August 11, 2014 § Leave a comment
In the Hebrew Scriptures the history books – Samuel, Kings and Chronicles – have a difficult time with the idea of Kingship. It is not because of the bad ones: the kings who manifestly disobey the commands of God from start to finish. It‘s also the ones you would think we should admire, and hold up as examples. Of course even they do some stupid things. People do. But the histories of Israel are more worried than that. Taken as a whole they advise us to regard the whole institution of monarchy with great caution.
This stretches right back to the people’s demand for a king in the first place. Samuel has combined the roles of prophet and judge, but the people have no faith in those who will follow him. They look around at other nations, just as our politicians do today when looking for a model of some social policy: ‘they do it better in Sweden’; ‘this is what works in Germany’. The people look at the strong nations around, for Israel has ever been under threat from its neighbours. And they see that kingship seems to work. ‘Give us one of them’, they demand of Samuel.
Samuel does, but gives them a health warning. The King will make you subservient. The King will demand everything of you, he says. ‘In that day you will cry out because of your King’ is his prophecy, in 1 Samuel 8. 18. Their reply? ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we might be like other nations…’ (1 Sam 8. 19, 20). And they get their wish. Saul, who is something of a disaster, then David, who builds up the country and enlarges its borders, and Solomon, who establishes it, fortifying Jerusalem even more, holding court there so that world leaders come knocking, and founding the temple, to show the impregnable power of the relationship between God, King, nation and people.
A wise reading of history is often able to show that the seeds of destruction are to be found at the moment of what looks like complete success. A reliance on what has got you to the point of achievement, simply looking for more of the same, will lead to the whole edifice crumbling. That’s as true of the Roman Empire as of the financial markets in 2007 as it is of the England cricketers who won the Ashes in 2005 and fell away soon after. The Books of Kings, especially, describe just such a fall, and attribute it not just to bad leadership, but to the very model of kingship itself.
Solomon, the wise, the all powerful, the sought after one, is not immune from finding security in transient alliances rather than the complete dependence on God which is the hallmark of Israel. Kingship makes you do that. Power concentrated in the hands of one person, to whom others fawn, eventually corrupts. And with few checks and balances that power turns in on itself. It was already happening at the end of Solomon’s reign, and not even the strong words of the prophet Ahijah about the breaking up of the twelve tribes of Israel can stop the process.
Our first reading tonight carries on the story. Solomon has died. Rehoboam, his son and anointed successor, trusts in the wrong sort of exercise of authority. Absolute kingship, he feels, can best be demonstrated by showing people who is boss. Is that not what a King is? Wise heads invite him to exercise his authority with humility and restraint, but kingship lends itself more easily to a display of power than of humility. He would rather be ruler than servant. He would look weak otherwise. Ten of the tribes tell him what he can do with it, and so begins the split of the nation, into two Kingdoms. A couple of hundred years and it’s all gone, the nation overrun, the leaders in exile. And we can safely say that the split, the destruction, has been there all along.
My former boss used to say that ‘any system can be made not to work’. The Judges and the early prophets had their troubles too. But reliance on an overt exercise of power – ‘someone who will go out before us and fight our battles’, as the people say to Samuel when they ask for a King – this reliance has perhaps more chance of failure than any other. The people put a figurehead and a system in between them and their joint responsibility for the land and nation and people. Their abdication of power leads to it being exercised badly, however hard the King in question tries.
In that same land today different models of leadership and power currently clash, and people die. In our own land the people with power seen increasingly remote for the people they govern, or should that be ‘serve’? We do well to be suspicious of the exercise of power. We do well also to pray for those who have it, and hold up before them the model of the one who, with all authority on heaven and earth, sought out the weak, sat with the needy, shared the life of the poor, and gave up every shred of what he had, that we might live. Amen.
May 18, 2014 § Leave a comment
This morning’s sermon. I blog these if enough people come and talk to me about them afterwards (which, because we’re from Yorkshire, we don’t normally do). So here goes…It was based on John 14. 1 – 14
I had a fascinating conversation this week with someone who researches people’s experiences of the death of those closest to them, and their bereavement and grieving. Her key reflection was that what clergy could bring into that situation, beyond planning and delivering the funeral service, was a framework where people could explore their beliefs and understandings of death and dying, and especially of what people thought had happened to their loved ones, and where they were. This was most crucial between the death and the funeral.
That conversation remains with me now because of this morning’s Gospel reading, from John 14. We clergy, who do lots of funerals, tend to forget that people don’t go to that many in their life time. This reading, the first six verses anyway, is the one I most often use at funerals. It speaks of God’s care for us beyond death, of God’s promise that those in Christ will have a room reserved, and that perhaps even those who have not been followers of God in their lifetime will also be looked after. There are, after all, ‘many rooms’. Jesus, speaking, as John has it, on the night before he dies, with impending doom all around, gives his followers a framework to understand what is about to happen – one which they clearly remembered because they wrote it all down.
At the centre is a statement, a question and an answer. Jesus tells the disciples that they have all the framework they need to face his death, the ultimate challenge. ‘You know the way to the place where I am going’ he says. ‘No‘, says Thomas. ‘If we don’t know where you are going, how on earth can we know the way.’ Jesus, as ever, changes the nature of the conversation. It’s not about what the way is and where it’s going, but who the way is and how we get there. ‘I am the way…’ Faced with the ultimate question, Jesus gives an answer which will only make sense because of their faith, not their certainty. ‘You still won’t be exactly clear about where I’m going. But you can be sure that the way there is me. Trust me.’
In funerals I do all I can to make this framework plain. I try to say that the Christian faith is about us being gathered, swept up in Christ into the life of God. As he, one man, incorporated all of humanity, so that his death was our death, so the risen Christ incorporates us too, so that his life is our life. If the face of death many people look for certainties, for something as tangible as possible about the fate, the continued life of their loved one who has died. People can take great comfort in words from beyond the grave, for example, and the use of clairvoyants and mediums. There is, to broaden it out, a great interest in ghosts – you only have to see the huge crowds on the York ghost walks which used to go past our house. I try to say that our thinking about death and new life is much deeper than that.
This is about faith. Faith that, because Jesus died and rose, and is fully and completely with God, we will be too. Indeed, part of our life is already with God now. In baptism we have already died and been raised with Christ. But where, and how, and what it’s like on the other side of death…well, I don’t know. I can only trust that the means of being with God, the way we travel, and the life we will life, is Christ. That’s it. Total and complete trust. The Bible speaks of us ‘resting’, ‘sleeping’ in death. That’s a state which is fully enclosed by God, like the best kind of sleep in the best kind of bed. And the Bible says that, in Christ, we will be raised, so that we see God face to face. I don’t know when and how that will be. But I can trust that it will happen, and I can trust that it is Jesus who will be the means and the road and the companion and the guide and the friend on the way, and the everlasting arms behind.
When Philip asked Jesus to reveal the Father to them, Jesus said he already had. In every moment with them, every word, every action, God was being made plain to them. They just had to open their eyes to see. It’s that openness which Jesus asks of us as we face the biggest question of all: what will happen to us when we die? Jesus says: the answer is here already. I am such a part of the Father and you are such a part of me that, in life and death, you will be with me, and I will never let you go.
Facing his death, and acknowledging their grief, Jesus says to his disciples ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled…’ As we face our death, and the death of those we love, there will of course be grief and loss and sadness and anger and guilt. I cry at many of the funerals I take, and I miss the people you miss. That’s OK. Jesus wept at death too. But under it all there is the hope and hope and trust, that eternally we can never be separated from God’s love. May we offer that hope to all who wonder about life and death. And that’s everyone, isn’t it?
March 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
The Church of England now offers two collects for each Sunday. The collect is the prayer which ‘gathers up’, or ‘collects’ our prayers and gives them a shape and a theme. They are not just an Anglican thing: the collects which Archbishop Cranmer (whom we remembered this week, martyred nearly five centuries ago) gave us in the Book of Common Prayer are generally translations of Latin prayers which had been around for a thousand years or more.
As clergy here we sometimes have a discussion about which of the collects to use. Some of the Common Worship collects are very like their BCP originals, and that makes their language and construction complex on occasions. Sometimes the newer Alternative Collects put things more concisely. Well, I was determined this week to have the collect Common Worship originally selected for the Third Sunday of Lent. It’s not a BCP one, but was written by William Reed Huntington, Rector of Grace Church, Broadway, in the late 1800s for the American Prayer Book.
whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain,
and entered not into glory before he was crucified;
mercifully grant that we, walking the way of the Cross,
may find it none other than the way of life and peace…
I was determined to have this because the clergy Canons of York Minster once had an argument about it. One of my colleagues was keen to simplify it: “whose most dear Son went up to joy after he suffered pain…entered into glory after he was crucified…” and so on. There was a worry that the collect as it stands was being too clever for its own good. I stood my ground. This collect is one of the few I can recite from memory, and I think that’s down to the very complexity we wondered about simplifying. There’s something memorable about the repeated construction “went not…but…entered not…but” which straightening it out would lose.
In fact Huntington took the construction from a phrase in the Book of Common Prayer, in the service called The Visitation of the Sick. As I have pondered on it since, I would say that the complex negatives are vital. It was not just that Jesus entered into joy and glory after a time of pain and the crucifixion; it was that the joy and glory Christ now enjoys are inextricably bound up with his passion and death. The only way to glory was by bearing the cross. The only way to joy was by bearing pain. There is an implication for us that the life and peace we long for is inextricably bound up with walking the way of the cross. We do not get to dodge the suffering which Christ bore: it cannot be separated from the path to glory.
In his letter to the Romans Paul spends three chapters talking about being reconciled to God, freed, forgiven, justified and redeemed by God though faith. He describes this as the present experience of the Christian: “we have been justified…we have peace…we have access to his grace”. It may come as a surprise then that he immediately says that there will be suffering and that not only should we not run away but we should actually rejoice in it. Until the end of this world there remains a cross to carry and suffering to face. He goes even further in Romans 5: the sufferings of the faithful Christian, whatever they may be, are things we should ‘boast’ about, because they show that we are walking in the way of Christ.
It is not that there will be joy and glory after this pain – a bit like the distant view of a pub means you can cope with the last two miles of a long day’s walk. It is that the sufferings we have to bear are a necessary path we have to take. Sufferings and hardship, says Paul, help us to remember that all of our freedom is from God, and all we can do, in any situation, is to trust God alone. As Paul puts it, through and in this suffering we learn endurance and character and true hope. God is as present in our troubles as our joys, and all are part of the way of the cross. When we face hardship and persecution and suffering in this life, we do so because we faithfully follow Christ, and find him in them. We don’t do this because there will be joy later: we find Christ in each act, each moment; and if that is a hardship, then that is the way Christ walked first. We will not get home without hardships and trials, and in them we find life.
All of which probably sounds insufferably pious if you are in the middle of something awful. But I have various people in mind when I say that in living through pain and crisis is the hope of glory. I think of people rebuilding their lives after they were torn apart by one event which called the last 30 odd years into question. People who are facing an illness with no cure. Parents who walked the way of suffering with their youngest child, incurably ill and who died before Christmas. A friend whose adult child simply vanished, and has now been missing for five years.
I think of churches torn apart by politics and persecution. Institutions facing an uncertain future and seemingly imploding. People left shattered by the loss of job and security. As Christ did not, could not, would not go up to joy without taking all the pains of humanity into himself, so we, walking in his way, will not be immune from that pain, and must hold on, with what little we might have left, to the Christ who shares that pain with us. That costly personal discipleship is therefore one of the themes of Lent.
And, if our current situation is to be beside still waters and in pleasant places, then our task is to share that pain with others, to stand with people in difficulty, to enter the darkness with them, and with them to look for its redemption, its completion. If you do this, please don’t try to explain suffering away, to give it a reason. It will be enough to hold the hand of the people you are with, and to pray that they will know Christ’s presence even at the darkest times. It will be enough to reassure people that, if it’s dark, Christ is still there, that if it hurts, Christ has suffered too. It might just be possible to say that such times can deepen our faith (and ‘The Visitation of the Sick’ service does just that, not altogether helpfully, I think), but it’s probably best to assure people that God will not let them go.
Our sufferings and difficulties are part of the humanity which Christ willingly embraced. In him, in his life, passion, death and resurrection they are ultimately given meaning and purpose, though that can seem a long way away in the middle of it all. I hope you’ll pray with me that people you and I know who are walking the way of the cross will find that it is the way of life and peace. And I hope you will hold their hand, and bear their pain, because our hope is in the Christ who walks this way, and leads us to life and peace. Amen.
February 3, 2014 § Leave a comment
I preached this last night, and people seemed to appreciate it. The Communion setting was the Messe Solennelle, and that started my thoughts going…
Jean Langlais, the twentieth century composer whose setting of the Communion service we are hearing tonight, was blind. He lost his sight as a two year old. His upbringing was not sheltered, and he loved climbing trees. He loved music, and as a teenager heard an organ, determining to learn it himself. He was taught first by another blind organist, and went on to be one of France’s most celebrated organists and composers.
He said that he had no memory of light, yet it seems to me that his music is full of richness and colour and light and shade. Perhaps because he was in darkness, his evocation of light is all the greater. For light defines us. Apart from a very few animals, we alone create light when there is none. Light is our essence.
The modern preponderance of light means that people today have no real regular experience of darkness. I was on a late train a couple of weeks ago, and all the lights went out. It was rather wonderful, but so disorientating that normally reserved English people started talking to each other.
We make light, because we need it and love it. It is necessary and beautiful. For much of human history candles, and oil lamps, were essential bringers of light into darkness. The lighting of the lamps became a religious act which could never be reduced to the flipping of a switch.
The festival of Candlemas, the Presentation, the Purification is about light. It commemorates the moment when Jesus was presented in the Temple. There he was recognised by a devout believer, and declared to be a light to lighten the Gentiles – the person whose life and death will be a means of revelation, illumination and warning to all the non Jewish peoples of the earth. He is also to be the fulfilment of all the hopes of Israel, God’s original people.
In church the moment is remembered every time the Nunc Dimittis is sung. It is such a part of our evening worship – first in Compline, then, since Cranmer, at Evensong, that we can become dulled to its challenge. It’s a massively radical statement. Hear it again:
God’s promise has been fulfilled. This child is the means of rescue, for every single human being on the planet. He is a Jew, but will be light, piercing the darkness for all the peoples of the world. He is everything the Jews have been waiting for and everything a dark world needs.
What is amazing here is that Simeon doesn’t keep this as a personal experience – ‘I can die fulfilled now’. Nor does he keep this as a Jewish experience: ‘we will be delivered and our nation’s borders secured’. This is global and eternal. He declares this month old baby to be the fulfilment of Israel, and a light to lighten the Gentiles – the person whose life and death will be a means of revelation, illumination and warning to all the non Jewish peoples of the earth. This child would unleash shalom, true peace, and no one would be able to stop it. It would burst out of the confines of Israel and transform the world.
This requires much of us. It means being the light and proclaiming Christ to everyone – the indifferent, the hostile, and the devout of other faiths. It means taking a long look at ourselves. How can Christians proclaim Christ as a light drawing all people to himself when our lives are not as well lit as they could be, and when as the church we enjoy our disagreements more than what binds us together?
When a candle shines in darkness, things are seen in a new light. When Christians say that Jesus is the light of the world it reinterprets the world as it is, and shows the world as it might be. As we proclaim Christ Light of the World, ask yourself what is being illuminated for you, and what you can illuminate with the light within you. Jean Langlais could not take light for granted. He had to recreate it in himself. Seek Christ’s light. Shine with it. And transform the world.
January 19, 2014 § Leave a comment
A serious project researching church growth has just made a report. It’s here.
And here’s a small sermon in response, preached today at Beverley Minster. The gospel passage was John 1. 29 – 42.
The Church of England has been doing some research into Church Growth. A comprehensive report has looked at all sorts of types of church, from rural multi-parish groups to market towns to urban areas to cathedrals. ‘Greater Churches’ like Beverley Minster get a special section. There are encouragements and discouragements. Some churches have grown greatly – and the cathedral sector is part of that. Most Greater Churches have grown too, though not all, and not us, though I’d say in numbers terms we are at best holding our own. The greatest discouragement is that, overall, there has been a decline of around 9% in the last decade across the Church of England, and that’s a cause for real concern.
We had a conversation about this at the Deanery Synod on Tuesday. We nearly had an argument actually – about what should motivate us to tell people about Jesus, what should drive us in inviting people to encounter the Living God as we worship and meet and pray and learn. One person cited those depressing numbers: huge declines in the number of children and young people in our churches. At the end of the last decade something like 2.2% of 16-19 year olds in the country were attending church once a month or more. 50% of churches have fewer than 5 under 16s. It’s not that people have stopped going to church, says the Report. It’s that they never started.
Another person said that we shouldn’t start with the numbers, but with our commitment as disciples to make Jesus known. It is our job, just as it was John the Baptist’s job at the beginning of John’s gospel, to point to Jesus, not for the sake of getting more people into church and so feeling successful, but for the sake of pointing to Jesus alone. John actually loses numbers, as his task was not to build his own grouping, but to give himself and his followers away. His two leave him and follow Jesus. It’s not the same situation, but if we introduce someone to Jesus and they come to faith, and then they go to another church, we shouldn’t be dismayed, even if it makes our statistics look bad. Disciples tell people about Jesus. That’s it.
As a good and balanced Rural Dean, I, of course, said that it was both. As disciples we not only pray and learn and worship and serve, we evangelise. And we are members of a church in which evangelism is embodied in what we do, in the services we offer, in the groups we have. A mark of whether we are evangelising well will be in whether people come. The numbers tell a story. Crucially, if we are not being a church which makes Christ known to every generation, how will they hear? If there’s not enough of us to tell the story, how will people come to faith? We need to be here, in numbers enough to be the body of Christ. I don’t mind whether we start with fear for our survival, or with an inner passion for speaking the Good News. It needs to be done.
What is fascinating in the Report is that there is no single recipe for successful evangelism, no one pattern for growing the numbers of the church which everyone can adopt. There is no one style of being the church, no one worship pattern or theological stance, which will guarantee growth. I’m quite encouraged by that. Too often in the church people have been keen to demonstrate how badly wrong others have got it, and how clearly right they are. Not so: it’s not the choir or guitars, or simple gospel or flowery music, or evangelical fervour or anglo catholic mysticism, or digital projectors or incense, or chairs or pews.
So what is it, which is a factor in church growth? Not the recipe, says the Report, but the ingredients. This is a fabulous encouragement for the church to be local, to see where we are, and what we can do, not to impose a blueprint from elsewhere. The ingredients are:
Good leadership (Good Vicars mean growing churches, said the Archbishop of Canterbury recently. Discuss…);
A clear mission and purpose;
Willingness to self reflect and to change and adapt;
Involvement of lay members;
Being intentional in prioritising growth;
Being intentional in a chosen style of worship;
Being intentional in nurturing disciples.
When I was teaching, our school was radical: no uniforms, first names for teachers, mixed ability classes, continual assessment. Mr Gove would not have been an admirer, you feel. The next door school had uniform, exams, setting, many rules. We both did well, because each school was committed to its ethos and philosophy. The whole school community knew what made it tick, and pupils and staff flourished. I think that’s what this Report says about church growth. It’s not the specific method, but the joint commitment of the whole church, or group of churches, which is key.
We must want to introduce people to Jesus. We must want to grow ourselves as disciples. We must stop fighting battles about the style or pattern of worship, and be people who can unite, even around something not all of us like. This is what we do, and we do it because through it we worship Jesus. I happen to be thrilled that, over a month, something like 50 people under 18 sing in our choirs. But I don’t want to impose that model, or the style of worship which goes with it, on everyone. In other churches a different style of worship will work. The key is to be committed to it, not fight against it.
As a larger church we also have the opportunity to offer other kinds of work with children and young people. I’m thrilled that good numbers of children and young people encounter us in a variety of groups and meetings under the direction of Emily, our youth and children’s minister. It’s important for us to make this work known: to support it, and enable it to bear fruit in our worship. Some of that will happen in our All Age Service once a month. Some people choose not to come to the All Age because it’s not the style for them. Well, better to absent yourself than to fight against it. But why not embrace it and be thrilled that people come and meet God through it. Better still, bring your grandchildren.
I say grandchildren because the average age of a worshipper in the Church of England is, evidently, 62. You have an opportunity to make that statistic work: grandchildren need you. And you have friends with more time than they used to. Get them along. A commitment to following Christ means a commitment to tell people about him. The churches which have grown have done so because they have decided to do so, in whatever way was right for their context. I would be thrilled if a great queue of you formed straight after this service to tell me how we are not doing it right, so that we can reflect and learn and commit. Jesus Christ deserves nothing less. This church, built on the inheritance of those who, in their day, told people about Christ, deserves nothing less. Who will you tell today, like Andrew told his brother, that ‘We have found the Christ’? Amen.
December 26, 2013 § Leave a comment
Even the academic discipline of dictionary making is keen to shake off its dry and dusty image, and to promote itself in a world dominated by social media and instant communication. Every year now there’s a flurry of news stories about new words which have made it into some new publication, as if those words have been given official approval.
This year the words included ‘phablet’, ‘twerking’, ‘bitcoin’, ‘omnishambles’ and ‘cake pop’. But the word which the Oxford Online Dictionary nominated as its word of 2013 was ‘selfie’: defined as
a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.
Even the coverage of the funeral of Nelson Mandela was dominated by a selfie, as the Danish Prime Minister posed with David Cameron and Barak Obama. The selfie says: ‘Look at me. Look what I’m doing. Look who I’m with’. They are fun.
I bet there will be a lot of selfies this Christmas. If you follow me on Twitter, or are friends with on Facebook, you’ll know that I post very few selfies, but it’s not that I’m against them. In fact I won’t be doing much social media at all in the next few days: another phrase of 2013 is ‘digital detox’ – where you go without tweeting or instagramming for a while – and that’s what I’ll be doing. But the fashion for selfies has made me wonder.
I was wondering if the birth of Jesus is a bit like God’s selfie – God saying ‘here I am’ – and then thinking that, if it is, it’s not very effective. Not many people found out about the birth of Jesus: his parents, obviously, and then just a few shepherds – though they were the kind of people you’d block on Twitter or unfriend on Facebook. Some slightly weird followers of an odd sect eventually arrived, brought presents, and they went as quickly as they came. Not much else seemed to happen, and after Jesus’s birth it all went quiet for 30 years or so. In a rapidly moving world one week of silence is disaster. 30 years is a catastrophe.
But… what we celebrate tonight is indeed God saying ‘Look at me. Look what I’m doing. Look who I’m with’. God says ‘I’m with you. I’m here, and now. If you look at Jesus, if you listen to Jesus, if you befriend Jesus, you’ll find out all you need to know about me. Do you want to know what I’m like? Look. Jesus will show you.’
Selfies come and go, especially the embarrassing ones. What convinces me about Jesus is that he embraces absolutely every aspect of human life. Those of you who have had small children will know of their immense fragility and dependence. In the last two weeks I have spent time with a family who know to their lasting cost how just one little chromosome will make all the difference to a developing child. God, in Christ, embraces every aspect of human life, down to each individual piece of genetic code.
In Jesus God says ‘look at me’. And, in Jesus, God says ‘look at yourself’. There is nothing about us that God does not enfold and embrace. Jesus doesn’t explode into life six feet off the ground in a cloud of dry ice, like a Strictly show dance or an X factor finale. Jesus struggles like the rest of us, his parents graft like we do, he lives in a complex land full of danger and politics and violence, just like today. When he grows up it takes time for people to really ‘get’ him – he needs to be listened to, he’s not always comfortable, he says difficult things.
This is God living our life. That’s what we celebrate tonight. Jesus, God with us, God for us, is way more than a selfie. It’s not about him. If there’s such a thing as a ‘givvie’ that’s what he us. Tonight God says: ‘in Christ I was once so fragile I could break. I lived your life, and died your death. That’s how I can offer you forgiveness, healing, hope, new life. If you want to find yourself, accept this gift. And I won’t just be standing next to you. I will be in you. For ever’.
In this holy night, Glory to God in the highest, for God’s indescribable gift. Himself. Amen.
June 30, 2013 § Leave a comment
I typed the wrong number in our lectionary for today. Instead of the end of 1 Kings 19, about Elisha being Elijah’s disciple, we got the whole of 1 Kings 19 – Elijah on Horeb, ‘only I am left’ and so on. I was preaching, and found myself comparing Elijah’s ‘deflation’ and Jesus’s purposeful journey though Luke.
I said to our congregation that I might well have made the mistake for a purpose. A good number of people thanked me afterwards for the bits about being depressed and ‘deflated’. So I thought I’d offer it more widely. Hope it helps.
Political dramas on the television are very fond of the ‘walk and talk’ sequence, where the Prime Minster or President is on the move, barking out orders and giving instant answers to questions from aides who come and go, usually with a clipboard or a mobile phone. The central figure is completely in control, directing the action, never pauses for breath and never has to reflect on the right answer. They are, to use some overused phrases, ‘in the moment’, ‘in the zone’. So popular is this device that it is frequently spoofed in comedy shows.
A slightly irreverent part of me imagines the Jesus of Luke chapters 5 to 19 as being like this. He hardly draws breath. His words pour out like a torrent. People come and are healed, miracles happen, and he uses each event to say further profound and challenging things. There’s story after story, parable after parable. Just look at Chapter 9. He sends the 12 to preach. They return, full of it. He feeds the 5000. Peter declares Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus predicts his death. He goes up a mountain and is transfigured. He heals a boy with a demon. The disciples arg
ue about who is top dog. And at the end, in our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus prevents his disciples from nuking a village, and people who try to combine their old life with following Christ are sent away with a flea in their ear. It carries on for another 9 chapters like this. It’s like one of those compilations of highlights with all the boring bits taken out. It’s exhausting.
Perhaps the key phrase in today’s reading comes in explaining the Samaritan villagers’ rejection of Jesus. His ‘face is set’ towards Jerusalem. All of this busy-ness, all of these words, all of these events have a purpose. Luke shows a whirl of activity around Jesus, with some reflective moments too. But it all leads towards a goal. Jesus isn’t hanging around to see what will happen. He is making it happen. And, as with any Rabbi worth following, his disciples had to do the same. If you’re going to follow me, he says, be prepared to have no house or home. Forget about the past, don’t look back. Complete focus, complete dedication.
What’s interesting to me is that this doesn’t make Jesus like some megastar on a walkabout, not really engaging with the people they meet. In fact Jesus seems to be ready to stop, ready to listen, to hear the next word from God, to speak the next word of God, to receive or offer service at any moment. I can imagine him not looking over people’s shoulders, trying to see if anyone more important is coming. He would look straight at people and give them all the attention the situation demanded. He responds to unexpected events and challenges with balance and insight, precisely because he is focussed on his goal, his reason for being there. He’s focussed, and purposeful, but not blinkered or blind to the needs around him.
Today’s readings offer us a superb contrast with another great leader who is full of the works and power and mission of God. Elijah the Prophet, in 1 Kings 19, is fresh from a whole series of miraculous events. He has predicted drought, he has multiplied food, he has raised a boy from death, he has challenged a king, he has wiped out the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. He is the epitome of success, completely led by God and with a clear goal of standing for the true worship of God in a land where they have become distracted and unjust. He can even outrun a chariot.
But you wouldn’t think that if you started Elijah’s story only at chapter 19 of 1 Kings. Far from being the ‘super-prophet’ of chapter 18, he is completely miserable, and wants to die. One setback – a threat from the King he challenged – and all his power and purpose and focus just melt away. I’ll confess to being deflated on occasions in much the same way. It’s as if you’ve been floored. One minute all is powering on, the next you’ve been unplugged – and you deflate like a bouncy castle. Some of you may recognise the symptoms of a reactive depression in Elijah: he turns everything inward and it’s all about himself. There is no hope, no reason to do anything, exhaustion, gloom, despair.
It takes a retreat, physical care and activity, good food and a change of perspective to get Elijah back on track. He has mistaken a unique call from God for a requirement to do everything by himself, and has taken a temporary setback for a clear proof that he’s made a mess of it and that all is going to fail. God helps him put all this in perspective. His purpose remains, but he’s in good company, not on his own. It’s not all about him: there are 7000 with him, and Elisha is given to him as a close companion. His blinkers come off, and he’s able to put his life and his ministry and mission into context, ready for whatever comes next. Again I’ll confess to the way this works: admitting your deflation to someone else and being open to the encouragement of others leads to restoration, and the recognition that it’s not that bad, that it’s not up to you, it’s up to God.
When a potential disciple says to Jesus that he must put his affairs in order first, Jesus seems harsh: ‘let the dead bury their dead’. But this is for a positive purpose: ‘as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God’. Jesus calls us to live with our ultimate end in view, with the declared purpose of everything we do being for the kingdom.
Distractions to our Christian life can come in many forms: the voices from the past telling us this is not for us, that we’re not good enough; the demands of family, work and friendship; the need for security. Jesus’s focus is on what is to come, not what’s behind us. Other distractions can come from within: Elijah’s self accusation, exhaustion, over concentration on himself. We can be too focussed on the task and forget to look after ourselves and see the bigger picture.
What Jesus shows us is that we can ‘set’ ourselves towards God, and look out for what’s happening around us – we can gaze well ahead and look closely at what God is doing here and now. I’m trying to learn how not to be deflated. When you commit to something it’s hard when it doesn’t go right the first time. Jesus invites us to follow him without distraction, but also to take the long view, and in all things to proclaim the kingdom of God. If we follow him in doing this, we too will be fit for the kingdom.