Saturday, December 29, 2012

Sermon for Christmas 1C Luke 2:41-52

Given that we're told that most people learn most of their theology through singing in church, it's just a little worrying how much BAD theology there is in some of our Christmas carols! Last week I pointed out to the congregation (here) at All Saints that, however much you may love “Away in a Manger”, the assertion that “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makesis badly off course when describing a REAL baby.
Today, I'm afraid it's “Once in Royal David's City” that is running into trouble.
And through all his wondrous childhood he would honour and obey, love and watch the lowly maiden in whose gentle arms he lay”.
Not really
Not if you listen to the story Luke told us this morning.

Today, as we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family, we encounter a very REAL family indeed.....a family where a son, not yet out of his teens, decides he is quite grown up enough to go his own way.
A family where the adults are sometimes preoccupied, and forget for a few moments that they have the most precious child of all time in their care
A family where things go wrong and tempers are frayed...
Where have you BEEN Jesus? Your Father and I were frantic”
A family where even God's own Son can sound rather a know-it-all as he say
Did you not know I must be in my Father's house”

My Father's house.....I wonder how those words sounded to Joseph, especially, after those 12 years of nurturing Jesus, making a home for him and his mother...I'd guess they hurt rather – a brusque reminder that the events of the first Christmas were not an amazing one off, that could be safely confined to the family memoirs, relegated to an annual retelling around Jesus's birthday celebrations
That child só dear and gentle was growing up and growing into his full identity as God's son and that would involve pain, both predicted and unguessed at, for his earthly parents. Later on, they will lose him in Jerusalem once again for 3 days – and find him again in a way that they could never have expected...for this is no ordinary child – no ordinary family.

Mary and Joseph had to come to terms with who Jesus was, letting go of whom they might have wanted him to be...and that is often a challenge for us too. We so ofen try our best to mould him to our requirements...just think of all those pictures of white Anglo-Saxon Christs who surely bear virtually no resemblance to the 1st Century Jew …
They are simply the outward evidence for something we try to do on other levels too: if we tend to see the world through a conservative lens, then that is the Jesus we focus on too. If our approach is more liberal – we try to make Jesus a champion for OUR cause. We struggle, for the most part, with letting him BE Jesus in our lives – and in our church.

You see, Jesus is always uncompromisingly HIMSELF...Not meek and mild, not malleable – for if he were, he would be powerless to save us from ourselves. He is REAL – and his earthly family remains a real family too, a family made up of those who are connected to him not through blood and birth but through the power of the Holy Spirit.
That's us.
The Church.
His family – complete with imperfections, frayed tempers and failures to attend to his whereabouts.

And, like Mary and Joseph that Passover 2000 years ago, we often find ourselves losing sight of Jesus – and looking for him in the wrong places.
We want him to tag along with us, to live life on our terms, to bless us with his presence without demanding that we change direction at all but HE WONT DO THAT. He is always ahead of us, calling us onwards, asking more of us than we believe we can give – though, wonderfully, we find that he also enables us to exceed our own limited expectations if we set about following him with heart, mind and soul.
Like Hannah, who had to give back to God the precious child that God himself had given her, we cannot hold on to Jesus, keep him walking beside us on some kind of spiritual baby reins.
We can't demand that he falls in with our plans and agenda...He needs to be about his Father's business and he invites us to join him.

Today may perhaps be a good time to take stock of how well we are doing in that individuals, and as churches.

The prospect of a new year always encourages that sort of reflection – but it's specially pertinent for us as we contemplate the new patterns of ministry which we will be part of in the future.
We might use the epistle as a kind of template to measure our success – or otherwise...for if we are truly about our Father's business, truly the Church, then our lives will bear the hall-marks of which Paul writes to those Christians in Colossae. The DNA of the Church, God's family here on earth, should reflect the DNA of our Father – who is wholly love.
Above all, clothe yourselves with love” writes Paul “which binds all things together in perfect harmony”.

As we look forward to another year we know that we will fall short of that perfect harmony again and again...that we will fail to allow Christ's peaceful rule its proper place in our hearts and lives...that we will impede our Father's business by habits of mind and patterns of behaviour....Like most other families, we will struggle with relationships and hurt one another again and again. The Church of England as an institution has managed that particularly successfully in the course of the past year – but those same failures of trust and generosity, that same insistence on having things the way WE want them have at times been visible in our smaller church families too. We, the Church, are a dysfunctional family...a family in constant need of redemption and restoration, if it is to be true to itself once again.
So let's pray for one another as we go our separate ways – that the grace of Jesus Christ may fill us more and more, and the family likeness grow ever stronger.
+ In the name of the Father...

Monday, December 24, 2012

My Christmas card for all of you

A spotless Rose is blowing 
Sprung from a tender root, 
Of ancient seers’ foreshowing, 
Of Jesse promised fruit;
Its fairest bud unfolds to light 
Amid the cold, cold winter 
And in the dark midnight.
The Rose which I am singing, 
Whereof Isaiah said, 
Is from its sweet root springing 
In Mary, purest Maid;  
For through our God’s great love and might 
The blessed babe she bare us 
In a cold, cold winter’s night.

With my love and blessings for Christmas and thanks 
for all that you bring to my life.
And hugs, obviously xxx

Christmas morning homily for All Saints – John 1

Every year the Churches Advertising Network produces a poster to remind the world that Christmas starts with Christ...and very often they provoke controversy.

You will probably remember that some years ago, there was Christ as Che Guavarra – with the caption “Meek? Mild? As if...” 

In 2010 it was the rather wonderful image based on a scan – the unborn infant's head clearly showing the halo that represents his divinity....and this year – well, this year it's the Godbaby.

You may well find it distasteful...specially if, like me, you REALLY dislike baby dolls and forbade your children to use “wee” as anything other than a Scottish word for “small”.
But that's fine
The point of the adverts is to shake us and disturb us...and actually, that's the point of Christmas too.

The Word was made flesh

and flesh is messy, often embarassing, prone to ills, ageing,even death - 

and yet it is in this form that God enters our world.

And yes – the baby Jesus will indeed have done EVERYTHING that any baby does...
Forget the assertion “The little Lord Jesus no crying he makes”
He was a REAL baby
He cried, and gurgled...kept his mother awake and relied on her for life itself because that's what babies do.
He made himself totally vulnerable – dependent on human love for his very survival, this Godbaby in the manger.

Dependent on the hospitality of Mary's womb and the rough and ready welcome of a crowded town.

Dependent still on our hospitality- and if that doesn't shake you, then frankly nothing will.

The power that brought the universe into being, that holds the stars in their courses and knows when a sparrow falls, depends on us to welcome Him and to make His love known in the world.

John's gospel speaks to us of 2 births...Christ's entry into our life – and ours into his.
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”

So human life is changed utterly as we experience that new birth and accept our kinship with the Christ Incarnate – made flesh – 2000 years ago in that stable in Bethlehem and incarnate now in His Church – in you and me.
He shares our humanity – even our irritating, unreliable bodies – so that we may share his divinity....becomes what we are, to make us what HE is.
We experience this week by week as we receive the life of Christ in bread and wine but today we celebrate that moment when earth and heaven collide and all things are changed forever. 

And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us – and we saw his glory.
The glory of God in a human baby – full of grace and truth.

Sermon for Midnight Mass at All Saints & St Matthew's: Luke 2

"This was the moment when nothing happened.
Only dull peace sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic Romans
could find nothing better to do
than count heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment when a few shepherds
and three members of an obscure Persian sect
walked haphazard by starlight straight into the kingdom of heaven." 
                                                                             BC:AD by U.A.Fanthorpe

The Christmas story never fails to surprise me!
Not the overall shape of it, of course.
I can't remember a time before I knew the narrative and I could probably recite every single one of the readings as presented by Kings College Cambridge well before my 10th birthday...but, if I pause to really engage with the text then there are always surprises in store.

This year as I read Luke's gospel once again it was the overwhelming irony of the situation that struck me.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered”
They fancied themselves, those Roman much so, that some demanded to be worshipped as gods....and they had a hugely inflated idea of their own status and power.
Imagine – believing that everyone in the world could be recorded, tabulated, and filed neatly just on your say-so!
Even in these days of ID cards, offices for national statistics and the dreaded electronic surveillance we have no illusion that everyone is accounted for – even on our own small island.
We know, or guess, that there are tens of thousands of people whose existence may never be formally recorded, that the estimates of the earth's population remain just that – estimates...and though I'm sure the geeks would tell me of any number of systems that could keep track of everyone, everywhere, I'm relieved that thus far they've not begun operating. Or at least (paranoid glance over the shoulder) - not as far as I know...

Yet here is this 1st century ruler, issuing a decree from his Imperial Palace in Rome – that       ALL THE WORLD should be enrolled.
Of course, someone will say to me, he meant “All the KNOWN world”....which, for him, equated with the boundaries of the Roman Empire...Beyond its borders civilisation broke down in the outer darkness where the barbarians held sway.
But you see, that's the point.
It was all the KNOWN world that he set out to record...and as he did so, One crept unnoticed from outside the world, outside our confines of space and time, amid the chaotic diaspora of a people milling about, travelling from A to B to be registered.
As the crowds thronged the streets of Bethlehem – and presumably every other town and city in the Roman Empire, God himself crept into the world He loves so much, - long awaited but still unexpected and unaccounted when the moment came.

Nobody thought it would be like that.

Though angel choirs rejoiced after the birth, the moment itself had no discernible impact on the unthinking crowds. It's tempting to say it still doesn't. If you could have persuaded any of the stressed, frantic, last-minute shoppers to pause for an interview earlier today I suspect that none of them would have cited “the birth of God's Son” as the reason for their bulging trollies and overloaded credit-cards.

But still and all, at that moment when heaven touched earth, everything changed.

The known world, the world that Caesar thought that he ruled and controlled, was subverted by a ruler infinitely greater, wiser, kinder than we,or Caesar, could ever imagine.
One who chooses to exercise power by setting it aside, upturning everything we think we know of the ways of the world.
One whose love for his people is such that he shares everything with them – birth and childhood, the storms of adolescence and the final lonely journey of death.
One who again and again challenges our concept of the “known world” by showing us that we can live a different way.

We can – we must – learn from him,  to give for the sake of giving and to love for the sake of other motive than that of Love itself.

At the start of his mission to transform humanity, the Kingdom which Jesus embodies does not so much confront as defuse the power and might of Rome. It is not in the Imperial Palace, nor even at the census offices that the real action takes place tonight – but quietly, out the way, in the least likely corner...a place of poverty where the greatest riches are given freely, a place of exile where everyone can find their home.

At the end of his earthly ministry, in the small hours of Good Friday morning, Jesus will once again stand against powers and principalities as he tells Pilate
My Kingdom is not of this world”.

That's still the case – and we can choose our citizenship tonight and live it in all our tomorrows.

Two kingdoms, two ways to live...
The power of force and fear or the power of self-sacrifice and love
The power heard in an Emperor's command or in the cry of a newborn child.
Which do you choose?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Sermon for Advent 4C for All Saints - You can never have too many Marys

Last Wednesday the Stroud Home Education network held their Christmas celebration at St Matthew's. It was lovely. The children had written their own script based on the Biblical accounts, and the narrators proclaimed the gospel with grace and dignity while younger children took their part in presenting a kind of nativity tableau.
Because all these children are taught by their parents at home, there had not been a chance to rehearse together nor indeed to plan every last detail. Of course that was not a problem – it enhanced the freshness and spontaneity of the story that is both old and ever new – but it did mean that we had quite an interesting cast of characters including no less than four Marys.

They sat there on the dais, each cradling an infant son – and it struck me you can never have too many Marys....for it is through her obedience, her faith and her fortitude that Christ is born in our world.
The Orthodox Church call her Theotokos, the God-bearer – and surely that is her principal calling - as it is for each of us too.
Like Mary, we are called to be obedient to God's word
Like her, we must allow God's Son to transform our lives from within
And like her we must share the impact of that transformation, and our experience of the One who brings it about, with a world that needs Him as much as ever today.

Again and again Mary is depicted with her child in her arms...but we know that even as she holds him, she offers him to others, that they too may be touched by his Love.
Like any parent, her role is to work herself out of a job....but because she is not just the Mother of God, but also the Mother of the Church, there seems no danger of that day arriving yet.

We often think of Mary bringing the church to birth at the foot of the cross – as she and John wait for that last hour.
Jesus says to her “Woman, behold your Son” and to John “behold your mother” and in that new relationship, based on their connection to Jesus, a new family is born – the Church of God, of which we are members.

But it seems to me that she brings the church to birth, too, at the moment of visitation which we hear of in today's gospel.
She takes her unborn child to visit Elizabeth – and the transforming grace of his presence within her enables Elizabeth to grasp the wonder that has entered her house
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?

So -together the women recognise Christ – and worship him.
What else is the church but the community of those who recognise Christ and worship him, who live to rejoice in his salvation?
My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour.
And then.....then Mary proclaims the Kingdom in all its revolutionary power and splendour as she launches into that song of high revolt which we down-play and sanitise at our peril.
Mother of the Church, Mary shows her children what they are called to be and to do.

WE are to proclaim the Kingdom and to live in ways that make it real...
You can never have too many Marys.

Christ does not reside with the movers and shakers, the people of influence in society, - not now, not ever.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly”
This need not mean that the powerful are excluded from the kingdom...rather Christ invites them to use that power in the service of others, even as he sets aside his own divinity, to ally himself with struggling humanity.
It's our choice – to hold on to what seems to offer security or to let go and enable God to work in us and through us as we make space for Him as Mary did.
You can never have too many Marys

And the revolution continues.
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty
Christ is not to be found that tables of excess that we mistakenly spread to celebrate his birth – at least, not if we choose to keep that abundance to ourselves.
Instead you'll find him at the tables of the poor, where scanty resources are stretched by good will and love...
You'll find him where Marah feed the homeless, where Foodbanks enable those with enough to share with those struggling.
These are signs of the Kingdom, that Mary celebrates in her Magnificat...signs of the kingdom for us to celebrate too.
For we, the Church, are called to proclaim, to celebrate and to live the coming Kingdom – the world turned upside down that was initiated when the King of all creation entered his world in poverty...

You can never have too many mother the Church and bring it to birth, to model the Kingdom life we must live and proclaim...and to bear the Christ child into his world this Christmas time and always

Homily for the Carol Service at All Saints, Selsley, 21st December 2012

All Saints really comes into its own at Christmas
It's a tried and trusted recipe
Take a beautiful building,
some Christmas decorations
and a very talented flower team.
Then add candle-light and the whole thing springs into life.

I love candles, don't you?
They add a beauty all their own and today, the shortest of the year, we are specially thankful for the warmth and light they bring.
They aren't always that convenient, of course...If somebody lost a contact lens during this service (I speak from experience here) we'd doubtless hurry to put the lights on – and when we leave the building, we're glad that there are other lights to guide our way.
We live in an age where light can just happen – at the flick of a switch – so perhaps we don't really grasp how frightening and oppressive darkness can seem, how alarming the longer nights of winter were to our ancestors. Perhaps the sun was gone for good.
We still don't much enjoy the dark
Who knows what dangers might lurk in dark corners, how easily we might get lost , go hopelessly astray as we seek a way home...?

And so the darkness has, since the early days, become an image for all that is sad and broken in our world.
The grieving families, in Newport Connecticut and closer to home in Stroud, feel the darkness very near of course, and across the world there will be many for whom the comfort and joy that we sing about feel impossible.
Terrible, tragic things happen
People mourn, and feel that they will never be happy again...

But still we dare to celebrate.

On this, the longest night of the year, when the darkness, both real and metaphorical, feels very strong we gather to rejoice in that gift of hope that Christmas offers.
Born in poverty, a refugee whose birth was followed by violence and bloodshed, Jesus brought the Love of God into our world in a human life.
From the beginning, he drew others...and as they came close to him, they were touched by that love
which shone through everything that Jesus said, and did and was.
As he grew up, and told them wonderful stories that showed them the way to live, they began to learn to share that love with others.
They told their friends.....who told their friends....who told their that down through the ages the light of that love was passed in a relay that puts even the Olympic torch to shame.

Of course – loving like that is costly. Remember, a candle destroys itself as it burns – making a gift of itself to shed light for others.
Loving like that cost Jesus everything...and on the 1st Good Friday, it looked as if the darkness of the world had won forever.

Jesus died – and with him died the hopes and fears of all the years.

But …...after 3 days came Easter, new life, new hope as the light burst forth again...and now, today, we have the choice and the chance to share it with others.
We can share it with our words – as we remind others that Christmas begins with Christ, God's gift for the world forever.
We can share it by our actions – as we give love and care, time and energy, to those who need to know that there IS still love in the world.
It will be costly for us too – at least, if we do it properly...
but it's a cost well worth bearing.

As we go from this church, whatever we are going home to, let us each one carry the light of God's love with us and show to a troubled world the truth that

Saturday, December 15, 2012

All Age Address for Advent 3C at St Matthew's

Today we've lit the pink candle -because the 3rd Sunday in Advent is GAUDETE Sunday...
Gaudete means “Rejoice” - and that's why I asked you to keep track of the number of times you heard references to joy, rejoicing or even good news in our readings this morning. You might have noticed there were several even in the 2 readings we heard – but if you take a moment to look at the others, you'll find even more. 

The church, then, is very keen that today we should REJOICE.

Well – with only 9 days til Christmas, that probably seems fair enough....except that we know that in some homes today there will be nothing to rejoice at. The families whose lives were changed forever by the events in Newtown on Friday will have a long and weary road to travel before joy can even be a faint possibility for them...and always, each and every day, there will be others whose stories don't make the news, but who find themselves walking the valley of the shadow.

Despite this, I dare to say that Paul is right.
Despite all the darkness of the world, the Christmas plans changed so terribly...we can rejoice.
So listen, because I want to tell you a story...It might seem to be a story of disappointed hopes...but remember to listen to the very end, because beyond the darkness the light still shines.

Once upon a mountain top, three little trees stood and dreamed of what they wanted to become when they grew up. The first little tree looked up at the stars and said: " I want to hold treasure. I want to be covered with gold and filled with precious stones. I'll be the most beautiful treasure chest in the world!" The second little tree looked out at the small stream trickling by on it's way to the ocean. " I want to be traveling mighty waters and carrying powerful kings. I'll be the strongest ship in the world! The third little tree looked down into the valley below where busy men and women worked in a busy town. I don't want to leave the mountain top at all. I want to grow so tall that when people stop to look at me they'll raise their eyes to heaven and think of God. I will be the tallest tree in the world.

Years, passed. The rain came, the sun shone and the little trees grew tall. One day three wood cutters climbed the mountain. The first wood cutter looked at the first tree and said, "This tree is beautiful. It is perfect for me." With a swoop of his shining axe, the first tree fell. "Now I shall make a beautiful chest, I shall hold wonderful treasure!" the first tree said.

The second wood cutter looked at the second tree and said, "This tree is strong. It's perfect for me." With a swoop of his shining axe, the second tree fell. "Now I shall sail mighty waters!" thought the second tree. " I shall be a strong ship for mighty kings!"

The third tree felt her heart sink when the last wood cutter looked her way. She stood straight and tall and pointed bravely to heaven. But the wood cutter never even looked up. "Any kind of tree will do for me." He muttered. With a swoop of his shining axe, the third tree fell.

The first tree rejoiced when the wood cutter brought her to a carpenter's shop. But the carpenter fashioned the tree into a manger for animals. The once beautiful tree was not covered with gold, or treasure. She was coated with saw dust and filled with hay. The second tree smiled when the wood cutter took her to a shipyard, but no mighty sailing ship was made that day. Instead the once strong tree was hammered and shaped into a simple fishing boat. She was too small and too weak to sail to an ocean, or even a river, instead she was taken to a little lake. The third tree was confused when the wood cutter cut her into strong beams and left her in the wood yard
 "What happened?" The once tall tree wondered. " All I ever wanted was to stay on the mountain top and point to God..."

Many days and nights passed. The three trees nearly forgot their dreams. But one night, golden starlight poured over the first tree as a young woman placed her newborn baby in the manger. "I wish I could make a cradle for him." Her husband whispered. The mother squeezed his hand and smiled as the starlight shone on the smooth and sturdy wood. " This manger is beautiful." She said. And suddenly the first tree knew he was holding the greatest treasure in the world.

One evening a tired traveler and his friends crowded into the old fishing boat. The traveller fell asleep as the second tree quietly sailed out into the lake. Soon the wind got up and a terrible storm arose. The little tree shuddered, battered by huge waves. She knew she did not have the strength to carry so many passengers safely to harbour in this weather. The tired man awoke. He stood up, stretched out his hand, and said, "Peace." The storm stopped as quickly as it had begun. And suddenly the second tree knew she was carrying the king of heaven and earth.

One Friday morning, the third tree was startled when her beams were yanked from the forgotten wood pile. She flinched as she was carried through an angry jeering crowd. She shuddered when soldiers nailed a man's hand to her. She felt ugly and harsh and cruel. But on Sunday morning, when the sun rose and the earth trembled with joy beneath her, the third tree knew that God's love had changed everything. It had made the third tree strong. And every time people thought of the third tree, they would think of God. Her sadness turned to joy....a joy for all people. 

Rejoice? 8.00 Homily for Advent 3C, St Matthew's

 Zephaniah 3:14-20 & Luke 3:7-18
Through the centuries of the Church, this 3rd Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, has had one resounding theme...a theme traditionally reflected in a lightening of the seasonal solemnity as in some churches the vestments and here our Advent candle changes from penitential purple to pink for just one day as a reminder that, no matter what, we are to REJOICE!

That's the overwhelming message of our Scriptures this morning, from Zephaniah “Sing aloud...Rejoice and exult with all your heart”
through the psalm “shout aloud and sing for joy” to Paul's letter to the Philippians
“Rejoice in the Lord always”
Rejoice...or, in Latin, Gaudete.

You might, of course, be forgiven for failing to notice it as you heard John the Baptist's opening salvo
“You brood of vipers!”
Hardly the most encouraging greeting with which to woo your listeners – but nonetheless, Luke is able to sum up all of John's preaching as GOOD news...something to rejoice in.
But I'm very conscious that today joy seems far away...that families who were immersed in the cheerful preparations for Christmas together are now planning funerals instead...that the darkness of the world's sin seems deeper, more pervasive than ever. The massacre of the innocents in Newtown Connecticut is the harshest reminder of our need for someone to save us from ourselves and só our premature carolling switches to a minor key...

On Mothering Sunday 1996 in the wake of the Dunblane shootings I found myself preaching to the All Age congregation in our village church. Struggling for words that could connect the expected joy of the day with the unbearable pain that we felt for those families broken by the death of só many children, I spoke of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, and longing to gather her as a hen gathers her chicks. Today Zephaniah gives us a different picture – of a God whose love for us is só strong, só overwhelming, that even in the face of judgement and disaster it reaches our ears like glad singing. Surely God IS a loving parent, for he both weeps and rejoices over his children, as he gathers them to himself...and sometimes those two extremes of grief and joy are closer than we can imagine.

That doesn't mean that we can turn away from the world's pain, bury our heads and deny its reality by singing ever louder and allowing the Christmas tree lights to blind us to the events that happen in the shadows. Our readings this morning acknowledge all the darkness of the world too...
Zephaniah speaks to a people destroyed by their enemies, a people in exile with only dreams of their homeland to sustain them – and indeed, as Jane Williams points out, to hear of Jerusalem as “home” today is almost unbearably ironic, as that holy city remains at the centre of an apparently insoluable conflict. Who has the right to call Jerusalem home?
Our psalmist speaks of trusting God in the face of his fears, Paul of rejoicing in EVERYTHING – both good and bad...and John the Baptist, - well he makes it abundantly clear that there's too much wrong with our world, that nobody is exempt from the need to repent and be made new – but he promises, too, that the Messiah is on the way, the Lord is at hand.

Só perhaps we can still find joy, even as we weep with the families of Sandy Hook school – and all those others for whom there is little good news this morning. This world remains a place of insecurity, and we remain a people capable of appalling acts, who too often put our faith in the wrong things. But there is something to hold onto...good news for the oppressed, the lame, the outcast...those with empty hands and aching hearts.
As John points out, we do not need to seek security in our family history, or in our material props – two coats, abundant food in the cupboard, more money than we need to survive. We need to let go of those and to find our home and security somewhere else – in the presence of God.
The God who weeps over Jerusalem and longs to gather his children in loving arms, the God who through Zephaniah promises to gather us and bring us home, is the God who comes into our world as the homeless Jesus, the joy of his coming soon clouded by the lament of Rachel weeping for her children as the innocents are slaughtered in Jerusalem.
Joy and grief walk side by side at every turn in his ministry til the grief and pain of all time, the destructive cruelty and selfishness of all people is carried to the cross and redeemed for ever.
The one who clears the threshing floor and gathers the wheat into his granary has, through his death and resurrection, cleared a pathway for all of us to reach home safely.

So here and now may be harsh, disturbing, full of sadness but as we wait for the light of Christ to dawn, let us rejoice that we have a home to go to – and in that place the Lord will renew us with his love and exult over us with loud singing.
Rejoice in the Lord aways. Again I will say, rejoice!

Saturday, December 08, 2012

And he shall purify - Words for St Matthew's, Advent 2 C

We don't often spend time with Malachi, one of those “minor prophets” who appear on the stage towards the end of Old Testament history. Indeed, the name Malachi simply means “messenger” - so that the individual is subsumed by his role, as the final voice in the chorus that has, through the ages, exhorted Israel to get ready for the coming of her Saviour.
So we have a message from an unknown messenger, heard today completely out of context. That happens so often as we work our way through the Lectionary...and it's rarely helpful.
It's worth my telling you, then, that in Chapter 2 Malachi has told God's people that they have wearied God by their questioning of His justice. While they complain “All who do evil are good in the sight of the Lord...Where is the God of justice” - God's response, the passage we hear today, is positively ominous. We hear it, of course, cushioned by the musical glory of Handel's Messiah, but actually, the message is far from encouraging.
Who can endure the day of his coming?”
That seems a strange question for us in this season of Advent, when our waiting is generally full of excitement.
Excitement is fine – but what are we excited about?
It seems to me that at times the church has rather lost its grip on Advent. The world is intent on persuading us that what we are really looking forward to a festival of excess – of shopping, eating, drinking – even in a recession...or perhaps to a cute and cuddly baby, radiating unlikely though heavenly peace...and we don't seem to be very good at resisting that pressure.
Of COURSE it matters that we are able to relate to popular culture – for if we fail to do so, then we have no hope of sharing the gospel with friends and neighbours...but I suspect that sometimes we all of us take things a bit too far. It can be very hard to see anything different about the lives of all of who profess to follow Christ. It's all too easy to become simply “church goers” - defined by the way that we spend our Sundays – rather that radical disciples, co-operating with God's mission to share His love with the world.
And in Advent, it's so very easy for our preparations to be sidelined in favour of shopping, cooking, writing, treat these weeks as just the space in which to get ready for the feast.
But Advent focusses, too, on the 4 last things – Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell....unfashionable concepts that we prefer to skate over. But we need, all of us, to listen to the engage with their message, which is, again and again, a call to REPENT.
The pictures that we are given make that very clear.
While Malachi finds the people of Israel accosting God with their own grievances, wanting to hold HIM to account, it is in fact they – and we – who face God's judgement. God will do anything ANYTHING to enable us to come close to him...- that's what Christmas is all about...- but as well as God's initiative, there is our response.
The Lord will suddenly come to his Temple. The Lord HAS come. The message of God to his people is lived out by Jesus, our Lord
Alleluia! God comes...
Amazing grace! God welcomes us, just as we are...
BUT as we draw near to God's holiness, those words that Malachi offered to the dissatisfied people of Israel will become true for us too.
We will be changed. We will be stripped of those things that we've clung to, those impurities that are so much part of life that we don't even notice them. They will be burned away – the very word “purify” comes from the Greek word for fire – or dissolved,as stubborn dirt by the caustic properties of fullers soap. He shall purify us, so that we too may present offerings in righteousness. That's the promise...A promise made 2400 years ago......but a promise to be trusted.
The Lord will come to his Temple – and purify his priests.
Fine words, a wonderful picture but after Malachi spoke, it seemed that nothing much happened. For another 450 years God's people waited – and then, when Jesus arrived, they waited some more.
The Lord they were seeking came to his temple, right enough,but it wasn’t what they expected. Instead of a warrior, the Lord came as a baby. Instead of military victory, the Lord experienced capture and a degrading death.
The New Testament writers had no doubt that the prophecy of Malachi was fulfilled in the coming of Jesus the Messiah. The Lord came and the people of God were remade. The whole people of God became the new priesthood, the spiritual descendants of Levi. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the sins of the people were dealt with once and for all, and the righteousness of God imparted to all who accept it.

But that was 2000 years ago, and perhaps we feel that we are in the same place as those Jews 450 years before Christ. The Lord came, and we beheld his glory, and then – nothing much happened.

Time, then, to listen to the wisdom of St Bernard, who said “The Lord's coming is threefold...and the third coming is between the other two and is not as visible as they are. The first coming was in flesh and weakness, the middle coming is in spirit and power and the final coming will be in glory and majesty

So – we are people who receive our Lord in that “third” coming.
Despite the creeping secularism, the mess and muddle of a broken church, we can be sure that the Lord has not forgotten us. He comes to us in Spirit and in power...transforming us as we meet Him in the Sacraments...
No longer limited to the Temple in Jerusalem, He is present in his people wherever they are. The Holy Spirit who came upon the disciples in tongues of fire at Pentecost is a transforming, purifying fire that can burn in all of us.

In these days of Advent we prepare to hear again of God's Love made flesh in the stable at Bethlehem – Christ's first coming, in all its aching vulnerability.
We heed the reminder, too, to look forward to Christ's second coming, when things that were thrown down shall be built up and all that was broken restored, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.
But we live with our daily experience of his coming – God with us to cleanse and heal as we repent and are absolved...God transforming us as He gives us himself, in bread and wine. 

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Advent 1 C for All Saints

Reading the signs of the times can often be a discouraging activity.
Just look at the Daily Mail!

Today we begin a new liturgical year during which we will recall God's actions in our world throughout history. We begin, as we do every year, with the season of Advent, during which the Church teaches us to live in enthusiastic expectation of the Lord’s coming, and in vigilant concern as his “hour” approaches.
But as we wait, the signs of the times that surround us seem oppressive, perhaps alarming. In our gospel, Luke makes use of apocalyptic images, and refers to the recent fall of Jerusalem, to announce the coming of the ‘day of the Lord’, as a great cosmic catastrophe.

And it's tempting, as we read the text today, for us to carry a sort of imaginary score card in our heads, and to try and tally up the annual crop of natural and man-made disasters to help us deduce whether or not we are truly living in the end times.

Advent, after all, reminds us of the Four Last Things: death, judgement, heaven and hell.
We are invited to face these head on, and consider how ready we really are.
And for me that's scary. Seriously scary. Honestly, I'm inclined to join those who, according to our gospel, faint with fear....

But there's good news, always. Our gospel speaks of the certainty that Christ will come. From the time of St Paul, a mere twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Christians have been living in expectation of the Lord’s coming. Nobody and nothing can take that hope from us. The more the world becomes inhospitable, the more we await the coming of our Saviour. If we ourselves feel that God is absent, we will surely wait with still greater longing, more pressing urgency. As we struggle with the harsher realities of our lives, we remember that we are to live without allowing the world to quench our hope, or allowing evil to stifle our dream. As believers, we do not deny the presence of evil in our world, but we refuse to submit to it for we know that in spite of everything, in spite even of ourselves, God will not abandon us.
He comes to us – meets us where we are and will take us to where He is.
That is the essence of our Advent hope...That God loves us too much to leave us to our own devices.
He will transform us – and as we carry that hope, we too can be agents of transformation, creating situations of hope, that spread out to touch the lives of others.

Now when these things begin to take place, STAND UP AND
Apocalyptic texts (those looking forward to the end times) take a serious look at everything going on in the world -- all the suffering and fear, all the fireworks and skirmishes between the powers that be -- and see within them all the true and final destiny for all Creation.


So the message of today’s gospel is
When you notice all these disasters in your life and in your world – DON’T panic.
Though the odds may seem stacked against you, this is not the end of everything but the beginning of redemption – all shall be well.

Remember, it’s all too easy to misread the signs. - and Advent itself is a sign.
A sign for our beleaguered church
A sign for our war-torn, despairing world.
Christ is coming!
For us as Christians, Advent is always experienced in the light of Christmas. Though we recall those who awaited the Messiah through centuries of Old Testament history, our waiting is qualitatively different.
We know that Christ has arrived… we celebrate the 'time of waiting' in the knowledge of Emmanuel, the God who dwells with us. Thus we celebrate Advent within the context of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter! We know, on one level, the end of the story…though we continue to look anxiously to see how it will end for our planet, for the whole of this world that God loves so much.

But we know one truth.

Christ is coming soon.
We proclaim this week by week
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”
When we eat this flesh and drink this cup we proclaim your death Lord Jesus, until you come in glory”
The signs are very clear.
We look not at a dead-end, a cul-de-sac, but at a cross roads.
The point of God's intersection with us….the moment when our human time meets with God’s eternity… the day of resurrection!

But as we live at this point of intersection, we need to be alert to recognise the signs that tell us not just that the Kingdom is nearly upon us, but that it is already here
Remember that fig tree, that bore its buds for long months before the conditions were right for them to spring into new live.
Remember the signs that are all around us
Sings of restoration as shoppers buy more than they need in order to feed the hungry through the food bank
Signs of acceptance as those who were outside the walls come inside to sit down and feast at the table.

Jesus says we should "be on guard," "be alert," "stand up and raise your heads" so that we don't miss out on all the wonderful things God is already doing, or forget to look out for those God has in store.
They may be easy to miss....a shoot springing out of the root of Jesse is small, fragile, - but all important.

So this Advent, let us celebrate hope in all its elusive beauty
Let us cling to the clearest sign of all, the sign of the cross, where Love demonstrates for now and for eternity its power over all those other signs that scare us most
And let us celebrate together that foretaste of the Kingdom, a banquet spread for all God’s people.