Saturday, July 28, 2012

5 baskets over – a homily for 8.00 at St Matthew's

With the sudden (if brief) arrival of summer, today feels like a good day to hear the story of the most famous picnic of all time.
We all know it so well – and it may be tempting to just enjoy sitting on that sunny hillside, part of the crowd that listens to Jesus....knowing that we can trust him to feed us when the time comes.
That's good – and true.
We DO need to take time to sit still and listen to Jesus – and he WILL ensure that all are fed, if we trust him to do so.

But there are other parts of the account that are also worth our time.
Jesus worked the miracle – but he needed that little boy, who gave everything that he had with him.
He didn't stop to think about practicalities, to ponder the impossibility of that small packed lunch feeding the assembled multitude...He was instead, impressively impulsive...just the way that younger children always are when you ask for a volunteer.
Sometimes God needs us to be wildly impractical, to allow ourselves to be swept up in his vision, to offer ourselves to attempt the impossible...and always, always, he takes the little that we offer and transforms it beyond our wildest dreams.

But we do need to be obedient...Jesus asked the disciples to get the crowd seated – and they did their part, as did the crowd, before there was any evidence of food on the horizon.
Too often, I fear, I limit God's work in my life by assuming that nothing is going to happen.
Instead of sitting down expectantly, I'm the one arguing about how it can't really work...insisting that really we ought to have a plan, should maybe send a group to buy supplies...missing the miracle by my own stubborn insistence that it cant really happen.
To live in obedient hope leaves the way clear for God to do great things in the most unlikely situations...

And God's generosity is unstinting, limitless
When those gathered on the hillside had been well and truly fed – there were twelve baskets of fragments left.
Jesus took the little that was offered and transformed it into enough and to spare.
He still does...whenever we let him.
You see, we really don't need to view the world from a perspective of scarcity.
So often we live as if we must, above all, protect ourselves and those dear to us.
We plan our living and our giving as if there is not enough to go round – though we know, if we stop to consider, that there is enough for our need, if not for our greed...that even today, it would not take a huge effort to redistribute wealth & resources to ensure that everyone had sufficient.
But we cling on, worried that we might go short...and we are no better in the things of faith – for we assert the claims of our own brand of belief in ways that suggest that we can't cope if God loves others as well as us.
Like a child again, but this time one intent on attention seeking we jump up and down demanding that God notices US...engages with US...over HERE...We're the real Christians, the true Church.......

We forget that God so loved the WORLD – each and every man, woman and child who has ever much that he sent his only Son.
There are no limits.

 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth....

God longs to fill us, as Paul grasped after his own vision expanded to include those whom he'd once seen as beyond God's reach

“that you may be filled with all the fulness of God”

Fulness of life.
Fulness of love.
Love without conditions, limits or end.
Love that enfolds each one of us here.
Love that transforms us...and our half hearted, inadequate offerings, just as a fragment of bread and a sip of wine are transformed through God's grace into His Body & Blood – all that we need to sustain us as we journey in faith.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

"Sometimes it's hard, being a prophet" - Sermon for Triity 6B, Proper

We have a tendency, I think to regard the saints, heroes and heroines in the faith, as people who've got things sorted.
They are the ones who've managed to keep all of the Commandments – even that pesky one about loving your neighbour.
People whose lives are so overwhelmingly full of the joy of the Lord that they float through their days in a kind of glorious golden haze, secure in faith and hope and chock full of love at all times.
Finished products, secure and serene – so focussed on the promises of heaven that earthly struggles pretty much pass them by unnoticed.
If that's your impression, you might just need to think again.
Saints are real people, forthright, outraged, not afraid to take God to task
Saints are people like Teresa of Avila, who exploded one day
If this is the way you treat your friends, Lord – I'm not surprised you have so few of them”

Her words most definitely struck a chord with me as I looked at today's gospel
Jesus says of his cousin
Among those born of woman there is none greater than John the Baptist” but despite this affirmation, things don't exactly turn out well for him...(any more, of course, than they do for Jesus)...The story of his death is one of the most gruesome and disturbing in the New Testament. No easy ride for him.
If that's how you treat your friends...”

Actually, when you're called to be a prophet easy rides are almost unheard of.
Small wonder, then, that most of the great Old Testament prophets resisted their vocation with all that was in them.
Me? speak truth to power? God, you have to be joking!”
Think of Jonah, bolting for Tarshish when told to take God's message to Nineveh
Or Jeremiah, insisting “How can I speak. I'm only a child...” or Moses, pleading that his stammer disqualified him
Or Amos
I'm neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I'm a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees”
That sounds wonderfully bucolic and peaceful – but God is adamant
Go prophesy......”
Background doesn't matter....John the Baptist's father was a priest in the Temple, dedicated to the rites and observances of Jewish tradition...nor was Amos's father a recognised spokesman for God......but God called both their sons and placed HIS words of radical challenge on their lips.

You see, God persists in calling unlikely people
Ordinary souls with no particular gifting, fearful souls who would much sooner stay at home, sceptical souls who aren't really sure that God is still active, truculent souls who fight him every step of the way.
People like you and me
God calls them.
God calls us
He calls, because there remains so much in our world that needs to be challenged, needs to be changed...

But don't panic if you don't see yourself as an orator, - for often prophetic action speaks louder than all the words in the world.

Yesterday morning, some of you came to help us raise money for the 5K feast, a month long fund-raising drive for Marah and the Stroud & District Foodbank.
Those who came may have thought they were simply buying a cake or supporting a raffle – but actually they were part of an act of prophetic challenge.
I have to admit, I do have some reservations about the foodbank – because only those with an official referral can be fed, because there are limits to the help that one individual or family can receive. If we set this prudent strategy against the reckless generosity of God – it seems to me that the food bank organisers are setting their sights a little too low. But for all that, they ARE doing something...their words and their actions proclaim them emphatically a sign of God's kingdom.
Motivated by their faith, they are affirming with every food parcel they give out that the hungry in our society matter to God...that it is not acceptable that men, women and children should be going to bed with empty stomachs while just down the road their neighbours spend money on diet foods and exercise classes.
Their presence is a reminder that something is badly broken in society – and, as Christians, we have a responsibility to challenge that brokenness by our actions and by our words.

Does that bother you?
Perhaps I'm sounding too political?

But faith and politics absolutely belong together, until the power structures of our society and all societies are fully reflective of Kingdom values.
When Jesus began his public ministry, he took as his mission statement those words of the prophet Isaiah
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor”
If you are poor and hungry, then good news will surely involve being fed...
If you are frightened of persecution, good news will involve finding a place of safety...
If you are helpless, dis-empowered, good news will arm you with the tools that you need to claim your own future.
Good news changes things

I know that many feel the church should stay out of politics – and perhaps it may be inappropriate to engage in PARTY politics...
But our God has never been content to sit, robed in majesty, untouched by the plight of his children
Our God chose to become incarnate – to join in the mess and muddle and heartbreak of human life, so that that same mess, muddle and heartbreak might be transformed and redeemed.
Our God CARES – and charges us to live as signs of that care.

Preach the gospel...Use words if you must” said St Francis...
Today too many will be deaf to the gospel unless we show them what it really means for them.
The clamour of their own struggle, their own pain, deafens them to our cry of “good news” - unless they can see, experience and recognise it as good news for themselves.
So......we are called to live as prophets, signs of the Kingdom, to the elderly, selling their homes to fund social care, to the mum crying in the Co-op because there's not enough cash in her purse to buy the food her family needs, to the children sent to school without breakfast, the rough sleeper, the battered wife.
We are called to show that there IS a better way, to live as prophets...sometimes to speak but ALWAYS to act to bring about transformation and root out injustice
This is the agenda presented in the letter of James
“ What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”

But to act will probably not win you many friends
To act AND to speak will undoubtedly win you enemies
The Brazilian Archbishop, Dom Helder Camara said
When I feed the hungrythey call me saint. When I ask why people are hungry,they call me Communist...”
and you can be sure that “Communist” was not intended as a compliment.

No, it's definitely not easy being a prophet...downright dangerous at times.
But safety can be over-rated.
Remember the Collect for today, with its invitation to shake the kaleidoscope and see the world in a different way...
Our current preoccupations with personal security, prosperity, popularity, become second-order concerns when set against those good things which pass our understanding...God's promises that exceed all we can desire

There IS a better way
There IS more on offer than we can imagine in our wildest dreams
So we CAN dare the risk of faith, we can speak and act as citizens of this world who know that our true home is the Kingdom of God...
Let's pray that Collect once again, as we thank God for all those who speak his Truth in our world and ask for courage and faith to do the same
Merciful God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as pass our understanding: pour into our hearts such love toward you that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Sermon for All Saints, Selsley Trinity 5B

    Be prepared”
    The motto adopted by Lord Baden Powell in the early days of Scouting is now famous across the world – and its sheer common sense is clear and evident. It's always advisable to be ready for all eventualities, to expect the unexpected and have the resources with you to enable you to deal with whatever life throws at you. On Wednesday night, when my car broke down a few miles outside Cirencester, on a wonderfully dark and empty stretch of road, I was extremely glad that though we had left the house in a hurry, so that I had only my phone and my car keys, Jack had automatically picked up his wallet – containing the all-important RAC membership card. What's more, thanks to a bit of startling self-knowledge, our family membership subs had been paid via standing order – or the card would almost certainly have been out of date, and help unavailable.
    However, Jack was indeed a Scout – and had organised an expedition to Uganda whose preparations seemed to dominate every aspect of life for months beforehand, with all sorts of wonderful equipment arriving at the vicarage, designed to make it easier for his small group to survive and thrive during that part of the expedition when they were literally on their own in the bush.
    I teased him – and indeed most of the medicine kit came home thankfully untouched – but in my heart of hearts I was really glad of his meticulous preparations – just as I was when eventually an RAC mechanic rescued us at a little before 1.00 on Thursday morning.
Quite often in life, it seems like a good thing to be prepared.

What, then, should we make of the rather different message that Jesus gives his disciples this morning?
 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.

By almost any standards that sounds positively stupid...They are to go out into unknown situations, to places where they've no idea how their message or their ministry might be received...and they are to take nothing with them.
What a huge contrast to the way in which the Fleming family arrived at the vicarage 4 years ago, our removal van crammed to the gunwhales...and indeed, when we got here, it was to find churches thoroughly equipped with everything necessary for orderly worship and lots of measures in place to keep the show on the road.
There were, and are, teams of people engaged in managing most of the practicalities of church life, from making the important decisions to polishing the brass...and we even had funds to enable us to kick start the roof appeal, when that unwelcome eventuality came to pass.
I came, lock, stock and such a lot of baggage, to serve two groups of people who were, and are, prepared to keep the church afloat. Maybe we're not pioneers, for I don't think anyone would deny that we all of us (in the Church of England in general, and not just in these parishes) tend struggle a little with the task of going out and sharing good news with our perhaps we've not pushed the boundaries of our churches much in the past few decades...
Not pioneers, then......but as settlers we're not doing badly at all.

The trouble is – again and again when we read the gospels, we see that Jesus had something rather different in mind.
In the west today, even in recession, we are surrounded by the trappings of affluence – both good and bad. We have sound-systems to ensure that the gospel is heard, here in our churches …..but somehow we find we've lost our voice when we go out, so that we rarely share it beyond the walls.
We have envelopes schemes and direct debits to enable our giving – but we've lost the sense of urgency to feed the hungry and clothe the naked that inspired the early church to share everything in common as they waited for Christ's return.
We have devoted singers and musicians – but we don't always live each day as a song of praise to our Creator.
We've replaced spontaneity and openness to the Holy Spirit with a set of provisions for circumstances that WE have decided on...and no longer dare to consider how we might need to react, what kind of church we might need to be, in a world that looks quite different from the one in which we grew up.
We know what we CAN manage – so we tend to focus on that (remember the saying “if you have a hammer, then everything looks like a nail)...though as we look around it doesn't take much imagination to see that to carry on as we are is to ensure the death of the institution in the next few decades.

Does that sound bleak and pessimistic?
I don't think it needs to.
Yes, I think that there IS a crisis in the life of the institutional church...but I don't think that this is something to distress us.
We've carried so much luggage with us through the centuries, have become so very good at being the institutional church...but perhaps we've lost sight of what it means to be the radical church, the Body of Christ, charged with living the Kingdom here and now.
Perhaps we need to listen to Jesus once again
Take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.
Travel light...Go empty handed....That way we'll never be deceived into thinking that we are in charge of this enterprise.
Did you imagine for a moment that we were?
This is not OUR is GODS church....called to be the agent of his transforming love in the world.
If we're not able and willing for that, then God WILL do a new thing without us...
So – we need to have courage.
Courage to put down the beloved burdens, the contingency funds the prudent provisions for every occasion
Courage to empty our hands and open our hearts and our minds
Courage to recognise and accept just how small and powerless we are, when we stand alone, no longer hiding behind the weight of preparation that we have inherited
Courage to admit our own inadequacy to the task, the mission to which we are called.

Perhaps Paul can help us, for he had to step outside his own protective shield, as he recognised that in Christ God was turning the world upside down...that the values and assurances of orthodox Judaism were no longer enough....that all his education and status would do him no good at all in his new task.
He came to embrace his own limitations, even to celebrate them
 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ
Remember, this is the kingdom of God, where victory comes through vulnerability, where winners look like losers, where the last is truly first.
That's our context for living as Christians today – and every day.
Does it scare you as much as it scares me?
But, oh its exciting too...
For if we dare to take the risk...if we dare to empty ourselves, in the same way that Christ did when he set aside divinity to live human life in all its vulnerability and pain...
well, then we can claim God's word to Paul as an assurance for us as well
My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness