left holding the worthless beans. “Blessed are those who mourn”, says Jesus, but in our world mourning may be tolerated for a while, but soon we will ask you to pull yourself together and move on. “Blessed are the pure in heart”, says Jesus, but in our world such people are dismissed as hopelessly naïve.

Even in an age of austerity our national creed is one of optimism (not mourning), confidence (not poverty of spirit), and abundance (not hunger or thirst of any kind), and it is in service of such things that we invoke and assume the blessing of God. And so we live by other beatitudes:

Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the good jobs.
Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed.
Blessed are you when you know what you want, and go after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.
If we are honest, we must admit that the world Jesus asserts as fact, is not the world we have made for ourselves.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus cannot very well insist that we become poor in spirit if we aren’t, but He can show us how to look upon such people with new eyes, and so gain entrance to a new world. In that sense on this All Saints Sunday, the Beatitudes testify that it matters deeply whom we call “saint.”

Today friends I am thankful for the ordinary pilgrim people of God down the ages who have tried to live out and live by these blessings. They may not have done it perfectly, in fact I rejoice in the fact that in most cases they haven’t. I take heart that most of them are under-educated, lack connections and who never had much but are content with the lot that God gives them.  In that ordinariness I see the holiness of Christ because they have tried to follow Him and it’s that for which I am thankful, for in and through many of them, I have found and continue to find a deeper faith.

I am thankful for Flo Allen a now long dead unremarkable Lancashire lady who lacked status & influence and yet whose simple passion for Jesus helped literally thousands of local children explore faith for themselves.  I am thankful for Canon Ben Eaton a gregarious international American who grew up in the Lebanon, studied theology in Puerto Rico, and served the church in the slums of Equador,in Barcelona and Paris who shared with me an all who encountered him the extravagant generosity and hospitality of Christ in the Eucharist.  I am deeply grateful for Gertie Gascoigne now in glory with her Lord, a now almost certainly forgotten lady of faith who as I shared Communion at home with her, with the consecrated elements balanced precariously on a on a tea stained planter, and in those moments I saw and met Christ for myself.

For these and for you I am thankful.  There isn’t a tricky point to make here save that when God made human beings in His image, He meant that always, and when He promised to come amongst us in Christ I believe that He did and did not mean once only but always. 

What this means on this All Saints Sunday is that today I am thankful for all the Holy Ones of God, whenever and wherever they may be found - including you - because in you I see and hear Christ, I learn from Him with and through you and I am encouraged and supported and challenged by Him through you.  On this All Saints Sunday I encourage you to ponder for a moment on who continues to support and encourage you in your journey of faith, to be thankful to God for them, and maybe if you can - tell them and tell them why.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Seven Impale - Beginning/Relieve

I can't recall how I stumbled on Seven Impale. It could just have been following up on the suggestions made by Spotify. I don't recall.

What I know though is that I haven't discovered a band that meets me at musical intersections as much in many ways as Seven Impale.

Hailing from Norway, the band make a glorious jazzprog/progjazz noise, but this is no punky fudge. The music broods and soars, jitters and shimmers and I love it. Simples. Enjoy.

Read, Mark Learn and Inwardly Digest...

So following this morning's Epistle reading from Colossians 3, I was reminded of starting Secondary school, an odd thing to recall on Bible Sunday I know but there you have it.

When I started Secondary school I remember going to buy all the relevant uniform to kit me out. I remember getting my blazer, which seemed enormous, but I was told with a smile, "You will grow into it" as it was expected to last for a god few years. I can remember for the first few weeks going to school with a vest and a jumper in the vain hope that it would fill the blazer out!

It's like that often with our appreciation of Scripture - through it we will grow into an appreciation of it and it's importance and therefore also into a relationship with God Himself.

(In place of a conventional sermon, my colleague and I had a conversation (a dialogue sermon) and I enclose my part of the conversation below.)

Q:  What is the importance of scripture for you?
A:  This may sound like a crazy thing to say but when I first came to faith in my teens, I wanted to be one of those Christians that ate scripture up, that read it insatiably, but I wasn’t. The Bible bored me. It was a historic document, key to my faith, but I was told it was important, so it must be!

Over the years, I have wrestled with, grappled for meaning within, tried to relate to scripture in many ways and places. I used to spend much time, like many of us maybe, focussing on what I believed were the important parts of scripture - the Gospels, and to a lesser extent some of the Epistles and left much of the Old Testament and Wisdom literature well alone. I just didn’t get why they were there in the canon, I couldn’t make sense of them or relate to them. No one taught me how to realistically deal with scripture in devotion. As a result I rarely read it aside from in church.

Once ordained I daily read scripture in personal devotion and wrestled with it regularly - trying to relate it to my every day living. Over time I came to realise that within scripture is contained the whole gamut of human emotion and experience and God’s involvement within that experience of life.

In my university days, many Evangelical friends referred to the Bible as the Word of God and seemed to reverence the pages of this book that I just didn’t ‘get’ over and above the Word of God - namely Jesus, whose story it told. I found this hard to deal with. 

I eventually realised that scripture wasn’t the Word of God nor was it simply words about God. I came to hear the voice of God still speaking to me through those dusty words of former millennia.

Finally, I read a book called “Life With God’ by Richard Foster, and American Baptist, who wrote a very influential book a number years ago wrote a very influential book called ‘Celebration of Discipline’ about a disciplined Christian almost monastic rule of life. In ‘Life With God’, Foster talks about Lectio Divina as a way of engaing with scripture prayerfully, asking God to speak through it and listening. He describes why scripture is important to him with a  phrase you may well have heard me use - he talks of scripture as the big story of God’s involvement and relationship with people where God says to us ‘I Love you; I want to be with people like you; will come and be with me.’ Scripture for me still encapsulates and embodies that story and that invitation.

 Q: How do we use scripture for personal devotion?
A: I read it daily, but in 2 ways - in devotion and in study. As study - scripture contains the building blocks of the life of Christian faith. It shows how God’s revealing of Himself over history has changed right up to it’s ultimate in the Incarnation. In the Epistles and beyond we discover how the early church came into being and grew as God’s ministry to and through her flourished.  As a rule of thumb, I find scripture a challenge and a yardstick as to how we engage with God in our day and age - it asks me some very challenging ethical and moral questions about myself, my beliefs and my culture - some of which leaves me so challenged that I either discard it or discount it. I am not advocating either approach, but some of scripture is very challenging, especially when we realise it was written in one cultural context and language and then placed up against our own.  But it also invites into a living relationship with God.

I read scripture devotionally too in that context as we pray morning and evening prayer, say the paslms, as I visit the sick and as I prepare for and lead worship. Through it I believe God has still got things to say to my often weak and failing humanity about who I am in relation to who He is and His love for me no matter what.

Q: What passage of scripture sums up the Good News of Jesus Christ?

A: John 3:16 - A former Archbishop once said that the Church was the only organisation that existed for the benefit of it's non members.  In Jesus' words we are reminded that God loves the world - not the church, not just a club for the holy good and true, but the world - all of us always. His love is for us whether we feel we are worthy of it or not. Being loved and accepted under all circumstances by the one that brought all that is into being... well that surely has to be good news...

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Give To Caesar...

There’s nothing more certain in life than death and taxes one time President of the US Benjamin Franklin was reputed to have said. And in many ways he’s right. Death comes to us all and tax has been a reality for citizens of a nation for millennia.

Jews in first century Palestine, you see, paid numerous taxes: Temple taxes, land taxes, and customs taxes, just to name three. The tax in question was a particular – and particularly onerous – one. It was the Imperial tax paid as tribute to Rome to support the Roman occupation of Israel. That’s right: first-century Jews were required to pay their oppressors a denarius a year to support their own oppression.

Not that everyone saw it this way, however. Those put in power by the Romans, represented in this passage by the Herodians, advocated supporting Roman “governance” of Israel. Nationalists opposed to Rome found the tax offensive as it was a constant reminder of their humiliation. And the religiously devout, represented by the disciples of the Pharisees, had to pay the tax with a coin engraved with a picture of Caesar Tiberius and a proclamation of his divinity, forcing them to break the first two Commandments.

All of which made the topic of the Imperial Tax tremendously divisive and one’s opinion on it immediately revealing. And herein lies the cunning demonstrated by two normally fractious parties united only by their shared opposition to this young Rabbi Jesus who the day before had entered Jerusalem to great acclaim and had been stirring things up at the Temple ever since. With their question about the Imperial tax, Jesus’ foes thought they had him trapped, as he would either disappoint the people by advocating for the tax or put himself in jeopardy with Roman officials by arguing against it.

But Jesus not only evades their trap, he entangles them in their own one too. “Who’s face is on the coin,” he asks. Perhaps over-eager to trap Jesus they forget that by producing a coin from their 1st century trouser pocket they betray their own allegiance to the Romans. For those not paying attention, Jesus makes it clear whose side they are really on by asking whose image and title are on the coin. “The Emperor’s,” they answer, assuring those in the crowd that they know full well the face and blasphemous confession of divinity they carry.

All this sharpens the bite of Jesus’ response: “give, therefore, to Caesar, the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And suddenly the tables are turned, as all in the crowd will recite the Shema regularly - “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your might.” - they confess that everything belongs ultimately to God. With just a few words, Jesus reveals the truth about his would-be accusers and simultaneously calls them to account before the God they worship.

Might Jesus also be doing the same to us, inviting each of us to declare our allegiance? In that sense, perhaps the key to understanding Jesus isn’t ‘whose image is on the coin’, but rather ‘whose image is on or in us’. It would be hard for Jesus’ audience to listen to his words and not hear echoes of Genesis 1, where God declares His intention to make us in His own image. And that’s what always seems to get lost in conversations about money or politics. For while we may feel strongly about our political loyalties,  but before we are Conservative, Labour, Liberal or anything else, we are Christian. And while we may be confident that how we spend our money is our business and no one else’s, yet if we forget in whose image we have been made we may succumb to the temptation to believe that we are no more than the sum  total of our possessions and that our bank accounts tell a true story about our worth and value.

Jesus threw the question back at the Pharisees and Herodians. His statement just raises some questions. How and where do you draw the line between the things that belong to Caesar and the things that belong to God? What are the things of Caesar and what are the things of God?

Friends, a holy god, who is one, demands the service of whole human beings. The God of Jesus has a claim on all of our life. So if God demands all of our life, what is left to render unto Caesar?

“The things that are Caesar’s.” What are they? Caesar, the State, seems to have a claim on much of our lives, but in fact, nothing belongs to him. Everything belongs to God; the things that Caesar claims are merely on loan.

“The things that are God’s.” The way most of us behave suggests that we believe that God has a claim on about one hour per week and a small percentage of our income. But God’s mark is upon every particle of our being. 

One Sunday, a minister put a number of marker pens in the pews and after reminding the congregation that all they had and were is God’s – and that all God has and is is also theirs! – she invited them to mark one of their bank cards with the sign of the cross. The idea was that for the next several months it was nearly impossible to buy something and not reflect on whether or not this purchase aligned with their own sense of values and God-given identity. It wasn’t an answer, of course, each person had to think for themselves about how their faith impacted their decisions about spending. In an empowering way everyone that day and over many weeks was reminded of their identity as a child of God, something no amount of spending or saving could change. What it did was root faith and life together and invite some active reflection on how to live that out especially in relation to who had first place in their life and first call on their time and money - them and their desires, or God.

God wants more from us, in the end, than polite conversation. God wants for us abundant life. Because while Benjamin Franklin may have once said that death and taxes are the only two certainties of this life, each week we have the opportunity to declare that the one who was raised from death shows us that God’s love is more certain than anything else.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Sunday Podcast

Here's the audio of this morning's sermon based on Matthew 21:33-56.

The Absent Landlord - a sermon based on Matthew 21:33-46

I have never lived in rented accommodation before. The closest I have come is living in Vicarages, where there is effectively a landlord/tenant relationship between us and the Diocese.  As you’d expect, what that means is, if something goes wrong in structure or fixtures and fittings of the house, I can send an email or make a phone call requesting that whatever needs resolving gets fixed, and it does. The relationship is mostly very good indeed.

It is significantly more difficult for those who have poor relationships, or none at all, with their landlords meaning that a complaint about a leaking tap or a faulty boiler could face evection. It is very good news indeed for the UK’s 9 million private tenants, 200,000 of whom faced revenge eviction last year because of making genuine and valid complaints, that a law preventing ‘vengeance evictions’ is coming in.

How much worse would it be to have a landlord who never responded, who never showed up, who never seemed to care about their property and investment? We would be appalled. Tenants would move out. The weight of the law would be brought to bear. The landlord would be out of business and their investment in the property would be lost as it went to wrack and ruin.

If the landowner who planted the vineyard in this parable told by Jesus, who put up the fence to protect it, dug the winepress in the midst of it and built the watch tower to keep this precious investment safe is supposed to be God, and the land and its produce are the world which belong to Him - where is the absent landlord when it mattered? When slaves are sent to receive the wine at harvest they are beaten and abused, and when the son and heir is sent the tenants plan to have him killed - where is the Landlord when it counted? Why did He not prevent such awful tragedies occurring?

Where was the Absent Landlord for Alan Henning? Or for Alice Gross? Where is He in Iraq or in Syria? Where was He in Auschwitz or on the fields of the Somme? Has the Landlord just gone AWOL because as sure as hell it feels like that sometimes…

Quite correctly you might point out that the landlord in the story had no idea that His slaves would be treated the way they were or that his son would be murdered. There would be no way that he could have prevented these atrocities. But as a person of faith, I find that image of God deeply unhelpful - God who sends people to receive and pay blessing upon blessing are stoned and killed as is finally His Son, so He comes in stern vengeance to clear the tenants from the land and lease it to others… No thanks.

Culturally, the leasing of land to tenant farmers was a common experience in the first century. Landowners could expect tenants to turn over (a portion of) the crop at harvest time. Those who failed to meet the landowner’s standards would be removed from the land and the landowning elite could usually pay others to remove them forcefully if necessary.
Many in Jesus’ audience would have understood the experience of these farmers all too well. If they chose not to “pay” the landowner, as was the case in this story, the landowner would find new tenants without doubt.

To us the story looks and sounds different: First the landowner sends servants, and they’re beaten, stoned, and killed. Then he sends more — not the police, mind you, or an army, just more servants — and the same thing happens again. So where does the bright idea come from to send his son, his heir, alone, to treat with these bloodthirsty hooligans? It’s absolutely crazy. Who would do such a thing? No one…except maybe a crazy landlord so desperate to be in relationship with these tenants that he will do anything, risk everything, to reach out of them. This landowner acts more like a desperate parent, willing to do or say or try anything to reach out to a beloved and wayward child, than he does a businessman. It’s crazy, the kind of crazy that comes from being in love.
And maybe that’s the key to this story - it’s more Jilly Cooper than Alan Sugar. The landowner isn’t absent - he is so besotted with his current tenants, so deeply in love with them that his actions display patience - eternal patience - which makes no business sense then or now, despite what they do to his investment, his workforce or his family.

So after the murder of the son, Jesus goes on to ask the pharisees what the landowner should do: ‘…Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time…’  

And maybe that is what we want - vengeance on those who destroy the vineyard and who kill and maim those who work (however tenuously) for the landowner by doing good or by being innocent bystanders. Maybe we want a God of vengeance for Alan Henning or Alice Gross however rightly so, and Jesus knows that as He finishes this parable and accuses and condemns the Pharisees himself. But at this point, I can’t help noticing Jesus introducing us to a God so blinded by love for us, who is even more merciful and patient (almost naively so) than we could possibly imagine.

This morning Jesus tells a story of heavy business investment - land, plants, fencing, protection - which will have cost the landlord dear. He tells of swindled business deals, violent assault and multiple murder.  But who is the bad guy in this story? The landlord or the tenants? Who actions turn your stomach? Who let’s you down? God, the Absent landlord or us the selfish tenants?

This morning Jesus also tells of the desperate, crazy love of the Absent Landlord - which is offered not once, not twice, but a million times or more, often in surprising ways and through unexpected people, to all who will receive it.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sunday Podcast

Anthony Walker and the Love of God

Back in 2005, a vivacious young man was waiting at a bus stop with his girl friend. Some lads appeared over the other side of the road shouting racist taunts. The young couple decided to avoid confrontation by walking down to another stop. The lads followed. The chase ultimately led into a park where the young man was confronted and beaten to death with an ice axe. The young man was Anthony Walker.

As she left the court flanked by her daughters following the trial of her son’s killers, Gee Walker said, ‘Do I forgive them? At the point of death Jesus said, ‘I forgive them because they do not know what they do’. I have got to forgive them. I still forgive them. It will be difficult but we have no choice but to live on for Anthony. Each of us will take a piece of him and will carry on his life.”

“…For God so loved the world," John writes, "that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." In other words, God loved the world so much that he gave his only son even to this obscene horror; He so loved the world that in some ultimately indescribable way and at some ultimately immeasurable cost,  he gave the world himself. Out of this terrible death, John says, comes eternal life, not just in the sense of resurrection to life after death, but in the sense of life so precious even this side of death that to live it is to stand with one foot already in eternity. To participate in the life and death of Jesus Christ, to recognise the victory of Christ crucified, is to live already in his kingdom. This is the heart of the Good News, especially on this Holy Cross Day, and it is why the cross has become the chief Christian symbol.

A cross of all things - a guillotine, a gallows - but the cross at the same time is also the crossroads between eternity and time, as the place where such a Divine heart was broken that the love and forgiveness of God himself could flow through it into a sick and broken world. 

“…For God so loved the world…” The Son of Man has come from heaven to be lifted up as a sign that God loves all the world - even in it’s brokenness and darkness. For it is in a place of brokenness and darkness that God ultimately reveals and demonstrates His love and forgiveness and it from there that He leads those who believe to new life.

Yet this supposed failure of Christ crucified will cause a crisis (krisis, is the Greek word for judgment) for all who encounter Him. Because the Cross is unjust, because it is so stark, because it is so shocking, it continues to be the thing that turns people away, but without it Jesus remains just a Teacher and Healer.  It is only in the cross that God restakes a claim on His world and all that is.  In the presence of Christ Crucified, those who do evil will flee His light to hide their deeds, yet others who believe and confess their need will come into the light to live a life of grace.

These verses stand at the close of the story of Nicodemus, and here we notice something odd: Nicodemus has disappeared. It’s similar to the close of a movie scene where the screen fades to black as we listen to the narrator continue to speak. So also here, as Nicodemus the Pharisee and leader fades away, presumably back to where he came from, decided or undecided about Jesus we do not yet know, and all we are left with is Jesus’ words, reminding us of the offer of abundant life and grace from God which demands our attention and ultimately a decision.

This scene and pattern is replayed countless times in our lives and never more explicitly than on Sunday morning. For here, too, we are offered the the abundant life and grace of God in Word and Sacrament. But like Nicodemus we are faced with a decision.

How will we respond, for respond we must? We either seek our source of goodness, grace, security and life from Him or from elsewhere. And as we leave the altar rail and return to our daily lives, we will be offered countless other options -- status, power, possessions, and more -- that similarly promise us life and require our allegiance in return.
“…For God so loved the world…”

This is the first and last word of this Gospel, indeed of the whole Christian story. So perhaps especially on this Holy Cross day it’s not so much  -- would you like to receive God’s love and life? -- as about God’s shout of victory and decision across eternity -- God loves you and all the world!

The cross is ultimately a paradox - 'para' meaning near to and 'doxa' meaning glory because somehow through the Christ’s death we are innaugurated into the new life of God. The cross stands between our fallenness and our fulfillment, between the dust from which we come and the glory towards which we move, between that which is good and that which painful and broken in us. And yet we know too well that these are not different places: for sin and grace, hate and love, dust and glory, make up each one.

The cross of Christ meets us at these points of conflict - in our own brokenness and darkness and our longing for wholeness. It is the points where the foundations of our very being are shaken, that Christ’s cross becomes for us forgiveness for hurt, hope in despair and healing for brokenness and life out of death - God’s shout of victory and love for all that is. For at the cross, we are indeed close to glory. Amen.

Holy Cross Day - All Age Talk

I rarely seem to have new ideas of my own for my All Age talks and yet as I prepared for today's parade Eucharist I had a fairly clear idea of what I wanted to do. I often record my sermons as MP3s but today I didn't, so I've decided to blog about the idea I used (which is almost certainly not new at all!)

Having recently been to Ikea a couple of times over the last few weeks I knew we had some spare cardboard packaging around.  Firstly I set about making a box out of the card whose net is the shape of a cross.

Secondly, having cut the shape out I glued it together to make the box.  Inside the box I wanted to put some surprising things that would hint at the message of Christ crucified.  Into the box then I put:

a nappy

a pad of heart shaped post-it notes (i had some of these kicking around from another All-Age talk), and

2 tubes of glitter.

I then folded the lid of the box down and wrapped the box roughly in some spare Christmas wrapping paper, and I was ready.

The guts of the address went then like this:

 - Has anyone had a birthday recently (wait for a volunteer and invite them up)? Talk with them about their birthday, did they have a party, did they get some presents, if so what?

 - Tell the volunteer that you have got them a present and produce the wrapped box. Speculate with them what might be in it. Ask them to open the present, to look inside the box and to get out the items. If today's experience was anything to go by, the reaction will be one of distaste!

 - Open up the box to it's net and display the cross shape. Talk about the items being a strange present, but the whole thing reminds us of the heart of what we recall on this Holy Cross day.

 - Talk about the nappy - the heart of what we recall today is that God loves us and this world so much that He comes amongst us as a baby born in Bethlehem. Talk about God understanding the ordinary stuff of everyday life and loving us in and through that.

 - Talk about the heart shaped post-it notes - the heart of what we recall today is that God loves us. Through the cross God proclaims His love for the world again, for each of us - a love which calls us to love others after the example of Christ. In Christ, God writes words of love on our hearts and calls us to share His love with others.

 - Talk about the glitter - the heart of what we recall today is that God loves us, but the cross reminds us that He does so in surpassing ways. The thing with glitter is that it can get everywhere (on our fingers, in our hair and on our clothes) but it also turns the most ordinary things into things of beauty.  The cross of Christ transforms our brokenness and ordinariness into something beautiful for God. Like glitter, God's love for us, show supremely on the cross, gets into the most unexpected places - into our relationships, words and actions.

I finished with a  prayer that united all of those images again. Have fun, play with it and amend it.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sunday Podcast

James Foley, Self Denial and the Cross

The unfolding drama in Syria and Iraq is deeply upsetting especially when nestled so closely to the ongoing military arguments in Gaza.  The stories of people, families, ethnic minorities, religious groups being driven from their homes, mercilessly persecuted and in some cases senselessly murdered, produces from the theist and atheist alike a prayer-like cry of anguish…  Why… surely not more… how long O Lord…

All too often this news story remains something on the screen, in a far-away land, but then something happens which takes our breath away and brings the story back to our neighbourhoods and our streets.  The murder of James Foley at the hand of a British ‘Islamic State’ extremist for me is just one such story.  James Foley was unable to write letters to his family whilst being held by ISIS, because they were confiscated by his jailers.  Instead he asked another hostage who was about to be released to commit a letter to memory.  When that hostage was freed he dictated the letter to James' mother, Diane.

Dear Family and Friends,
I remember going to the Mall with Dad, a very long bike ride with Mom. I remember so many great family times that take me away from this prison. Dreams of family and friends take me away and happiness fills my heart.

I know you are thinking of me and praying for me. And I am so thankful. I feel you all especially when I pray. I pray for you to stay strong and to believe. I really feel I can touch you even in this darkness when I pray.

Eighteen of us have been held together in one cell, which has helped me. We have had each other to have endless long conversations about movies, trivia, sports. We have played games made up of scraps found in our cell… we have found ways to play checkers, Chess, and Risk… and have had tournaments of competition, spending some days preparing strategies for the next day's game or lecture. The games and teaching each other have helped the time pass. They have been a huge help. We repeat stories and laugh to break the tension.

I have had weak and strong days. We are so grateful when anyone is freed; but of course, yearn for our own freedom. We try to encourage each other and share strength. We are being fed better now and daily. We have tea, occasional coffee. I have regained most of my weight lost last year.
I think a lot about my brothers and sister. I remember playing Werewolf in the dark with Michael and so many other adventures. I think of chasing Mattie and T around the kitchen counter. It makes me happy to think of them. If there is any money left in my bank account, I want it to go to Michael and Matthew. I am so proud of you, Michael and thankful to you for happy childhood memories and to you and Kristie for happy adult ones.

And big John, how I enjoyed visiting you and Cress in Germany. Thank you for welcoming me. I think a lot about RoRo and try to imagine what Jack is like. I hope he has RoRo's personality!
And Mark… so proud of you too Bro. I think of you on the West coast and hope you are doing some snowboarding and camping, I especially remember us going to the Comedy Club in Boston together and our big hug after. The special moments keep me hopeful.
Katie, so very proud of you. You are the strongest and best of us all!! I think of you working so hard, helping people as a nurse. I am so glad we texted just before I was captured. I pray I can come to your wedding…. now I am sounding like Grammy!!

Grammy, please take your medicine, take walks and keep dancing. I plan to take you out to Margarita's when I get home. Stay strong because I am going to need your help to reclaim my life.

Foley was not known as an especially religious man but the faith he reveals in his letter is in stark contrast to the extremist faith of his captors and killers.  The letter reveals him as a prayerful man and his life’s work and story demonstrates how he ‘lost his life’ (to use Jesus’ expression literally) reporting these terrible events to the West.

We meet Jesus this morning not in prayer in a war zone, but in today’s Gospel at Caesarea Philippi. Interest in His ministry is growing and people want to know more. So Jesus does a little survey - are people getting it? Are they getting him? So he checks it out with the disciples - they hear it all - the chatter in the crowd as He teaches, the exclamations as He heals and performs miracles. ‘Who do people say that I am?’ He asks. Some say John, some say Elijah but then there’s Peter squirming to say something like a kid in class with his hand in the air, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of God!’ Bingo!

But almost without pausing for breath, Jesus goes on to teach that it must all come crashing down - the triumphant of the Messiah warrior-king will not be crowned in glory, but in failure, suffering and ultimately death. The hopes of generations crushed.

The headstrong schoolboy Peter at least had the grace to take Jesus to one side before blurting out his incredulity… Surely this can’t be… This is madness… Why… This Must. Not. Happen… And all of a sudden - Peter the one who get’s Jesus - is the adversary of God and must get out of the Way, the road toward His Divine purposes.

‘…If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it…’ And this is where I struggle.

I don’t want to deny myself.  I have spent much of my adult life accepting and gradually liking and on my best days, loving myself as you told me I should Jesus.  I am finally at ease with who I am and now You tell me Jesus to deny myself - my successes and shortcomings?  I’ve just come to terms with these.  This seems to fly in the face of the big story of God and people as told in the Bible where your Father effectively says - I love you; I want to be with people like you; will you come and be with Me?

So what is it that I should deny Jesus? My gifts and talents, my self-worth, my personality, my hopes, dreams and desires? What needs to decrease in me that means that You increase? Surely self-denial isn’t a form of self-flagellation? 

Self-denial does not mean embracing suffering for its own sake.  Jesus you spent much time alleviating needless suffering or oppression whenever you encountered it.  Saying no to me and my priorities and drives allow the possibility of me saying yes to you and yours, but as Syrian and Iraqi Christians remind me that this sort of self-denial comes with, sometimes, enormous risks.

Then there’s the cross taking. I have always understood Jesus that you took the cross and suffered and died so I don’t have to. So sorry, but I reject “take up your cross” as some sort of victimisation or martyrdom for its own sake.

Yet, if the cross is a symbol for defiance of empire? If the cross is representative of the absolute certainty of the incarnation? If the cross is a model for resistance to the status quo? If the cross is a reflection of our human propensity to eliminate the voices that call for justice, for mercy, for compassion, for love? Well then, I am all for the cross. And I will readily take up that cross, any day.

Jesus you say “take up your cross and follow me.”  Taking up my cross is not an individual act that validates my faith or demonstrates my willingness to go the distance or a statement of self-denial. The cross has everything to do with community. Taking up my cross with you and yours and following. In asking what am I willing to deny in myself, in asking what will I give my life to and for, what you are ultimately asking Jesus if will I follow and be identified with you - even if that means putting me second or worse, whenever, wherever… 

It’s no wonder that this Jesus still has trouble attracting followers. It’s not an welcoming prospect.  His logic, that seems so opposite all we have encountered in life. It invites us to find our purpose in serving others rather than in accumulating goods. It invites us to imagine that our life – and the lives of those around us – have infinite worth simply because God chooses to love us apart from anything we've done or not done.

Why follow? Because, even when confronted by self-denial and death on a cross, it’s all about life, because the story of this Messiah doesn’t end there but concludes in an offer of eternal life to every life. Not the pseudo-life we've been persuaded by advertisers or politicians it's the best we can expect, but real, honest-to-goodness life.  All we have to do is trade what we've been led to believe is life for the real thing. It's incredibly hard because so much money and energy has gone into convincing us that the best we can expect is a quid-pro-quo world where you get what you deserve. But if we can let it go, even for a few moments, we'll discover that God still loves to create out of nothing, raise the dead to life, and give each and all of us so much more than we either deserve or can imagine.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Agape Love - an address at the memorial service for Jane Cameron

I’d like to take us back to the reading we heard earlier in the service from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian christians.  These words so often fill these walls as a couple come to seal their lives in love, and yet for me at least, they gain new poignancy as they fill these walls as we gather to give thanks to God for Jane today.

The love which Paul writes of is not that of two lovers - (eros), nor is it a recognition of our shared human concern - (philios), but it is the love that of God Himself lived out in the person of Jesus Christ - (agape): self giving, servant-hearted, putting others needs before your own love.

Jane’s love and life are woven into the fabric of many lives locally - whether inside or outside the church community - as a keen supporter and member of the Mother’s Union, as an ardent supporter of John in his time as Parish Warden, or as one of the very earliest members of the In Touch Bereavement support group.  But also, with others, Jane is woven into the very fabric of this place literally, as she played a part in manufacturing the kneelers on which we pray.

Whilst many of us have been on the receiving end of Jane’s love and care and are here today thankful for that - the love of which St Paul writes is not about receiving something.  It is ultimately about knowing a person ‘face to face’ - which Jane did.  In this fuller vision of love’s capacity, infancy will be exchanged for full maturity; imperfect or shadowy vision will be exchanged for a recognition that ultimately it is not so much that I know things, but rather that I have been known by someone.  The love and care that Jane expressed were a response to being caught up with the whole church, in the love of God Himself.

These words of St Paul are a legacy. He doesn’t just write describing love at it’s very best which in many ways describe the Jane we’ve known and loved. Rather what Paul writes about applies to all of us, as it is a vision of the whole church as a caring community that is the gift of the Holy Spirit at work amongst us.  Therefore if Jane’s life is to mean anything to us now and in the days that lie ahead, let it be this - let us also love as Jane did - gently, graciously, kindly - but generously, loyally and transformatively too so that faith, hope and love abide amongst us.

I am taken with a contemporary translation of 1 Corinthians 13 by a spiritual theologian named Eugene Peterson. "We do not yet see things clearly. We are squinting in a fog, peering through the mist, but it will not be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright. We will see it all then, see as clearly as God sees us, knowing God as directly as God knows us. But for right now, until that completeness comes, we have three things to do. Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly.” There would be no more fitting a tribute to Jane than that. Amen.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

YES! (Now slightly edited!)

As I write, some are saying that history has been made as The General Synod of the Church of England has voted to follow the clear mandate of 43 of our 44 Dioceses, and the prompting and leading of the Holy Spirit, to allow women, duly called and equipped, to become Bishops.

This is a decision that has and will cause enormous pain for some and much rejoicing for others.  But this article is not the place to rehearse the theological and scriptural arguments for or against women’s place in leadership in the church (which I believe is very clear indeed), which will continue on for weeks, months and I suspect years to come.

What is worth saying that in some ways, history was not made at the vote.  History was made as Christ came amongst us, and called all of us, men, women and children to follow Him; to fashion our lives on the pattern He gives us; and to see God’s hope and promise in Christ sealed on and in us by virtue of our Baptism.

Friends, our baptism isn’t just a naming ceremony under an other name.  It is not ‘just’ our entry into the Church of God. Rather our Baptism binds us to the death and resurrection of Christ and is a call on our lives to follow Jesus’ Way, to abide by His Truth and live His Risen Life.

But Martin Luther, Church Reformer, understood Baptism being even more significant than that: ‘…Whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that [they are] already a consecrated priest, bishop and pope.” (Treatise To the Christian Nobility (1520)). Friends, our Baptisms are our ordination to a life of Christian discipleship, formation and service.

I am neither trying to negate the historic three-fold order of ministry that the Church of England has received it; nor I am I seeking to undermine the authority and validity of those called to the recognised lay ministries of Reader, Lay Worker, or Evangelist, as all these ministries have and continue to serve us well as a means of ordering our ecclesiastical life; nor am I downplaying the significance of the vote that prayerfully took place at Synod recently where Catholic, Liberal and Evangelical members alike understood the will of God for the Church of England was to see men and women serve in every Order of our shared life. 

Friends, what I am struck by afresh though, post ‘Yes!’, is that it is by virtue of our Baptism that we are all called to Christ and called to serve Him - primarily as Baptised Lay people, and it is only from there some of us are called to serve Him secondarily as deacons, priest and bishops.

Whatever we may personally feel about our shared life together following Synod’s discernment of the will of God, my friends, we are all Ordained - children, women and men - to serve Christ because of our Baptism. We may not wear a cope, mitre or pectoral cross, but as it says in our Baptism liturgy:

‘… Here we are clothed with Christ…
As children of God, we have a new dignity
and God calls us to fullness of life.’

As the Ordained, let us continue to pray for the ministry Christ calls us all to share:

Heavenly Father,
by the power of your Holy Spirit
you give to your faithful people new life in the water of baptism.
Guide and strengthen us by the same Spirit,
that we who are born again may serve you in faith and love,
and grow into the full stature of your Son, Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit
now and for ever.  Amen.


For those who would like it, the voting statistics by house: Bishops 37 yes, 2 no, 1 abstention. Clergy 162 yes, 25 no, 4 abstentions. Laity 152 yes, 45 no, 5 abstentions.