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Suffering and joy in perfect balance

Matthew 17:1-9

The Transfiguration

17Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’

Suffering and Joy in perfect balance.

I wonder what things made you sad this week, and what things brought joy?

I was struck by the tragic story of 40 year old Caroline Flack, a former presenter of the reality show Love Island and one time winner of Strictly Come Dancing. She took her own life on 15 February in her London flat as she awaited trial for an alleged assault on her boyfriend.

The story reveals a hurting person who appeared to be the life and soul of the party but who struggled with insecurity and who was under relentless attack from the media. It reveals too a world in which kindness is sometimes in short supply, a world where we still advertise excitement and glitter and smiles and good looks as something to aim for, but forget about how that manufactured life consistently falls short of offering any real happiness.

How did Jesus face the darkness of the world that he saw coming towards him as he entered the final phase of his ministry? And how did he prepare his disciples for suffering?

We get a glimpse into the answers to these questions, as we encounter the story of the Transfiguration, on this last Sunday before Lent (look at the liturgical wheel picture).

As we are poised before Lent, similarly the disciples were about to enter their own wilderness as they discovered what Jesus had been trying to tell them; that before the Messiah could enter his glory, he would have to suffer and die.

With hindsight, we perhaps accept this concept, of suffering and glory, better than they could. We know that Peter has, in the previous chapter, been swinging on a pendulum between getting it completely right and getting it completely wrong. He has declared that Jesus is the Chosen One – and that as such he must be protected from the cross. From “you are Peter the Rock…” to “get behind me, Satan”.

Peter’s conundrum is the human conundrum – we don’t know how to square suffering with an all-powerful, loving God. Someone has said that the problem of suffering is the only really important question of apologetics. We still can’t get our head around the idea of a suffering God and we are wary of divine weakness. In our lives in the world we want to skirt around the negative in order to forge ahead with the positive, but Lent teaches us to wait in the difficult places in between, in the wilderness of not knowing ‘what the plan is’; of not having things neatly resolved.

So what was happening on the mount of Transfiguration? Jesus appears very deliberately to choose the inner circle of Peter, James and John and he leads them up the mountain, where Luke’s account says he is going to pray – a small detail omitted in Matthew and Mark.

At any rate, up the mountain they go and things start to get very mysterious, as you would expect up a mountain. Chris sent me pictures this week of him standing at the top of a mountain in Norway called Gaustatoppen, looking out over the brilliant white Hardangervidda, the sun piercing the blinding blue sky as far as the eye could see. He called it ‘utterly jaw dropping’ and it certainly looked it. Even if you’re not a religious person, there’s something about the top of a mountain that is ethereal, even spiritual. The immensity reminds us of our own smallness.

I felt something like that when we took a Canadian holiday in 2014 and although we only got to the edge of the Rockies, about two hours drive north of Vancouver, I felt incredibly over awed at what I was witnessing, very small in significance, and almost nervous just looking up at the mountains.

And that was before my family persuaded me to swallow my fears and get in a cable car named the Sea to Sky Gondola, that swung precariously upwards (it seemed to me) in an almost vertical trajectory towards the summit, at the end of which you hopped off casually and actually walked around on a platform up in amongst some of those awe-inspiring mountains. When I look at photos, I remember how mildly terrifying I found the whole experience. And I can’t say anyone had any kind of transfiguration up there, unless you count my sad realisation that I was probably the least physically brave of all the members of my family, which was a rather humbling experience.

So Jesus takes Peter, James and John into the rarefied atmosphere of Mount Tabor, or possibly Mount Hermon, which is much taller. Whichever mountain it was (and scholars are not sure) we can almost sense the unveiling of Jesus as the glorified Messiah of God as the clouds blow over and it appears that Moses and Elijah are suddenly there talking with him.

And before we look on in doubt, with our scientific mind-set, just take the opportunity, if you’re ever able to, to listen to someone who has lost a loved one, recount the strongly felt presence of that person, even thought they are not with us any more….

…This sense of the thin veil between us and something ‘beyond’ is, by its very nature, very difficult to put into words. But maybe someone will describe how, they felt the presence of their relative or friend when, for instance, their favourite bird suddenly alighted near them in the garden, or when a butterfly flew right onto their hand…

…or when the exact perfume of the deceased wafted towards them during the burial; or when their iPhone randomly chose the exact track they were looking for that spoke of their loved one; or when the clock stopped working the moment their loved one died; or when the Christian doctor witnessed, in a very dark room, the dying patient asking everyone to turn the lights off because it was so bright (all real scenarios I have personally experienced or listened to others recount).

This is just to illustrate that more things go on between the land of the living and the land of the ‘dead’ than we will ever know.

And this is something akin to the disciples’ experience on the mountain top: Moses and Elijah – very much not dead – but having fellowship with their longed-for Messiah just like we declare that we have when we speak of ‘the Communion of Saints’ in the words of the Creed. And Moses and Elijah are actually having fellowship with Jesus because they’re talking together.

Much has been made of poor Peter’s attempt to offer a monument to the moment – his three shelters idea – and how ridiculous it was, but it merely illustrates how out of our depth we are in the face of real mystery. But when they hear God speaking from the cloud the disciples react as normal human beings who encounter the living God; that is, they are terrified.

In that moment, we see divinity and humanity woven into the one experience. They pass out on the ground: Jesus offers them his simple touch and says don’t be afraid. They look up and he is alone; no more Old Testament greats, no dazzling light, no billowing cloud; just a human being offering them kindness.

Of course, they are asked not to tell of their experience until the right time – the right time being after the resurrection of Jesus. Why might this have been? Perhaps because the disciples’ mountain top experience only really makes sense within a framework of resurrection, of life that goes on after death, because The Life cannot be extinguished.

So here we are, about to begin Lent, a liturgical opportunity to examine our lives and be honest with ourselves and with others and God. Honest in a way that hopefully feeds into a world where it shouldn’t be possible for someone to have to pretend everything is fine when it is so not fine that they take their own life in tragic isolation.

The Transfiguration shows us a God who is glorious but who took flesh to face suffering on our behalf and to face ours alongside us. The Transfiguration is a gospel pivot between the life and the death of Jesus. It speaks to the theological puzzle of bringing together the so-called historical Jesus and what Richard Rohr calls the Universal Christ.

As we live our lives of joy and sorrow mixed; as we grapple with suffering whist being assured of resurrection, we enter into the mystery of this story and this reality, this God of suffering AND joy. May this final quotation be an encouragement to us and give us a fresh vision of the God who journeys with us through Lent towards to Cross; and towards final, hopeful resurrection:

‘We cannot escape God, Immanuel among us. God will find us in our homes and in our work places. God will find us when our hearts are broken and when we discover joy. God will find us when we run away from God and when we are sitting in the middle of what seems like hell. “So, get up and do not be afraid”’ (Maryetta Anschutz, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1: p.456).

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Mission

Sermon 3rd before Lent, year A, 09.02.20.

Matthew 5:13-20

Salt and Light

13 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

The Law and the Prophets

17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

I set myself the rather daunting task of thinking about the subject of mission for this Sunday and I hope that it may be part of our ongoing conversation about what we are called to be and to do as a church.

 

Mission is such a large word – and that’s part of the problem. If you start to think holistically about mission, and I think we do need to, it soon encompasses care for creation, the nurture of disciples, and making a difference in the world through social action, as well as a more traditionally ‘evangelical’ notion of ‘evangelism’.

 

The concepts of mission, church and kingdom are linked, but it’s not always clear how. Added to that, as a national Institution the Church of England, like any institution, appears often to be concerned with its own survival, so that subtly, national strategies like Reform and Renewal (the one we’re currently in) can look and feel like little more than shoring up our own structures. We can scoff, but we’d be disingenuous if we didn’t sometimes think about the long-term health of our own congregation. And at National, Diocesan and Deanery level, the Church is similarly concerned, especially as the number of people coming forward for ordination is simply not able to keep up with the percentage of Baby Boomers currently retiring from ministry. In this Deanery alone, 25% of Incumbent posts are unfilled.

 

‘Mission’ means to send and we should probably go back even further than Jesus when we think about its origin. God has a mission, or rather, God is mission. ‘The missio dei’ is a phrase that denotes the mission of God; the idea that mission is a part of who God is, rather than an activity of the Church. It’s not so much that God has a mission for his Church; rather, God has a Church for his mission in the world.

 

Karl Barth was one of the first theologians to articulate mission as a characteristic of God himself. Mission is also implied in Trinitarian theology in that the Father sends the Son, the Son sends the Spirit, and finally, the Church is sent: ‘As the Father sends me, so I am sending you’ (John 20:21). I wonder if you asked all church members to articulate what Jesus’ mission was, whether there would be unanimity.

 

To seek and to save the lost?

To announce the Good News of the kingdom?

To make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit?

A radical inclusive message of love….

These are all slightly different answers you might hear, depending on who you asked.

 

But back to us. If God is already active in the world, mission becomes a case of discerning where God is and joining in. This is the main theme of the Partnership for Missional Church process that many of the Berkshire churches have been involved in. It involves listening to the Word and the world and sensing where God is active in the community. Where is the energy? Luke 10 is a key text – the sending out of the disciples to all the towns and villages where Jesus himself was planning to go – and the instruction to stay in one place when welcomed and wipe the dust off when not.

 

In Whitchurch as we went through the process we practised dwelling in the Word together in all our meetings, and we carried out listening exercises with church members and people from the community to see what made us all tick. Only then did we start to make a plan, which was around the phenomenon of social isolation – and we were hoping to link up with others in the community who also cared about social isolation. Because there are ‘people of peace’ out there who also want to make a difference in the world. In that respect ‘mission’ (in its widest sense) is not the sole prerogative of Christians.

 

So eventually, mission plans may be a good idea. And it might be that having a ‘strap line’ is a good idea too – but the problem with straplines is that they risk ending up being entirely bland, saying little and sounding a lot like all the other church straplines. More on this later.

 

These are all, I hope, good starter questions to help us engage with what God is calling us to be and to do.

 

Does God even have a specific calling for each church though? That’s another question. The book of Revelation seems to suggest that he does. The seven churches and their specific messages in the first chapters of Revelation are very much tailored to individual congregations. Jesus has a living message that is vital to their health and John’s revelation records each one, sometimes pointedly: “you are lukewarm”; “buy salve for your eyes”; and then, more positively: “you hate that stuff like I do”; “well done, you’ve been faithful”.

 

I think God does give specific messages and sometimes pictures as we pray for guidance for our church. But messages and images need to be weighed and discerned, not just unquestioningly accepted, or rejected.

 

An impression of our church that I gained through praying (and I offer this in humility and openness to further discernment) was of a ship that had been somewhat tossed about from one side to another, and that didn’t need pulling any more in either one direction or another (for now at least) but that just needed steadying. When not being tossed and turned, a ship will find its own equilibrium without too much intervention.

 

‘Steadying’ may sound rather unimpressive as a mission strategy, but it takes seriously the need for being as well as doing amongst God’s people. We can’t do unless we can first be: be at peace, be joyful, be present; be imaginative. Steadying can happen very naturally through love, acceptance and generally not being uptight. “It’s okay” is a calming message God says more frequently than perhaps we realise, and I often need to hear that message.

 

Another image that has emerged through prayer is of the Japanese art of ‘kintsugi’. Take a bowl, for instance, that’s been cracked: our inclination is to mend it so you cannot see the cracks, but in kintsugi, the item is mended by glue and resin mixed with precious metals, including gold, which incorporates the damage into the aesthetic of the restored item, making it part of the object’s history. After the restoration the bowl has the capacity to be stronger and more beautiful than the original, and it will be able to hold more than it could before.

 

Hold more depth in worship, perhaps; hold more pain on behalf of others; hold more diversity…these are just suggestions but that may a helpful image to ponder.

 

We are not alone in seeking a way forward for our church. The Diocese has been engaged for three years in forming a Common Vision and even before Bishop Stephen’s arrival mission was always on the cards. We had “Living Faith” under Bishop John and something or other under Richard Harries (before my time). For sure, Diocesan vision is shaped a lot by getting a new leader who perhaps needs to be seen to shape the organization as well as listening to what people are saying.

 

How collaborative are mission strategies, is also a question. My feeling is that all good mission strategies emerge collectively over time and go off in directions that no one was anticipating. Think of the Acts of the Apostles, perhaps better named: the Acts of the Holy Spirit.

 

There is national pressure on Dioceses to have a common vision. There is an upside and a downside to tying yourself to a vision; we can be hopeful or we can be cynical when we read vision statements.

 

It’s a well-documented fact that under the incisive leadership of the former Bishop of London, who championed the “London 2020” vision, decline was halted and London Diocese emerged as a ‘can do’ place where churches were growing and spirits were rising.

 

It’s just that if you begin to collect Diocesan strap lines (and I’m sure no normal human actually being does this) you can start to feel a bit jaded. One blogger I enjoy has in fact done just this and he comments: “As you will be aware one of the major tasks facing the dioceses of the Church of England is to ensure that they have the correct three word strapline or slogan. If we can only get that right then surely the kingdom will arrive”.

 

He goes on to say: “However some of you may be nervous that you are serving in a Diocese whose strapline is rubbish”.

 

He then puts the words from the collective strap lines into a Wordle and summarises:

 

“…If you belong to a Diocese where they say: ‘God transforming communities’, you could not be in a better place. If you are ‘empowering diverse worship’ you need to look for a move” (Justin Lewis Anthony).

 

http://3minutetheologian.org.uk/blog/2012/12/04/getting-the-diocesan-strapline-right/

 

So I hope you know that we serve in a Diocese where we are seeking ‘to be a more Christ-like Church for the sake of the world’, a church that is ‘contemplative, compassionate and courageous’.

 

Which, in a sense, says it all. As this is worked out, priorities around discipleship care for creation, and schools and young people have emerged, among others. So if we’re already seeking to be contemplative, compassionate and courageous, is it appropriate to have a church tag line in addition? It might be. “To know Christ and make him known” appears on some of our literature, though you have to burrow down a bit to find it. It’s a great tag line, but what church doesn’t want to know Christ and make him known? Is it specific enough for us? Or is it too definitive, or is it just plain out of date?

 

Sometimes you come across something that really speaks about the identity of a place or a product, or a company and it actually appears to work: “Sky: Believe in Better”; “Tesco: Every Little Helps”.

 

I couldn’t think of any local church straplines that have been memorable for me, except amusing ones, like the sign outside Stonebridge Church of God, Ohio, situated on a busy main road, that reads: “Honk if you love Jesus. Text while driving if you want to meet him”.

 

Another way to come at it, is to ask what are our values? When asked this question last year, in an imaginative exercise about what might be presented at the 2024 APCM, the priorities that emerged strongest were children and young people; a strong school church relationship; increasing relationships with the other churches and faith centres, and work with teenagers, e.g. them leading services.

 

Under “what we’d like to be known for”, the top starred words were: Welcoming, Caring and Involved.

 

As a relative outsider, who read and re-read the parish profile, I also noted certain words which appeared to describe the flavour of the church here: engagement, generosity, creativity, authenticity, diversity. And being Green.

 

So we already have quite a lot to go on as we talk about our mission. We also have a really great logo – the Spirit hovering above the cross. We could unpack all sorts of important things about that and what it says about us, and our character – who we are – and therefore our mission: what we feel called like to do.

 

And as we talk together about this we can celebrate what is happening already. And important amongst the things happening already is the daily witness of ordinary Christians being salt and light in their contexts.

 

One authentic model for mission is Mark Greene’s from the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, and it fits our reading well. He points out that the average church-goer who is still in work probably spends up to 95% of their time in a working environment where they are already salt and light. They don’t have time to engage with mission projects the church is putting on and they don’t need to because they are in their ‘mission field’ at work. Not that it is their job to go around converting people – their calling is that they are salt. The job of the church is to celebrate and encourage them in this, not bemoan the fact they’re not joining rotas and teams to ‘do mission’ to the people of the parish.

 

As more and more people become disconnected from any form of churchgoing, that Christian alongside whom they work in the firm, on the ward, in the boardroom, in the small charity, in the school, or at a neighbour’s sharing child care, may be the only Christian they know. That’s a sacred calling: to be a good human being in touch with the divine on behalf of others. This is likely to be the primary calling of many of us here in church. And retirees also have natural contexts where they are salt and light to neighbours and people they spend time with.

 

The thing about salt is that it is not the main substance; it is not the meat. It is the seasoning. This suggests that what goes on around us is the main event (i.e. life) and our calling is that we are the salt (not, try and be salt; you are salt). However, salt can use its saltiness, and then it’s frankly a bit useless. Let the listener take note! On the other hand, salt that is doing its job, seasons the whole, and in a time before refrigeration, would be the main agent in preserving the integrity of meat and fish.

 

So we’ve had a whistle stop tour of mission. Beginning in the very character of God, thinking about Jesus being sent and us being sent. Thinking about our Diocese and our church; those who are salt and light at work, and those who have more capacity to think about our immediate environment of Newtown, where we are the parish church.

 

I’d like to end with some bullet points which I feel are already important for us, some of the things that are already proving opportunities for us to be salt and light.

 

 

  • The school as a place where a distinctive Christian ethos is fertile ground for children to grow in wonder, trust and love.
  • The café, a space where there’s more than just physical refreshment.
  • NEWT magazine – salt and light into every home in our parish.
  • Celebrating the causes and charities that so many people here are already involved with, that are making a difference in the world: you know what these are and we give money accordingly as part of our mission commitment.

 

 

And finally some bullet points that we might be able to grow further in:

 

  • Sunday worship that is missional – worship that genuinely touches and refreshes and changes us and says to our neighbourhood: God is really in that place.
  • A growing prayer ministry of some description: Morning Prayer for interceding together; maybe a gathering before the service to seek God’s face and ask him to touch us afresh through the worship? A chance to have anointing for healing during the Eucharist?
  • An new expectation that God is at work and active in Newtown and that there are people out there who we can link up with in local projects to bless the neighbourhood. Residents of the parish – you have a vital role here. “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven”.

 

So, worship, prayer, being salt in Newtown.

 

And the last bullet point breaks down even further: three possibilities have come across my radar just in the last week, as I’ve begun to meet people locally: a walk of witness on Palm Sunday with our neighbours at Wycliffe; an art exhibition to celebrate and say goodbye to the gas tower, and Newtown street party training. These are all possibilities; who knows if the Spirit will kindle any of them into life?

 

And what happens as a result of all these dreams and plans is entirely unknown as yet – and entirely up to God. But be encouraged! You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.

 

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jesus calls fishermen

Sermon 26 January 2020                                                                       Isaiah 9.1-4, Matthew 4.12-23

This week the Davos summit has been in the news, as well of course, as the adventures of Harry and Meghan! I was picking up from the Davos summit that we’re at a kind of tipping point globally, mainly around climate change, but also about how we can manage and regulate an increasingly digital world. There seem to be so many conflicting interests. How far can governments take the lead? What part can big companies play? What, if anything, are we called to do at a local level?

Tipping points are key moments in history. Being alert to signs of the times, as the bible calls them, is part of our calling as we follow Christ. In our gospel reading today we see Jesus’ own alertness.

I wonder if you’ve ever had the experience of waiting at the start of an event, perhaps a race of some kind, waiting for the starting pistol, nearly starting too soon, but knowing you can’t start till the pistol goes off? Then, and only then, do you move. In Matthew and Mark’s gospel the starting pistol for Jesus’ ministry is the arrest and imprisonment of JB. That was the tipping point for him. Reading the signs of the times he senses that this may be the trigger to a whole series of events resulting eventually in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. He seizes a window of opportunity – or ‘a favourable time’ (kairos) to use bible language. He moves quickly, with an urgency and a clarity of purpose. His strapline is short, urgent, and identical to John’s; ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’. In our OT reading Isaiah recalls an earlier favourable time when Israel had defeated the Midianites, an event leading him to anticipate a similar experience in the future. Matthew is doing the same as he quotes Isaiah’s prophetic hope, but he sees the favourable time as NOW! This is God’s timing. Jesus can now get on and do what he has been anointed to do, and he goes for it!

Matthew further underlines this in the call of the first disciples. Usually pupils chose the rabbi they wanted to follow and then the rabbi would decide whether or not they were suitable pupils. Here Jesus makes the choice; he wastes no time waiting to be chosen. He has spent long days in the desert pondering his call at his baptism, considering what lies ahead and almost certainly considering who might join him. In the light of this he calls these fishermen to follow him.

Following a rabbi was a whole way of life. You lived with them, ate with them, learned with them. The aim was to become exactly like them and do what they did. We see Andrew and the others being invited into this way of life. They couldn’t continue in the family fishing business and be pupils, if you like, of Jesus, though it’s likely that they did some fishing here and there during their time with Jesus.

Why fishermen? Why choose fishermen for those closest to you, those who would ultimately lead the Jesus movement? Why not carpenters, or shepherds, or farmers? As far as I know there are no references in the OT to fishermen being called to anything exalted, or anything at all for that matter. Is this the first sign of God’s upside down kingdom with rather unlikely people holding positions of authority? That may indeed be part of the picture. If so, it’s a reminder that those who might seem unlikely candidates to us can turn out to be a good fit for the calling in question. So, why fishermen?

It’s quite likely that some of them were already followers of John B; in our reading from John’s gospel last Sunday Andrew and Peter were being directed by John B to Jesus. So we might assume that these two anyway were already in sympathy with the announcement about the coming kingdom.

They would have been more available than farmers tied to the land during seasons of sowing and reaping, or shepherds needing to watch over their sheep. They had what we might call transferable skills. Their trading in fish would have brought them into contact with a wider range of people. (There were certainly people from Arabia, Phoenicia and Egypt living in Galilee during Jesus’ time). They were more mobile, and their form of transport – boats – would be very useful in enabling Jesus to move around.

There are also other characteristics of fishermen; they would have been used to working as a team – being attentive to one another, relying on each other, drawing on each other’s strengths, noting when one of them needed help. Their work involved lengthy periods of silent watching and waiting together, punctuated by great physical activity. They had stamina, resilience, patience. They could read the weather.

Now Jesus is calling them to draw on these strengths, but with a different catch in view. How do we feel about Jesus calling them to fish for people? They used nets rather than hooks! Nets catch more fish than hook and line. The time has come, people will be responding to Jesus’ message; perhaps he’s thinking that if these men are used to handling nets full of fish they’ll be ok with crowds?!

So, they may be unlikely in terms of the usual choice of rabbis looking for disciples, but they are a good fit for what Jesus sees lying ahead.

As well as all these reasons for Jesus calling fishermen there is this basic prerequisite of repentance. This message, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near’ is referred to as good news (v23). Repentance is good news?! This may sound a little odd to us. (Picture of Justin Welby in Amritsar prostrating himself as a sign of repentance for the massacre carried out by the British in the 19th century). However, the NT understanding of repentance carries with it the idea of turning away from something and towards something/someone else and this is clear in the gospel accounts of those Jesus called – Matthew, Levi, the rich young man, Zacchaeus. There is a physical turning away from, a way of life, a set of habits, so that they are now facing Jesus. They might have had all the right qualifications for being a disciple, but without this radical turnaround they were nowhere. They could not begin the journey. And it was a journey. They did not become model disciples overnight, if ever. As we read the gospels we watch them, not understanding at times, lacking faith, asking dim questions, and then running away when Jesus needs them most.

And even before repentance there was something else. At his baptism Jesus heard the words ‘You are my son, the Beloved’. When Mark records in his gospel Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man he notes that ‘Jesus looked at him and loved him’ (Mark 10.21). I suspect Jesus did the same when he called the first disciples. That look of love he had received, he passed on to his followers. He looked on them and loved them. It’s that gaze of love that draws us towards Jesus and away from patterns of behaviour that diminish our humanity. They could see that he was good news. I wonder if we see Jesus like that?

The disciples were called not only as individuals but also as a working group. It’s the same for us. Individually we turn away from those things, habits maybe or activities or thought patterns that draw us away from God, and consciously turn our faces towards God’s. For most of us this will be a daily activity. We are also called to do this as a group of disciples, as a church. We may want to consider what activities, habits, patterns of thought our church may be invited to turn away from in order to follow Christ more faithfully at this tipping point in our history. What might become less important as we are turned more and more towards Christ? Then, as we remember those strengths Jesus saw in his first disciples we might consider the extent to which we are able to work together. What’s our team work like? Do we work together with some degree of shared consciousness, knowing each other’s gifts, aware of each other’s weak points, attentive to what each of us is doing as our part in a shared undertaking? What is our stamina/resilience like? How good are we at watching and waiting? What resources do we have that may shape what we can offer? What’s our equivalent of the fishermen’s boat? What might be our metaphorical net? How willing are we to share our resources? How flexible are we if, for example, we are faced with a challenge? (eg the disciples faced with 5,000 people needing a meal miles from nowhere!)

Our calling, whether individually or as a church changes over time. The skills, experience, resources we can offer when we are 20 are different from those we might offer at 60. Churches change too as they adjust to changes in their neighbourhood and increasingly now, to global challenges. In his chaplaincy lecture on Monday at the university Neil McGregor asked us what we thought the church should be and do today. He expressed alarm about some of our iconic churches like Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s being major tourist attractions for which a hefty entrance fee is demanded. Who is the church for? he asked. Interestingly, there is a similar question being asked at Davos about the global economy and digital revolution; who are they for? And by climate activists about the earth. Who is it for?

Flexibility would seem to be an important feature of discipleship, or going with the wind of the spirit to use bible language. Reading the signs of the times will demand a variety of responses, some of them rapid, some requiring watching and waiting. Are we ready to keep turning towards Jesus, towards the light, to receive his gaze of love and then to respond to his invitation, ‘Follow me’? And, like him move with clarity of purpose? And, will we be able to do that together as a church?

Christine Bainbridge

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Holy Innocents

Matthew 2vv13-23, Holy Innocents

Christmas 1, 29th December 2019

The last three days have been church festivals. The first two were our church’s patronal festivals. The 26th December is St. Stephen’s day, Stephen Deacon and First Martyr (Acts 6-7). The 27th is St. John’s day, for John the Apostle and Evangelist (St. John’s gospel). We hardly ever get around to celebrating St. John and St. Stephen because they are so close to Christmas. And please excuse me for not talking about them either. Because yesterday, 28th December, is Holy Innocents Day, and our gospel reading is the same as that for Holy Innocents.

 

That reading follows immediately after the Wise Men have visited the Jesus. Our Christmas narrative is a composite of Matthew and Luke: Gabriel appears to Mary in Luke, but the angel comes to Joseph in Matthew; only Luke has the shepherds, and the Magi are only in Matthew. Luke has Caesar Augustus’ ruling the Roman Empire, Matthew has Herod ruling Judea (the Great, 73-4BC, king 37-4BC). Our traditional nativities also have a lot of later material woven into them, and has drifted away somewhat from the plain text of Matthew and Luke. Mary and Joseph were likely from somewhere not far from Bethlehem (Mary was able to go quickly to see John the Baptist’s mother Elizabeth), Josephs family was from Bethlehem, the City of David (because he went back there for the census), and he was a descendants of King David. They would have had relatives there, and the ‘inn’ that was full is more likely the guest room of a relative’s house (the NIV says ‘guest room’ instead of the KJV ‘inn’). This was already occupied, so Mary gave birth in the room at the end of the house used for keeping the animals. They would almost certainly have arrived some time before the birth, not that same evening. (See Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth E. Bailey.) The Magi probably came quite some time later, maybe a year or so after the birth.

 

We generally think of Christmas as a joyful positive festival. Peace on earth, good news to all men. Jesus come down to be with us, Immanuel – God with us, to show us God. It is a fun time with everything looking pretty with Christmas lights and decoration, festivities, carols, lots of good food, presents, a holiday, time with family. We have beautiful music, carols which speak of a Jesus being born, the adoration of the angels, the wise men, and the shepherds. We went with Maya, our granddaughter, to a service at Emmanuel church, Woodley, that contained a brilliant puppet show with a muppet-type nativity song. It was lovely. Maya has been going round the house saying ‘more Jesus’ ever since. (We think it came from the carol line The little more Jesus laid down his sweet head). The only things that mar the mar the traditional Christmas story are the lack of accommodation in Bethlehem (“no crib for a bed”), and the cold weather (“in the bleak mid-winter”).

 

But some carols reminds us of darker events. Unto us a boy is bornHerod then with fear was filled, “A prince”, he said, “in Jewry!”. All the little boys he killed at Bethlehem in his fury. The Coventry CarolHerod, the king, in his raging, charged he hath this day, his men of might, in his own sight, all young children to slay. And these are the events behind Holy Innocents, as in our reading, and only appear in Matthew.

 

Herod was a tyrant, an absolute ruler, able to do whatever he wanted, with no law above him in his kingdom. But he was brilliant but paranoid, infamous for killing those he suspected of plotting against him, including his family and his sons. He was ethnically an arab, who was culturally Greek, politically a Roman, and he had been raised a Jew. He takes seriously the prophecy in Micah about the Messiah being born in Bethlehem (Mt 2v6). He pretends to the Magi that he wants to worship the Christ, gets as much information off them as he can, tells them to come back to Jerusalem when they have found the baby to let him know where he is. But he is racked by jealousy, and prepared to murder any infant that could possibly rise to be king. And it was needless, as Herod only had a couple of years to live anyway, dying of an illness (in 4BC, which is why we generally date Jesus birth as 6BC, the 0BC in the Gregorian calendar being wrong).

 

It is a dark story, and one that does not fit well in a nativity play. How could such a thing be allowed to happen? How could the peace brought by Jesus result in this? Where was God in this massacre?

 

Well, he was on the way to Egypt, entrusted to the care of a normal working young couple. His mother would have been a very young mother, his father a craftsman. He was born into a violent world, and humanly speaking, his safety was precarious.

 

It is not easy to introduce the story of an atrocity into Christmas; it is not uplifting or encouraging. It would rather spoil the atmosphere of the primary school nativity play. But the story is unfortunately realistic, and modern. The world still contains tyrants, violence, poverty, disease.

 

In our country, and generally in the West, we do not currently have to fear war. We are protected by laws, we have a society that cares for us when we are in need – even if it does so imperfectly. This peace is a huge blessing, invisible to us normally, only recognised when we come across the appalling conditions in other countries.

 

Christian peace, though, is not only seen in an absence of conflict. It is not isolating ourselves from difficult situations, shutting our eyes to need, avoiding seeing poverty or illness or distress. It is the strength from God to be a source of hope and help to those in need.

 

I came across an article just a few days ago, I found Christmas the loneliest time of year. Then I started working at Crisis www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/24/christmas-loneliest-crisis-charity. The title is a good summary of the content. It is not written from a religious perspective, but it does express the joy found in helping others.

 

The gift of God to us at Christmas is an encouragement to us to give, to care as God cares. Not to spare ourselves, but to engage ourselves. And Jesus, Emmanuel, will be with us.

 

 

I would like to finish with prayers from the Common Worship liturgy for Holy Innocents Day.

 

Righteous God, your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ dwelt among us and shared our grief and our pain. We pray for the children of our world, that they may grow up knowing love and security.

Silence is kept.

 

We pray for all children who suffer physical or mental abuse.

Silence is kept.

 

We pray for all communities in our world who live with the memories of massacre and gross cruelty.

Silence is kept.

 

We pray for all who are corrupted by power and who regard human life as cheap.

Silence is kept.

 

We pray for parents who have suffered the death of a child.

Silence is kept.

 

We pray for parents and guardians, that they may be given grace to care for the children entrusted to them.

Silence is kept.

 

As we celebrate the coming of the Christ-child, we rejoice in the fellowship of the Holy Innocents and commit the children of this community, our nation and our world to you, our righteous God.

 

 

 

 

Jeremy Thake,

St. John & St. Stephen

Isaiah 63

I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord,

the deeds for which he is to be praised,

according to all the Lord has done for us—

yes, the many good things

he has done for Israel,

according to his compassion and many kindnesses.

8 He said, “Surely they are my people,

children who will be true to me”;

and so he became their Saviour.

9 In all their distress he too was distressed,

and the angel of his presence saved them.

In his love and mercy he redeemed them;

he lifted them up and carried them

all the days of old.

 

 

Matthew 2v13

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

 

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

 

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

 

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,

weeping and great mourning,

Rachel weeping for her children

and refusing to be comforted,

because they are no more.”

 

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

 

21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

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Baptism of Christ

St John & St Stephen’s Church, Reading, Epiphany 2, Sunday 12th January 2020

Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-end.

The Baptism of Christ

 

Today, in the church’s year, we celebrate the baptism of Christ. It may be that it’s not specially on our radar…it’s not Easter and it’s not Christmas, it’s not even Epiphany which was last Sunday. But I love the way that the lectionary, the order of readings set by the church that we have every Sunday, takes us each year to places we wouldn’t necessarily go to and bids us have a look again. And look is exactly what I invite us to do. 3 weeks ago I shared a beautiful picture of the Annunciation – the moment when the Archangel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was to be the mother of our Lord; today I would like to use another painting as a way of literally seeing this moment in our faith history. This painting, by Giovanni di Paolo, was made in 1454 and it hangs in the National Gallery in London. I went to see it this week. It’s small, only 30 x 45cm, 12 x 18 inches. The painting shines with all that gold, and it’s really detailed. I got quite close to it with my reading glasses on and could admire the fine brushwork. It’s one of a sequence of 4 paintings on the life of John the Baptist and formed a predella, pictures set low down in front of the altar.

 

This is not a life-like picture! It’s not like a photo of the event. The artist had clearly understood something of the profound significance and mystery of this moment but instead of writing about it, he painted it. Despite being nearly 700 years old, this picture may help us to encounter this sacred moment, and hopefully to even touch us. We need what we do and say and see and experience here on a Sunday morning – the truths and the beauties – get to our hearts, our emotions and sensibilities to deeply affect us, not just to remain ‘out there’, but to inhabit a space ‘in here’, in our hearts and even our bodies as well as our minds. What do we see? Take a moment now to just look at the picture.

 

So, there are lots of angels surrounding the two central figures with gorgeous robes and golden haloes. The upper tier seem to be in heaven, mostly looking towards the figure of God the Father at the top in the middle, but one at the top left maybe even looking at us. At the bottom left are two people standing chatting – they look pretty glorious though! May be they are wondering what all this means? Which is exactly what we are doing, so we can think of these two as placing us in the scene. In the centre, in the lower half, we can see Jesus standing in the river Jordan, with John the Baptist on the right, pouring water on his head – that is, baptising him. The image of a bird, a dove, hovers over his head, in that space between heaven and earth.

 

Now lets’s plunge into what all this means. Do you see those silver spindles in the top half of the picture? A bit like flying fish? They are meant to be tears, rents, rips, slashes – the heavens, the realm of God and angels, is open! We are seeing heaven and earth in one view. This is a sensational moment. Mark, in his gospel, puts it like this: ‘Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart(Mk 1:10). As a result, in the picture, we see a representation of God the Father. In the gospel reading of course, we don’t see but we hear him. What do we hear? ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’ (Mt 3:17). These words are for us to hear as well as Jesus, firstly so that we can know who Jesus is – the Beloved Son of God, but also so that we can know that within the Godhead, within the mystery of the Trinity, between Father, Son and Spirit, there is love and delight. In the sending of the Son, Jesus, that love bursts out into humanity. We know those words, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…’ (Jn 3:16). I think the artist tries to capture that in the loving gaze of the Father to the Son – and perhaps also we can see that the right hand of the Father is held in blessing – and is mirrored in the right hand of Jesus.

 

These words for Jesus were a declaration of who he is. Jesus the man, the carpenter, the son of Mary, adopted son of Joseph, brother to his siblings, friend and neighbour, refugee, soon-to-be itinerant preacher and healer was (and is) at his deepest, truest level, the Son of God, the Beloved. And his baptism at John’s hand was the declaration of that. Jesus’ baptism did not stand for repentance, it was in a profound sense, his naming.

 

In between the Father and the Son is the dove, the symbol of the Spirit. She hovers between them, caught between them in that force-field of love. In fact, in all 4 gospels, it says that the Spirit of God descended ‘like a dove’ or even ‘in a dove-like manner’ – that is, not exactly looking like a dove but quiet and gentle, not loud and forceful. But it’s OK to stay with the dove! In the first two verses of the Bible, in Genesis 1, it says, ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.’ At that moment, the Spirit, hovering over a formless void, was the agent of creation; this time, hovering over a human being, we are pointed to God’s intention to transform humanity.

 

Finally, we come to Jesus. Of course, the most outstanding thing is that he is naked. Look at the angels in their glorious robes, even John the Baptist with something respectable covering his camel’s hair garments. But Jesus, the Beloved Son of God, is unclothed, naked. His nakedness connects him again with the book of beginnings, to Genesis, to the mythical story of Adam and Eve – both naked as they were made ‘in the image of God’ (Gen 1:26,27). The artist captures Jesus’ vulnerability, his humility, even his aloneness as he stands strangely apart from the clamour of angels around him. He is even separated from John. This is our Saviour and Lord. His nakedness takes us to two other events in his life, one which we just celebrated at Christmas: his birth. It is how he came into the world; it is of course how we too come into the world, naked and vulnerable. And we think of his death on the cross: he was naked then too. Naked and vulnerable, unresisting to all the insults, goading, beating and violence.

 

And He is looking at us. Looking at me, Looking at you. There are lots of eyes in this painting, the Father looking at Jesus, most of the angels looking at God, one looking at Jesus, one just looking up, John the Baptist looking at Jesus, the two on the left looking at each other, but Jesus, naked, vulnerable Jesus, alone looking straight at us. His face is serious. What will you do with me?

 

Probably almost all of us here have been baptised. For some of us, that’s something we cannot remember since it happened to us when we were small babies. Others will have experienced the joy of adult baptism. For infants, baptism coincides with our naming. But I want to say, that beyond our receiving of a name – Richard, Elizabeth, Stephen, Mary – baptism is also a declaration, an affirmation of who we are at our deepest, truest level: a beloved daughter or son of God. We are baptised into the Name of the Trinity: that infinite, wonderful, eternal dance of love between Father, Son and Spirit. That love which was expressed out loud at the baptism of our elder brother, Jesus; and expressed through and in him in his life, death and resurrection. In fact, everything, from creation right through salvation history is to do with love! Our identity as beloved sons and daughters of God is in reality our truest self. Can you hear those words come to you? You too are the beloved daughter, the beloved son? I’m just wondering if that nakedness of Jesus in our picture expresses something else: we see him as he really is, a human being, beloved of God. He was simply a naked man, and then God declared him to be his Beloved Son. The pearl beyond price. Our clothes are part of our identity, aren’t they? They tell something. Rich, poor, office worker, manual worker, policeman, nurse, soldier, priest, lay reader: but strip that away and we are simply human beings. We get down to who we really are. At a still deeper level, transcending skin and bones is our heart, our soul, what Thomas Merton calls our ‘True self’. It is our True self that knows it is deeply loved by God, that we came from God and dwell in Him all of our days. But we need to hear the words, to understand the symbols in order for us to awaken to that wonderful, eternal reality. ‘Thou hast made us for thyself, O God, and our hearts can find no rest until they find their rest in thee’.

 

So much here. Perhaps when you’re at home, having a wash, a shower, a bath, you can use that moment with water to remember your baptism: what it means, that inner truth that you are a beloved child of God. Many churches have a stoup or bowl of water at the door, and people coming in can, if they wish, simply splash a little water on their forehead as a physical reminder of their baptism. It can be quite a powerful gesture, as other physical gestures such as kneeling, putting your hand over your heart, crossing yourself, receiving the laying on hands, being anointed with oil, eating bread and wine, sharing the peace. Try it! Christine and Claire have placed the font, full of blessed water, at the door of the church. So you are invited this morning, if you wish, to do just that. And as you do, pause, open your heart and hear those words: You too are my beloved.

 

Richard Croft

 

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‘The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’

Advent 4, Sunday 22nd December 2019

Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-end

‘The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’

 

‘The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’ I want to use those words as a sort of launch pad into a reflection on the moment of conception of the Christ-child in Mary. I invite you to see the beautiful fresco by Fra Angelico, entitled ‘The Annunciation’, as a lens through which which shows the moment, as the artist imagined it, of the Angel Gabriel coming to Mary and telling her she will conceive and bear a son whose name will be Jesus. The visual sense is a way of getting inside stories in a different way from just using words. This picture fills out that moment which ends with the words of Mary: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’. (Luke 1:38). For this moment is so sacred, mysterious and full of love that we need all of our senses to apprehend it.

 

Of all the many things that I could draw out I will mention just three. First, the simplicity of the painting. Its very emptiness draws us to focus on the two subjects, Gabriel and Mary. Secondly, it would be more true to say that it what is happening between them that is the centre as Mary listens to Gabriel’s unbelievable words, words full of love and grace as God reaches out to humanity with the promise of the Saviour, and Mary gives her consent: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’. Thirdly, look at their hands, crossed over their hearts. This speaks to me of something that is happening at the level of the heart: literally, heart to heart. It speaks too to mutual respect and of love. The pattern made by the hands of a cross speaks of the cross, which one day the child, grown to a man, will be led to. But look again at the shape the hands make. Does is remind you of the wings of a bird? Usually in paintings like this, where the Holy Spirit is mentioned, the artist puts a dove in somewhere. In this picture, it seems that the dove’s shape is made by hands of Mary and Gabriel. Here we have, beautifully captured, this profound encounter between a young woman of maybe 14 – Pathfinder age! – and the Archangel Gabriel. Although we cannot see Him, it is the Spirit of God that fills the space between the two subjects as they lean into each other. Could we say this is a picture of the Spirit?

 

Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’. Can Mary have known where this would lead? She probably didn’t, but something within her wanted to say yes, wanted to give herself, wanted to trust the heavenly messenger. There is a beauty, a loveliness, an irresistibility to God that can make our hearts long for Him. Did Mary know that in her heart, her mind, her body? Did her heart beat faster, her pupils dilate, as she was literally, physically moved? Was it like falling in love? As all this took place, the ‘word’, the Spirit and her consent literally caused Christ to be conceived in her. Deep within Mary, such an overpowering movement of the Spirit took place that she conceived. Do you notice the dual action of the word – that is, in that moment, the spoken word of God through Gabriel, working together with the Spirit to bring about something completely new, fresh and wonderful. The DNA of humanity joined­­­­­ with the DNA of God. In time, she gave birth to a human child, a boy, named Jesus, literally the body of Christ, the flesh and blood home of the eternal Word of God which was in the beginning with God, to reference John’s gospel, chapter 1.

 

 

Outside of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, not so much is made of Mary and yet, she stands as a bridge between God and humanity. She was not, like her son, an incarnation of God; and yet she bore him, it was her ‘yes’ that enabled it all to happen. It should be no surprise that she has been and is honoured. In Greek she is known as the ‘Theotokos’, the God-bearer. We owe her a great deal. We should also listen carefully to her words as they have been recorded. Because we are now the body of Christ. Listen to St Paul, writing to the Corinthian church: ‘You are the body of Christ and individually members of it’ (1 Corinthians 12:27). Mary was quite literally the mother of the human Jesus, the body of the eternal Christ. We now, with all of our brothers and sisters across the world, form that body. In that sense, if this isn’t a bridge too far for any of us, Mary is our mother too. I am trying here to join the dots between God, Mary, Jesus and us. A thick line joins those dots. At Christmas, we celebrate the coming of Christ into the world. But let’s not just see this as something that happened ‘out there’ and ‘back then’ but something that happens ‘in here’ and ‘right now’ too. Let us too be Christ-bearers. What a gift that will be to the world.

 

Let me finish by reflecting on the words she spoke. Those words are there for us too. They can be a prayer for each of us as we embrace our own destiny as the body of Christ, Christ-bearers.

‘Here am I’. Mary was present. Present in that moment. Can we be present with God? With the churning, restlessness of our minds laid to one side for a time just to be present; present with ourselves for who we are, and present for God? It’s not an easy thing at all but it is within us to be that person.

‘The servant of the Lord’. Mary was present with God, and she knew who she was. She knew that the world didn’t revolve around her; she was the servant, the handmaid as some translations have it, of the Lord. It is the best that any of us can be. ‘Let it be with me according to your word’. Yes, I am ready. Let it happen as You want, because you know best.

 

I’m going to finish by playing a piece of choral music that some of you heard at the Chorate concert 2 weeks ago. It’s entitled ‘Dixit Maria’ by the German composer Hassler. Here are the words in Latin and English: ‘Dixit Maria ad angelum, ecce ancilla Domini. Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. Mary said the the angel, Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’. I invite you, as you hear the music, to see again the picture, to reflect on it, and perhaps to make the words your own prayer. But be careful. You don’t know what will happen!

Richard Croft

 

 

 

 

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Advent 3 Sermon – Sunday 15th December

Today, continuing in our season of Advent, as we prepare for Christ’s birth at Christmas, the spotlight is on two prophets – Isaiah and John the Baptist.

It’s over 4 months since I last preached here and I felt a bit rusty as I was preparing for today!  Most of you will have gathered that I had a wonderful time in Sweden, staying in our link diocese of Växjö, and learning Swedish.  I was treated to months of being immersed in what the Swedes call ‘the nature’ – in this case forests of ancient beech and oak, and a huge lake, and learning in a residential school run by the church with a strong ethos of inclusion and community building.  All the regular students, except me, were young adults, most of them studying art or music, whilst the ones in my class came from countries like Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, Chechnya, and we were all learning Swedish.  It was a rich learning experience and one on which I’ll be drawing for years to come.  And I was able to see our daughter Anna and grandson Zac, and drink Swedish coffee which is very good!

I wonder how you felt when you got up on Friday morning to the news of the election results; Elated?  Resigned?  Doomladen?  Hopeful?  Prophets like Isaiah and John Baptist were very alert to their political context and I’d like us to get a sense of that.

Divide congregation into 2 halves – one shouting  Doom! Doom! and the other ‘The desert shall rejoice and blossom!’

Those 2 themes run through all the prophets.  They hear both. They speak from both.  They struggle at times to hold both together.  We’ve been following Isaiah through the lectionary in our weekday readings and can see how he oscillates between the two.  He’s alert to political realities – foreign powers expanding, moving towards his country.   He foresees the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians – a desert – (Doom! doom!) whilst also anticipating a future where once again they will flourish (the desert shall rejoice and blossom’).

The Israelites in Isaiah’s time dealt with the looming crisis in a number of ways.  I just want to consider 3 of them.  They’re fairly universal, I think:

Mime           Block ears and close eyes

They refused to look at what was happening

Mime           Phoning Egypt.  ‘Hi Pharoah, I know you enslaved us in the past, but we didn’t really mind, and now we want to go back

They went back to some bad places, old habits, seeking help in the wrong places

Mime           Drinking from a beer bottle

They escaped into drink, partying and a fantasy world of pleasure-loving gods and goddesses

So let’s look at how Isaiah deals with these responses.

Refusing to look at the difficult stuff.

Like all the prophets he wants us to really look at what’s happening around us and see it clearly.  This past year, globally, we’ve all been urged to do that in relation to climate change.  In some parts of the world our deserts are expanding rather than turning into pools of water.  More and more we are being told we can no longer turn a blind eye to the signal that floods, drought, forest fires, and plastic-congested seas are sending out about the health of our planet.  Our eyes and ears need to be open.  We need to be courageous enough to look at what is happening, globally, locally and also personally.

Going back to old places/habits

Isaiah challenges their interpretation of the past, of their history.  Did they enjoy slavery?  Who actually helped them?  God or Pharoah?  Who had the real power?  God or Pharoah?  (See Isaiah chap 30)  What we draw from our past influences how we live in the present.  Most of the students in my class in Sweden had experienced trauma of some kind.  Several had been victims.  Adjusting to a new life where there was freedom was a relief, and also a challenge.  When things are difficult, which they often are, trying to start afresh, to feel at home in a culture different from your own, it’s tempting to feel that the place where you were a victim might be better – you know what to expect; it’s familiar.  Slavery in Egypt can seem more attractive than the long journey through the desert to the promised land.

Distancing ourselves whether through drinking or fantasy worlds of one kind or another. 

Here Isaiah is particularly astute.  He’s saying there are good dreams and bad dreams, or, we might say, there is fantasy or there is vision.  Vision comes from what we know about God from Scripture, his dealings with us and others.  Isaiah draws the vision in the wonderful word pictures we hear in our reading today.  The desert shall rejoice and blossom, no more fear, the end of sorrowing and sighing, everlasting joy….Who wouldn’t want to be part of that vision?

Fast forwarding to John B; he too had been saying ‘doom, doom!’ but also, like Isaiah, sharing a vision, this time of the one who was to come, the Messiah.  Now John is in prison, his own personal desert, and he’s doubting the vision.  Can Jesus really be the One?  He seems an unlikely Champion.  And here we see another strategy for confronting a desert moment – asking a question.  I love John’s directness.  He doesn’t mess about.  ‘If you are the one, tell me!’  Jesus answers in language John will understand, language from Isaiah, language of a prophet.  Look at what you are seeing and hearing.  What does it tell you?

If I’d been in prison I’d probably have sent Jesus a message along the lines of ‘Get me out of here!’  On the whole we’d rather escape from desert times, and certainly our scriptures hold plenty of encouragement to cry out to God, to ask for help in times of trouble.  Isaiah urged his people to do that rather than turn to more dubious sources of help.  However, in both Isaiah’s time and John B’s time it turned out that the means by which the desert was going to rejoice and blossom was different from what people might have been asking for.  For Isaiah it was Cyrus the Persian, another empire builder who would be God’s means of restoring to Israel much of what they had lost.  For John it turned out that his prison cell was the place of revelation.  The message Jesus sent would have been irrefutable evidence that he was indeed the one.  It’s worth noting what the marks of a vision from God is like, as opposed to an escapist fantasy – human wellbeing, both physical and mental, a flourishing natural order, adequate water, fertile land, and good news for the poor.  Those are good filters for viewing our own political context.

Octavia hill, housing pioneer and later founder of the National trust, was a woman of faith who did just that.  For a time Richard and I worked in an office near London Bridge opposite a Victorian building inscribed with words from Isaiah, from the King James version of the bible.  It read ‘the desert shall blossom as the rose’.  One of Octavia Hill’s model housing estates was just around the corner and the words from Isaiah’s vision expressed her response to the doom and gloom of overcrowded tenements, back to backs with a few communal taps and little or no privacy that was accepted as the natural form of housing for ordinary working people.  Octavia Hill saw a housing desert, if you like, really saw it, and as a woman of faith set out to do something about it.  The words from Isaiah spoke to her and someone, perhaps her, I don’t know, inscribed them on that building that we saw every day, encouraging us to hold on to the expectation that deserts really can change into places of hope.  Octavia Hill designed her estates around green squares where children could play and tenants could meet and hang their washing.  Where there had been just earth or coke paths between the houses now there was green – a literal fulfilment of Isaiah’s vision.

And now we have Greta Thunberg from Sweden who sees both the beauty of the earth and its impending doom, really sees it, if action isn’t taken soon enough.  She has had her own desert places, not finding school easy (she has Asbergers), being so miserable for a time that she couldn’t face going to school and yet it was in school that she was first confronted with climate issues.

So let’s face just one of those personal, local or global deserts that may be pressing in on us, looking at it, listening to it, whilst holding on to the promise that the desert will rejoice and blossom.  And I’d like to suggest that, like John B, we ask Jesus a question as we do so, but a different one from him.  Ask, ‘what are you inviting me to be or to do here?’  And expect some surprises!                                  Christine Bainbridge 15 December 2019

 

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About a tree…

St John and St Stephen, Advent 2A. Isaiah 11:1-10 7 Matthew 3:1-12. December 8, 2019.

 

Isaiah 11. A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

On this Second Sunday in Advent I wonder: What might God be saying to us through the image of a tree?

 

I thought I’d start today with the phrase “I wonder” because (& I don’t know if you know this) it is being used to great effect in our school, St John’s.

 

Wonder, trust and achieve is a school motto and don’t those words strike you as being in the perfect order?

 

Someone has thought this through!

 

There’s a debate in education at the moment about achievement and excellence and those things are very important, but we might want to ask, as Christians, are we more than our achievements and our excellence?

 

A Christian anthropology might want to say that wonder is vital to our identity as human beings.

 

Many adults have lost the art, but children can still wonder.

 

And sociologists tell us that trust is the most basic requirement of a stable existence as we begin our lives in the world.

 

So to wonder, trust and achieve is, to my mind, spot on (forgive the school-based mini digression).

 

So this second Sunday in Advent, I wonder, what might God be saying to us this morning through the image of a tree?

 

We have several images of trees with us here already in church.

 

We have our Jesse Tree on which we hang the stories of our faith week by week – to remind us that we’re part of the Judeo-Christian family tree ourselves. We’re part of the story.

 

We have our Advent wreath (okay, not exactly a tree, but there is greenery and candles…), and it helps us reflect on our journey through Advent as we light a different one each week.

 

Last week we began with the first candle for the patriarchs, this Sunday we think of the prophets of the Old Testament, voices that cried in the wilderness, literally and spiritually, culminating in the last of the OT style prophets, John the Baptist.

 

This Sunday the lectionary is using John the Baptist as a bridge, if you like, between OT prophets and what is coming after. He gets a Sunday all to himself next week!

 

If you recall, although Jesus spoke of John the Baptist as the greatest prophet, he added ‘whoever who is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he’ – so something is developing as we move through the Sundays in Advent, travelling as we are from the old to the new, towards the dawning of the kingdom age.

 

And, continuing images of trees, we have our Christmas Tree! But before we imbibe the spirit of the Christmas tree and its lights and decorations, and its sense of “here we are at Christmas already”, we’re going to linger for a while in Isaiah 11, and meditate on yet another tree.

 

This is not a very pretty tree – it might not look very healthy – in fact, it’s just a stump.

 

You will have seen stumps of trees. It’s not often that when a tree is felled, someone is able to come along and pull out the roots entirely as well, so the stump is left, and often it just sits and rots.

 

In the chapter before our reading, in Isaiah 10, we have images of destruction as Israel’s enemy Assyria is compared to a tree that is comprehensively felled. Nothing will be resurrected from that stump – it has felt the full force of God’s judgment.

 

But from the stump of Jesse, something new is growing: ‘A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse’ (or ‘the stump of Jesse’).

 

This is where we see a tree as a vital image of growth and health. All was looking as though it was over – it was looking final for Israel, because of her unfaithfulness.

 

Sometimes in our lives things can look pretty final. Mental health issues, relationship breakdown, a failure of our physical health, a set back for one of our children; things can sometimes look very final, very much like a stump.

 

Stuck in the ground. Going nowhere.

 

But like those times when you looked down at the pavement and saw a shoot seemingly coming through the tarmac and wondered: how do they do that? – things that God is growing in you, have a habit of coming through anyway.

 

There’s something about a shoot poking out through a stump that speaks to us of hope. There’s ‘a dearest freshness deep down things’, was how the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it.

 

It’s often when the other bits of our life have been hacked away (branches, twigs and leaves, and even most of the trunk) that our true self has a chance to come alive again.

 

There’s still goodness in the ‘stock’ – or the essence of you.

 

If you’re in a situation where bits of your life seem to have been lopped off, and are still being lopped off in a very uncomfortable manner, maybe God is revealing the fundamentals of you, the essence of you, in a new way?

 

So we have the new shoot growing out of the stump, and this is a sign of hope. The worst place we can be in our lives is a place without hope. If you know someone who is struggling, and you only pray for one thing for them, pray they don’t lose hope.

 

So what is the stump of Jesse?

 

It’s back to the family tree image. Jesse was father to David, who appeared to be just the obscure son, the one in the fields, but turned out to be a man after God’s own heart.

 

Despite violence, deception, marital and parental disasters, David, son of Jesse, would become part of the very line of the Messiah.

 

And for the record, there were some remarkable women in that family line as well, including Ruth who wasn’t even a Hebrew, but who left her own people to be faithful to the God of her mother-in-law.

 

God moves in mysterious ways. It’s a cliché but all through the story of our faith, God is in our failures and mess ups and is weaving them into a seamless garment that is taking on the unique colour and texture of our life – not our perfectly planned life that never actually came to pass – but the real life that we’re living right now.

 

So it’s lovely we’re talking about trees and tree stumps and shoots that come out of stumps, and family trees, but as we ponder these Advent readings, of the peaceable kingdom and the call of John the Baptist to prepare the way, it’d be disingenuous not to mention judgment.

 

Preachers used to be exhorted to preach on the ‘four last themes’ during Advent: namely death, judgment, heaven and hell.

 

So, not too much pressure then.

 

I remember being at Douai Abbey in 2007, the year I started training. Henley Deanery Clergy were gathering to hear Stephen Cottrell, then Bishop of Reading lead an Advent quiet day and I was kindly invited. At the outset Bishop Stephen announced his intention only to speak on those four themes.

 

You could see all around the room guilty clergy thinking about all the children’s talks about kind and helpful reindeers that they’d left half written on their desk, and I can tell you it did go rather quiet as + Stephen started his Advent reflections.

 

I seem to remember they contained an anecdote about his son, who couldn’t sleep. In the middle of the night dad Stephen was woken by crying on the stairs. He tiptoed out to see what was taking place and sat down beside his son, and waited till his son was ready to say what was wrong.

 

He waited quite some time. But he was patient.

 

And then haltingly, his son began to speak.

 

And as his son talked, he (his loving dad) listened.

 

Because he loved his son so much, he knew that whatever was said, he would still love his son, and still listen, and still be there.

 

And then Bishop Stephen said: “I wonder if that’s a helpful image of what judgment is?”

 

Giving an account to your heavenly father about what’s gone wrong.

 

I don’t know how that strikes you – intellectually, emotionally – as a definition of judgment?

 

I think at the time (before I had theological training!) I still retained images of eternal judgment being a rather uncomfortable concept, at least for those who reject God’s love, and I thought: surely it’s a bit more fearsome than that?!

 

What about ‘he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked’ (Isaiah 11)?

 

Or, ‘he will clear his threshing floor and he will gather his wheat into the granary and the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire’?

 

The Church of England’s introduction to Advent, in Common Worship, helpfully informs us that the choice of readings ‘challenge the modern reluctance to confront the theme of divine judgment’.

 

Emotionally though, what does it feel like to long for judgment, or a judgment? Ask anyone who’s been unjustly sentenced to prison, and you will find out.

 

Judgment may be less palatable to those whom society has treated rather well, than to those at the bottom of the heap.

 

As regards the biblical narrative, maybe judgment has more to do with imagining and creating a just society than with who is ‘in’ or ‘out’ for eternity…

 

There is certainly a very compelling vision of a just society in Isaiah 11. The innocent get justice; the evildoers get their come-uppance. That’s what we all really want, isn’t it?

 

And the beautiful vision embraces ecology too – in a wonderful reversal of ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’, the lion lies down with the lamb, the toddler plays with a snake without being harmed. In a world where ecological disaster is playing out before our eyes, and many are crying out in an increasingly bleak wilderness, Isaiah’s vision is like a return to Eden.

 

So, to end, what might God be saying to us through the image of a tree that is felled but not destroyed?

 

The house of Israel seemed to have reached a dead end, but God was not finished with it yet! With God, dead ends have a habit of turning into new beginnings.

 

And in our church, may God lead us into pruning and growth in all the right places.

 

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

playmobil- Martin Luther

Christ The King

Ezekiel 34. 11-16,  20-34 ,  Matthew 25. 31-end

Do you recognise who this is?  Apparently this little figure has been selling like hot cakes in Germany.

It was 500 years ago this year that Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and university professor posted a paper to the church door in Wittenberg.  He listed some questions he felt needed to be discussed. What followed was a controversy that split the Christian Church in Western Europe and set off changes that still profoundly affect our life today.  The passions were so strong that for the next 150 years or so Europe was plagued by a series of religious wars, not least events like the Spanish Armada, the Gunpowder Plot and the Civil war in our country in the 1640s.

Luther wrestled with the question of whether or not he was saved, forgiven of his sins.  The conclusion he came to was that it was not by good deeds that he was justified in the sight of God. He was saved by faith or we could use the word trust, in Christ and his death on the cross.  Good deeds could never be enough to gain us salvation, however hard we tried. Faith alone was what was needed, in Latin SOLA FIDES. This was the conclusion he came to after his study of the bible, especially the letter of Paul to the Romans.

Luther was emphasising this – that we cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  We can never be good enough to be forgiven and accepted by God purely by our own efforts.  Our justification, or being accepted and forgiven by God is pure gift.  This is a very important Christian insight. Luther cut through a lot of accumulated church tradition and an insistence that the church alone could pronounce what is the right interpretation of scripture.  And one of Luther’s passions was to enable ordinary people to read the bible in their own language, rather than in Latin.  His translation of the New Testament into German and the invention of the printing press had a huge impact and that is why he is such an important figure in German history and culture.

However, the idea of salvation by faith alone is not the whole story.  The Christian faith is a supple tradition that brings together different strands. Often opposites and paradoxes, like one that I think Gary often talks of – presence and absence. The Gospel reading today paints a rather different picture and different emphasis.  This is sometimes talked of as faith and good works.  Are we saved by believing and trusting God’s mercy and forgiveness, or are we saved by living the way of Christ, living a good life.  But these are not mutually exclusive.  It is more a case of both and rather than either one or the other.

In our Gospel reading we have a picture of Christ coming at the end of time, sitting on his throne of glory and judging the nations.  It is a bit like the sorting process at Hogworts in the Harry Potter films, but on a grand and cosmic scale.  And the main point at issue is how people have responded to those in need; to the hungry, the thirsty the outsider, the sick, those who cannot afford proper clothes.  The question is; did you feed the hungry?  Did you visit the sick?  Because when we do that we are encountering Christ himself.  We are not just reaching out to individual people in need, we are actually responding to Christ himself.  We encounter Christ in other people, especially when we are responding to people in need.

Today’s Feast of Christ the King is observed in the C of E on the last day of the church’s year.  Next week we begin Advent  which is the beginning of a new year for the church.

 

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The hated church

Micah 3:5-12, Matthew 24:1-14

Due to a mix-up too dull to go into, I got hold of last week’s lectionary readings for today. By the time I noticed, it was too late so the gospel reading from last week – that for Remembrance Sunday – is the one I worked with. With its prophecy of the destruction of the temple, the threat of wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution, martyrdom and false prophets, it’s not exactly the sort of passage you might turn to looking for comfort and help, neither is it one of those purple passages that the Gideon bibles point you to in times of distress. But it’s easy to see why it is the gospel for Remembrance Sunday. However, the verse that stands out for me is verse 9: ‘Then you will be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.’ Now listen to this. The source is Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persecution_of_Christians_in_the_modern_eraFiorello Provera of the European Parliament called the Middle East “the most dangerous place for Christians to live” and cited Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who blamed the international community for failing to deal with what she considers a war against Christians in the Muslim world.[7]Former Lebanese president Amine Gemayel stated in 2011 that Christians had become the target of genocide after dozens of Christians were killed in deadly attacks in Egypt and Iraq.[8]

According to Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, in the hundred years leading up to 2010 the Middle East’s Christian population dwindled from 20% to less than 5%….In Egypt, Muslim extremists have subjected Coptic Christians to beatings and massacres, resulting in the exodus of 200,000 Copts from their homes; in Iraq, 1,000 Christians were killed in Baghdad between the years 2003 and 2012 and 70 churches in the country were burned; in Iran, converts to Christianity face the death penalty and in 2012 Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani was sentenced to death; in Saudi Arabia, private Christian prayer is against the law; in the Gaza Strip, half of the Palestinian Christian population has fled since Hamas seized power in 2007 and Gazan law forbids public displays of crucifixes; in the West Bank, the Christian population has been reduced from 15% to less than 2%.’

It would easily be possible to turn to other areas of the world: to South Asia, SE Asia, China, even countries like Mexico and Colombia and find similar stories. Persecution can come from other religious groups – for example Muslims in the ME and Hindu fundamentalists in India; or state-sponsored persecution, as in North Korea or China, where religious faith is seen as undermining the state; or by illegal militia, who target Christians taking a stand against evil, as in Mexico. Here in the UK, and generally in ‘The West’, we live in a very safe haven where we are free to practice our faith without fear of persecution. And by and large, we take it for granted. I don’t want to make anyone today feel bad or guilty, but I do think today’s gospel invites us to step outside of our comfort zone, face reality and take in what is happening to our brothers and sisters in Christ in different countries across the world. In the Creed we profess faith in the ‘communion of saints’ – meaning the fellowship we have with followers of Christ across time and space.  Here’s a short video produced by Open Doors which, in 3 minutes, gives us a flavour of life in the 5 countries in the world in which it is most difficult to be a Christian.

https://www.opendoorsuk.org/persecution/

Let me introduce a good friend of mine, Sukha Debnath. [Sukha is a doctor I worked with in Bangladesh. He and I have known each other for nearly 30 years. He became a Christian from a Hindu background and talks about some of the difficulties he encountered]

 

Hearing the quote, watching the video and listening to Sukha, it’s possible to think that it’s all Christians who are persecuted and everybody else who does the persecuting. Especially Muslims. But we should remember with humility the appalling things that Christians have done to everybody else – especially Muslims and Jews. This year marks 500 years since the German monk Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg in 31st October, 1517, sparking the Reformation. Which in many ways has been a good thing, especially if you count yourself a Protestant in the best Reformed tradition. However, it also sparked about 100 years of war, dreadful violence and persecution directed both ways between various Catholic and Protestant groups and countries. Absolutely no-one came out of this smelling of roses. That was Christians persecuting other Christians!! And it is our history. After 500 years at least we can be thankful that we are no longer killing each other and there is a real warmth between Christian churches of different traditions.

 

So what do we do with all of this? Firstly, I think we should be aware of it. Aware that the church in many parts of the world is truly hated, and suffers greatly. Aware that what Jesus said would happen, is a daily reality for many. Secondly, we could, in some ways, stand with them. That may mean praying for them, or writing letters to foreign governments, signing petitions. There is lots of information about the situation in various countries, and what we can do about it on the internet but I would direct you to three places in particular: Open Doors (who produced the video), Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and Amnesty International. Thirdly, we should resolve never, in any way, to behave in the same way towards people of other faiths or none. We cannot possibly want persecution to ease up against Christians if we do not show generosity of spirit to people who profess faiths other than ours. Finally, we should reflect that despite tremendous hardship, Christians in countries facing dreadful persecution not only hang on to their faith but continue to share it with others, often at great cost. In its first 300 years of existence, the church faced enormous persecution in the Roman Empire. However, the faith continued to spread and grow until in AD313, the Emperor Constantinople declared Christianity to be the Imperial religion. Everything changes.