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mind the gap

Homily from Sunday 12th July

Homily offered at the first service in the church building after lockdown on Sunday 12 July 2020 at 4.00pm.  Only those members unable to join in morning zoomed worship had been invited.  We followed Common Worship Evening Prayer

Luke 19.41-20.8

‘As Jesus approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it’  In the weeks and months leading up to his entry into Jerusalem the gap between him and the Jewish authorities has continued to widen.  There’s a gap too, in the understanding of the ordinary people about what the Messiah will be like, what he will do.  There is also a gap in their misreading of the signs of the times.  A gap.  Jesus notes all this, and he continues his journey into Jerusalem.

I was in London for the first time during the week, and using the tube where I saw again the slogan ‘Mind the gap’.  I was reminded of those words as I prepared for this afternoon.

Our present context is a kind of gap – a gap between full lockdown and whatever lies ahead as we emerge.  We are living in a gap.  Gaps can be draughty and cold.  I’d like to consider what living in this gap might mean for us as a church, and to do that I’m going to tell a story.  It might be a familiar one.  If so, I hope you might enjoy hearing it again.

In concerns Jesus’ birth.  As you know Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable – a cold and draughty place if ever there was one.  We read in the bible that shepherds came to see the new baby.  What we don’t read is that some of the animals also came, and as with any new baby they wanted to bring a gift.  The cow set off saying that she would take some of her milk – just right, she said.  The sheep said he would take some wool – good for keeping the child warm.  The hen said she would take eggs – good nourishment for the tired mother and Joseph, and the mouse…well, the mouse didn’t know what she could take, but she so wanted to see the baby, so she followed behind the others, hoping inspiration would come.  They reached the stable, with each animal entering to offer their gift, and the tiny mouse struggling to see what was happening.  She went round the outside to see if there was any way she might get a better view, and then she noticed a small hole a little way up the outside wall.  Scrambling up she squeezed into the hole and found herself almost on a level with the baby in the manger.  Quivering with delight she steadied herself and kept as still as possible while she gazed at the child.  Mary and Joseph were thanking the animals for their gifts.  Then Mary turned round, as though noticing something, she looked up, straight at the mouse, and smiled.  Thank you, she said.  There was a cold draught coming through that hole, but you have stopped it.  You’re a real gift’.

Now, I want to suggest that in this strange sort of gap time in which we are living, we, our church can be rather like that mouse.  We can remain steady in the gap.  We don’t have to do anything spectacular, but we do need to do what we are called to do as followers of Christ – stand firm, be who we are, continue in prayer, in looking out for our neighbours, being fully present to them and to each other, being kind in whatever way we can.  That way we can block some of those cold draughts that keep sweeping over people.

Like Jesus, we might weep over our city, over the gap.  And, like Jesus, we keep steady.  We stand firm.  We aren’t deflected from our path.  Like Jesus, like the mouse, we keep our eyes on the goal and we keep offering ourselves, right now, just as we are.

Christine Bainbridge

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Emmaus – Sermon April 26th – Easter 3

Sermon Luke 24.13-35

One night last week we had to call out an emergency plumber because we had a leak in our kitchen.  He arrived, a big man with no hair and a mask over his face and set to work, mumbling to us occasionally through the mask while his head was under our kitchen sink.  We all kept our distance!  Then, when the job was done, and as he was leaving, he took off the mask to say goodbye.  He had a kind, smiling face.  It was a moment of revelation, not because we knew him, but because we recognized him as a fellow human being, and a friendly one at that.  Up till that point he had been a stranger.  It was a bit of an Emmaus moment.

Lately I’ve found myself experiencing a sort of cabin fever.  How long is this going on, I wonder.  Get me out of here!  I know this isn’t the case for everyone – there’s a whole range of ways we react, many of them changing daily!  One thing I’ve come to realize, though, is that on the whole I’ve viewed my home as a kind of launch pad to life outside.  It’s there for me as a refuge, a resource, a place to relax, to pray, and, yes, work, but work that is to do with activity outside the home.  So, I’ve struggled on and off with the feeling of being stuck on the launch pad with no immediate prospect launching into the outside world where real life is happening.

So, I needed help.  I have partly found it in re reading some of the Winnie the Pooh stories.  I wasn’t brought up on these.  In fact it wasn’t until after our marriage that two Christopher Robin books surfaced among the worldly goods that Richard was endowing me with!  Now, in our enforced isolation they have become bedtime reading.  They offer an escape, a distraction.  So I read again about kanga giving Roo ‘Strengthening Medicine’, which of course he didn’t like (though it turned out to be Tigger’s favourite food).  That led me to wondering what strengthening medicine might look like for me, for us, during this strange time.

I was asking that question as I turned to our gospel passage for today – the road to Emmaus.  Here are two people who obviously knew each other well, and who had been in Jerusalem during the events of Good Friday. Perhaps they were friends, siblings, or a married couple, or business partners.  Luke doesn’t tell us.  We can assume that they were followers of Jesus because later in the story we see that they knew the others well enough to want to tell them about what had happened.  But, anyway, they were mulling over the events of the past few days and it was making them miserable.  Mmm, I could connect with that as I connect with friends and family about our current situation.  Then a stranger draws near and joins in the conversation and gradually their whole narrative starts to change.  There’s pain and sadness, but through the eyes of the stranger they begin to see that behind all this lies something infinitely brighter and more hopeful.  Nevertheless they didn’t realize it was Jesus who was talking with them until he accepted their invitation to eat with them in their home.  Then the penny dropped and they couldn’t wait to rush back to Jerusalem to share this life-giving twist to their old, sad narrative with the other disciples.  They really had received strengthening medicine!  It’s a very long walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus and there they were, doing it all over again!  Strengthening indeed!

Luke powerfully conveys the difference between meeting Jesus before the resurrection and after.  For those hearing his gospel years after the events themselves he conveys where and how we are most likely to meet with the risen Christ.  Most of us, I guess, will be familiar with these, so I’ll just run through them briefly:

through conversations with other believers, in church, home groups, over coffee etc

through sharing meals, and particularly the bread and wine together

through reading scripture together, with the Holy Spirit revealing Christ’s presence there

through hospitality – they invited Jesus into their home

through being together on what followers of Jesus would soon call ‘The Way’

Yes, I thought, this is all strengthening medicine, and we’re doing most, if not all of this, virtually, one way or another, and it’s good, though requiring new behaviour and skills which makes it harder sometimes; still, we’re discovering new ways of being church together aren’t we?.  But there’s a closeness, an intimacy Luke conveys about those disciples encountering Jesus which is lacking when we do everything virtually.  It made me think of a child in hospital, missing their favourite cuddly toy and a parent bringing not the cuddly itself, but a photograph of it, and saying, ‘Here, darling, hold this, it will remind you of teddy, or panda, or Ellie’.  It’s just not the same.

Luke, I said to myself, I need something more strengthening.  Then something rather obvious dawned on me.  Those two disciples had invited Jesus into their home.  Luke, writing his gospel 80 or more years after the events he describes, had probably never met Jesus in the flesh.  Yet, he’s saying that it’s possible to encounter him in our home right here and now.  It was a light bulb moment!  After all I’m spending nearly the whole time inside my home and here was Luke saying that was exactly where I might be meeting Christ.  And that’s because of the resurrection.  It’s the risen Christ I can meet.

One of my favourite verses in John’s gospel is in John 14 where Jesus is preparing his disciples for what lies ahead as they move towards Jerusalem where he knows he will die.  He is offering some comfort, knowing that, as John puts it, ‘their hearts will be troubled’.  He tells them that he is going to prepare a place for them so that ‘you also may be where I am’.  I once spent some time sitting with those words and imagining Jesus saying those words to me.  Where are you?  I asked.  There are some wonderfully rich theological responses to that question, but on that particular day what came to me was a picture of Jesus standing in the doorway of our home and beckoning me inside. It was a startling reversal of my launch pad.  Going inside my own home was where I would be meeting the risen Christ.  Suppose that when Jesus says to me that he wants me to be where he is, he means in my home?

Now that is strengthening medicine, I thought.

Christ is risen .  He is risen indeed.  Alleluiah.  Amen.

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The sound of the turtle dove is heard again in our land

Christmas Morning talk, St John and St Stephen’s, 2019.

Luke 2:1-14

Play turtle dove track – who can identify this?

 

You might wonder why we’re listening to a call of a turtle dove – if there’s any vague link with Christmas?!

 

On the first day of Christmas,

my true love sent to me: a partridge in a pear tree,

On the second day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:

two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.

 

The song goes on to name three French hens, four colly/calling(?) birds, plus, later on, geese a laying, & swans-a-swimming…

 

So there are quite a few birds in this Christmas song, at least.

 

There aren’t many birds in the original Christmas story, although we do think of the Holy Spirit as a dove. I don’t know how that sound of the turtledove calling made you feel, but there’s something about the sound that is in some way consoling; it woos us perhaps?

 

The actual singing of a turtledove is a highly symbolic sound in a 21st Century landscape that has seen them all but wiped out in Europe.

 

In a wonderful book that came onto my radar recently, conservationist Isabella Tree writes about how she and her farmer husband had the vision to let their 3,500-acre farm in Sussex return to the wild (Wilding, 2019).

 

As they let the land go back to nature, amidst much controversy from various environmental groups, many endangered species began to return, including the rare Purple Emperor butterfly and pairs of singing turtledoves.

 

I can highly recommend the book; it has a great quotation on the opening page that someone here might recognize: ‘Flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of the birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land’ (Song of Solomon).

 

I listened to her account of the wilding project on radio 4 a few weeks back and felt an amazing stirring of hope, something often in short supply as we increasingly hear of climate change acceleration.

 

There’s so much darkness around how we think about our earth at the moment, and so little hope; the return of the turtledove to Sussex seemed like a moment of comfort in the darkness.

 

The wilding vision seemed like a stirring of hope for our earth.

 

The angels sing a song of hope to the shepherds and a song of great joy. But we’re gaining awareness this year perhaps more than any other, of how any story of good news to all mankind must also be good news for the earth.

 

God still speaks to us through the creation and we have an instinctive feeling of unease, even dread, when the creation is groaning.

 

Former poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, has been collecting Christmas poems into volumes for a number of years. An overwhelming majority of the ones she chose to mark the season feature nature as a vehicle for something other to be made manifest, whether the poems are about snow, ice, holly, tree or birdsong.

 

One has ‘the murderous robin’ prophesying ‘more snow, and worse than snow’ (The Christmas Robin, Robert Graves).

 

Another speaks of the rather sad moment of the taking down of the tree: ‘By suppertime all that remains is the scent/ of balsam fir. If it’s darkness/ we’re having, let it be extravagant’ (Taking Down The Tree, Jane Kenyon).

 

Another writes of the holly being cut and bound to a wreath: ‘You twist and bend her tender branches/ back until they meet’ (Holly, Susan Wicks). One cannot help thinking of crucifixion…

 

Although they’re written for Christmas, few mention the Christ child, but the message of how nature speaks, is everywhere obvious. For the Christian, we might say the message of how God speaks through nature…

 

The Spirit hasn’t stopped speaking to the world and she/he often speaks through the natural world.

 

Helpfully there exists a theological concept of nature being ‘the first bible’ – God’s primary revelation of himself to us.

 

So many poets and artists unconsciously or consciously reveal their spiritual longings through their depictions of nature, and when they turn their attention to Christmas themes this is no less the case.

 

Christina Rossetti’s Christmas involved a ‘bleak midwinter’ in which ‘frosty winds made moan’. Her own rather frosty experience of love led her to a somewhat sombre outlook perhaps, but she finds consolation in the offering of herself to the Christ child.

The Christian is always called to hope.

 

But it’s not easy in midwinter – we naturally want to hibernate – to light a fire, put the kettle on, bung something warming in the oven, curl up with a movie – we all have a deep need for comfort in the cold and dark.

 

Our Christian forbears subsumed the pagan festivals of midwinter, not to eradicate them but to inject them with Christian hope.

 

People were already trying to deal with the darkness, and in midwinter, all they wanted to do was to eat, drink and be merry. Much of our Christmas celebration mirrors this still.

 

But a party only goes so far (normally as far as the morning after the night before); human beings need something more; we need hope.

 

We need the call of the turtledove.

 

It’s not at all unnatural for us to look for hope in winter – to get that tree inside the house and put up lights in the dark window.

 

You may have heard of the Danish concept of hygge, defined by the dictionary as “a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being”.

 

Along with wilding, it’s my other word of the year. Indeed there are whole Instagram accounts devoted to the concept of hygge. It derives from a 16th C Norwegian term meaning to comfort or console.

 

So, the shepherds see a bright light illuminating the dark hillside – they are welcomed to what our Christmas cards imagine as a warm and cosy stable where a baby is sleeping. They have a hygge moment, if that’s not too trivial a thought for Christmas. They certainly have a moment of consolation.

 

The concept of being without a home at Christmas is one of the worst we can imagine – when Crisis at Christmas opens one of its centres, it’s not just that someone gets to come off the street for a night, it’s about warmth, welcome and finding consolation.

 

I pray that this midwinter, we hear the call of the turtle dove – metaphorically if not literally. I pray that we sense the hope and consolation that God the Spirit is continually pouring into the world even today, through the Saviour who is born – Christ the Lord.

 

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Christ the King (Luke 23 v 33-43)

Today we celebrate Christ the King. This is the final Sunday of the liturgical year; the culmination before we begin again with Advent.

Pope Pius the tenth instituted in the Catholic church the feast of Christ the King with these words

“If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God.”

When you first think about Christ as King it seems wrong to have as our Gospel reading Luke’s crucifixion narrative would it not be better to use a resurrection appearance or perhaps the end of Matthew’s Gospel where before he commissions the disciples he tells them “I have been given all authority on heaven and earth” (Matthew 28 v 18). Or even in Revelation where John has a vision of Christ who says “I am the living one I was dead but now I am alive for ever and ever. I have authority over death and the world of the dead.” (Revelation 1 v18) when John saw him, he fell down at his feet like a dead man.

However, when you stop for a moment you realise that this is the pivotal point. This is when everything changed and the establishment of God living with his people in a new and profound way. This is contrary and completely opposite to what we think and currently experience about kingship and authority; this is usually someone wielding power for personal gain and sometimes with no thought at all for anyone else, putting themselves above all others. You do not have to look far to see this and the lengths people go to; to preserve their position.

Christ our King and his kingdom are very different willing to be rejected and suffer and not to return violence with violence not to curse but to pray for forgiveness. To give hope. This is God’s upside down or is it; right way up way of acting and moving in his world. This suffering must happen and is a constant theme throughout all of scripture.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book The Cost of discipleship expands on this suffering of Christ saying “Jesus must therefore make it clear beyond all doubt that the must of suffering applies to his disciples no less than to himself. Just as Christ is Christ only in virtue of his suffering and rejection, so the disciple is a disciple only in so far as he shares his Lord’s suffering and rejection and crucifixion. Discipleship means adherence to the person of Jesus and therefore submission to the law of Christ which is the law of the cross.”

We are free to choose or reject; to take up our cross or not; to abandon attachments or not; to be prepared to suffer or not. To surrender to Christ or not. Each of us will tread a different path; have a different cross to bear. For Bonhoeffer who was a Lutheran pastor he was convinced that as a Christian he should work for Hitler’s defeat. This resulted in his arrest and eventual execution by hanging in April 1945.

For us where we are now it will not mean something like that. The early disciples were slow to grasp this concept or were fixed in their way of thinking and could not contemplate it. I suspect we are no different. If pressed I’m sure we would rather settle for an easy life.

Anthony De Mello who was an Indian Jesuit priest in his book of meditations says to us “Here is a simple truth of life that most people never discover. Happy events make life delightful but they do not lead to self-discovery and growth and freedom. That privilege is reserved to the things and persons and situations that cause us pain. Every painful event contains in itself a seed of growth and liberation.” He then invites us to think about an event we were not grateful for, about the feelings it caused to consider whether it is teaching us something we might not know about ourselves. To accept the challenge offered for self-discovery and growth and freedom. What are these negative emotions? Anxiety, insecurity, jealousy, anger or guilt? What are they telling us about ourselves, our values, our way of perceiving the world and life? If we can discover these and find our way; then it may enable us to change a distorted perception or false belief or let go of an illusion we have clung to. It may set us free to surrender something more of ourselves to Christ.

It is not just in the crucifixion narrative that you encounter this different way of kingdom. Jesus lived and demonstrated it all the time he was with the disciples. Think about the people he had time for, the people he mixed with, the parables he told, the healings he performed and his more direct teaching. What about the beatitudes, happy are those who are merciful, happy are those who work for peace, happy are those who are humble, (Matthew 5 v3-11) some of which is echoed in our Old Testament reading from Jeremiah.

If we are to follow our King then this is the template we should look to.

Dave Tomlinson in his book How to be a bad Christian tells a story about a particular funeral he had agreed to take.

It was for a lady called Carol who was a feisty 45-year-old non-conformist who grew up in a sleepy village in Bedfordshire but had moved to London. She was a heavy drinker and had developed a heroin addiction. When he spoke to her father on the telephone, he couldn’t tell him a lot about his daughters’ life, he knew her as a rebellious teenager, a substance abuser and a misfit. He was aware she lived in London and worked in a charity shop but that was about it. They did not expect a more than three or four people at the crematorium. This saddened Dave.

However, as he arrived at the crematorium the next day, he noticed about 40 people standing a little way from the building chatting and rolling cigarettes. The funeral cars were not due to arrive until a little bit later so he decided to go and chat with the group. They were all Carol’s friends and within a few minutes he had a completely different picture and a different story to tell.

They were mostly all volunteer workers in charity shops in North London, unconventional types but they eulogised Carol. One man in his early thirties with spikey black hair a tattooed face and many piercings said most of them had problems but that Carol was like a mother to them. She gathered them in and looked after them. Another who was her shop manager asked to speak at the service where he talked movingly about her maternal qualities. “The charity shops are our families he said. A lot of us had mental health issues but we’ve found a community where we can belong. Carol, he said, was the heartbeat of this family and she looked after everyone.

Carol’s parents were mild mannered middle-class folk who thought they knew their daughter an alcoholic and drug addict but they now heard about a completely different woman. Someone who was wonderful and part of a loving family.

When it was all over, he drove home feeling that he had buried a broken Christ-figure.

Christ’s passion was for the kingdom of God: a vision of what the world would look like if God were king instead of the rulers and politicians. But he didn’t try to introduce the kingdom by way of political strategy or programme but rather he went about spreading a culture of hope and compassion and healing among ordinary people. He broke down prejudice and social barriers and empowered the poor and the marginalised not to turn them into a militant force to overthrow but to generate loving community.

That’s what Carol did, although she may not have realised, she was a servant of God who in her own modest unselfconscious way changed the world immediately around her; those she was in contact with who were wounded.

Carol didn’t set out to change the world she just did what came naturally to her in each situation she found herself in.

So, if we are intent on following our King and letting our passion be for the kingdom of God then there are some things that we might like to think about.

 

  1. Don’t try to change the world – be true to yourself.

Last week Claire spoke about the three S’s silence solitude and stillness. If we are to be ourselves, we need to spend time finding out who we are and who we want to be in the world. I know when I go away on silent retreat my perspective on life changes, at least for a while. Jesus did it in the wilderness so should we; then we will act from our deepest and best instincts. Doing this will change the world because those around you will change.

 

  1. Commit to compassion.

This isn’t feeling sorry for someone but a commitment to putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, to feel their pain or enter generously their point of view. Love your neighbour as yourself! Compassion arises from an openness of heart, a willingness to understand other people’s pain, to listen to their hurt and share in their distress. In the business world in which I work it is very results driven and people are pushed hard and I have to remember daily to understand and support those who are feeling the strain.

 

  1. Join with others in seeking to promote justice and peace in the world.

God relies on us to help him make the world a better place. Give thanks that there are many working to combat poverty and disease, feeding the hungry and liberating the oppressed. However, the needs are great and unending.

 

  1. Attend to the present moment.

Pay attention! Be present in the moment. Listen to God’s voice in the needs of those around you and act if necessary. Don’t spend too much time worrying and wishing you had done more in the past or thinking about what you might do in the future God has given you no control over those but you can affect the now. This is something I have to keep telling myself; as a reflective introvert I am always replaying or planning things in my mind and a lot of the time it does me no good.

 

  1. Overcome evil with good.

To act counter intuitively; where there is hatred act out of humility; where there is despair find acts of ingenuity; where there is fear find acts of self-reliance. Acts of love peace and forgiveness will create waves and reverberations however invisible and anonymous they may be.

 

 

 

  1. Look for Christ in the world.

There are many times, places and moments when God appears afresh in our world. None of these eclipses the unique revelation of God in Jesus but look out for God to show up in the most surprising places and through the most unexpected people; and even you and me! I must remember not to be too narrow in my thinking and limit what God maybe trying to do

In his book Dave Tomlinson relates acting in this way to the butterfly effect. This is the theory that a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil and sets off a tornado in Texas. This is the recognition that decisions and actions we as individuals take no matter how small can have a role in determining the outcome of the lives of others. So, if we beat our wings in this way; things can change and God’s kingdom will increase.

 

 

Richard Harwood

24.11.19

 

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How can we future-proof the Church?

Second Sunday before Advent,17.11.19

Malachi 4: The Great Day of the Lord

& Luke 21: 5-19: The Destruction of the Temple Foretold

Today Jesus tells it as it is – something we can be poor at in religious life, full as we often are of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’.

 

The invitation to look at the wonders of the Temple, as he and his disciples wander nearby, is a temptation to assume everything will go on the same as it always has; another trap we religious people fall into.

 

Jesus tells his listeners categorically that things are not going to go on the same; the Temple, the symbolic centre and foundation of the Jewish faith, will be dismantled stone by stone.

 

This of course came true in AD70 when the invading Roman army laid siege to Jerusalem and burnt the Temple to the ground. The gold mortar melted and each stone lay about in total deconstruction.

 

Jesus is utterly realistic about the future of the Temple – it will not last into the future.

 

He tells them of its impending demise in the face of an over arching narrative of religious pride and identity and a feeling perhaps that as long as the building remains, the faith will continue.

 

In fact, not one stone will be left upon another – it’s not just going to fall down, it’s going to be dismantled bit by bit until everything is taken back to square one.

 

Dismantling stone by stone is perhaps a fitting metaphor for what has been happening culturally in the West, to the Christian faith, ever since the Enlightenment and particularly since the two World Wars as people lose faith in God as alive and active for good in the world. Whether we call it the modern or the post-modern, it’s continuing apace, and we live our lives as people of faith in this context, for good or ill.

 

Deconstruction in itself is not necessarily bad: I’m all for deconstructing patriarchy in the Church, for example, and I’m in favour of people going to church because they love God, not because they’ve been told they have to. I’m in favour of looking closely at why we say we’re Christian and what that actually means in practice.

 

But the problem with deconstruction is that after deconstructing, you tend to have a whole pile of stones at your feet and you may not know how to make them back into a building that’s fit for the future.

 

So I wondered, as I prepared this talk, if it would be at all possible to ‘future proof’ the Church.

 

Future proofing is a concept used in business to make a company fit for the future – to give it the best chance to survive the stresses and pressures of the future and make it a body fit to survive and flourish.

 

What will flourish of Christianity going into the future?

 

What would Jesus say to us today about how to “future proof” the church?

 

In a sense, the church is already future-proofed by Jesus, when he said: “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it”. That much is certain. But even with that backdrop, there are questions and challenges for each local congregation and for each denomination.

 

I think it was former Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, who once said he was personally convinced of the future of the Christian faith, but didn’t know to what extent the Church of England would be part of this.

 

Each succeeding generation is faced with the challenge to pass on the faith in a way that sticks and lasts.

 

It’s not just about making disciples, but making disciple-making disciples.

 

So here are three suggestions for how we can “future proof” the Church. They may be applicable to other church contexts, but I have mainly tried to locate these thoughts around St John and St Stephen’s.

 

They are suggestions to chew over. They are not exhaustive; you will be able to think of others that I have omitted, and so I hope this can become an ongoing conversation.

 

Firstly: To future-proof the Church we need to take the Spiritual Disciplines seriously.

 

I don’t know what you think of when you hear the phrase “Spiritual Disciplines”…

I am deeply formed by the work of Quaker author Richard Foster, who wrote Celebration of Discipline in 1980 – nearly 40 years ago.

 

The spiritual life doesn’t just happen; it is enabled by habits that we get into, of prayer, reading scripture and the 3 S’s: silence, solitude and stillness.

 

The foreword reads as though it were today, not 1980: he writes of what he calls “flabby Christianity”, citing the ‘sad decline in true spirituality amongst the majority of Western Christians. We have neglected our prayer life; we have stopped listening to God; we have been caught by the covetous spirit of our affluent society, and worshipped the false god of materialism. We have exchanged our knowledge of God for heady disputes and theological words, or for religious or social activism. We have forgotten how to be still before God, how to meditate, trapped as we are in the vortex of modern life’.

 

And he wrote this before the age of the Internet!

 

The disciplines of the spiritual life are the way the real life of Christ, which is everywhere and eternally active and powerful, flows through us and out into the world.

 

The disciplines are not an end in themselves; they are the channel through which the water of life flows. If you don’t have a channel, you can’t easily get that life flowing through you.

 

The example is the life of Jesus, who frequently took himself off to the hills to be still and quiet; who went to the wilderness to face his temptations and who discerned the spirits of people.

 

It’s the three S’s that I have had to work most at in the last few years, since I entered middle age. Silence was something I had never properly encountered before the idea of a silent retreat surfaced, in conjunction with getting ordained. I thought it sounded like a terrible idea, a kind of deprivation of the unpleasantest kind.

 

Once I’d had a silent retreat without 44 other Ordinands, I realised you need solitude to get silence. Then I realised that far from being odd, what’s actually odd is the level of constant noise and chatter (both external and internal) that fills our whole lives, all the time.

 

Shops play music, politicians bat away questions by a constant patter of their party’s script; our heads are filled with self justification, fear and endless replayed conversations that didn’t go our way, and this happens from dawn till dusk (or it does in my head, anyway).

 

External silence is vital for internal silence. Internal silence is needful for hearing God’s voice. The fact that most modern people feel that God is entirely distant, if indeed he exists at all, shows us that there is way too much noise for our collective spiritual health.

 

There’s a reason we don’t want to be still and silent, of course – because it means we have to face our pain, and our mortality. And so we are like the disciples – look teacher! – I’m fine; we’re fine; we’re all getting along just fine; look at the edifice of our lives!!

 

But Jesus is always realistic, to the point of being embarrassingly blunt. Not one stone will remain upon another.

 

In a society where “spiritual, not religious” is the new identity, we need to be people who can actually articulate what goes on spiritually in our lives. People are less interested in the fact you go to church, read the bible and attend a house group. Instead they want to know, how do you meditate; will that help my anxiety? What’s it like to ‘feel God’; what do you mean you ‘love Jesus’?

 

Secondly: we need to give some serious thought to the relationship between contemplation and action.

 

I’m all for contemplation; it’s a way of prayer that I’m trying to grow into. In short, I’d describe it as a retreat from words; an adventure into the mystery of God and a chance to step back from the busyness of life and get things in perspective – to grow in epistemological humility.

 

BUT, sooner or later one is back in the busyness of life and even now I hate writing/saying that phrase. I dislike being told: “I expect you’re so busy” because it would be so easy to become a religious functionary and I believe that sadly you can actually be a functionary in the Church, without having a vibrant spiritual life.

 

But when you say you’re not busy, people assume you’re slacking. Because being not busy is so utterly counter-cultural these days.

 

I was talking with a friend of a child in year 3 recently (rising 8 years old). She was mourning a time when children of 8 went to each other’s houses for tea. These days, in her context at least (and this won’t be true of all contexts) the 8 year olds have no time to go to tea because they’re too busy going to all their extra curricular activities. They don’t know how to stop and they don’t know how to be bored.

 

We are a church of many activities – it’s one of the GOOD things about us. But this week someone asked the question, what is the difference between a church doing lots of activities and a secular run organization also offering toddler groups and lunch clubs? ‘We’re offering Jesus’, was one answer. ‘What does that even mean?’ came back the very valid question!

 

Living a life of contemplation is perhaps beautifully simple. Living a life of action is perhaps beautifully simple; what’s difficult is combining them in a truly holistic, authentic and transformative manner. Putting on social events in order to convert people is not good enough.

 

It has to be something to do with the flow of love that comes down the channel of our lives so that others cannot help but be refreshed. The people who might be able to articulate what this feels like are the people who come into the café and church each day, even perhaps the people who live near the church and who have Christian neighbours. Perhaps they are the ones to say what contemplation and action feel like on the receiving end.

 

In Reading College this week there was a short Service of Freedom and Remembrance led by the Chair of Churches Together in Reading, Mike Penny, which I was delighted to take part in. Reading College has a large atrium around which people can gather and look down on the action below. I was amazed that the top floor became completely filled with students who had all chosen to be there at 10.50am.

 

Members of the media department had been drafted in to read some short pieces about World Freedom Day, which is marked on 9 November, and this was linked with Remembrance, and a Salvation Army bugler played the Last Post and the Reveille.

 

As Mike did his short talk, referring to the thousands who’d died to preserve our freedom, there was definitely that something ‘extra’ there, very hard to quantify, impossible to pin down, but he had the attention of scores of young people, most of whom, I would guess, were Unchurched, from families where any form of active Christianity has not been a reality for 3 or more generations. He shard his faith that when we die we simply fall asleep in Christ, that there is hope in the resurrection of Christ from the dead.

 

He had their attention because the life of Christ was there, it was flowing; it was tangible. From having no active Christian presence formerly, the College has now got a Chaplaincy Team and a yearly act of worship at Remembrance. It was effective because it was action and contemplation held in an intentional and very creative tension.

 

And thirdly: Jesus.

 

When Jesus foretells the total deconstruction of the Temple, he doesn’t leave it there. One of the charges against him is that ‘this fellow said’ destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.

 

In his death and resurrection Jesus relocates the spiritual life of the Jewish people in himself, in his own body. As an offering, it is rejected nationally, but taken up by a few disciples. Against all the odds, the idea of a faith that is internal before it is external, is born, and has gone on to dominate the Western imagination ever since. We enact our faith in the body of Christ as the locus of our salvation every Sunday as we share bread and wine.

 

The idea of self giving love as the overarching meaning of our lives continues to inform the way society works, whether it is attributed to God or not. “Can you be good without God?” is one of the most interesting questions we might ponder philosophically. Most of society seems to have decided the resounding answer is: yes, you can. But is it that simple?

 

I’m reading the historian Tom Holland at the moment. His book Dominion, was born out of his research into ancient civilizations and their values.

 

He’s admitted in several interviews recently, and in an article published in The Spectator in April, that as a lapsed Anglican, his assumption was that values of tolerance, equality and the worth and dignity of all human beings were universal. Meanwhile academically he immersed himself in the study of cultures where it was absolutely assumed that might was right.

 

The gods of ancient Greece and Rome were capricious and jostled with each other for power. The Lord of a Greek or Roman household had the right to treat the members of his household, whether slaves, young men or women, in whatever way he pleased – including sexually – and it was in no way questioned. No one mentioned that his or her human rights were being disregarded. Slavery was considered utterly normal.

 

The more he studied the values of ancient societies the more Holland realised that his own values, un-moored though they were from a personal practice of Christianity, were nonetheless completely informed by the example of a God who became man and gave himself up to death on a cross, three days later to rise to new life.

 

This is how we see society today, it seems. All the important battles are being waged over equality. How can we have a just society where everyone gets a bite of the cherry? A Health Service free at the point of need and an education system that works for everyone are frequently at the top of political agendas and no one thinks it odd.

 

Christmas adverts are always about getting together, fellowship and love, and cute dragons that need to be given a chance to blow their flames over a Christmas pudding rather than destroy a dinner party with the mighty breath of their mouth (John Lewis).

 

Community, love, caring for the weak – those are the values that sell stuff – not: “ buy this cheap piece of clothing and you will be oppressing a single mother in Bangladesh who can’t afford to feed her family”. That sort of slogan doesn’t sell stuff in a society that is, to use Tom Holland’s phrase, ‘irredeemably Christian’.

 

So if we’re ‘irredeemably Christian’, how come so many people have given up on organized Christianity? And how can we address this in our own context?

 

Jesus goes on in the passage to speak about witness. We’re into the apocalyptic here; persecution is coming for the disciples; indeed “you will be hated by all because of my name”. It’s one of the most chilling statements in the New Testament. But they will save their souls by relying on him to give them the words they need. For us this might mean holding out for wisdom in an age of information.

 

It provides us with a challenge. To continue the bodies, not buildings metaphor, the subtle thing about us humans is that we are rather prone to putting in alternative foundations. God is very gracious and he knows that is the risk with religious people.

 

The way it’s supposed to work is, as the hymn goes, is: “Christ is made the sure foundation”, but we are prone to building on alternatives.

 

The Ten Commandments (shorter version) gives us “Love God and love your neighbour as you love yourself”, and there you have the contemplation and action dynamic – your spiritual, your social and your psychological health all tied up beautifully in one sentence.

 

Those spiritual disciplines help us check we are still building on Christ, as individuals and as a church. “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it”. The sort of church that is future proofed, is the Church that is built on Christ, composed of lives that are built on Christ.

 

What that means for you will be very personal, but it has to do with going deeper. This is hard when you’ve been a Christian a long time, when you’ve been in the same church for a long time.

 

The longest I’ve ever been involved in a single congregation was 11 years, at Shiplake. It nearly drove me bonkers. And was, at the same time, the most fruitful time spiritually, because I was forced to keep asking: “Is this all there is?”

 

If you’ve stopped asking “is this all there is?” maybe it’s time to check the foundations of your building.

 

Ignatian insights can be hugely helpful – not only are you reading the bible story, you’re in it. A spiritual director can ask you the questions about your prayer life no one else will. Spiritual disciplines of silence, solitude and stillness, along with typologies such as the Enneagram, can help us to look at our inner motivations, which can often remain largely unexamined…

 

It’s high time to draw things to a close.

 

How can we future-proof the Church? How can we build something long lasting out of the often healthy, but disorientating, deconstruction of post modern-ism?

 

By practising and growing together in the Spiritual Disciplines, by exploring deeply the relationship of prayer to action, and by making sure our foundation is Jesus Christ.

 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Two men went up to pray…

Eucharist, St John’s and St Stephen’s 27 October, end of Creation Season.

Joel 2:23-end & Luke 18:9-14

The last Sunday in October is traditionally Reformation Sunday. So perhaps it’s fitting that we think today about a parable of Jesus addressed to ‘some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous’.

 

This little parable, which might be regarded as a small piece of dynamite that is just plunged into the Lukan narrative and left to detonate, is perhaps unusual in that we get to have that little introduction that ‘explains’ it, before we read it: ‘He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt’.

 

So we have Luke’s redaction about self-righteousness slotted before the parable for today, along with his parable of the persistent widow, the little children who parents are bringing for Jesus’ touch, and later the salvation of Zacchaeus the hated tax collector.

 

So it feels as if Luke is banging home his message, of salvation being free, and being for all, especially ‘sinners’. Those whom we least expect to receive forgiveness from God are the very ones whom God has noticed and whom God wants to lift up. The message of salvation is an inclusive message.

 

So it’s a very short, but deceptively profound parable. In it we see two different approaches to prayer and to God, illustrated by the Pharisee and the tax collector. They are different on a number of levels, not least their physical posture, from which we are to deduce their heart posture.

 

We read that the Pharisee was ‘standing by himself’, but the Greek has, literally, ‘The Pharisee, having stood, to himself was praying…’ So he’s either standing alone, or, worse, praying to himself! Although he addresses God verbally, his heart is not in the right place. We never stand alone when we pray; instead we enter into the merciful presence of God and, on Sunday, of each other. Some of you will be familiar with the Order for Night Prayer, or Compline, which begins, “Most merciful God, we confess to you, before the whole company of heaven and one another…”

 

By contrast, the tax collector (or for our day, read “unethical banker”) stands at a distance and is not willing even to raise his eyes to heaven. That is a very different physical stance and heart stance – and the one mirrors the other.

 

When a preacher looks round a congregation, the body stance of various people is sometimes significant! I’m sure it would never happen here, but hands thrust casually in pockets while we confess our sins, or sitting with one’s arms firmly across one’s chest during the sermon, do communicate something of what might be, or might not be, going on inside…

 

So much for the body in prayer!

 

Now to the words of our two contrasted characters.

 

The Pharisee prays a prayer of thanksgiving, which might seem to us arrogant in the extreme because he basically thanks God he is not a sinner. He is not like other men, those ones who cheat, the unrighteous, like this tax collector.

 

It’s a classic case of being right, and so wrong all at once. It is good, if you think about it, NOT to be a cheat, either cheating people out of money, like those swindlers who phone up the elderly and get them to deposit large sums of money in what turns out to be a false bank account. This happened to the elderly mother of a friend of ours in Pangbourne, and the lady lost £5,000. Luckily the bank reimbursed her (an ethical banking action). But aren’t we glad this church isn’t full of swindlers?

 

Or people who cheat on their spouses? Aren’t we glad that, by the grace of God, we aren’t that type of person? Surely the Pharisee is technically right that it is a good thing NOT to be a cheat, not to be unrighteous?

 

He is right, technically, but that’s not how prayer and heart stance work!

 

His inner stance is wrong. Therefore his prayer is wrong.

 

Did you know you can be ‘right’ verbally (or in your actions) but wrong in your heart? I suppose we might call it speaking the truth without love. Or you could be engaged in virtue signaling without knowing your own brokenness. When you speak the truth without love, it is still truth, factually, but it isn’t ‘the way, truth and the life’.

 

And you can have right action without right motive – philosophers have discussed this for centuries. The Pharisee tithes and he fasts. Tithing and fasting are two very good spiritual disciplines. The first pays for your church building project, and the second curbs your appetites.

 

But disciplines that are ends in themselves do not necessarily allow for the life of God to flow through us and out to the world. Disciplines are tools, not ends in themselves. So you can be a giver, or a cheerful giver. You can be a miserable fast-er, or you can be seeking to be free inside and choosing a fast to draw nearer to the One for whom you really hunger and thirst.

 

By contrast, the tax collector (unethical banker) is contrite. He cannot even look up to heaven but prays that most basic prayer, which would become the most ancient of prayers of the Christian church – Lord have mercy on me a sinner – The Kyrie Eleison.

 

So here are the goodie and the baddie turned on their head by Jesus for his listeners. The ‘good’ person (Pharisee) is the one who went away NOT right with God, and the ‘bad’ person (tax collector) was the one who went away right with God. Because it was all about heart stance.

 

And then the trap is set. Because you know there is always a trap in a parable, don’t you?! And we can fall headlong into it.

 

We might not be thanking God that we are not like so-and-so, but how many times have we secretly thought something along those lines?

 

One of the most common subtle versions of the Pharisee’s attitude, of which I have been guilty, is when we have contempt for someone whose Christianity isn’t inclusive enough. Being inclusive is where some of the best and hardest battles in society are currently raging, as we try and come to terms with difference and give a voice to minority groups who have often been at best ignored, at worst persecuted.

 

So, recently there’s been a social media storm over derogatory comments made about Beth Moore, a prominent female Christian speaker in the States. If I read of a Christian leader who wants to exclude another from ministry on the grounds of gender or sexuality, I do feel superior to them. I feel that my Christianity is a better Christianity than theirs. It’s a better Christianity because it’s more inclusive, and Jesus was inclusive, right?

 

And factually I might well be right, but I need to watch my heart stance. There’s none so intolerant as those who have newly discovered a more tolerant attitude in themselves and then look about and wonder why others haven’t become as enlightened as they have. It is but a small step to contempt, I can assure you. And what is difficult to take, is that God still loved the Pharisee, and doesn’t hold him in contempt but continues to call him.

 

Another trap for church people that I have fallen into is the mildly superior way we assess all our Christian long service, and some of us have served the church for many years, and it can be wearying. God hears our weariness. Where are the next tranche of people to take over from us, we might be asking ourselves. And sometimes there is no obvious next tranche. It is a challenge for us to keep our hearts tender and not to feel hard done by. It is all God’s work anyway and we serve a gracious God who calls us to be mindful only of our own need for grace. Whether others are serving as hard as us or not, is not ours to worry about. The spiritual life contains many hidden temptations to compare ourselves with other Christians, even before we get to full blown contempt.

 

So where is the Good News on Reformation Sunday, in this little explosive parable? The promise is that righteousness is not by our own outward attempts at goodness. We can go home justified today because we can throw ourselves on God’s mercy and lay burdens down, trusting in God’s provision.

 

Because: “Thus far has the Lord helped us” (1 Samuel 7:12).

 

The Good News is that grace always precedes our hard work and continues after we lay it down.

 

“I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten,
26 You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you” (Joel 2:25-6).

Thanks be to God.

 

 

(lyrics on picture: Switchfoot)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Grateful Samaritan

Sermon for Trinity 17C (aka Creation Season)

13.10.19

Luke 17:11-19

Don’t be surprised if faith is found amongst those we don’t tend to notice, who are continually noticed by Jesus.

 

It’s a case this morning, not of the Good Samaritan, but of the grateful Samaritan.

 

Luke is often at pains in his gospel to highlight the universal nature of the Good News – it is, literally, for all people.

 

It is in Luke that we find Mary and Elizabeth, two women who get together to share their pregnancy stories, like women have always done, and through whom, in the babies they will bear, the salvation of the world will be set in motion.

 

It is in Luke that we find Simeon and Anna, two very elderly people whose longsuffering faith in the coming Messiah has been noticed by God, even at their great age.

 

And it is Luke who holds before us the Good News which is for everyone, which is not tribal, but universal; “the Universal Christ”, as Richard Rohr puts it.

 

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where he will arrive in chapter 19.

 

He is on the way – both literally on the road between Galilee and Samaria – and on the way of the cross, having set his mind upon a course of action that will result in his own self giving for the world.

 

As is the way of Jesus, he comes to a borderland area, between two places – Galilee and Samaria. Jesus often inhabits the liminal (in between places) and he calls us to do the same.

 

Boundary spaces are places where faith is possible, where the action of God may break in, where you’re between two worlds, as it were.

 

Any change or new situation calls for courage (I tell myself this every day). Change is the boundary between what we knew that was familiar, and what is emerging, which is unfamiliar.

 

I suppose we’re in such a season as a church. I certainly am, as a minister.

 

Maybe you’re in a season of change yourself, on the border between what you have known, and what you don’t yet know.

 

This could be due to uncertain health, aging, moving jobs, taking up a new course or post, facing a new challenge or facing up to something that’s gone wrong.

 

These borderlands are where our faith is particularly tested – where our faith can either stagnate or it can grow.

 

Be encouraged that the borderlands and the boundary spaces are Jesus’s speciality. You can be sure to find him there, watching out for you, inviting you, surprising you, calling you, waiting for you.

 

So here is Jesus, journeying through the borderlands between Samaria and Galilee, heading from life to death, as it were, on the way of the cross.

 

And he encounters ten lepers.

 

For cultural, religious, social and hygiene reasons, they keep their distance.

 

This is not going to be one of those miracles where Jesus touches people, where he lays hands on someone to make them clean.

 

Keeping their distance the lepers call out, addressing Jesus as Master – a term normally reserved for disciples.

 

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

 

It is enough.

 

Jesus first response is “Go and show yourselves to the priests”. ‘And as they went’ (we read) ‘they were made clean’. It’s all very practical. The priests will rubber-stamp their entry back into the religious life of the community; they’ll become full members of society again, and they’ll return with joy to their families. Job done.

 

As dramatic shows of miraculous power go, it’s all a bit low key.

 

But that’s not the end of the story!

 

Because there’s always another part to healing, and that’s what’s going on on the inside.

 

It would seem that only one of them had any internal response to what had happened alongside the physical healing.

 

One of the ten saw that he was healed and turned back. He responds to the gift of healing with a recognition that God has been at work.

 

I hope we are a church that is becoming more and more sensitive to seeing God at work. There are ways to foster that seeing: I don’t know if you have heard of the Examen….

 

It’s a prayer where we take 5 minutes at the end of each day to review the day in the light of God’s Spirit.

 

We ask ourselves, where did I see God at work? Or, for what did I feel most grateful today? Where in the day did I sense the most connection, the most love, the most significance? Because that was where the Spirit might have been at work…

 

When we do a prayer like the Examen, and give permission for God to shine the divine light onto the events of the day, we discover all sorts of things.

 

  1. God is in the every day.
  2. God is concerned with reality, not what we think we should be feeling, but what we really are feeling. What we feel does matter, and is often different to the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ we were brought up on. Jesus is always into inner freedom.
  3. God is constantly at work in the world.

 

The leper who turned back had a light bulb moment. He saw that God had been at work – he “saw” that he had been healed. His healing wasn’t a tick box moment, which meant he could go to the priest and get just what he wanted, even though what he wanted (to be socially and religiously reinstated) was perfectly legitimate.

 

He saw that God had been at work inside him too. When we do the Examen, when we’re prayerful, and review the day in the divine light, or talk to someone else about the day, we see that God has been at work, and our faith is built up.

 

So the leper who’s been healed sees and turns back. He does an action, which puts him on a course directly towards Jesus. So there’s a direction in this story. The nine walking away; the one is walking back to Jesus. And he praises God and falls prostrate at Jesus’s feet and thanks him.

 

He sees, he turns and he runs back leaping and praising God, and worshipping Jesus.

 

And then Luke has a short dynamite-like sentence: “And he was a Samaritan”.

 

Luke is just getting that in because it is supposed to upset the apple cart. It is supposed to upset assumptions that everyone then knew who were the goodies and the baddies, the spiritual and the unspiritual. To the Jew, a Gentile was a pagan but a Samaritan was an enemy.

 

And humans like nothing better than to know who the enemy is. We’re no different. When notions of who the enemy is and who the good guy is get upturned, we feel extremely uncomfortable.

 

When I saw a picture in the newspaper of ISIS fighters being kept in crowded prison cells, body upon body so close together you could hardly tell them apart, I felt pity. And I also felt uncomfortable. They’re the enemy, right? One is not supposed to feel pity for the enemy.

 

Once I talked to a Christian who was considering voting UKIP in the next election and I wanted to label their faith as wrong and defective; I wanted to stop having a drink with them in the local pub; and walk out, but I couldn’t because he was my brother in Christ.

 

When I think of the Union Jack and how all the different colours of the flag represent peoples that the English have dominated throughout history, I am reminded that coalitions of countries rarely work for all parties, but only for the dominant group, of which I have traditionally been a part; being as I am, English, white, middleclass, educated and part of the Established Church.

 

So we have lost the shock of “And he was a Samaritan”, especially as we all love The Samaritans now; they’re so kind and caring on the phone when you have no one else to talk to.

 

Jesus draws attention to this “foreigner” – this Samaritan. “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God?”

 

The leper gives thanks – Eucharisto = I give thanks. He gives thanks using the same word from which we get Eucharist, the ultimate thanksgiving for Jesus offered for us. The Samaritan is held up by Luke as a model response to the gospel.

 

One commentator has asked, of this passage, “Who are the outsiders that reflect back God’s kingdom to us?” Because probably we cannot trust our own limited view of the kingdom.

 

What a good question for us church people who know the bible and who come to worship every Sunday.

“Who are the outsiders that reflect back God’s kingdom to us?”

 

As World Mental Health Day has been marked this week, I give thanks for “L” who worshipped in our church. She lived with bipolar disorder and had suffered for many years under a mental health misdiagnosis, which had led to some harsh drugs that left her worse than before.

 

As I turned up at my first village fete as a new curate, feeling pretty out of place and exposed, I noticed her because she was a bit different. I saw her fix her gaze on my dog collar, and I was that she “saw”. Most other people either pretended not to see, or couldn’t have cared less that there was a new priest at large in the village. “Are you our new vicar?” she asked in a loud voice.

 

She became a faithful prayer partner for a number of years, and was often the person who was able to “see” when others could not. She’d been on the edge and was therefore good at sensing when other were too. She couldn’t watch the news without crying. Frankly, hers was the right response.

 

Perhaps it’s the combination of being doubly outside – a leper and a Samaritan – than occasions this outpouring of praise and thanksgiving.

 

A bit like the woman who sinned much, who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears whilst Simon the Pharisee ‘intuited’ that Jesus couldn’t have been very spiritually switched on…

 

As we learn today from an outsider who encountered Jesus, may be we can pray for awareness of where God is at work amongst us, and especially in our community, as people come in weekly for the Café and related gatherings.

 

We are very lucky here that someone had the vision to join up church, school and community in this amazing building.

 

God is drawing people into fellowship with himself and sometimes we get to be involved – what an amazing privilege. Thank you to all of you who are here, willing to be involved in the work of God – the work of healing and wholeness – which is salvation.

 

Because if we are looking for neat demarcations between who is healed and who is saved in this story, I think we’ll be disappointed.

 

Jesus tells the healed Samaritan “go on your way; your faith (belief = pistis) has made you well, or ‘has saved you’.

 

The other 9 were also made well. But were they ‘saved’? I don’t think we can hope to have that neat detail wrapped up.

 

Salvation and healing are the same word in the NT, so we, against all our tribal instincts, are forced to embrace the God who embraces all – the outcast, the stranger, the one who is different.

 

In doing so, our faith and our vision expand. We find ourselves in the borderlands, unsure because God is upsetting the apple cart, and showing us that we are not the sole custodians of the Faith.

 

We are discovering a saviour who is walking the borderlands where things are uncomfortably alive, and where the stranger sees more than we do.

 

The grace to be able to follow Jesus there, among the un-noticed, amongst the stranger, is available to all of us.

 

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anthony Falbo - Be anxious for nothing

Religion and Anxiety

Religion and Anxiety

What is religion for? I know there are some Christians who don’t like to describe themselves as religious (‘they have a relationship with God, not a religion’) but I think it is a useful term. The root of the word ‘religion’ may mean to bind up again (the same root gives us the word ‘ligament’): ‘religion’ is to bind something up again, to put something back together which had fallen apart. In short, religions aim to fix things – and they do this by giving us rituals and structures that repeat themselves. Helpfully, this means that we don’t have to imagine what God might be like afresh each week and how we should approach this God – we have a liturgy, an order of service, that helps us.

Of course, whether we allow these religious structures to help us actually get back in touch with God or whether we treat them as something to be worshipped in their own right is a moot point. Those Christians who feel uncomfortable using the term ‘religious’ rightly put their finger on what happens if we simply allow ourselves to get hooked on tradition. So, religion, I’d like to suggest, is a neutral thing. Whether being religious is good or bad depends on the aim and the spirit with which it is carried out.  Religion that takes a fragmented, disjointed human life, and puts it back together with the intention of making a violent person is clearly bad religion; but religion which takes fragmented and disjointed lives and puts them back together to make peaceful people is clearly a different matter. And, it seems to be, that any particular religion can be at times good or bad…

Why the lecture on religion? Last Sunday I attended a Creationist event at a local Catholic church. You’d be correct in thinking it’s not my natural haunt. I listened for several hours to two impassioned speakers earnestly speaking about how the Earth was only six thousand years old; how Genesis chapter 1 had to be interpreted as a historical account; how there was a real Adam and Eve; how there was a great flood that covered the whole earth at once. Questions about carbon-14 dating were raised; statements from previous popes and saints were adduced proving the authority of scripture as historically true about the Garden of Eden. And to cap it all I was shown a photograph of an 800-year-old carving which was said to depict a stegosaurus, thereby proving that dinosaurs must have been around only recently.

If you’ve ever been to an event like this it’s easy to get sucked in, either in agreement or in passionate disagreement. But I’d decided to try to control my temper by taking notes because what I really wanted to do was to understand the structure and motivation of the argument: what was it that could drive these speakers to give of their precious time to share their beliefs: what was so important to them?

It turned out that questions about science weren’t in the driving seat. No: it was anxiety that was the driver. In this case anxiety about changing sexual identities and roles today. You see: the speakers believed that if you did want to reaffirm traditional Catholic gender roles for men and women, and to reassert that heterosexuality should be the norm, then you needed the Genesis story to be historically true: for it was in Genesis 1 that God had revealed the perfect template for human sexuality: Adam and Eve together in the garden. But if evolution threatened the historical truth of Genesis 1, evolution had to be shown to be wrong.

Now, this seems to me a case of the dogmatic tail wagging the scientific dog: a problem with restating traditional Catholic morality resulted in an argument that tried to  overturn the last century and a half of biological thinking. Now, whatever we think a Christian view of sexuality and gender ought to be (and that should certainly be something we care about and argue over), nevertheless, I think that most of us would agree that denying the day-to-day work of modern biologists is probably not the best way to do it. Or, if I can try to put it more pithily: if we’re unsure of what our doctrine should be, the answer won’t be found in doing worse science, it’ll be found in doing better theology.

But, stepping back from these questions, what interested me most was to discover the role of anxiety: this anxiety about LGBT+ rights and around the apparent loss of heterosexual marriage. You’ll recall that a while back I mentioned ‘religion’ may mean to put back together again what is disjointed? Here was a case of religion trying to put some disjointed, worried faithful traditionalist Catholics, back together. But (I dare to observe) I don’t think it was very good religion. Not just because it rested on bad science, but because it was driven by an anxious need for security.

So here we get to the actual sermon: how do we deal with insecurity? Insecurity about anything – in our relationships, in our work-life, when it comes to our health or our future?

How can religion help with anxiety? One response might be to look to Christianity to provide us with firm answers. And it does provide us with some. Jesus was, in some ways, deeply conservative and firm about several matters: think of the Sermon on the Mount’s attitudes to money, forgiveness, non-violence. But in other ways the religion that Jesus shares with us is at the same time radically liberal, particularly when it comes to dealing with anxiety…

In our Gospel reading this morning we hear about the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep for the one that was lost; and about the woman who sweeps the whole house to find the one lost coin. What could each of them have done instead? I guess the shepherd could have said, ‘Well, I still have 99! Never mind, I’ll focus on protecting what I’ve still got’. And what of the woman who had lost one of the coins which were often worn as jewellery and probably consisted of her precious dowry – her only source of independent wealth? I guess she could have spent the day shopping for a very strong box, then polishing each coin in turn and placing it safely inside, vowing never to wear them again. (That suggestion reminds me, by the way, of a story of the Queen visiting an elderly lady for tea. Whilst sipping from her mug the Queen points to some fine bone china on the dresser. ‘Those look lovely’, she says. ‘Yes,’ says the lady, ‘I save those for best’.)

But neither the shepherd nor the woman do these things. In the face of the anxiety of loss theirs is not a withdrawal into safety. These are parables that affirm the worth of moving towards what was lost, in hope, rather than seeking to avoid further loss by retreating into greater security.

Of course, both parables are about grace – Jesus is communicating his sense that God’s instinct for love means that God doesn’t avoid risk; God moves towards what is lost, in love and in hope. It’s approach to life that is the opposite of allowing fear to close down… Jesus’s life, rooted in God, incarnates the same attitude: he chooses not to avoid the risky encounter with the polluted or the morally compromised which might lose him favour or put him in the bad books of the authorities, or indeed open him to the challenge that he was being unfaithful to scripture. Indeed, just think of how little time Jesus spends in the Temple (the secure, safe, place); and instead how much time he spends on the margins of Israel. And this divine life which he takes on, Jesus passes to his disciples when he says, follow me… So, in the face of anxiety do we retreat or courageously journey out again?

Two years ago I conducted the funeral of a distant relative, Dick. He was a hoarder: most of the rooms of his house were full to the ceiling with bags stuffed with things that he ‘might one day need’. Dick rarely set foot outside. I think much of the world beyond his door felt to him frightening. But he didn’t start out that way – his hoarding was (I would guess) the end destination of many individual choices to retreat because it seemed the safest option. Few of us are so extreme as that, but all of us have choices about what we do in the face of uncertainty, and one path leads to withdrawal and another, apparently riskier path, leads outwards.

Our anxieties may take many forms: they may focus on our jobs, like the uncertainty of a parish job after a good curacy; or like the uncertainty of a parish as it awaits a new vicar after difficult past experiences… It may deal with our health, mental and physical; our experience of ageing.

And on top of these personal uncertainties we find, too, that we live in increasingly complex times, politically and environmentally. In the face of uncertainty about the effects of climate we could, if we wanted, withdraw into positions of self-protection. In extreme we might try to hide from the painful truth in climate denial; or perhaps start behaving in ways that try only to limit the consequences for ourselves. In the face of difficult international relations, that make us fear losing control, we could say that we have had enough of experts; we could listen to voices which offer simple solutions rather than the complex process of arguing for change.

These things are, of course, easy to say, but far harder to live – for none of us likes anxiety or uncertainty. I find, time and again, that these two responses (each of them offered by different ways of doing religion) can be reduced to two simple gestures: the clenched hand, or the open palm. In the face of whatever uncertainties we meet, shall we cultivate the daily prayer of letting go, ‘into your hands I commend my spirit’; or shall we cultivate the prayer of security: Lord, make me safe?

When it comes to dealing with anxiety, what is it that we want from our religion? As we approach the communion table, it may be that we will find that a clenched hand makes it more difficult to receive what God would like to give us.

Mark Laynesmith, 15 September, 2019

Image . Anthony Falbo – Be Anxious for Nothing

Gary-Creation

Climate, Catastrophe and Uncertain Hope

Luke 14:25-33, Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Jeremiah 18:1-11

So a few weeks ago, I gave a sermon riffing on two readings; one from Luke with a very angry-sounding Jesus, and the other, a challenging part of Jeremiah, speaking of false prophets. And afterwards I thought to myself.. “thank goodness I won’t have to do anything like that for a while”…. hmm!

So today with an angry judgement-heralding Jeremiah, and an equally angry-sounding Jesus resounding in our ears – it’s tempting to feel gloom. But I want to talk about HOPE.

And even more so, as we begin our Creation Season, and think about the gift and beauty of the earth, and our inevitable sense of unease at environmental destruction… HOPE seems to be a good territory to explore..

But to speak of Hope, I need to speak honestly and realistically… and to do that I need to name the uncertainty I’m sure many of us feel.. Beyond the personal and political uncertainty we are facing of course, we are facing an even deeper existential uncertainty over our actual existence; the planet, children and grandchildren… We have to ask what does Hope actually look like? Or a phrase I use, ‘what are the contours of hope?’

Certainly it feels like we are at a point where there might be no hope… When I speak with young people, ( ) there is a growing sense of hopelessness, of no future… and the effects are devastating; anxiety, depression, suicide. But how can anyone live without hope? We shudder and lament over these stories, (and hear the echo in our own hearts).

And as we are called upon by the folks of Extinction Rebellion and Dark Mountain to face the most uncomfortable truths about our future… It really is quite terrifying… we need to truly shed tears – like Jeremiah – to feel in our own flesh the wounds of the planet. To find words of hope seems to be increasingly difficult.

As Christians we may speak of hope in Christ.. but again, what does that actually mean? What is the shape of such a hope, what are the contours? We know within ourselves that a simple notion that ‘God is in control’, therefore all will somehow be ok is not good enough. In fact, as we witness in American Fundamentalism; (false) hope has become part of the problem, a denial of reality which only hastens environmental disaster.

In the last sermon I spoke of the prophetic tradition present in both Jeremiah and Jesus. And how Jesus is accessing and re-issuing the same kinds of challenges as Jeremiah did almost 600 years earlier. And in the same way, using bold outrageous, almost absurd, language to illustrate the kingdom of God, false priorities and misplaced dreams…

Jesus and Jeremiah convey their message in forms of Art.. Jeremiah in poetry; Jesus in parable – and both in actions.

So let’s begin by looking at some art…

800px-Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog

This is ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ by Caspar David Friedrich, a 19th C. German romantic landscape painter.

The romantic era emerged from a growing disillusionment with an increasingly materialistic society. A widespread idea was a strong belief and interest in the importance of nature. This is particularly felt in the effect of nature upon the artist when surrounded by it – and preferably alone. Romanticism correlated with a new spirituality – particularly a mystical relationship with nature – revealing the grandeur and awe of the natural world.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1817) shows a solitary figure (not Boris Johnson!) standing on a rocky outcrop gazing out over a vista of hills and mountains veiled in a sea of fog. The fog stretches out beyond the mountains eventually mingling with the cloudy sky. Writer Ron Dembo says that the Wanderer is a metaphor for the unknown ‘future full of risks; indistinct, hazy and obscured by fog. ‘How should we travel in this mysterious landscape?’ We – like the wanderer – yearn for the same vista where we can see a future beyond the waves of cloudy uncertainty and mystery..
That uncertain future seems to be where hope stumbles.

We often think of God like this too; Jeremiah implies that the potter is in control; defining history, shaping events, moulding us, making everything fit in some elusive plan..

But doesn’t such an attitude render us powerless? If God is in control, then is there anything we can do to affect the future? (that question challenges how we understand God to be..)

So dare I make an alternative suggestion…

When a potter works with clay, or a sculptor works with wood or stone, or when an artist picks up a brush, they never simply impress their idea onto the clay, the canvas, the wood or the stone… (I might dare to say something about music!).

Although there is an intention – there is also something of a negotiation; artists tell of how the developing work speaks to them, how they take care to listen and engage with their chosen material..

At St Ives, I read Barbara Hepworth’s words ‘One must be entirely sensitive to the structure of the material that one is handling. One must yield to it in tiny details of execution, perhaps the handling of the surface or grain, and one must master it as a whole.’  (A bit like this preacher daring to speak of God!)

This understanding changes how we see the potter in Jeremiah… and therefore suggests an alternative way of thinking about God.. the potter works with the clay, yielding, feeling, intuiting, tactile feedback evokes form.

Similarly, some (Process) theologians now speak of God as almost ‘ahead of time’ not ‘above time’.. evoking possibilities from us, inviting and discovering with us, working out ways of being… (Let that idea settle for a moment..)

God adapts, responds, and invites possible futures to emerge.. Calls us (from the future) to become more fully ourselves, more human, working with our possibilities and potentials. Is this the living fountain?

We began the service (deliberately) with the reading from Deuteronomy, as YHVH – dressed in cloud and fire – opens such possibilities to the fledgling Israel.. “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse – now choose life..”
The potter responds with the clay to discover an unknown potential – It’s open, its invitational, its relational…

Its maybe a radically different perspective – and it might be helpful!

Charles Causley’s (Cornish) poem ‘I am the Song’ points to this inversion; reflects a deeper entwined relationship…

I am the song that sings the bird.
I am the leaf that grows the land.
I am the tide that moves the moon.
I am the stream that halts the sand.
I am the cloud that drives the storm.
I am the earth that lights the sun.
I am the fire that strikes the stone.
I am the clay that shapes the hand.
I am the word that speaks the man.

(Which is nice Gary – but I thought you were going to speak about Hope?!)

And that’s the problem.. though I want to speak of hope – I cannot speak of hope in any concrete way.. when we are thinking about the fragility of the planet and our eco-system – how can we speak with hope which doesn’t sound delusional; or even worse, complacent, when the world is already suffering?

We do need to be truly careful and truthfully realistic… yet somehow we find ourselves held by a holy story which draws us towards hope. An elusive, hard to grasp, possibly weak, yet insistent hope in the future.

Which maybe is what Jesus is echoing under the shock of his inflammatory ‘family-busting’ words; He seems to be suggesting… hold on to nothing that you normally would. Hold on to no thing at all, even the things you hold most dear. Could that include our ideas of ‘hope’ – if such ‘hope’ is merely a denial of reality?

Jesus is once again the shibboleth, the dividing line; his way challenges us to our core.. and inspires us to look again with a new understanding towards God. It’s like he’s saying hold on to nothing you can make or contain – because God is beyond anything you can make or contain. So too Hope is beyond anything we can make and contain…

But hope is something we can still discover, encounter and live with…

We’ve heard a lot from Jeremiah these past weeks; but a few chapters later (Jer.32) comes the odd detail of Jeremiah buying a field from his cousin.. (Babylonian troops were already well across the border…. All hope was lost, but suddenly every things seems to pause as Jeremiah buys this field in occupied land, and honours a Levitical law).
What’s going on? Like our looming environmental catastrophe, the world was already ending for Jeremiah and for Judah… but he enacts an ordinary, straightforward transaction…

Maybe what we fear the most is not the end of the world – but changes to our world. The writer Rebecca Solnit says that, “people have always been good at imagining the end of the world, which is much easier to picture than the strange sidelong paths of change in a world without end.”

So … I’m sculpting too; trying to piece themes together in a way that makes sense for us, and maybe – just maybe – reveals some of the contours of hope in the face of devastating uncertainty…let’s conclude;

Jeremiah’s vision of the potter working with the clay offers the suggestion that God working in creative partnership with people and creation; For example, for one moment imagine the idea that regeneration emerges even from fire-scorched forests… nature adapts. God’s life insists with and within nature and even the cycles of destruction and new life (Is.45:1-8).

I’m not saying we don’t fight climate change – on the contrary; But maybe the fight we begin with is to hunger and embody hope… even as we face reality.

Jesus seems to be challenging his listeners that the cost involved in following him is everything.. ‘none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions... (Lk. 14.33) (our security and comfort mechanisms)

Instead Jesus invites us to participate in an evolving and unfolding future.. a future full of uncertainty. We cannot guess what the future might be – and we cannot view a future from some high vantage point …

Instead we find hope by living in hope, living as if hope is already with us.. and hope finds us – maybe in the smallest of acts, (as Richard said last week), even as small as waking up in the morning to face a new day – to choose life.

It makes no sense – and maybe that’s the point. Jeremiah buying a field makes no sense.. it’s utterly absurd. But he chooses to; he chooses life – not death;  and so affirms hope in the future, in humanity, in God.

I cannot tell you what hope looks like for you, (or me!).. we cannot name or point to hope. The contours only make sense when we walk them and feel them under our feet.

But we must come off the mountaintop vantage point.. (we cannot see the future). Instead we descend into the misty valleys; we must face our world, (not rise above it). We are invited to roll up our sleeves with the potter, to enter the uncertainty and to co-create a new emerging reality; one of compassion, humanity and (hope).
GS Collins. 8th Sept 2019

The Poor invited to the feast - Luke 14:15-24

The fountain of living waters

Jeremiah 2:2-13, Luke 14:1,7-14

There can be few more painful experiences than that of a broken marriage. I am very aware that there are people sitting here today who have had exactly that experience. Those of us who are still married, or who are single, can imagine the grief and heartbreak, or have seen it at first hand from our friends. That is exactly the place which our OT reading in Jeremiah 2 takes us. The passage invites us to feel the pain of the breakdown in relationship, in effect the marriage, between YHWH, the God of Israel, and his chosen people. We’re talking several hundred years BC. Listen to some of the language again, God speaking in the first person: ‘I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness…What wrong did your ancestors find in me, that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?…my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord…my people have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water’.

 

Although these words are nearly 3000 years old (that’s the iron age) written to the ancient people of Israel at a time way before cars or airplanes or mobile phones, there is a strong resonance with the world today. The ancient Israelites abandoned YHWH, The Lord – fell out of love with him, if you like, and begun worshipping and serving other gods – gods of war, fertility, wealth, national pride – and then wondered why it all went so wrong. The problem was that the values they then honoured, the things they aimed for, worked for, hoped for, began to change. ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’, said Jesus (Matthew 6:21). No longer sharing, but keeping; no longer taking just what is needed, but more than that to satisfy greed; no longer welcoming the alien, but rejecting him; no longer justice, but injustice. Does that have a contemporary ring? The people who should have been showing the world what its Creator is like – loving, caring, sharing, forgiving – became just like everyone else. In this painful passage from Jeremiah, I am drawn especially to the last verse: ‘for my people have committed two evils: (firstly) they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and (secondly) dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water’(13). A ‘fountain of living water’ – what a beautiful image that God chooses to describe himself! Let that image of what it could be like soak you, fill you, refresh you. This is what God is like! Not a stuffy old man with a long beard, not a policeman in the sky, not a killjoy but like a fountain of cold water on a steaming hot day. Something to plunge into, to play in, to drink deeply of. And living water – water that gives life, that sustains life, that is alive itself. We mustn’t get ahead of ourselves too far, but a few hundred years later a Jewish carpenter turned preacher met a foreign woman at a well and told her, ‘…those who drink the water that I will give will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ (John 4:14). Alas, that wasn’t what happened. Instead of accepting the offer of divine grace like a fountain, flowing and bubbling, they turned to the worship of other things instead – like looking for another source of water to keep them alive – but instead of the flowing, clear water that YHWH offered, they built stagnant cisterns, water tanks – but even then, they leaked. They could not satisfy.

Last week, as some of you know, I once again visited Taizé, in the company of Ben and Dan Harwood and Alison Peyton. What can I say? It’s a corner of the world where the ‘fountain of living waters’ is flowing. It’s partly the loveliness of the community of people that gathers there. I led a group of young people  from Germany and the Netherlands in Bible discussion each day, and asked them at the end what impression of Taizé they will take away with them – most of them just enjoyed the openness and unconditional friendliness – the way you can talk to anyone about anything, enjoy each other’s company in the way you can’t necessarily back home. Then the beauty of the times of prayer which takes place three times a day in the huge church, the singing, the silence. Young people staying long after the prayer had ended in the evening, often to the early hours, singing, praying and maintaining silence. Added to that is simplicity of living – there is certainly no luxury at Taizé, but who cares? Suddenly you’re not distracted by stuff. There is for me, and for many, a deep sense of the presence of God in that place. It is, simply put, how it should be.

Many people, myself included, are finding the current state of affairs in our country and the world deeply depressing. Beyond all the shenanigans over Brexit – and that’s bad enough – is the stark and undeniable reality of climate change that we are now actually experiencing with too-hot summers, and alternating drought and torrential rainfall. The reasons for climate change are easy to understand – our over-reliance on fossil fuels on the one hand and deforestation on the other. How has all this come about? The reasons are many and complex, but human greed, the desire for more stuff is at its root. Where did we get the idea that the only home we know, that is, planet earth, could be plundered? By using the word ‘greed’ we actually frame it in spiritual terms by using the word ‘greed’. Greed is a form of idolatry, of serving and loving a false god. You might remember from a sermon I preached in Lent that it’s also one of the 7 deadly sins. And it turns out to be a cracked cistern, a water-tank with a hole in it. In the end, it doesn’t work.

At the beginning of the Jeremiah passage, God, through the prophet, speaks of Israel’s ‘love as a bride’. The whole picture of marriage – of YHWH as the husband and his chosen people as the bride – is wrapped around the mutual love of one for the other and the promises made – the covenant between them, in biblical terms. Once Israel let go of that, it was downhill for them. Let’s come back to love. When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment in the law he replied without hesitation, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Luke 10:27). He was quoting the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus in the OT (Deut 6:5, Lev 19:18). We tend, I think, to focus on the ‘love your neighbour’ bit, perhaps because it’s easier to get hold of. It’s something I think that our church is pretty good at, on the whole. But loving God? This is where I want to land this sermon, for it is the first and greatest commandment and its loss was at the heart of the Jeremiah passage. Placing the love of God first in our lives will orient us in the right direction. Before Rosemary and I start on a walk or cycle ride, we always try and make sure that we start in the right direction! Doesn’t always work, but we’re so much less likely to get lost!

When we love a person, it involves all of us. It certainly involves our hearts – the warmth we feel for him or her, the desire to be with them, to spend time with them. It will involve our bodies, too: we may actually feel love as a warmth in our body, we will want to touch and be touched, to embrace. We will also want to do things for that person, sometimes even putting ourselves in harm’s way or at personal cost for them. It involves our minds as we talk and exchange ideas, share experiences and think about ways our love is expressed: ‘with all your hearts and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’. It’s easier to understand those words when we put them in human terms. Loving God is very, very close to this. In fact, any expression of love comes from God, since as we are told, ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). But, like human love, we will need to give this time. If our relationship with God has become a bit mechanical and dry – do this, believe that – then we may need to refresh. The last time I preached I talked about the need for silence, and silence is a good place to start: the clearing out of our preoccupations and anxieties and giving space for God. Taking a walk in nature – forests, mountains, rivers is a good place to meditate and pray: to be still, to watch and see. There is something called ‘seeing again’, when you look at something and then really see it. Again, this is a bit like falling in love: you see someone and then you really see them and love them. In a way, that kind of seeing actually is love. So to see perhaps a flower, and then to ‘see again’ – to see its beauty, its colours, its frailty and to allow yourself even to love it – and then to realise that this is an expression of the Creator who fills and sustains all things and to love him – now we’re getting there. The love of the natural world, to each other, is very close to the love of God simply because the natural world is an expression of God. We won’t want to trash or plunder what we love.

It is said that the principal Christian virtues are faith, hope and love (see 1 Corinthians 13:13). Personally, I’m finding myself a bit short on hope these days so I’m trying to focus on love – which St Paul tells us is the greatest of these anyway. Brother Roger of Taizé said that in the face of huge problems which it looks as if you can’t do anything about, you should do something even if it’s very small. If our love of God and of all he has made leads us to do something then maybe there is a particle of hope there too.

I’ll finish by mentioning other ways of deepening your experience of knowing and loving God. A retreat is a good place to start, you can have a look at the Retreat Association website. Pilgrimage is another way: the reduction of your life to its bare essentials, just what you can carry on your back; spending time at holy places like Taizé, Iona, Lindisfarne; and engaging with spiritual direction. If you would like to know more about that, please speak to me, or Rosemary or Cathy Rowan after the service.

So, let us be a people of love.

 

Image Credit – The poor invited to the feast, 1973, Jesus Mafa, Cameroon