Sunday, 10 June 2018

Gifts of grace and glimpses of glory: A sermon for the soon-to-be ordained and licensed

This sermon was preached for the ordinands and reader students of ERMC (Eastern Region Ministry Course), 10th June 2018 for their last residential weekend before leaving to be ordained and licensed. The text for the sermon was 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 

I wonder if you’ve ever opened a present, lovingly offered, only to look at it and think secretly ‘Thanks….I think!’ Whether it’s a book you’ve already got on your shelves, a shirt three sizes too big, or a box of chocolates you’re allergic to, there is no getting away from the fact that gift giving is one of those human experiences which should be a source of real pleasure, but often is as fraught with stress and difficulty as it is blessed with joyful generosity. Gifts are problematic for the precisely the same reason that they are joyful: because they are an indicator of the relationship between two people. ‘Wow, I love that author!’ ‘You’ve got such an eye for the colours that look good on me’ ‘You know that’s my favourite chocolate shop’ could just as easily be ‘I was telling you about that book just the other week! Weren’t you listening?’ ‘Do I really look that big to you?’ ‘Have you honestly never realised I’m lactose intolerant?’ 

The difference between a great gift and a terrible gift is nothing to do with money; it’s the difference between an attentive relationship and a careless one.
Most gifts that are for us are also about us; they say something about who we are as people.  
Then there are the gifts we open and say ‘thanks…I think!’ for a different reason. These are the times we open a gift and simply don’t know what we are looking at. We might get lots of gifts like these as children, gifts to improve and educate us, complicated-looking scientific things we’ve never used before, things like microscopes which will enable us to trace the outline of every vein in a leaf, or books by authors of whom we haven’t yet heard, but who, our older relatives know we will come to love dearly.

These are gifts that are for us, but not about us; not us as we are right now, anyway. These are gifts that for us, and are about who we will become.     

Maybe, like me, you loved C. S. Lewis’s ‘Narnia’ books in your younger years. There’s a moment in ‘The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe’ when Lucy, Susan, and Peter (but sadly, not Edmund) have every child’s dream come true; they meet Father Christmas, who comes riding on his sleigh to proclaim that the curse of the White Witch over Narnia, a land where it is always winter and never Christmas, is finally being broken. To each of the children Father Christmas gives a gift; but these are not like the kind of gifts that the Pevensie children would have wished for when they were back in London; these gifts are not toys, they are tools for battle. Peter gets a sword and shield, Susan a bow and arrow and a horn to be summon help, and Lucy a dagger, and a bottle of magic cordial, a drop or two of which will cure any injury or illness.

These mysterious gifts are for the children, but they are not about them, not about them as they are right then, anyway; they are not what the children would choose, or maybe even be willing to receive, if they had come from anyone other than Father Christmas. ‘Thanks…I think!’ These gifts are about who they will become, very swiftly, and not just even that; these gifts are about other people: the people for whom the children will fight in battle, whom the children will protect and heal. These gifts will be spent in the service of others, and as the gifts are spent, the true identity of the Pevensies will emerge; kings and queens of Narnia. As the children expend their gifts, they will themselves more fully than they could ever dreamt.     

Now we live in a society which conflates things that are for us with things that are about us. In our assertion of the self in an increasingly hyper-individualistic Zeitgeist, the only things we recognise as being for us are those which we recognise as being about us. This leads to two, perfectly balanced, pitfalls. The first is the ‘you do you’ culture of entitlement that prevents us from really connecting with others: ‘It’s all about me…because I’m worth it.’ 

The second is the shadow side: the self-negation, self-harm, anxiety, loneliness and even suicide; the most tragic defining characteristics of the ‘you do you’ generation. If we only recognise the things that are about us as the things that are for us, then it’s either ‘all about me’ or there’s nothing at all for us.

So we need to remember there is a type of gift that is for us but not about us, not us as we are right now, anyway, and these are the most wonderful gifts of all because these are gifts about who we will become and whom we will help as we understand the gift more fully.  These are the gifts that we really need; these are the gifts that the world really needs.

In the reading we heard from 2 Corinthians, Paul reflects on his experiences as apostle to the Gentiles. I wonder if he realised what kind of gift he was receiving when he responded to the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Can any of us really know what we are letting ourselves in for when we say ‘yes’ to the call of God?

Paul has been recalling the hardships, the persecution, and the punishments that he has lived through, likening himself to a jar of clay out of which the treasure of God’s life streams forth. Then he says, in today’s reading, ‘Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.’

In other words, this has all been for you, you complicated and compromised Christians in Corinth who can’t seem to stop splitting up, offending each other and falling into temptation – all that I’ve been through is for you – but it’s not about you.

It’s not because you are sadists who enjoy the sight of a Jewish citizen of Rome getting the forty lashes minus one; it’s not because you need the high drama of shipwreck to keep you interested.
This is all for you, but it’s not about you. It’s about grace; grace extending to more and more people, grace that leads to thanksgiving, grace that leads to the glory of God. This is far bigger and more wonderful than you, you as you are right now with your petty squabbles and your sexual sins. This is about people whose faces you’ve never seen and whose names you’ll never know; this is about those people responding to the message of grace that is the Christian Gospel down the ages all the way to us here in Ditchingham, so that the light of God’s glory will shine out into this dark world, brighter and brighter until the day comes when there will be no need of a lamp, because the Lord God will be their light.     

So for those of you who will be leaving us today to receive the mysterious gifts of ordination and licensing, I’d like to say to you: the gifts you’ll receive very soon are for you, but they are not about you, not you as you are right now, anyway. These are gifts are about who you will become, gifts that will take time to unpack and explore. As you do so, you’ll find that these are gifts to be spent not on yourself but in the service of others; in fact, maybe it’s only in the using of your gifts to fight for, protect and heal others that you’ll come to understand their true value and purpose.

And for those of you who will have a quick breather before being back here for another year of classes, residentials, placements and so on, I’d like to say: all this is for you, but it’s not about you, either, not you as you are right now, anyway. The dubious gifts of essay assignments and reading lists probably aren’t the gifts that you’d have chosen, not if anyone other than God himself had given them to you; but these are gifts that, as you unpack and play with them, will show you more about the person you are becoming as you grow in grace than you could have dreamt.

So what are these gifts? Well, they can be neatly tied up in two words from today’s reading: grace and glory. It’s worth noticing that the Greek word for ‘grace’ also means ‘gift.’ It’s the word that is used both in John’s Prologue as he describes Jesus, full of grace and truth, and in Paul’s letters, in a very slightly different way, when he talks about the spiritual gifts which God gives to grow the church. 

The quickest way of understanding grace is to realise that salvation, faith, life itself – it’s all a gift from the God who didn’t have to create us, who isn’t obliged to love us and who didn’t need to call us but did so anyway because God is love and the nature of love is to give, and give, and go on giving. This grace-gift is what enables us to give of ourselves to others in the service of Christ. This is a gift which we can only give to others if we have first received it ourselves, and because we are just as sinful as the Corinthians – some things never change – we need to keep on receiving, so that we can go on giving it.

It doesn’t just stop there. The second word, glory, is also a gift that deserves careful unpacking. Glory in the Bible is most often associated with light. Here in 2 Corinthians, though, Paul talks about the ‘weight of glory.’ The word he uses for ‘weight’ is more often translated ‘burden.’ It’s the same word that is used in the parable of the workers in the vineyard who bore the ‘burden of the day’. That doesn’t sound like a great gift; light is much nicer than weight, surely?

I was fascinated to learn that although, in physical terms, light doesn’t weigh anything – it has no mass – but it carries momentum relative to its frequency, which means that light behaves as though it does weigh something; the faster the frequency, the brighter the light, the heavier it feels. We can only speculate on the weight of God, whose light is beyond the sight of any person, a light so strong that Moses could only cope with seeing the back of God as he passed by in all his glory, and Ezekiel fell to his face, dazzled by the light of the glory of God.

Maybe we can only bear a little of this weight; maybe this is a gift that it takes a lifetime to unpack. If grace is the gift for the here and now, to help us know God’s presence in this world, then glory is the gift that awaits us in heaven, when we will see him not from the back but, as the writer of 1 John says, face to face. Glory imprints upon our eyes the truth that we are not for this earth alone; we are destined for eternity.

In this world God gives us glimpses of glory.  Ordination and licensings are a gift of grace, and a glimpse of glory. The gifts that you will receive in your ordinations and licensing, and the gifts that you receive along the way towards ordination and licensing are for you, but they are not about you, not as you are now, anyway. These are gifts about who you will become, and about others too; whom you will serve in Christ’s name; these gifts are about revealing something of the glory of God, about bringing a little bit of heaven down to earth; these gifts are ultimately about heaven itself.  ‘Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.’ Amen.  

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Treasure in Clay Jars: A Sermon

In January 1947, so the story goes, a young Bedouin goatherd, Mohammed ed-Dib, was walking his goats through the rugged, empty terrain between the Judean Hills and the Dead Sea. Intrigued by a crack in the caves, or maybe simply bored, he threw a stone into one of the caves, and was even more intrigued to hear a distinct clinking sound. Had he struck gold? He brought his cousin back to the same spot to investigate the following day.

He may have been disappointed to find that the clay jars which he had discovered contained no gold, but rather very old, battered leather covers. These weren’t just any old leather covers, of course – they were protecting the ancient scrolls that came to be known as the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls, fragments of Biblical texts and other writings dating back to 200 years before Christ. Mohammed ed-Dib had found the greatest Biblical treasure of the twentieth century, a discovery that led to yet more discoveries that led to so many new insights into the Bible and to the Qumran Community.

Why were these precious scrolls in the cave in the first place? you may wonder. The reason is simple: because they were precious, too precious to simply throw away after they had been opened and read too many times to be usable, like a beloved old hymn book. The scrolls were lovingly rolled up for what their community thought would be the last time, covered in leather and placed in clay jars in remote caves to protect them from the fierce Judean heat.  They were, literally, treasure in clay jars. Their value, though, was not recognised even after their significance had been understood: the first four scrolls were sold in 1947 for just under a hundred dollars.

In our reading today from Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth – or, rather, the second letter of Paul’s to the Corinthians that we have in our Bibles, because elsewhere in this letter Paul refers to another letter that he has written them, another lost treasure waiting to be unearthed, perhaps – Paul is reflecting on his life as an apostle of Christ and the many hardships that went with it. All the way through this letter, Paul hammers home his message: it’s not about me, it’s about Christ. I am weak, but he is strong in me. I am the clay jar, he is the treasure.

It would have been so easy for Paul, a sophisticated man of the world, a traveller and speaker of several languages, to vaunt his own status, but he chooses not to do that. Instead he points, again and again, to the treasure in the clay jar, the eternal life of God shining out from within the fragile life of mortal people. ‘We do not proclaim ourselves’, he says. That would be as foolish and futile as mistaking the clay jar for the treasure within.

We live in a highly competitive world today when we are surrounded by people proclaiming themselves one way or another, whether it’s shameless self-promotion on social media, or networking at the golf club or dropping into conversation the one key fact about ourselves that we know will shoot us up the status charts in an instant. Young people have to compete, more than ever, for success in exams, university places and job interviews; they are taught to proclaim themselves. Don’t get me wrong here, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating the good in our lives and being successful – but if our deepest sense of who we are comes from our success or status, then our lives are as fragile as an ancient clay jar, because anything could happen at any time that could damage our success or status.

I spent some time as a hospital chaplaincy visitor in a stroke unit, and my overwhelming memory of the stroke unit was the tears. There was always someone crying, as people who had suffered strokes and their families started to come to terms with what had happened, and the new insecurity of an unclear future. These were people whose clay jars had shattered, and in a world which values people according to status and success, the loss of self was felt as the hardest knock of all.

‘We do not proclaim ourselves’, Paul says. We are the clay jars; we could break at any moment if handled carelessly. ‘But we do proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.’ In other words, it is the divine light that shines in our hearts and out of our lives that makes us who we are, not our status or success.

We clay jars have value not because of what we’ve achieved or acquired, but because of what lives within us – the living Spirit of God. Because the life of the Spirit of God is a free gift to anyone who would receive it, it is not bound by status or bought by success. It can’t be bound or bought, because the living Spirit of God is too precious, too wild, too holy and too free to be monopolised or monetised.

And yet, because we are conditioned to value things, and people, according to status or success, it is so easy for us to undervalue the work of the Spirit of God in our lives, even when we recognise it for what it is. Just like the first sale of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it is so easy for us to undersell the precious gifts that God has given us, to under-value each other as fellow clay jars.   

So my encouragement to you today is this: to recognise the treasure within you, the true treasure, not just the worldly wealth. Find within the clay jar of your life the light of God’s presence and allow it to shine into your heart. If this takes some time, so be it: sometimes it takes a while to find things that are of lasting value. And find within the clay jars of those around you, those sitting in the same pews and PCC meetings as you, the treasure of the light of God. Let that light shine out of your lives, and out of your church.

Let that light be a beacon to those who are left behind in this competitive world of self-proclamation, who know that they are fragile and feel that they are worthless. Let those people find their true worth here; let them know that they are treasured. And those who mistake the clay jar for the treasure, who find themselves in success and status: help them to look within, past the surface, however glossy it might be – and to find a treasure so precious that no-one would ever dare put a number to it.

We are the clay jars, Paul reminds us. It’s Jesus living with us, by the power of the Spirit, that is our treasure. And because we carry that treasure within us wherever we go or whatever may come our way, it’s a treasure that can’t be stolen from us, however fragile,  dusty and ancient the clay jars of our lives may become. It can’t be stolen from us because it doesn’t actually belong to us; it belongs to God, who lives within us.   

‘But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.’


Saturday, 26 May 2018

How Did You Get Here Today? A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

‘So how did you get here today?’

It’s a question that’s asked at social gatherings, conferences and parties everywhere and anywhere to which people need to travel.

As you might know, I don’t have a parish of my own. My job is teaching and mentoring people who are in training for the church’s ministry, and whilst many people in that situation up sticks and go to college for a few years, many don’t; they stay living at home, looking after their families and doing their jobs, doing evening and weekend classes and placements to get them from A to B (A being the point at which they are told that yes, the church would like to sponsor them through training for ministry and B being the point at which the Bishop lays hands on them at their ordination).

When I first attended one of the weekend residentials, which take place in the Waveney Valley just on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, someone asked me ‘So how did you get here today?’ I launched into a long explanation of my own sense of God calling me to serve the church, the process of trying to work out how to respond to that, my own experience of being in training for the church’s ministry and so on – and then I realised. ‘You meant, how did I get here TODAY, didn’t you?’

Our journeys, both physical and spiritual, say a lot about who we are. How we get from the As to the Bs in our lives tell you much of what’s really important about us. How we travel tells you where we live, where we work, who our friends and family are, how we choose to spend our leisure time. Journeys may seem mundane, but they tell the very story of who we are. That’s something to think about next time you’re stuck on the motorway or on a crowded Tube train!

Nicodemus, about whom we heard in our Bible reading just now, is one of the many people in the Gospels who travel to meet Jesus. In the Gospels we read about people who travel considerable distances to see Jesus, like the Magi who make the long journey to offer their gifts to the infant Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Others come upon him almost by chance, like Zacchaeus, the famously short man who clambers up a tree when Jesus passes through his home town of Jericho. 

We don’t know how long Nicodemus’s journey took him. We do know that he came to see Jesus at night, maybe under the cover of darkness out of fear that his position as a Jewish leader might be compromised if he were seen with this controversial rabbi. Or maybe it was his social position, and the wealth that went with it, at stake; from what we learn later about Nicodemus in John’s Gospel, it’s safe to assume that Nicodemus was a rich man, which means that he had a lot to lose.  We can’t know for sure, but John gives us a couple of clues: for Nicodemus, this journey to see Jesus was a risky business.

For those of us for whom the journey to church is easy, short, and risk-free, I’d like to remind us that this isn’t the case for everyone around the world. There are many places where going to church is a real risk, and there are many people for whom going to church is a real risk, even here in the UK.  I’ve been helping a family from the Middle East recently to find their way to faith in Christ; like Nicodemus, they are drawn to Jesus and want to seek him out. One of them has told me that for weeks she would find times to sit on a bench outside a church, too scared to go inside but praying that the love of God would reach through the church walls to touch her as she sat. For this family, like Nicodemus, coming to Jesus is a risky business; because of their religious and cultural background, they know that they risk losing their community, the business network that allows them to work and have a roof over their heads, even maybe their lives. Maybe our own journeys to church, or our own journeys of faith haven’t been quite as perilous as this family’s, but maybe we know something of what Nelson Mandela calls the long walk to freedom in our own lives.  

At the heart of this encounter of Nicodemus with Jesus, though, is the dawning realisation that however risky Nicodemus’ journey to find Jesus, however long it may have taken or whatever it may have cost him, the Jesus whom he meets has made the longest journey in history: the journey from heaven to earth. This is a journey which has cost Jesus much – he has been sent, we hear, by a Father with whom he lives in perfect, eternal love. This is a journey which involved real risk to Jesus – as his journey through his earthly life continued, he indeed lost his community, his friends, and even his life. This is a journey of love. Nicodemus sought out Jesus, just as the Middle Eastern family did – but what he, and they, discovered was that God had long been seeking them out.  

In the journey from heaven to earth which we hear about in today’s reading, we get the most tantalising little glimpse into the life of the eternal God, a life richer and fuller than anything we could ever imagine or aspire to. As I say, our journeys tell most of what is to be told about us; our journeys tell where we live, who our friends and family are, what our job is, what our loves are. We hear about the Father who sent Jesus. We hear about the Spirit going with Jesus, blowing where he will on this risky journey from heaven to Bethlehem and Nazareth, to Galilee and Jerusalem, from Golgotha to the depths of hell, from the empty tomb to the Mount of Olives and finally back to the heights of heaven, to the true home not only of Jesus himself but of all who come to believe in Him.  

The inner life of God – the life into which we get a tantalising glimpse in this morning’s reading – is what we celebrate today, Trinity Sunday. It’s a life richer and fuller than anything we can imagine or aspire to, but we see a little of what it means as we go, with Nicodemus, to Jesus. It’s in Jesus’ relationship with his Father – who is never out of Jesus’ thoughts in John’s Gospel – that we see what it means for us to know God as our heavenly father who watches over us with eyes of love. It’s in Jesus’ sensitivity to the presence of the Spirit, whom he sees at work in the world and in the lives of people – that we can start to imagine what it might be like to be led by the Spirit as Jesus was.

This is all possible because in Jesus, we see ‘God with a face’, God taking on humanity and living our life with us so that we can start to glimpse what it means for us to live the life of God. In other words, Jesus is our way into understanding the Trinity; Jesus interprets God to us and for us, and sends us, as the Father sent him, out into the world in which the Spirit is still at work in the hearts and lives of people, so that we can interpret God to the world and for the world. Jesus’ journey can become our journey, if we let it. Our journeys can be journeys of love, even the journeys we would rather not have to take, like the journey through illness or bereavement or through an unfulfilling job.  
So what we are given, this Trinity Sunday, is not the answer to a particularly knotty puzzle, but a tantalising glimpse into a life of love divine which is beyond our wildest dreams, yet which can become the way that we live, too.  We are given an insight into the lengths to which God went for us, from heaven to earth, so that when we are lost in the world’s dark alleys and in the crowdedness of our own minds and lives, he can bring us home with him. This what we are given today: not an answer, but an invitation. Will we join Jesus on this journey of love? Will our lives, wherever they lead us, interpret God to the world and for the world? This is what Trinity Sunday is about, because this is what God is about, because this is what God has always been and will always be about. This Trinity Sunday, this week, may we journey on in the everlasting love of God, and take others with us in that journey as we walk with Christ. Amen.  

Sunday, 26 November 2017

The Prince of Love: A Story-Sermon for Christ the King

Once upon a time, there was a prince who had everything his heart desired: a splendid palace to live in, whole suites of rooms within the palace, books and musical instruments and sporting equipment and as much delicious food as he ever desired, cooked by his own chef. Not only that, but the prince was a popular, good-natured young man who had many friends with whom to play sports, discuss the issues of the day and laugh deeply. Only one thing was lacking. The prince’s heart yearned for a woman with whom to share his life, a love who would one day become his bride and stand by his side as his queen. Although the prince danced beautifully at balls and charmed young ladies with his witty anecdotes and respectful conversation at dinners, his heart remained untouched. No-one sparked the love which was his greatest desire. ‘Never mind’, his father would say. ‘You will know your love when you see her. You don’t need to rush. Don’t stir up or awaken love before it is ready.’  

The royal palace was several miles away from a large, bustling city.  Often he rode his carriage down to the city, and as he gazed from the window of his carriage, he would see the people going about their daily business; buying and selling things in the market place, washing and drying their clothes, trading and travelling and taking and laughing: living their everyday lives, with their challenges, joys and problems. One day, the prince’s driver took his carriage through a rather poor area of the city. The houses were tumbledown and leaky, with too many people squashed into small rooms. As the prince looked out of the window and surveyed the poverty of the people who would, one day, become his subjects, he happened to catch sight of the most beautiful young woman he had ever possibly imagined. He took a sharp intake of breath. Stunned by her beauty, he asked his driver to pretend to be lost so that he could drive around a few more times, just to see her again.

That night, as he sat in the splendour of his rooms, his heart beat faster. He had to see the young woman again. So he made up excuses to go back to that poor district, in the hope that his carriage might cross he path. And, yes it did, and yes, every time he saw her, his heart beat faster. He had never thought that he could be so captivated by love. He memorised the colour of her hair, the upturn n of her smile. And as his love for her grew, so did an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach: how would he, how could he, get to know her? If he were a poor young man of the city, he would live in the same street as her. He could bump into her and strike up a friendship. And maybe then… But he lived in a palace outside the city. He could, of course, get straight out of his carriage and stride straight up to her and ask her to attend the winter ball with him.

But his heart grew even more uneasy. If she knows of my wealth, he reasoned, I will never know whether she truly loves me, or is in love with my riches. If she know of my royal birth, I will never know whether she loves me, or the thought of one day being my queen. The prince wanted above all things to be loved, for himself. He wanted to marry for love, not to make a political alliance.

He thought through his options. He could, of course, do what they do in the stories and go about the city in disguise. He could exchange his well-made, handsome clothes with the rags of a peasant and turn up in her street, claiming to be a traveller in search of board and lodging in exchange for menial work. Then he could get to know her, little by little, and then in time, once he had proposed to her, he could take off his disguise and then she’d know the real him, the prince who had won her heart not by power or wealth but with love and kindness.

But then, he pondered, as he thought on, would she feel cheated? Could he lie to her? Could any happily married life start off on so great an untruth?

As he ruimnated, an idea came to him. It would be the riskiest, maybe the stupidest thing he had ever conceived of in his life. But, it might just enable him to win the heart of the only woman he ever wanted to marry.  

He went to see his father the king, and after a long conversation, he went back to his rooms. After some time he emerged, dressed not in the well-made, handsome clothes of a prince, nor in the rags of a pauper but in the everyday clothes that the people of the city wore. He took a bag, packed with simple provisions, and got, for the last time, into his carriage where his driver took him to the edge of the city. He bade his driver a fond farewell, and walked the rest of the way.

Days, weeks, months and years passed. The prince found that living in the city, working, as he did, as a carpenter, was a good life, even though there were times when even the foxes had holes and the birds of the air had nests but he himself had nowhere to lay his head. But he gathered friends around himself – he was, after all, a good-natured young man and he told his new friends stories of a wonderful palace ruled by a kind and wise king. His friends wondered sometimes where this kingdom was, or if it were even real at all. He said that he’d take them to there to live with him too, but they wondered how their friend, who looked so ordinary and talked in such down-to-earth ways, could make such rash promises. But they too were captivated by the truth and the heart-thumpingly 
challenging love with which he spoke.

And, happily, as time went on, as he worked in his carpentry shop and spent time with his friends, he did, really, fall in love – not just, as it happened, with the young woman whose eyes had caught his heart – but with all the people of the city, with the stuff of their daily business; buying and selling things in the market place, washing and drying their clothes, trading and travelling and taking and laughing: living their everyday lives, with their challenges, joys and problems. As he lived among them, his love for them grew and grew, even though there were times when he found himself impatient at their slowness to understand him. The prince’s love for his people burned within him as he shared his wisdom with them, used his powers to healthier illnesses and his voice to silence their oppressors. It was a love that would come with a cost – a greater cost than the prince had ever known – but that’s another story.   

Meanwhile, in the palace, the father watched, proud and pleased. His palace, one day, would at last be full.  

(This is based loosely on, but changed quite significantly from a parable by Soren Kirkegaard)

Sunday, 1 October 2017

If Only...A Sermon about Regret and Hope

The readings for this sermon are Isaiah 48:12-end and Luke 11:37-end. 

If only.

They have been called the two saddest words in the English language, words that glance back over the shoulder to what could have been or what still could be, words that are heavy with wistful yearning - if only, if only, if only…

History is full of ‘if onlys’, too. If only Archduke Franz Ferdinand hadn’t been assassinated... If only Princess Diana’s driver in Paris in 1997 hadn’t been drunk…If only 9/11 hadn’t happened…

I don’t know if you have your own personal ‘if only’, too. If only I hadn’t done this….or if only I had said that….if only I hadn’t had that experience as a child…if only I’d worked harder at school. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20 and we look back on our pasts with a clarity that often we lack at the time. Our regrets might be to do with things that happened that were way beyond our control, or things that we wished we’d done differently. The American writer Maya Angelou said, looking back on her very difficult early life, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

When we think about regrets, we are thinking about the way we wish things had been; we are looking back on what was not. Regret is the very opposite of hope, because hope looks forward to what could be whereas regret looks back at what was not and now never can be. So what do we regret most, as people? The poet Ted Hughes says ‘The only thing people regret is that they didn't live boldly enough, that they didn't invest enough heart, didn't love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.’

This chimes in with a study that palliative care nurse made of her dying patients. When they looked back at the end of their lives, what did they regret the most? The top 5 regrets are as follows:

I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

I wish I hadn't worked so hard.

I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.

I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

I wish that I had let myself be happier.

The Bible has its own ‘if onlys’, its own regrets and harsh lessons learnt. Of these, the hardest and most enduring is the Babylonian exile. Nearly 600 years before Christ, having settled in Jerusalem and established the first Jerusalem Temple as the glad place of worship for God’s people, the children of Israel suffered the humiliating and traumatic experience of being forcibly removed from their homeland and taken to Babylon as slaves. It’s a story that echoes down the ages all the way back to the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis – a favoured son whose father gave him a coat of many colours and whose brother pushed him into a pit before selling him as a slave to Egyptians – and echoes down to this very day, a day in which human beings – precious children of God – are bought and sold as slaves and trafficked across the globe to work in factories, homes and brothels. This slavery, the Babylonian exile, brought with it a loud chorus of if onlys.

We hear some of these in our reading from Isaiah. ‘O that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your prosperity would have been like a river and your success like the waves of the sea.’ If only, if only, if only…we hear the voice of God groaning through the words of the prophet. If only you had drawn near to me…if only you had realised how near I am to you…if only you had trusted that my love for you is endless and goes with you wherever you go, even through the darkest of nights, even to slavery in Babylon…if only you had believed in me, trusted in me, more.       
But the story doesn’t end there. Just like the story of Joseph doesn’t end with him being carted off to slavery in Egypt, the story of the people of Israel doesn’t end in Babylon. The prophet Isaiah looks with the eyes of faith and sees a new future waiting to come to birth. He says ‘The Lord shall perform his purpose on Babylon’ and he speaks boldly to the enslaved people of God: Go out from Babylon – declare this with a shout of joy, ‘The Lord has redeemed his servant Jacob!’  The prophet’s words were to come true - the new conqueror of the ancient world, the king of Persia, Cyrus, eventually issued a decree allowing all slaves to return home to Israel. If you go to the British Museum in London, you can see this decree which has been painstakingly preserved.

The if only of the exiled slaves became the shout of joy of the redeemed homecoming people of God. God take the if only, and transforms it into a new future. Regret of the past becomes hope for the hope for the future, because that’s what God does: he takes our regrets and he transforms them into hope. He turns our lives inside out and upside down so that what has not been and now never could be gives way for a new thing that could be and with the help of his spirit, will be. As the prophet Isaiah says in another place, ‘God is doing a new thing.’ Because God is always doing a new thing, we don’t have to live with regrets; we can place our regrets tenderly into his hands and find in his gentle embrace the possibilities of a new start and a new hope. Jeremiah, another prophet of the exile, put it like this: ‘For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you; plans to give you hope and a future.’ 

We hear something of the if only in our Gospel reading, too. All the way through the story of Jesus’ life we see the heartbreaking irony of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the God squad of Jesus’ time – the ones who wanted to be the holiest they could be, as holy as the priests in the new Jerusalem temple which God’s redeemed homecoming people had built when they returned from Babylon to Jerusalem. The Pharisees were the ones who watched every word, every action, to make sure that God’s commandments were never broken – and yet these were the ones who failed to recognise God himself living and breathing among them.

Again, we hear the plaintive cry of the voice of God – if only, if only, if only…if only you would stop obsessing about the details and look at the bigger picture….if only you would allow your hearts to be warmed and maybe even to burn with the love of God, with passion for justice and mercy. If only you would take as much care of your souls – that part of you which is on the inside which no-one can see except God himself – as you do of the outside appearance. If only you would learn the truth of what the voice of God to another prophet, the prophet Samuel, had said all those generations ago, ‘people look at the outward appearance but God looks on the heart.’ If only you would give your hearts in love to God and to your neighbour. If only.

If only. As that same God looks on our world today, I wonder what that cry sounds like? If only you humans would see the value of your worth in my eyes. If only you would stop striving for things that can never make you happy. If only you would look beyond your natural differences to see each other as brothers and sisters in the same family of God. If only you would stop fighting. If only you would trust in my love for you all.  If only you would believe in me, trust in me more.

The remarkable thing is that God’s if onlys are not the same as our if onlys. God is always doing a new thing, so God’s if onlys are God’s deepest desires for us humans, and for the world which he created in love, to become all that he knows we can become. God’s if onlys are words not of regret, but of hope, because God believes is us so much more than we could ever believe in him.
So we come tonight with ourselves as we are, with all our if onlys, all our regrets. We come with our faith and our prayers, feeble though they may be, and we place ourselves once more into His hands, where our if onlys become His if onlys – where our regrets become our, and His, hope. Amen.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Stay True: Spiritual Advice for the C of E from the Fashion World

(Image from WerbeFabrik on Pixabay)

Spiritual counsel can come from all sorts of places; sometimes the best spiritual counsel comes from the supposedly least likely places. My morning routine involves driving my teens to the school bus stop; on the way there, we listen to Radio 1's Breakfast Show, and on the way back, I have Radio 4 (although the teens are adamant that I have to wait until they are out of the car before I switch over). This morning, having waved them off, I caught the end of an interview with someone who works in the world of high street fashion, for a well-known shop which I've mooched around with my daughter on many occasions. I was fascinated by the terminology; this is a shop which was once a 'disrupter' of the fashion industry, by producing must-have items at high-street prices, feted by celebrities and distrusted by high-end designers. Now times have changed, and this shop is adjusting to having become 'establishment' whilst facing its own 'disrupters', online outlets which can copy any garment bought from the high street and have it dispatched to a teenage bedroom within three weeks.

As I say, I was fascinated. I found myself thinking of 'disrupters' in Christian history, those who blew apart given norms and mores, and challenged the 'establishment' church of its day: this autumn sees the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther, the great German reformer's 95 theses, which disrupted medieval Christianity with what turned out to be global and lasting repercussions. From the Hebrew prophets to the charismatic movement, the Judeo-Christian tradition has never been long without its disrupters; in fact, it has needed, and needs still, those who see new possibilities  and long-lost minority reports within the ancient faith, new and newly-recovered ways of living and communicating and challenging the world on the basis of that faith in such a way as to make that faith truer and stronger and more vibrantly alive than the 'establishment' of any given day. The problem is, of course, that today's disrupter is next week's establishment, and that what is radical and new now might lose its vitality just as quickly as a designer knock-off dress. The God who is always doing a new thing, the Spirit which blows where it wills, the Son who walks an unknown route and calls us to follow; no wonder we humans are always at least three steps behind the God who is the ultimate, divine disrupter.              

So for us Anglicans, every bit as 'establishment' as Gardener's Question Time and Grimmy's Breakfast Show, are we condemned to lose out to the religious 'disrupters'? Much is said, rightly, about the decline in churchgoing and in identification with the Church of England. The fear that we Anglicans might go the way of Chelsea Girl and Woolworths hovers just beneath the surface of many PCC meetings and national headlines. 'Woe to the those who are complacent in Zion', as one disrupter put it many centuries ago, a call that echoes down the ages to our own time and place. But, as I mentioned, spiritual counsel can come from all sorts of places, and sometimes the bets spiritual counsel can come from the least likely of places. So what do you do, the fashionsta was asked, when you can't compete with the new disrupters? The answer was wise, and simple: Stay true to who you are, and stay true to who you are for.

We Anglicans are pretty simply in terns of who we are, and who we are for. One of our straplines puts it like this: 'A Christian presence in every community.' We are Christian, no more, no less; we are for everyone who lives in each community we serve, regardless of age, social status, ethnicity, sexual orientation, family set-up, or even religion. We are here, in each place, to say to people, n whatever ways are meaningful, that there is joy and peace to be found in knowing the love of God through Jesus Christ. This is who we are, and this is who we are for. May we stay true to ourselves and find within that commitment to staying to true, the life-giving disruption of the Holy Spirit, maker us ever truer to ourselves and our people.  

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Life is Like a Butterfly: A Sermon

I wonder if you’ve hear the story about the children who, one hot summer’s day, went down to the meadow and played at the water’s edge with their fishing nets as their parents watched. The afternoon was so beautiful, the water so sparklingly clean, the grass so green, and all around them darted dragonflies and butterflies as birds chirped. If only we could hold on to this moment forever, they said to each other. Then, an idea came to them and they took their fishing net and caught a beautiful white butterfly. You can’t do that, their parents said, the poor thing will die. But the children so wanted the butterfly to stay with them forever and live in their bedroom that when their parents weren’t looking, they snuck the butterfly into their pocket. By the time they got into their bedroom, the butterfly’s wings had folded neatly, and very gently, the children placed the lifeless butterfly on their shelf.    

Wanting to hold on to the good is such a profound natural human impulse. The 1970s hit song ‘I Wish It Could be Christmas Every Day’ expresses something of this – we want the good times to last, and in those really special moments when everything feels just as it should be, we want life to be like this all the time. Children getting ready to go back to school after a long summer holiday might well be feeling something of the ‘back to earth with a bump’ feeling we get when a good time comes to an end. I wonder if Moses looked back on the burning bush, later on in his life, and wished that that moment could have lasted forever.

Maybe this is how Peter felt when Jesus started talking, ominously, about his coming death. Peter had given up everything to follow Jesus and thrown himself wholeheartedly into the life of a travelling disciple with this wonderful man who healed the sick, performed miracles, spoke wisdom and truth even when it made him unpopular to do so, and told mysterious, compelling stories about the kingdom of heaven. And now, just at the point when Peter has got to know Jesus so well and love him so much that he feels he would do anything for him, Jesus says that it all has to come to an end. It was such a natural human response from Peter. No, Jesus, that can’t happen. I won’t let them kill you. I’ll defend you. We can carry on doing this forever, this travelling and healing and teaching. I don’t want this to end. I don’t want to lose you.

The Gospel is full of moments like these, moments when our natural human responses clash with the strange, counter-intuitive work of the kingdom of God. The truth is that the only way that Peter can truly know Jesus for who he is – the very God himself, walking on earth fully human and yet fully divine, alive so fully that even death itself cannot keep him – is for Jesus to die and be resurrected. More than that, the only way that Peter can know who he himself is – this rugged, impetuous fisherman with a tendency to act first and think later – is for Jesus to die and be resurrected. The transformation in Peter as he stands up on the Day of Pentecost to tell people from all over the known world that all of history, everything that had happened, was leading up to the moment when Jesus was raised from the dead, is Peter coming into his own for the first tie, reaching his full height as an apostle whose impetuous folly will turn to bravery as he does indeed go on the travelling and healing and teaching, with the Spirit of Jesus within him in a way that he couldn’t have dreamt possible in those early days.

The only way, Jesus says, is to live is to lay down one’s life. The only way to live is to deny oneself, take up one’s cross, and follow Jesus. If we can do this, and go on doing it day after day as Luke tells us in his version of the same story, we will live more fully and deeply than we could possibly know. The only way to live is not to hold on tight to life, and especially to those moments when life feels perfect, but to let those moments pass, to go on finding God in the ever-new moments of each day. If we are not able to do this, we might find ourselves a little like those children, with nothing to display but a dead reminder of a beautiful, living past. 

One rather blunt saying goes that the difference between tradition and traditionalism is that tradition is the living faith of the dead, and traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. If we hold on to moments in the past, even profoundly beautiful and spiritual times, we are in danger of what Jesus warned of – of losing our lives even as we try so hard to hold on to them, as the present day and God’s presence in us eludes us as we continue to look for him in the past.     

So what might this look like, this life of taking up our cross and following Jesus? The reading we heard from Romans gives some definite answers as to what kind of a life Jesus calls us to. It is, you may not be surprised to hear, a life that is sometimes counter-intuitive; a life of not taking revenge, another perfectly natural human impulse, but of leaving room for God to respond to evil. It’s a life of letting go of the natural human response to get your own back on those who hurt you open heartedness to others, of hospitality which can mean so many different things both in and outside the home.  It’s a life of choosing in each and every moment to put others and God above your own needs, and finding in each and every moment that putting others and God above yourself is the best thing you could ever do for yourself anyway, that far from losing out, you win more than you thought possible.  This is what a Christian life should look like, and it’s this life to which we should aspire. It’s not easy – as I say, it’s deeply counter-intuitive – which is why we need the help of God’s Spirit and God’s people. But this is what life, lived to the full, looks like.  As we into this new season, let’s each take time to search our own hearts and to find the parts of us that, like Peter, try desperately to hold on the moment which so quickly becomes the past, and let’s ask God for his help in trusting in the eternal, ongoing, ever-new life of God in us and among us, always doing a new thing, always bringing new butterflies to birth for us to enjoy as they sweep by our lives. AMEN.