Thursday, 24 December 2015

The Man in the Moon: A Sermon for a Moonlit Midnight

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but on this Christmas Eve night we have the most beautiful, big full moon. Over the past few weeks, in our Advent course we have been watching television Christmas adverts and thinking about what they might have to say that resonates with the Christian faith. This year’s John Lewis advert features a man on the moon, elderly and alone, spied through a telescope by a young girl who becomes fascinated by him and seeks him out day after day as Christmas draws close. Eventually, she sends him a gift – a telescope of his own so that he can look down to earth and see her waving energetically and gleefully up at him. The message of the advert is clear: Show someone they’re loved this Christmas.

One person who has said that he will be missing his own family on Christmas Day is Britain’s very own man in the moon, Tim Peake, who was sent into orbit last week amidst great celebrations and after a solemn ceremony. Years of preparation and training have led him to the point where he is now able to have the experience that so very few get to have, to look down, like the man in the John Lewis advert, and see earth from space. When interviewed, Tim Peake agreed with others who have been privileged to see our planet home from a distance, that it really is an incredibly beautiful sight. "The most unexpected thing”, he went on,  “…was the blackness of space…It is just the blackest black and that was a real surprise to me."

John’s Gospel opens with the famous lines which tell us, in beautiful poetic language, that Jesus came as a light into the darkness. On a night like this, clear and crisp with its big full moon, we can maybe understand a little of what John might have seen in his mind’s eye as he wrote those words. But around here, we have street lamps and light pollution; darkness that is surprising in its depth of blackness can only be found from the vantage point of a spaceship.

That’s not to say we know nothing of deep darkness.

This year we have seen television news and read newspaper headlines which speak heartrendingly of the darkness of human suffering as record numbers of people have fled barbarity and brutality beyond belief to undertake, like the infant Jesus himself, perilous and precarious journeys in the hope of survival.

Tension between people of different ethnicities and religions has reached a point undreamt of a generation ago, with anti-Semitism and anti-Islamic abuse threatening the wellbeing and peace of people and of communities. In 2015, we know all too well what deep darkness looks like, and maybe we don’t need to be shot into space to see it. The deepest darkness which startles us every time we are confronted by it, is the darkness of the human heart which can be turned to such violent, destructive ends.

Yet it was into this darkness that the light came. It was into this world, with its brutalities and its violence, that the light of the world, the Saviour Jesus himself, was born, not insulated from the world but born right into the mess and the muddle of it all at a time and in a place of danger and difficulty. This is the Christian faith that we celebrate here tonight; yes, the world’s darkness is real, startling in its reality, but the light that shines in the darkness is more real yet. We do not overcome the darkness of the world, or the shadowed places of our own hearts and minds, by denying their reality but by seeing in the very heart of that darkness the light of the world, who calls us his people also to shine as lights.

This hope, this great faith which we ponder here tonight, is the profoundest reality you will ever hear. For the Christian faith tells us that God didn’t just show us we are loved, as the John Lewis advert suggests, by sending a gift from afar and waiting for us to open it; he sent himself as the gift that would enable us to see, in the face of the babe of Bethlehem, of heaven waving enthusiastically and gleefully at us as the God who is love reaches out to us in love. 

Into the darkness, the light shines. For us who are far away, like men on the moon, the love of God in the face of Jesus draws us near. This is what we celebrate tonight; this is Christmas. May you all be richly blessed, and be as blessing to others, as your celebrations continue. Amen.       


Monday, 20 April 2015

Why I'm one of those annoying Christians...A Little Thought about Wisdom (But don't let that put you off)

I'm one of those really annoying Christians. I'd hesitate to speculate as to all the ways in which I'm an annoying Christian, but I know at least one: when I'm told, by an atheist on a roll (and yes, I've been there more than once) that the Bible is full of contradictions, I say, 'I know! Isn't it brilliant?' and then go on to tell my conversationalist about my favourite biblical contradictions, thus completely, but completely innocently and entirely without malice, breaking the poor person's train of thought.

Some of my favourite Biblical contradictions come from what is known as the Wisdom literature, those books like Proverbs and Job, which are neither history nor prophecy but something altogether more eclectic, observational, playful and heartrending by turns. One wisdom literature contradiction, which I love to quote given half a chance, comes from Proverbs 26, in which the editor has jauntily juxtaposed the following statements in a naughtily playful subversion of the very Hebrew literary device of 'parallelism' (saying the same thing two different ways): 'Answer a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.' (Proverbs 26:4, 5, KJV). I'll come back to that one later!

But my absolute favourite Wisdom contradiction spans Proverbs and the almost certainly later composed Job (I believe there to be a long and complex story behind the story of Job, but let's not get into that). Proverbs 23:23 encourages its readers to 'buy wisdom' , whereas in a very beautiful poem exploring the elusive nature of wisdom, Job 28:15 states that 'wisdom cannot be bought.' Game, set and match to the atheist saying that the Bible is an untrustworthy load of 'Bronze Age' morally dubious nonsense?

Of course not. Not only do I not give in that easily, I do not believe, in all genuine honesty, that the Bible's value is determined by its absolute internal cohesion, any more than I believe that the Bible's value is determined by its agreement with modern scientific knowledge about the likely age of the universe. The Bible, like the people who wrote its writings, is complex and diverse. That's not to say that God's not made known through it, of course. The Christian faith makes known a God who chooses to show his love for his complex, diverse world by becoming part of it, becoming human in Jesus. Being both human and divine is at the heart of what we Christians believe about Jesus, and although it's not an exact parallelism (nods back to Hebrew poetry-writing there), I think it's valid ot see something similar going on in the pages of the Bible.

So...is the Wisdom writing just a mishmash of contradictory bits and bobs collected from here, there and everywhere and stuck together like some kind of ancient postmodern mash-up? Well, in places, maybe. But I think there's something else going on too. 'Buy wisdom', says the sage of Proverbs, and in saying it, hitting on something essential and profound about the nature of wisdom.  No-one become wise by accident, and few, if I'm honest, simply by virtue of their age; wisdom is the result of, usually, bitter experience; compassionate, observational honesty; maybe an about-turn here or there, and long reflection. In other words, wisdom doesn't come cheaply; wisdom costs. I am fortunate to know some deeply wise people, and I know some of them well enough to know some of the cost of their wisdom.

It's worth adding here that I became intrigued by the Biblical Wisdom writings while studying it for my Theology degree, which, too, was costly; it cost me hours and hours of sitting in my college library mainlining cups of tea whist memorising lines of Hebrew poetry and more hours and hours striding the streets of Oxford with my fellow-students, mainlining espresso and thrashing out this theologian or that's take on this week's essay question. No-one gets a degree by accident, and although the sage of Proverbs and his modern-day counterparts don't get any letters after their names, no-one becomes wise by accident, either. Yes, wisdom is costly, and if you want it, there will be a price. Reader, be warned, says the sage.

And yet...Job, having been utterly ravaged and plundered by cosmic forces beyond his comprehension (and which remain so), when staring into the deep, dark mine of hard human experience and finding the unexpected treasure of wisdom there, says 'wisdom cannot be bought.' This is no cry of despair, no throwing up of the hands in the face of the pointlessness of it all. It's a clear-sighted recognition that, like Sir Thomas more, wisdom does not have a price. It is costly, yes, but it cannot be bought, just like people of integrity cannot be bought. Being bought implies ownership, and one annoying thing about the Wisdom literature is that it whispers and sings and rhymes that wisdom is not, and cannot be, owned by any one particular person or any one group. Wisdom has too much integrity for that; it chooses to spring up playfully where she wills, delighting in, as another Proverb puts it, the whole human race. Buying wisdom does not mean that wisdom can be bought; it might be costly, but it cannot be owned.

So, going back to the fool and his folly, maybe one of the playful challenges of the wisdom tradition is to see that sometimes what the Bible offers is not clear advice about how to handle situations, but a variety of possibilities and a sense of what the pitfalls of each might be. Answer a fool according to his folly, or not, the Sage might be saying; but whatever you do, be aware of the consequences.

Maybe I am an annoying sort of Christian, and to be honest, I can see how the wisdom tradition is pretty infuriating, too. It subverts its own Hebrew writings, and what's more, it seems to be having a fine old time doing so, satirising and observing and juxtaposing and dislocating well-loved ideas. And God is much as in this as in the prophecies and in the patriarchs, which means that maybe God might be an annoying sort of deity if you're after a clean-cut debate (going back to my atheist encounters).

And what about us in the church? And the Church of England, my complex and diverse neck of the ecclesiastical woods, in particular? My instinct is that we need to listen to the sages of the Bible a little more in church. Maybe we wouldn't take ourselves quite so seriously if we did, although we would find, undoubtedly, that if we really want to hear what wisdom is saying, there will be a cost. No-one become wise by accident. We would find, too, that no-one can lay claim to ownership of wisdom; wisdom's too sassy to be owned, delighting, as she does, in the whole human race. We need to hear this, holding together as we do people of wildly contradictory opinions, backgrounds and preferences. As the church talks its way through conversations on the politically loaded issue of human sexuality over the next two years, one of my many prayers is that we will be truly guided by wisdom, and learn to 'buy wisdom' from each other, in the recognition that no one of us is wisdom's sole proprietor.

Yes, there are contradictions in the Bible, and yes, I love that because it opens up a space which is just big enough for me to crawl inside and to glimpse, in the in-betweenness of the dichotomies with which we live, something of the enormity of God and the smallness of me. I can see how that is a bit annoying if you're trying to win an argument.

 

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Skipping Stuff: A Thought for Nearly-Lent

My most deliciously gleeful moment last week was when I phoned a local skip company and hired a four yarder to be delivered next Tuesday. I tried to keep the 'squee!' out of my voice as I discussed the merits of the varieties of skip on offer, because, well, only weirdos get over-excited about skips, don't they? 

When I told a friend about my skip-hiring success later on that morning, who reacted every bit as exuberantly as I felt, I re-evaluated my own self-disdain. Skips, I concluded, are exciting, and the hiring of one should be a cause for celebration.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't some crazed, environment-wrecking dump-fest I am planning, but rather a crucial stage in my long-running Operation Declutter, which started some time ago. I have Freecycled and charity shop donated stuff, I have recycled and repurposed stuff, I have given stuff to visitors (yes, really) and  have disposed safely of toxic stuff. But, quite frankly, some stuff just needs to be thrown away, and that's the stuff I'm dealing with this week. It's stuff that has long outworn its purpose, stuff that stopped working long ago, stuff that is so broken and sub-standard that giving it away isn't an ethical option, stuff that I didn't have time to sort through two and a half years ago when we moved here because I was completing an incredibly intensive Master's degree and being ordained in the same week so it just got shoved in the garage, stuff that just takes up space that could, and should, be more thoughtfully and creatively filled. 

So I'll be lobbing bits of broken MDF furniture gleefully into my skip next week. The other thing that will happen, of course, is that Lent will start as the joy of pancake tossing turns to the sober recognition of Ash Wednesday mortality. This blog will go quiet, as I've decided that my Lent this year will be a time for creating a bit more space in my day, and in my soul, to be aware of God's presence with me, and to quieten down so that I can hear the whispering voice of the Holy Spirit on the spring breeze. So I'm giving up social media, and blogging, for six weeks staring next Wednesday. If you know me, you'll know that I am a great fan of social media, and, in truth, spend just a little too much of my time messing around online. (I'm also giving up alcohol, but I foresee that being significantly easier than living without Facebook). 

It struck me, as I was  anticipating the arrival of my skip earlier, that Lent is a bit like an Operation Declutter, or it can be, if we let it. It can be a time to sort through the stuff of our lives to see what needs to be repurposed or revamped, what has outlived its usefulness to us, or was never particularly fitting for us in the fist place, but might be genuinely good for someone else. We can sift out what needs to be broken down into its component parts and reassembled, carefully, or taken apart so that each component can be useful or beautiful in a new place (like the bicycle wheel that became part of a flower display in church last year). Some stuff might simply need to be skipped. The point of giving things up, at least partly, is that by decluttering one area of our lives, it gives us a place to stand so that we can sort out the rest more carefully and lovingly.      

And, of course, Lent leads us to Holy Week and to Easter, where we find the ultimate cosmic Operation Declutter. Jesus is the friend who shows us how we can give our stuff new meanings and purposes, the visitor to whom we can give our extraneous stuff, the stranger who comes and takes away the stuff that is no good for us, the pharmacist who disposes safely our toxic stuff, the engineer who knows how to take apart the components of our broken stuff to see how they might fit back together again or find a new purpose somewhere else, the skip into which we can throw the stuff that is just simply broken beyond repair, the confidant who stands with us in the space that we have cleared and thinks with us about how this new space might be more creatively and lovingly filled. 

'For our sake, God made him to be stuff who knew no stuff, so that in him we might become the new stuff  of God.' (St Paul, 2 Corinthians 5:21, with a few amendments that I think Paul would quite like.) 

Have a deeply blessed Lent and Holy Week, so that you may know the exuberant joy of Easter.      

Monday, 26 January 2015

If I were an Archbishop...A Daydream about the Laying-On of Hands on this Historic Day

Today, the part of the Church of God that I call home, the Church of England gets its first female bishop. I've enjoyed reading Tweets of people setting off for York Minster, some to wear church robes during this historic ceremony, some wearing waterproof mascara, some wearing both. It is a wonderful day for Libby Lane,  for the people of Stockport who, I am sure, are getting an excellent person as their Bishop, and for all, Christian or otherwise, who will be heartened, inspired and influenced both by this day and by Libby Lane as she lives out her episcopal calling.

During today's historic service, the hands of the Archbishop of York, and those of other bishops, will be laid on Libby Lane as a powerful sign of the handing-on of the sharing of episcopal ministry that goes right back to Jesus himself. Recent events, though, have made the laying-on of hands a less straightforwardly joyful celebration than it ought to be.

So, I got thinking...what if I were an Archbishop? (I won't be; I'd have to live to be at least 185 to reach that level of seniority!) What arrangements might I make for the laying-of hands for my bishops?

So here's what I might be inclined to do, were  I an Archbishop. I'm not going to talk you through the whole service, because that would take too long. Firstly, though, it's important to say that I'd have a child serve as my deacon throughout the ceremony. I'd ask someone old enough to be a communicant, to take the diaconal role seriously and to do it in a dignified manner. I wouldn't mind if it were a boy or girl. This would be important to me as an enactment of the church's commitment to the younger generations. (At this point I should say that if I were an Archbishop, my arrangements for the ceremony would be anything but a whim; rituals encode reality, so I'd think carefully about the reality that I would want to affirm and confirm through the rituals over which I presided.)

For the laying-on of hands, firstly, I would receive a blessing from a curate in my diocese. Then I might have all of the bishops under my care receive a blessing from me, as a sign of their episcopal ministry. (This would be important because as well as conferring identity, rituals confirm identity, so it seems to make sense to include a ritual action in the ceremony that confirms the episcopal identity of bishops before making a new one.) Then, in a characteristically Anglican and ordered manner, I'd send the bishops to various places around the cathedral, out to the edges and into the midst of the people. I'd get a really nice bishop to go to the very back, open the cathedral doors and invite in those outside, maybe those who didn't get a ticket or who are just interested in what's going on inside.  (This would be important because bishops are often thought of as shepherds, to round up the flock at times as well as caring for them.)

Then I'd invite everyone, and I mean everyone, to come forward to form a chain of hands to lay on the new bishop. Yes, I'd lay my hands on the candidate's head, and my young deacon would be right at my side, hands on the candidate too, and the hands would stretch out and out and out and in my most wonderful  daydream, would fill the cathedral. There would be the clerical hands of priests and deacons, the long-suffering hands of those who care for loved ones and have done for long years, the small hands of children, the beautifully-manicured hands of county ladies, the frail and paper-thin hands of the elderly,  the dirty-fingernailed and hardened hands of the homeless. There would be, in amongst all these hands, episcopal hands, asylum seeking hands, Muslim hands, Jewish hands, all sorts of religious hands, maybe even atheist hands, gay hands, straight hands, faithful hands, doubting hands, fundamentalist hands, Green Party supporting hands, UKIP hands, county councillors' hands, musicians' hands, factory workers' hands, headteachers' hands, lollypop ladies' hands, recognised hands and unknown hands.

Each hand would have a story to tell, a perspective to bring, a need to express, a hope for the world. These hands would not need to be theologically learned (although I'd hope that what with all those clerics around. some might be), ritually pure or in unimpaired communion. They would be the hands of the people whom this candidate would them go on to serve as their bishop. These hands would be the hands of the diocese, representing as truthfully as possible the demographics of the people who call that little part of England home, all saying together that this new bishop is their bishop, whom they welcome and accept. (This would be important because in Anglicanism, priests are to care for all who live in their patch, not just those who go to church. The same is true of bishops.)  

Then, and this is where my extravagance of daydream meets the limitations of my practical know-how, I'd somehow get everyone whose hands have stretched forward as part of this ritual chain of laying-on of hands, to have the image of their hands photographed, and I'd get my creative colleagues to compile the photographs into a montage to go in the bishop's study or chapel, as a reminder to her or him of the people whose hands conferred on him or her the identity of a bishop. My hand, as Archbishop, would be somewhere in there, and the hands of all the other bishops, too.  It would be important that they were, because hands too would have been laid on me and on the other bishops, and hands laid on the people who laid hands on me, and so on. . But how easy would it be to tell, looking at a montage made up solely of human hands, which are which? And would it matter, anyway?        

Wouldn't that be wonderful?


 

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

'The Day of Small Things' is Not to be Despised: Because Bullets are Small Things, Too

Okay, so it's a tricky-to-translate verse. But Zechariah 4:10   is clear in intent, if not in exact wording: small things, or small beginnings, are easily overlooked, easily patronised, easily marginalised; yet small things are no less important or meaningful than big things.  The Bible is, I think, on the side of the small things: the mustard seed, the widow's mite, the cloud as small as a persons hand that brings the longed-for rain that Elijah foretells.

I don't know about you, but I've felt somewhat overwhelmed by big things this last week as I've read the news. Euopean anti-semitism, Islamophobia, jihadism, the ominous rise in fascist politics, the shocking massacre in Nigeria, the unfolding horrors of South Sudan, the ongoing awfulness in Syria and Iraq...The weight of the world's sorrows and scandals can seem too heavy to bear sometimes.

I am glad that the Bible is on the side of the small things. Because everything is, when you come down to it, a small thing. Blaming a particular group of people for the world's ills is a small thing; it might be just an off-the-cuff remark. Listening to an articulation of an extremist ideology is a small thing; it might be the flick of a television channel. Turning away from the needs of the most vulnerable is a small thing; it might be doing nothing at all (after all, what could be easier than that?) Loading a bullet, I'd imagine, is a small thing, not that I ever have or would do such a thing. Pointing it at someone's head is, in and of itself, a small movement of an angle.

Life is made up of small things. Small, repeated, learnt things that over time accrue significance, confer meaning and shape identity. And this, I think, is why we cannot afford to despise the day of the small things: because bullets are small things, too.

And because life is, inevitably, made up of small things; because  we ourselves are made up of small things, it is our task to allow these small things to speak of peace, of love, and of hope in a world desperately crying out for those things which are beyond size altogether.

On of the small things I do is to host a little inter-faith group at home, in my relatively small village. The handful of us, with our Sikh and Christian and Hindu and Muslim and Jewish identities sit and eat each other's cooking and hear each other's stories and ask each other some pretty searching questions about what it means to be a person of faith. Then we share out the leftover cakes and bakes, and each one of us takes home to our families a little taster of our inter-faith friendship. It's a small thing; it might be a slice of cholla  or a Diwali sweet or a mini Stollen bite.  Yet these little morsels of friendship and understanding are every bit as significant as a bullet or an extremist podcast. The small things we share in our inter-faith teas are, I believe, the antidote to the small things that gradually add up and become the big things on our television screens. The small thing we do to love and to accept each other cannot be overlooked or patronised or marginalised; its significance cannot be measured. It night be a smile or a chat at the school gate or a refusal to blame a scapegoated people. It might be the flick of a television channel or an off-the cuff remark. It might even be doing nothing at all.

We cannot afford to despise the day of small things, because life is, inevitably, made up of small things; because we, inevitably are made up of small things; because in doing so, we despise life altogether. We cannot afford to despise the day of small things because if we do, we fail to see that every small thing has within it the capacity to swell and expand, for good or for evil. We cannot afford to despise the day of small things, because bullets are small things, too.

     


Sunday, 11 January 2015

'Je suis baptisé’: A Sermon involving transgender, mental illness and Charlie Hebdo.

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

‘Je suis Charlie.’ If I’d said this a week ago, you’d have thought that I was either mad, or helping my children with their French homework. To be honest, this time last week, I had never even heard of Charlie Hebdo. The news of the deaths of twelve cartoonists from Paris, closely followed by an attack on a kosher supermarket just north of Paris has shaken and chilled people deeply. The brother of one of those killed, Malek Merabet said this at a press conference: ‘My brother was a Muslim, and he was killed by people pretending to be Muslims. They are terrorists, that is all.’  A Muslim friend of mine posted a cartoon on social media which depicted gunmen shooting through the open doors of the Charlie Hebdo offices, straight through the open back doors to a mosque behind the cartoon offices, with bullet marks hitting the mosque and a stream of blood running through the office door. We are all victims of terrorism, the cartoon seemed to say, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

I don’t know how you felt as you watched the news unfold this week, whether you felt outrage and fear, disgust or maybe even repulsion at the cartoons for which this satirical magazine was notorious.

Sometimes what is needed is for all of these overwhelming, unsettling and chaotic emotions to be scooped up and gathered together into one phrase that speaks of redemption and meaning in the midst of pain and panic. ‘Je suis Charlie’ started appearing on Twitter feeds just hours after the attcak, and by Friday, the Arc de Triomphe was lit up by the slogan ‘Paris est Charlie.’ Variations started to appear; ‘je suis Ahmed’, and then, after Friday’s attack, ‘Je suis  Juif.’ I am a Jew. The desire to stand together found expression in a statement of identity – I am Charlie, I am Ahmed, I am a Jew.

This is so insightful, this instant response to tragic brutality which realises, straight away, that what is at stake here is the articulation of identity. It’s about the articulation of a Muslim identity, which, in the strongest language says that the acts carried out by the terrorists this week are not Islam.  And it’s about a western liberal pluralistic identity, which in the strongest language possible says that for freedom to be real, cartons like those drawn by the Charlie Hebdo artists must be allowed to be published.  

What this says to me, and there is so much more that could be said of it, is that we live in a world that is deeply ill at ease with identity, both at an individual human level and at the level of defining groups and societies. We live in a world in which the word ‘Muslim’ is fought over and contested. Who is a real Muslim, and who is someone pretending to be a Muslim? Who gets to decide who is and who isn’t a real Muslim? I don’t know if any of you have ever been on the receiving end of similar unease within our Christian community, whether any of you has ever been told that you are not a real Christian, because of some belief, conviction or association. It happens, believe me.  In this way, the events of the last week are symptoms of a much wider spread disease which affects so many in our world. Who are we? What is our identity?

This isn’t just some abstract introspection for those who have time and luxury to ask philosophical questions that are unrelated to the everyday world. As we’ve seen this week, lives are at stake. People die in identity wars. And as I say, this is not just a problem with people who would call themselves Muslims. Last month we read about the tragic suicide of Lizzie Lowe, a 14 year old girl from Manchester who took her own life out of fear that her family would not accept her emerging homosexuality.   If only she had told us, her family said, she would have received a wealth of love and acceptance.  Sadly, this story was followed by the death of another teenager, the American transgender girl, Leelah Alcorn, whose suicide note makes harrowing reading. You might well know of other areas in which identity wars are being played out with sever casualties. The question of who we are is not a hobbyist exercise for those who enjoy a bit of naval gazing, it is intrinsic to life itself. As I say, people die in identity wars.     

This is why I am so cheered that this week, after such awful news from France, the church celebrates the baptism of Christ. Jesus emerges from the waters, and the voice from heaven sounds out ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ It is in baptism that we hear, clearly and definitively, who we are. Whatever other identities we inhabit, whatever other words we might use to describe ourselves, we hear, undeniably and irrevocably, that we are the beloved children of God, and that he delights in us. No other identity can compete with that, or can eradicate it. Christ claims us as his own in baptism, as our liturgical words affirm. We are his, and because we his, only because we are his, we can be ourselves, too. We are his, and because we are his, no-one else can have the final say on who we are. Christ claims us and names us as his own; our reading from the opening chapter of Genesis reminds us that it is God who names his creation. God called it day and God called it night and so on. Just one of many reasons who no person can have the final say on who anyone else is; why no person can judge, finally, another. It is God alone who names us and claims us as his beloved children, in whom he delights.   

There’s a lovely story about Martin Luther, the great sixteenth century Reformer, who, when he was holed up in Wartburg Castle translating the New Testament into German, was assailed by doubts and dark moods. I guess these days we would say that Martin Luther suffered from some sort of mental illness. (This book certainly bears out that statement.) His response to this was to shout, so that his shouts echoed through the castle turrets, ‘I am baptised!’ He saw it as defying the demons, asserting to them in the strongest terms possible that the darkness had no claim on him, because Christ had already claimed him as his own. Luther was a great one for saying not ‘I was baptised’, but rather ‘I am baptied.’Baptism, he saw, is an ongoing reality in the lives of the baptised. Maybe some of you might see a parallel with marriage, not saying ‘I was married on this particular day however many years ago’, but rather, I am married, and that reality defines and shapes my life daily. 

For Christians to live as beloved children of God, whose baptism shapes the daily reality of the lives 
– I can think of nothing more powerful in our world.  

In baptism, we know who we are.    We are told, once and forever, that we are the beloved children of God, that God is deeply pleased with us. Jesus hears this from heaven, and we hear it with him. As Gregory of Nazianzus said in the fourth century, ‘Christ rises from the waters of baptism, and a drowned world rises with him.’ I love that: a world drowning in violence and pain and insecurity rises with Jesus as he takes up his destiny to save this world by living, every moment of his life on earth to heal, to love, to teach and ultimately to sacrifice his life for each person in this drowning world.  

So I’d like to suggest that the final word for us Christians this morning is not ‘Je suis Charlie’, or any of the other variations that have been coined this week. Rather, ‘je suis baptisé’ – I am baptised. Here we are claimed by Christ. Here we know who we really are.And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’


I am baptised. Amen.   

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Who's Around the Edges, and What Can They See? A Thought for Epiphany.

When I was studying Theology at Oxford University (I know, that sounds like a not-so-stealth boast, but stick with me, it's intrinsic to the plot...) my co-conspirators in theological conundrums and I used to drive from our college to the centre of Oxford, which took about twenty minutes. We'd always park in the same car park, and walk up across the Magdalen Bridge to the Examination Schools for lectures, or wherever our tutorials happened to be, often nipping into the cafe for a brain-quickening espresso to kick-start the theological thinking. Most days, a little straggly group of people, mostly men, almost certainly homeless, sat around the edge of the car park by the public toilets, with cans of their own brain-altering liquids, laughing and chatting.

There were days when I was very tempted not to turn up to my class or lecture, but to wander over, buy them a beer and put to them whatever theological question was on my academic plate that week. 'Hey, what do you think of the idea that God changes?' 'Listen, what do you reckon that faith really means?' They looked like a friendly enough bunch, and after all, they just sat around drinking and talking all day. That must give them loads of time, I thought, to question, debate, discuss - all the things that we students were striving to do in our essays and verbal sparring bouts.

I'd love to be able to tell you that one day I did just that and had a profound theological conversation. I didn't; I was too timetable-bound and, if I'm honest, a bit too timid. But I noticed them, around the edges of a car park which itself was on the edge of the High Street; I realised that being around the edges gave them a vantage point from which they probably noticed all sorts of comings and goings, and that their lifestyle on the margins of society might give them insights emerging out of all those hours of chat which those of us who were rushing from lecture to class to tute probably hurried past without a moment's thought. Okay, they were probably talking drivel most of the time - let's face it, most of us do - but who knows what gold there might be among the dross?

Noticing who is around the edges, and wondering what they might be seeing, what they might be hearing and thinking and responding to is, I think, incredibly important for Christians. In classrooms and at parties, at conferences and in workplaces, in church buildings and church communities, there are people who, for whatever reason, whether permanently or temporarily, whether physically or metaphorically (or both), find themselves around the margins. They might feel uncomfortable being there; they might make everyone else feel uncomfortable, like a gang of drunkards in a car park. They might speak a lot of blether, or they might not speak much at all, but they might have a wisdom to offer that comes out of the unique, and often incisive, perspective that margins allow.  

Two thousand years ago, on the very edges of the map of places which people expected to be part of God's purposes, three men (if tradition is to be followed) noticed something odd in the sky, and responded, bringing with them to the infant Jesus wisdom that his own people had failed to notice. They brought gold, frankincense and myrrh, intuitively seeing in the portents of their own tradition that the baby was a priest-king whose death would be, literally, crucial. God was making himself known at the very edges; wisdom was found on the margins. Epiphany is all about the people on the edges; it's all about the edges themselves becoming wider and wider so that the circle of our vision of God's presence in the world widens and widens. After all, if God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference nowhere (I could have had a good chat with the car park gang about that statement), any talk of edges is illusory nonsense anyway. Epiphany should remind us of that  next time we see those people standing around the edges of the room, or on the margins of society.    

One of my regrets about my time in Oxford is that I didn't throw caution to the wind one day, and spend a few hours with the car park gang. Maybe it would have been an embarrassing disaster; maybe the gulf between me and them would have been untraversable. But maybe, just maybe, I might have learnt something from them that the books and the professors could never teach me.  Walking across the car park would have been risky - but isn't Epiphany all about risky travel, and finding Jesus at the journey's end?