Sunday, 26 January 2014

'That there be no divisions among you': A sermon to end the Week of Prayer for Christan Unity.

There’s a Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy strides into the room where Linus is watching television, and insists, with a raised fist, that he changes channels. "What makes you think you can walk right in here and take over?" asks Linus. 
"These five fingers," says Lucy. "Individually they're nothing but when I curl them together like this into a single unit, they form a weapon that is terrible to behold."
 "Which channel do you want?" asks Linus. Turning away, he looks at his fingers and says, "Why can't you guys get organized like that?"

Today is the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and each year a Bible text is chosen to focus prayers and thoughts. This year, the reading we’ve heard from 1 Corinthians 1 was that text. The strapline to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2014 is simply ‘Is Christ divided?’ Looking at the complex and often confusing differences and animosities between churches and Christians, a visitor from outer space might well assume that the answer to that question must be in the affirmative, as so many of Christ’s people are divided.     
Yet here is St Paul, holding out to us down the ages the grand vision of Christ’s people not as a gathering of lots of individuals who relate to each other to the extent that they find one another agreeable or likeable or useful, but rather as a gathering of one body which must necessarily relate to the other parts of itself despite finding some of those parts disagreeable, dislikeable and frankly, a liability. If we see the people of God as a plural entity, then it makes it easy to pick and choose from within the great smorgasbord of expressions of faith those which we like. If we see the church – not just this little gathering here this morning but what C. S. Lewis calls ‘the church militant, terrible as an army with banners’ meeting together in church buildings and schools, huts and houses all over the world and going back through time all the way to Corinth, the Upper Room of Jerusalem and of the Last Supper, as one thing, then such picking and choosing is not really an option.

So in this passage Paul is insistent that ‘there be no divisions among you.’ The word ‘divisions’ is schismata, a word that has come to be associated in English, ironically, with religion. If Paul could have looked down the ages, pretty much exactly a millennium, from when he was writing in the early 50s, he would have seen the Great Schism of the Eastern and Western churches in 1053. But even before then the church’s failure to live up to this Pauline ideal was already evident in the ecumenical councils which hammered out what it is that the people of God believe, and what it is that they should do when they meet together.  And if Paul could have looked a bit further still, nearly five hundred years after the Great Schism, to Germany in 1517, he would have seen a passionate monk pinning 97 ideas to a church door in Wittenberg; Martin Luther and the gathering momentum of the Protestant Reformation. And of course it goes on and on; schism seems to be a depressingly recurrent feature of Christian faith. Yet Paul still speaks to us down the ages, rebuking us, winning us over, pleading with us that there be no schisms among you.     

And why does this matter? Why does it matter so much that Paul devotes his entire letter to what it means to live as one body, and the implications of that radical vision?   If we take seriously the message of Paul in this letter, then we are forced to see the people of God in the singular; and that means acknowledging that when we fail to see the Christ in the other, we fail to see the Christ in ourselves. When we hurt or sideline other Christians, we diminish and damage ourselves. If we are part of one another, then, to be blunt, we can’t escape each other so we might as well learn to get on.  As you might know, I know a bit about auto-immune disease, the type of illness in which the individual human body reacts against part of itself and overcompensates for what is, actually, normal functioning. This type of illness is debilitating, painful and can become, in its complications, life-threatening. By overstretching the immune system in an attempt to protect itself against itself, it conversely lays the body open to all sorts of ailments. I think it can be seen as a kind of hyper-allergy, except that in it’s not an allergy to an external substance like peanuts or egg, but to an inescapable part of oneself. I sometimes think that the church of God is suffering from auto-immune disease, and is in great pain because of it.

So how do we, as little tiny parts of this huge and unwieldy body, do our little bit to heal this fractured self? Well, that’s where the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity comes in. It may have officially ended for this year, but the hope is that we will keep on praying; praying for parts of ourselves in other churches and countries, praying for parts of ourselves which are in real pain and suffering real persecution, praying that where vision is small and love is lacking, the power of the Holy Spirit will enlarge our eyes and hearts.
And from that place of prayer, we hope, will come a seeing of the world, and the whole church, through the eyes of the God who is Love, an acceptance, a charity, a living with the messy and the unresolved and the strongly-held opinions. A recognition that until all is gathered up into Christ and the end comes, we live in messy, unresolved, opinionated world, and we are part of that as Christians. A recognition that, as Paul says later in this great gift of a letter, as yet we see as though a glass, darkly; then we shall know fully, as we are fully known.  And because we see through a glass, darkly, the most excellent way to live is the way of love. With that comes a humility, which makes it easier to see the Christ in the Other, and to accept all in us that has not yet become like Christ.

Ultimately, prayer must be the centre because the message of Paul to us is that our unity as Christians is only possible because we are part of the body of Christ; we can’t unify ourselves any more than the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle can form themselves into the picture they are intended to represent. It is God’s work in us and God’s will for us to make us unified, and our part is to work with God by praying, as ever, ‘thy will be done,’ and to respond to the answering of that prayer by opening ourselves to love one another in Christian charity.  Amen.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Arise, shine!

One of the things I find hardest to do in my daily life is to get out of bed in the morning. Well, to be more precise, I find it hard to get out of bed at 6.30 a..m., after I've snoozed the alarm three times already and checked my emails still snuggled in the duvet, in a vain bid to convince myself that this constitutes valid work and therefore compensates for not having got up. At this time of year, getting out of bed comes even less naturally to me than in the summer months when at least it feels that by hefting my frame down the stairs and groggily putting the kettle on (the first task of the day and the one that makes all others possible and puts me in mind of this movie) I am joining in with the rest of the created order.

The thing I have noticed in my half-awake state first thing in the morning, though, is that it's getting lighter. The winter solstice has been and gone, and every now and then I find myself realising that this time last week, as I did this task or drove or walked to this place, it was a bit darker. This evening I drove to Evening Prayer in dusky shadows, something I can't remember having done since some time around Remembrance Sunday. When I was in Thailand some years ago, I was astounded by how quickly the sun set; one moment it was light, and I could still read the 'No elephants on the beach' sign: the next, it was dark. Here, the sun sets, and rises, almost imperceptibly, edging its way so slowly, and with such grace that it is only when we turn away, and then turn back again that we realise how far it has gone. (Anyone with any knowledge of astronomy, or science in general, may like to take that sentence in its intended poetic sense and disregard its obvious inaccuracy.)  Light and darkness are definitive to our lives; I sometimes wonder what it'd be like to live without electric lighting for a whole year, so as to experience the ebb and flow of light and shade as the seasons gently turn. (Of course, this is highly unlikely ever to happen.)

Religious thought, Christian and otherwise, is, quire literally, drawn to these themes of light and shade, not only to mark the seasonal variety of  the world of which we are part, but also to, if you will, shed light on our own lives and their times of brilliance and dazzling light, storm and deep darkness, and all the myriad shades in between. In the church year, we are still in Epiphany ('upon the light') Season, and will be until Candlemas, that beautiful but often ignored festival of lights in which we remember the boy Jesus in the Temple, and the portentous meeting of young and old as the elderly prophets Simeon and Anna speak curious words to, and of, the young child and His mother. For the moment, as we pray morning and evening through the subtly but surely shifting light and shade of late winter, we say to ourselves and to one another,'Arise, shine. Your light has come. The glory of the Lord has risen upon you. A light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.'

So in our lives; in my own life, and in my ministry with people who are ill, bereaved or simply struggling with the tough stuff that life can involve despite our best efforts sometimes, the sunrise may feel slow and long overdue ('Morning hasn't quite broken yet,' as my daughter put it on the way to the school bus today). But winter gives way to spring in such tiny gestures day by day that each one should be noticed and treasured. If we can look around us, look up from whatever we're doing every now and then and say to ourselves that it's not quite as dark as it was this time last week, or last month, maybe that's enough of a sign of the still distant springtime to give us hope that we, with all creation, can arise and shine, for our light has come.

Whether that thought helps me at 6.30 a.m. tomorrow, after I've snoozed the alarm three times and checked my emails twice, remains to be seen.  


Saturday, 11 January 2014

This Is My Son: An Arty Sermon on the Baptism of Christ

This is the sermon I have prepared for the Feast of the Baptism of Christ 2014. 

Water. So elemental, so vital, so life-giving, so refreshing, so powerful, so devastatingly destructive, so utterly necessary to life on this blue planet. It's been estimated that on average, a person would survive only between three and five days without water, even though we ourselves are 65% water. Water fascinates us and soothes us, cleanses and refreshes us, keeps us alive and alert; water worries us and, as we are seeing more and more, has the potential to overwhelm us completely, as one of the most dangerous forces on earth; yet water is benign enough be used as a control substance in allergy tests.

So we come this week to ponder the watery start to Jesus' public ministry, his baptism in the river Jordan. As yet no miracles have been performed, no teaching offered, no sick cured; and yet, here in the river, we see Jesus as he is, as all that he will go on to do will confirm about his unique divine identity as the Son of God.

The baptism of Jesus has caught the imagination of painters and artists down the centuries, and to help us think about who Jesus is this morning, we are going to look at three very different artworks from different times and places. 

The first is a very ancient icon of the baptism of Jesus; this is called an icon of the Theophany.

You'll remember that last week we celebrated Epiphany, the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ, and you may well know that 'epiphany' literally means 'upon the light', the very moment that the Magi turned to squint up into the night sky and noticed a new brightness. Theophany is similar; this word means 'the light of God'; in other words, the moment at which we see Jesus not simply as another devoutly Jewish man coming to be ritually cleansed, but as the light of God himself.

In this Theophany, water is gushing out from the rock as it did for Moses in the desert (Exodus 17; Numbers 20). This water is pouring forth with some gusto, yet Jesus is not swept away by it. In the Hebrew tradition, floods most commonly signify chaos and misrule; God in Psalm 29 is called 'king over the flood.' Jesus here is king of these floodwaters, at perfect peace in the midst of the flood, and the sea creatures are mastered by those either side of Jesus who ride them. Maybe anticipating the moment when he will walk on water, Jesus stands on a cross, beneath which two snakes' heads poke out. This same Jesus will bear a cross, this icon tells us, and that cross will crush the serpent underfoot as the prophets foretold. In other words, evil and chaos will be defeated through Jesus. 

Already that has started; an axe lies at the root of the tree by the side of the waters, as John says. Already the tree of evil has begun to be felled, and its demise is inevitable. And there John is, on the banks of the river, as the patriarchs who foretold the coming of the Messiah look on - and on the other side, the angels whose faces are exactly the same as the people's; or is it that the people have started to resemble the angels? Only the wings give it away as human and divine beings gather together around this one unique Jesus, fully divine and fully human. And, like the Epiphany star, the light from heaven. This is my Son; this Jesus, who is king over all that is chaotic and destructive, who will be nailed to a cross and who will overcome all that is evil; this Jesus in whom all humanity and all divinity are poured into one fragile human body. 

Some millennium or so later, the heterodox visionary William Blake painted three pictures of the baptism of Christ. 


This, too, is a theophany, a moment of the light of God shining out of the human body of Jesus. Light plays on the water and contrasts with the dark shadows of the hills and the darkness of the skies around the angelic clouds of light. Here the division between the angels and humans is clearer; the skies are not so much parted as concentrated as rows of angelic beings look on to witness the public identification of Jesus as the one on whom the Spirit, the dove who in this picture is pure white, pure light, rests. The prophecy of Isaiah talks of the light of the coming salvation of God as being like the light of a whole week (Isaiah 30:26); here, it is as if the light of a whole week is being focused down on the two figures in the river. In the icon, Jesus is facing us; here, he is facing away and we see, lit from above, his back. This is no mere artistry on Blake's part; Exodus 33 talks about the glory of God being so intense, so concentrated in the tabernacle, that Moses could see only God's back. Here, the same is being said of Jesus. The intense brightness of the glory of God is the same intense brightness of the glory of Jesus, because Jesus is God himself, shining in the darkness of this world's shadows.  This is my Son, the one who has come as a light into the darkness, the one in whom all the glory of God dwells. 

The theme of the light of Christ is explored in the final picture I'm going to show you, a chalk picture by Peter Paul Rubens, composed almost two hundred years before Blake's painting.  

Here the light and dark contrast is split right down the middle by a tree. The tree in the icon is small, and off to a side; here, the tree takes centre stage and it is Jesus who is off-centre, bathed in light. Maybe here we might think of God's plan for salvation for the world coming together in the baptism of Jesus. We might think of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden, the tree of temptation and fallenness. We might think of the cross, which Paul describes as a tree of cursedness. And we might think of the tree of life in the middle of the new Jerusalem, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. These trees define human life; our fallenness, our redemption in Christ, and our ultimate destiny as adopted children of God with Christ in the new heavens and new earth in which all is being made new. This is my Son, the one who takes on himself human brokenness and sin, who offers himself to be the curse to end all curses, to redeem humanity on the cross, and in whom all are invited to be part of the new creation. This is my Son, who splits history in two just as this tree splits this picture in two. 

So much to ponder this morning!So as we come to him now, in worship and prayer, we come to the one who is in control over all in our lives that is destructive and chaotic; we come to him as the light shining into the darkness of our world, whom we see not yet face to face but whose back view is as full of the glory of God as the God worshipped by Moses; we come him as the one who splits history in two, who takes on himself our sin and brokenness and who offers us healing and life as he makes all things new. Amen.      

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

'Whose Service is Perfect Freedom': Another Blog about a Dog

'O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom: Defend us, thy humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.' 

For those of you who don't know it, that's the Book of Common Prayer Collect for Peace, a centuries-old prayer. It came to mind this morning as I was walking Ben (I warned you that I'd be blogging more about my dog!) There we were, two creatures both wearing dog collars, one ambling gently along while the other bounded and leapt and snuffled and smelt.  I said in my last post that alreay, Ben and I have traipsed miles; that's not, strictly speaking, true. I have traipsed while Ben has strained and pulled (I know, I know...) and then ran and explored. In his previous life, most of Ben's walks were through town streets, on the lead. Here, all it takes is a quick two minute walk to be on a public footpath through as many miles of countryside as we have energy to find.  The day after Ben came to us, I took him on the lead down to the village  green, found a spot as far away from the car park as possible, and...took the lead off. He ran away. I called him. He came back. I threw a tennis ball for him. He leapt up, caught it in his mouth in mid-air and deposited it at my feet. Excellent, I thought. This is a dog who's been properly trained. We can have some fun. 

So most of Ben's walks are very much off the lead, and he is relishing being a country dog (do the all lick horse poo?) I was talking to my vet friends about the difference between a dog walk on, and off, the lead. The difference is huge, we agreed; the word 'olefactory' was mentioned, as dogs can sniff and snuffle their way along when they are off the lead in a way that they simply can't when they are being led. Being off the lead doesn't mean making a frenzied bid for freedom leaving one's owner far behind. In fact, it seems the opposite; Ben seems to have a very finely tuned instinct for where I am, and what I'm doing. This morning as we were walking, Ben some way ahead of me, I very quietly stopped for a moment to see what he'd do. Within seconds he'd turned to see what the problem was. 

Seeing him belting around the woods brought this prayer to mind. I can't think of a better metaphor for spiritual freedom than a dog exploring a woodland, jumping over logs and sniffing out trails. Of course, the only reason we were able to do this was because he had been trained as a puppy, and had very quickly attached himself to me as his new owner. I trusted him, he trusted me, and the freedom that he was able to enjoy because of that trust was just wonderful to see. 
We might think about the structures in our lives that are intended to eventually bring freedom; stabilisers on children's bicycles, electronic cigarettes and so on. In Galatians, Paul writes about the law as being along such lines; the law is a teacher intended to bring us up to maturity, he says. In Christ, true freedom is a reality ('It was for freedom that Christ has freed you.') The law is a bit like a dog lead. In Christ, we are off the lead and the whole countryside is ours to explore.     

 You can probably work out where I'm going with this. We humans need to learn from dogs. We need to see that true spiritual freedom actually involves a lot of discipline, structure and learning. It involves a greater awareness of where God is in our lives and what he is doing, not less. It requires the readiness to respond when we hear our heavenly master's voice, and to come back when we've bounded off too far. Many of us long for spiritual freedom; but the work that it implies is, let's face it, quite demanding. When I was leaving theological  college we had a short conference with our to-be training incumbents which was colloquially referred to as 'puppy walking.' I saw it as an insult at the time; now, thanks to Ben, I see it as something between a fact and a compliment. Only puppies who've been trained properly get to bound through the woods. 

Saturday, 4 January 2014

A Blog About a Dog and a blog about a God

I'm just back from a long, wet, muddy walk along public footpaths and through woodlands throwing sticks and disposing of poo along the way. Not how I'd normally be spending a rainy Saturday in January; at least, not until about two weeks ago. 

It was on January 1st, 2013, that I said 'Let's make this the year that we get a dog.' As you may know, a whole load of stuff ensued, but the basic sentiment remained: I wanted 2013 to be the year of the dog. I'd had two lazy dachshunds growing up, but I'd not been a responsible adult dog owner, so this was, and still is, new territory for me. I talked to my vet friend who made the very sensible suggestion of looking for a little, biddable thing, a 'starter dog' if you will. There were a few maybes, few phone calls to breeders, but it never quite happened. In the meantime, I was trawling the Dogs' Trust and Blue Cross websites, looking at Staffy after Staffy after Staffy, and chatting to dog owners, picking up tips, tricks and basic info here and there. 

After a while I realised that the reason that the little biddable dog had never quite worked out was that actually, my heart wasn't in it. I realised that what I really wanted was what I categorised in my mind as a 'proper dog', a dog who would traipse miles and fetch sticks and bark deeply when someone knocked on the door.  I also realised that what I really wanted was not a puppy but a dog. The only problem, which turned out to be quite a big problem, was that the vast majority of rescue dogs don't mix well with cats or children, which any dog would have to do in order to be part of this household. So I kept my eyes open and ear to the ground, but realised that finding the right dog would take quite a while.  

In August I thought I'd found just the dog, and excitedly phoned the rescue only to be told that, sorry, he can't live with cats after all. Sigh. Several long internet searches later, I accepted that it might not work out after all. 

On 10th December, we had the church round for Christmas drinks. It as a lovely, warm-spirited evening and I couldn't help eavesdropping as my son told a couple, sitting with a cat on his lap, that he loved the cats, but that he' really, really love a dog. Something in my heart sighed, and the sigh turned immediately to prayer: 'So would I, Lord. I know it's probably not going to work out, know.' The children and I had popped into a local vets' three days before that, to enquire about the Jack Russell looking for a new home, as the poster in the window had told us. I had recognised instantly the response when I mentioned the cats. 'Never mind', I said. 'We'll keep you in mind when we hear  about dogs', said the vet nurse, as the rescue had. 'Never mind, kids', I said, 'let's go home'. A quiet prayer welled up within me: Lord, you know I'd really, really love a dog. You know what is right. You know what is best. I understand that it's probably not going to work out. But, know. 

Two days after the drinks party, the phone rang. It was the vet nurse. Although I hadn't given any of my personal details, she'd found me via the church and wondered if I might be interested in a Cocker Spaniel. Two days after that, I went to visit Ben, whose entire body, not just his tail, wagged, when he met me. After long conversations with Ben's owner and just two days after that, Ben came home with us. 

In the few weeks since he came to live with us, Ben's been to two parties, two sleepovers, has had houseguests and dinner parties and attended one act of Christian worship (this makes my life sound very exciting but it has been Christmas!) We have traipsed miles in beautiful countryside, played with sticks and tennis balls, and curled up and watched The Sound of Music together. He padded obediently upstairs on his first night here and slept where he was put, and has done so every night since then. He has a special dinner dance, a habit I might start myself. He and the cats - well, they're working it out between them, thankfully relatively peacefully. It has felt, almost instantly, as if he's been part of us forever. In short, we love him. My vet friend said the other day 'I don't think you realise how exceptional it is to find a dog who fits in so perfectly. I couldn't have chosen better for you myself.' Yeah, I replied, but he does shed a bit. My vet friend smiled: 'the Lord does his very best to send you the perfect dog and all you can do is complain about a bit of fur?' 

So, this blog about a dog is about also a blog about a God, a God who does know what is right and best and who hears all our prayers. I know that not all our prayers are answered in such an obvious and joyful way, but it's wonderful when they are. It's taken me a year to work out what kind of dog I'd want, a yer to learn what I need to know and a year to find him. And the dog we've got is far better than any I could have chosen. I'm sure that I'll blog more about Ben; dog owners do go on a bit. But for now, this blog is to say a very big 'thank you' to the God who sent us such a wonderful dog.