Monday, 12 September 2016

An Open Letter From Me to the C of E ('cause everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn't I?)

Dear Everyone,

Oh no, you think. Another open letter. Surely we've had enough of those lately. Well yes, I reply, that's true, there have been a few, haven't there? Mine is a bit different, though; firstly, I haven't canvassed for signatures other than my own, because this is my letter, and mine alone. Secondly, this letter isn't addressed so much to the Bishops, who are having quite a busy week and, as I've said, have had a few letters come their way already, as to the whole church, at least inasfar as I've experienced the Church of England in all the many people with whom I've prayed, worshipped, thought, learnt, ate, argued, lamented and laughed over the years.

As our Bishops meet this week to try and find the best ways they know to keep us all in the same boat, or as many of us as possible, I've read and responded to the wince-inducing pain of the issues that threaten to divide us (oh, go on, then: SEX. Visceral and fundamental to our humanity, no wonder poverty, the refugee crisis, party politics, Brexit and longstanding theological controversies have nothing on sex when it comes to threatening to divide a church).

As I've ouched my way through blog posts and online tussles between liberal and conservative, progressive and less-progressive, what I've found myself pondering is not so much the presenting issue (I've done enough of that already) nor the people involved (no offence), but the Church at the heart of this latest round of culture war skirmishes.

So, Church, my letter is to you.        

I met you long before I remember, before I could walk (just) or talk. Before my memories blurred into focus, you took me in your arms, and you welcomed me, washed me, and buried me all in one moment. Through my childhood you were there with your bonfire night parties and outrageous pantomimes, your weak orange squash and your strange, compelling words, your enormous crucifix above Father David's head as he beat his chest and softly spoke of the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. You were there with choir rehearsals, Sunday School fuzzy felt Bible stories and Easter Monday walks to the Cathedral.

You were there when Father Stripey-Beard (whose real name is a matter of historical irrelevance) stood next to a Bishop and prayed that the first welcome I ever received from you would be confirmed as mine forever. You were there in the confirmation present I got, a pair of dangly earrings with at least twelve crosses hanging from each ear. That's how much I wanted to know what you knew; every one of those crosses, and more. I'd have covered my ears in them if I could. You were there to hear and hold all my questions, and you did your best to answer them, even when I didn't understand your answers and wasn't ever really looking for answers, anyway.

You were there, in the background, through my teens when the evangelical youth group seemed so much more definite and do-able, and you were there when I arrived, a few years later, away from home at university in your birthplace, of all places. You were there as I stood during Freshers' Week and took in the list of Archbishops, going all the way back to Augustine himself, my A Level History still fresh in my imagination as I imbibed fifteen hundred years of comings and goings, prayer and politics, all in this one, awe-inspiring place, where I stood, a term later, with the Christian Union and sang, of all things, 'Come On and Celebrate.' In my defence, it was 1992.

You were there for me through those tumultuous, idealistic years of university, in gentle Sunday mornings with those occasional, fleeting movements of the divine, and in the long, heartfelt Sunday evenings when 195 young people who all wanted to change the world crammed into a Canterbury townhouse living room (then afterwards in the kitchen for private prayer for those who *really* wanted to change the world).

We've been through a lot together since then, haven't we, Church? I've sat on pews, on plastic chairs, and on the floor of leaky tents at agricultural showgrounds. I've got up early to learn to love the profound poetry of the BCP, I've stayed up late to wait and watch. I've done Toddler Church and Sunday School and Messy Mass and Youth Hub. I've heard sermons, homilies, Bible expositions and PowerPoint talks. I've sung choruses, hymns, chants and anthems. I've arrived early at a conservative evangelical church to be offered a place in a pre-worship prayer group, and I've arrived late at a charismatic church to find what looked like the re-enactment of the crucifixion on TV screens all around the building. I've arrived on time at an Anglo-Catholic church to be given detailed instructions of when and how to move during the service. I've been slayed in the Spirit at Holy Trinity Brompton, and basked in the cavernous holiness of Brompton Oratory (although I know that, strictly speaking, that's not exactly you - but still....)

I've enjoyed the close friendship of a Prayer Triplet, and have discovered the quiet, liberating grace of confession. I've talked, I've sung, I've read, I've thought, I've prayed, I've responded, I've argued fiercely about things that mattered then and matter still to me...And you've helped me, all the way through, to pick my way through life's trickier times, and to know God in it all with me, with you, together, whatever. And more recently, as you know only too well, you've agreed with me that God was, and is, asking me to give myself to Him, through you, as a priest. You agreed that God could let Himself be placed in my hands, broken, and shared, every single week. (I still shake myself at the ground-breaking, breath-taking privilege you've let me be part of. What were you thinking, Church?)  And, rather more down to earth, you've paid me and housed me and educated my children.

And if I'm being really honest - and this is quite an admission for a priest to make - I'm not sure I could have done it without you, Church. I don't mean 'Church' in the universal sense here; I mean you in particular, you Church of England. You see, by the time I stood in Canterbury Cathedral and read back through the ages to 597 and St Augustine coming through the West Gate towers fresh from Gregory's monastery in Rome, I'd already worked out that I couldn't do narrow church of any particular persuasion. Maybe I'm too eclectic, too easily bored and too quickly resentful of being typecast or defined, but I knew that I'd pretty quickly start rebelling against a church that had all the answers for everything all the time, and especially against a church in which everyone had the same answer all the time. If that had been the only faith on offer to me at the age of 18, I'm not sure I'd have stuck with it. But what you gave me - and what you give me still - is a space to reach out, to try out ideas and to live with differences. This doesn't mean that my faith in Jesus, the faith you helped me find, is weak or changeable; in fact, the more I've opened myself to Christian people in their myriad differences in religious experience, and the more I've recognised that  all God's people are known and cherished by God, the firmer and clearer my faith in the unchanging love of God has become.  

So, Church, this is my plea: please don't go. You are a hundred thousand individual 'yous', and each one of you is part of me, and whether you know it or not, I am part of you, too.

And I need you all. I need you conservative evangelicals, with your clear, true faith, your appetite to reach out with the good news, and your insistence on textual accuracy.

I need you radical liberals to get arrested and remind me of the cost of speaking out against injustice for the sake of the poor.

I need you charismatics to tell me of your visions and dreams for yourself and for the world.

I need you sacramentalists to help me draw near to the mystery of the Eucharist.

I need all you little local church congregations - my family - to be family to anyone and everyone who walks through your doors, and to walk out together as family to serve your communities with the love of Christ.

I need you progressives to push forward and seek to work out what it means to proclaim Christ afresh to each generation. I don't mind if you get it wrong sometimes, just as I don't mind if some of the new worship songs that others of you write aren't quite my style, because frankly I would far rather have a church with new songs to sing than one which has forgotten how to compose.

I need those few of you who go on television and the radio and remind the world that the Church is still here, still alive, still with so much to say and to offer and to do.

 I need those of you who do amazing things - who give to the poor, care for the ill and the housebound, look after the prisoners, teach and look after our children. And there are *so* many of you doing amazing things, week in, week out, all the time, and none of you think you are doing anything much - but you are.

The loss of any single one of you would be a loss for me. And of course, we need our Bishops to draw all us all together, to do their best to keep us all together despite the wince-inducing pain of the issues that threaten to divide us (oh, go on, then: SEX).  Yes, it's hard, because talking about sex is talking about that which is visceral and fundamental to our humanity. And no, we aren't going to agree, not all of us, anyway.  But, please: what we have, in this hotch-potch of contradictions and swirling currents of faith, is worth holding onto, even if it's hard, and even if we don't agree about sex. It's worth holding onto, because who we are - the Church of England - makes faith possible for contrary, questioning believers with low boredom thresholds, like me, and for so many other decent, good Christians who just want to worship God in a local church.

So this has been my letter to you, Church. I wonder, if each of us could write our own personal letter, tell our own stories of the C of E's presence through our lives, what all those letters would add up to. I'm sure God would love to read them all. And would they - could they ever - weigh less, matter less, mean less than what we think about sex? My prayer is for you, reading this, that you won't go, that you'll stick with this Church. And my prayer for any Bishops who may read this (because, of course, you're part of this church as much as anyone else, and my New Testament Greek pedantry reminds me that you are part of the laity as well as the episcopoi), that you will be given all the needful gifts of grace to help as many of us recaltriant Anglicans to stick together as possible. God knows you'll need them...

With love, and grateful thanks,
Lucy.      

   

Sunday, 28 August 2016

The utter social minefield that is wedding receptions, and the Eucharist

I don't know if you've been to a wedding this summer, or if you've been involved in the planning of a wedding. Especially if you've been involved with helping someone plan their wedding, you'll know that, well, it's a minefield. How many people to invite, whether or not to include children, who to seat with whom, and who gets to sit on the top table, which in these days of blended families can get very complicated, are just some of the challenges people face. The ever-present fear of forgetting someone important, or offending someone, or putting the wrong people together combine to make wedding receptions a social minefield. On the popular parenting website Mumsnet there is a section called 'AIBU': Am I Being Unreasonable? People explain a situation, then ask if their response or behaviour is reasonable. It's a sort of make-it-up-as-you-go-along modern guide to etiquette.  An unreasonable number of the questions asked there are to do with avoiding a wedding reception disaster. Of course what brides and grooms usually want is to invite as many people as possible and to honour the close relationships with families and friends. The seating plan at a wedding reception, usually with its top table, is a fair indication of the significant people in a couple's lives. But, as I say, it's a minefield.

Other seating plans are less complicated because everyone already knows their place. At the Oxford University college at which I assisted in the chapel for a while, the choir who sang Evensong were paid in food, getting a decent, wholesome meal sitting at long tables in the dining hall whist the fellows, dons and selected guests sat at the high table eating a completely different and far more elegant menu, and drinking very good wine which the students certainly didn't get on their tables.   If a student had taken a place at the high table, it would have been very presumptuous indeed; access to the high table was exclusively at the invitation of the college Master.

Churches, too, can have their own seating plans. There are still churches around with box pews, with the names of the owners of that pew listed on a little brass plaque on the door of the box pew. Much more common are the informal seating plans in churches, and looking around this morning, I can see that we all have our 'spots.' There's nothing wrong with that; we are creatures of habit and it's nice to settle in to your spot on a Sunday morning. That's why I decided to give this sermon from the vicar's chair this morning; not because this seat says that I am any better than any of you, but simply so that I can do the job that I was sent here to do, to lead you in worship and easily be seen and head by you.It can be tricky, though, for new people coming in; I remember visiting a church once and being paranoid all the way through the service that I'd sat in someone else's space. There's nothing wrong with having our own favourite spot in church, as long as we remember that it's not ours, it's God's, and as long as we are ready to give it up if someone else inadvertently takes our place.

What seating plans are about, really, is relationship. We get an idea about who someone is and where they fit in to any group of people - a wedding party, a college, a church congregation - by where they sit.  We come to social events by invitation, and it's normally the person who sends the invitation who gets to decide who sits where. Seating plans are about relationships, and in particular about a person's relationship with the host. So the Gospel reading we heard this morning is a parable about a first century wedding reception, every bit as perilous a social minefield as it is still in our own time, and also about our place at the table, in other words, our relationship with God.

I think that there are two opposite and equal dangers that we can run into when we think about where we sit in the table of heaven.  We may be so painfully aware of our sins and shortcomings, our doubts and darkness, that we slink, inwardly, to the very back, keeping half an eye on the door in case someone tells us that actually, our name isn't on the list after all. We may be so supremely confident of our place at the table that we do the spiritual equivalent of striding up to take the place of honour, telling ourselves that the church should be jolly grateful we are here.

The answer to both of these dangers is the same, and it's the same one you learnt in Sunday School: Jesus. To the doubter slinking away at the back, Jesus extends an invitation that says yes, you are sinful - we all are - but I am good, and in my goodness you are forgiven and set free. To the supremely confident Jesus extends an invitation that says yes, you do a lot of good and useful things, you use your talents wisely - but a seat at this table isn't dependent on your goodness, it's dependent on mine. In my goodness your self-centred pride is forgiven and you, too, are set free.

It's worth pondering that no-one can declare him or herself to be a saint or a prophet. It is God who makes us holy through the goodness and holiness of Jesus, and it is God inspiring the church to recognise the saintly ones and the prophetic people in our midst. These high places at the table of heaven are exclusively by God's invitation.

That same God bids us all come, and gives us a wonderful way of coming to his table week after week at the Eucharist. There are many wonderful things about the Eucharist; one is that in this meal, there is no seating plan. The altar isn't the high table, it's the staff kitchen table. We kneel together to receive, and when we do that we are saying with our bodies that we are all equal, regardless of all the status markers of wealth, class, education and so on that normally define us. We come at God's invitation, and he wants all of us to come as close as possible, to draw as near as we can in our hearts to the host who sends our invitations day after day, week after week, into eternity, who will never stop inviting us to this stylised but real meal in which our relationship with him is recognised and renewed.

And this meal should shape all our meals. The parable ends with Jesus telling us that when we throw dinner parties of our own, don't just invite those who have something to give you, a return invitation or a bit of social glory to bask in. Invite those with nothing to give, because then we might understand what it means to come to God's invitation with open hands and a humble heart as we start to realise that actually, we have nothing to give the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills. Invite the blind and the lame, Jesus says. Maybe to us he'd say 'Invite the isolated, the lonely. Invite those who never get invited out. Invite the dull and the boring, and extend to those the same love I extend to you.' This meal should shape all our meals.

I am going to use some words of invitation at this morning's Eucharist that I haven't used before, and I am going to read them to you now so that you can hold this invitation in your heart through the rest of the service. I end with this:

Come to this table not because you must, but because you may.
Come not because you are strong, but because you are weak.
Come not because any goodness of your own gives you the right to come
but because you need mercy and help.
Come because you love the Lord a little
and would like to love him more.
Come because he loved you and gave himself for you.
Come and meet the risen Christ
for we are the body of Christ.
Amen.              

 

The utter social minefield that is wedding receptions, and the Eucharist

I don't know if you've been to a wedding this summer, or if you've been involved in the planning of a wedding. Especially if you've been involved with helping someone plan their wedding, you'll know that, well, it's a minefield. How many people to invite, whether or not to include children, who to seat with whom, and who gets to sit on the top table, which in these days of blended families can get very complicated, are just some of the challenges people face. The ever-present fear of forgetting someone important, or offending someone, or putting the wrong people together combine to make wedding receptions a social minefield. On the popular parenting website Mumsnet there is a section called 'AIBU': Am I Being Unreasonable? People explain a situation, then ask if their response or behaviour is reasonable. It's a sort of make-it-up-as-you-go-along modern guide to etiquette.  An unreasonable number of the questions asked there are to do with avoiding a wedding reception disaster. Of course what brides and grooms usually want is to invite as many people as possible and to honour the close relationships with families and friends. The seating plan at a wedding reception, usually with its top table, is a fair indication of the significant people in a couple's lives. But, as I say, it's a minefield.

Other seating plans are less complicated because everyone already knows their place. At the Oxford University college at which I assisted in the chapel for a while, the choir who sang Evensong were paid in food, getting a decent, wholesome meal sitting at long tables in the dining hall whist the fellows, dons and selected guests sat at the high table eating a completely different and far more elegant menu, and drinking very good wine which the students certainly didn't get on their tables.   If a student had taken a place at the high table, it would have been very presumptuous indeed; access to the high table was exclusively at the invitation of the college Master.

Churches, too, can have their own seating plans. There are still churches around with box pews, with the names of the owners of that pew listed on a little brass plaque on the door of the box pew. Much more common are the informal seating plans in churches, and looking around this morning, I can see that we all have our 'spots.' There's nothing wrong with that; we are creatures of habit and it's nice to settle in to your spot on a Sunday morning. That's why I decided to give this sermon from the vicar's chair this morning; not because this seat says that I am any better than any of you, but simply so that I can do the job that I was sent here to do, to lead you in worship and easily be seen and head by you.It can be tricky, though, for new people coming in; I remember visiting a church once and being paranoid all the way through the service that I'd sat in someone else's space. There's nothing wrong with having our own favourite spot in church, as long as we remember that it's not ours, it's God's, and as long as we are ready to give it up if someone else inadvertently takes our place.

What seating plans are about, really, is relationship. We get an idea about who someone is and where they fit in to any group of people - a wedding party, a college, a church congregation - by where they sit.  We come to social events by invitation, and it's normally the person who sends the invitation who gets to decide who sits where. Seating plans are about relationships, and in particular about a person's relationship with the host. So the Gospel reading we heard this morning is a parable about a first century wedding reception, every bit as perilous a social minefield as it is still in our own time, and also about our place at the table, in other words, our relationship with God.

I think that there are two opposite and equal dangers that we can run into when we think about where we sit in the table of heaven.  We may be so painfully aware of our sins and shortcomings, our doubts and darkness, that we slink, inwardly, to the very back, keeping half an eye on the door in case someone tells us that actually, our name isn't on the list after all. We may be so supremely confident of our place at the table that we do the spiritual equivalent of striding up to take the place of honour, telling ourselves that the church should be jolly grateful we are here.

The answer to both of these dangers is the same, and it's the same one you learnt in Sunday School: Jesus. To the doubter slinking away at the back, Jesus extends an invitation that says yes, you are sinful - we all are - but I am good, and in my goodness you are forgiven and set free. To the supremely confident Jesus extends an invitation that says yes, you do a lot of good and useful things, you use your talents wisely - but a seat at this table isn't dependent on your goodness, it's dependent on mine. In my goodness your self-centred pride is forgiven and you, too, are set free.

It's worth pondering that no-one can declare him or herself to be a saint or a prophet. It is God who makes us holy through the goodness and holiness of Jesus, and it is God inspiring the church to recognise the saintly ones and the prophetic people in our midst. These high places at the table of heaven are exclusively by God's invitation.

That same God bids us all come, and gives us a wonderful way of coming to his table week after week at the Eucharist. There are many wonderful things about the Eucharist; one is that in this meal, there is no seating plan. The altar isn't the high table, it's the staff kitchen table. We kneel together to receive, and when we do that we are saying with our bodies that we are all equal, regardless of all the status markers of wealth, class, education and so on that normally define us. We come at God's invitation, and he wants all of us to come as close as possible, to draw as near as we can in our hearts to the host who sends our invitations day after day, week after week, into eternity, who will never stop inviting us to this stylised but real meal in which our relationship with him is recognised and renewed.

And this meal should shape all our meals. The parable ends with Jesus telling us that when we throw dinner parties of our own, don't just invite those who have something to give you, a return invitation or a bit of social glory to bask in. Invite those with nothing to give, because then we might understand what it means to come to God's invitation with open hands and a humble heart as we start to realise that actually, we have nothing to give the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills. Invite the blind and the lame, Jesus says. Maybe to us he'd say 'Invite the isolated, the lonely. Invite those who never get invited out. Invite the dull and the boring, and extend to those the same love I extend to you.' This meal should shape all our meals.

I am going to use some words of invitation at this morning's Eucharist that I haven't used before, and I am going to read them to you now so that you can hold this invitation in your heart through the rest of the service. I end with this:

Come to this table not because you must, but because you may.
Come not because you are strong, but because you are weak.
Come not because any goodness of your own gives you the right to come
but because you need mercy and help.
Come because you love the Lord a little
and would like to love him more.
Come because he loved you and gave himself for you.
Come and meet the risen Christ
for we are the body of Christ.
Amen.              

 

Friday, 15 July 2016

My evening at the Hari Krishna Temple: A Few Theoolgical Thoughts

This week I was invited to Bhaktivedanta Manor, the Hari Krishna Temple donated by the Beatles guitarist George Harrison in 1972, in what was then the idyllic Hertfordshire village of Letchmore Heath. I had driven past the sign pointing to the temple many times, as my parish is just ten minutes' drive up the road from there, but I had never visited, so I was delighted to accept the invitation. I was aware, as I read the details of the event, of how very little I know of Hari Krishna, and as I drove up the winding driveway past polytunnles filled with flowers and vegetables, into a car park facing a quintessentially English country manor house with a signpost leading to George Harrison's garden and the Women's Ashram, I knew I had arrived somewhere unique and beautiful.

During the evening I chatted with, and listened to, some fascinating people. One, a Professor of Religious Studies and Holocaust specialist, film-maker, broadcaster and Director of Strategic Planning for the United Nations Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, was one of the first devotees (I shall return to that word later) of Krishna at Bhaktivedanta. We talked about his books on the Swami who was so influential on George Harrison in the 1960s and on the Holocaust and the complex nature of witness testimony. Within minutes we were talking about the concept of testimony in early Christian martyrdom, and the dating of the Gospels, and I was making the first of many connections of the evening, as I realised that the questions we ask as humans, and the ways in which we relate to the history of our faith communities, are far more interconnected than the particularity of our religious vocabulary would suggest. 

Another fascinating person was the Baptist minister who spoke compellingly of his conversion to Christian faith as a first-year Chemistry student at university, having rejected his Hindu upbringing, complete with visits to Bhaktivedanta, in his late teens. He spoke in clear, evangelical language, of his conversion of both head and heart, and of his ongoing relationship with Christ. I didn't quite agree with all that he said, but that is so often true of people following the same faith. Hearing him speak reminded me of the question which I haven't heard for years; 'What is God doing in your life?' Here was someone who could speak, honestly and confidently, of the movement of the Spirit within his life and the impact of a living prayer relationship. We Anglicans don't tend to probe each other's inner lives too deeply; like the archetypal Anglican Queen Elizabeth I, we choose, more often than not, not to open mirrors into men's (and women's) souls, maybe, I found myself wondering, to all of our loss. The very word 'devotee' conjures up images of a person who is, by definition, devoted to God; do we, as Christians, see ourselves and each other as devotees? 

I chatted with two people from Roman Catholic backgrounds who both saw no conflict or compromise in embracing Krishna with holding on to their Christian faith. Jesus, for them, was their first Guru. One of them, the Director of The Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, spoke of the spiritual practice of Bhakti, translated as 'devotion' or 'sharing'. I learnt a lot from his presentation, in which he suggested that although our bodies are temporal, our inner selves are eternal, as eternal as the divine, and therefore utterly free as only the eternal can be, so that every act of service and kindness is a truly free choice. One thing he said grabbed my attention: 'You can call yourself a Muslim, a Christian, a Hindu, a Jew, whatever. But show me what you do, and I'll work out what kind of person you are, and how I want to associate with you.' What a challenge! It took me instantly to the words of James in the New Testament; 'I by my works will show you my faith.' 

The other person from a Roman Catholic background, an American woman, talked of finding not one but two spiritual homes in the UK, Bhaktivedanta Manor and Wells Cathedral. We talked over dinner of the theological implications of this religious dual-nationality; it was suggested that, as the Judeo-Christian tradition has no distinct philosophy of its own, but rather reflects on Greek philosophy, seeing Jesus through the lens of Plato and Aristotle, it could be valid to see Jesus through the lens of Hindu philosophy. There are, of course, big questions to do with the uniqueness of Jesus as the God-Man, the various statuses of divine beings and the non-negotiability of monotheism within the Judeo-Christian tradition. I could understand the argument, but was not entirely convinced that these questions could be easily put aside. 

Nonetheless, the conversations sparked off thoughts which were either new, or long-forgotten, to me: as Christians, we think and talk a lot about life after death, but what about life before birth? The Hindu notion of the eternity of the human self calls into mind the question of where we are before we are born. Why do we not ask this more in Christian theology? The implications for the ethics of abortion are obvious, but a deeper and richer theological exploration of what 'life before birth' means in Christian theology would be a profound enrichment of our ethics. 

And what about our bodies? At first glance, it could be assumed that Hindus would be less concerned with the wellbeing of their bodies than Christians, given the belief that the body is something lesser than the real, eternal self. But, in all honesty, the Hindus take far better care of their bodies than most Christians do, eschewing caffeine and alcohol, and being very clean living. The Christians and Hindus present shared the sense of the human body as the temple of the divine; I found myself wondering if we Christians have somehow lost sight of that concept despite its clear Biblical precedent. I, for one, found the idea of living without caffeine and alcohol a bit challenging!

Finally, back to the subject of the evening, devotion. For the Vaisnavas at Bhaktivedanta Manor, devotion means, among other things, getting up around 4am for prayers. Devotion means ritual bathing every morning. Devotion means hard work looking after animals, especially cows. Devotion is a way of life. As a Christian priest who has recently finished teaching a course in Christian Spirituality which started with the Desert Parents and Benedictine monasteries and ended in Catholic Worker Farms, I found myself reflecting candidly on myself; how devoted am I? What does devotion look like in my life? Show me what you do. Those words will stay with me for, I hope, a long time. And I hope that, like James, I will be able to say, 'I by my works will show you my faith.'        

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Finding Faith in Uncertain Times: A Post-Referendum Sermon

'Finding faith in uncertain times': this phrase has been buzzing around in my head for the last few days. I don't know whether you voted Leave or Remain, or in fact if you voted at all, but one thing I think we can all agree on now is that we live in uncertain times.  There is much that we know that we don't know; to take one obvious example, we don't know who our next Prime Minister is going to be. If you've been following the news over the weekend, you'll have seen that the list of uncertainties seems to be getting longer and longer all the time. For some, these uncertainties bring about hope and optimism for a better future; for others, they bring dismay, fear and a real sense of loss.

One thing to be very clear about: as a nation, some of our uncertainties are shared, but others are specific to particular communities and individuals. The uncertainities that the people of Cornwall are facing over their financial future are very different to the uncertainties that the people of Northern Ireland are facing over their political future. The uncertainties that a person working for a large international corporation in London is facing are very different to the uncertainties that a retired person on a state pension is facing. The uncertainty that a confident Leave voter feels now might be very different from the uncertainty that a confident Remain voter feels now. that Strangely enough, it might turn out that the uncertainties that members of the Labour Party and members of the Conservative Party are facing are rather similar. Suffice to say, at this time of great uncertainty, our prayers must be with our leaders, and with those lives are most directly affected by this decision which we, as a country, have taken.

Finding faith in uncertain times is also something that many of us have to do as individuals and as a local community, too. I know that some of you face uncertainties over your health, and over your finances. These uncertainties are real, and please be assured that I keep your uncertainties in my prayers. As a local community, too, and as a church within it, one of the challenges we face is how we respond to the great many changes that have taken place during many of your lifetimes. One thing I hear regularly is 'It's changed so much round here.' There might be positive aspects to the changes that this community has seen over the last sixty or so years - we've got an M&S Food Hall now! - but I know that for many, there is a real and painful sense that so much, too much has changed, and that with those changes comes a sense of loss and of real uncertainty as to how this community holds together. I believe that for us to meet this reality of a changed world, with all of its uncertainties, is our great task as Christians.

It's comforting, then, to realise that the story we inhabit as Christians - the story of the Bible - is one of the people of God living through times of uncertainty and change over and over again. The Old Testament tells of a beleaguered people, a people under threat from the Philistines, the other tribal groups around it that all seem to have names that end in Ite, the Assyrians, the Persians, and the Romans. Is there any moment in the Bible, I wonder, when were the people of Israel ever truly secure in their homeland? Even at the time of David and Solomon, the closest that Israel ever came to being politically secure, there were threats and insurgencies. We've hear this morning the end of the life-story of Elijah, who lived at a time of great uncertainty, and, as we talked about last week, carried Israel through some of its darkest days. This morning we have heard the dramatic, but bewildering sense of uncertainty as Elijah is taken up in his chariots of fire. I don't know if you noticed the question that Elisha, upon whom the mantle has now fallen, asks: 'Where is the Lord?' It's a question that many ask during times of uncertainty; where is God when everything changes around you?

Well, forgive me if this sounds too simplistic an answer, but I believe that the answer to that heart-cry is what it has always been: God is here, in the midst of his people, in the midst of us. Our Psalm this morning reminded us of God's unchanging love. Everything around us could change. Much around us has changed over the decades. Much has changed this week. But God never changes, and finding faith in uncertain times means remembering that; our faith cannot ultimately be in social stability or political strength; it can't ultimately be in our health, our homes or our bank accounts. All of these things can change, sometimes beyond our control and against our will. But God, who is described in the Bible as the rock on whom we can find firm foundations, will never change.

So how can we respond, as Christians, during times of uncertainty? I think that there are three responses.

The first is to shut out or deny the reality of our uncertainties. Oh, everything will be fine, we tell ourselves. Nothing's changed. This is tempting, because shutting out reality means that we don't have to take it seriously. This might be a useful survival strategy for us at times - we all need to kick back, and relax sometimes. More poignantly, one man I know whose beloved wife died cancelled his newspaper delivery in the week after her death. He was too sad, he told me, to read about the sadnesses of the world. I think that was a wise self-preservation move. However, if we all live like this all the time, for one thing, ignoring them won't make the uncertainties go away, and for another, we will miss out on being part of positive change, and we will miss out on seeing what God is saying and doing during these times of uncertainty.

The second, and opposite, response, is to become engulfed with the awfulness of uncertainty. There's a time for everything, says the teacher in Ecclesiastes, and many have felt overwhelmed with sadness and bewilderment over the last few days. If you don't feel that yourself, it might be hard for you to understand - remember that our uncertainties are not all the same - but this sense of grief is real for many. I know from my funeral ministry that the only way to get through grief is to go through it; it can't be short-circuited, otherwise it goes underground and becomes something even more painfully entrenched. But like the first response, the denying of an uncertain and changing world, this response, hopefully, is a relatively short term one, and what will emerge out of this grief, for those who feel it, will be a sense of hope for a different, but viable future.

The third response, an the one which I believe is most deeply Christian, is to look uncertainty in the eye, name it for what it is, and meet it with faith in our unchanging God. Our Gospel reading this morning reminds us that Jesus himself lived a life of constant uncertainty - 'foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests', says Jesus, 'but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.' He makes it clear that following Him means moving away from those things which give us a sense of stability and normality, and following him into an uncertain future - following him in the way of the cross. It's a big ask, and this morning's Gospel contains some of the most challenging of Jesus' sayings; no wonder that many people who were impressed by his miracles and who enjoyed his parables didn't stay with him all the way.

So the challenge for us this morning is this: Will we walk, with Jesus, the way of the cross, through uncertain times? Will we trust Him to lead us? That doesn't mean passively trotting along behind him; it means, as we walk with Jesus, allowing Him to show us what part we can play in forming communities and countries where the values of the Kingdom of God - the values we heard about in our reading from Galatians - love, joy, peace, generosity, patience, kindness, faithfuless, gentleness and self-control, are the way in which we live. We can't do this on our own - Elijah learnt that lesson the hard way, as we heard last week. We have to work together, and help each other, and when our faith falters, as it will at times, to lend each other the faith to walk confidently into an unknown future. We need, as Elisha asks for, a 'double share' of faith to meet the challenges of our uncertain world, and we need to be generous in sharing our faith with each other.

I am going to finish by reading a short reflection which is often read on New Year's Day, but it seems very apt as we start out on a new phase of national, and international, life.

 I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year,
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied, “Go out into the darkness
and put your hand into the hand of God
That shall be to you better than the light
And safer than a known way!”
So I went forth and finding the hand of God
Trod gladly into the light.

Amen.      


   

Finding Faith in Uncertain Times: A Post-Referendum Sermon

'Finding faith in uncertain times': this phrase has been buzzing around in my head for the last few days. I don't know whether you voted Leave or Remain, or in fact if you voted at all, but one thing I think we can all agree on now is that we live in uncertain times.  There is much that we know that we don't know; to take one obvious example, we don't know who our next Prime Minister is going to be. If you've been following the news over the weekend, you'll have seen that the list of uncertainties seems to be getting longer and longer all the time. For some, these uncertainties bring about hope and optimism for a better future; for others, they bring dismay, fear and a real sense of loss.

One thing to be very clear about: as a nation, some of our uncertainties are shared, but others are specific to particular communities and individuals. The uncertainities that the people of Cornwall are facing over their financial future are very different to the uncertainties that the people of Northern Ireland are facing over their political future. The uncertainties that a person working for a large international corporation in London is facing are very different to the uncertainties that a retired person on a state pension is facing. The uncertainty that a confident Leave voter feels now might be very different from the uncertainty that a confident Remain voter feels now. that Strangely enough, it might turn out that the uncertainties that members of the Labour Party and members of the Conservative Party are facing are rather similar. Suffice to say, at this time of great uncertainty, our prayers must be with our leaders, and with those lives are most directly affected by this decision which we, as a country, have taken.

Finding faith in uncertain times is also something that many of us have to do as individuals and as a local community, too. I know that some of you face uncertainties over your health, and over your finances. These uncertainties are real, and please be assured that I keep your uncertainties in my prayers. As a local community, too, and as a church within it, one of the challenges we face is how we respond to the great many changes that have taken place during many of your lifetimes. One thing I hear regularly is 'It's changed so much round here.' There might be positive aspects to the changes that this community has seen over the last sixty or so years - we've got an M&S Food Hall now! - but I know that for many, there is a real and painful sense that so much, too much has changed, and that with those changes comes a sense of loss and of real uncertainty as to how this community holds together. I believe that for us to meet this reality of a changed world, with all of its uncertainties, is our great task as Christians.

It's comforting, then, to realise that the story we inhabit as Christians - the story of the Bible - is one of the people of God living through times of uncertainty and change over and over again. The Old Testament tells of a beleaguered people, a people under threat from the Philistines, the other tribal groups around it that all seem to have names that end in Ite, the Assyrians, the Persians, and the Romans. Is there any moment in the Bible, I wonder, when were the people of Israel ever truly secure in their homeland? Even at the time of David and Solomon, the closest that Israel ever came to being politically secure, there were threats and insurgencies. We've hear this morning the end of the life-story of Elijah, who lived at a time of great uncertainty, and, as we talked about last week, carried Israel through some of its darkest days. This morning we have heard the dramatic, but bewildering sense of uncertainty as Elijah is taken up in his chariots of fire. I don't know if you noticed the question that Elisha, upon whom the mantle has now fallen, asks: 'Where is the Lord?' It's a question that many ask during times of uncertainty; where is God when everything changes around you?

Well, forgive me if this sounds too simplistic an answer, but I believe that the answer to that heart-cry is what it has always been: God is here, in the midst of his people, in the midst of us. Our Psalm this morning reminded us of God's unchanging love. Everything around us could change. Much around us has changed over the decades. Much has changed this week. But God never changes, and finding faith in uncertain times means remembering that; our faith cannot ultimately be in social stability or political strength; it can't ultimately be in our health, our homes or our bank accounts. All of these things can change, sometimes beyond our control and against our will. But God, who is described in the Bible as the rock on whom we can find firm foundations, will never change.

So how can we respond, as Christians, during times of uncertainty? I think that there are three responses.

The first is to shut out or deny the reality of our uncertainties. Oh, everything will be fine, we tell ourselves. Nothing's changed. This is tempting, because shutting out reality means that we don't have to take it seriously. This might be a useful survival strategy for us at times - we all need to kick back, and relax sometimes. More poignantly, one man I know whose beloved wife died cancelled his newspaper delivery in the week after her death. He was too sad, he told me, to read about the sadnesses of the world. I think that was a wise self-preservation move. However, if we all live like this all the time, for one thing, ignoring them won't make the uncertainties go away, and for another, we will miss out on being part of positive change, and we will miss out on seeing what God is saying and doing during these times of uncertainty.

The second, and opposite, response, is to become engulfed with the awfulness of uncertainty. There's a time for everything, says the teacher in Ecclesiastes, and many have felt overwhelmed with sadness and bewilderment over the last few days. If you don't feel that yourself, it might be hard for you to understand - remember that our uncertainties are not all the same - but this sense of grief is real for many. I know from my funeral ministry that the only way to get through grief is to go through it; it can't be short-circuited, otherwise it goes underground and becomes something even more painfully entrenched. But like the first response, the denying of an uncertain and changing world, this response, hopefully, is a relatively short term one, and what will emerge out of this grief, for those who feel it, will be a sense of hope for a different, but viable future.

The third response, an the one which I believe is most deeply Christian, is to look uncertainty in the eye, name it for what it is, and meet it with faith in our unchanging God. Our Gospel reading this morning reminds us that Jesus himself lived a life of constant uncertainty - 'foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests', says Jesus, 'but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.' He makes it clear that following Him means moving away from those things which give us a sense of stability and normality, and following him into an uncertain future - following him in the way of the cross. It's a big ask, and this morning's Gospel contains some of the most challenging of Jesus' sayings; no wonder that many people who were impressed by his miracles and who enjoyed his parables didn't stay with him all the way.

So the challenge for us this morning is this: Will we walk, with Jesus, the way of the cross, through uncertain times? Will we trust Him to lead us? That doesn't mean passively trotting along behind him; it means, as we walk with Jesus, allowing Him to show us what part we can play in forming communities and countries where the values of the Kingdom of God - the values we heard about in our reading from Galatians - love, joy, peace, generosity, patience, kindness, faithfuless, gentleness and self-control, are the way in which we live? We can't do this on our own - Elijah learnt that lesson the hard way, as we heard last week. We have to work together, and help each other, and when our faith falters, as it will at times, to lend each other the faith to walk confidently into an unknown future. We need, as Elisha asks for, a 'double share' of faith to meet the challenges of our uncertain world, and we need to be generous in sharing our faith with each other.

I am going to finish by reading a short reflection which is often read on New Year's Day, but it seems very apt as we start out on a new phase of national, and international, life.

 I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year,
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied, “Go out into the darkness
and put your hand into the hand of God
That shall be to you better than the light
And safer than a known way!”
So I went forth and finding the hand of God
Trod gladly into the light.

Amen.      


   

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Breaking Point: A Sermon After a Truly Terrible Week

As you know, I’ve been unwell for the last few weeks, with a very nasty chest infection. Two weeks ago today, I was in Barnet Hospital having intravenous antibiotics and rehydration. This came entirely out of the blue; if you’d asked me three weeks ago how I was, I would have almost certainly said that I was fine, maybe a little tired and run-down. Serious chest infections don’t develop overnight though, and looking back, I can see that I have been more than a little tired and run-down for some time now. Some of the factors leading to my breaking point two weeks ago I can identify – a cold I hadn’t properly recovered from, not enough rest, and soon - and others, I can’t. It’s impossible to predict, beforehand, what will lead to our breaking points. If we could predict these breaking points in advance, one hopes that we’d have the common sense to avoid them altogether. For me, the only thing for it was to cancel everything in my diary for a week, and simply rest.

 Now I’m not someone who’s naturally given to much lounging around, so I found this quite a bit harder than you might imagine. I was painfully aware of everything I was missing, especially of John’s licensing as our Reader and the celebrations that followed it. But rest I must, and rest I did, and not moving from the sofa for a week meant that I spent a lot more time than normal reading the news, and hearing about some heartbreakingly sad breaking points.

 I read that just over a week ago, an American pop singer, Christina Grimmie, was shot dead by a young man who was obsessed with her and convinced himself that he would marry her, his delusional obsession reaching breaking point as he shot both her and himself. Shortly after that terrible event, a young man reached his own breaking point, went into a gay bar in Florida, killed forty-nine people and badly hurt fifty-three others before turning his gun on himself. It was the largest scale attack on American soil since 9/11, and the largest scale attack on LGBT+ people since the Holocaust. What had led to this young man’s breaking point? What toxicities had he imbibed, what inherent vulnerabilities had combined to such devastating effect? It seems that having become accustomed to violence, having a warped and distorted view of his religion and an internalised hatred of his own sexuality may have played their part.  

Just as we were starting to tell ourselves that America’s gun crimes are a tragic problem which could never happen over here, we heard of another young man who reached his breaking point on Thursday, who stabbed and shot Jo Cox MP, a prominent activist for Syrian refugees and an outspoken pro-Remain supporter as well as a wife and mother of two young children, as she visited her constituency surgery in Yorkshire. In court yesterday he refused to give his name, saying instead ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.’

Awfully, too awfully for words, these last days have borne sombre witness to breaking points. It’s ironic, then, the latest of the Brexit slogans should be those exact words; you may have seen a large billboard poster with a photo of a snaking queue of people crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border with ‘Breaking Point’ in large letters. This poster has given rise to an outcry, with all but a few distancing themselves from its implication and its eerie reminiscences of Nazi propaganda. However, this poster has articulated something of the Zeitgeist; after this week’s terrible news, we know that there among us who are at breaking point, and maybe many more who are dangerously close to breaking.

It’s comforting, then, that the lectionary gives us two readings today in which we encounter people who are at their own breaking points. In our Old Testament reading, Elijah is exhausted and disillusioned, having given his all to his God and depleted himself to the point at which death seems the only viable option. In our Gospel reading, we meet a man way past breaking point, who is assailed by so many demons that living a fear-stricken, isolated life of pain and torment is the only possibility.  

Now that, in and of itself, is not very comforting. But the good news is that it is to these two men – Elijah and the unnamed demoniac – in their moment of greatest need, at their own particular breaking points – that God draws close, and the hope of a new start becomes reality.

For Elijah, the drama of the earthquake, wind and fire, the awesome, utter otherness of the sheer silence, the divine voice speaking directly to him, all lead up to what may be thought of as a somewhat disappointingly pragmatic conclusion; our reading stops before we hear the end of the story, but God tells Elijah that he cannot continue as he has been, the superstar one-man prophet. He needs help, and he needs companions. Elijah’s life-changing mountaintop experience changes him from the sole saviour of Israel to one among a band of friends who together will bear witness to God’s presence.

For the man in the Gospel, his breaking point, the legion of demons that torment him, leads him back to his community. Where he has been naked, he is re-clothed, where he has been driven to the edge of sanity, he is able think clearly, and where he has been outcast, he is welcomed home. God is with us, our readings today assure us, in our desperate moments of breaking point. In fact, these breaking points might be the very moments at which we allow God to draw close to us, healing and helping us.  
The American sociologist Brene Brown has become well known for her insistence that those among us who are honest about our vulnerabilities are, in fact, those least likely to reach breaking point, and those among us who take pride in telling ourselves and the world how fine we are, are, in ironic fact, the most likely to break. This makes perfect sense; those of us who go to the doctor when we start to feel ill are much less likely to end up in A&E, and those who soldier on are the ones who will end up with serious chest infections. I am, of course, preaching to myself this morning! But so many of us fall into this trap, and it’s not just ourselves we end up hurting. Brene Brown says, ‘There are too many people today who instead of feeling hurt are acting out their hurt; instead of acknowledging pain, they’re inflicting pain on others. Rather than risking feeling disappointed, they’re choosing to live disappointed.’

The only way to break this cycle of hurt is to allow ourselves to feel it, to acknowledge it and to start to heal from it. This is true of us as individuals at times, and it is true of us as a society, beset as we are with so many pains. That’s why the vigils that have been held for the victims of the massacre in Orlando, for Christina Grimmie and for Jo Cox, have been so heartening to see – these shared acknowledgements of the deep pain of violent murder are the start of healing, of the possibility that love really does win.  I think about Jesus’ searching question in the Gospel: ‘do you want to be made well?’ It’s a harder question than it sounds, because in order to answer yes, one has to admit that one is unwell.  

If we can’t acknowledge, and be honest about our pains and vulnerabilities – the demons that assail and torment us – that doesn’t make them go away. It just drives us further away from those around us who might be able to help.  This leads me to wonder: what if the delusional, obsessed pop star fan could have admitted the extent of his craze? What if the young man in the Orlando nightclub could have got help for his violence and self-hatred? What if the killer of Jo Cox could have channelled his idealism into positive good for others?


It sounds so easy, so trite to ask these things – but the hard reality is that admitting our unwellness – being honest about our vulnerabilities – is demanding, both for us and for those around us. Our own breaking points might be very different to those that have played out in our newspapers over the last week, but they are also real.

 I believe that church should, and must, be the place in which we can give full voice to our brokenness and to our breaking points. Church should, and must, be the place in which like Elijah and the man in the Gospels, we can cry out to God to heal and help us at our point of greatest need. Church should, and must, be the place in which we allow ourselves to feel our pains so that we don’t simply act them out. 

This can only happen if church is a place of absolute honesty and acceptance, a place in which we recognise each other as brothers and sisters in the family of God, a place in which we are judged not by our status, age, gender, income, sexuality, nationality or anything other than the sheer gift of the love of God that we find in Jesus.  If we can be a church which is safe enough to hold the dangerous work of learning to love each other as God loves us, we will, I believe, become a place of healing in a hurting world. As the family of God, the love which we are commanded to share is not just for our own sake, or for our own healing; rather, it is for the sake of a world that is at breaking point. May we, with all God’s children, find within ourselves the courage to allow Him to heal us, and may we become signs of his healing presence in this hurting world. Amen.  

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Is the Bible a Romantic Comedy? A Sermon for a Book Festival

It is a great joy to be with you here this evening at the close of the Book Festival.  I do hope that you’ve enjoyed the Festival and that it’s inspired you to get stuck into a good book. It’s entirely fitting that the Book Festival should end with a Festival Evensong, a service which is itself a great work of literature, arguably the most enduring and most beloved service in the Book of Common Prayer. The Book of Common Prayer is steeped in the language of the Bible, that greatest of all Christian literature and the reason for which Christians are counted, along with Muslims and Jews, as ‘people of the book.’ So I’m very glad that you have chosen to end the Book Festival with a celebration of this book of books, this wellspring of western literature. I’m not just saying this because I’m a vicar; when I arrived, aged 18, for my university interview to read English Literature, I asked my interviewer, an academic with no obvious signs of religious affiliation, what I should read over the summer as I prepared to spend three years puzzling over Pinter, discussing Dickens, analysing Atwood and, of course, studying Shakespeare. Rather than being handed a long reading list, as I expected, I was given instead a one-word answer: Bible. Read the Bible, preferably the King James Version, and you’ll be well set up for a degree in English Literature. Oh, that’s all right, I replied, the good Christian that I was, I’ve read that one already. The academic was, of course, spot on; western literature from Beowulf to Brideshead, from Caedmon’s Hymn to Harry Potter, is obscure without some basic Bible knowledge.   

So what of the Bible itself? What is this complex and curious collection of writings that has bewildered and blessed its readers down the ages, almost in identical proportions? The great north African Christian saint, St Augustine of Hippo, beautifully described the writings of the Bible as ‘our letters from home.’ Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, said this: “I believe that the existence of the Bible is the greatest benefit to the human race. Any attempt to belittle it, I believe, is a crime against humanity.” Yet Harper Lee strikes a well-tuned note of caution in ‘To Kill A Mocking-Bird’; ‘Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of (another).’ I’m sure we can all think of aspects of the Bible, and applications of the Bible, that have caused great harm, and perpetuated more than a few of their own crimes against humanity down the ages. How we read the Bible, faithfully and honestly, as Christians is, I believe, not only a matter of intellectual integrity but also of confidence in our faith.

This question of how we best read the Bible has been answered in many different ways through time and across cultures; the post-Enlightenment German liberal protestant answer, and the one which has come to dominate academic biblical theology, is to encourage us not to think of the Bible as one book, and not even to think of the books of the Bible as books, but rather to think of the Bible as a conglomeration of various strands of tradition that have been kept together even when they seem not to interweave ideally, or at all. If you’re not sure what this might mean in practice, it means asking whether the animals went in two by two – hurrah – or seven by seven, and not expecting to find a definitive answer to this question. There’s a lot of merit to this approach, and it does help to dilute the difficult bits.  

However, more recent biblical theology has gone back to the ancient Christian practice of reading the Bible as one big story – one meta-narrative – and asking what that big story is about. If the Bible does hold together as one big story, it’s a story with many plot twists, many wrong turns, high and low characters, moments of farcical humour and heart-rending tragedy; there are cliff-hangers, dramatic irony, a shadowy backstory of Canaanite polytheism, and many shorter stories within this big story. We might think, for example, of the story of Joseph with his coat of many colours, dumped in a ditch by his brothers only to become right hand man to Pharaoh, or we might think of Samson and his strength-inducing hair, or of the boy David slaying the giant Goliath with a single pebble.  We might have our own favourite Bible stories from childhood days; mine is, without doubt, the story of the Exodus, which I still rank as one of the most exciting in all literature. The big story of the Bible is told in poetry, in drama, in prose; it is enacted in laws, it is celebrated in song and bewailed in lament, and of course it reaches its dramatic climax in the story of Jesus himself, the man on the cross, ‘the spectacle of too much weight for me’ as the renaissance poet John Donne puts it.   

So is it possible to read into the complex, and let’s be honest, contradictory stories of the Bible one big story, or does doing so distort all its stories beyond recognition? Well, I think that it is not only possible to do so, but that the Bible itself invites such a reading. After all, the Bible writers quote each other freely and, one might be inclined to add, with more than a little literary license. The New Testament writers saw Jesus as the character whom all the stories of the Hebrew Bible foreshadowed, as the one whose entrance onto the stage throws all of the previous drama into a bigger, and brighter, relief than any of the actors could have foreseen. Jesus himself is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and end of the great story of God’s love for the world, and in him, says the writer of the letter to the Colossians, all things hold together. In him, the story makes sense; in him, all our stories make sense.

What kind of story is this grand metanarrative, of which Jesus is the hero and protagonist? If I were to suggest that the big story of the Bible could be best understood as a romantic comedy, you well might think that I am stretching things somewhat. However, stick with me for a moment. If we think in terms of Shakespearean comedy and tragedy, you might well know that the basic difference between a tragedy and a comedy is that in tragedy, everyone ends up dead, and in comedy, everyone ends up married. So ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ ends with Benedick saying ‘When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married’ and taking Beatrice as his wife to the merry sound of music, whereas the ‘Scottish play’ Macbeth is a barren bloodbath as Lady Macbeth scrubs her hands in futile, endless horror at her own brutality. There is something of the inevitable, of the fatal flaw, in tragedy; something in Hamlet that tortures the young Danish student-prince to his own self-destruction; something in King Lear that cannot trust in his daughters’ love even when he has no logical reason to doubt them, a mistrust that corrodes and ultimately kills them all.

However, in comedy, events occur, sometimes cataclysmic event like shipwrecks and near-death, but characters act, sometimes without each others’ knowledge, towards a resolution of problems and the reconciliation of estranged friends and relatives. The characters’ actions are creative, daring, unpredictable and even fun as they believe in themselves, and in the forces shaping their lives, sufficiently to guide them to the point at which all that is wrong is put right, all that is lost is restored, and all who are alone are paired off in joyful matrimony. In comedy, the ending is always better than the beginning, the resolution always more complete than the presenting problems. In comedy, things that were taken for granted at the start are treasured at the end. T. S. Eliot put it beautifully in his famous poem ‘Little Gidding’. He says this:
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. 

Comedy is about circling back through complex and seemingly chaotic events to the point at which the play started, and knowing for the first time the wondrous goodness of that place.

This, I would say, is the grand vision of the Bible’s big story. God creates the world, and sees that it is good. Events occur; cataclysmic events and the near-death of God’s people. Yet the characters act, creatively and unpredictably and daringly; Moses stretches forth his staff and parts the red sea, David picks up his sling, Esther saves her people from annihilation – and God himself, the central character, all the time, is acting through his people, even when their own actions are less than heroic – maybe especially at those times. Through this activity, the voice of the beloved – the voice of the God who acts out of love – calls out, over and over again, to his people, wooing them as patiently and as gently as a Shakespearean gentleman. That voice of love cries out from the cross, and tenderly names Mary on Easter morning. Like a good comedy, the Bible’s big story ends with a big wedding as the new Jerusalem comes down as a bride adorned for her husband, and all that is wrong is put right, all tears are wiped away and all sorrows flee in the light of the everlasting radiance of God’s eternal love. The romantic comedy of the Bible – the big story of a divine love powerful enough and patient enough to redeem all – is a story of hope, a story which gives profound perspective and meaning to the stories in which we live, our own personal autobiographies. Billy Graham, the great American evangelist, said this: ‘I have read the last page of the Bible. It’s going to turn out all right.’ May we all be people who, having read the last page of the Bible this evening, know deeply that it is, indeed, going to turn out all right. Amen.




      

        

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The Judas In Here: A Sermon for Spy Wednesday



When I told someone a while ago that I would be preaching on Wednesday of Holy Week, I was amused at his suggestion that I might offer my sermon wearing dark glasses and a fake beard. As you can see, tempting though that was, I decided not to go along with it, even though today is known in the days leading up to the dramatic events of the Good Friday as Spy Wednesday. In our culture, the word ‘spy’ conjures up various connotations, from the iconic James Bond movies with their glamorous, daring and maverick MI5 agents averting global disaster before getting the girl and a light telling-off from Judi Dench, to the much more comedic ‘Allo ‘Allo which you may remember from the 1980s with the ridiculous British Officer Crabtree attempting to pass himself off as a French police officer, despite speaking terrible French and not much better English as he arrived on set saying ‘Good moaning’ scene after scene. Not all our ideas about spies are sexy or funny, though; in this age of heightened tensions amidst the kind of atrocious terror attacks such as those in Brussels yesterday, we are all too aware of our need for our security services and for the best available intelligence that might minimise the chances of such devastation recurring elsewhere.

The spy whom we are invited to consider today is, as you might have guessed, Judas, whom we heard in our reading from John’s Gospel eating the bread which Jesus offers before slinking out into the night to get his betrayal over and done with. Judas is, of all the dramatis personae of the Easter story, the one with whom we probably feel least comfortable; Peter might cause our consciences to twitch as we recognise within ourselves the all-too-familiar temptation to let Jesus down, but then John’s Gospel gives us that beautifully tender scene of reconciliation as Jesus forgives Peter and reaffirms him as one of his own, and our hearts are reassured. We might identify with Doubting Thomas, who questions the truth of Jesus’ resurrection but is invited to feel for himself the physicality of the cross, still etched onto Jesus’ hands and feet.

Judas is a much more troubling and, I would say, ambiguous figure. In John’s telling of the Holy Week story, the shadow of Judas as he disappears into the darkness from Jesus’ last supper table is almost the last we hear of him; he only makes one more fleeting appearance later on in the Gospel, this time surrounded by Roman guards and the religious leaders whom he has directed to the Kidron Valley, where he doesn’t even have to speak but rather stands in silence as Jesus himself steps forward and identifies himself.  The other Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles complete the story with a noose in a field and entrails bursting out of Judas’ body, but in John’s Gospel, there is no ending to the Judas story.

No wonder Judas has been such a reviled figure down through history. The second century Bishop Papias described Judas as physically grotesque; ‘his flesh [was] bloated to such an extent that he could not walk through a space where a wagon could easily pass. . . . His eyelids were so swollen that it was absolutely impossible for him to see the light…His private parts were shamefully huge and loathsome to behold.’ This visceral reaction to Judas has not faded with time; an old Polish tradition has an effigy of Judas being thrown from a church steeple and dragged through the streets before finally being drowned in a pond. Even in the supposedly secular realm of folk music, the name of Judas is a powerful name to invoke, and a hard one to shake off, as Bob Dylan suggested as he recalled the time when his choice of guitar led to him being called Judas. “The most hated name in human history,” he said. “If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try and work your way out from under that.” Try indeed; it’s taken Judas two thousand years so far.

So what do we do with such a hated person as Judas? He is part of the story we live out through this Holy Week; he is part of our story as Christians. How do we try and work our way out from that? The tragic answer is that through much of Christian history, we have taken the devastating but obvious option of distancing ourselves from Judas by casting him as the archetypal Jew, compounding centuries of anti-Semitism whilst getting Gentile believers off the hook. From the rather simplistic argument that his name, Judas, is a dead giveaway, which of course completely blindsides the fact that another of the twelve shared the same name, to the very swarthy Jewish-looking Judas in Caravaggio’s painting ‘The Taking of Christ’, to Nazi propaganda such as the infamous and influential 1940 movie, “Süss the Jew”, featuring a Judas-look-a-like moneylender who, along with fellow Jews, betrays the people of Württemberg for financial gain, Judas has become byword for, or maybe a scapegoat of, anti-Semitism. In doing so, we have done incalculable harm as we have ‘othered’ Judas over and over so that we don’t need to think too hard about what he might say about us. This leads me to wonder: who’s betraying whom exactly here?



In the Gospel reading we heard, the disciples glance nervously at each other when Jesus speaks of betrayal. Who will it be? Even after Judas has sloped off, they still don’t understand. It’s not that the disciples are dim that they can’t answer this question; it’s not that they are unobservant. I think that maybe it’s because they know in their hearts that Jesus could be talking about any one of them. He could be talking about any one of us.

That, I think, is what Spy Wednesday invites us to ask ourselves; not simply, who is the spy out there who will betray Jesus and lead him to suffering and death, but who is the spy in here, in our own hearts and minds? Who is the Judas in us who is driven by greed or maybe by need, who is terrified of those stronger and more powerful than ourselves and whose fear urges us into our own betrayals of Christ? Who is the Judas in us who sneaks off into the night because there’s something in us that can’t stand the warmth and conviviality of the shared meal? 

These are hard questions to ask, and hard questions to answer. But this week – this Holy Week – is an invitation to ask the hard questions, to face up to everything in us that betrays our faith. Only then, can we begin to understand the mind-blowing magnitude of the forgiving love of the cross. Only then can we grasp that the same New Testament word for ‘betrayal’ is also translated ‘to hand over’; that Judas’ handing over of Jesus to the authorities leads to Jesus handing over of the Spirit as he dies on the cross. Our betrayal becomes our redemption; our crime becomes our acquittal. Only then can we understand what it means that the same Greek word translated in tonight’s passage as ‘declared’ is ‘martureo’, the word that Jesus uses when he tells Pilate that the reason for his coming into the world is to witness to the truth, and the same word used to describe the deaths, the martyrdoms, of those who follow Jesus from the earliest times to this day. Jesus bears witness – martyrs himself as he says that he will be handed over; his body on the cross bears witness as he martyrs himself and hands over the spirit. This is the power of the cross, but we can only see it if we allow ourselves to see our need of it.

It’s too easy, and too destructive, to distance ourselves from Judas by committing the sin of anti-Semitism, to ‘other’ him and exonerate ourselves. It’s too easy, and too comforting, to think of spies as ‘other’, either glamorous or ridiculous.  It’s too easy, and too dangerous, to ‘other’ people in these difficult times of terrorist attacks, complex political questions, huge human suffering in the refugee crisis and austerity cuts, to blame whole groups of people and seek to build walls, either literal or metaphorical to keep the ‘other’ out. That will not do, the cross of Christ tells us. That will never do, because the ‘others’ from whom we are trying to work ourselves under, are our very selves. The only way we can be reconciled truly to the ‘other’ is to come together, to the foot of the cross, where our handing over of Christ becomes his handing of the Spirit to us, where our betrayal of him becomes our redemption and our crime becomes our acquittal, where his body on the cross bears witness to our great need, and to his even greater love. As we come now to Communion, we come as ourselves – our Judas selves. Amen.     








Sunday, 14 February 2016

Temptation: A Sermon for the first Sunday of Lent

Today, the first Sunday of Lent, is a time when we hear about Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, in that strange testing time between his baptism in the river Jordan and the wonders of his teaching and healing ministry in Galilee, before his final journey to Jerusalem and to the cross. The temptations are, as we know, part of a story in which Jesus will speak words of truth and life, in which Jesus will comfort the outcast, forgive the sinful, put down the haughty, confront the hypocrites, heal the sick, lay down his life out of love and be raised from death to glorious life after three days. So much is to come in this story of Christ’s life, this story of our faith, but before that, the desert, and the temptations.

In the town where I used to live, there was a gift shop called Temptations, that sold beautiful china and excellent chocolates. It was always busy If you start thinking about popular songs from the 1950s onwards that include the word ‘temptation’ in their lyrics, you could be here all day. You might start with the band The Temptations, and then work from there! In our culture, we have a tendency – a temptation, one could say – to de-value temptation and to look at it as something that you might say no to the first time with every intention of saying yes the next.

‘Oooh, I know I shouldn’t, but….’

‘A little of what you fancy….’

‘Go on, let me tempt you!’

We might say, with Mae West, “I generally avoid temptation unless I can't resist it.” 

Or with Oscar Wilde “I can resist anything except temptation.”

For Jesus, though, the temptations were very real; the temptation to give in to physical hunger, to the need to prove himself to his opponent, to the desire to receive the adulation, the recognition of which he knew he was worthy.  Needless to say, there were no gift shops selling beautiful china and excellent chocolates in the wilderness, and there were no bands singing pop songs about temptation. For Jesus, these forty days were an intense period of testing both of body and of soul. Would he give in? This is a real question. One of the trip hazards that we can stumble across when we think about Jesus is to suppose that, as God become man, nothing was ever hard for him, that he was a kind of first century Galilean Bear Gyrlls for whom the desert was a welcome opportunity to demonstrate his superior survival skills. With all respect to Beer Grylls, that’s nonsense. Jesus was no Action Man. He was hungry, thirsty, cold, lonely, and severely tempted in the desert. We might think back for a moment to Isaiah’s words foreseeing the suffering servant whom God would send:   
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
   and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
   nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
   a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity.

There was nothing trivial or laughable about Jesus’ temptations.

And what about us? I have noticed an interesting trend away from giving up things for Lent, towards doing something for Lent. I can understand this if the idea is to avoid using Lent as some kind of diet plan, or, much worse, mimicking our Pharisaic forebears by appearing to do things so as to showcase our great holiness in front of one another while our hearts remain stealthily hidden away from view. It’s interesting, too, that this suspicion of giving up things for Lent seems to go hand in hand with giving things up at other times of year – we have just had Dry January. It seems that we fallible weak human beings still need particular times to let go of our vices, whether or not we do that as part of the church year and the Christian community. 

My personal feeling is that Lent is a good time to give something up, and to take something up, and in both of those actions to find a greater self-discipline than we normally demand of ourselves. In both the giving up and the taking up – the positive doing of something and the negative not doing of something – we might find what our real temptations are We might find it surprisingly easy to give up booze but near impossible to give up sarcasm. Or the other way round. Lent, if we enter into it as God invites us to, gives us a perfect opportunity to find out what is hard for us, and what is easy. It gives us a time to get to know ourselves better, and to look, with the God who love us, at the people we are and to accept his help to overcome those things that are genuine, hard, frustrating temptations for us. Someone who grappled with the reality of temptation somewhat more profoundly than either Mae West or Oscar Wilde was C. S. Lewis. 

In his classic book ‘Mere Christianity’, C. S. Lewis says this: “A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is... A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in.” 

Jesus did not live a sheltered life in the desert, and he invites us out of our sheltered lives too so that we can know ourselves more fully to be held in the love that is stronger than any temptation, and know ourselves to be free in that love. This is why Lent is one of my favourite time in the church year, an assertion that might sound perverse or self-flagellating. Lent is one of my favourite times in the church year because it is a time that invites me to become more like Christ, and to become freer in who I am as I discover more deeply the life-changing reality of his love for me which is stronger than any temptation. Easy words to say, but I believe that these words can only come to life within our lives if we allow ourselves to walk with Jesus along the way of the cross. Yes, that means facing temptation. Yes, that means acknowledging and owning our weaknesses. Yes, that might hurt our pride and damage our sense of self. But it’s only when we trust God’s love enough to do that that we can begin to hear his words to us, telling us that in our weakness, he is our strength, that our pride is nothing but a ragged mask, that our sense of self comes not from our achievements or superiority to others but to his infinite love for us.

And what about Jesus? As I say, the temptations are real. He could have given in. And if he had, he would have been spared the agonies of the cross. He would never have whispered those desolate words ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ He would never have known the humiliation and abandonment of Peter’s denial of him. He would never have died, slowly, painfully, alone. He would never have needed to know physical suffering again. His sense of his own worth would have been instantly, and gloriously, vindicated. Yet it would have been a false vindication. The true glory, the glory that only God can give, is the glory of the resurrection. And without the cross, there can be no resurrection. Jesus chose real glory over false glory, the true vindication of the empty tomb over the empty vindication of the devil’s tempting words. And if Jesus had chosen false glory and empty vindication, he would never have fulfilled God’s plan for him, he would never have been the person that God invited him to be.


We live in a world in which we are tempted all the time by false glory and empty vindication, in gossipy words of others, over-or under-confidence in ourselves, and vapid promises that consumerism can fulfil our deep need for significance. It is such a temptation to take these temptations as reality. If we do – if we give in to the things that turn out to be our hardest temptations – we might miss the deep, freeing love that God has for us; we might miss out on the abundant life which is our true inheritance as his beloved children. Lent is a time to peek past the false glories and empty vindications of this world, and to see the reality of who we are, God’s beloved children. It is a great gift. May you be so richly blessed as you walk the way of the cross with Jesus this Lent.           

Monday, 1 February 2016

Walking around the Plot: Reflections on a Church Visit to Luxembourg

Going to someone else's church, especially in a different country, can feel for vicars, I guess, a bit like a gardener being shown around a neighbour's plot. Of the comparatively little that I know about gardening, I owe most of this knowledge to neighbours and friends who have done just that: walked me round, shown me what they have planted where, and when, what the soil is like, where the sun hits at what time of day, what has taken root and become beautiful, and what has taken over and become a nuisance, what can be left to grow quietly in its own way, and what needs regular, watchful nurture, which plants complement and enrich one another and which compete and diminish the other's growth capacity. Gardeners come way from these visits inspired and enriched, warned and advised.

This weekend, I flew to Luxembourg, a place I hadn't visited before, to visit the Anglican Church and in particular to see someone whom I am mentoring, who is training for church ministry. The Anglican Church in Luxembourg is part of the Diocese in Europe, a network of churches spanning an extraordinary geographical area from Iceland to Uzbekistan under the care of a bishop based in Gibraltar, yet part of the Church of England (hence my visit). The service which I attended was in English, using the same words from the same book that I use when I lead services at home in Hertfordshire. The hymns, or at least the hymn tunes, were ones I knew well. The only language used in the service other than English was Latin, a seventeenth-century Mass setting sung beautifully by a trio, the same sort of music sung in the same sort of way that a Church of England church with a choral tradition might enjoy. So much about the Anglican Church in Luxembourg was so familiar to me.

Yet there were differences too, and noticing these differences was a little like walking around your neighbour's garden and wondering what that little flower is called. So here are a few observations. These are, let me stress, not differences of belief but of emphasis and experience, and arise directly out of my own personal experience of the Church of England, limited as each one individual's must be. No doubt others would come away with a very different cluster of reflections!

Firstly, I was struck by the inter-relatedness of the Anglican Church and Christians from other faith backgrounds. The room which functions as the Anglican Church is on long-term loan from the Roman Catholic Church, and, talking to Anglicans, I heard repeatedly of ongoing, live relationships with leaders and others from different churches. This isn't surprising, when you consider that the congregation I visited is the only Anglican church in Luxembourg. For ministers in Luxembourg, collegiality is found ecumenically in a way that is not so distinct in the Church of England, where vicars most often find support from fellow Anglicans rather than other local ministers. There are many clergy and churches in the Church of England who are deeply invested in ongoing, live relationships with other Christians, but maybe in many parts of England the need to work together across ecumenical divides isn't quite as pressing, and ecumenical relationships fade into the background. Maybe part of what we English Anglicans can be reminded of by our brothers and sisters on the continent is that we are part of something much bigger than our own congregations or denominations.

Secondly, I was surprised to discover that church ministers in Luxembourg are considered civil servants, and are funded by the government. This is very different to the Church of England, which receives no government money at all. I had a fascinating conversation about what it means for Christians to be 'in the world but not of the world' when the political and financial affairs of the church are interwoven with those of the state (of course, this is also true politically in England with the C of E as the established church, its own rules intertwined with the law of the land in a way that is not so of other British churches). The upshot is that the Anglican Church in Luxembourg isn't concerned with cash flow in the way that many English Anglican churches do, and this also is reflected in people's financial giving to the church. Christians in Luxembourg are very generous in giving to charity, I was told, but they know that their money is not needed to keep the church afloat. I'd be lying if I didn't say that a large part of me is very envious of the Luxembourgish financial position; but there's something about sacrificial giving to a local church, with its blessings as well as its worries, that maybe the C of E knows more deeply because of its financial independence.

Thirdly, as I entered the Anglican Church, I walked past a large hoarding affirming a Luxembourgish identity which has influences from many national backgrounds but no place for racism. Twentieth-century history here is still keenly felt, with reminders of the Nazi occupation and its terrors never far away. I was reminded of the peaceful demonstration that I attended in Sweden against the rise of far-right nationalistic political parties in 2014, and of the worrying ascendancy of such thinking across Europe.  We in Britain are by no means immune; this last month saw a small, but nonetheless unsettling far-right's public gathering in Luton. That the church had chosen to display this poster was, I felt, very powerful. Maybe in the C of E we need to add our voices more clearly, and more often, to those saying that racism has no place in the church or in our communities.

Visiting the Anglican Church in Luxembourg was a wonderful experience, uplifting and thought-provoking. As I walked away from communion, I mulled over the words of a song that I learnt during my teens, based on the words of Jesus; 'I am yours, you are mine. I am in you, and you are in me.' Yes, this short visit to Luxembourg was a little like walking around a neighbour's garden, but on reflection, as I knelt at the altar and received bread and wine, it felt more like discovering a patch of my own grounds that I hadn't come across before, mine not through ownership but through belonging to a family bigger than those with whom I share my home and my own little plot, this larger family imperfect and sometimes at odds with each other within itself but committed to making a real difference in the world all around it. 'I am yours, you are mine. I am in you, and you are in me.' Maybe there's something about walking around someone else's garden, visiting someone else's church, that refreshes in me the truth that in belonging to Christ, we belong to one another.


The altar, celebrating the presence of the Anglican church in Luxembourg

Stained glass windows, a brand-new drum kit and an oil panting of a saint give you a sense of the breadth of this church! 

The anti-racism poster 

A beautiful statue in the chapel 

One on many sobering reminders of the Nazi occupation, and its devastating effects on Luxembourg.