Saturday, 31 August 2013

Why Alan Davies is a Brave Man To Invite Jesus Round For Dinner

This is a sermon based on Luke 14:1, 7-14 (you can look it up on Oremus). 

I’m not much of a magazine reader, but I do enjoy reading food and cookery magazines. In most cookery mags, there will be an interview with a celebrity, with much the same sort of question: first food memories, what’s in your fridge, signature dish, food loves and hates, and finally, which famous people from any point in history would you invite round for dinner. Marilyn Munroe and Martin Luther King Jr feature quite often on these lists of dinner party dream guests. I read one such interview recently with the comedian Alan Davies who suggested someone whom I’d never come across in these questions in all my years of food-magazine reading; Alan Davies said that he’d invite Jesus round to dinner, along with Debbie Harry and Woody Allen.

As I read this interview, my first thought was ‘that’s interesting, and good.’ My second thought, I’m afraid to say, was ‘Really? You’d invite Jesus over? Do you realise what you’re saying there? Do you know what he’s like at dinner parties? Are you really sure you want to invite someone so subversive to your dinner party?’

What we see in this story from Luke’s Gospel is, perhaps, exactly the reason that Jesus isn’t mentioned in too many lists of fantasy dinner party guests from history. Jesus is invited to a dinner party at the home of a Pharisee. This is quite an honour, as normally, Pharisee dinners are family gatherings and to be invited into one is to be told, effectively, that the Pharisees want to claim you as one of their own.

You may have noticed that there is no seating plan for this dinner; it is up to the guests to arrange themselves, in order of status and importance, the most important at one end, and the least important at the other. So as well as defining who is in and who is out, who is invited and who is not, the Pharisee dinner party was a way of organising those who are in, those who are invited, and making sure that everyone knows where they stand, or sit, in the pecking order. As I was thinking about his scene from Jesus’ life, I got thinking about diplomatic dinner parties and the sheer headache that must come from trying to place people appropriately, this Ambassador next to that minor Royal.

The difference is, of course, that whereas diplomatic dinner seating plans are pored over, here in the home of the Pharisees, it is left up to the guests to arrange themselves as they see fit. And the Pharisees are watching Jesus closely, we are told, to see where he puts himself. Is Jesus going to take the place of honour, and claim for himself the role of Pharisee of Pharisees, which is how St Paul describes himself some years later? Or is Jesus going to put himself between two rabbis whom he sees as his equals? Where does Jesus fit in to this very clearly defined hierarchy of the invited and the uninvited, the greater or lesser? 

Maybe Luke’s first readers would have found it maddening that we never find out, because Luke doesn’t tell us where Jesus sat.

What Luke does tell us is what Jesus said, and what he says is a parable about a dinner party. That’s the first sign of just how subversive, how rude, even, Jesus is – he goes to a dinner party and starts talking about how dinner parties ought to be. I would imagine that if any of your guests did that in your home, you wouldn’t be too impressed. Luke says that Jesus tells a parable, and we might expect a story to follow, like the story of the sower or the story of the unjust judge. What we get, though, is a different type of parable. The Greek word ‘parabolos’ is the equivalent to the Hebrew word ‘mashal’ which can mean anything from a one-line nugget of wisdom to a full-blown story with a moral. The Old Testament book of Proverbs is full of mashalim – little tiny condensed one-line parables which capture a single idea, a single experience, and impart a little wisdom to its hearers about how to live well and wisely in all life’s little moments.

And what Jesus says to his Pharisee fellow diners is very much in the vein of the Old Testament Proverbs, which itself contains wise advice as to how to deport oneself at dinner parties, where to sit, how much to eat and so on.  Proverbs advises its readers not to claim the place of honour, so that someone else can claim it for you; a canny strategy for those wanting the seat of honour. Luke repeats this ancient wisdom, and then takes it to its logical conclusion:  ‘all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Again, this is not exactly new material. The Pharisees would have known all about the humble being exalted from stories such as those of Joseph and Job, and about those exalting themselves being humbled from characters like King Saul and King Solomon. Those stories can be used to either affirm the hierarchy of human society, in which the righteous are eventually rewarded and right order is eventually restored, or, much more subversively, they can be used to question the whole hierarchy altogether, to say that a new way of being in community is emerging, a way in which it is the poor who will be blessed.

Jesus is taking familiar ideas from the Hebrew Scriptures, and using them to illustrate the message that comes across loud and clear from Luke’s Gospel – the kingdom of God is about the good news for the poor, about the rich being sent empty away and the hungry filed with good things, about the world being turned upside down, about those on the outside being welcomed in and those who thought they were on the inside realising how very far away they really are.  And the place that we see what this means in practice, in real life, is how we behave when we east together.

As if that weren’t unsettling enough, Jesus takes it one step further and criticises his guests for inviting whom they did. It’s not just that Jesus turns up to a dinner party and starts talking about how dinner parties ought to be, it’s that he also tells his hosts whom they ought to have invited. Don’t invite your friends, he says, don’t invite those whom you like, who like you, who will invite you back to their house; invite those who are nothing like you, who don’t even know who you are, who may not even have a house to invite you back to. Invite those who can’t pay you back.

Because ultimately, this is what the kingdom of heaven is like. It’s recognising that we cannot pay God back for inviting us to the greatest dinner party of all, to the great heavenly feast to which all are invited and at which are all exalted, all are honoured guests.   The kingdom of heaven isn’t about reciprocity. It’s not about give and take. It’s about receiving what is graciously offered to us, if we are humble enough to accept it. This is what we have gathered here this morning to do, in our worship: to anticipate that great heavenly banquet by eating and drinking together at the altar, humbly receiving the gift of Jesus who comes to us as we come to Him. The Psalmist asks ‘How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me?’ The answer is, we can’t. All we can do is to come and gratefully receive his goodness to us, to offer ourselves in love and service to the one who welcomes us.        

And how we behave here, as we gather at God’s table this morning, is to set the pattern for our lives. All are welcome; all are invited, not even those who are poor and marginalised and a bit awkward or difficult one way or another, but especially those who are poor and marginalised and a bit awkward or difficult one way or another. Those are the very people we ought to be welcoming with open hearts, because they are a sign of the kingdom of heaven among us.

So next time you throw a dinner party, whom will you invite? It’s easy to invite friends, and it’s nice. Inviting friends round re-enforces our sense of well-being,  our sense of how the world is and how the world should be. Inviting those whom we find difficult is, well, difficult. It challenges our hospitality, our ideas about our own beneficence, our ideas about how the world is and how it should be. And maybe that is a very good reason to invite those whom we find difficult.  We will be paid back, Jesus says, but not in the way people normally are repaid for hospitality, and not in this lifetime. And who knows, if we are brave enough to take Jesus up on his challenge and offer hospitality to the poor, the difficult, the unemployed and unemployable, we might just end up entertaining angels.

So Alan Davies is a brave man to say that he’d invite Jesus round to dinner. I want to end by imagining, in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way, Jesus being interviewed in a cookery magazine. First food memories, what’s in your fridge, signature dish, and finally, fantasy dinner party guests. Whom, in September 2013, in the UK, do you think Jesus would say?   

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

By Faith...

This is a sermon I preached recently on the fabulous paean to faith, Hebrews 11. To listen, click here:

Or you can read on...

In 2007, the writer and comedian Ben Elton wrote a novel called ‘Blind Faith.’ In this dystopian UK of the near future, it is illegal not to have faith, and in this novel, having faith means accepting anything and everything, streamed through internet social media, with nothing more controversial or critical than an ‘Awww, lovely, babe!’
The novel’s title, Blind Faith, hints at the fear that faith means deliberately shutting our eyes to the world around us; like Lewis Carroll’s White Queen, believing six impossible things before breakfast.

Ben Elton’s novel captured something of the Zeitgeist; at the 1992 Edinburgh International Science Festival, Richard Dawkins claimed this: Faith is…blind trust…the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.
Ironically, Dawkins’ own blind faith in the concept of evidence leaves many questions unanswered: what kind of evidence? How do we know what counts as evidence? Who gets to decide what is evidence and what is not?

The God that Richard Dawkins doesn’t believe in is very different indeed from the God I do believe in, the God whom the Christian church worships, so really, it’s not very surprising that Dawkins doesn’t find any evidence for him.

Not only that, but Dawkins’ definition of faith bears no resemblance to any Christian understanding of faith, including that which we’ve heard in our reading of the epistle to the Hebrews. Faith, says the writer to the Hebrews, is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Now I try not to delve too deeply into the original Greek in my sermons, but this morning, I really can’t avoid it, because that statement contains some tricky words.

As it stands in the English translation we’ve heard, it is in danger of sounding as if faith is really all about personal religious feeling – assurance and conviction are words which we might us to describe how we feel when our spirits are soothed or stirred and our consciences pricked. Please hear me when I say that there’s nothing wrong with assurance and conviction –in fact we need more assurance and conviction in our lives and churches – but Hebrews is talking about something else.

The words used in that first statement about faith in our reading today would be much better translated: faith is the substance of that which is hoped for, the proof of things that are unseen. That needs a little word of explanation: the Greek word for substance, hypostasis, is about the reality which underpins everything. In the first centuries of Christianity, theologians debated the hypostasis of God – that is, the very nature, the substance, of God.

This word isn’t to do with religious feeling, it’s to do with claiming a religious reality which is true regardless of how we feel. The word ‘proof’ – ‘the proof of things unseen’ is also about claiming a reality; it’s the same word that was used in Greek courts of law; funnily enough, not a million miles away from the evidence which Richard Dawkins talks about. To Dawkins, faith and evidence are opposites; to Hebrews, faith and evidence are the same thing, because faith is itself the evidence of the underlying reality of God that underpins all that we see.
To borrow a metaphor from C. S. Lewis, having a stomach doesn’t necessarily mean that food is readily available, but it does presuppose that such thing as food exists; so in Hebrews, faith itself presupposes the underlying reality, the substance, of God.

This all sounds pretty abstract, any maybe the writer of Hebrews thinks so too, because he – or she – goes straight from defining what faith is, to describing how it affects peoples’ real lives, in a wonderful passage which I’d so recommend you to read, recounting the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ who surround us and stand for us as exemplars of faith.

We often think about faith as having certain Christian beliefs – belief in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and all the other beliefs which we affirm when we say the Nicene creed – and of course it’s good and important that we can say as Christians what our beliefs are. But the writer of Hebrews isn’t just interested in what this ‘great cloud of witnesses’ believed; this inspirational passage focuses on what these great heroes of faith did – what faith inspired them to do.

That refrain that we hear through the passage, ‘by faith’, is always followed by a verb. Faith is about doing as much as it is about believing. Maybe faith that stays in the heart and mind, and never does anything, is no faith at all. The letter of James in the New Testament sets it out it succinctly: faith without deeds is dead.

A living faith will lead people to do things, and, judging by this passage from Hebrews, it will lead all sorts of people to do all sorts of things. Faith is about doing, but it is not about us all doing the same thing; rather, it’s about us discovering the person whom God has created us to be, and the things which he is inviting us to do.

One of these great heroes of faith in Hebrews is, of course, Abraham, the great Father of Faith about whom we heard in our Old Testament reading. In our reading from Genesis, we hear God not commanding Abraham to have blind faith, but quite the opposite, to look – to look up to the countless stars in the night sky, and to see in them a promise of the children God would give this elderly, childless man.

So Abraham’s faith is quite the opposite of blind. It is a faith that looks – it looks up, it looks forward, and it looks out to the way that God is leading, even when that way is new and unknown. Rather than having blind faith, Abraham has faith that sees far more than most people ever do, sees past the immediate to the lasting, past the temporary to the eternal, past the wilderness and its tents, to the lasting home which God had promised on that starry night.

When I was learning to drive, my driving instructor – the one who finally got me through my test – taught me that the most important part of the human body for steering a car is not the hands but the eyes – we tend to veer in the direction in which we are looking.
What we do starts with what we see, what we notice. We might notice that someone hasn’t been to church for a few weeks, and decide to give them a phone call and tell them we’re thinking of them. We might see that there’ a need for people in the church to help with one of the groups we have, and decide to speak to the person who runs the group. Our doing starts with seeing, and it’s all done in faith, as an expression of how God calls us to live by faith.
Living by faith also means looking inside ourselves, and seeing ourselves as God sees us – being brave enough to consider that God has wonderful plans for us and invites us to come and see them, too.    

And living by faith means seeing the world as God sees it, through the eyes of justice and love. It means being brave enough to consider that God has wonderful plans for his world, and that we can play our part in bringing about that vision of justice and love which we celebrate every Sunday. In his last recorded speech, given the evening before his assassination in 1968, Martin Luther King, Junior, said this: 

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

Mine eyes have seen. In all of Dr King’s doings, this was the central truth. Mine eyes have seen what the world could be like, should be like, must become like if it is in any way to reflect the nature of the God who created it in love. That vision was the inspiration for so much action.

So, catchy though Ben Elton’s book title is, faith is anything but blind. Faith means looking, seeing, noticing – seeing those around us, seeing ourselves, seeing the world – as God sees them. And from that seeing comes doing – acts of service, small things maybe, but that doesn’t matter. Mother Theresa said that not all of us can do great things. But all of us can do small things with great love. And maybe if we could allow ourselves to catch sight of this vision – of God’s vision – we ourselves would stand as the proof, the evidence of the reality of God that underlies everything, for a world so desperately searching for evidence. Amen.  

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Just One Song

The other day, I watched the biopic of the troubled, self-destructive singer Johnny Cash, Walk the Line. The movie opens with Cash as an unsuccessful door-to-door salesman, promising his anxious wife that he will make good, when he comes across a record producer and lands an audition for himself and his band, prompting this response. This is the defining moment in the movie, the moment at which Cash is confronted with the question 'If you were nearing death and only had time to sing just one song, what would your song be?'

It's a profound question. Now, I'm not much of a singer; if I were lying in a gutter on the verge of the hereafter, I doubt that I'd want to sing anything at all. However, I do love music, so maybe for me the question might be better asked 'If you were nearing death and only had time to listen to just one song, what would your song be?'

For a music lover like me, that's a real toughie. The song that defines me today is not the song that defined me last week, or last month, or last year. Yes, I do have favourites, songs that I carry around in my soul like well-worm seashells a child might carry in his pockets, songs that speak to me, of me and for me. But to choose just one? Just one song?  

This isn't an altogether abstract question. I've sat with grieving people as they've striven to find the 'just one song' for their loved one's funeral. Sometimes it's an obvious, instant choice. Sometimes it's hard work, and takes time, to work out what the 'just one song' was for their parent or spouse, the song that speaks for, of and to the loved one, and all who gather to mourn. (Of course, funerals normally have more than 'just one song.' But there is often one particular piece of music that has that 'bingo' effect, that says it all more eloquently than any eulogy ever could.)

Back to Johnny Cash. If you've seen the movie, you'll know that the audition ends well, with Cash and his band finding their signature style and going on to achieve great fame, as well as much desolation until...well, you might not have seen it, so I'll leave it there. As I say, I'm not much of a singer. I do believe, though, that each of us has a metaphorical 'song to sing' in our lives, a gift, however humble or everyday it may seem, to offer, a way of expressing ourselves for the benefit of others. Your 'just one song' might be something artistic, like oil panting, pottery or woodwork. It might be something caring like looking after children, the elderly, or nursing. It might be something conceptual like philosophy or mathematics. It might be something obviously spiritual, like intercessory prayer or leading worship. It might be something administrative, in which case I applaud you. It might even be something musical. It might be that your 'just one song' is polyphonic and combines notes of all these and more. Finding our 'just one song', the things that we are to do with our lives that sing the song by which we would like to be defined, may be an instant, obvious choice. Sometimes it is hard work, and tales longer. But it is so worth the work.      

One of my favourite bands, The Indigo Girls, wrote this song, Fly Away, which seems to evoke similar thoughts. It's a lovely song. As they say, the saddest song is the one that never makes it to the world. May we all find the 'just one song' that God our creator has fashioned us, in his own image, to sing.


Monday, 12 August 2013

Bread of Heaven: A Sermon

Introduction: This was a (long!) sermon which I preached as part of our church team's Summer Evensong Series on 'Surprising Converts.' I chose to base my sermon on Sara Miles, whose story is told in Take This Bread.  As I say, it's a longer than average sermon (for me, anyway) so you might want to make yourself a nice cup of tea to settle down with this!
If I asked you to think of one thing, just one single thing that would convert someone to Christianity, what would you think of? A beautifully concise, compellingly clear argument for the reality of God? A fabulously clever response to the objections of atheists such as Richard Dawkins? A knock-you-off-your-feet spiritual experience? The long and deep friendship with a particularly saintly Christian?  A welcoming, vibrant church family waiting with open arms? Maybe we could do with more of all these sorts of things, but for one American woman, what slowly but surely turned her from non-religious secularism to a living Christian faith which went on to re-shape her entire life wasn’t words, religious experiences or the influence of other people,  but walking into church one Sunday morning and receiving communion. She describes the moment like this:

One early, cloudy morning when I was 46, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine activity for tens of millions of Americans – except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything.

This ‘thoroughly secular life’ had involved travel to Nicaragua, El Salvador, South Africa and the Philippines, where Sara Miles worked as a peace activist and strategist, war journalist and researcher.  She writes: ‘writing about and living in…wars absorbed me completely….what I learned…informs what I now call my Christianity. It was a feeling of total community with others, whether or not I like them, through the common fact of our mortal bodies. We all had bodies that could suffer and be killed…In war, I looked at other, different people and saw them, face to face.’ The daughter of parents who had rejected their own parents’ fervent Christianity and missionary callings, Miles had grown up in an almost completely a-religious, socially and politically liberal household and community; she says that her parents ‘taught her how good it tasted to escape convention’ and encouraged each of their children to find their own passions in life, to adventure and experiment. What they didn’t anticipate was this adventuring and experimenting would eventually lead their daughter back to the faith which they themselves had given up, and which was the one thing they had subsequently opposed, the one exploration they did not encourage.

So it was surprising that Miles’ Sunday morning stroll took her into a church; more surprising still that the church into which she wandered was a particularly innovative, diverse and creative Episcopal church, St Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco, a church which, as she puts it, ‘believed in the absolute religious value of welcoming people who didn’t belong’. For someone who describes herself as ‘a very unlikely convert: a blue-state, secular intellectual; a lesbian; a left-wing journalist with a habit of scepticism’, she couldn’t have chosen a church more suited to her.

She recalls her first experience of receiving communion at St Gregory’s: ‘I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as though I had just stepped off a curb or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind…yet that impossible word, Jesus, lodged in me like a crumb.’ In the coming weeks, the pull back to St Gregory’s was strong: ‘It was a sensation as urgent as physical hunger.’ Becoming a Christian was a confusing and destabilising experience for Miles; one of her friends described the period of her conversion as her ‘deer in the headlights’ phase. ‘Back then’, she writes, ‘I thought ‘believers’ were people who knew exactly what they believed and had nailed all the answers.’

She had plenty of questions, and was faced with more questions still from her ‘cynical, hilarious, overeducated’ friends who called her to account for the many shortcomings in American Christianity; one activist lawyer described Christianity as ‘the most reactionary force in the world, anti-Semitic, misogynist, homophobic…[itemising] the Vatican, the Crusades, Jerry Falwell, [and] child-molesting priests’. Despite all this, Miles writes that ‘the Christianity that called to me, through the stories I read in the Bible, scattered the proud and rebuked the powerful. It was a religion in which divinity was revealed by scars on flesh…in which the hungry were filled with good things, and the rich sent out empty; in which new life was manifested through a humiliated, hungry woman and an empty, tortured man.’

In this new faith, the themes of hunger and being fed with the body of Christ became powerfully meaningful. Alongside her writing and peace activism, Miles had long worked in restaurants and found a love of cooking. So it’s not surprising that it was Jesus the bread of life that drew her to faith. She quotes the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams; ‘it’s the really hungry who can smell fresh bread a mile away. For those who know their need, God is immediate – not an idea, not a theory, but life, food, air for the stifled spirit and the beaten, despised, exploited body.’   And as Miles discovered, ‘it turned out that the pre-requisite for conversion wasn’t knowing how to behave in a church, or having a religious vocabulary or an a priori ‘belief’ in an abstract set of propositions: It was hunger, the same hunger I’d always carried.’

It’s not that surprising, either, that with her background in food, her new life at St Gregory’s, a church committed to ‘hospitality to strangers’,  and her keen awareness for social justice, Miles’ faith would lead not only to her being fed by Jesus the bread of life but also to her sharing food with others.

 As she got to know her city, San Francisco, she saw that although it is a sophisticated place of foodie delights, in many, less privileged areas of the city, access to decent food was very limited indeed; as she says, ‘in the ghettos, it seemed easier to buy drugs than to find a fresh tomato.’ A fund-raising letter from the San Francisco Food Bank which prompted Miles into action estimated that over 90,000 people in San Francisco, mainly children and women, had barely enough food to stave off hunger. Amidst this backdrop, Miles was struck by the story of Jesus’ instructing Peter to ‘feed my sheep.’ She writes: ‘It seemed pretty clear. If I wanted to see God, I could feed people.’

The story of Jesus’ words to Peter were ringing in Miles’ ears as she hesitantly phoned the San Francisco Food Bank, introduced herself as being from St Gregory’s Church and asked to talk to someone about starting a food pantry.

It was a great idea. But, like Miles’ own conversion to Christianity, didn’t go as smoothly as all that. One church member asked angrily ‘Has anyone spoken up to say this project is an insane waste?’ Another added ‘We can’t keep the church picked up and the kitchen clean as it is.’ Miles put all her negotiating and peace-mediation skills to use in convincing members of St Gregory’s that being fed is at the heart of Christianity; ‘we do it now on Sundays’, she wrote in an open letter to the church. ‘I believe we can do it one more time each week – gathered around the Table….handing bags full of macaroni and peanut butter to strangers, in remembrance of him.’

It’s not surprising, probably, that the people of St Gregory’s were slightly wary of this scheme. It was deliberately unregulated, requiring no showing of ID to get food, as other food banks did. The commitment to ‘hospitality to strangers’ meant that anyone could turn up, with or without ID, every Friday. AS Miles remembers, ‘it was a different set of ‘everyone’ than I saw at church on Sundays’, all sorts of people in all sorts of states, all compelled by their hunger.   As they queued, they would ask, ‘Will you pray for me?’, and they would offer one another prayer and insight. What they came for was food which Miles and others bought for pennies at warehouses, vast surpluses due to American agricultural policy.  A prayer was composed for the food pantry:

            O God of abundance, you feed us every day.

Rise in us now, make us into your bread,

That we may share your gifts with a hungry world

And join in love with all people,

Through Jesus Christ our Lord.

 Ironically, amidst all the busy-ness of setting up and staffing the Food Pantry, Miles realised that the volunteers who gave up their time for this project were barely eating between serving others. So the Friday Food Pantry started with a decent sit-down meal for volunteers, and the sense of fellowship grew. The Friday food pantry extended into Sunday afternoons where, after the church’s main service, the altar would be transformed into a food store, and then transformed back in time for a late afternoon Eucharist, with the occasional latecomer turning up seeking food during worship. I contacted Sara Miles, who is now employed by St Gregory’s to grow this work further, and told her that I was going to share her story with you, and received a warm response.

So why does this particular surprising convert appeal to me? Well, a while ago my parents said that wherever I live, I always have a knack of finding the churches with the best food. When I look back over my life, I’ve been involved with various churches and it’s true – whatever else might be different  about them, they’ve all known how to eat well together. It’ been in eating together that I’ve learnt how to be a disciple of Jesus; this eating together goes right back to Jesus and his first disciples.

Not only that, but the need to share food with others beyond our church congregations is becoming pressing in these austere times. Food Banks have sprung up all over the UK – there is one in Welwyn Garden City – and you don’t have to look far at all to hear stories of real poverty here in the UK, of parents not eating so that their children can, of a £14 food budget for a week.

The issues involved are complex, and the solutions not always easy, but this should be a concern for us as Christians, especially those of us who are fortunate enough not to have to worry about where the next meal is going to come from. This surprising convert appeals to me because her story makes it clear that being converted – being turned to Christ – means a changed life, means serving others as we are served ourselves.

Finally, this surprising convert appeals to me because of her deep sense of Holy Communion as the one act of worship that draws together all the strands of our lives and all of our lives together in the reality of Christ present among us and in us. I read her book on my retreat just before my ordination as priest, just before I celebrated the Eucharist for the first time, and I found it to be an inspiring account of the holiness of what happens when we receive Christ in bread and wine. She says: ‘it may seem deluded to assert that people can still be fed with this ordinary yet mystical bread, so besmirched and exhausted and poisoned by centuries of religious practice, in ways that will change our own real lives, not to mention the world, for the better. But this is my belief: that at the heart of Christianity is a power that continues to speak to and transform us….as the Bible says, Taste and See.’ 


Wednesday, 7 August 2013

On Earth As It Is In Heaven: A Sermon

Introduction: I'm sitting in my study, listening to Ennio Morricone's breathtakingly beautiful soundtrack to the 1986 movie 'The Mission'. One of the pieces of music is called On Earth As It Is In Heaven. I'm preaching my way through the Lord's Prayer this summer, and this was my sermon on the same theme. You might want to listen to Ennio Morricone as you read; if the sermon doesn't stir your soul, the music certainly will!

‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Amen.’

What is heaven like? Like most really good, interesting theological questions, this question is most often asked by children. Will my dog be in heaven? Will there be chocolate ice-cream in heaven? How will we recognise in heaven? Won’t we get bored in heaven? These are all different ways of asking, what is heaven like?

Some years ago, I spent a month or so in Singapore. I had been in South East Asia for a good few months, working with churches, by the time I got to Singapore, and I really liked South East Asia in general, and Singapore in particular. I was working with a group of other women for a church, and staying at a Salvation Army hostel, which was much plusher than it sounds. One afternoon, I was strolling around Singapore on my own, when I came across an Anglican church. I wandered in.
I walked around the edges, looking at monuments and stained glass, and reading the plaques, and what crept up on me as I drifted around was a growing sense that I wasn’t in Singapore at all, but back home in England – that something weird had occurred, Dr Who-style, in the space-time continuum and that I was home. Home.  I wasn’t homesick at the time. I wasn’t miserable. I liked Singapore. I was having a great time. And yet, here I was, wandering around a church and suddenly, unawares, finding myself with a deep sense of experiencing a home I didn’t realise I was missing. I wonder if you’ve ever had similar experiences.

So as we come to think about heaven this morning, and to ponder what it means to pray ‘on earth as it is in heaven’, the answer to the children’s questions is, almost without exception, we don’t know. We can’t know what heaven is like, because we are creatures of earth. Even St John who wrote Revelation strained at the very edges of human language to describe his visions of the heavenly places.
Yet – every now and then we get a glimpse of that distant country which is our spirit’s true home, a sense that creeps up on us that there is a home which we are unaware of most of the time – most of us aren’t spiritually homesick – but when we encounter that spiritual homecoming, we know that it is for this that we care created, and it is for this that we are destined.

We might catch a glimpse of our heavenly home when we are in a beautiful place, or listening to spine-tingling music. We might experience it in all sorts of places – hopefully, our worship in church helps us to catch a glimpse of heaven. And what we grasp in these moments is the sense, deeper than words can say, that, as Mother Julian of Norwich put it, ‘all shall we be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’  
That all that is wrong and broken and squalid and evil in our world will be healed, will be redeemed and transformed by the inestimable power of love and justice, that the very centre of the universe there is a God whose very nature and being is love itself who created us and the world out of love, in love, for love, that our heart’s true home is love, and therefore our heart’s true home is the God who is love. We glimpse that everything good in our lives and in our world reflects and points us towards this mind-bogglingly wonderful truth at the very centre of everything.

So we glimpse that, fleetingly, and we wish we could bottle it. We wish we could hold on to that wonderful sense that all shall be well. But what normally happens is that we come out of church, or the music stops playing, or we get home from our holiday, and we realise that all is not well - yet. We switch on the TV and hear the news, or we read the papers and hear about poverty, war, violence, abuse, and all sort of wrongs. We feel the impact of those wrongs in our own lives. We suffer from illness, or someone close to us done, and we realise how fragile our human bodies are. We fall out with someone close to us, and we realise how fragile our relationships are.
So we pray, ‘your will be done – on earth as it is in heaven’. We recognise that this world is not our true spiritual home, and we pray that this world will become more and more like that heavenly home which we glimpse in our highest moments. We pray that all that reflects and points to the love that is God, the God who is love, will become more and more the reality that defines us, our lives and the life of the world. We pray that all that is not God – all that is not love, all evil and self-centredness, greed and corruption – will become less and less the reality of who we are.

The Lord’s Prayer asks us to become visionaries. It asks us to catch sight of something of heaven, and to pray for it to be thus on earth. In his last recorded speech before he was assassinated in 1968, Martin Luther King, Junior, said this:  
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

These are the words of someone who lived the prayer ‘on earth as in heaven,’ whose vision of the love and justice of God shaped not only his life but the history of the United States of America. As King’s life shows, it’s a costly prayer to pray. It involves seeing the world, and ourselves, through the lens of heaven. That means recognising all that is wrong, and working towards transforming the brokenness of our world so that it reflects the glory of heaven.   
And what does this prayer really involve? Well, it’s there in the first part; your kingdom come, your will be done.  When we pray this, we recognise that we are not the centre of the universe, but rather, that God is. We recognise that everything self-seeking and self-centred that is in us is not love, because love is all about giving to others. We recognise that self-seeking is at the heart of every conflict, and every war, and that greedy self-seeking is at the heart of so much poverty and exploitation of others.

We pray that we will be changed by our vision of heaven, that we will not be dictated to by the market forces of the world but rather that we will become less and less the centre, and that Jesus will become more and more the centre of our lives, that we will put aside our own desires to serve God. The Lord’s Prayer invites us to become visionaries, and it also instructs us to become humble servants of that vision. St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, wrote this prayer, which sums up so much of what it means to pray ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’. His words might mean different things to different people, but what they don't mean is that we lose our identity and become insipid, faceless yes-people if we give ourselves to this vision of Heaven. No, it means that as we see our hearts' true home through the eyes of faith, we become ever more who God has created us, and destined us to be. Ignatius prays:
 Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory,
    my understanding, and my entire will.
All I have and call my own.
Whatever I have or hold, you have given me.
I return it all to you and surrender it wholly
    to be governed by your will.
Give me only your love and your grace
    and I am rich enough and ask for nothing more.