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’.
October 21, 2012 § Leave a comment
Most of my sermons are on the Beverley Minster website. But occasionally I stick them on here if I fancy getting some e-reaction. Here’s my one about Giving, from this morning.
I heard this week that the BBC is looking for its ‘holy grail’: a recording of George Orwell’s voice. If at all possible they want moving pictures of him as well. It is amazing that the person who gave us the concept of Big Brother, of the surveillance society, of the Ministry of Truth and so much which helps us today to understand the torrent of communication in which we live has left no record of himself beyond his writing and some still photographs. It was Orwell who gave us, in Nineteen Eighty Four, the concept of doublethink, where you can think two contradictory things at the same time and not recognise the conflict.
I reckon that we use a kind of doublethink in relation to money, and it’s because we apply different rules depending on the contexts. How much, for example, is a lot of money? It depends on the context. Five pounds is a lot of money to pay for a packet of Extra Strong Mints, but a small amount of money to pay for a car. I can spend ages agonising over a purchase which might save me just a few pence, but happily sign a cheque for hundreds of pounds for a holiday without worrying about shaving off another fifty pounds here or there. Thinking about money goes way beyond the actual amount involved, and is affected by the values we place upon what that money is going to do. If someone did charge you five pounds for some mints you’d be much more cross that being charged five pounds too much on a thousand pound holiday.
There is every possibility of using doublethink when it comes to the church collection. Let’s take it as read that it is a good thing to support the church you belong to, or come to occasionally. I’ll take it as read that most people think that, when push comes to shove, having the church here is probably something they are pleased about. And I’ll take is as read that committed Christians have a basic belief that at least some of our time, money and possessions should be offered to God in some way or other. So when the collection plate comes round you can pretty much guarantee that most people will feel it’s OK to put something in – when if a perfect stranger came up to them in the street with a plate they would almost certainly not.
But how much is OK for church collection? The latest statistics in the Church of England (for 2010) suggest that the average amount given by members of the electoral roll is around £6 per week. Remember, though, that some electoral roll members don’t actually worship regularly, and don’t give anything at all. The average amount given by people in a planned way is around £10 per week. Perhaps some of you are already working out whether £10 sounds a lot, or a little. It might depend on how much you habitually keep in your wallet or purse – how much you take out of the cashpoint when you go. Remember that £10 is the average for people who decide in advance how much they will give – which will be most of you. Does that sound like a lot of money?
It depends, doesn’t it? It depends on what value you place on the church, your faith, and the other things in your life that your money could be used for. It might depend on whether you trust the Vicar, or the PCC, to spend that money wisely. But it will mainly depend on the standards you apply to the things you give most worth to. If you went for coffee at Nero’s three times in a week, that would be more than the average person gives to the Church of England in a week. So is God worth less than three lattes a week? If you buy a broadsheet newspaper seven days a week, that’s more than the average person gives to the Church of England in a week. So is God worth less than Rupert Murdoch? Membership of Beverley Golf Club or a Hull City Season ticket are about the same as the average person gives to their church per week. So is God worth the same as golf or football?
I’ve had a bit of a dangerous thought. I’d quite like you not to put anything in the collection this week – and if you give by standing order I’d like you to cancel it immediately. I’d like you to stop, and reassess, and have a good think about how much is a lot of money for God, and within that how much is a lot of money for this church. I’d like you to try to avoid doublethink and apply the same standards to that decision as you would to the things you give most worth to in your life. I’d like you to compare what you give to and for God against what is the most precious thing you have. What is the very best thing you can do with your money, and how keen are you to do it?
I’m hoping that, when you do this, you will not weigh God up on the same scale as coffee or sport. I’m hoping that the scale you apply to God, and your faithful following as a disciple of Christ will mean that you do more than calculate how much of your loose change you can afford; do more than calculate how much would look OK if the person next to you happens to glance across when you are putting your cash on the plate. I’m hoping that you will put this calculation onto a completely different scale altogether.
I’m hoping that you will recognise that you can never out-give God, and that God is of such infinite value that all we can do is give the tiniest amount as a sign that we owe God our very being. I’m hoping that you hear that verse in 2 Corinthians about “the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” I’m hoping that you remember all those commands about remembering that God gives to us first, and that we give back the first things to show that we know they are not ours. I’m hoping you’ll remember that the Bible talks about giving proportionately, so it’s not about the amount, but the percentage we decide.
I’m hoping that you work out then what you can give as a matter of rejoicing, not guilt. I would much rather that the PCC made use of money given joyfully rather than grudgingly. And I have a hunch that, somehow, a small amount of money given with joy might be more effective than a large amount of money given in a panic or out of guilt. I’m hoping that we reach that ideal place when we give an amount we value, with generosity and joy, and that amount does take account of our needs, so that you do look at our current financial state and see how you can contribute to our growth. The PCC can take joyful decisions about our finances when people give in a planned way, and tell us about it.
I’m hoping, actually, that you do give something today…and that later you also work out whether something has to change in the amount you plan to give. I’m hoping that you don’t put that decision off, but that you do it today, and get the forms back to us this week. But above all I’m hoping that, in deciding what you value, you will recognise the overflowing love of God for you, and let that love tell you how much is a lot of money.
January 15, 2012 § 3 Comments
A Sermon preached at Beverley Minster 15 Jan 2012. On John 1. 43 – end
As far as I can tell I last preached on this passage twenty years ago, give or take 5 days. A lot has happened since a reasonably slim chap in his early thirties with two small sons and quite a lot of hair last spoke about Nathanael and Philip and good things coming from Nazareth. Think back to what life was like for you in 1992, and what you have now that you didn’t have then. I’m thinking particularly of the way that our means of communication have changed. Some people had mobile phones which you needed a sherpa to carry for you. Your computer stood alone, and there were disks and they were floppy. Few people beyond computer science departments had the internet and world wide web.
So there is no reference in my last sermon on this topic (which as it happens was written with a ‘pen’ on ‘paper’ and placed in a ‘Filofax’) to the image which first struck me as I looked at John 1 again. John the Baptist speaks about the Messiah. The next day he sees Jesus and says ‘Here is the Lamb of God’. The next day two of John’s disciples, perhaps encouraged by John, start to follow Jesus. One of them is Andrew, and he rushes to tell his brother, Simon. Immediately Jesus gives him a new name. The next day Jesus ups sticks and goes toGalileein the north. He finds Philip, who follows him. Philip finds Nathanael, and he follows Jesus too. It’s breathless stuff. According to John the Evangelist it’s taken three days only for Jesus to be publicly revealed as the Messiah, and to gather followers in the south and the north. And the image I thought of as I read this? That if Jesus was on Twitter he would be said to be ‘trending’ – one of the most talked about subjects on the internet.