Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sheep, goats and extravagant love - a sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist on the Feast of Christ the King

Whenever we approach this celebration of Christ the King, I'm struck by the irony of a feast established to cement the relationship of the institutional church and an oppressive secular authority, but celebrating a very different kind of rule. The festival originated in a somewhat disquieting pact between Pius XI and the emerging fascist government...but survived because it points to a greater reality. So today we contemplate afresh what it means to live in Christ's kingdom – a kingdom “not of this world” but whose citizens are called to its way of living very much in the here and now. And we've two pieces of prophecy to help us....

In ancient Israel, the language of sheep and shepherd was often applied to kingship. Ezekiel underlines this as he proclaims God's promise to search for the wounded and the straggler in a reunited kingdom– as much as to judge between sheep and sheep. You see, even when following their shepherd, it seems that some sheep just don't care whom they hurt in their search for good pasture...and then the shepherd changes from gentle leader to agent of judgement... who will “feed them with justice”. He can do this because he recognises their motivation for what it is, and is alert to every nuance of their behaviour. This shepherd knows his flock alright – good sheep, bad sheep and goats as well.

But surely there's no real challenge to sorting out sheep from goats. Indeed, when you think in terms of the sheep and goats we know from our own farming landscape, there's no room for confusion. It would be a very dim shepherd indeed who couldn't tell them apart. Sheep are sheep and goats, well goats are different. You can tell by them by the beards, the horns, and the smell.
Can't you? Well, not so much in southern Europe or Asia, where floppy ears and wicked yellow eyes seem common to both groups…
Unless you spend a lot of time with them, it would be hard to tell the difference. And that, I think, is the point.
According to an article in the Jewish Heritage magazine though both sheep and goats could be used in Temple sacrifice, goats were seen as "armed robbers who would jump over people's fences and destroy their plants." While sheep graze at a fairly consistent ground level, goats not only graze at the ground but can also tear leaves, buds, fruit off trees, and notoriously, washing off lines, and are thus far more destructive. But you wouldn't know that unless you got close to them, - close enough to see how they behaved.

And that’s the crux of the story, isn’t it.?

How they behave, How we behave.
Are we sheep, or are we goats?
What do you think?

The American spiritual director and author Dennis Linn was speaking to a group of elderly nuns, and asked
"How many of you, even once in your life, have done what Jesus asks and fed a hungry person, clothed a naked person or visited a person in prison?" All the sisters raised their hands.
Dennis said, "That's wonderful! You're all sheep."
Then Dennis asked, "How many of you, even once in your life, have walked by a hungry person, failed to clothe a naked person, or not visited someone in prison?" Slowly, all the sisters raised their hands. Dennis said,"That's too bad. You're all goats."
The sisters looked worried and perplexed. Then suddenly one very old sister's hand shot up. She blurted out,
"I get it! We're all good goats!"

A contradiction in terms, or an accurate reflection of the reality of life? I'm not going to make us all thoroughly uncomfortable by repeating the questions here – but it's fair to say that in my experience very few of us are wholly good or wholly bad. As we strive to follow in the steps of Christ we can become more conscious of our own failures, so that sheep are more aware of the times when they behave like goats., and as Paul reminds us, “all fall short”…but there are times when we get things quite wonderfully right as well.

So perhaps what divides sheep and goats is not so much behaviour as motivation…They may set out to follow the same shepherd, but what happens along the way? What's behind their behaviour? 
It all comes down to the kind of King we're following.

If you've a few spare moments when you get home, ask google images to show you some suggestions for “Christ the King”. There's quite a range, -Ultra pious, rather saccharine depictions of the Infant of Prague, unexpected links to church buildings and a whole galaxy of icons, from across the Orthodox Tradition. Most feature a predictably regal Christ - crowned, on the throne, and often bearing orb and sceptre. This is the king beloved of hymnody, the king "all glorious above"whom we'll be singing of through Advent...but I'm not sure that this is the king of today's gospel.
Oh yes, he's present at the start of the reading
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.
This is the court of judgement ...the place where we will hear our final destiny...Tremble in awe
But if we aspire to belong to the kingdom right now, then there are more important truths for us to hear today, more important even than the verdict on our lives...
To live in a kingdom is about far more than standing to wonder at the majesty of the king at his final grand entrance...and we may be in real danger of missing the essence of both kingdom and king if we focus too much on the set-piece, deus ex machina moments that will complete our personal drama.
We should not be driven, not even for a moment, by fear.

Our King is rather different.

If we want to live in the kingdom, then Christ the king is the one who sets the standards, who shows us what kingdom life will be life.
Christ, who chooses to spend his time with the marginalised, the oppressed, the forgotten.
Christ who is utterly committed to those whom nobody values, nobody respects,
Christ who identifies himself só completely with “the least of these” that when we look at them, we know we are seeing him too.
The hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoner...
People who NEED us, who need very specific care – not just a generalised expression of good will...
People we probably won't be at ease with, people who may demand things that we find it very hard to deliver.
People we might not like, but are called to love.
People in whose faces we should expect to see the face of Christ.

Thomas Merton observed that the kingdom of God is not one that preaches a particular doctrine or follows certain religious practices, it is the kingdom of those who love. That's what lies at the heart of our parable – and at the heart of the kingdom.
The great commandments of Love.

To love our King is to love what he has made...children, men and women, joyous,broken, hopeful or despairing...
To love our neighbours is to love the One in whose image they,we, are made...and to recognise the divine image not on stamps or coins but in their faces, wherever we encounter them.

That's what it means to be true to the love, and love again.
The DNA of King and kingdom are that Bonhoeffer's question
 'how may Christ take form among us today & here?' is both a mystery to be solved – as we look for Christ among those whom we encounter – and a challenge to be embraced as we consider how we can BE Christ...
Two sides of one coin,
We may not realise, in our active loving, that we are serving Christ – and só the parable offers a wonderful surprise for those who didn't recognise that in loving service of the outcast they were offering loving service to the king...
But those with ears to hear are given insider knowledge in this parable, that if we want to serve the king we will inevitably HAVE to offer loving service to the outcast.

You see, there is, in essence, just one commandment, the commandment of love, and real love is always manifested in action. And, when it comes down to it, it is living lives of love that will build the kingdom of God here on earth.
We aren't asked to decide who might be sheep or goats...all we are asked to do is to carry on loving – wildly, indiscriminately, just as Christ our King does.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Shaking up the story - the parable of the talents reconsidered. A sermon for the 2nd Sunday before Advent Yr A at The Risen Christ, Wyken

I wonder where you are in the story”

That's always my favourite question whenever I sit down to prepare a sermon. Sometimes, with a passage we know as well as this one, it can help us to see past the layers of familiarity and find something new in even the most familiar text. 
It certainly helped me this time round, when I found myself relating very definitely to the over-cautious slave – the one who was so fearful of his domineering master that he buried his talent in the ground...I know myself well enough to suspect that if I had a boss like his, I'd be so scared of doing the wrong thing that I'd hesitate to do anything at all - which, when you look at the final verse we've heard, is a rather terrifying prospect.
But then, it seems to me that there's an awful lot of fear in this story...even before we get to the weeping and gnashing of teeth. 
Not surprising, with a boss like that around.
And yet, we've just agreed “This is the gospel of the Lord”.
Good news, apparently.


I guess the problem comes if we try to read this as an allegory, and not a parable. Allegories have a consistent one to one equation – for example, the lion, Aslan, is ALWAYS the Christ figure in C S Lewis's Narnia books. 
Parables are quite different...stories designed to help us to think about the big questions and concepts of faith in ways that are firmly rooted in everyday reality...but stories that demand that we work at them, without an easy code to follow.

So, - how does this parable fit in with our understanding of God? 
Surely he can't be anything LIKE the master we hear about in the story..the greedy, vindictive and abusive character who is so quick to condemn.
Ah – yes – that's the point. 
It's a PARABLE not an allegory, remember!
We are NOT expected to make that equation of God and master. 
How could we? 
There's nothing of God in this description of an absentee landlord who doesn't do any work himself, but lives off of the labour of his slaves, looking for maximum profit no matter what the cost...
Surely we've learned enough about God's infinite mercy to recognise this. Rather than reaping where he does not sow and gathering where he did not scatter, he is recklessly generous in pouring his resources out, regardless of our tendency to ignore them. 
In fact, it would be hard to imagine anyone less like the God we meet in Christ than the master in this parable.

So what is this story about, then? If it's not about appeasing a tyrannical Lord, nor about using the abilities God gave us (these talents are money - not a gift for singing or making cakes)..?

I think the nub of it all lies in verse 29: "to all who have, more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” - or in other words "the rich get rich and the destitute lose everything."


Now, that really IS frightening – not least because it's more than a wee bit familiar, if we dare to enage with the social commentators at work today. It can seem to be very close to the principle our society is working on...and it couldn't be less like the kingdom of God.

So – if piling on the profits come what may is NOT a sign of the kingdom, what should we be aiming for. As so often, it's frustrating to find ourselves with a passage isolated from its context. May I invite you, when you get home, to spend a few moments reading what comes next in Matthew's gospel – the prophesy of the sheep and the goats, where we learn that when the Son of Man comes, judgement will not be given on the basis of how much money we made, nor for that matter on how religious we were but rather on whether we cared for the least of our sisters and brothers in the human family. 
We serve Jesus himself to the extent that we feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the imprisoned...and we neglect Jesus himself to the extent that we don't.

So – let's try our parable again. It's nothing to do with making the most of your gifts, whether lavish or limited...Instead it's about looking hard at a world in which the rich get rich and the poor get poorer...because that world is NOTHING like God's kingdom. The world in which greedy, exploitative bosses impose a reign of terror on their slaves is not the one we are promised. That world is passing away even now, and Jesus will bring his work to completion; God's kingdom will come and God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Do you believe that? And if so, do you have the courage to live as if that world is already challenge the demands of those who would try to ensalve us to worldy standards by telling us that our security lies in amassing resources for ourselves no matter what?
It's not easy...It's genuinely counter-cultural...but we're kingdom people, and that's how we must live.

And as we inch toward Advent, let's look for the signs that Jesus was right, that the Spirit is living and moving, active in the world. This week we have been celebrating 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down. That was quite a moment! People were dancing in the streets and even on the Wall itself as that symbol of division was destroyed; they went home clutching graffiti-covered chips as souvenirs of an amazing event. It was the fulfilment of a dream and a hope, a moment when history changed gear, the moment of a lifetime, even. In 8 days time, Ali and I are going with a group to explore how life in Berlin since has lived up to that high point, to hear at first hand the stories of reconciliation and hope that have flourished there amid the wreckage of the old order. Tremendous!But, you know, I believe that something even bigger and better is on its way – and we need to look out for it.
We're looking for the coming of the Kingdom, remember.

So, where are you in the story? 
And where would you like to be?
I'm choosing to step out of it altogether.
Perhaps you'd care to join me and challenge the world that we see here. Let's not be the fearful slave, but dare to take a kingdom risk...the risk of living by kingdom values here and now, as we wait for its dawning reality.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

A Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 9th November 2014

In my last parish we had a busy funeral ministry, with barely a week passing without at least one trip to the crem. Among so many, some services stick in the mind because of events on the day, some because of family relationships, and some because of the memories shared. One such was the story of the departed grandmother, who as a little girl was taken from her bed in a village in the North Cotswolds one bitterly cold night to watch Coventry burn. It was miles and miles away, but somehow very close to home as she huddled in her nightclothes and watched the silent, sinister firework display. She later told her family that the flames of the city illuminated the reality of war for her, there, on the doorstep – interrupting ordinary lives, changing the world forever for people who had never signed up, people who wanted nothing more than to carry on as usual...people like us.

Shortly after taking that funeral, I took another – for a young man whose wedding I had conducted just a couple of years before. He fell under fire in Helmand province and the same friends and family who had packed the church for his wedding now filled it for his funeral. It made the cost of war feel very real, its stark reality close to home. The pain of war is inescapable, non-negotiable, whether you come to worship past the ruins of our beloved Cathedral or live in a village community with no visible scars.

This year, of course, we’ve had ample opportunity to remember the dead of World War 1, the British losses made visible by that red tide of poppies filling the moat of the Tower of London. When I was a child, Remembrance Sunday seemed to be mostly about them, the “old comrades” and each year those marching past the Cenotaph got older and older, until the last WW1 veterans disappeared and their place was taken by survivors from WW2 .For a while, there was a feeling that remembrance might not be necessary for too much longer.....that when the last veterans of the second world war died, the custom of remembering our war dead might die with them.
It was too long ago and far away, no longer part of our daily world.

Then, of course, everything changed.

Now there are young  men marching past the Cenotaph,men who have seen active service in Iraq and Afghanistan, men like the crew of HMS Diamond who celebrated with us here just a few weeks ago. Kids, really. We know the stories of the many boy soldiers who falsified birth dates to meet the minimum age requirements of the Great War. Thankfully, 16 year olds are no longer able to bluff their way onto the battlefield – but 19 is not so very much older...Just think. A levels one month, basic training and mobilization the next.

War isn't something long ago or far away.

That’s why we come to remember.

Remembering is the way in which we bring the past into the present, reunite the pieces of broken history and learn their lessons. Or not.

The choice is ours.

You'll know the proverb “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” and as we gather to remember, we have that opportunity again. It has shaped all that we do in this place from the moment that Provost Howard, standing in the ruins of his Cathedral, refused the easy route of revenge and sought instead the costlier path of reconciliation and forgiveness – and it’s something we all need to engage with, moment by moment, day by day, as we wait for the coming of the Kingdom.  The light of the bombed cities can clarify things for us, too, if we’ll let it. It’s a harsh light to see ourselves by – but sometimes we need that painful clarity, for the choice to hate is something that is open to each one of us, and we cannot ignore it.  Of course, war is rarely simple. Sometimes justice and peace seem mutually exclusive, but when ethics fail us, we can choose hope.

That is our calling here…the calling to offer reconciliation and hope in place of violence and despair…but that means nothing if we proclaim it without living it too.

We must all play a part in building God’s kingdom of peace, starting right here, through the words we speak and the care we take of each other, by rejecting suspicion and hatred, by daring to take the risk of love.

Today we remember.

We remember those who have been crushed under the heartache of war, and those who are being crushed by it still. We allow the reality of war to come home to us, so that peace can come home to us too and take root in our lives. And as we do that, the promise of God is that the tiny lights our small acts represent will become part of that great light that no darkness can put out.

There is another way, and by God's grace we will find it – so that we no longer have to watch youthful veterans march past the Cenotaph as we gather to remember.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

All Souls - a homily in memoriam HBW

Whenever we gather around the altar in obedience to Our Lord's instruction to share bread and wine it seems to me that the veil that separates earth and heaven is very thin.
Whenever we join the song of the angels in heaven “Holy, holy, holy...”
I'm certain that if we cannot hear the angel voices, it is only because we aren't listening hard enough....but today, as we gather to remember our own beloved dead that great community is closer than ever.

Odilo, the 11th century abbot of Cluny, gave us this feast of All Souls as a commemoration of “all the dead who have existed from the beginning of the world to the end of time.”
So we pray for them, looking backwards to those who have gone before us, but also forwards, praying for ourselves our children, and our children's children.
From the perspective of eternity, that barrier which we call death is non- existent. Where there is no time, no past, present or future, then there can be no endings or we sang this morning in the great hymn for All Saints
All are one in thee, for all are thine”

So today we pause to remember and to pray for those whom we love but see no longer, knowing that the ties that connected us in life, that made us pray for them and they for us, remain un-broken. As they stand in God's closer presence, I know they are still praying for we do for them.
We pray not to rescue them from the bonds of hell – our God offers unconditional love, welcome and forgiveness and we can be certain that Jesus speaks truly when he says that he will never turn away nor lose even one of those whom the Father has given him...
So – we do not pray in order to change God's mind.
How could any words of ours have more impact than his boundless love and compassion?

Rather we pray with thanksgiving for lives that have enriched our own and with confidence in the living hope that we are offered through God’s Son who destroyed death forever, and showed us that nothing in all creation that can separate us from God's love.
It is this realisation that enables us to rejoice, even in the sadness of separation.
The great Orthodox Kontakion for the departed puts it well
all we go down to the dust
Yet weeping o’er the grave we make our song
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia”

That is often hard to believe, to feel or to remember in the face of raw grief. I wrote most of these words earlier this week, before hearing of the sudden and painfully premature death of a much-loved nephew.
Today I looked at them again, to see if I still believed in them, as my family struggles to make sense where none seems possible.
Of course, this side of eternity loss and parting seem impossibly, unbearably sad.
We want to hold those we love close forever.

But – I do believe in a better reality, in a new heaven and a new earth, where there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying.
So – mourning is a natural part of human love – but mourning is not the same as despair.
Though we may mourn their absence for a while, we do so knowing that friends on earth and friends above are all one in Christ Jesus.

So let us pray with John Donne
Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening
into the house and gate of heaven,
to enter into that gate and dwell in that house,
where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light;
no noise nor silence, but one equal music;
no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession;
no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity;
in the habitations of thy glory and dominion,
world without end.