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The Finger That Beckons

Isaiah 61.10 – 62.3, Luke 2.15 – 2

Introduction – Christmas choices
For reasons with which I will not bore you, Nancy and I invited ourselves at very short notice to Christmas lunch with my brother and his family in Wokingham. The welcome was warm, the company delightful and the spread, ample and delicious. There was no turkey but a fabulous side of beef and a lovely salmon wrapped in pastry – and all the trimmings. I opted for the beef – a difficult choice for I am fond of salmon.

Today with our readings we are offered two attractive and substantial dishes. I’m going to be greedy and opt for a bit of both and hope I do not give you indigestion.

A passionate prophet
The Old Testament passage from Isaiah offers us an amazing vision – of a city ransacked and ruined, gloriously restored and of an exhausted, dispirited and exiled people wonderfully returned. And on the lips of the prophet there is a longing and an anticipation for more. ’For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent – for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet till her righteousness shines out like the dawn – her salvation like a blazing torch.’

And I have met and heard of good people, pastors and priests who have for their own place, parish or town made that plea and pledge of the prophet their own. We could make it our own . . .

For Newtown’s sake we will not keep silent – till the battered and bruised find courage and hope, the lonely friendship, the used and abused – men and women, and there are many of them – deliverance and dignity, the dealers are seen no more lurking round the garages on Amity Road or behind the nursery in Palmer Park, and, some might want mischievously to add, plans for the mass rapid transit system beside the Thames – thwarted!

Mary, angels, a manger and the shepherds
If the passage from Isaiah was the salmon in pastry, the gospel from St Luke is the beef. The reading draws to a close with the haunting, poignant comment that Mary ‘treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.’ (Ch2.19) Avery similar comment is made again just a little later in the gospel after Joseph and Mary to their great relief found the young Jesus debating in the temple courts in Jerusalem.

Sadly, while one part of the Christian church has in the past elevated Mary to heights which would have made her both dizzy and embarrassed, another part has in reaction often ignored her entirely. (I believe a few weeks ago Ali Marshall preached most helpfully about her.) Mary is an extraordinary example of suffering love, great integrity and profound faith, and when I think on her, I have no hesitation in saying, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace.’

Angels – I’m rather keen on them. They play a most significant role in both the Old and New Testaments – warning, encouraging, guiding, protecting. Their appearance at times is utterly overwhelming but others quite low key and down to earth. And I have heard from reliable and steady of sources, even Anglican ones, of the appearance of angels in Iran, Pakistan – even Birmingham. My favourite Christmas card this year was of a sketch by Raphael,of an angel both arms raised above his head, one leg tucked under his bottom, the other stretch before him almost as if he was hurdling – magnificent. If the angels of Bethlehem appeared anything like that no wonder the shepherds took note!

And now as we slip from the Nativity to Epiphany, two observations about our traditional understanding of the trappings of the former:
1.  I do not believe from twenty years of living in the Middle East that if Joseph had turned up in Bethlehem and said, ‘I am Joseph, son of Heli, son of Mattat, the son of Levi of the line of David and originally from Bethlehem,’ ANY door would have been closed to him. In that region historical memories are long, the extended family very important and hospitality a sacred duty.
2.  The word rendered, ‘inn’, in our Nativity accounts much more commonly means, ‘a place’, ‘space’, even, ‘guest room’. (The traditional word for an inn is used in the story of the Good Samaritan.) At Easter, Nancy and I visited the ancient city of Matera in southern Italy, many of whose houses were built into caves on the hillside. We saw one that had been restored to how it might have been a hundred years ago. It was a cave, one part of which was clearly the living quarters with bed, food store and primitive kitchen, the other end, separated by a very low wall, housed animals. There was a manger carved into the rock. I think that could have been how it was in Bethlehem, where there were plenty of similar caves, some larger, allowing provision for storage or even an extra room. Beautiful though they may look on Christmas cards, it’s doubtful whether any young mum would put her child under the stars where even today the snow can lie, ‘deep and crisp and even’. I realise that these thoughts may cause havoc for the writers of Nativity plays, and now what of the shepherds ?

Their terror gave way to wonder, excitement and exuberant, bubbling praise. Can one not imagine them saying to one another on return to their flock, ‘Who would have thought that to us, you Abraham with your bandy legs and squint, and to me with a stutter and love of drink, an angel spoke and we looked at the face of God?’ The wonder of that is most beautifully put in a poem from Uganda.

Blessed are you O Christ child
that your cradle was so low that shepherds,
poorest and simplest of earthly people
could yet kneel beside you and
look level-eyed into the face of God.

Sometimes I fear the accumulated trappings of the Christmas story can obscure the central figure. Doing RE-inspired in Southcote just before Christmas, I got so caught up with my story of an unkind innkeeper that I never had time to get Jesus born!

A Christian for some fifty years and a priest for over forty, I still hunger to study, know and follow Jesus better. I share the credo of Theodore Doestoevsky, which I stumbled upon recently. Here it is: ‘To believe that nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable . . . and more perfect than Christ, and I tell myself with jealous love, not only that there is nothing but there cannot be anything.’

I end with words of a Christian hymn from India:

Behold how the angels sing;
Glory to God in the highest,
Peace on earth.
Love has taken a name and a form, and,
becoming meek for his helpless creatures
has come to earth.
The finger on which the sun is set as a diamond,
he puts to his mouth and plays with in the small cowshed.
O Christ, give to us this mind,
that as the finger turns and beckons
we too may respond.

He beckons us into a new year. Let us follow with courage and devotion.

Amen.

Luke 9vv28-36 Transfiguration Ikon

The Transfiguration

Luke 9:28-36:

After university I went to Kenya as a CMS Volunteer, and worked in a technical training school in Nairobi. I met Rachel in Kenya, as she was another CMS (which became known among us as the Church’s Marriage Society, for obvious reasons) Volunteer. Rachel lived in a beautiful spot called Mugumo, just south and on the slopes of Mt. Kenya. Another friend of ours taught at school just around the mountain at Kiamutugu.

This friend had studied theology at Durham, so his pupils got rather good RE lessons. The school was an ‘harambe’, or self-help school, cheaply constructed with classrooms, plain block wall and tin roofs, looking out over a large playing field, plain brick walls and a tin roof. One day he was teaching them about theophanies, or when God reveals himself directly, and is often used for dramatic events like the pillar of cloud and fire that went before the Israelites in the desert, or the clouds and thunder on Mt. Sinai when Moses received the law. After talking about theophany, David went to the classroom door, opened it, and immediately a bolt of lightning, framed by the door, struck the field outside, and there was a tremendous crash of thunder. He calmly shut the door, turned round, and went back to his desk, while the children stared, frozen in absolute shock at this muzungu who could call God’s wrath from the sky.

The Transfiguration is a theophany, with God speaking directly to the disciples from the cloud: This is my Son, whom I have chosen – listen to him. It appears in all the synoptic gospels (Matthew 171-8, Mark 92-8, Luke 928-36) and is referred to in 2 Peter 116-18, and maybe John 114 (We saw his glory, the glory which he received as the Father’s only Son.). It stands out with other significant events in Jesus life: the star and other signs around the nativity; Jesus’ baptism, when God says This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased.’ (Matthew 317); and the earthquake, darkness and rending of the temple curtain at Jesus’ death (Matthew 2745, 51-52).

What is the Transfiguration about? It is a strange mixture of elements. It is clearly an endorsement of Jesus, as God’s Son and messenger: listen to him. Jesus is the link between earth and heaven. The presence of Moses and Elijah, the pre-eminent messengers of God in the Old Testament, emphasises Jesus’ importance, and God is now singling him out, above Moses and Elijah, as the one to listen to. Yet it is only seen by three disciples, Peter, James and John, who were asleep for first bit, and then afterwards are told to keep it a secret. In Mark’s gospel they are told to wait until after Jesus had risen from the dead, a phrase which confused them. The Transfiguration is proof that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, but hardly anyone knew about it. It is a rare theophany, something that would have remained with Peter, James and John all their lives, but not something Jesus ever mentioned to the crowds, a miracle Jesus wanted no-one to know about.

I wonder if it was also to comfort and strengthen Jesus. It says that Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah about the way in which he would soon fulfil God’s purpose by dying in Jerusalem (in Greek it says they spoke about his ‘exodus’, his leaving). We know, from the story of the Garden of Gethsemane (|Matthew 2626-46) – another occasion when the disciples were asleep – that Jesus, quite naturally, struggled with the path he was on. He knew, even here, that his path lead to Jerusalem and death, and though he was God, we was also human, and he was afraid. Here are Moses -the Law, Elijah – the Prophets, and God – the Father, encouraging him in what he had to do.

The Transfiguration also points to the resurrection, and the hope associated with that. Jesus is seen transformed, like the resurrection body. The disciples also see Moses (who died) and Elijah (who was taken up to heaven, but a long time before), are still very much alive and present. God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. This is where Jesus ministry will end, not just for him, but for all who follow him.

I quite like that this was a quiet event. It was not flashy, seeking publicity, in front of a crowd, to make Jesus a celebrity. It is understated, workmanlike. What is important here is Jesus relationship with his Father, the preparation for his ministry. A few trusted friends are let into the secret too, into something that they do not fully understand at the time, but would do later. It is not something they can bottle or keep, or even extend, as Peter tries to do. But as they went on to found Christ’s church, this was there to support them in hard times and challenges.

For us? God will come to us too in times of challenge. Probably not with glowing figures from the Bible, but with friends, or inner encouragement from something; a prayer, a passage, a view, a story… Our theophanies may not be actual thunderbolts, but they can be like a thunderbolt in the way they change us. And Jesus, the reason for us being here in church at all, is shown as God’s messenger in the most powerful way: listen to him!

Jeremy Thake

 

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The Feast of the Circumcision and Naming of Christ

Numbers 6.22-end, Luke 2.15-21

The feast of the circumcision and naming of Christ

 

‘it had been just as the angel had told them.’

These words are the focus of what I want to say this morning as we celebrate that day in the church year when we remember Mary and Joseph officially naming Jesus.

It’s the time of year when we play party games and have quizzes. So this morning I have some statements about names to give you. I want you to say whether they are true or false.

Sampans is the name given to the houseboats popular for holidays in Kerala, south India

False ‘kettuvalloms’.

Abuja is the capital of Nigeria. True

Adele is the British female singer whose recent album ‘25’ sold most copies in 2016. True

A vomitorium is the name given in ancient Rome to a room where people could go and be sick during a banquet. False. It was the exit to a stadium, enabling crowds to leave quickly.

If we want to verify the truth of any of these statements we can go to Uncle Google. The ‘truth’ here is about factual accuracy. But that’s not the only kind of truth. If we want to know the truth about a person we would certainly need accurate facts about their age, occupation, address etc, but that wouldn’t tell us all we need to know. How would we know what kind of person they were; whether they were kind or honest, or good with children, or knew how to fix things? That’s a different sort of truth. We might talk to their friends or go to their Facebook page, but we know that even those might not be entirely truthful about them. If we talk to them ourselves, how can we know if what they say is reliable?

In the past year we have become increasingly suspicious about the reliability of what other people, especially our leaders tell us. The words ‘post truth’ are now being used to describe a way of speaking that tells us what politicians and others think we want to hear. Someone was telling me last week how when their company is negotiating a deal their MD will exaggerate its benefits to their competitor, even though he knows that their claims are unlikely to be realised. This approach is seen as commendable; he is aiming high, talking big, being ambitious. We view advertising with scepticism. I regularly pass a place where you can take out a ‘same day loan.’ Above the shop is a large poster of a happy looking chap cheerily saying ‘and you still get to keep your car.’ Someone has scribbled underneath this, ‘Yes, you’ll be living in it.’

How often can we say about something or someone, like the shepherds, ‘It’s just as we have been told’?

The truth we seek is usually about consistency, reliability and honesty. We want what’s written on the outside of the packet to be an accurate description of its contents. This has always been the case, although each era might voice the concern differently.

Listen to this; ‘Justice is driven away and right cannot come near. Truth stumbles in the public square and honesty finds no place there. Truth is lacking; anyone who stops doing evil finds himself the victim of crime’. Isaiah (59.14-15) speaking to the people of Israel in the 6th century BC.

This brings us to this special day when we remember Jesus being officially named. His name means God Saves. How many of you wrote Saviour as one of Jesus’ names? There are many other names too, of course. In the first 2 chapters of his gospel Luke is underlining in every way possible the truth of this name. He wants us to know that the events being described are clear signs of God’s activity; everything happens exactly as God’s messengers, the angels, have said; Zechariah loses his voice, Elizabeth has a son in her old age, they give him the name John even though no one in the family is called that. Mary has a baby by divine intervention, the shepherds see him in a manger just as the angels had instructed, and now the baby today is given the name Jesus. It’s all exactly as written on the packet as it were. Reliable. Consistent. Trustworthy.So, this name must be true, Luke is saying, and the rest of his gospel is a demonstration of that truth.

What do we mean when we say that Jesus is our Saviour, or Jesus saves? My brother in law inherited a dishwasher in his new kitchen. However, he frequently washes up himself, saying ‘you know where you are with washing up’. This has become something a catch phrase in his family and his son gave him an apron for Xmas with the words ‘you know where you are….’ on it!  We can say this about Jesus – we know where we are with him. He is trustworthy, consistent, reliable – there is a perfect congruence between what he says, what he does and who he is. He saves us because he invites us to enter this truth about him and to allow it to sink into us so that the same becomes true of us. What we are on the outside becomes the same as what we are on the inside. People can know where they are with us, if you like.

This kind of truth is what prophets like Isaiah, Amos, Hosea etc longed to see in their people. The psalmists asked how we might find this truth and live by it. The ‘how’ was the big question. Ps 86 11 ‘Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth. Knit my heart to yours that I may honour your name’, is a characteristic cry of the psalmist.

I wonder if any of you had the Way or the Truth or the Life as one of Jesus’ names? We can call Jesus Saviour because of these three names – Way, Truth, Life. He is our ‘how’ so to speak. He is God’s answer to the question how?

If you really want to know the truth about someone you have to spend time with them, to watch what they do and say. If you want to become like them that is even more the case. If we call ourselves Christians we are Christ’s apprentices. We have signed up for a lifetime’s apprenticeship where we allow him to teach us, share his life with us, discipline us so that we can become what he is. We’ll be walking the same paths as him, listening for his instructions, eating with him.

That is exactly what Luke is wanting to enable us to do through reading his gospel. In his introduction he dedicates his book to a follower of Christ called Theophilus so that he has an ‘orderly account’ and can know, I quote, ‘the full truth about what you have been taught’. By putting together an orderly narrative Luke enables Theophilus and us to accompany Jesus through his birth, teaching, healing, death and resurrection. Through this journey we are ‘saved’ ie we are changed from the inside out so that we become more Christ like. People look at us and see something of Jesus there.

I’d like you to look at the name you’ve written on your piece of paper. Stick with that name rather than adding any more – your first thought is often the most telling. How far does that name connect with your own experience of Christ? Might there be ways in which you’d like it to be more true of your relationship with him? Perhaps you are still seeking Christ. If so just try sitting with the name, repeating it to yourself, and see what that’s like. If you know you are an apprentice of Christ I invite you during some silence to address Jesus in a prayer using the name you’ve written down.

During the offertory hymn the children will gather up your slips of paper and put them in front of the crib as a reminder of the many names by which the Christ child is known.

During communion I invite you to receive anointing and prayer for healing and wholeness. This is something the church has offered from the very beginning. At its best the church is a channel for Christ’s transforming love. The people doing the prayer and anointing this morning are representing all of us as those channels. At the start of this new year let’s make the most of the resources offered to us for living as Christ’s apprentices wherever we are.

 

Christine Bainbridge

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The Trouble with Mary – Advent 3

Luke 1.39

+ May I speak in the name …

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb”

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Queen of Heaven – Absence/Presence

As we journey through Advent, we acknowledge the various characters who point the way to the coming Messiah; The Prophets, John the Baptiser, and today we come to Mary;

But who are you Mary, and what would you say to us today? You are so deeply a part of this Advent story – so much a part of our hope. The generations have indeed called you blessed, but some have been wary and concerned, some have felt uncomfortable with the way you have been elevated to heavenly heights, and some have reacted with concern and lowered you to the status of any other person, a mere carrier of this Child of hope

Are you another young woman either deified on an unobtainable pedestal; a recipient of our projections and adulations, a woman whose authentic voice is lost in glory and adoration; or a woman whose voice is lost by ignorant ignoring; oppressed by those voices that yet fear the wisdom and strength of women?

What would you think about what we have done to your name and your legacy?

Who are you Mary?

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Mary – Michael L Radcliffe, Artbizness

Are we to believe that you came from a poor family and were barely into your teens at the time of your betrothal to Joseph? And what did actually happen?
Becoming pregnant out of wedlock would have made you a social outcast and without Joseph’s decision to go through with the marriage you risked being stoned to death or banished from your community, with slavery or prostitution becoming the most likely options for survival.

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Mary’s Flight – Absence/Presence

And then, soon after the birth of your child, you became a refugee, fleeing from persecution and an army bent on the genocide of children in the area.

 

*3 Mary your life does not match the romantic images created of you; in fact we see your story mirrored, in our modern times, by those who face uncertainty, marginalisation and exclusion…

slide04 In this time of Advent-waiting Christians we look at your example; mother of Jesus in your willingness to be open to God. Mary you endured and reflected on the deeper meaning of all you lived through. You found hope, peace, love and joy in the midst of adversity.

How do we understand you Mary today?

Protestants remain uneasy about your exaltation, whilst Catholics embrace you, elevate you higher than you might have ever imagined….?

And the Orthodox church….? (A different approach, and to them we will return)

Yet to both of these, I wonder if what we think of you, says something about what really think of Jesus too?

slide05 Because Mary, the church has always—even through head-scratching bewilderment—said that your son was fully God and fully Human. Fully human? That means from you then doesn’t it – of you? Your DNA is in our coming Messiah; you influenced Jesus; taught him, loved him, guided his first steps, he would have followed you through Galilean markets, seen the ways you interacted with others, would have learned from you, mimicked you.….

Have we underestimated you Mary, (and Joseph too?). Could it be that you are both more than side characters?

So… ‘Hail Mary, Full of Grace, blessed art though among women…’ maybe there is more to this—more to you—than we might assume… and maybe the song in your heart which call to us; inspires us, teaches us and provokes us still, also tells us something about your G-d and your Son?

slide06 You sang this song—‘the magnificat’—of protest, of outrage, anger and rage; a song of liberation, vision and hope. You understood something so profound about the Advent of God, an Advent that would literally turn the world upside down,

He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away with empty hands.

slide07 You saw what we still struggle to see clearly, a song of hope born in the hearts of all mothers (and fathers) who care passionately for their children, and the children of this world. And yes – you were the same mother who raised Jesus, your song was his song….

How can we believe that God was beyond this?, Surely God was in this, right at the heart.

So friends, this Thursday was the Lesser Feast of the Conception of Mary, and Vincent and I spent most of the day it seems doing ‘Mary things’.

It’s interesting to not that in the Roman church the celebration is of the Immaculate Conception.

This is a different teaching, exclusive to the Roman Catholic Church, which tried to deal with the doctrine of Original Sin – the teaching that we are all born sinful, passed from one generation to the next.

I personally have many problems with this doctrine. But for the early church this was a problem. Biology and cosmology at that time understood that a man truly carried a ‘seed’ of a child, which was planted in a woman. So for Christ to be born sinless, (which the church upheld), then the father bit was sorted, but the mother bit was more tricky. And so the tradition and doctrine developed that Mary herself was conceived as sinless; Biologically as we expect, but by a grace of God, without the ‘taint’ of Original Sin. For the earlier church this helped deal with a very significant problem of how can Jesus be born to a sinful woman?

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Annunciation, Fra Angelico, San Marco Convent

So Mary, did the “Hail Mary” – (that greeting!), turn a humble young woman into an unassailable deity? Has the church’s adoration and need for ‘purity’ removed you from the everyday messy and broken world in which we all live, stumble, falter and occasionally fly?

And what do we think sin is anyway? The bad things we do, or is it deeper; a brokenness which seems to reside in all things? A brokenness over which we sometime have no control, (like tsunamis, disease or the earthquakes of depression, suicide and shame? )

Sin or Brokeness? What this means to us, might tell us something about how we understand the incarnation too.

slide09 Mary, you said “yes”, when so many of us would have said “no”. In trust and in hope you embraced the undefended. You saw faith as Process – the only way you could know was to enter in. You said yes to the impossible, to the unknown, to that which we cannot contain. Thunder entered you… and the world was transformed.

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Annunciation, John Collier

But does that take you beyond human? Above our sinful ways – or does it take you to something truly human? The birth of your vulnerable son suggests something very powerful. His incarnation, his ‘made flesh’ pictures G-d rolling up G-d’s sleeves and getting stuck into the dirt and mess of our lives. Emmanuel, G-d with us… not above us. Weakness and Fragility at the source of all life

slide11Which is where your Magnificat emerges from…; a hungry expectation that G-d hears the tears and yearning of her people; that G-d will redeem and set people free; not a personal thing, but a corporate social political thing; Mary, you knew your history, you understood the prophets, your heard the ache of your people, “how long Adonai, how long?”.

So today, how can we understand your song as our song?

slide12 In the Orthodox tradition they call you…. ‘Theotokos’ – God-Bearer.. Mary, you carried God… when said “yes” to the unknown, the world heard a resounding ‘no!’ A ‘no!’ to isolation, to self-service, to arrogance and greed. A ‘no!’ to indifference and fear, a no to the inevitability of poverty and exploitation.

We do ourselves a disservice to dismiss you Mary too quickly; our discomfort of you—in reverence for Christ—carries the danger of actually de-humanising Christ.. to make Christ less than human, (merely a God!)

And to dismiss the feminine in G-d’s story? To dismiss the combining of motherhood and divinity, the mystery of birth – its joy and its terror. Again, we lose the connection of faith to life, to earth, to body – we lose something of the wonder.

Yet, our over-reverence surely does the same thing; taking your feisty, revolutionary, (probably very angry), teenage zeal and turned you into an unreachable deity; an idolised virgin. We have taken your manifesto of political insurrection and instead made a glory of eternal purity!

What have we done? Ours is a small vision; not conversant with the lives of the many bold, wise, heroic and strong women we know; women who are embodied; who bring wisdom into the world with grace, and love, and style!

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Icon of the Mother of God of Mt. Athos, “Sweet Kissing”

Yet we can listen again; If you Mary are the Theotokos, the God-Bearer; then are we all God-bearers too?; are we all like you, Mary? Giving birth to Christ in our time and place; recognising our own imprint, our DNA, and our culture as we seek to give birth to the one who turns our lives upside down.

Mary, Mother of God, Star of the Sea, God-Bearer, Activist, Dreamer, Lover of the Impossible – pray for us, because you are one of us; may we love humanity, love the earth, love G-d, and love your dream – until it is made real.

Amen

 

 

Mary Visits Elizabeth

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be[e] a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Mary’s Song of Praise

46 And Mary[f] said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

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Part of the Gospel Series

 

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Zacchaeus and the Eucharistic Prayer

Luke 19.1-10 Zacchaeus, End of Creation Season, All Saints.

+ May I speak in the name…..

ppt-prayingThe story of Zacchaeus meeting Jesus offers such a vivid image; a many-layered drama that speaks to us through the ages. I wonder if you are like me and ponder on what this scene would have really looked like? What if we could travel back in time? Did it really happen like that? What did people think, just what did look like, how did he speak, what did he say?

Today we are back into our 21st century Christianity series, which aims to connect the life we live through the week into the rituals of the Anglican Church; asking what does it mean to be Anglican; what is the church doing in its worship and how do we understand and participate in it? And today we are looking at a massive subject.. the Eucharistic Prayer.

Today also marks the end of Creation Season.. yet Creation goes on all the time; the patterns of life, death, renewal ever repeated in the cycles of nature and in our own lives; we see it so vividly at this autumn time, as the loud symphonies of creation soften into a russet-coloured hum. The cycles of life, death and renewal are in this Eucharistic ritual too.

Thinking of passing seasons, today is also the feast of All Saints/All Hallows, just before All-Hallows eve, (Halloween) and All-Hallows day. The pagans mark it as ‘samhain’, when the veil between the living and dead is thinnest. The church marks something similar; when we recall the lives of those we have loved and lost. All saints… means all of us, through history and alive today. We will see a little later how we join our Eucharistic prayers with all the saints.

Eucharist is a huge subject, and can get pretty complex.. but I will try to deftly sidestep the complexity and instead offer a portrait of wonder; an open window where time is compressed and a single moment transcends history and meets us here today with the same intensity

I will get a little ‘jargony’, as I go on, but hopefully in a way that illuminates. . a suggestion if you like…
First things first, for clarity; The Eucharist is the celebration and sharing of the bread and wine. Sometimes called Holy Communion, sometimes called The Mass, it is what exists right at the very heart of the worship of the Anglican church and indeed most of the Christian church throughout the world, and … throughout history.

But the Eucharist is the strangest of things, my old tutor at college called it ‘fundamentally weird. Every week we build up to a point where we come up for a small piece of bread and a sip of wine. What is going on?

Well clearly we are following the words of Jesus when he celebrated the last supper with his friends, “this is my body, this is my blood, do this in remembrance of me…”

But there is more to it that that.. This isn’t simply a memorial of something that took place 2000 years ago. For Christians, despite all their different theologies, (and when it comes to Eucharist–there are many; ). Despite their differences Christians acknowledge there is something profound taking place here today.

We have inherited the Eucharistic Prayers through history…

Different churches celebrate different forms of liturgy for Eucharist, and the prayers we say today are Anglican, (one of a set of eight). However as far back as we can tell, (and this goes all the way to a piece of early Church writing called the ‘Didache’, around 1/2nd century), each of these elements of the Eucharist prayer have remained consistently ‘there’.

ppt-dramaSo join with me as we take a second-look at what we do every week, and may I re-introduce you to the wonder of this Holy Mystery.

“The Lord be with you…. “

The start of the Eucharistic prayer.. but where are we?.. the beginning of the Eucharist or the beginning of the service?

In many respects this whole service, the whole of what we are doing today, is part of the Eucharistic rite. From our opening welcome, our worship frames the drama of Eucharist; a rising swell of prayer and worship as we reach a crescendo of … intimacy.

Our service has three core elements which frame the Eucharistic drama;

1, Gathering                          – bringing our whole selves

2a, Liturgy of Word

2b, Liturgy of Sacrament

3, Dismissal/Mission            – sending out / (otherwise pointless)

So I invite you to see if you can identify the elements of the service; and hopefully explore why they are here….
Gathering

Prayer of Preparation                   Setting our hearts on G-d

Penitence / Absolution –      Brokenness understood and restored.

Gloria – Universal praise

Collect – collecting our prayers together with the universal church.

Liturgy of the Word

Readings (OT, Psalm, Epistle)

Gospel Reading                     – Standing (bodies) to face the Gospel “Praise to you oh Christ”, (no                                                            longer ‘good to praise Christ’). Small crosses, (thought word,heart).

Sermon                                  – Sacrament of Word . . who speaks? a mystery?

Creed                                     – Affirming our faith together

Intercession

Liturgy of Sacrament

The Peace                    – Ensuring there is no division between us and our lives

Preparation of the Table. Jewish ritual feast

Money? or our selves? and these gifts. All from God, statement of devotion.

Eucharistic Prayer; Prayer E

Intro/ Dialogue        – ‘The Lord be with you’…. ‘Lift up your hearts’… pointing us towards God (Orans position)

Preface              – Praising God for his mighty acts / Doxology

Sanctus             – ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ joining the host of heaven (Isaiah 6.3, Merkevah Mysticism)

Epiclesis          – Come Holy Spirit, (change of movement), on all – not just bread and wine

Words of Institution – Narrative of Jesus’ supper.

Anamnesis        – ‘and so remembering… ‘ / Entering the Mystery

Oblation            – Offering to God

Acclamation      – ‘Christ has died’

Intercession      – ‘and so with St john & St Stephen’ joining with the Prayers of the Saints

Doxology

End of Eucharistic Prayer

Breaking Bread   – Didache ‘scattered on the mountains’

Agnus Dei           – Lamb of God (position, offering to God)

Prayer of Humble Access, (only say the word, I shall be healed)

Dismissal          – mission

So the drama does indeed unfold.. worship working towards this moment of connection, sacrament, presence and provoking mission.

So is this more than a symbol?

Through this prayer, through the ritual, and through the mystery of God the sacrament is made real.

‘Sacrament’ refers to a moment where heaven and earth meet; it’s what all-saints day reminds us of too, the thin veil, and what the Eucharist embodies; a moment of presence, where God meets us in these elements of Bread and Wine… and sends us out to live the Eucharist .. daily.

So what on earth does that mean? How can that be? It’s simply not logical.

Maybe a way it to think of it is like a piece of art, music or poetry.

Poetry is simply markings of ink on a piece of paper, simple and of no significance; and yet, what emerges from the ink and the paper is something which can inspire, provoke, comfort and reduce us to tears; a lyricism which cannot be easily grasped or contained, yet moves us to our core….

The truth is Eucharist cannot be explained… it can only really be experienced….

Eucharist is like a multi-faceted diamond, light comes in and is then reflected out in many ways. Eucharist is therefore always changing, always different; in much the same way that we also change, we evolve, grow in newness. The Orthodox word for this evolving into God is ‘theosis’, (but that’s for another day!).

Which is why I started by asking about time travel. Dare I suggest that in poetic – yet deeply real – way; we don’t need to, time is transcended here—the Eucharist breaks the window.

We saw that Zacchaeus was met by the strange and beguiling person of Jesus. Interestingly Zacchaeus was welcomed by the host of all life to be a host himself; and discovered his humanity both embraced and restored.

The same thing happens today. Eucharist is not about an event in the past. It is happening right now. This Eucharist is the Christ of the cosmos, all time, all space, all things drawing us together right now with the same intimate embrace.

So we might suggest then, that in following this liturgical prayer each week, we are certainly not limiting ourselves; Instead we are entering into a Divine Drama; we are carried, we are confronted, we are comforted. A holy mystery as the presence of Christ is made tangible even in a point of total absence. In our ritual, in symbol, in offering and in our ‘sending out’ God is made real. Our faith is met .. something happens. (Epiphenomena).

Augustine says we offer ourselves to God, and it is ourselves we receive back. All are invited to this table, liberal, catholic, conservative, gay straight, poor rich, broken or strong, oppressed or longing for freedom; though different, we are all are united, connected in a moment – an instant of presence, a moment of awe. Zizoulas speaks of receiving the gift of the other; each of us as an other and a reflection of God the w/holy other.

So come – all you Saints; you are truly welcome; God meets us all – like Zacchaeus, knowing our weakness, our doubts, our shadows and yet welcomes us fully – embracing us in material things transformed.

It’s a mystery we share together. Devouring God, consuming God, even as God consumes us.

Gary Collins

30 October 2016

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Simplicity

Simplicity

St John’s and St Stephen’s Church, Reading, 23rd October 2016, Creation 8

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22; Luke 18:18-30

This morning’s reading, the rich young ruler who was invited by Jesus to ‘sell all that you have and distribute the money to the poor’ is one of those readings that doesn’t leave us feeling great. Most of us probably ignore it. A few days ago I mentioned I would be preaching on this to a couple of good friends. Steve said he felt utterly condemned by the words of Jesus and had no idea what to do with them. Is this what we are supposed to do? Give everything away? Or just sit there and feel condemned? Or ignore the words? Some people have actually taken Jesus at his literal word – most famously of course, St Francis of Assisi, but actually many, many monks and nuns who have taken vows of poverty through the ages have done the same. St Francis heard the words as if directly spoken to him and took them completely literally. And it would be safe to say that it worked for him! So what do we do with it? The story appears in all 3 synoptic gospels so it can’t be ignored. The Bible has over 800 references to money and possessions in it – far more than it does about sex but look at the song and dance we make about that! Speaking very broadly, on the one hand there’s a message that wealth is a blessing (particularly an OT idea); but on the other hand, that wealth – or more accurately the love of it can become a false god, a block to our relationship with God. ‘…the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil’ (1 Tim 6:10) wrote Paul to his young apprentice, Timothy. Perhaps for the rich young ruler, the love of money was his problem and that was why the solution was so radical. But we should remember that Jesus words were spoken to him and we are only overhearing them.

But let’s not distance ourselves from this text too much. I want to link it with the last time I spoke, back in August when I reflected on my recent visit to Taizé and the message from Brother John about our faith being embodied in ‘the life we live’. That our faith takes on flesh, in the way we actually conduct our lives. This struck me as profoundly true. What other Christianity is there apart from the one that people see? Brother Roger, the founder of Taizé, wrote this in his Rule of life to the brothers in the community: ‘Be filled with the spirit of the Beatitudes: joy, simplicity and mercy’. So I would like to interpret the story of the rich young ruler through the lens of simplicity. Though the young man sought to obey the commandments (‘All these I have kept from my youth’ he replied to Jesus), in fact he was bogged down, hampered by love of his possessions and Jesus’ words to him were calling him to a radical simplicity – something he would need if he truly wanted to follow the ‘Good Teacher’, as he called him.

Some of you know that a few years ago Rosemary and I had the privilege of being able to walk the Camino de Santiago, a distance of 500 miles from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. It was a pilgrimage. One of the things you learn very early on is that less is more. That if you are carrying all you need on your back, the lighter it is, the better. Twice we stopped and offloaded stuff and posted it on to Santiago so that our rucksacks would be lighter and the journey easier. A very common topic of conversation with fellow pilgrims was the weight of our packs, what we had brought with us. Because what do you need? Really? It boiled down to these essentials: a sleeping bag, 3 pairs of underpants, 2 pairs of trousers, 3 shirts, a fleece, a waterproof, boots and a pair of crocs, 3 pairs of socks, a towel, a bar of soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, a water bottle, and of course money to buy food and pay for lodging. The unnecessary luxuries included a mobile phone, a Kindle (actually mine bust after 3 days) and a camera. Bang. That’s it. Less is more. Because what really counted, what gave joy, was meeting fellow pilgrims, sharing food, the beauty of the walk, the moments when the unexpected happened and was often rich with a sense of giftedness. None of us carried much on the Way, so it equalised us – ‘all in the same boat’.

Pilgrimage is a kind of lived parable. You deliberately put yourself – literally, your body (to connect with Vince’s sermon last week) in a particular situation where you cannot have everything you are used to and then go on a physical, literal journey to a destination. This is not a ‘mind’ journey – not something we do in our heads – it’s something we do with all of us. And something happens in the doing of it. But my point here is that you have to be unencumbered, you have to embody simplicity otherwise you just cannot do it. Well, you don’t have to be a genius to get the point I am making. The journey itself is a metaphor for the journey of our life with pain as well as joy, rain and sunshine, good and bad companions, disappointments and joys. The rucksack you carry is a metaphor for what you take with you on that journey. And it’s a very literal metaphor, because it has real stuff in it. And the more you think about it, the more you reflect on what you actually need to live contentedly, the more you realise the answer is ‘not that much’. Here are some words from a Spanish nun we met on the Way, printed on a leaflet she kindly passed to us: ‘The Camino makes you simpler, because the lighter your backpack, the less strain to your back and the more you will experience how little you need to be alive’

So what do we do with this? The story of the rich young ruler, challenged by Jesus to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor is almost certainly unrealistic for us in that literal sense. It was a message from Jesus to one man in a particular situation at a particular time that few have been able to follow in that literal way – although worth saying again, that men and women who are called into monastic orders, to become monks and nuns, do exactly that. And that can have profound effects – we can think not only of St Francis but also Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her order, Franciscans today like Richard Rohr and Jesuits like Pope Francis, and the community of Taizé. We have been thinking of the powerful experience of pilgrimage which tells us how little we actually need, and of the joy of not having too much in your backpack. So we have these voices speaking about a different way of living that runs counter-culturally, against the tide of advertising that tells us we must have this or that, that we can’t be happy without it; against the common assumptions that we live to accumulate. We should remember too that at least a billion people in the world today live in abject poverty – for them ‘simplicity’ is not a life choice they make. And also, that it is greed and consumption in the West which in large measure has driven so many of them into poverty – through our dark history of imperialism, slavery and greed which has devastated natural resources; through the excessive burning of fossil fuels leading to climate change, which always affects the poor more than the rich; and through unfair trade agreements which disadvantage further the already disadvantaged. Mahatma Gandhi, the father of modern India, was a man who took to heart the message of simplicity and by it, made a huge impact. It was he who said this: ‘Live simply, that others may simply live’.

But we live in a world where we have to have somewhere to live, where most of us have or need a car (but by no means all!), where we have become used to lots of nice things – good food, international travel, technology, the odd bottle of wine and so on. None of these are bad in themselves. It is not my intention to make us feel guilty, but simply to begin to question, in the light of Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler and the experience of pilgrimage: what do I really need? How could I embody simplicity, to unencumber my life somewhat, to free myself? To let simplicity become more part of ‘the life I live’? To ‘travel light’? Interestingly, we were talking about exactly this in our home group this week. Let me give you some suggestions by drawing on the Quaker teacher Richard Foster. I think each of these suggestions is possible for each of us and takes us in the direction of simplicity of life. The suggestions go beyond possessions to our attitude towards other people, our relationships

 

  • Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status or prestige.
  • Learn the difference between a real need and an addiction. Then find support and accountability to regain “sobriety,” freedom from addiction.
  • Develop a habit of giving things away.
  • Avoid unnecessary and short-lived technological gadgets that promise to “save time.”
  • Enjoy things without owning them. For example, take advantage of public libraries and parks.
  • Nurture awe and appreciation for nature. Spend more time outdoors!
  • Get out—and stay out—of debt.
  • Use plain, honest speech. Say what you mean and keep your commitments.
  • Reject anything that oppresses others. For example, buy Fair Trade products.

Seek God’s kingdom of love and justice foremost. If anything distracts you from that purpose, let it go.

I’m not going to labour the point any more but to leave you with those thoughts. I have printed out those 9 suggestions of Richard Foster and I will leave them on the table on the back, take one if you like.

Finally, think about going on a pilgrimage! It is a fantastic opportunity to feel this for yourself – actually know it in your body. Of course there is the Camino de Santiago but many others too – Iona, Taizé, Lindisfarne and Greenbelt are places that many of us have been to but may not have seen the experience as a pilgrimage – but they are places of pilgrimage, and going to each of those places will mean a lightening of the load in a physical way. A holiday can be a pilgrimage too – think of the word ‘holy day’ but only if it means a leaving-behind of stuff rather than a grabbing of more.

So I challenge us to see the words of Jesus to the rich young man as a call to declutter, to simplify life, to cut away what is getting in the way of following Jesus. And to interpret that for us as the vocation to embrace simplicity in our lives. To come back to these words, ‘it’s the life we live’.

 

Richard Croft

 

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Gratitude

Sermon 9 October 2016

2 Kings 5.1-15, Luke17.11-19

In the summer I was sitting in the shade in front of the Oracle one day when a man came into sight wheeling his bike. He looked very hot and sweaty, and, leaning the bike against a tree, flopped down beside me. We got talking and I discovered that he had been a soldier, but was invalided out after a spell in Afghanistan. He had been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and found himself in a psychiatric hospital. There nothing that seemed to help him. He was going round and round in a circle in his head and there was no escape. However, one of the staff was particularly good at listening to him and one day when his wife was there she asked them if he had ever done cycling. He had as a boy and he remembered enjoying it. She suggested to them both that he borrow a hospital bike and cycle round the grounds for half an hour every day. She explained how exercise can help reduce anxiety and stress. Once he had established this regular half hour cycling every day she suggested that in addition to this he could try going out on the bike at one of those times when he felt particularly anxious or stressed. So he did. He discovered that he felt better and that gradually he stopped being stuck in those vicious circles. ‘You know she saved my life,’ he said. ‘I was a gonner. I might still have been in that hospital, or worse. I can’t thank her enough. She didn’t need to take no notice of me, but she did. Even today – 3 members of my family were going on at me to do something for each of them and I couldn’t decide; I was getting more and more stressed. Then I remembered the bike, and here I am.’

I was very struck by his thankfulness. It was as though giving an account of what had happened (which I’m sure he had done before) heightened his awareness of it and gave him even more cause for gratitude. I was reminded of this soldier when I read the scripture passages for today, – both about men being healed and about their gratitude. There is some surprise expressed about this because both are foreigners – the leper from Samaria and Namaan from Syria; – so neither sharing the Jewish faith. Neither was an Israelite. For the OT writer this is a sign that God is not only the God of the Israelites, but of other nations too. For Luke it’s one of many examples showing that the Gentiles are often more ready to receive the gospel than the Jews – a theme he continues in Acts. Perhaps there is a bit of a warning here to those of us who are so familiar with what we know and believe that we fail to see when God is doing something new. In a sense we already know it all, we think. I’m afraid we are rather like the Pharisees who, immediately after Jesus has healed the 10 lepers, ask him (v20) when the kingdom of God will come.

However, what really intrigues me about the gospel encounter is what Jesus says to the leper who turns back. ‘Your faith has made you well’ (or ‘has saved you’ – it means more than simply being physically healed). Jesus uses exactly the same words when he heals the woman with the issue of blood (Lk 8.48), when responding to the woman who anoints him with perfume (Lk 7.50) and when restoring sight to blind Bartimaeus (Lk 18.42). In each case what happens is either public or made public and there is gratitude, often of a noisy even embarrassing nature (the leper, Bartimaeus and the woman with the perfume). Is Jesus saying that gratitude is a way of expressing faith, or perhaps demonstrating faith? I think it’s both. When the soldier was talking to me his voice grew louder as he reached the climax of the story – someone had helped him, he was better. People sitting on the bench near us would probably have been able to hear him. He looked and sounded animated and happy. He looked well. This wasn’t something he had done for himself. It was a gift. He was proof of the gift. Something remarkable had happened. It was the same for the leper. He and the other 9 had been healed. Hang on; they’d been healed! And they hadn’t done anything. Nothing had been asked of them. It was a gift. It was something quite extraordinary. It must have come from God himself. So he’s not only healed like the others, but he’s also saved ie fully connected to God once more. He’s a human being fully alive.

One of the ways of kindling our faith is by practising gratitude. This is one of the spiritual disciplines. It’s not simply about saying thank you to people, though obviously that’s important, but more about developing an awareness that what’s around us, and every aspect of our lives is a gift to be received with gratitude. A simple way of doing this is to ask God at the end of each day to remind you of some of the gifts he has given you during the day. As we do this our sense of our own importance fades, leaving more space for God in our lives. As Christians, too, we have the biggest gift – that God loves us enough to die for us. How amazing is that?!

We were walking down Winchester High St yesterday in the pouring rain and could hear a beautifully clear voice singing that Welsh revival hymn, ‘Here is love vast as the ocean’. Following the voice we found a group of 3 Baptists with a keyboard and joined in. It was very public, and also very wet! But how wonderful to sing about what God has done for us and to realize that for us these aren’t just words. They’re true. It’s happened. He really has sent us Jesus Christ. We really can be made well, whole, fully human. In the words of the General Thanksgiving, ‘We thank thee above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ. For the means of grace and for the hope of glory.’ What a gift.

 

Christine Bainbridge

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The Rich Man and Lazarus

+ May I speak in the name …

“Work in church” they said, “it will be fun” they said, “you can consider scriptures, and preach on them”, they said…

As I’m sure we all know parables were Jesus main way of teaching his followers about the kingdom of God; short stories, little tales, which reveal nuggets of gold, gems of wisdom.

But this parable is more curious than most; most deal with earthly things; seeds, sheep, coins, fields, travellers. But this one has gone fully psychedelic.. a cosmic tale of justice and the afterlife…

Or is it?

The thing to say about the parables of Jesus before anything else, is that parables are not meant to be ‘understood’; they are deliberate acts of provocation, small inversions of the ways things work, and they are deeply participative.

The problem we face, some 2000 years on is that we have been taught over and over again, from childhood and through life, what the parables are about, ‘the seed is the word of God’ etc, but that’s not how early listeners heard them.. they were shocking in their newness, defying expectation; they challenged people to consider who they identified with in the stories.

Jesus invites his listeners into these small ‘worlds within stories’; to see themselves, (& ourselves), as characters within the story.

It’s like this; we are sitting in a room with many others and Jesus is in there too, (and it’s getting cold). Instead of saying “can you shut the window”, Jesus might simply suggest, “ooh it’s a little bit nippy”…
He identifies a situation, and then leaves it to his audience to recognise that they can respond, and to decide how to do that…

The Parables are allusive, they hint, suggest, present portraits.. but it’s left to us to decide how to respond.

 And what’s more, the inversion of the parables, reveals the prophetic inversion of the kingdom of God.

slide04However this passage goes beyond these things, it seems more direct, less allusive; apocalyptic even. Apocalypse doesn’t mean end of the world, it means revealing, looking under the floorboards at what is really going on. Breaking through numbness and complacency, saying, ‘this is the real story’. This story challenges the social divisions in society, challenges the barriers we create to separate ourselves from one another, asks us to look at the world with new eyes.

First it’s worth noting that this story of ‘trading places’ has origins in Egyptian folklore. The afterlife (figurative, not literal here) is a new idea to Judaism, it was only developed during the Maccabean period, between the OT and NT… Luke was trying to say something BIG, something significant and using a pretty hefty cast to back up the point, Abraham, Moses and Lazarus.

But let’s look and ask what inversions are taking places here;

Well the obvious one is this; the rich man, ‘Dives’, ending up in Hades, and the beggar, ‘Lazarus’, in the bosom of Abraham in paradise…

slide06 Today, we are used to ‘a rich man’ coming to no good in Jesus parables. But what we miss today is the utter incomprehension of his early listeners; the rich man would be understood as being blessed by God… the poor man had probably done something wrong, and… well, kind of deserved it. Although of course the socially deprived, the outcast, would not have been happy about their plight, they knew the bitter pill of inequality.

To reveal them in their final destinations would have left people scratching their heads… ‘how can that happen to someone so blessed’.

Abraham appears nine times in Luke; and represents the heritage and continuity of the Jewish community. The listeners would therefore have been scandalised, this broke the order of the day, and raised a most pressing question, “who really is in Abraham’s family?”

The parable tells us that Lazarus was so wretchedly poor that even the dogs licked his wounds, and he sat, (or was ‘dumped’), at the gate of the rich man’s house. They lived so close, and yet a chasm existed between them. The rich man in all his finery didn’t even see Lazarus.

 The chasm motif continues into the afterlife, but this is now a different chasm…an inverted chasm. The consequences of indifference become clear.

Barriers make victims of us all. slide08

When we allow barriers to exist, to ‘defend’ ourselves, or to blot out those things which we find uncomfortable or unpalatable, we lose something ourselves.

 Of course, the economic/justice story is the foundational; Jesus is making a point connecting God’s reign to the words of the prophets – who we heard today in Amos – as clear as ever about God’s requirement for justice, equity and restoration. But restoring the chasm goes deeper than simply the level of wealth.

 We live with the barriers of huge social inequality. A time when economics—not politics—holds the real power and dominance, (daily stock market reports). And apparently serving this narrative are the colourful stories of celebrity and fame; the diamond encrusted glitz of the life of extreme and inaccessible privilege; the ‘barrier’ of the tabloid press and celebrity magazines, (not wrong in themselves).

512kf-77jul-_sx322_bo1204203200_Affluenza: it has been called, “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.”

 And we meet in this church, in an area of unemployment, deprivation and limited life choices. How do we respond prophetically?

I wish to suggest that responding only ‘in kind’—within the economic agenda—is not enough. It helps of course, but there is a prophetic critique too…

Like parables, the prophetic subverts the system, changes the game, repositions the agenda. Today’s prophets reject the economic social architecture, for we are not economic units; we are whole communities – made of people, human, beautiful, bruised, with dreams fears, and hopes. The Church across the world does so well to provide food banks, charity and aid; but it can also, prophetically, offer means to be(com)e human.. through art, play, imagination, creativity, dignity, community, reverence and relationship.

Barriers make victims of us all. Discovering the gift of the other sets us free.

There is not us and them.. we are all people together.. let us share stories, let us see one another, maybe even the non-human; the other who reveals something of who we are. When we next study 21stC Anglicanism we will look at the Eucharistic prayer, and the gathering of the many as one body; naming and making of a new community, living together in worship and delight

slide11Lets us buck the trend of the individual and see that our lives within this community—and beyond—is tied together. Let us find creative ways to honour and celebrate our unity in diversity.

The rich man never got it, even in the anguish of his predicament he still regarded Lazarus as a servant! And that’s his tragic final irony.

And maybe the final irony for the church too… The last line takes our gaze away from this scene and points to the resurrection; God’s ultimate gift of grace—the final breaking of barriers, ushers in the kingdom of God now. To the households around Newtown, filled with love, and hope and chaos and despair, the gift is already given. The barriers cannot divide us forever.

Leonard Cohen sings, ‘there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’.

May we all see the glints of light which shine with the radiance of the reign of Gods love; the glory of God, the dignity of humanity within everyone’s story.

Amen

GS Collins Sept 2016

 ‘Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:20, 24)

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The Lost Sheep

Creation 2 – Luke 151-10: Lost Sheep

Today’s gospel is two parables, the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. It is part of a long run of Jesus’ teaching in Luke, 6 chapters (1322-1927) when Jesus was mainly in the south of the Israel, heading towards Jerusalem for the last time.

Loosing sheep is not an everyday experience for most of us. Loosing coins maybe. Loosing house keys, car keys, passports, reading glasses, probably more so. For me, recently, it was my driving licence, a week before heading off to Canada for Miriam’s, our daughter’s, wedding, when we needed a hire car. It turned up on the computer scanner two days before we left. (Vince probably did loose sheep in his previous existence in Wales.) We are generally quite good at loosing things, so there is some power in these parables.

The coins that the woman in the parable looses would have been about a day’s wages, say £60 now for minimum wage, perhaps a bit more; 10 coins would have been all her savings. As I probably mention in most sermons, Rachel and I have lived abroad in developing countries for some years. Houses in villages tend to be dark, with earth floors, few cupboards or shelves. Windows with glass are rare People had less stuff, but finding things among that stuff was difficult. Houses in Jesus’ time would have been similar. If first met Rachel when we were in Kenya, and Rachel lived up on the slopes of Mount Kenya, without electricity. It was amazingly difficult to find things after dark, even with candles or lamps, so much so that if you lost something, it was best to wait until morning.

‘Lost sheep’ is a phrase that has passed into Christian vocabulary, from this parable, but Jesus’ main intention was to make a different point. These are pointed stories. These are pointed stories. Jesus is being criticised by religious people, Scribes and Pharisees. Scribes were teachers of the law, who devoted their time to study. This was not necessarily their full time job, more like a qualification, but it would have been a large part of their lives. They were experts in the law, and in the accumulated teaching of Judaism that derived from it. The Pharisees were more of people’s movement, and concentrated on living holy lives in accordance with the law. (Pharisee means ‘separated ones’).

They saw themselves as religious, as followers of the one true God. God had revealed himself in the law, and they were trying to obey him, down to the last nuance and interpretation of what he was askng. When they saw those who were not trying to follow the law as they did, they labelled them as sinners, and saw it as their duty to avoid them, to avoid contamination.

Jesus listens to the criticism, and sees the hardness, the lack of feeling. Making rules the most important thing, not care for people. We would have probably started by congratulating them on their attempts to follow God, on the undoubted effort that they put in to understanding, interpreting and trying to obey God’s commandments. Jesus goes straight for what they are missing.

‘Lost’ is an interesting term. All the sheep were part of the flock, but that some have wandered off. The implication is that everyone’s natural place is with God, knowing him, and those who are not with him have gone away, but could come back. And it is not just that Jesus was talking to God’s chosen people, Israel. In John 1016 he says: There are other sheep which belong to me that are not in this sheep pen. I must bring them, too; they will listen to my voice, and they will become one flock with one shepherd. It is a very inclusive place from which to take the gospel to people. Not that they are the excluded, damned, who need to decide to come in. Rather that they are part of the family who have become estranged but will be welcomed back.

What does it say to us? It is about setting ourselves up as judges of who God is interested in, who will respond to him. We have an innate tendency to put people in boxes, to decide whether they are similar to us or not. Similar background, similar education, similar outlook, similar religious upbringing, similar cultural background. All of these make it easier to relate, and we tend to think that the good news of Jesus will find an easier home in people who are similar. Jesus had an amazing ability to attract those who were different to him, who were down and out, who were viewed as bad people. They found him and his message deeply attractive. This church is not bad at being welcoming and inclusive, but we have quite a way to go before we reach Jesus’ standard. Let us be more like him, less like Pharisees, and welcome his people back into his flock.

 

Jeremy Thake

St. John and St. Stephens.

 

 

Luke 15

The Lost Sheep

One day when many tax collectors and other outcasts came to listen to Jesus, 2 the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law started grumbling, “This man welcomes outcasts and even eats with them!” 3 So Jesus told them this parable:

4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them—what do you do? You leave the other ninety-nine sheep in the pasture and go looking for the one that got lost until you find it. 5 When you find it, you are so happy that you put it on your shoulders 6 and carry it back home. Then you call your friends and neighbours together and say to them, ‘I am so happy I found my lost sheep. Let us celebrate!’ 7 In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine respectable people who do not need to repent.

The Lost Coin

8 “Or suppose a woman who has ten silver coins loses one of them—what does she do? She lights a lamp, sweeps her house, and looks carefully everywhere until she finds it. 9 When she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbours together, and says to them, ‘I am so happy I found the coin I lost. Let us celebrate!’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, the angels of God rejoice over one sinner who repents.”

 

 

slide03

Faith as a Wager

Genesis 18:20-32
Luke 11:1-13

+ In the name … ( )

 

slide02It may be worth offering—as I begin my ‘campaign’ of speaking within the church—that when I speak ‘in the name’ of the trinity, it is as the trinity is; a relationship, a self-giving openness which invites our participation.

In other words I am not speak to you, I hope my approach is understood as speaking ‘with you’.

The ideas I suggest might be helpful, or they may frustrate; they are offerings, suggestions, different perspectives. I am trying to open a dialogue.

If you find yourself thinking ‘I don’t agree with that’, then that may well be the point when you are hearing God. I don’t mind, I am not trying to convince anyone of anything, rather simply trying to introduce ideas, which help draw us nearer to experiencing God in ways we might understand for our lives.

This is a very Anglican way. Preaching is very important, but its not didactic, this is a discussion; it only works if we all think, respond, disagree and engage.

The word is not a spoken word; it is a word that exists somewhere between the voice and the hearer, between action and contemplation.

slide03In that light I might suggest that today’s thought is that Faith is a wager.

I have to confess this teaching on prayer from Jesus and me have… ‘some previous disagreements’.

Come back with me, some 16 years.

It was New Years Eve, the millennium, and I was in Guys hospital and watching my son struggling to live.

 

We already had experience of Hayden life-threatening neuromuscular condition; disability and most alarmingly breathing problems. Many resuscitations, many interventions. It was a extremely traumatic time for Rachel and me.

On this occasion, half way up Guy’s Tower, he was struggling to breathe even whilst on a ventilator. It was a desperate moment.

slide04 I tried to offer a prayer….

But the darkening clouds of disbelief, which had loomed for a number of years, finally released their full deluge. The prayer was empty, I had lost faith, the universe was silent.

The problem I have with this reading is that it was this verse which rattled around my head as I sat by that hospital bed; fathers? Eggs? Scorpions, ask, receive? home much more would your heavenly father give?

 

“THIS IS NOT TRUE!” was the cry of my heart.

I know I am not alone here, and that many, if not all, people in this church have known moments of pain, doubt and disappointed prayer. we live in a world which has seen terrible atrocities, genocides, cancers, tragedies. Some stay ‘strong’, others do not, others name the pain…

As did Job, or Jeremiah, or the writers of the Psalms. For each of these faith is not an answer; it is a question.

slide08
Jacob Epstein – Jacob and the Angel

It is a struggle to wrestle meaning from a seemingly meaningless universe; as much a complaint against heaven as it is a song of joy. A cry of anguish as much as a prayer of hope.

And as we considered last week sometimes one is another way of expressing the other. The call of doubt is a way of framing hope; for the call of Job telling God he is a liar – is a cry holding God to account, it is a cry that is a cry of faithfulness. A faithfulness that enters relationship, and is therefore open to surprise.

The psalms are full of such disorientation; we thought we had faith in God, but now we doubt it. For me, God was not the refuge from the storm, God was the tempest.

So at this point – beyond belief, at the point where faith has broken – I found myself once more drawing back to thinking about God. Like poor old Richard Dawkins, the issue of God just wouldn’t go away.

The irony tslide09hat losing God helped me to reconsider God again; to find God in conversations, in silence and in that nameless wonder within poetry, art and music.

The simplicity of trite answers had gone, but the struggle to think about God called… to return to ‘faith after faith’ is a process which has * been recently called ‘anatheism‘, the return to God after God.slide10

Anatheism is way of letting go of the metaphysical ‘super-hero-sky-god’ and instead looking for the emergence of G-d in the flesh of earthly existence.

Suffering breaks down our conceptions of God, like the apophatic path we talked of last week; suffering reminds us that our ‘concepts of God’ are inevitably limited. But suffering also connects us to others, there is a solidarity in suffering that connects us to one another – and to God.

Letting go of such ‘God’ images – all images – we find that within the humble, beautiful, fragile and broken body we glimpse something of the G-d whose absence we have faced; and whose presence is revealed in weakness and vulnerability.

The Anglican church is learning to become diverse, broad and eclectic. 21stC Anglicanism might open the space between faith and nonfaith; about taking the risk, the process of negotiating the lines between belief and unbelief.

Like Paul Ricour’s ‘second naïveté’, after all the questions and doubts can we return to faith in the 21st century, a post/modern faith beyond both dogma and doubt.

The question is honest, real, relevant, and vital…

Faith is an impossibility for many people outside of this building and for some inside this building; of course it is, As Keirkegaard says, it’s an absurdity!

slide11It is vital because, as philosopher John Caputo says, ‘religion is for lovers of the impossible.’

But within that absurdity, the wild impossible dream, there is something compelling, engrossing, captivating, entrancing, a dream of God’s kingdom. It is the God who emerges after God. The God who meets us in the vulnerability and wager of relationship.

We heard last week of Abraham encountering three strangers at the Oaks of Mamre. He was faced with the choice, (a wager); hospitality or refusal. In the end hospitality won. It was the act (not the theory) of love, where God was revealed.

And interestingly this week we see Abraham again, this time pleading for Sodom and Gomorrah, negotiating with God, trying to strike a deal. And the interesting note is that God responds. I’m suggesting this is beyond the unchanging immutable ‘sky-God’ of fundamentalism and dogma, the God who is certain, fixed, contained. Negotiation suggests a more realistic wrestling with God.

This God is meeting Abraham in a way which goes beyond belief or even faith, instead meeting God in trust, openness and in the arrival of the ‘the other’.

Like the good Samaritan, meeting God in the stranger, in the risk;

Emmanual Garibay - Emmaus
Emmanual Garibay – Emmaus

or like the Emmaus story, meeting God in the stranger, and revealed in the Eucharistic celebration.

It is like the act of drawing together around a table and saying ‘though we are many we are one body’—despite all our differences—which makes the community become the church.

It is a trust based on desire for God. And as we said last week, desire is borne as much from loss, from absence and silence as it is from presence.

So maybe the way we think about God is changing, maybe that’s what 21 century Anglican offers, a new way of understanding God, beyond the boundaries of belief and non-belief; about meeting God in the everyday and in the sacred in the process of trust and desire, and in the human savoring of life;

‘give us this day our daily bread….’

So to return to Jesus… and this problem text.

(Or is it a problem?)

It too is a negotiation. Our lives echo the hollowness of a promise of fulfillment, and yet Jesus is stressing the importance of prayer, of desire.

What was Jesus thinking when he suggests that these prayers will be answered…?

Right at the end the text might give a clue…

“how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

The gift we receive in prayer is not the sky-God, super-man who is going to change circumstances… our cosmology has changed so much, our views of who God is have changed so much it is hard to hold such a worldview.

But in naming our desire, the love of the impossible, maybe we discover the Holy Spirit, the spirit of life. Prayer remains; as a way to connect, to one another, to needs to hope to desire and to lament. Prayer connects us to ‘the other’; to love; and ultimately to God.

By embodying the act of compassion, taking it into ourselves so that we too are moved by the needs of others, in dwelling on the vast, breathtaking awe of the universe, and in the wonder of the divine beyond naming; so we discover something of God in whom we live and move and have our being.

The Spirit calls from the streets, the Spirit is wild, the Spirit may even lead us into the desert, beyond ‘belief’ into a wild place with God. (as she did with Jesus, and she did with me!)

Prayer is about our desire, not the answer;

prayer is about our being within the ground of being;

prayer is a wager of impossibility, mystery and delight.

Amen

GS Collins 24/07/16