Saturday, December 23, 2017

Mary: A Model For Teenage Discipleship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 18, 2017


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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