Sunday, December 06, 2015

I Don't Want to Survive. I Want To Live!

‘I don’t want to survive. I want to live!’ 

On Friday night we watched the harrowing but very important film ’12 Years A Slave’ from which that quote comes. The film tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. Subjected to the cruelty of one malevolent owner, he also finds unexpected kindness from another, as he struggles continually to survive and maintain some of his dignity. Then in the 12th year of the disheartening ordeal, a chance meeting with an abolitionist from Canada changes Solomon's life forever.

‘I don’t want to survive. I want to live!’ That cry from the guts of one oppressed, taps into the longings of many - of the displaced Syrian mother, the bankrupt father, the abused daughter, the addicted son. It resonates with the community grieving in San Bernadino, in Paris, in Chad and in Nigeria. God knows things could be different; should be different. Yes he does.

The book of Baruch does not feature in the Hebrew version of the Bible but does feature in the Septuagint which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The book also features in the scriptures that the Roman Catholic, some Anglican and some Orthodox churches use today. It was probably written at a time when when Jews were scattered - some deported to Babylon and some dispersed around the Mediterranean sea. Earlier in the book, the writer, traditionally understood to be Baruch, the prophet Jeremiah’s scribe, states that the reason for the exile is to do with disobedience to the ways of God. For more that 12 years corporately they have cried, ’I don’t want to survive. I want to live!’ God hears the cry of his people. Things are about to change.

Addressing Jerusalem and the exiles God says, ‘...Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of
the glory of the Everlasting... For God will give you evermore the name, ‘Righteous Peace, Godly Glory...’

’...It is a moral outrage and national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency... America’s elected leaders offer prayers for gun victims and then, callously and without fear of consequence, reject the most basic restrictions on weapons of mass killing...’ So ran yesterday’s editorial of the New York Times.

Israel has been surviving in exile but now God calls her to live! To take of, literally and metaphorically the funeral attire and be clothed as a priest, with a robe and mitre like Aaron, with faith in Him. From now on Jerusalem will be a place from which God’s peace and glory will be seen - hence the new name. But that’s not the only change that God is bringing about - He will give the word and the exiles will return from where they
have scattered and to ease their passage - God will change the physical landscape - so that He and His people may dwell together again.

In the face of yet another mass shooting, the US has yet to see this sort of substantive change. In fact it and our own nation’s history and present are littered with moral abhorations. As we sit in a moral desert, in some senses it is fine to pray for the victims, but unless those prayers lead to action then the words are empty. Baruch reminds us that
substantive change comes, not only by longing, but by action - in this case the action of God.

‘...the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins...’

Following the debate and decision in Parliament this week to deploy aircraft to bomb ISIS targets in Syria, a forces charity - Combat Stress - has called for urgent extra funding to support veterans suffering with post traumatic stress - the inner injuries of war that no one initially sees and can take years to surface. In the last year, referrals to the charity went up 25% and they expect them only to rise.

Luke is keen to locate the story he tells in this morning’s Gospel, with the accuracy of a surgical strike. He lists places and people as the cross hairs of history. And in those sights is John, in the wilderness as the Jews were back in Baruch’s day, hearing again a call not just to survive but to live! Luke uses words from the prophet Isaiah which resonate with those of Baruch about God changing the landscape - preparing the way - but not just so people can return to God, but so that He can come to them.

The coming of God is unseen because it involves changing the landscape, not of the physical world, but of the core of our being - the place from where we cry out ‘I don’t want to survive. I want to live!’ John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins - Jews of his day will have known of 2 baptisms (ritual washing and Gentile conversions to Judaism) but this was new. Literally a baptism of a reorientated heart and life. A baptism that symbolised a change in the places other cannot initially see - the landscape of our hearts - brought about not by us, but by the God who comes to us... still.
Are we wanting to take our baptisms seriously? Do we want to survive or do we
want to live? Did we rally mean it in the waters of our own baptism that we wanted a reorientated heart and life? 

Advent is a time to look again at the things that others don't directly see - to slow down and stop - where are we - in a prosperous place or a moral wilderness; to take a examine at our motives and our day to day decisions and ask what drives them; if we are wanting change are we willing to act by allowing God to act in us to reshape our hearts and our lives? 

Paris - a sermon based on Hebrews 10.11-14 [15-18]19-25 and Mark 13.1-8

Ahh my much maligned blog. There will now be a flurry of posts, just to catch some ideas and sermons as much as anything else...


I have stood in the crowd at the Bataclan theatre on more than one occasion. I love the bustle of 11e bounded by the Places des Vosges and the the Bastille and Pere Lechaise cemetery at the other. Paris was the backdrop to 2 important years of my life - years of faith, friendships, music, culture and where my vocation was tested. My heart breaks, all of our hearts break, recalling the unspeakable tragedy on those streets in the last 24 hours. They are attacks on music lovers and gig goers like me; culture vultures like me; tourists like me; ordinary people of every walk and way of life like me, like you. And in so many ways there are no words.

And yet into unspeakable tragedy words do eventually come - boiling to the surface of our lives, spat in rage and frustration. But this reaction in the face of grief and injustice is more than a toddler griping that they didn't get their own way. This is a railing from our very core - that signs and symbols of our enduring values and the supposed certainties of life - political freedom, justice, tolerance - have been challenged, levelled, and lives obliterated.

The Temple - the sign of the presence of God in the Israelite community where heaven and earth united - was originally built by King Solomon to house the Ark of the Covenant and it was supposed to, like God, endure forever. Yet it was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar II in 587 BCE.

This enduring symbol was rebuilt during the reign of King Darius by Nehemiah in
516BCE. This 2nd Temple was added to by Herod the Great but the building was decimated in the years after Jesus after a 4 year Jewish revolt against the Romans.

Levelling the Temple, decimated the Israelites’ identity and values, their sure faith and hope in the presence and power of the God who had called them to be His people, lay in piles of crushed rubble. Jesus talking of the levelling of the Temple will have sent his hearers sense of national identity, underlying values and faith in God crashing to the ground.

In Hebrews it says: ‘... And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds...’ This is a passage brimming with a confidence mentioned in vs 19 - confidence that consciences are cleansed, confident of the forgiveness of God and wanting to encourage one another therefore to love and good works. Confidence is frankness, outspoken speech, openness to public scrutiny, courage, boldness, fearlessness,
and joy. It is a characteristic of free citizens who may hold their heads up without shame or fear, looking others directly in the eye. In Roman society, slaves did not exercise such boldness; it belonged to the free members of the household.

Did you watch this series of The Apprentice? It’s been a big earner for the BBC. I wonder what do we love about this show - is it Is it the wonderful opportunity that is on offer? Could it be the Lord Sugar put-downs? The mind-bending tasks perhaps? How about the
boardroom battles ending in the pointy finger and those immortal words “you’re fired.” No, what we like is listening to the absolute ego driven, self-aggrandising statement these people come up with. “I am the Swiss army knife of business skills” or I’m the Godfather of the business and I’m going to make Lord Sugar an offer he cannot refuse” oh dear. Oh and please remember these ‘business people’ made £1.87 in profit in the first show. Business people? Nah!

The ego is an amazing thing; it tricks us into believing so much about ourselves to the point where we only hear our own voice. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us we need confidence not based on who we are or our perceived abilities but whose we are, namely God’s.

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’ We all do love the bigger, the better, the faster, the bolder. We are all attracted to splendour, grandeur and the external look. That which is true for films - the bigger the budget the better - can be true of our churches in terms of Sunday attendance, the number of home groups and so on. What large stones, yes, but what’s the story behind them?

I watched 'Imagine', the arts programme recently, on which there was a retrospective of the artist Anthony Gormley. It was intensely moving. Raised a Roman Catholic but now staunchly atheistic, Gormley’s work, so often based around the human form. It became clear over the documentary, that whether creating ‘little Gorms’ our of Indian clay six inches high, or the Angel of the North with a wing span of a jumbo - Gormley was interested in exploring not our outer form as people - but what goes on inside of us when we close our eyes. His works ask us not to look at them - as spellbinding and untraditionally beautiful as many of them are, but to look into ourselves - to our inner,
eternal world of drives and motives. Jesus is not focussed external values of numbers or size, or even the endurance of a culture and it’s systems, but eternal values of faithfulness and trust.

What is Jesus asking of us? In these days of violence, when our confidence, culture and values are all violently challenged and in Paris have come crashing down, it would be all to easy to answer it with more violence. Instead perhaps, we should answer it with love. Not just love for the victims who died in Paris or continue to die in Syria or the Lebanon; but more challengingly with love even for our enemies, for those who perpetrated the atrocities.
That does not mean that we must ‘grin and bear it’; no, love requires that we must sometimes do hard things to reject sin and evil. But our love must strive to heal differences, to address the pain of historical events that continues to divide us. And, we must learn to live side by side in love, despite our fears, accepting each other as we are.

We must do this, not because we are forced to do so by our rulers, rather because we believe God loves us: from a heart that freely and willingly chooses to love, to accept, to nurture and to care, knowing that others may not be able to respond in a like fashion.

As Dag Hammerskjöld, the United Nations Secretary General, who died in an unexplained plane crash in Zambia in 1961, wrote, ‘It is only when I can give without expecting a response that the other can receive and be grateful’. Our love must be open to all, given without the price ticket of reciprocal love. And that means that we leave ourselves open to the possibility, even the probability or the certainty, of pain and loss. If that seems a price too great to pay, we must remember that it was exactly that price which was paid by Jesus to redeem us from our sins.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Art of Ai Weiwei and Edith Cavell

High in the Troödos Montains on the beautiful island of Cyprus nestles the Kykkos monastery. The monastery is famous because the first President of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios III started his ecclesiastical career there as a monk in 1926, and his tomb lies reasonably close by.

But the other reason that the monastery is famous is because it is custodian of an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The icon is rarely looked at, and the majority of the time it is hidden away behind a solid silver covering which in turn is an accurate representation (it is said) of what lies beneath.  The icon is worth a mention today because tradition says was written by St Luke.

St Luke, who many know as a doctor from what little we know of him in the New Testament, tradition says was also the first icon writer. In both what he wrote in the Gospel that bears his name and his second book, Acts, and in the icons he traditionally has attributed to him, Luke’s purpose is clearly to paint picture of what God has done in and through Jesus.

Art is a very subjective thing. Many of us like this or that picture because it is beautiful, but for many of the greatest artists, art is not about beauty but about stirring something within us, eliciting a response, drawing us into a conversation about ourselves, our culture, our world and it’s values. I was at the Royal Academy of Friday to see the Ai Weiwei exhibition there. One piece, simply called ‘Straight’ commemorates an earthquake in his native China where 5000 women, men and children all died because of the flimsy nature of many buildings. The artwork is a 90 tonne carpet of steel rods of varying heights made of the buildings that were destroyed plus the names of the dead written in Cantonese on large panels. Some might argue that it’s not traditionally beautiful, but it is deeply moving and even though steel is strong, it reminds us of life’s fragility.


Jesus said, ‘…Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you…’ Since His birth, the ministry of Jesus has been about bringing the authority, power, presence and love of God near to the unlikely and to the often supposedly undeserving, and seeing lives transformed, reordered, and healed.  But what is clear from what we hear this morning - that task was never destined to be his alone, but something he called others to share in too.

Last week the church and our nation remembered the life of Edith Cavell a British nurse and committed Anglican Christian, who during WW1 helped care for both German and Allied casualties alike, but who was ultimately shot for aiding nearly 200 Allied troops to escape occupied Belgium. She understood the duel call in this morning’s Gospel to heal the sick but also to see the nearness of the kingdom of God to all when she said, ‘…Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone…’ - a rejection of patriotic hatred which so often can fuel war, instead her compassionate faith shining through.  She was given a State funeral and was subsequently buried outside Norwich Cathedral in 1919.

As we remember St Luke today, and seek healing in our own lives, how do we share that which we have received with others and our wider community?  How are we to record, write and paint the life of Christ in our own lives so that others, as Luke says, ‘… may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed…’?

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Stop. Look. Listen.

So I am away on retreat. In my head at least these days are supposed to full of stillness, holiness and engagement with Scripture. In reality, my experience over the last couple of days is that that couldn't be further from the truth.

One of my friends posted on Twitter that they thought I was at a spa. In fairness I am surrounded by beautiful countryside, there is a jacuzzi on site and I did have a massage and I have been filled with an array of homegrown and home cooked produce. But there is no champagne or spray tan in sight.

I am at a Christian retreat centre - there is opportunity to pray should I wish to several times a day. I have been invited to partake in workshops on focussing and dreams, using words and simple massage, and I have had 1:1 sessions with a member of the community.

I have largely avoided prayer so far. My life is bounded by the rhythm and formality of it every day. I came, in these days, minded just to be. To see how it felt to opt out, to take a back seat, to slowly disappear. This is quite a novelty. Taking a back seat and disappearing are not phrases in the ordinal used to describe both the deaconal and priestly ministry I have been called to. But I came to retreat from it all. And it feels weird, and I feel guilty. I should be praying shouldn't I! Shouldn't it?

Instead I have eaten and been satisfied, walked in the verdant countryside, listened to the drama of the rain, and watched the best part of a whole TV series. I have engaged in conversation sparingly and lightly. But I haven't slept well or found any sense of peace. In fact the opposite - I feel anxious.

Is the anxiety me unhappy about my time wisdom whilst here thus far? Have I used this gift well? Or is there something more? The experienced retreatant would suggest that perhaps this me settling into new rhythms and letting go whilst I am here and that I will feel better tomorrow.

But I just don't know.

I came with some questions to ask myself and to ask God whilst was here and it is these that, reflecting on them, that are causing my sense of uncertainty and unease. They are 'where', 'when', 'who' and 'how' type questions. They don't just affect me but others. Like so many questions' answers - their impact will ripple across lives, communities and time. That makes these questions sound very dramatic and quite final. In a way they are and in many ways they aren't. I just could do with some peace to try to listen to the questions and to listen to myself and to God in seeking the answers.

I've walked. Just me and the countryside. I've realised a few things as I traversed twinkling streams and passed velvet moss covered trees - all this around me was here before I arrived and will be here after I leave. What impact will my presence here make? How will things flourish (or not) because of my feet and the route I have chosen to take? I am just part of the landscape today and the next day. I'm just passing through.

Similarly, life at home goes on without me - school runs, meals, homework but also life in the parish. Am I just passing through those landscapes too? What footprint am I leaving? What impact is my presence, and the presence of God, making?

I have realised though that my anxiety is probably centred in the realisation that, whilst disappearing is perhaps desirable, I have left a footprint where I have been - on lives, loves and communities - to which  I am accountable and for which I am responsible. Disappearing is all too easy in a way - slipping out, letting go of responsibilities, walking away.

The other source of my anxiety is reflected in my walking whilst here. When I arrived in my current post I had clear ideas and a very definite direction of travel, but now a few years in, we have travelled well and made good time and distance but I'm not sure where we are to go next. This may seem to be an odd thing for a church leader to admit, but I don't. I haven't lost the plot or stopped believing in God or any of that sort of stuff. But from here, I can't see the road and I do not know where the next path is. This is made all the more hard when people are looking to you to provide that lead - well you are the Vicar after all...

Seeking new direction and fresh vision is hard. It's something I'm constantly striving to do & some time was spent with others discerning some of that last weekend. Consciously putting stuff down is hard. This is something that I have not done yet whilst I am have been away yet.

Holding on to much, especially parish based stuff, I think is part of what's made me anxious. It's the emotional residue of a costly few weeks, months and years. I need to consciously place all of it - people and places - into the hands of God.

So how am I going to live differently after I return from this week? I have loved the silence and solitude I have created whilst here. I walked locally today in a copse - there were no others people there, just trees & foliage, wildlife and me. As I walked I became aware of myself and of how I was feeling. That self awareness in that landscape where I had to concentrate on my footsteps for my own safety, led me ultimately to prayer which was simultaneously a gift and a surprise. 'You should not be surprised by this! Prayer is not a new thing for you!' I hear you cry. And indeed it's not. What was new though was the context and how it welled up in me as a response to my inner and outer landscapes. I need to make more opportunities to self-reflect like that.

I also need to make time to meet me and my spiritual director. Meeting me will be allowing time to recreate - music and art especially do need to feature more often. They are life affirming for me. As I journey on, I need also to sit and talk and listen with my spiritual director more as I discern paths.

All of this means that there is less time to 'do'. But in so doing, maybe I will discover more about how to be, to be me, and to me with thee under God.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Celebration and Harvest

It is wonderful to be here today together as a parish, as we give thanks to God for 170 years of faithful worship and witness in and from this church building to the people of West Hyde and Maple Cross. I would like to express my personal thanks to all those who have worked tirelessly to make this weekend happen and to make this place look so beautiful inside and those who have worked tirelessly to make this place look so beautiful on the outside having now finally completed the much longed for and needed restorative building works.

I was really struck, again, this week by the ministry of Pope Francis and he is rapidly becoming a spiritual hero of mine and of many millions of others. As he made his first official visit to the USA. Earlier in the week, in a speech to Congress he chastised the US Government for not accepting the reality of climate change and it’s impact on the most vulnerable, to make that point more thoroughly, he snubbed the opportunity for a state banquet as it were, to go and eat with some of those most vulnerable at a homeless project in Washington DC. One man who has been supported by homeless charities over 3 years said during the visit that the Pope’s presence there made him realise that he is not alone.

Loneliness and rejection by others, feeling like we are forgotten and don’t matter are probably deep down some of our greatest fears. They surface in our youngest years as we lose sight of our mother in the supermarket, but they reappear regularly and determinedly throughout adulthood especially into our latter years.  This church building has been used to champion the worth and value of all - especially those on the margins of our communities throughout its history whether as a soup kitchen or as a site of a food bank because as Christians we acknowledge that this place’s beauty and the worth and value of all people is to do with the love and presence of God Himself.

Our two readings today bring us back to the heart of what we celebrate today. Firstly Jacob, who has been fleeing for his life from his brother Esau, and en route he has an extraordinary dream which challenges and changes his life which reveals the hidden yet active presence of God in the world. And secondly Jesus speaks directly to our very human need for clothing, shelter and food and without downplaying those needs, encourages us to trust in God’s provision.

Jacob said, ‘…Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven…’ On Friday nights we tend to watch a film as a family and eat pizza. Friday just gone we did the same  as usual and settled down to watch a Harry Potter film. For those of you that know the story, one of the things I’d love is an invisibility cloak like Harry has. Wouldn’t that be great? You could sneak into all sorts of places unnoticed including late into church - or out again if the sermon was dull. Apparently scientists are a step closer to making that fictional item an actual item and it works apparently by fooling our eyes because of the way we see light.

For Jacob, God wasn’t wearing a cloak of invisibility up to the point where he encounters him and then whips it off - surprise Jacob! Throughout the book of Genesis, God breaks the rules and reveals Himself not to priests or royalty but to a terrified refugee in the run. Jacob’s vision of the ladder to heaven is awe inspiring but God is present there not because of His majesty, but because He longed to re-establish a relationship with Jacob. God has, is, and will be encountered in *this* place not in its beauty or majesty but in the worship and the lives of God’s people here over the last 170 years. Like Jacob found, God is here because He longs to continue to have a relationship with ordinary people like us.

Jesus said ‘…Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?… and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Earlier in the year, your will remember the shocking stories on the news about the Ebola outbreak. Now a teenager from Connecticut, Olivia Hallisey, having seen the need, has invented a test for the disease which takes 30 minutes to process and costs about £20. She was inspired to act having seen the same coverage and was encouraged by her science teacher. She hopes what she has done will make a difference but also inspire other girls to do the same.

Jesus is not downplaying simple human needs and wants for shelter, food and clothing, but he is challenging us not to worry about their provision. Instead we should turn our energies to seeking what God wants - loving our neighbour and loving Him - and in so doing we will receive what we need in return as well. This is as challenging to hear today as it will have been when Jesus first said it - of course we worry about how we will pay the next bill, where the money is coming from! Over the last 170 years many people whose worship has filled this place have used their gifts and talents to be a blessing to others - sometimes that work is seen: the very construction of this place required the talents of local people! But much of that talent use is unseen and unsung through a visit, a kind word, an assurance of prayer. This harvest the produce we bring and the money we give will be a blessing to others. The challenge for us to consider is how the money we give and the talents and gifts we have can continue to be a transformative blessing to our communities tomorrow and the next day.

Jacob’s encounter with God at Bethel reorientated the rest of his life. As we celebrate 170 years of worship in this place, will you allow yourself to encounter that same God as we worship today, and will you let Him build a relationship with you that will utterly transform your life?  This Harvest, as we thank God for bounty and blessing, gifts and grace, Jesus expects us to put our energy into things that give meaning to life.  How will you strive to discern how God is working in the world and in our community and join in - and allow God to deal with the rest of our need?

Monday, September 21, 2015

Are You Gonna Walk The Talk - An Address at Rock Mass

'... House after house came tumbling down... but the little white house stood because of a sturdy foundation...'

Jesus said

 ‘... Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’ Matthew 7:24-27

Jesus asks us on what sort of a foundation are we building our lives? Are we conforming to the ways of God or the ways of the world?

Back in 2002 the “Leaning Tower of Pisa” was finally reopened to the public, after having been closed for almost 12 years. During that time, engineers completed a 30 million pound renovation project designed to stabilise the tower. They removed tonnes of earth, and reduced its famous lean by over a metre. Why was this necessary? Because the tower has been tilting further and further away from vertical for hundreds of years, to the point that the top of the 56 metre tall tower was 5 metres further south than the bottom, and Italian authorities were concerned that if nothing was done, it would soon collapse. What was the problem? Bad design? Poor workmanship? An inferior grade of marble? No. The problem was what was underneath. The sandy soil on which the city of Pisa was built was just not stable enough to support a monument of this size. The tower had no firm foundation.

Let’s look at this short story that Jesus tells.  There are only 2 builders, only 2 choices in terms of the way to life - we are either following the way of Christ or we’re not and only one leads to full and abundant life. Are we conforming our lives to the expectations of others or our culture or what an advert tells we should think, or to the way of life in Jesus? This isn’t Liberal thinking man’s Jesus. This isn't fluffy Jesus.  This is Jesus keeping it simple. But we want to make it complicated, to include everyone.  Perhaps that’s because we live in a world of ever increasing choice - whether that’s toothpaste (do you want whitening, gum protection, breath freshening or a combination of all of those across 10 different brands), deodorant (24 hour, 48 or 72 hour protection, no white marks, sport, stress control (yes really)) or what. We approach the ultimate questions of life like that, and so we shop around: well I like what Christianity says about this, and what Hinduism says about that, and what Paganism or Wicca say about the other so I’ll have it all thanks.

In the story, Jesus gives us only two choices - are we conforming our lives to the ways of God or to the ways of the world?

The story of the wise and foolish builders gets to the heart of Jesus’ message. To be his follower means that the manner with which we live out our daily lives must naturally reflect our following. What we believe in our hearts must be expressed by what we do with our hands, what we speak with our lips, what we do with our money and so on.  Put more simply - if we’re following Jesus, are we going to walk the talk?

The builders Jesus talks of, we can assume, used the same materials to build their houses, they will have taken similar amounts of time to plan, to cut wood, to make or buy bricks and so on.  The houses may have even looked the same.  The key difference was what was underneath - the stuff you couldn’t see. The thing is, both houses could have stood secure for weeks, months, maybe even years. But when disaster struck only one stood.

There was once the leader of a mega church in the States, He’s called Rob Bell - some of you might of heard of him. He once described a nagging doubt that he had about the success of his church & his ministry - thousands of members attending on a Sunday, great music, a good salary etc but inside his life was a mess. And then it dawned on him that he needed to change his life and actually follow the Jesus he was teaching about when Jesus said ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…’  What Rob discovered surprised him 

‘… I’m convinced being generous is a better way to live. I’m convinced forgiving people and not carrying around bitterness is a better way to live. I’m convinced having compassion is a better way to live. I’m convinced pursuing peace in every situation is a better way to live. I’m convinced listening to the wisdom of others is a better way to live. I’m convinced being honest with people is a better way to live…’

For me friends, the way of Jesus isn’t just teaching; I’m not following Jesus for some sort of heavenly reward; for me - I’ve found it to be a better way to live out my life. And what of you?

So when disaster strikes and someone disses you to others, or when they push in front of you in the queue, or when they cut you up at the lights, when or they steal something that is yours what are you going to do? Bite back and come crashing down to their level? Or forgive and love - not because it’s easy coz it’s not, it’s hard - but because it’s Jesus’ way and living that way doesn’t much happen in church in my experience but it does happen a lot on the road, or at work, or at college. Are you going to conform your life to the ways of God or the ways of the world? Are you going to walk the talk?

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Charleston and the Radical Forgiveness of Jesus - Updated

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church

I am sure that all of us have been sickened to our stomachs by the recent shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in the USA where 9 people died at the hands of a gun weilded by Dylan Roof. 

Whilst not in our own nation and therefore not our direct concern, the amount of gun violence leading to death in the US seems to be on the rise.

President Obama spoke recently in the aftermath of the attack:

"...Gun violence, “Costs this country dearly”

“More than 11,000 Americans were killed in 2013 alone. If congress had passed some common sense legislation after Newtown, after a group of children had been gunned down in their own classroom, reforms that 90% of the American people supported” … “ we might still have more Americans with us. We might have stopped one shooter. Some families might still be home. Y’all might have to attend fewer funerals. And we should be strong enough to acknowledge this. We should be able to talk about this issue as citizens … At some point as a country, we have to reckon with what happens. It’s not enough to express sympathy. You don’t see this kind of murder, on this scale, with this kind of frequency in other advanced countries on earth… What’s different is that not every country is awash with easily accessible guns. I refuse to act as if this is the new normal.”

What made this case different to many of the other incidents of gun violence in the US and in our own nation was the response of the victims’ families.

In recent days, the chief magistrate offered the families of the victims to make statements to Dylan Roof, in court before his bail was set.  One after one mothers, sisters and grand mothers stood to speak on behalf of their grieving loved ones.

In the face of such inhumanity, especially bearing in mind that the church in question played a key part in the Civil Rights Movement, it would have been all too easy to condemn the gunman and label his actions as acts of racist terrorism and add more words of hate. Instead something else happened in that courtroom.

Felecia Sanders , mother of Tywanza Sanders said:

“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts ... and I’ll never be the same.”
“Tywanza Sanders was my son, but Tywanza was my hero. Tywanza was my hero. But as we said in Bible study, we enjoyed you but may God have mercy on you.”

Bethane Middleton-Brown, representing family of the Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor said:

“DePayne Doctor was my sister. And I just thank you on the behalf of my family for not allowing hate to win. For me, I’m a work in progress and I acknowledge that I’m very angry.”
“But one thing DePayne always joined in my family with is that she taught me we are the family that love built… We have no room for hate. We have to forgive. I pray God on your soul. And I also thank God I won’t be around when your judgment day comes with him.”

Anthony Thompson, representing family of Myra Thompson said:

“I forgive you, my family forgives you. We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so he can change your ways no matter what happens to you and you’ll be OK. Do that and you’ll be better off than you are right now.”
Nadine Collier (l), daughter of victim Ethel Lance, offered forgiveness to Dylan Roof
Therein lies the challenge. Jesus said:

‘…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven… For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? … Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect…’

I find the offer of forgiveness from these families radically challenging, life affirming, & deeply counter-cultural. In Jesus ministry when we see forgiveness of one person, or their healing, the effects of it spread like ripples when a stone is dropped in a pool. That forgiveness or healing reinstates someone in a family, in a community, in a neighbourhood - as one life is restored so others are affected and renewed. Community is made when love is shared.

We may not come face to face with the horror of a loved one gunned down, but we will often be confronted with situations in our families, friendships or neighbourhoods where our natural inner response might be that of anger based on injustice which if left to fester might lead to hatred. But that’s the easy way.

Jesus’ way challenges us, those grieving families in Charleston challenge us to let go of anger and hatred and in so doing our hands and hearts are then free to choose forgiveness and love. it’s not the easy task but it is the braver and bolder one. Forgiveness is hard to give and harder still to receive but it always renews, it always hopes, it always leads to transformation not just of the one but of the many it touches.



This post above is about forgiveness, but then I saw this video about gun ownership and I hope you agree that it adds something...

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Faith in Social Media 2015

I was recently asked to speak at the above conference hosted by the Beds and Herts Media Trust about how I have been using Facebook in parochial ministry. I had the privilege of working alongside an excellent colleague who has also sought to use social media to build networks within her own local community and into those networks to be and bring the church.

We spoke initially in the 'Case Studies' section of the day and then ran 4 small workshops - more social media surgeries - working from where people were starting from and dealing with their issues and questions.

Our case study presentation looked, in note form, a little like this:

·         Introduce ourselves, parishes.  Perhaps something less formal like explaining our personal profile picture, why we first began to use FB.
·         Overview: reasons for using FB, approaches and intentions.  E.g. Public face, accountability, advertising, building relationships.
·         Basic decisions e.g. who manages the page, linking to website,  page vs group, age limits, difference between Facebook and Twitter.
·         Using FB via a group, blog linking, vulnerability, boundaries, time of day, invitations e.g. baptism. (Referencing my invitations to being Baptised at the Easter Vigil and the Festival of the Baptism of Christ posted on Facebook)
·         Using FB via a page, community linking, messaging, knowing the age/gender profile, creating an ‘event’.
·         Closing comments; not the answer to all evangelism and rapidly changing landscape. Vital to engaging in modern communities.

Following the conference which was an excellent opportunity to network and share what we have discovered through interaction I was interviewed by Mike Naylor for BBC Three Counties Radio - the interview which went out at 8.40am this morning.

I'm very grateful to Stephen, for editing the interview down.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Easter 3 - To Be A Witness

Here's a sketch of this morning's sermon - sadly I didn't record it!

All of us have been appalled by the tragedy and trauma of IS’s almost unstoppable surge across Syria and the surrounding region. What has been particularly distressing has been their iconoclasm of non-Islamic sites - especially places of Christian history and worship. That in itself would be serious and disturbing, but what has been all the more shocking has been their attempt to wipe Christianity from the page of Syrian history, but not just Christianity. Since the conflict began as an anti-Government protest in 2011, an estimated 200,000 people have been killed.  As we celebrate the faith and martyr’s death of fellow Syrian St George this week, (the same St George adopted by the racist right on the edge of English politics) and the debate about immigration and nationalism rumbles on as an undercurrent leading up to the election, I am left asking questions about what makes us human and how we identify ourselves.

We do all want to fit in though. Most of us do not like standing out from the crowd. When I encounter anyone vaguely from the North I struggle to recapture the Lancashire accent I never really had. How do we want to be identified is a constant question - the clothes we wear, the music we listen to, the newspaper we read, the shops we go to all say much about us. They say you can’t judge a book by it’s cover - yet we make all sorts of snap-second decisions about the person walking towards us in the street based on how they look, their attire, age group and so on.

This morning’s Gospel races in without pausing for breath from the story of the encounter 2 disciples had on the road to Emmaus with the Risen Jesus. He walks and talks with them about all that has happened in Jerusalem and how all scripture point to Him, but it is only in the breaking of bread back at Emmaus, that those disciples finally realise that it is Jesus who has been with them and then he disappears, so they race back to Jerusalem to tell of what they’ve seen and experienced.

Whilst they were still talking about this, Jesus came and stood among them and said ‘Peace be with you. They were startled and terrified…’ The world that they though they know and understood had suddenly become unsettled and uncertain.

Story - 3 zebras on the lose in Brussels. Apparently the animals were unsettled by the removal and sale of some stable mates. They trotted the streets of the Belgian city eventually to be captured.

The resurrection of Jesus is even for unsettling or disturbing that zebras lose in Brussels.  It’s one thing telling about what these 2 have seen - it’s quite another thing experiencing it first hand. The Resurrection is confirmed not in words but in a personal encounter.  Jesus offers their fear and doubt His peace - on the one hand a normal greeting as ordinary as ‘good morning’ on the other is shorthand now for God’s saving love at work in Him. Everything that once was ordered is now reordered by God because of the Resurrection.

Touch me and see… They gave him a piece of broiled fish and he ate it in their presence.  Luke goes to great lengths explaining that this is Jesus - not some vision or disembodied spirit. The same Jesus who taught them and lived and loved with them is present with them now.

Story: Actions speak louder than words - It's the little things that help make love last, with cuddles and even making a cup of tea topping a list of activities that help keep couples together.  Even making sure to say 'thank you' as a simple token of gratitude for everyday mundane tasks can make a difference, alongside grander gestures such as giving surprise presents according to a study from Open University about keeping their relationships on track.
Bouquets of flowers and boxes of chocolates were seen as less valuable than small acts of kindness. A simple 'I love you' can work wonders, according to the study, which characterised this as a symbol of ongoing closeness among couples.

The Risen Jesus’ presence speaks loud and clear to those fearful disciples then and now.  The Jesus they encounter now is still the Crucified One. He bears the marks of His suffering love for us.  The Cross shows us the lack of the limits of the love God has for us - the Risen Jesus continues to call us to walk alongside, to serve and suffer with and ultimately love others.

And he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.  Jesus was stating a fact, but also giving his closest a new commission.

Story: Cast your minds back to February of this year - many across faith and political groupings were shocked by the capture of and ultimately the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians in Lybia. Bishop Angelou - leader of the Coptic Orthodox church in Britain described the murder as a disregard of life and gross misunderstanding of its sanctity and value in all people.  The Pope described these murdered Christians as Martyrs  for their faith.

Martyr - witness. To speak authentically and truthfully as if under oath, of the experience we have have had of and with Jesus. Part of being people who gather with these disciples, post Resurrection, is that we are called to be a witness.

No hellfire. No judgement. Not shoving something down others throats but it is about telling others when we have sensed God at work in our lives - at school, at home, at work - through a stranger, a doctor, a neighbour an act of compassionate love.

What is Jesus saying to us?
If you were put on trial for being a Xn would there be enough evidence to convict you? Does what believe in your head and heart shape the whole of your life. Best sermon I can preach is showing them they are loved. Are you willing to be a witness to Christ? To speak of what you have experienced to others and to allow that experience to continue to transform your life so others may see Christ in you? perhaps we should do less proclaiming the resurrection and more allowing people to encounter Him in us?

We’re used to talking about our favourite brand of toothpaste, or the new coffee place we discovered, or a tv show we watched in the hope that others will heed our advice and experience… what about with our faith? perhaps we should do less proclaiming the resurrection and more allowing people to encounter Him in us