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.
June 12, 2013 § Leave a comment
If you’re not careful, and your eyes are a bit bleary as you go onto the internet to look up Carers Week, you end up on the National Careers Week site. It struck me, as this happened to me more than once, that there might just be a message here. For how many of the 6 million carers in the UK does their care feel like a career? Look at the findings of the excellent ‘Prepared to Care’ report (on the actual Carers Week site). Nearly 1 in 2 carers have given up work because of their role. 2 in five carers have reduced their working hours. 1 in 3 have missed out on promotion. 6 in 10 have reduced finances. 5 in 10 use savings to buy food. 1 in 4 have an extra loan or are in debt.
If ‘caring’ were one of the options on the National Careers Week site, would anyone choose it? I hope that you’ll think with me that it’s not a simple question. It may be that, generally speaking, if all things were equal, of course we’d like fewer working hours, more money, better food, no debt worries. Of course we’d like status, authority, priority treatment, VIP privileges. It does seem that obvious. But you above all people know that life is not that simple, that sometimes choices are made for us, and when push comes to shove we know what’s right to do.
I think of three of the caring situations I’ve encountered just recently. The spouse who instantly gave up work to care for a partner with a terminal condition. The nephew who took responsibility for a maiden aunt, retired for 39 years and in residential care for two decades. The spouse whose life has changed abruptly after their partner’s sudden illness and long term prognosis of recovery. None would have chosen this. None would have applied for the job. But all have done what they have done without a hesitation, and with a sense at least of duty, and actually of love and profound commitment.
The six thousand people who find themselves as new carers each day care because they care. It is a given, and you do it. And you know that the way you care grows with you, and changes as your situation changes. Like being a parent, you don’t start the job with every skill, every piece of expertise in place. You don’t care each day in a state of complete calm and total balance. It’s frustrating and frightening and challenging and annoying. You wouldn’t necessarily choose it. 3 in 4 carers said that they weren’t ready for all aspects of caring. 8 in 10 said the emotional impact was greater than they thought it might be. 7 in 10 had difficulty with change in relationship with the person they cared for. We’re not ready. But we do it.
Carers Week, and our year round support for carers, is all about recognising the impact of caring, and providing as much support as possible. In some cases that will also mean campaigning for better care to be provided by agencies, councils, charities and government. Too much caring is hidden. But…Carers Week is also a celebration of the immense amount of love and service and genuine goodness which carers delight in showing and do not want to stop doing. When Jesus was faced with 2 of his close friends who wanted the best and most powerful seats next to him, he recognised that this ambition was normal. And then he turned things upside down. You’ll be richest, he said, most fulfilled, and most useful when you serve, not when you’re top dog.
Carers Week is about rejoicing in care well given, well resourced, well valued. It is about challenging when wider society takes advantage of carers rather than supporting them. You as carers have something profound to teach the rest of society. Faithful, committed, loving and dutiful service of others is what builds out society. Jesus said that the greatest among you is the servant, not the Lord. Your ‘career’ teaches us much. We will not take this for granted.
December 31, 2012 § Leave a comment
About to go off and preach at our Watch Night service. Here’s what I’ll say…
Psalm 90, Matt 6 23 ff
It is well known in my house that if you put me in front of something like Sports Personality of the Year I will start crying almost immediately the highlights of the year come on. A ‘moment’, especially when set to music, conveys so much. Even just a photograph of an event, or a sound clip, can take you right back to what you were feeling and where you were when it happened.
So what were your ‘moments’? Unless you were an Olympics and Paralympics denier there will be many to do with the great sporting achievements of the year, and for me that includes the opening ceremonies of both games and the closing ceremony of the Paralympics. The less said about the Olympics Closing ceremony the better. And my highlight of all of that was Coldplay singing ‘Nobody said it was easy’, and the camera cutting away to Paralympians who had overcome so much all singing it back to them.
There will be other ‘moments’ we all shared – like the Jubilee, or the election of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, or Felix Baumgartner jumping out of a balloon from the edge of space, or Whitney Houston’s funeral, or President Obama’s re-election, or the devastation at Sandy Hook Elementary School, or Andy Murray winning the US Open, or the Ryder Cup, or the drought, or the rain, or the General Synod not voting for Women Bishops…or so much more.
And there will be your moments, which will be personally yours for 2012. For me some of those took place in Israel and Palestine. One such was being entertained for lunch in a Palestinian Muslim home in Hebron: one of the happiest meals I can remember in a place which exhibits some of the greatest tensions in the whole Middle East. The best moments are multi-layered, and repay our reflection again and again. There are difficult moments too – regrets and sadnesses, and all the if-onlys.
The change of date from 2012 to 2013 is not the wiping out of the old year and the offering of a completely blank page for the new, however much we might like it to be. But it is a multi-layered moment, where all that we are meets all that we will be, and offers us the chance to give thanks for all that has enriched us (and they can be sad as well as happy things, enrichments), and to seek forgiveness for our failures, and to seek healing for all that has wounded us, and to ask for strength to act and be and say and do what is good.
For the Psalmist the ‘three score years and ten’ of a human life is to be seen as a moment in the vastness of eternity, ‘from everlasting to everlasting’. So we should ask for wisdom, that in ticking off the years and ‘numbering our days’ we gain understanding as we reflect on God’s power and God’s love for us. Jesus counsels us to look around in this moment, see how God sustains creation, and to put ourselves into God’s hands, so that we do not try to live tomorrow before it comes, and worry at it.
May this moment be for you a time to thank, to confess, and to determine to live each moment in the service of God and the service of each other – to seek first God’s kingdom. And then we will see what moments 2013 has for us.
December 14, 2012 § Leave a comment
I don’t normally blog sermons. But tomorrow I preach at a Carol Service for the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths. What to say to a congregation for whom Christmas brings the memory of the lives of their little ones cut short? And what to say as the world watches a small town in America grieve its little ones? Here’s what I’ll say. It’s based on Isaiah 65. 17 – 25 (which I chose ages ago).
‘I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy and its people as a delight’ says the prophet Isaiah, some two thousand five hundred years ago. ‘I will rejoice in Jerusalem and delight in my people’ he goes on. No more will there be the sound of weeping. No longer will children live but a few days, no longer will there be adults who die young. What thrills me about this poetic look into the future is its connection with reality. Some visions of the future are so fantastical that they are no earthly use. This one takes us from where we are, and offers us hope now. Where there has been pain there will be healing. Where there has been violence there will be peace. Where there has been death there will be life.
I was privileged to spend the month of June in Jerusalem, and ate my breakfast each morning looking from its southern suburbs into Bethlehem. A few times I walked into Manger Square in Bethlehem. It took me 20 minutes. But to do so meant crossing from Israeli controlled Jerusalem to Palestinian governed Bethlehem, through a checkpoint in the 25 foot high Wall – the Separation Barrier. The checkpoint was guarded by soldiers with automatic weapons, and each time we crossed we witnessed Palestinian families being thoroughly checked, their children thoroughly frightened.
This part of Jerusalem is no joy. Today’s Holy Land, the focus of Issaiah’s promise, is no joy. In November a Palestinian rocket landed a mile or so from where I had stayed in June. In the current conflict innocents have died, including many children. We could be forgiven for regarding Isaiah’s vision as an irrelevance, a piece of wishful thinking, with no connection to what life is really like. Widening our horizon only confirms this view. The people of Newtown Connecticut can only cry out in agony at the massacre of children and adults there. ‘Our hearts are broken’ said President Obama. Their losses join the losses of people all round the world, and in all ages, and they join ours today. This congregation needs no reminding of what it is for a heart to be broken at the loss of a little one.
‘I am about to create joy, delight, length of days, fruitfulness, security, peace, blessing’ says God through Isaiah. And how will this come about? In the vision of this season generated by our popular culture it will be through pleasing aromas of Christmas food, through giving and receiving an iPad, through a celebrity autobiography, through the quality of our Christmas decorations, through sitting together in family harmony to watch other people’s misery on Emmerdale, Corrie or Eastenders on Christmas Day (7, 7.30 and 8.30 if you’re interested), through wearing ‘Christmas’ jumpers. Nice as some of those things are…I think not.
Not when the abiding emotions and thoughts for many of you will be of what might have been, of who is not there, whether old or young – for me my mother who died seventeen years ago, my Grandmother who died this year, and my brother who died at six months when I was two, and whom I cannot remember yet miss as I watch my two sons interact and wonder what might have been for me and him these last fifty years. Such crying out is not settled and healed and solved by a soft focus warm glow jingle belled paper crowned high street Christmas. But, perhaps, even in the depths of despair felt by so many across the world at the needless death of their little ones, perhaps it may come to pass through what did happen in Bethlehem and which Isaiah looked forward to.
It may come to pass because a fragile child was born in desperate circumstances in a tense country with occupying armies not afraid to massacre and kill little ones to enforce their rule. The vision of peace and hope may come to pass because a young woman grasped hold of words from God that the child she was carrying would change things. It may come to pass because her future husband – fathers feel this too – her future husband risked scandal and disgrace by holding on to that promise too, and welcomed the child as his own. It may come to pass because baby did become toddler and teenager and man, and lived what we live. It may come to pass because his mother lost him, watched him die, and cradled him then as she had cradled him just a few miles away and three decades before.
It may come to pass because the Christian hope is that Jesus’s life and death is rooted in the painful reality of human life as it actually is, and that his new life reveals him to be the God who embraces our human life and sweeps us up into the new life of God. The vision of hope here is that you and I and everyone else who is broken up and hurting can glimpse the joy and hope which we have also experienced – in the love and care we have received from friend and relative and stranger, in the life we are determined to live with creativity and imagination precisely because we have loved so much. There is hope for ever because we have glimpsed it now. From this, even in the depths, there will be hope.
I pray then, for you, for me, and for all who cry out in the pain of loss and in the warmth of remembering…I pray that we will know that real and possible vision, a graspable hope, through the birth of a tiny child, whose life and death and new life are our future, and whose arms are wide and whose love is everything.
October 21, 2012 § 1 Comment
You wait ages for a blog sermon, and two come at once. Thought I’d share what I’m about to preach at my country church…
Words from the end of our Old Testament reading tonight: ‘and the land had rest from war’ (Joshua 14. 15). They refer to the period after Joshua has entered the land promised to the descendants of Jacob, and has conquered cities like Jericho, Ai, Lachish and Hebron.
The Book of Joshua cannot be claimed to be an exhaustive history of the occupation of the land. It is more like a theological interpretation of the foundational story of what later became Israel. The peoples who lived there before the conquest were not utterly driven out, and for centuries the Israelites shared the land with people who worshipped other gods. Nevertheless, the Book of Joshua is keen to tell us that the occupation of these key cities was an act of God, and there are some pretty bloodthirsty scenes.
Those words I quoted are perhaps the saddest of all. The land has not had rest from war. It has been marched through and fought over again and again in the three millennia since Joshua. Every empire of the ancient world has had a go at the little strip of land between the sea and the Jordan river, yet somehow God’s ancient people the Jews have survived. Today every Jew has the right to come to the land and dwell in it. It is all too easy then to continue the theologising of Joshua and declare that the right to live in Israel is God given, and therefore anyone or anything which gets in the way is against God and must be opposed.
Reading between the lines in Joshua, and the books of Judges, Kings and Samuel, you can see that the situation was much more complex than the theology would allow, and it remains so today. Christians who believe in the God-given right of Jews to inhabit their land also have to take into account the Christians who have lived there for two millennia. Christian churches and communities were uprooted in 1948 when the State of Israel was founded. Muslims, describing themselves also as children of Abraham, have lived in the land for a millennium and a half.
Much of that complexity can still be seen in the city of Hebron, the subject of tonight’s Old Testament reading. It is a key city for Jew, Christian and Muslim. For the Jew it was an early conquest as the land was settled, it commanded the hill country and the desert south of Jerusalem and it was where David first established his Kingdom. For Muslim, Christian and Jew it is the place where Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah are buried, in the Cave of Machpelah. Today a small Jewish community is settled, protected by the Israeli Army, in the middle of an Arab city of a quarter of a million or more.
The cave in which the Patriarchs and Matriarchs are buried is now topped by a mosque which was a church, with a synagogue in part of the complex. It has been the scene of protests and massacres, and it one of the key flashpoints, being the largest city in the West Bank, yet a focus of Jewish identity. It is hard to see what should happen next, and I will not try. I simply reflect that the Christ of the Beatitudes would seek to find another way to tear down the walls which divide people, and that the key battle now is for the hearts and minds of people at enmity with each other, to find the true way of peace.
I found such people in Hebron in June. Women whose embroidery collective brings a living, and whose welcome, as Muslims, to Christians like us was a humbling exercise in hospitality. International Observers, under the auspices of the World Council of Churches, who simply monitored incidents in different flashpoints, and faithfully sought to tell the world this story. And, later, Jews keen to ensure that there was justice for all as well as security for their land.
Some Old Testament scholars describe the conquest of the Promised Land as more like a peaceful revolution than an armed invasion. Perhaps the people of Hebron recognised the God of Jacob as the one they wanted to follow. As you pray for that land, remember the people of Hebron, locked in an ancient conflict, and pray for a peaceful transition to the kind of living together which honours their shared heritage as children of Abraham. And echoing the prayers and actions of the Christian minority in Israel and Palestine, pray that the Prince of Peace will rule, and bring peace, so that the land may have ‘rest from war’.