Sunday, October 01, 2023

Salt Path Metanoia - Musings on Matthew 21:23-32

I am reading Raynor Winn’s memoir, The Salt Path. Just days after she learns that her husband Moth is terminally ill, their home is taken away through circumstances they could not have really prepared for and they lose their livelihood. And their response, before the bailiffs turn up, is to pack all they can into a rucksack each and walk the 630 miles of the South West Coast Path. It’s a story of love, of loss, of endurance, and of the healing sometimes contained in just putting one foot in front of another.

So often all of our lives can be like that? We make a decision or something happens that changes the direction of our lives completely. How did I end up here? What events, joys and sorrows led me to today? How will I navigate on from here into whatever lies ahead in tomorrow.

Jesus is confronted by the chief priest and the elders and is asked by what authority he is doing these things. I pondered this for some time this week. Am I interested in talking about authority or about these things. Which of the two do the chief priests have a problem with? Possibly both! In terms of the things that the elders might have an issue with, in previous verses Jesus has cleansed the Temple, entered Jerusalem proclaimed as messiah, he’s healed the blind and demoniacs and taught with much wisdom about the nature of forgiveness and the nature of the kingdom, and he has foretold the need for his death and resurrection. These things… We can’t hear the tone in the voice of the chief priests and the elders. Going backwards from this point you have to go back to chapters 15 and 16 to hear Jesus being asked similar questions by the chief priests or elders. I wonder if there is no sneering tone in their question. Those Pharisees and chief priests are me. They are you as Junior church leaders, as choir members, as sidespeople and welcomers. These chief priests and elders are trying to help God’s people go deeper into their faith with integrity. Sure, Jesus, has harsh words about them elsewhere, but I wonder if they are trying to work out who Jesus is because they see and hear some extraordinary things done at his hands - God must be with him. So their question, I think is not one of authority - they know that God is at work - it is the things Jesus is doing, teaching and foretelling that they have an issue with. But that’s not the heart of this morning’s Gospel.

Jesus said, ‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” 29He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ 

There is a line in the Salt Path which has stuck with me. Raynor Winn, reflecting on what they are doing together and whether they have thought it through and she says, ‘...Do we have a plan?” “Course we do. We'll walk until we stop walking, and maybe on the way we'll find some kind of future…’ It sounds like no plan, a crazy plan. A non plan that just tries to escape the inevitability of terminal illness, of homeless, of tragedy. A non plan that will innevitably involve being confronted with all of those things and more. As the book goes on I know I will get a sense of what motivates Raynor and Moth to walk aside from avoiding the present.

In this parable, Jesus is asking similar questions in a roundabout way. Let’s do that, by noting what we don’t know. What we don’t know is if this behavior was typical of the sons or extraordinary. We don’t know what interaction or conversation the sons may have had with each other (or with their father) after their initial response. We don’t know what may have prevented (or enticed) either of the sons to act conversely to their earlier statements. And we don’t even know exactly why Jesus told this parable or why Matthew shared it.

What we do know is that the son who said he’d show up and work did not and the son who at first refused changed his mind and did. I guess you probably agree that “actions speak louder than words” and therefore believe that the first son, despite his abrupt, if not somewhat obnoxious, refusal of his father iis the one who “did the will of his father.” And we know that Jesus links this parable to the response of the tax collectors and prostitutes (shorthand for those considered beyond the pale of respectable society) to the good news of the coming kingdom.

A lot of what we don’t know has to do with motivation and circumstances, and this is true not only of our interactions with these characters but also of our interactions with each other. I don’t know what motivates many of you to come or – to not come to church. I don’t know what motivates one of you to give so generously and other who could easily do the same yet doesn’t. I don’t know what collection of experiences shape the religious and political beliefs that you hold. And so on and so on and so on.

We don’t know these things. We can have a good guess – just as we may guess about our questions related to the parable and its characters – we may make assumptions and judgments, but ultimately we don’t know. And that should introduce a modicum of caution, if not humility, in our judgments, again about these characters in the parable but even more about each other.

I wonder though whether this story of Jesus’ serves both to highlight the tension between Him and the religious authorities of his day and to build the case against those same religious leaders for their failure to answer Jesus’ question about John’s authority, their failure to accept John’s message, and their failure to recognize in Jesus as Messiah. But I wonder if this parable does also offer a word of surprise and hope.

Here are just a few. I hear in this parable the surprising possibility of hope that someone who has refused to listen to God may yet change his/her mind. Hope that it’s never too late to respond to the grace of the Gospel. Hope that one’s past actions or current status do not determine one’s future. Hope that even those whom good folk (and, lest we forget, the chief priests and elders were good folk) have decided are beyond the pale of decent society are never, ever beyond the reach of God.

If this is so, then no matter what may have happened in the past, yet God is eager to meet us in the present and offer us – indeed, secure – an open future. It is not too late. God is here, inviting each of us into the kingdom that not only lives out in front of us but has the capacity to shape our every moment from this one forth. This is something, I think, of what Paul Tillich meant with his phrase “the eternal now.” Each moment is pregnant with the possibility of receiving God’s grace, repenting of things we’ve done or were done to us, returning to right relationship with God and those around us, and receiving the future as open rather than determined. Like Raynor and Moth - all we need to do is walk into that future.

Friends, God’s promise about an open future shapes our present here and now. Friends, hear that -  God’s promise about an open future shapes our present here and now, but to begin to grasp that we each need to look inside ourselves for those things that are holding us back from receiving God’s promises. What things do we hold onto that make it difficult to believe and accept God’s forgiveness or to imagine that the future can be different than the past? We also need to look around us - there are some here who will vote Conservative and some Labour or Lib Dem. Brexiteers and Sceptics. There will be some here delighted at Watford or indeed even Preston’s losses yesterday, and some not, people who are optimistic about the future and those who are frightened, people who feel great about our the direction of travel of the Church of England in trying to prepare prayers to be used with faithful loving same-sex married couple and those who don’t, and so on. Look, I don’t know your motivations or experiences or you mine, but we do know that God is reaching out to each one of us this morning with the gift of acceptance and love and forgiveness that are the hallmarks of the kingdom Jesus proclaims.

We live at time of division. And without for a moment undervaluing the important values, beliefs, and concerns that underlie some of those divisions internationally, nationally and ecclesiastically but beneath all of those differences is a profound commonality - we are each a child of God whom God loves, adores, and is speaking to right here and now. And being reminded of that might we take a little more time to listen to each other, try to understand each other, and try to listen for God’s calling for ourselves and our community together, instead of isolation? That I believe is John’s way of righteousness - recognising that the path that we are on may not be the right future for us or each other, turning around, and walking back towards God and each other?

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Love, Lies and Lent - a Sermon for the first Sunday of Lent based on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

In the news this week we’ve heard that at least 47000 people have died as a result of the earthquake on the Syrian/Turkish border; that millions live in fear a year on from the Russian invasion of Ukraine; that a new Brexit deal for Northern Ireland is close to being struck in the midst of political tension; that Nigeria have gone to the polls to elect a new government still moving out of the shadow of military rule; that Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is the first to march at the Mardi Gras gay rights march. These and countless other stories have unfolded in the media glare and in dappled pools of sunlight heard only by the birds are all at their heart about life’s ultimate mystery - the nature of human relationships.

All human relationships are mysterious because they unfold a narrative of what binds and divides us which is centred on one emotion - love. That’s why those news stories move us. Grief erupts in tragedy because of love. We long for justice because of love. Love is the unifier. Love by it’s presence or absence transforms the human heart and will. It is humanity’s golden thread through our history - yet it remains an unfathomable truth.

What we hear as our first reading this morning is a telling of part of the story that binds and divides us. Genesis 2 and 3 are part of a story told by God to humanity which has three lines: I love you; I want to be with people like you; will you come and be with me? Told another way, these chapters are trying to explain the inexplicable - why are we here; why do we act and react the way we do with each other; why is there pain in childbirth etc?

It’s also worth flagging at this point a bit about the ‘Once Upon a Time’ sort of Hebrew used in the passage. Our lectionary compilers leave out the story of the creation of the woman made not as a helper (such a derogatory term) but an equal - bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. They also leave out the commentary about a man leaving his father and mother and clinging to his wife as one flesh (this text is not at all about marriage (biblical or otherwise and the word marriage is not used here at all.) Also the same word means ‘man’ and ‘husband’ and ‘woman’ and ‘wife.’ Being ‘one flesh’ is surely as much about husbands not mistreating their wives as themselves.

'... And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die...'

I love walking Pip our dog early in the morning. I love the silence, the fact that it is just her and me, I love the nature in which we walk and the route we take means we are surrounded by trees. What has struck me over the last few weeks is the number of very deep conversations I have ended up having with folks - the sudden death of a mother’s partner complicated by other issues; the cloud of dementia; the impact of bullying. All of these conversations have occurred between the trees.

Lent began on Wednesday as we stood at one tree - the palm - and marked ourselves with the kiss of God’s love and reminded ourselves of our mortality and need of Him. And here, we stand at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and look on over the weeks of our Lenten Pilgrimage. It would do us well to note that this story about fractured relationships finds it’s fulfilment in the realising of all our hopes and dreams at the foot of another tree - the cross - where all relationships are reformed. We could understand our craving relationship with each other and our wrestling with life’s temptations; and God reaching out to each of us in love - as all being outworked between these two trees.

In our school assemblies this week we talked about saying and doing wrong things and how we might lie to avoid the blame. This is all too a human trait - notice how the serpent subtly twists God’s words (Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?), and how the woman adds to the lie (God doesn’t prohibit touching the tree of knowledge.) Much spurious theology has been outworked from this story - but as equals, both woman and man are culpable for their actions. As we continue to journey between the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the cross - this remains true for each of us - we each remain culpable for our actions.

What is Jesus asking of us as we take these first steps in our Lenten pilgrimage? Our first reading reminds us that we are made for relationship equally with each other and our actions and words affect those relationships, and our Gospel reminds us that our actions (prayer, fasting, almsgiving, clothing the naked, visiting the sick or imprisoned) have eternal weight in that how we act and react affect our relationship with God.

The consequences of the actions at the tree of knowledge are being outworked in Ukraine as the actions of some lead to the death of others. I don’t mean that literally as would you Adam and Eve it - it’s only a story, but the corrupting of human relationships - the right of one to have power over another - is being outworked in Kyiv and the Donbas and ultimately has led to the need for gay right marches in the first place.

This Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, Walk with Jesus, learn from Him; seek to frame all of your relationships differently as he does because how we act and react with each other affect our relationship with God.

Sunday, February 05, 2023

The Grandfather Clock, the Power of Love and the Type of the Church and Society - A Candlemas Sermon


A grandfather clock - not ours.

We have a grandfather clock which stands in our dining room.  I have wondered at and wound that clock over many years.  It belonged to my grandfather and I knew that one day it would belong to me.

It was made in Glasgow in the early to mid 1800s. I often dwell on who has watched the minutes slip by on it’s face and heard the hours fall away to it’s chimes. At the moment it has stopped and remains unwound, hands caught at 9.15.

The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple which we keep today, is not about the life of Christ stuck at a particular time or point.  The Orthodox know today as The Meeting or The Encounter for it centres on the meeting of Mary and Joseph with Simeon and Anna, but in the drama of what unfolds in those conversations and liturgical rites are in a way ongoing, and in them the miracle of Christmas, the Incarnation, God amongst us is continually affirmed in a meeting of Heaven with Earth and Earth with Heaven.

Simeon took the child in his arms and praised God… for my eyes have seen have seen your salvation…What makes us human - Jeremy Vine… poets, politicians, actors, journalists. Fot Julia Donaldson it is our understanding of time - the past, present and the future; for the journalist George Alagia it is care and compasssion; for Stephen Fry it is language; for the cellist Julian Lloyd-Webber it is, perhaps unsurprisingly, music. At the Feast of the Presntation, God’s answer to the question as to what makes us human, is love. 

As Christ is presented in the Temple, our humanity is offered to God with Him.  That’s all of our humanity, not just the Sunday best bits, because God takes all of what it means to human seriously. As we formally conclude our Christmas celebrations today we remember that in the Incarnation, God regards the impoverished, mundane, everyday material of humanity with such a generous love that he He is born amongst us, as one of us, as we are. In other words, God loves us, not as who we will be, or who we will become in His sight, but as we are now.  He loves those whom we find it hard to love, those who we are probably too afraid or ashamed to admit we don’t - the homeless, the drug or drink addled, gay, straight or bi. God loves regardless which way you vote, whether you are up to your eyeballs in debt, whether you are tattooed or pierced… And before you start wondering if this is becoming a sort of universalist ‘it’s all about love love love’ sort of a sermon - yes it is - God loves us all universally and unconditionally. The Meeting at the heart of todays Gospel is indeed Good News as the Christ child is revealed in the midst of the aged, young parents - not in worship, but in conversation - and their lives are changed.

What we remember today, is the hinge that binds crib and the Cross together - a link between what we celebrated at Christmas, with all that is to come at Palm Sunday, Good Friday and on to Easter Sunday. Our focus moves away from the crib to the font - the place where our much-loved humanity is affirmed with the kiss of love that is Christ’s cross, and we are commissioned to live our lives for Him.

Candlemas reminds us of the love of God for each of us, but of a love that transforms us, that heals us, that makes us to be more and more than we are or thought we ever could be. That love redeems us out of old habits, renews our drives and motives and offers us the ridiculous, seemingly unobtainable hope that we can become the people that both we and God long for us to be.  For as Christ is presented to God in the Temple, He offers back to us a hope of the Divine life of God for us and with us and in us, yes even us.

Candlemas is a vision of what not only the church, but our wider society could be. Instead of us living and loving within our age appropriate, gender-defined, politically constrained silos - God brings Simeon and Anna, Mary and Joseph and the Christ Child together as a model of intergenerational Godly living, loving and worship as a type for the church, but as a blueprint of what our whole society could and should be - where no-one is excluded, all are welcome and included and all are surrounded by the love of God. 

At the end of the service of Holy Baptism, a candle is given and a charge to each baptised person is made to ‘shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father.’  Traditionally at this service, candles for the year for use in people’s homes and in worship were blessed so that the light of Christ could shine.  We will have a resonance of that ourselves at the end of our worship this evening.

That Baptismal charge though is not about our light shining, our agenda being heard, our ideologies or preferences being pushed to the fore, but God’s. Whilst He loves unconditionally and eternally, He calls us to love Him and others that way too - with a love that surprises and transforms.

As we pack away the tree lights and the crib and turn to the font and on to Christ’s Passion and Resurrection I am reminded of Howard Thurman’s remarkable poem:

When the song of the angels is stilled,

when the star in the sky is gone,

when the kings and princes are home,

when the shepherds are back with their flocks,

the work of Christmas begins:

to find the lost,

to heal the broken,

to feed the hungry,

to release the prisoner,

to rebuild the nations,

to bring peace among the people,

to make music in the heart.

The light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of your people Israel is the Light and Life of the Resurrection which shone through the night of Gethsemene; pierced the darkness at 3 in the afternoon; and shone brightly from the empty tomb. The hands on our grandfather clock may be stuck at 9.15, for now, but at the font we are called to shine with that same light of love, dispelling the darkness in every meeting, in every encounter…

Tonight we reaffirm again our willingness to take the Light of Life into the impoverished, mundane, everyday material of life, dispelling darkness with transforming light and love.

Tonight, our world still seems to be filled with the darkness of hatred and fear towards those made in God’s image and loved by Him; the humanity that we share, that God took on Himself needs His light and hope more than ever.

Tonight we are reminded that it is through us that the work of Christmas begins and that the light of God’s love must shine..

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

The Sculptor, The Nun and the Invitation - A Sermon for Epiphany 2 - John 1:29-42

It doesn't matter whether you visit the Yorkshire Sculpture Park; Barbara Hepworth's house or Kew Gardens. In fact, it doesn't matter where you see sculpture outdoors - the landscape and context shape how we encounter the art, and the art can shape how we enjoy the context and landscape. Whether it's Hepworth's almost organic forms set in the beauty and simplicity of her garden or Damien Hirst's towering The Virgin Mother blurring the lines between internal and external landscapes and the beauty of both. At its best, it should make you want to go, 'Look!'

As children, we're taught that pointing at a person is rude. Pointing someone out like that is a means of highlighting difference - usually negatively. My sister (when she was little) when I accused her of something, '... You did such and such…', went on to tell me that my one accusatory finger pointing at her, masked three others pointing back at me. She knew (or at least hoped) that what I was probably accusing her of, was possibly a means of covering my own tracks!

John the Evangelist and gospel writer has drawn the extraordinary claim of Christmas - that the Creator and Sustainer of the universe comes among us - into sharp focus in the early verses of this opening chapter of his Gospel. And then his namesake, John the Baptist, provides some clarity when asked, as to who he is and who he isn't in the verses preceding this morning's section. To ram his point home, the next day, John points Jesus out. What is striking for me about this section is the number of times variants of the verb to see or to look are used. Both seeing someone or looking for someone, are an invitation into a relationship of both depth and discovery.

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” 

Sister Mary-Elizabeth was taken by the Prioress to meet friar Robert who was visiting the Convent, to see whether he wanted anything to eat. The Prioress was called away for a phone call. Sister Mary-Elizabeth sat with Robert as he ate. As she came with him to the door of the Convent to let him out, she brushed his sleeve. At that moment, they saw each other and the future differently. About a week later she received a message from Robert, asking whether she would leave her Carmelite order, and marry him. It’s not been an easy journey for either of them but what they have learned is by coming into that room on that day has led each of them into a relationship of depth and discovery with the other.

In the years I’ve served as your vicar I’ve rarely talked about evangelism but I have talked about mission. Maybe the word evangelism conjures up various images and preconceptions in your mind. I have talked often about invitation and building a culture of welcome. Friends as we rebuild as a church post-COVID and look to God for our life and growth going forward, I will need us all to play a part in evangelism through invitation and building a culture of welcome. A touch of love, an invitation to a service, building friendship with others here, is one of the simplest and most profound invitations into a relationship of depth and discovery you can make to someone. Asking someone to join you at church one week allows them to search themselves for the answer to the profoundest question in life - what are you looking for? And then inviting them to find the answer to all our life’s hopes in a life following Jesus. It sounds so easy. And it is. I am also aware it is also so hard, especially if you are feeling in any way unsure about your own faith but, there’s something upcoming that will hopefully give you some confidence.

Between 2-9 April this year I’d like to invite you personally to Walk with Jesus. Mark the dates in your diary now. Commit to joining us as a church family over the course of that week. Hear again part of the story of the life of Christ. Meet people. Build confidence and grow in faith. And then walk with Jesus. It will be good Please do make every effort to join us.

Friends,  it was good to see so many local folks with us in worship over Christmas. But as Richard Rohr says, ‘Worship of Jesus is rather harmless and risk-free; following Jesus changes everything. We will only grow as churches if God sends people to us or more realistically if we each invite them and welcome them when they come. 

’...  What are you looking for…?’, asked Jesus, ‘...Come and see…’