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RingTheBells

Ring The Bells

Genesis 28:10-19a, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Ring the bells

It’s good to be home. Rosemary and I got back yesterday after nearly 6 weeks covering the leave of absence of 2 Korean doctors at LAMB Hospital, Bangladesh, where we used to work some 30 years ago. Times have moved on, as they do. The project has grown hugely, now employing some 1700 staff in hospital and community activities. Medicine has changed too, and these two retired GPs found themselves frequently out of their depth and it was with relief that their Korean colleagues arrived back from leave and they were free to literally fly away. Thank you so much for your prayers and support over this time, we have needed it.

A couple of weeks in, we came across this short verse from the song ‘Anthem’ by Leonard Cohen. You may know it, you may even think it’s a bit clichéd, but it spoke to us: Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in. It’s funny how a few words can really help, and they did. Instead of being overwhelmed by what we couldn’t do, we did what we could – we rang the bells that still can ring and forgot our ‘perfect offering’. I want to try and tie that in to today’s gospel reading, what is known as the parable of the wheat and weeds.

A parable is a short story that conveys a deeper meaning, often spiritual or moral. Jesus told 46 parables that we know of, and most of his teaching is tied up in them. His stories used images that would have been very easy for his hearers to connect with, even if understanding them was another matter. But the stories stuck with people, as good stories do, and the hearers would mull them over, talk about them, trying to mine the real meaning. Jesus’ disciples often missed the point, and with this parable they couldn’t work it out and asked Jesus directly to explain it to them. I believe that this parable confronts us with a very relevant and up to date question: why is everything such a mess? And what do we do about it?

First though, let’s understand the context. In ancient times, there were often rivalries between farmers. One way of ‘getting back’ at your rival might be to sow weed seeds in his fields. So Jesus is hitting on his hearers’ experience here, and there were probably a few wry smiles and mutterings along the lines of ‘that so-and-so did that to me last year’ and perhaps a few red faces too, of people who had done exactly that. It’s thought that the weeds might have been darnel, and you can see in the picture that they do indeed look like wheat. So, a farmer and his farm hands wouldn’t know until it was too late that this had happened. In the parable, the farm hands report that there are weeds in your fields! Shall we go and pull them up? No, says the master, you’ll uproot the wheat as well. Leave it until the harvest, then we can sort them out. Well, Jesus’ disciples didn’t know what the parable meant, so they asked him to explain it. In a few words, Jesus tells that the one who sows the good seed is Jesus himself; the field is the world and the good seed are the ‘children of the kingdom’; the weeds are the children of the evil one, the one who sowed them was the evil one, and the harvest is the end of the age. He goes on to explain that there will be a fierce and fiery judgement for them. In black and white terms, it’s about how can it be that good and evil exist together, and what do we do about it?

Now I am going to put the judgement bit on the ‘back burner’ for now, and I want to stick with the question, why is everything such a mess? And what do we do about it? First to explain a bit about the ‘children of the kingdom’. The ‘Kingdom of God’ is the dominant theme of Jesus teaching. Despite that, there isn’t universal agreement about what it means. Here’s the explanation, in a nutshell, that at least fits with this story! At that time, the Jews were expecting or hoping for the arrival of the Kingdom to do away with the Roman occupiers and re-establish a King in Israel, a bit like in the times of David and Solomon. That was not what Jesus was about. What the Kingdom, according to Jesus, may mean is that God’s sovereignty and presence was made real in the ministry of Jesus and in those who followed him, the ‘children of the kingdom’. But there’s an ‘already but not yet’ quality to it; although that’s true, the full reality of the kingdom has not dawned. That is still in the future.

So, if the followers of Jesus, the children of the kingdom, are the good seeds, the real wheat, who are the seeds of darnel, the weeds? Everyone else? Other religions? Men with long beards and women with headscarves? Heretics? Islamic terrorists? Climate change deniers? People who don’t agree with us? Atheists?

The first point of this story is that you can’t tell. The wheat and the weeds look the same. The second point is that even when you can, you are not allowed to do anything about it. You simply wait. Who really knows who is a child of the kingdom and who isn’t? Who knows if this person is wheat or weeds? God alone is the judge of that, and the parable tells us that sifting out will happen, just as at the harvest the weeds can safely be separated from the wheat. I used to be so sure who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. And now, I have no idea. Our recent time in Bangladesh, meeting Muslims and Hindus who all ‘walk the talk’ – live lives of sincerity and integrity, who forego considerably higher salaries to do their best for people who have next to nothing – makes me realise that the kingdom may be bigger than I thought.

We Christians – and for that matter, people of other religious traditions as well – we are at our worst when we draw lines, when we say, ‘I’m in, you’re out’. When we make subtle or not-so-subtle judgements like this, and then start to act on them, we fall into the trap of the farmer’s servants who wanted to start ripping up the weeds right away. It’s too soon. We risk our own downfall by failing to behave as children of the Kingdom. And the King, like the farmer in the parable, is patient.

On a large and horrible scale, we can see the folly of drawing lines between people being played out in the Middle East and then across the world in London, Manchester, Paris, Nice, Madrid, Berlin and New York by misguided people who have been overtaken by an ideology that sees the world only in terms of black and white and believes that it is their role to enact the judgement of God on people they deem to be ‘out’, however violent that is. And then there’s the knee-jerk reaction of drawing our own lines. That reaction is behind the travel ban in the US, and closer to home, creates pain amongst communities and individuals who do not share our way of life. This is not the way of the Kingdom. And look, could there possibly be a clearer proof of how destructive pulling up the weeds can be? Just think of what is politely called ‘collateral damage’, the vast numbers of innocent civilian casualties as various military powers – including our own – attempt to ‘root out’ terrorism. ‘Root out’. How ironic.

The Kingdom of God can be an uncomfortable place. The rules we play by are different. In his parables, Jesus lays before us simple stories that paint a different picture. There’s a temptation to think the parables are purely a sort of tale with a moral, a bit like Aesop’s fables. They are much more than that. The parables each have a twist, a point where the story turns towards the unexpected, not at all what the listeners were thinking might happen. In this parable of the weeds and the wheat, it’s at the point where the farmer’s servants come charging in, breathless with the announcement that an enemy has sown weeds in your field and just look! I guess at this point the farmers in the crowd listening to Jesus might have expected him to say something like this, ‘Go and find that enemy and bring him here, I will deal with him! And get to it, get rid of those weeds from my field!!’ In fact we don’t hear a word about the enemy, and the servants are just to do nothing and wait until the harvest, because it was so much the opposite of what they expected. Just what kind of a farmer is Jesus? I wonder if that’s why the disciples couldn’t understand the parable at first. What kind of a doormat is Jesus, letting his enemies walk over him like that? Can we even see here a prefiguring of the cross? For Jesus let the story play out in his own life, he did not fight his enemies back, going to his death which turned out in the end to be not the end.

This is the Kingdom. The sovereignty, the rule of God, manifest in the life and ministry of Jesus, is not played out by going for the enemy, or by drawing lines: ‘I’m in, you’re out’, or by trying to uproot those we perceive to be ‘the enemy’. No, we are to continue doing what wheat is supposed to do: stand straight, grow, and bear fruit. Sometimes we will find that very frustrating and paiful. It is difficult to be faithful, to hang on, in a world with so much mess and violence and pain.

So I come full circle. I know it’s a bit trite, a bit of a cliché, but these words of Leonard Cohen’s contain a profound truth, a message to us, the wheat struggling to grow in a field full of weeds. Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.

 

Richard Croft

 

 

 

Yoke-Presentation!

The yoke is sunny side up.

Gospel Sermon. Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

I wonder how you like your yolk – Sunny side up? Flipped? Anyone for the oil splashed across?

But hold on, are speaking about a Yolk, or a Yoke?! (no yoke jokes please)

A Yoke is a burdensome tool. A way to carry heavy loads or to pull working animals together in order to pull a heavy load.
(In Jewish tradition it’s a grace to have the Torah put upon you as a Yoke, Bar-Mitzvah)

But today i want to ask, is Christianity a burdensome religion?; Is religion a weight to carry?

Often when I tell people I’m a Priest you can see that creeping incredulity in the response, ‘why?’ – ‘why give up so much, why adopt archaic rules to your life? Why put yourself through so much …. hassle.?’

I imagine I’m not alone in this, you may have experienced something very similar. For Christians gathered here this morning the view from ‘the inside’ seems very different to the view that many people have of religion from ‘the outside’ – it’s not for me, all that … religious stuff.

Maybe that’s fair enough. What does the Church look like from the outside? What do we seem to suggest our priorities are? Is there even a remote way those priorities chime with ‘the real world’? Why are we here?

I recently had a conversation with a young person, who simply couldn’t see why Christianity would be relevant to her life, she was a passionate young women; committed to education, family, to global politics, to sport and to music and festivals. The idea of ‘adopting religion’ seemed utterly alien. Like taking on some form of life from another time….

Yet it’s an irony isn’t it.. (I wonder if you might feel the same), watching something like Glastonbury footage, or participating in Amnesty International campaigns, or great art, or the Gay Pride march, and thinking, “that’s where I sense passion and justice and imagination too – and that passion is what connects (this person) to God”

That’s me, my perspective – it’s not universal. Jesus suggests here that it’s different for different people how they understand and respond to God. “God is all these things and none of these things”, (pseudo-Dionysius). God is not contained; God calls cajoles, inspires and invites. There is no right way, there is only Jesus’ way, where rules do not oppress or exclude – a way of passion and love.

Yet Jesus says he has ‘come to bring life – and life in its fullness’, (John 10.10). The life he seemed to suggest, (as far as I can see) is a life of passion and commitment. A commitment to wonder, to awe, to the divine, (who we call God – but others don’t); a commitment to other people, (especially the poor and the oppressed), a commitment to life—to all life—which is so deeply passionate that he was prepared to die for all of life, (and to return it in a surprising way).

But the Church through large parts of its history seems to have taken that life – and made it dull!
The life marked by the avoidance of fun, bad fashion, and cultural malaise? If we want to respond to God by giving things up – that’s fine, but if we feel somehow obliged, or pressured to – then something is wrong.

What does it mean to live as Jesus inspires us too?

Service to the poor, the hungry the oppressed – certainly. To live a ‘good moral life’, possibly. To help others.. well of course.. earlier in Matthew we see where Jesus deepest priorities lie; “blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

Christianity is deeply practical, it is a ‘doing religion’… But before all of the things we might do I believe Jesus is calling us to simply live! To live is the greatest thing we can do!

But how to live? This passage seems to point to two very different responses; “Wedding Music and Funeral Music”

John came before Jesus to point the way to Jesus, but John was wild, harsh, scary; his was a voice from the wilderness, calling, cajoling… but everyone apart form his most determined followers thought it was too hard – too harsh. John’s way was not about the rules of the Pharisees or religious leaders – certainly not. But he was about renunciation of worldly pleasure; his was a wild-eyed, passionate, fervour… he must have a demon!

But then Jesus came in an almost opposite way; food, drinking, enjoying hospitality, hanging out with all kinds of odd people – the wrong kinds of people!

In contrast to John, Jesus seemed almost frivolous… yet of course we do see moments when fervour emerges, the wild-eyed passion is there and usually in confrontational moments with oppressive authority figures. Yet even here, Jesus’ confrontation often takes the form of subversion, parody, mischief and satire.

Jesus’ frustration is that people want neither; – they prefer to complain or stand at a critical distance.

But he is saying something different to us; whichever way we choose to do it – we are to live life fully, ‘The Glory of God is a human being fully alive”, (St.Iraneus)

The Pharisees and scribes gave a heavy burden to people with religious rules, (who was in/out etc.), they shut down life. .… but Jesus simply offers an invite “Follow me”; the ‘rest’ he speaks of is a rest of salvation and liberation from such things. The reign of God to live fully and do—as best you can—the things he talks about; (even those things which are often less than clear!?!); those who are blessed, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are weary, they get it; and maybe in the smallest ways we live that too.

The gospel liberates us because it’s an invitation to life. I am convinced of that. And a different kind of life – based on a different way of seeing the world. “God’s wisdom, however, is shown to be true by its results.” Jesus brought liberation healing and announced the coming reign of God in the everyday. The call is to live; to discover life, to welcome life, to embrace its many sides – the good the bad, the dark the light, and to give thanks. I’m not suggesting self-obsessed individualism though – certainly not – to live fully is also to live together, and so there is a restlessness written into the script; for community, for love, for justice – it becomes political, it becomes social, it becomes exciting!

I just don’t get the caricature that Christianity is a set of alien rules; (well ok!) I find it odd when I see that look in the eye. Of course there are demands and obligations but they are about loving and living together… people are demanding, love is demanding. However, in the end we see that the other brings life as a gift. – coming to church is an obligation – to one another and to attend to wonder to God, but that obligation sets us free! (Kierkegaard and the ducks.)

For me Christianity is about diving more fully into a life with God, the divine, the impossible; diving into questions, thoughts, inspirations and hopes. It’s easy (trans. good, kind) – but also.. most definitely not easy!…. For it means facing more honestly the hard questions of life – not avoiding them. It is about taking the hand of the one who says “follow me”, and doing that tentatively in a way which embraces life as much as he; to dance before a sunset, to sing songs under a starlit sky, to feel that ‘umph’ when you are moved by a painting, play or film; the ecstasy of music; to weep with those who weep, laugh with those who laugh, to mourn with those who mourn. To live sensually, bodily, and with com/passion.

John Witcombe spoke two weeks ago about the Eucharist; saying we bring our lives to this table – gifts, broken and shared. Yet in this breaking there is an intimate exchange with God; we give our lives away and they are given back to us; fuller, richer, deeper; blessed, loved and affirmed.

And that includes our darkness too; we can hide ourselves from God, bringing only ‘the good child’ to the table, but God calls us to be confronted with ourselves; all are welcome – even the shadows; all are welcome, all are transformed.

 

God Says Yes To Me | Kaylin Haught

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

There are many ways to live in response to God. Jesus shows that the ‘task’ we face is really, simply, the task to live – as humanly as possible. The ‘yoke’ is the shared ‘gift and call’ of being human – together; not bordered or hemmed in by religions or ideologies, but liberated by God to break out in a loving exuberant response to life.

Love God, love others. (Love the wonder, love our shared life). I wish there was more I could say… but I think that’s it!

Gary

series-f

The meaning of the magic hands

Guest Speaker: The Very Revd John Witcombe, Dean of Coventry Cathedral

Gen 21.8-21, Matthew 10.24 – 39

Gary’s First Communion

I’m delighted to be here today, to be part of this awesome occasion – awesome for Gary, for all of us, for God who comes amongst us and becomes present in our midst in a particular, a real (tangible) way in this communion we are soon to share.

Many of us here have been privileged to share with this extraordinary man though many years of journeying to this stage. Some of you will have walked the journey for longer than I have, but my first encounter with Gary was around 1995, over 20 years ago, when a very long haired young man turned up on my doorstep in Uxbridge, West London. We had both been told that we would enjoy meeting, and sitting down together was rather like putting a match to dry kindling as conversation immediately took off into areas of exploration, mystery, wonder, excitement, possibility … out of which some of my most precious and stimulating experiences of creating and leading worship emerged.

Over the years of love and friendship, conversations turned increasingly towards ordination – and the Tiny Tea tent at Greenbelt was witness to increasingly urgent questions of ‘could I’, ‘should I’ – do I really believe enough? That of course was mostly me – Gary’s vocation was never seriously in doubt. And over the years his wonderful and precious family have continued to shape and direct that vocation, and to ground it in its own context.

So here we all are, ready for something new. Gary will speak words of offering and blessing, and those of us who dare will receive the precious life of God afresh into our mortal bodies. All are invited, by the way – there are no barriers imposed upon us here.

What’s going on? What has given Gary ‘magic hands?’ What’s changed since the service yesterday afternoon?

Well, everything and nothing. The ministry that Gary has as a priest is not ‘his’ – it’s Christ’s, and Christ has committed it to the church. The church, in its discernment and wisdom, has recognised that God has called the church to ask Gary to be one of its representatives, to bring that ministry to life – to make it real and present, here and now.

Sometimes we imagine that ordained ministers are God’s special envoys, a bit like mini Terry Waite’s. That a priest is the direct representative of Christ. That’s quite a dangerous idea: it places too much responsibility on the individual, and not enough on the church. It’s the church as a whole that are the body of Christ, the church as a whole which has been given Christ’s authority to absolve, to bless, to break bread in his name. Gary’s task is to speak the words – to move his hands – but they are all our words, all our actions, given us by Jesus Christ himself. And it’s his task to help us never forget that – to lead and enable the church to be the church, the body of Christ.

Sometimes that won’t be easy, Gary. It won’t have escaped your attention that today’s readings reflect the reality of conflict in the human and Godly family. All too often, the conflict we have to bear as ministers is within the Christian family, not outside it. Sometimes we are responsible. How and why is that? How come that the peaceful Jesus, meek and mild, comes out with such extraordinary statements as those in the gospel today – I have not come to bring peace, but a sword?

There are many reasons, and over the coming years you will experience and sometimes suffer many of them. Perhaps the key now is the constant difficulty of keeping God’s family outward facing – welcoming, embracing, including. It’s always a struggle to welcome the person who presents as an outsider, who may become an insider, and through whom we change. The church tries to offer a model of how to live for God and others, and someone who suggests that the way we have learned to live for God, perhaps even the way we have believed, is not, after all, the only way – maybe not even the right way – is never going to be an easy, comfortable thing to hear.

To talk to Gary is often to be disturbed, stretched, embraced, by truths which seem somehow just out of sight. It does appear to be his particular and delightful calling in the life of the church – to bring colour, surprising and different patterns, love and joy into sometimes dusty corners.

When Gary takes the bread in a few minutes, as we gather around this altar, in this holy place, let’s thank God not only for him, and for Rachel and all the family – but for one another, and the word wonder of ourselves and God’s work within us. As he takes the bread, perhaps we can see in it signs of our lives, and all that we have done with them, made of them, offered afresh to God to be broken open again to his light. As he takes the wine, mingled with water, can we see it as signs of all that we have lived through – the joy and the pain – transformed in the love of God to reflect his passion for us and the world. As he has already spoken words of absolution, and as he comes to speak words of blessing, may we know ourselves known and loved and held by God, and filled once more with his life and light for the world.

Above all, may Gary’s ministry help us to be the church that Jesus calls us to be, to the Glory of God and in the life and light of the Holy Spirit.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.

Trinity-Slides

Trinity – “The One Who Cannot Suffer is a Loveless Being”

Trinity Sunday

Isaiah 40.12-17, 27-end, Matthew 26.16-end

May I speak in the name… of the mystical Trinity; Father Son and Holy Spirit; Creator, Liberator, Sustainer; the one, the three, the many; the immanent – the economic; the divine dance; the crucified God; the endless relationship, the dance of atoms; quarks, protons, electrons; plants, planets angels, and God. The love that invites, welcomes, calls us to participate; that sends us out; the love that baptises our humanity in the task of being human, and surround us in an ocean of holy love.

As an ordained minister it’s funny, (and challenging) to discover what people presume you to be about… we’ve spoken before about the Magpie; the recipient of all kinds of projections, folklore, superstition etc. I am often told what I believe by other people, only to then throw them off balance by telling that I don’t believe those things at all! “No I’m not against homosexuality, yes I do know what Grime music is, no I don’t believe in a seven day creation, I do believe in climate change, I don’t know why God allows suffering, and no I’m not sexist.…”

Often I am also told “well you believe in a higher power”.. (well that’s more straightforward isn’t it?).. I mean we might – in this church – be tempted to agree to ‘believe in a higher power’.. but I have a confession to make. I don’t.

I really don’t believe in a higher power.. in fact ‘I’ needs a cross, ‘believe’, needs a cross, ‘higher’, needs a cross and ‘power’ needs a cross… the whole statement I totally refute. And on this day, Trinity Sunday it’s a good day to come clean and make my confession known… and to explain why it is the Holy Trinity that makes me deny my belief in a higher power, and may might inspire you to do the same!

It’s the classic curate’s sermon; the test of one’s mettle.. how can they explain this infinite mystery in a fifteen minute sermon. It’s usually the point that three ropes, or an egg, an ice cube or some clover gets taken out and used to explain things… But actually, they don’t work.. the metaphors are weak and distracting, (plus often heretical!) so sadly I wont be trying to explain the Trinity this morning… what I want to suggest is that the Trinity is not for us to understand…the Trinity is God. We cannot understand God, as the Isaiah passage so eloquently reveals, but the Trinity yet provokes us to live richer, deeper and more vivid lives; we are invited to participate in the Trinity of God, and to share what Jesus is talking about in his commission.

If this is unfamiliar language, or sounds daunting, don’t let it be. The Trinity is the way we describe God as both one God and Three persons; Father Son and Spirit. It is—I believe—the most exciting thing about Christianity, it is where the distinctive and compelling vision of faith emerges.. it is within the Trinity that we find our energy to face some of the most challenging issues of our times. Why we have a ‘Trinity Sunday’ seems so odd, when every day, every moment, every thing is entwined in God’s self-giving relationship.

So let’s step back briefly into the very early beginning of the church and ask where did this idea of God as three in one emerge? (Hold on to your hats – this is a whistle-stop tour!)

The Mediaeval theologian Anselm speaks of Christianity as “Faith seeking understanding”. And that is how the early church began it’s work. “Father Son and Holy Spirit” are only mentioned twice in the Bible, yet the teaching of Jesus, the rumours of the Hebrew Bible and most importantly, the lived and prayed experience of the early church began to reveal a Trinitarian understanding of God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It took 400 years, (and a shed load of arguing) to (roughly) agree, but it was the work of Ireneaus, and these guys—The Cappadocians—who finally developed a clear theology of God in response to the question, “how can God be one and three at the same time?”

Their work was stunning really, and we repeat a lot of it in the creed which we will soon say together; all of God is all of God, all of God is involved in the life of God.. The father creates, the son creates, the spirit creates – or saves, or love, or inspired or tenderly hold us like a mother to a child. Let’s think on that for a second; we speak of the Spirit of Christ, or the Spirit of God, but we can equally speak of the Christ of the Spirit… what new images might develop in our faith and life if we can imagine Father Son and Holy Spirit as equal and mutual but different..

Furthermore the Cappadocians developed these words; ‘eternally begotten’, ‘proceeding’… ways to say that God has always been Trinity; there was never a Father before the Son.. Christ is begotten of the father—but eternally.. always begotten, and the Spirit too, proceeding – always.

What the early church was struggling to achieve was a way to explain; to define the ‘Essence’ or ‘Being’ of God. What the Cappadocians gave them was a language to express this;

God is one essence (ousia) existing as three persons (hypostases): Father, Son and Spirit.

But to develop a Doctrine is different to believing, and to seek understanding is different to believing. Although a doctrine of the Trinity emerged, it was a doctrine for a mystery, (for the Cappadocians, a love that flowed and binds together). As much as reason was applied, the Trinity remained beyond the grasp of understanding, beyond knowledge.

It wasn’t until the enlightenment era that things started to evolve again… Culture often influences theology… and around the 16 & 17th century, belief in absolutes truths began to dwindle; The place of experience and subjectivity began to grow, as did thought about humans as individual, self-determining people, and how we might begin to think of a ‘Divine Being’. This too began to influence how we understood God as Trinity.

Four significant thinkers in the modern age have affected our thinking. The father of modern liberal theology Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote a huge volume on theology and left the Trinity to almost an afterword. ‘it is not part of the lived Christian experience’, and therefore irrelevant to most Christians – he said.

Yet Karl Barth, (you may have heard of him!), set himself in opposition to Friedrich and began his even bigger work, “Church Dogmatics’ with a full treatise on the Trinity.. This is how God chooses to reveal Godself… and that’s it – don’t worry about experience – just deal with it!

It was Karl Rahner who suggested that what we experience of God, might be the same as who God is; using a technical term, ‘The Economic Trinity is the Immanent Trinity”.. We can begin to glimpse that whatever divine intimacy exists as God relates to Godself, we are also enabled to experience that in prayer, action and thought.

Jürgen Moltmann – to whom we will return a little later, was to have a major impact also. But let’s remember what these thinkers were doing was still an attempt to define the ‘Essence’ or ‘Being’ of God. It was still an examination of God, a way to describe the nature of God.

So lets get back to my confession about a higher power. We may already begin to see that this self-giving, mutual relationship of God to God contradicts the idea of an unchanging higher God. The Cappadocians were struggling to form a theology that could respond to Greek philosophy, (which understood God as higher, un-moving and unchanging). The foundations they laid enabled John of Damascus to use the term ‘Perichoresis’ as a way to speak of a ‘Divine Dance’, an eternal, giving and loving inviting. A relationship not enclosed – but outward facing.

Theology lags often behind philosophy however, and the thought that God is somehow higher – the legacy of Greek thought – remained deeply influential.. However, through existentialism, the idea of the person began to change from an individual self-determining unit to a relating self, from me to we… we began to understand as caught in a circle of relationships, that we are because of others around us. “I am because we are”. So this affected theology – finally.. An individual self-contained vision of personhood, (‘persona’ means mask), sees the world—and God—very differently.

It was Jürgen Moltmann who may have most deeply affected our present thinking about the Trinity. Moltmann experienced the horrors of war, but also the hospitality of the British as a POW. He also had to come to terms with the horrors of the holocaust in his home country. He picked up on an old phrase from Martin Luther, ‘Deus Crucifixus’, ‘The Crucified God’, to point to something truly compelling about the Trinity. If Jesus has died on the cross and suffered human pain, then Father and Spirit has suffered too. The cry of “My God, why have you forsaken me” is eternally present within the Trinity; a rift, a tear, a constant ache. A voice of suffering humanity, and indeed all of creation, speaks within the Godhead, and God is understood as embodying weakness and vulnerability, as well as resurrection hope.

“The one who cannot suffer is a loveless being” Moltmann.

U2’s Bono at Love Manchester last week said something similar; “grief will not end, because love does not end.”

So Power, and Higher Power are deeply challenged by a deeper thinking into the Trinity, and this too is where Belief comes into question. Because in the end, we are not invited to believe in the trinity, we are invited to participate in the Trinity.
Rublev’s famous Icon, (and Michael L Radcliffe’s reinterpretation – below) shows an open inviting table.. but I want to suggest we are all icons of the trinity in our outward loving, and giving, and living.

Trinity-RadcliffeIt has been suggested that the three points/characters of the Trinity could be removed and instead we simply recognise that our worship and our lives focuses on a divine relationship. The relationship which holds the universe together has icons everywhere; in diversity and unity; in planets and stars; in atoms and molecules; and in young people and communities gathered together in Manchester and London to say ‘we will continue to live, and to laugh, and to love, and to welcome others despite the fear of violence and hatred’.

Icons of God’s loving relationship emerge in feminist theology, disabled and queer theology, black and liberation theologies; where ‘norms’ and ‘binary divisions’ break down. The Trinity is saturated in exuberant lavish passionate love and overflows into life.

So my confession stands.. (you don’t have to take it on board yourself – it’s simply a suggestion), a chance to say something profound and meaningful about faith in the strange of times; to ask again what does God really mean to us – what does God provoke and inspire in those inside and outside the church;

‘I’ really don’t ‘believe’ in a ‘higher’ ‘power’.
But instead, maybe, our confession would say ‘we’ ‘participate’ in ‘vulnerable’ ‘love’.

Endless Trinity; beguiling mystery, enthralling, inspiring and provoking– invite us always to delight in the wonder of God, to turn our gaze outwards… and to hear once again these words of Jesus; to go into all the world, participating and inviting others into God’s vulnerable love.

Amen

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Beyond the Rules

Sermon Deut.30.15-end, Matt 5.21-37

If, like my mother, you were divorced and then remarried you may have been shifting in your seat at Jesus words about committing adultery with your new partner. If you found yourself aroused by a sexy photo of a favourite actor or actress you may be feeling alarmed at Jesus violent words about pulling out your offending eye. If you lost your temper with a family member this week you might be alarmed at the threat of hell fire, and so on.

In our church calendar we are starting to gear up towards Lent and the readings set for today reflect that. In Mathew’s gospel we are part way through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Matthew pictures Jesus sitting on a mountain, like Moses, and teaching his followers. In our OT reading Moses is instructing the Israelites. His aim is to get them to ‘choose life’, to live according to those commandments given to them in the desert – the 10 commandments; God’s rules for life giving relatedness to himself, to others and to the earth. Jesus is pictured as another Moses. He wants his followers to choose life. They are to lead the way for others, just as God had intended Israel to do. Just before this he’s been telling them that they are like salt and light for others. They have a high calling. Now he gets down to the nitty gritty.

For myself as I sat with this passage of scripture I was disturbed on two counts. First because the talk of cutting off your hand or pulling out your eye sounds like the worst aspects of Sharia law. Secondly, this week especially, because this kind of language can encourage the kind of abuse that was reported in the media of a Christian leader who saw it as his task to beat the wickedness out of young boys. I want us as followers of Christ to grapple with what looks like harsh teaching. So today, I won’t be doing the equivalent of tucking you up in bed with your teddies (if I ever do that!).

You are probably all aware that there is good religion and bad religion. The line between the two is often very fine. It’s easy to distort aspects of any faith, twisting them ever so slightly so that they then skew the whole. And we all do this to some extent because we home in on those aspects of our faith that best please us or fit in with our politics or temperament. We can’t be totally objective when we come to scripture; we see it through the eyes of the person we are. Having said that, we are encouraged to develop alertness, to have eyes that see and ears that hear, to use bible language.

Jesus teaching here is partly about developing this alertness. The violent language is a way of getting across the importance of what he is saying. Exaggeration of this kind was characteristic of the teaching style of rabbis in Jesus time. When elsewhere Jesus speaks of hanging a millstone round the neck of someone who leads astray children or the vulnerable we don’t take it literally, we understand that he’s making a point. Here, too, he’s not advocating literal amputation of offending limbs but underlining the importance of what he’s saying. This is not Sharia law.

So what is he saying? It’s here that distortions come in. The probably small distortions you and I make and the much bigger ones that abusers make. Part of the problem is that we think small. We just want to get by. But sitting on the mountain side with Jesus is to be drawn into a bigger picture. It’s rather as though he’s saying that being human is a heavenly calling, far grander than anything we had imagined, and now is the time to enter into that calling fully. The disciples had their rules for life – the 10 commandments –and doubtless many of them, like the rich young man, could say that they had kept them from their youth, so what more is there? Jesus is saying that they have to inhabit the rules fully. Only that way can they see the glory of God’s intentions for humanity. His example of divorce illustrates that. Divorce was easy in those times. It was something only a man could do, and for the most trivial of reasons. A wife was one of a man’s possessions. The implication of what Jesus says here is that marriage confers a higher status on the woman and requires a correspondingly higher standard of behaviour from the man.

The act of murder doesn’t come from nowhere, it starts with murderous intentions inside us, anger very often. This is where alertness comes in. Follow the trail; stop it at source and be ruthless about stopping it. If being unfaithful to our partner starts with lustful thoughts about another, then be ruthless about stopping these thoughts at source. Let’s notice that this is something we do ourselves – it’s not something that Jesus is asking others to do to us. Unfortunately a distortion the church can make and has made is to act as a moral policeman for others. Remember Jesus saying that we deal with the plank lodged in our own eye before trying to remove the speck from someone else’s.

That still, however, leaves another distortion. Jesus is asking us to be ruthless with harmful thought patterns. Where does being kind to ourselves fit in with that? From the very early days of Christianity there were those who inflicted physical discomfort or pain on themselves as a way of letting their bodies know that they were subject to a higher authority than their physical needs. St Aidan, one of the Celtic saints, was said to have stood waist high in the waters of the north sea in winter for hours as part of his monastic discipline. Aidan is one of my heroes in the faith, but I wouldn’t be copying this particular habit. St Benedict, the founder of the dominant model for monastic life in the west, counselled against excesses of this kind, emphasising instead the importance of balance in the practice of our faith.

Jesus himself did not inflict pain on others or on himself. It’s clear, though, that he faced internal battles (temptations in the desert, Gethsemane) and that his followers would too. It’s also the case that he was tortured to death on a cross and that in our baptism we are invited to die with Christ before rising to new life with him. We may expect suffering as we follow Christ but he doesn’t invite us to go looking for it.

So, there are several distortions that can emerge from our interpretation of scripture, all leading to bad religion; one is that we take an unhealthy interest in the shortcomings of others and set out to correct them. Another is that we may unduly punish ourselves for our own shortcomings. Or we seek the most difficult and painful path for ourselves, seeing that as the way of sharing Christ’s suffering on the cross. Some signs of bad religion are excesses, secrecy and blocking our relatedness to others.

Like all distortions they keep us from recognising who we are in God’s eyes – beloved, heavenly(!) human beings. They keep us living in a shed when our true home is in the light and space and warmth we see as we sit next to Christ on the mountain side.

Of course there will always be times when we have angry feelings, or lustful feelings or the desire to harm others, or any number of other destructive thoughts. What Jesus is encouraging us to do is to be alert to this. So we say, ‘Ah yes, I can recognise you and I’m not following you.’ Rather like one of those computer games where you have to thwart the enemy intruder at every point. This may involve some concrete action, like sorting out a disagreement we have with someone before matters can get out of hand (v23-24). Or not visiting certain sites on our computer.

At this point we may throw up our hands and say, ‘I can’t be on 24 hour alert to all those impulses driving my behaviour. Jesus sets the bar too high.’ You’re right. The call is an upward call and we soon realise we can’t manage it alone. Even Stephen Covey’s ‘The 7 habits of highly effective people’ won’t get us there. Good religion is when we look at that landscape in front of us with Jesus next to us and see more and more that it is grace and mercy. It cannot be earned, manipulated or consumed like a product. It can only be received as a gift.

 

Christine Bainbridge, Feb 2017

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The Gift of Light

The gift of light: Matthew 2:1-12

I wonder if you are using any of your Christmas gifts today? Anyone own up to wearing a Christmas or other item given at Christmas?

This is one of my treasured gifts I was given at Christmas – Sue calls it my dog harness! It’s simply a useful way to distribute the weight of the saxophone across the shoulders and prevent it damaging my neck.

It might seem strange we are talking about gifts today when Christmas might seem a long, long time ago.

Last Friday, church celebrated the feast of the Epiphany and the story of visitors bringing gifts to Jesus. This marks the beginning of the season of light in the church year. Each of the gospel stories over the next few weeks, such as Jesus’ baptism and the wedding at Cana, have this common theme of light. They are all moments of epiphany, shedding light on the true nature and purpose of Jesus. Today we are looking at how this gift of light reveals the remarkable generosity of God at work: a gift for all to share.

The details about the visitors bearing gifts to Jesus is very sketchy. Many of the Christmas cards you may have received last month might have looked like this one, with three kings on camels following the star to the stable. But we don’t really know if they were kings, wise men or Magi, or how many there were. And it’s unclear whether they visited a baby in a stable or, what seems more likely, an older 18 month old Jesus in a town dwelling.  What we are told is that these are visitors travelling from the East. The Greek word used here for ‘East’ is anatolai meaning ‘the rising’ or from the place of the rising sun. So we have the people of the rising light, being guided by the light of the star, to visit the king of light. It seems to be emphasising a point here! These people of the rising sun are the first of the Gentiles, or non-Jews, to worship Jesus and demonstrate that the gift of light is for everyone. And this is a theme that Matthew takes throughout the gospel, up to the very last section, where the disciples are sent out from Galilee to make disciples of all nations. The gift of light is for everyone, not for an exclusive membership. It’s a generous gift of life for all.

In my family, one of our most treasured possessions is a gift that was originally given to my grandfather. It’s a bloodstone signet ring, weathered by the years, but was a gift that literally saved his life. My grandfather was serving in the navy during the first world war’s largest naval battle, the Battle of Jutland. At one point, his boat was hit by the German fleet and he was flung into the icy cold water where many thousands of sailors sadly drowned. One of the boats threw out a rope to my grandfather, but it was too slippery for him to hold onto, until the signet ring was able to grip and give traction with the coils of rope. Ever since, our family has treasure it as the gift that saved his life.

In our gospel reading we read of the gifts that the visitors bring Jesus: gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh fit for a king. But the focus of the story is on the extraordinary gift that God has given to us all in the person of Jesus.

Later in the gospel, Jesus said of himself: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” It’s a gift that shows the extraordinary generosity of God to us, freely given without any conditions and without any restrictions.

And it is this gift of light and life that stands in stark contrast to so much else we face in the world.

Here is a photo that’s been given the title ‘the three modern wise men’ and you may recognise them. They are Obi Wan Kenobi, Gandalf and Dumbledore, the wise old heroes from Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. What they have in common is how they act as symbols of light against the rising darkness; the threat from the evil Empire, Sauron and Voldemort. You might have seen the recent Star Wars film, where a small band of rebels fight against the rising darkness of Darth Vader and the Death Star. Or you may remember the famous scene in Lord of the Rings where Gandalf with his staff of light confronts the Balrog with those immortal words: You shall not pass!

The generosity of Jesus’ gift of light and life was challenged from the very beginning. If you read on in the gospel past this story of the visitors from the East, you’ll hear about the bitterness and horror of infanticide, of a powerful leader prepared to kill innocent children in a desperate attempt to hold onto power. It could be a scene from Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, where the force of light seems to be encountering almost impossible odds to survive against the coming darkness. On one side are the power and might of ruling authorities spreading the darkness of mistrust and evil, on the other side are a small band of shepherds, visitors and a young baby.

How do we respond to this challenge of the rising darkness?

You may have received a number of Christmas newsletters from friends and family. These can sometimes be lovely to read and at other times can be a bit overwhelming, listing all the great things that have happened to them during the year.

Sue and I were struck by one in particular. It was written with touching honesty about the challenges our friends faced during 2016. What shone through the letter was how they’d responded to the challenge to bring light in their own community, through working with homeless and those in need. They concluded their newsletter with a well-known quotation from Edmund Burke that says: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.’

How is God calling us to challenge the triumph of evil in 2017?

Whether you feel the darkness we need to confront is the wilful destruction of our planet, our modern political situation, the way we treat refugees and the homeless or the challenges we face each day at work, home or in our community, we are being called to respond with God’s generosity of spirit to the needs of our world.

It’s this spirit of generosity that was highlighted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in his New Year message. He illustrates it through the story of a refugee called Sabir, that he met in Coventry.

‘I met Sabir Zazai many years ago and I was delighted to have an opportunity to visit the centre for refugees he now runs. He came as a refugee from Afghanistan in 1999, and his sheer courage and ability are extraordinary.

There are people like Sabir all over the country, and they are a blessing to our way of life. They are embracing all that is good. And that doesn’t just enrich their lives, it enriches and deepens ours too. If we’re welcoming to those in need, if we’re generous in giving, if we take hold of our new future with determination and courage, then we will flourish. Living well together despite our differences, offering hospitality to the stranger and those in exile, with unshakable hope for the future – these are the gifts, the commands and the promises of Jesus Christ.’

The light of Christ opens us to God’s generosity of spirit and kindness and the example of how we are to treat one another.

Christina Rossetti, speaks of this generosity of spirit in her famous carol ‘In the bleak midwinter’. The final verse says:

What can I give him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;

yet what I can I give him: give my heart.

 

To end with these beautiful words from an old Scottish blessing about this gift of light and generosity of spirit:

‘May the blessing of light be on you – light without and light within.

May the blessed sunlight shine on you like a great peat fire,

so that stranger and friend may come and warm himself at it.

And may light shine out of the two eyes of you,

like a candle set in the window of a house,

bidding the wanderer come in out of the storm.

And may the blessing of the rain be on you,

may it beat upon your Spirit and wash it fair and clean,

and leave there a shining pool where the blue of Heaven shines,

and sometimes a star.’ Amen

 

Hamish Bruce

8/1/17

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Under The Mercy – Advent 4

Many years, ago, when I was a young boy, I got into some unfortunate company and one Saturday, we lifted a few items without paying for them from a shop. Inevitably, we got caught red-handed. The shop manager said he would call on our parents, and he sent us home. It’s perhaps possible to imagine how I felt. The tears, the shame, the confession to my mother and father. The manager from the shop actually drove to our house and met my parents. I feared the worst – in the way only a child can – but I was shown mercy. I was let off. There was no punishment. Deeply shamed and contrite, I never did it again. I was hugely grateful to the merciful shop manager, and to my parents, for their understanding.

Today I want to reflect on mercy. I have been thinking, in the last two sermons I have given, on the way our faith is embodied in ‘the life we live’. That our faith takes on flesh, in the way we actually conduct our lives. This is not rocket science, but it came home powerfully to me at Taizé this year. What other Christianity is there apart from the one that people see? Brother Roger, the founder of Taizé, wrote this in his Rule of life to the brothers in the community: ‘Be filled with the spirit of the Beatitudes: joy, simplicity and mercy’. In October I considered simplicity, drawing on the story of the rich young ruler, told to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor (Luke 18:18-30) and thought about different ways that might play out in our lives in our relationship with possessions and with relationships. And that being unencumbered frees us up, makes the load of our life lighter. If simplicity might be the framework of our lives as Christians, then mercy is the expression of it.

I am grateful to Brother Émile of Taizé, a French-Canadian brother who spoke about this, and I shamelessly rework his material. It’s called, ‘recycling!’

Brother Roger of Taizé used these three words, joy, simplicity and mercy to keep himself on the straight path. He said this, ‘If we have lost mercy, we have lost everything’. Nothing is important, if we have lost the spirit of mercy’. We sometimes think of mercy as something condescending, like ‘pity’. But it carries more the sense of something that is freely given, not constrained, it is generous, and loving. Think of the question that Peter asked of Jesus: ‘If someone sins against me, how often should I forgive him? Seven times? Jesus answered him, not seven times but seventy-seven times’. In other words, forgiveness or mercy should be inexhaustible (Matt 18:21,22).

In French, and Latin, the word for mercy is the same: miséricorde or misericordia. There are two parts to the word, miserere, means compassion and cordia comes from the word ‘cor’, meaning heart. Mercy, therefore, carries the idea of having compassion on someone with all one’s heart. It expresses the idea: ‘From the very inmost depth (or core) of one’s being.’ But it’s a very practical thing, as well as being a feeling. If there is one story of Jesus’ in the gospels that captures the idea of mercy, it is the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). First, the Samaritan was moved with compassion when he saw the man, robbed, naked and half-dead by the side of the road. Then he did something very practical. He bandaged his wounds, poured on oil, put him in his donkey, took him to an inn, paid for his care, and promised to come back. It cost him something, in time and money but he couldn’t do everything: he took him somewhere where someone else does something. So we shouldn’t think just what we do directly, but also what we enable others to do.

I am struck by the way that acts of mercy can be surprising, can cut through negative expectations and give us hope. I saw an interview on TV a few weeks ago of a Syrian doctor who, having escaped Aleppo, was going back because there were so few people to give care for all the wounded. There was a courageous story recently of an ordinary man who came to the rescue of a young Muslim woman, wearing a hijab, who was being taunted on the Underground. Such acts surprise us, against a background of unmercy, and such is the quality of mercy. Some of us saw the film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ a week or so ago. I confess I didn’t really want to go but got dragged along somehow – it’s a film everyone should see. The striking thing was that the acts of mercy – and there were many – were almost all from the poor – those who had next to nothing – to other poor people – who also had next to nothing. It was impossible not to have tears in your eyes. The main character, Daniel, a 60-something Geordie, jobless after a heart attack, met a young single mother, stood up for her at the Job Centre and then quite innocently and naturally, helped her fix things in her flat – the door, the bath, and so on. It was an act of simple generosity, of mercy, so lovely that it took your breath away. Horribly, I was tempted to think there was going to be something pervy here, but there wasn’t. It was just mercy, but I don’t even think that Daniel thought it was that. It was perfectly natural and normal for him to just reach out and help another human being in any way he could. In fact, it was the life he lived. But mercy it was, and it gave hope to Katy, the young woman, and to her two children. On a more mundane level, by chance, Rosemary and I were at the supermarket last week and met Liz there. At the checkout, Liz said to me, ‘Oh I forgot to get something for ReadiFood. Can you go and get a few tins of something?’ I trotted off and got a couple of tins of beans, some pasta and tomato sauce, and put them in the ReadiFood bin. I knew about ReadiFood, of course, but had never thought to actually do anything. Those merciful words of Liz made me go and do something that I won’t forget – perhaps because I actually did it with my body – not just thought about it! It has been really encouraging to witness the interest in the ‘Hope into Action’ Project, around the housing of some women who are homeless. That’s mercy.

But mercy can be stifled. It can get stifled by cynicism, by rushing and not seeing the need, by always thinking it’s someone else’s job, by thinking there’s nothing we can do in the face of relentless negative news stories of unmercy. Even if there is nothing we can do, quite often just being with someone, holding their hand, being silent, weeping with them is a mercy. Not every problem can be fixed.

But in thinking about mercy as something we feel and do, we need to think about why we would do that. And ultimately, it is because we have experienced it ourselves and we know that we too need mercy to live. Mercy is contagious. When we receive love, generosity and mercy, we will want to pass it on, to ‘Pay it forward’ – and by the way, if you haven’t seen the film ‘Pay it forward’ with Kevin Spacey, go see it – it’s about mercy. What we understand about God, is that He is merciful. The word ‘mercy’ and related words occurs nearly 500 times in the Bible. The Psalms are full of expressions of God’s mercy: ‘The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love’ (Ps145:8).

Charles Williams was a poet an author of the last century, and a friend of CS Lewis, author of the Narnia books, and JRR Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings. They used to meet at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, and there is a plaque commemorating their meetings in the bar. He is buried at Holywell cemetery in Oxford, and his headstone has these words on it, chosen by his wife: ‘Charles Williams – Poet – Under the Mercy’. That phrase, ‘Under the mercy’ was a favourite of Charles’ because he was conscious of living, as we all do, under the mercy.

At last, I connect this sermon with today’s gospel. If you can remember, it is the story of the birth of Jesus. It is, in fact, a story of God’s mercy. God’s love for us was such that he took flesh in the child of Nazareth, given the name Emmanuel, ‘God with us’ in the passage in Matthew. We live our lives as Christians, and we celebrate that here today, because of that act of mercy, when God intervened in human history. Because of that, we are under the mercy.

Today, as we form the circles to receive communion, we will sing two Taizé songs that speak of mercy. The first we have sung before (it’s in French) – Heureux qui s’abandonne à toi, ô Dieu, dans la confiance du coeur.

Tu nous gardes dans la joie, la simplicité, la miséricorde. (Happy are those who abandon themselves to you with a trusting heart. You keep them in joy, simplicity and mercy) – which is a prayer of Brother Roger. You may not know the second, so here it is (It’s in Latin): Misericordias Domini, in aeternum cantabo (I will sing forever of the mercy of God). May they be prayers for us as we embody mercy in our lives, which we live under the mercy.

Have mercy on us and redeem us, O Lord, for our merits are your mercies and in your judgement, is our salvation; through Jesus Chris our Lord. Amen.

 

Richard Croft

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The Start of Advent

Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 24:36-44

Imagine you’re waiting at a train station for someone arriving. You’re stood at the head of the platform looking down the concourse beside the recently arrived train with people streaming towards you. You crane your neck to peer above the on-coming crowd, scanning the faces to find the person you’re waiting for. The faces farthest away from you of course are smaller and less distinct, perhaps your eyesight is less good at distances. Once or twice you think you’ve seen your person – but no – it was just a similar hair colour, facial shape, or maybe someone else is wearing a jacket the person you’re waiting for normally wears and just for a moment you’re caught out. Finally you catch sight of them – but even then it take a little longer to see their expression clearly and to read their emotions: how has their journey been? Are they pleased to see you? It is only as they come towards you that clarity appears. It is in the coming towards that clarity appears.

slide02There’s a humorous version of this in a 2013 Specsavers advert: here’s the moment the girlfriend who has been waiting on the platform for her returning boyfriend realizes she’s kissing the wrong man…

slide03Today is the first Sunday of Advent – Advent marks the 4-week period in which we prepare for the arrival Jesus. At the risk of sounding like the John Cleese’s Roman Centurion Latin master from The Life of Brian, I should point out that although ‘advent’ is sometimes translated simply as ‘the coming’’ this isn’t quite right. Strictly speaking the last part, from the word ‘venire’, does indeed mean ‘to come’; but the ‘ad’ part on the front indicates direction – ‘ad’ means ‘to’ or ‘towards’. Advent means God’s coming towards us, and as with my opening image of waiting for someone to come towards us at the train station, this introduces the possibility that the closer God comes to us, the more clearly we perceive God.

slide04This week a young male student dropped into the University Chaplaincy. He wasn’t a Christian but had spent a lot of time reading about Christianity and he was interested. There were some things he seemed to like, but there were other things he found difficult. For example, he’d been reading from the Old Testament a passage in which God is described speaking and he pointed out how overbearing and simply arrogant this God sounded.

I think he expected me to defend this picture of God and he was rather taken aback when instead I agreed with him.

slide05The Bible, I tried to explain, is the record of the long story, lasting several thousand years, of God’s coming towards us. Broadly speaking it is a story in which humans gradually come to see God more clearly. Older parts see God, as merely a local deity for Israel, one among many national gods. These parts of Scripture see God in the form of a warrior, a controller of storms, a provider of food and fertility.

There’s a sense in which these images are partly true in as much as they hint at how God is so much more powerful, more creative than we are; and yet they are also partly wrong – they are unclear: too indistinct.

As I suggested to the interested student, it’s only really in the Gospels, in the person, life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, that Christians ultimately claim to see God best and most clearly. This is what Christians mean by ‘progressive revelation’: as God comes towards humankind we see God more clearly. And so some of our first assumptions drop away: is God a stern warrior figure like a local warlord or the king of Babylon? Well, no.

slide06When God comes right up close actually God looks like Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus God comes towards us: this we can speak of as God’s First Advent.

You’ll have picked up from our Old Testament and Gospel readings this morning however more than a hint of judgement. Somewhat oddly, you might think, the people who put together our readings have mapped onto our 4-week period of waiting for God’s coming at Christmas, readings about God’s Second Coming, God’s final advent in judgement: “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father… Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

slide07Whether we think about the second coming as what happens when we each die, or whether we think of it as what happens in the future, having to think about it at all during the soul-destroying process of Christmas shopping seems to me particularly unfair. Couldn’t we be a little more cheerful – it is Christmas, after all?

But one benefit of overlapping the stories of God’s first coming towards us in Jesus, and God’s second coming towards in judgement, is that we might begin to realise than that they are not unconnected. It is not the case that in God’s first advent we are shown one form of God (a Jesus-shaped God), but in the second Advent we experience a God who comes with a big stick… No.

This week I sat for an hour listening to someone who a month ago left their partner after a marriage of 20 years. All through the marriage their partner had been controlling, manipulative and bullying, and the children having got to a sufficiently mature age, the person decided to leave. Among many emotions, two dominant ones were relief and guilt.

slide08As we talked I noticed in the person’s description a pattern that reminded me of the story of the Exodus – of how the Hebrews once left a place of captivity, to their great relief, and then entered a period of uncertainty: their wilderness wanderings in the desert of Sinai which included much looking back. It took the Hebrews forty years before they entered their new Promised Land. So, reflecting on this, I expressed my joy for the person’s freedom, sadness at what had passed, hope for their future.

The person I was speaking with expressed surprise at such affirmation – that I, a representative of God, might not judge them. I replied that judgment did have a role, but it was the judgment of trying (gradually and carefully) to tell the truth: to themselves about what had gone wrong, to the partner in as much as they would listen, and above all to the children about what had happened. Judgement is not condemnation – it is compassionate truth-telling.

slide09God’s second advent, God’s coming to us in judgment, whenever that might happen, is surely best understood as the experience of truth being told to us compassionately: the truth about how we got it wrong; the truth about who we were when we trying to be someone else; and the truth about how God’s image was indeed in us all along…

Here in pictorial form is ‘the mirror of truth’ – the crack on the left-hand side is reflected in the image of a heart on the other side; which in turn reflects back to surround the crack: in judgement truth-telling is framed with compassion.

There is of course much more to say on judgment than I have time to do carefully here…

But how can be sure of any of this?

slide10Well, perhaps because between the first advent and the second final advent, there is a third experience of God coming towards us. When is this? It is in the daily experience of God coming towards us when we pray…

What is it like to experience this third daily advent? Well, how do you find it when God comes towards you?

My personal experience is very close to a description found in a poem by RS Thomas. He describes God’s coming towards him as like sitting by a pool of water in a forest and waiting for a deer emerge from the trees:

slide11(…God) has the universe

to be abroad in.

There is nothing I can do

but fill myself with my own

silence, hoping it will approach

like a wild creature to drink

there, or perhaps like Narcissus

to linger a moment over its transparent face.

When I am still – perhaps when you are still – in moments of prayer, or in those moments in-between business, we can sometimes find God coming towards us. Of course whether God comes or not is up to God; but when God does come (again speaking personally) I find it is not with flashes and bangs, nor with cataclysmic condemnation for my many sins: no it is more like seeing clearly God’s image in me: ah, yes, there I see Christ and know God’s blessing, but ah – here the image is marred, distorted – I need to seek change…

The eleventh-century French medieval mystic and monk Bernard of Clairvaux wrote about this experience of a third advent like this:

slide12 The third coming is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last. In the first, Christ was our redemption; in the last, he will appear as our life; in this middle coming, he is our rest and consolation.”

When God comes to us today God brings many things – but often I find it is rest and consolation.

slide13Here is another train station picture. Marc Trautmann’s Welcome Home. It’s an unashamedly sentimental one: at the end of a retreat I was once asked to pick a picture of God – this one spoke to me – after a time of being distant from God, God comes towards us and meets us: yes there is regret, a desire to do better; but there is also pure enveloping love, like the father coming towards the prodigal son, like the rush of the baby coming at Christmas: like the coming of truth. First, second and third advents all share something of this quality.

God has come towards us clearly in Jesus

God will come towards us at our deaths in clarity of truth

And God comes towards us now to show us clearly who we are and who we can be. Amen