March 24, 2019 § Leave a comment
I preached this at Heath Street Baptist Church on Sunday March 24. As it reflects on some social media posts earlier in the week I thought I’d share it.
There’s a reference to “rock stars” – Heath Street has a superb exhibition of rock and pop photos, and George Michael (a local) was in one of them.
Luke 13. 1 – 9
How on earth did we get here? Whose fault is it? Who should take responsibility? Who can we change things so it doesn’t happen again?
Yes, I was at the march yesterday in Westminster, and, yes, such questions were a feature of the conversations all around me. By and large they were cheerfully done, and there were some magnificently humorous banners. A favourite was held by a child. It said: “I can negotiate my bedtime better than Theresa May has negotiated Brexit.” Surrounded by rock stars as I am today I rather enjoyed “Wake UK up before EU go go”, which was geographically topical too. My favourite alluded to the millions who have signed the petition, and the question of digital manipulation: “Do we look like Bots?” What a state we are in. How did it come to this?
Signs of the times questions quickly move from “how” to “why”. What led to this? Was there anything which could have been done? How then are we going to get out of this mess? I do think the signs of these current times are deeply disturbing, and became profoundly worried when the Prime Minister pitted the people against Parliament on Wednesday. I could not see that the solution was to be found in some kind of rebellion against democratic and parliamentary processes, and I worried for the fabric of our nation. That rhetoric seems to have subsided, but the present emergency means we have to look to the underlying way in which we are society, as well as the short term answers to what will happen on and after March 29, which will take more than the Church of England’s rather lovely cup of tea to sort.
Signs of the times questions are asked just as readily in other situations too: of the rise in violent crime in this city and around the country; of the destruction by fire of a council run block of flats; the mass deaths inflicted by the negligence of crowd control at football grounds, unsolved acts of terror; shootings by soldiers on duty; the systematic abuse of children unprotected by institutions which should have kept them safe. All of these are subject, rightly, to public scrutiny at the moment. What happened? How did it come to pass? Who should be blamed? Why? And what can we do to ensure such things don’t happen again?
It’s not just the results of human actions which are so questioned. The “why” question is also asked of natural disasters or so called “acts of God” too. Are the people of Eastern Africa wondering why they were so devastated by Cyclone Idai? People continue to come to judgment and make all sorts of wild accusations, saying earthquakes or floods are the result of immorality and bad human behaviour – a Bishop I know said something like that about floods in Carlisle not long ago. The questions are age old. Jesus was once asked whether a man’s blindness from birth was the result of his own sin or the sin of his parents. A similar question is asked of the two situations which form the background of Luke 13: a mass killing of prisoners, and a collapsing building. “Who sinned?” “Who is to blame?”. The underlying assumption is that what happened to them was their own fault. And thank God it’s not us. That’s judgment and pride all in one go.
No, says Jesus. Twice. Not them. Not their sin. Well, not exactly. Luke 12 and Luke 13 are “signs of the times” chapters. Jesus has been talking about lifestyle and readiness, about a mounting crisis where friends and families will be pitted against each other, about how you can predict the weather by reading the meteorological signs and should do the same thing with the events of politics and the news. It is clearly all too tempting for people to read the signs and come to the wrong conclusions: that these things are the result of other people’s wrong doing, and that God takes direct action against those who act or think badly. Someone must be to blame. No, and no, is Jesus’s answer. It is not as simple as that.
This is all of us. At every time and in every place. Of course bad behaviour, exploitation, wrong actions will eventually lead to catastrophe, and of course some actions have their direct consequences. But you can’t say that people killed by a tyrant must have had it coming to them. You can’t say that people killed in a building collapse must have been put there by God because they especially deserved it. Sinfulness – what the writer Francis Spufford calls the Human Propensity to **** Things Up is – more subtle and pervasive and complex than that. This is everyone. It’s about the way institutions and societies and denominations and cultures work. It’s not about blaming someone or something else. It is about looking deep within.
Twice Jesus says to the people “unless you repent you will perish as they did.” This is no analysis of the origin of sin, but it is a clear statement that whoever you are and however you are and wherever you are, all need to recognise fault and flaw and mess and brokenness and our part in the way the world messes up. How did we get to this state of affairs over Europe? It’s complicated. How did we get to a state where young people have to go out armed? It’s complicated. How did institutions such as mine enable a culture where appalling behaviour was not exposed and condemned? It’s complicated. The world is like that, and though individual situations can be analysed and better practices put in place, the need for repentance goes far deeper.
Where then is salvation to be found? Jesus, in talking about the impending crisis and the signs of the times seems to imply that the game is up and judgment will come quickly and on all. Well, not quite yet. There’s a profound little parable of hope, for those who have ears to hear. Take a fig tree which is not doing its stuff. The owner has had enough, but the gardener says “wait”. Let’s give it another season. We will offer it every chance. If fruit comes, well and good. If it doesn’t take the chance then you will have done everything you can, and down it can come. Where people have been too quick to rush to judgement about others, Jesus offers a vision of God who will stay the judgement, put down the loppers, not use the axe, yet. Everyone gets a chance.
This is grace, and love, and mercy. This is what is offered in Isaiah 55 to people who have been looking in the wrong place for satisfaction and life and hope. This is what is said to a whole nation whose wickedness has led to exile and judgment: God will have mercy. God will pardon extravagantly. Start thinking with God’s thoughts, and you will find mercy and love encompass judgment, that the life of God will absorb all human wrongdoing and the groaning of creation, and heal and renew it and offer it back to God in praise. God, in Christ, judges sin, puts it to death, and holds out new life and the Kingdom of heaven. Recognise your need for this, says Christ; recognise your call to turn round and live a new life, and there is mercy and love, and grace.
What is then to be done in the present times? I despaired on Wednesday. Wise voices told me to keep on doing the little things, to hold out the hand of grace and love to all, to demonstrate that the Kingdom of God is about holding together those who disagree and are at odds, because we are bound together by the love of Christ. In a time of turmoil we are asked to offer the “more excellent way”, to defuse hatred, to hold out the hand of fellowship, to ensure that the poor are not forgotten, nor the hope of the needy taken away. This is about all of us. All are offered the grace of God, the gentle care of a gardener who takes the long view. May we receive such forgiveness in Christ that we bear rich fruit. May we so challenge and love that others find that hope too. And may we offer the love of God to all.
In the words of the prayer offered to the nation by the Archbishops:
God of hope,
in these times of change,
unite our nation
and guide our leaders with your wisdom.
Give us courage to overcome our fears,
and help us to build a future
in which all may prosper and share;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
November 11, 2018 § Leave a comment
A sermon preached on Remembrance Sunday, 11 November 2018.
Tonight the BBC will broadcast a film by Peter Jackson, the Director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Stunning technology has allowed him to
bring archive footage from the Great War to brilliant life. Those who fought become as real as the people sitting next to us. They could be in the armed forces of today. It should not be easy viewing. We will not have the excuse of grainy black and white pictures to distance ourselves from the carnage. One hundred years will be as if they had never been, and this will be us.
The film is called They Shall Not Grow Old. The words come from a poem by Lawrence Binyon called For the Fallen. Published in 1914, the poem (written overlooking a Cornish beach) thinks of the dead across the sea. As Remembrance commemorations took hold after the war, Binyon’s stanza became their centrepiece. Of course, we have no personal memory of all this. But we are re-minded as we think of the events and the people of that and other conflicts, and in that sense we remember. Here are three of the seven verses.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.
I have presided at many acts of remembrance where Binyon’s words have been central, and once I got the order wrong. The feedback from veterans of the Second World War was rapid and clear, and I’ve never done it again. They forgave me, and made me an Honorary Normandy Veteran, a deeply humbling privilege. Have you noticed that Peter Jackson has deliberately changed the order? He says ‘they shall not grow old’. Binyon wrote ‘they shall grow not old’. The English teacher in me has been reflecting on that. Is there a difference between ‘not grow’ and ‘grow not’? I think there is.
To say that the fallen do not grow old is logical and factual. They are fixed forever at the cruelly youthful point of their death. They will not live to full age, continue their relationships, see their children grow, not their children and the generations to follow. They are as unmoving as their names on their memorials. In my previous two churches such names have been a profound feature: York Minster holds the names of 19,000 Second World War aircrew, and of hundreds of women who died in the Great War. Beverley Minster contains 16 sets of regimental colours and holds 8,000 names of those from East Yorkshire who died in the Great War. So many lives stopped, cruelly never to age as we do.
But I hear more than that when I say ‘they shall grow not old’. Remembrance is a living and developing observance. What we call to mind changes as the world changes, new facts emerge, new perspectives are offered, new interpretations and representations, like Peter Jackson’s film, are presented. We reassess. We reaffirm the instant response to work with all we have to prevent such carnage, and apply it afresh to new situations.
What does commemorating the ending of dreadful conflict in Europe say to a Europe considering how nation states might relate and commit themselves to each other? What does the presence of combatants from different countries, of different colours and faiths say to a nation struggling with matters of inclusion and integration? What does the forced movement of peoples in war say to those today who are refugees from violence, poverty and climate change?
In that sense the Fallen grow in our remembering, even as they remain at the age of their falling. Not old, their sacrifice grows and deepens and affects and challenges. They died for this world, as well as the world of a century ago. The church uses the word ‘remember’ in a similar way, Sunday by Sunday. The early unjust death of a young man not one hundred but two thousand years ago is ‘re-membered’ not as a fact of ancient history, but one which grows as it is brought to mind, and takes flesh in us. The power and presence of Jesus Christ, who died and was raised means that we grow, we look forward, we work towards a vision of the Kingdom of heaven where war will be no more, where our differences are enfolded and defused through the death of one man, the Son of God, for the whole world.
And as we remember the eternal sacrifice of Christ, the rest of Binyon’s words remind us that The Fallen do not remain in the past. Their memory grows.
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.
Today, a century from the end of the war to end all wars, in the light of Christ we commend all who have died in conflict, knowing that, as they are young in life, they are known in eternity. And we commit ourselves to work for a world where righteousness triumphs and all live in peace. The Fallen deserve no less.
They grow not old. We will remember them.
April 1, 2018 § Leave a comment
I’m about to preach this at Evensong.
When did the resurrection take place? The Gospels are clear that it happened, of course. So shattering, so overwhelming was the realisation that Jesus had been raised from death that the Gospel writers are honest in depicting the reaction of the followers of Jesus. They are afraid, amazed, stunned into silence, need proof after proof. Their stumbling into the profound reality that the world had completely changed is one of the things which gives the fact of the resurrection truth for me.
But if it’s true, it must be possible to say when, exactly when, it happened. And the Gospel writers don’t know that information. All we have is a time frame: from the beginning of the Sabbath (at sunset) until the morning after the next morning. Two nights, and two dawns. That’s a lot of time for it to take place. The women find a scene long vacated by Jesus, with only the heavenly clean up team remaining. The newly raised Christ is out and about, meeting Mary Magdalene in the garden, meeting demoralised disciples on the walk out of Jerusalem, greeting the disciples in their locked room.
It is perhaps only a small point, asking when it happened. Yet in the circumstances of a death every detail is vital. Time of death, place of rest, notice in the paper, time of funeral, place of burial, type of stone on the memorial, approved wording for the epitaph. And as this process is interrupted, gloriously, there is no precise detail. Questions are met with other questions: “why look for the living in the place of the dead?” The resurrection is not to be categorised, filed, detailed, historicised. It is to be met.
When was the resurrection for Mary Magdalene? When she heard the voice of the man she thought was the gardener. When was it for Thomas? When he saw the wounds. When was it for Peter and John? When they met Jesus again and again, having seen the empty tomb and not known what to make of it. When was it for Peter and the other apostles? When they were fishing, and ate breakfast on the beach. When was it for the Emmaus walkers? When the bread was broken, and all the words on the road made sense.
When was, when is, the resurrection for us? When we meet the risen Christ.
That happens again and again for me, and often by surprise. To offer a few times: in the winter night shelter, as a new community ate together Saturday by Saturday. In a Lent Group, as profound things were shared between people who did not know each other well before. As I washed the feet of pupils from our school on Maundy Thursday. In the Intensive Therapy Unit later as a family of different faiths heard that their loved one had no signs of life and we gathered to commend her to the God she loved. As my feet were washed an hour later by my Bishop. As glorious music and words were offered on the evening of Good Friday. As I remembered the grief and hope of those who have lost their tiny ones and who have shared that grief and hope with me.
The cry of the church is a cry of faith, of hope, of worship, often from the depths as well as from the heights. At some point Jesus was raised. He is raised whenever we encounter his risen life. This Easter time, may you know that Christ is Risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.
December 31, 2017 § Leave a comment
All my sermons are on the church website, but some seem to be worth sharing more widely. This is tonight’s.
Years ago I remember watching an animation. It started by looking at an ordinary human being, rowing a boat. It quickly zoomed out, flying away from the person, showing them on the lake, the lake in the city, the city in the country, the country on the planet, the planet in the solar system, and on to the far reaches of the universe. Then we returned to the person, zooming into the person’s body, showing us the detail of skin and blood vessels, and even further, to cell and molecule and atomic level. We then zoomed out, back to the person again, rowing the boat. But now you saw them in a new light, immensely complex, and in a new context, within an infinitesimal universe. The film is called Cosmic Zoom, and it’s on YouTube – here. I’m pleased to say that, having seen it as a child (it was made in 1968) I remembered it pretty well.
I was reminded of it because of the first chapter of the Letter to the Colossians, our second reading this afternoon. It has a similar feel, ranging from the day to day life of a new church: messages sent from Colossae to Paul via Epaphras, to the outer reaches of the universe and of human longings and imagination: Christ, the image of the invisible God, the maker of all things. Paul knows the people he is writing to, and wants to support their ordinary daily life in Christ. And he knows the God he is commending them to, and Christ the head of the church. Our daily life has to be seen in its detailed complexity, and in the context of the whole spiritual universe.
The beginning of Colossians appears at various points in the church’s pattern of Bible readings, and often at this time of year. It’s a passage which will help as we use the end of one year and the beginning of another to put ourselves into context, and to use a review of the past to enable a plan for the future. I’m trying hard to avoid using the word ‘resolutions’, but you know what I mean. What Paul is doing here is praying for the new church he has helped to bring into being. Praying is about the future as well as the present. When we pray we are imagining things as they should be, as we would like them to be. To quote Frank Senn, the Lutheran liturgical scholar, intercession is about ‘the world done aright’.
It’s worth unpacking this a little. When we pray that something should change – that a person might be healed; that a violent confrontation might become peaceful; that an injustice may be righted – when we pray in this way it is because we have a vision of the world as it should be. We are made for health, not illness, peace not war, right not wrong. To pray for these things is to align ourselves with God’s vision for the world as it will be, with the values and practices of God’s kingdom. Far from being the fulfilment of selfish desires, true prayer is about going beyond ourselves to discovering life in all its fullness. True prayer is about finding God’s desires, not our own.
To make resolutions is to desire a future and to create practices which will bring that future into being. Those resolutions need to be put into context too. Paul prays that the Colossians will be ‘fruitful’, not so that they can pile up wealth and success and be filled with pride, but so that what God will for the world will be brought to fruition. His prayer is that they will grow in ‘every good work’ and in ‘the knowledge of God’, that they will be able to cope with whatever is thrown at them, so that they will know the hope of the church and of the saints, the light and life of God. To put this into context he gives them that amazing universe wide vision of Christ, the ruler and creator of all things.
Why be fruitful? For the sake of the Christ who holds everything in his hands. Why grow in good works? For the sake of the one who is the head of the church. Why endure all things with patience? For the sake of the one who was the firstborn from the dead. Why give thanks to the Father? Because the fulness of God was pleased to dwell in his beloved Son. We might apply that to our own resolutions as a church, and as individuals. Why seek to welcome new people as disciples? Why feed and shelter the homeless? Why welcome a refugee family? Why look for young people to make a commitment of faith? Why engage with this community and contest for the role of faith in the public square?
Not because it will make us feel better, however much I’d like to slap some positive statistics in front of the Daily Mail and say ‘what about this, cynical media.’ Not because we’ll be shown to be a success, and gain affirmation and self satisfaction. Why resolve to do all this? Because in prayer we align ourselves with the love and literal passion and demands and challenges of the God who is in and over all things in Jesus Christ. This is the big picture. And just like that animation, in the Kingdom of Heaven the macro and the micro are one and the same. Thanks be to God.
July 23, 2017 § Leave a comment
Today’s Gospel reading was the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13. 24 – 30, 36 – 43). A couple of pronouncements about the Church of England, here, and here, were in my mind when I got a sermon together. Enough people talked to me about it afterwards for me to pop it here as a blog. Just as I quoted the disparaging remark about bishops I spotted a retired diocesan in the congregation, but we’re still friends.
It has been a week full of intrigue, backbiting, briefing and counter briefing, contradictory positions being taken, opposing camps making their points and playing the short and long game. So, perhaps, it’s a relief to be in church, where we can get a respite from politics in the US and Europe, and, just for a while, not have to be overwhelmed by the clamouring voices all over the TV, radio and digital media.
Except that I was also talking about the church. We’re right in the middle of briefing, counter-briefing, opposing camps and contradictory views. Take this from the Catholic Herald this week, following General Synod’s votes on matters of sexuality and identity:
“The Church [of England] selects bishops largely on their ability to avoid controversy … they are very carefully chosen so as not to have strong opinions on matters of faith. Consequently the ranks of the episcopacy are packed full of weak men.
When governments try again … to push through some [radical legislation], they will find willing accomplices governing over the husk of the Church of England, useful chaplains to the culture of death.”
That was written not by a Roman Catholic (thankfully), but by an Anglican, Andrew Sabisky, who turns out to be the Deanery Secretary for our neighbouring Deanery of South Camden. He’s clearly unimpressed with the direction he sees the Church of England taking, and wants to do something about it. That same feeling presumably drives the 21 signatories to an open letter to ‘British Anglicans’, inviting us to plan with them a ‘faithful ecclesial future’. They say:
“Many will share our dismay at the recent decisions of the General Synod of the Church of England and the pursuing principles, values and practices contrary to Holy Scripture and church Tradition. Given the persistent failure of the majority of the House of Bishops to fulfil the God-given duties which they have sworn to discharge these tragic developments were, sadly, not wholly unexpected.”
I will not be the only preacher finding food for reflection on this in our Gospel reading today. What do we do when life is full of conflicting opinions and practices? The parable of the wheat and the weeds counsels patience and trust. Bearded wheat (good), and bearded darnel (poisonous) look similar. When they are young, it is hard to tell the difference. As they grow if you pull one out its root system will disturb the other. It’s best to let things develop, rather than take too hasty action. Jesus tells a wise story here. If you wait until the wheat has done its job, you can separate them out, use the weeds for fuel, and harvest the grain successfully.
Jesus invites us to be patient, take the long view, and, crucially, to let God be the judge. The two articles I quoted are keen to take a stand and make instant judgements on what’s happening. Jesus is speaking in a world where the Pharisees and teachers of the law could make easy pronouncements about people based on words and actions. If there is a blueprint for pure action and faithful lifestyle it is possible then to see whether people measure up; whether someone is conforming or not. And once you’ve done that you can take action. You could expel them from the community.
Jesus challenges this relentlessly. Only God can tell what is righteous and pure, because God looks at the heart. We could be making judgments on the wrong criteria. Our job then is to let people grow, and to care for them. All will be revealed one day. It works for the church too. It’s all too easy in church settings to start making judgments about who is in and who is out, and the people I quoted earlier are doing just that. Based on this parable I have to say that, unless people disqualify themselves, we should welcome all. It is not our job to judge.
But, neither is it our job to be woolly about what we believe. We neither judge nor compromise. To welcome all, and to worship together, is not to lose our distinctiveness or saltiness. We should be distinctive and welcoming, and let God be the judge. Many conservative Christians use the word ‘liberal’ to denote someone who believes in anything, everything, and therefore nothing. It is surely possible to proclaim Good News in Jesus Christ and to reserve judgement on things which others would want us to make a line in the sand. A commentator on this passage says:
“The Kingdom of God is not the exclusive coterie of self-elected saints: God, in his time…will separate the pure community … it is God’s business alone to decide who belongs to the Kingdom” (David Hill)
This is not an allegory about specific aspects of church discipline (Matthew does that later, in Chapter 18), but it can speak powerfully into debates about what is central to our doctrine, teaching, and practice. Don’t be rapid in rushing to judgment. Or, as Paul says to the Corinthians: “Do not pronounce judgment before the time” (1 Cor 4. 5)
It is not that there will be no final reckoning, no final judgment, according to Jesus. All of these parables are based on God sorting things out at the end of all things. One day we will answer for what we have done. We have to ensure that we act in faith, with love, righting wrongs, confessing sins, looking for the Kingdom of God.
And the good news is that the allegory breaks down here. You can change from weed to wheat. The thing about people is that they can be changed by the love of God. The thing about the church is that, in all its variety and complexity and differences of opinion, it is living a life which includes repentance, renewal, turning round, and fresh starts. Weedy people, in Christ, can become wheaty people.
I will continue to read the blogs and articles written by people who make radical judgments about the state of God’s church, and this Church of England. I would prefer though to write about God’s radical call to welcome, inclusion, community, and working out our salvation together with fear and trembling. I will instinctively oppose those who make a judgment only God can make. And until the great harvest we will be a church where we look to find the Kingdom, in the most unlikely places.
October 9, 2016 § Leave a comment
If enough people talk to me about a sermon I preach, I think about putting it on here. Sermons are best heard in context of course, but it may be this strikes a chord beyond the Minster. Here’s this mornings: preaching from Luke 17. 11 – 17 – the healing of the 10 lepers.
Beverley Minster has become something of a home to the Beverley Literary Festival this year. The first two events have happened already: Lord Robert Winston on the limits of genetics and ethics – asking what it is to be human; and Will Self, last night, preaching a secular sermon on the failure of romantic love. If I were playing it safe I wouldn’t have agreed to giving a stage to a man of faith but not the Christian faith, and then a man of some occasional extreme views and behaviour, who is an avowed agnostic. Can there be a ‘secular’ sermon? Well, there was, and I agreed with Will Self’s basic premise: if you don’t believe that love has a divine origin, romantic love on its own won’t save you.
I said last night that this great building, among many other purposes, exists to enable our thoughts and our aspirations to soar. That should mean thinking challenging thoughts. We are a safe place. These walls are strong and our windows let light in. This is a complex world and we live in changing times. Many Christians would wish to retreat into the safety of certainties and cherished traditions. It can be tempting to ask if the world might stop so that we can get off. The debate about sexuality is the one generating most heat at present, and it may be that the Anglican Communion will be split over it. But the safest place for the Christian is right on the edge. That’s where Christ was.
He is on the edge, the place between, in today’s Gospel reading. South of Galilee, north of Samaria. Contested lands, a place of uneasy truce, where even the Romans chose to let the natives fight out their religious quarrels without interfering. He is on the edge of a village, and he meets the edge dwellers. When you go to a medieval city, look to see if there is a church dedicated to St Giles, or a road called Gilesgate or Gillygate, as in York. It’s likely to be outside the old walls, on the edge of the city. That’s where the lepers lived, and was as far as they could get into civilisation. St Giles is a patron of the outcast, so the churches for the lepers, on the edge of things, were dedicated to him.
Lepers lived on the edge because their disease – in those days a collection of different skin conditions – was devastating and you could catch it. It’s the same today, though it’s curable, and the Minster supports the work of the Leprosy Mission with our mission giving. The lepers knew their place on the edge, and they ‘kept their distance’. But their edge dwelling led them to being an example to a divided, broken world. Shunned by others, they found a community of honesty and need and care which broke down the old divisions. Here Jews and Samaritans lived together, not apart. They had something to teach those who thought they were well. On the edge, disfigured by an unclean illness, they became more human. We might ask who today’s lepers are, and what they might teach us. Who does a post Brexit Britain push to the edge?
An edgy thing happens. They ask for ‘mercy’. That could have simply been affirmation, food, water. Jesus Offers them healing, wholeness. But he doesn’t heal them. He tells them to go to the priests as if they were healed. You should only go to the priest if you wanted to be pronounced clean, to have your healing verified. Jesus preserves their dignity by making no effort to close the gap between him and them – he affirms their edgy community. But he recognises their need, and just says – `off you go’ – as if they were clean… And they, on the edge, have to learn to take an edgy, a faithful decision. We might not know that Jesus is at work in us, has given us what we ask for. Faith invites us to live ‘as if’ we are healed, loved, forgiven.
So this story is about faith, not just healing. Ten lepers are healed. One discovers faith. This is a story about going beyond the physical, the needs of the here and now, to the eternal, the vital, the relationship between ourselves and our God. The tenth leper recognises that his healing was God’s gift, not his right, and he gives praise in humility where it is due. Jesus recognises that his faith his deep, and proclaims salvation (wholeness is the same word in Greek). And the remarkable thing is that this man is a Samaritan. The one who was most on the edge is the one who finds himself thoroughly enveloped in the saving love of God.
Many of us will have been touched by God, but God’s grace leaves us with a choice: do we respond by giving God the whole of our lives, or do we take the money and run? The leper was given all he wanted. He gave it back in gratitude to God, and was given more than he could imagine. I learn two things from this. I should not be surprised at people who gain much from God, but don’t make it to full Christian faith (Jesus had a ten percent success rate!). And I should not be surprised to find that someone can make it from devastation to wholeness. If a Samaritan leper could, then anyone can.
It is amazing how many people feel on the edge – within their workplaces, families, friendship groups, churches. Be assured. The edge, the borderland, is where Jesus operates. It is where the love of God is discovered. It is where great wrongs are confessed and forgiven. It is where leaps of faith are made. And it is where our lives are saved. I was led to the edge of thinking about science, genetics, human progress and the nature of life on Wednesday. I was led to the edge of the nature of believing (and the limits of intellect – Will Self is clever!) on Saturday. The Church of England finds itself on the edge of contemporary thinking about same sex relationships at the moment, and it is uncomfortable.
To be on the edge is not then to put our fingers in our ears and sing la la la. It is to find people working out what it is to be human, what it is to believe, what it is to love. That is where we should be. We are in between earth and heaven, between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God. It may feel edgy. Perhaps we are the ones then who need stretch out a hand to Christ and say ‘have mercy upon us’. Perhaps we need to stretch out that hand to others, for this should be a place where edgy people find a home. In Christ, we can go on our way. Our faith in him will save us.
June 22, 2016 § Leave a comment
As Chaplain (and member) of an ancient livery company I get to preach a sermon each year. Our Master chooses the reading, and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats offers a telling commentary on the referendum tomorrow. So here’s what I’ll preach this afternoon for the Charter Day Service of the Company of Merchant Taylors of the City of York.
INSTITUTIONS which make laws can sometimes find themselves in complex and detailed territory. A debate continues to rage, for example, about Commission Regulation (EC) No. 2257/94, and whether, by it, the European Commission has ever attempted to regulate the straightness of bananas.
It will not surprise you to know that the General Synod of the Church of England is also capable of this. We once spent a whole hour on the quality of the envelopes in which our papers were sent. And we had a major debate on the use of a single word: the one used when we were called upon to vote. Synod can create English Law, and uses parliamentary processes. So, when a vote was to be taken, the call to us was “Divide”.
It was felt that, though the Church of England has differing views and outright disagreements about almost everything, we should still be able to express this while remaining united. Might we not ‘disagree well’? Did a vote have to be expressed in the language of opposition and division? After various options were considered, we finally agreed to change the word to “Decide”, on the basis that we were taking decisions which we would have to live with together, rather than enshrining divisions which may never heal.
Last night I sat in between six politicians. ‘Remain’ were to my left, ‘Leave’ to my right. Three MPs, one Peer, one former MP and one national campaigner spent a couple of hours in Beverley Minster debating the Referendum. Privately beforehand more than one of them expressed the hope that never again would there be such a process. It is, after all, divisive. Seeing some of the exchanges from last night’s TV debate I’m not sure how some politicians will ever be able to look each other in the eye or sit on the same side of the House.
As Chairman last night my final question was to ask how each of our panel wanted us to be feeling at noon on Friday 24th, after the result is announced. I was pleased that they picked up on the nuances. We will, after all, still have to live together, take part in the processes of government and society together, look for the improvement of our nation and our world together, get along together.
One MP in our debate was clear that this process has been damaging, and will take a long time to heal. He was also clear that, for all our sakes, we must be generous to each other. There are greater things to concern us, as we have been so cruelly reminded in these last days. And this nation remains an amazingly privileged place to be, with every opportunity to make a difference to a needy and complex world.
Our new Master’s chosen reading today inhabits these tensions. If you are looking for a division, look no further than the sheep and the goats. But look carefully: they don’t divide themselves; that will be not for them, but for the Son of Man on the day of glory. And note the basis of the division: the lives which have been led, and the actions which they have all had an equal opportunity to perform. It’s not that they are preordained to be one or the other: everyone has the same chance. The division, as if they were like sheep and goats (shepherded together in the Holy Land and only separated when necessary for milking or shearing), comes at the end of everything. Until then all of us have the same opportunity.
The opportunity to do what? To serve. To make a difference. The quieter voices in the referendum debate have been asking us to decide tomorrow on the basis of how best we might take our place in the world, how best we might serve our planet and hand it on to our grandchildren, how best we can ensure the common good and peace among nations. Louder voices have concentrated on matters which look more like self interest. Jesus commends the people who, sacrificially and carefully, actively look out for and meet the needs of others.
In the Bible you never know when you might be bumping into God, or welcoming an angel. The people Jesus applauds are the ones who have actually looked after him, he says. They are baffled, but he says that whenever they have fed or clothed or visited or welcomed anybody, he was to be found in them. Jesus offers a vision of a united humanity, where all have needs, and all have the opportunity to meet them. And this is not a reactive sort of kindness. You have to make an effort to visit someone in prison, make an effort to find clothes or food for the hungry and naked. This is a decision, not a guilty response.
As the Company of Merchant Taylors, deriving from the earlier Confraternity of John the Baptist, we gather around St John’s Day to reaffirm our purposes and recommit to our aims. John the Baptist was unafraid of calling people to decide, and to change their behaviour to ensure there was justice and right action. His cousin Jesus offers the radical challenge to everyone to offer their lives in sacrificial service.
The division will come when our earthly life is lived to its end. Until then it is a decision we are called to. Whom shall we serve? How will we obtain the good of our neighbour? How will we take our place in the world? Our Company may be but a small part of this City and region, and our individual lives may not make a massive impact on the world stage. But just as every vote counts on Thursday, so every action, however small, makes a difference. And in this I would rather be a sheep than a goat.
December 31, 2014 § Leave a comment
A friend gave me a book* to read this year. One of my resolutions for 2014 had been to read the books I intended to read, and like all resolutions it didn’t quite work out. But this book I did. It’s about technology, and the way we use it, and it uses us – the way we change as we use new tools. The sections about email, and smartphones and social media were powerful. I know that some of my friends have made resolutions this year not to be so dominated by their technology. I’m sympathetic to that too.
What struck me most forcibly was that this was a book which could only have been written in the last couple of years. Twenty years ago it would have been baffling. Then, though it existed, I knew nothing of the world wide web, the Internet, or email. In 1994 I was just getting into text messaging I remember, and I sent my first email in 1995, I think. Social media then was still a letter, or a fax. To think that in 2014 I would witness my 84 year old mother in law on Facetime speaking to her relatives 300 miles away, just like those communicators on Star Trek…well, I would not have imagined I would really see the day. Who can predict what such a book will be covering in 2034, when I’m 74?
I guess that’s the point of marking a date in the calendar as a good time to look back and to look forward. We don’t really know what’s going to happen in the future, but we can use what we have learnt so far, and we can equip ourselves to face what will come so that we can judge what will nourish us and what will harm us, what we should embrace and what we should avoid. And that’s why I’m talking about the book my friend gave me. In one small section it talks about the kind of looking back you do when someone dies, and how you talk to them.
The author suggests four things to say to those who have died, and I think you can say them to the year which is past too.
“I’m sorry. Thank you. I forgive you. I love you”
I’m sorry. There will be things in this past year which you have not done well, or which you’ve been a part of which are beyond your control and which are a source of regret. A resolution might be to try and repair any damage, and certainly not to take part in the same stuff again this year – and to create the conditions where society, or the world, won’t cause that stuff to happen again.
Thank you. One of my resolutions this year is to relish what has been good, and, where possible, to let others know if they have done it. There is now a Masters Degree in handling complaints. I’d like a Masters Degree in offering thanks, and that will start with thinking of enough good things to be able to start offering thanks for, and calling to mind the people who have done them. That includes the Almighty.
I forgive you. There will be stuff from this year which has been caused by others. I spend too much time in the middle of families who have been torn apart, or situations where disagreements have become divisions. That’s a privilege of the priestly ministry, and all priests know that these things are only resolved when someone offers forgiveness to another. But it’s a costly beginning, and it may as well start with you.
I love you. To reflect on what has been is to work out what, and who, is worth our time, our attention, our effort. Where those people are still with us, then making an active choice to love them, rather than just hoping that they already know, will make all the difference to our, and their, future. Where those people have died, then loving them in memory will enable us to live with what they gave us.
The Biblical writers were skilled at looking back in order to look forward. Isaiah took such courage and hope from God’s dealings with his people that he could be confident that there was a future and a hope, a way to walk. The Gospel writers, sure that Jesus had conquered even death, were thrilled to offer us the words they heard from Jesus about trusting in God for everything, and not giving our energies to things which would ultimately not satisfy.
I pray that this New Year you’ll be able to look back and ask questions of the past in such a way that you’ll be able to embrace the future with faith and hope. I pray that there will be thanksgiving, apologies, forgiveness and love. And I pray that all of your living, with whatever the future will hold and whatever tools we use in it, will be held in the palm of God’s hand, and lived to God’s glory, for God, in Christ, is our yesterday, today, and forever. Amen.
*The book is Alone Together by Sherry Turkle, Basic Books 2011. On p. 304 She quotes a Rabbi’s sermon at Yom Kippur, and he offers these four things to say to the dead.
September 21, 2014 § 1 Comment
I post sermons on here when enough people comment about them after I preach them. So here’s today’s, on Matthew, and whether I am converted.
The thing is, I wonder if any of us really know what it is to be thoroughly converted. What it is to be going completely one way, and then stop and go in the exact opposite direction. What it is to set aside everything for which we’ve dreamed and worked and saved and planned, and to go and do something completely different. I wonder if, really, we’re a mixture of old and new, good and bad, trying to shape it and sort it so that land just on the right side of the line. I wonder if most of us are really going at this Christian life bit by bit, two steps forward and a step back, hoping that, when we take stock we can demonstrate that we’ve made some progress.
If I’m honest I’m quite envious of someone like Matthew. Everyone knew what he had been like, and therefore what a difference Jesus had made in his life. We all know about tax collectors in the Bible. They did a necessary job: taxes help society when used well, and in themselves they are not evil. But the biblical tax collectors added their personal touch, using the force of law and the authority of the state to line their own pockets as well. Matthew, or Levi in the other gospels, did this like any other, and was loathed as a result. Tax collectors personified what today’s collect called “the selfish pursuit of gain and the possessive love of riches”. They were a byword for everything that was corrupt and bad and loathsome, and they knew it. Perhaps they even revelled in it. ‘No one likes us. We don’t care’.
The way Matthew tells it, he’s in his booth being loathsome and corrupt. Jesus walks past. Jesus has already gained a reputation for being powerful and charismatic and challenging and divinely inspired. He’d healed loads of people, cleansed people of leprosy, helped a paralysed man to walk, rid people of evil things which had taken them over. He’d even changed the weather. These were close knit communities. People talked, quicker than we tweet now. No one, least of all Matthew would have been in any doubt as to who this was and what he stood for. Two words to Matthew. ‘Follow me’. And that’s it. He does.
That’s why I’m envious. Because, the way it’s told, Matthew is one thing and then immediately he’s another. Old life: gone. I guess it would have to be: he was so obviously doing the wrong thing that any hint of doing it again and he would have been out on his ear, even self condemned. If he was going to follow Jesus it would be all or nothing. And it was all. Not only does he get to be one of the twelve, he gets to write it all down, so that he’s both an Apostle, one of those who could recount the words of Jesus and he’s an evangelist: a writer of the Good News, so that we can still hear his words today.
And, perhaps because he’s conscious of all the harm he has done his own people, the Jews he has a special concern for them in his Gospel. Remember how Zaccheus makes recompense by repaying what he’s taken many times over? I wonder if Matthew, aware of all that he has taken from his own people, ensures that he gives them the most precious thing that he can: an account of the faith in Christ which turned his life round and gave him hope. Read through Matthew’s Gospel – I dare you – and count the number of times he quotes the Hebrew Scriptures and shows how Jesus fulfils them. From wherever you are, he says, Jesus can and will be your Messiah, your Saviour, your hope and your light.
I’m envious because this shines a very clear light on the murkiness and complexity of my discipleship. I can point to a moment when I knew I made a decision for Christ. That came after a lifetime – 15 years – of church attendance. I was never very bad, and then and now have had no public reputation for going the wrong way or doing the wrong thing. My day to day life didn’t have to change very much, and, though pleased, no one was very much surprised when I followed a call to be ordained. I didn’t have to turn round from very much, and that means I have to look very carefully to check what a difference following Christ is making today.
Reflecting on the call of Matthew, crystal clear as it is, is like holding up a mirror – one of those dressing room mirrors with lights on it. Matthew’s is what a 100% conversion looks like. What does yours? What, for example, has following Jesus done to your attitude to money? Do you still, really, put more store by it than your heavenly treasure? What about your attitude to other people? Are they all there to be served, to be loved, or are some of them to be swept out of the way, dominated and defeated? What about your reputation, the things which mark you out as successful, your ambitions? Where are they when faced with the two simple words Matthew heard: follow me?
And if you want my honest answer: none of my responses to those questions will be as clear as Matthew’s. I know I could have been something else rather than a Vicar, but I have to say that my last three roles have meant living in three very nice places. I know as a Vicar I am the target for all sorts of stuff other people avoid – last night I was walking the dog up Toll Gavel, when a hooded young person in Subway saw my clerical shirt, looked me straight in the eye, leered and stick his middle finger up. I don’t think it was a cheery greeting. And sometimes you get worse abuse in the church, not out of it. But no one can tell me that my life is harder than anyone else’s in a complex employment situation. And this is no sacrifice compared to the lot of some Christians across the world.
I want to secure my finances as much as the next person. I’m as defined by my possessions as much as anyone else. Ask me how pleased I was when I bought a guitar I’ve wanted for 30 years. I care about my position and what people think about me, and if I had to weigh that up against what I want people to think about the Jesus I serve, there might be a slimmer majority than for the Scottish referendum.
Matthew shows me that my conversion is still happening. And I bet yours is too. Yes, I follow Christ. I sometimes wear clothes which make that so clear that people can tell me what they think of it. And yes, I’m still working out what that means. My emotions, and my finances, and my intellect and my relationships are all still listening to Jesus’s words, and trying to make sense of them. Thanks be to God that when we’re with Jesus we are truly with him, right from the start. After Matthew’s call there’s a big dinner, and all sorts of dodgy types are there. Far from them dragging Jesus down, he raises them up. That’s us: with him we are made new.
And then we have to work out what that means. I will follow, if you’ll help me. And I’ll help you too. Amen.
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.