Saturday, November 26, 2011

Sermon for Advent Sunday Yr B at St Matthew's & All Saints

Happy New Year!
Today we begin another cycle of prayer and worship – flavoured this time by the words of the evangelist Mark.
Today we being once again to look forward – to the celebration of God breaking into our world as the babe in Bethlehem and to that final resolution and remaking of all things in accordance with God’s will, which we know as the Second Coming.
We look forward – and so do our neighbours outside the church,
For once we seem to be looking in the same direction as everyone strains to see what lies ahead…but what are we expecting? What are we waiting for?

For our children, it’s pretty straightforward.
The first window of countless Advent calendars will be opened on Thursday, and so the Christmas countdown begins…
Not far ahead for the children lie presents… celebrations in school and at home, nativity plays and carol concerts, coloured lights and starlit magic.
For their parents, though, there is a chill in the anticipations…
Will there be jobs by January? Can Christmas be managed when there is so much less money around? Dare we look forward at all?
It's hard to be hopeful when the news is full to overflowing with tales of greed and misery, death and disaster.
But this is Advent Sunday, and the first candle on our Advent wreath represents hope for all God’s people.
So let’s try and lift our eyes from the headlines, to think about why we are here this morning.
Perhaps it's just habit, but I'd hope that there's something more going on.
After all, despite the pain of a broken world, we DO Have something to look forward to.
Advent is a time when we look again at how our lives fit into the big picture of God's relationship with God's people, past and future. We are drawn, in a heightened way, into what it really means for God to come to us and be present with us…with us here in Selsley and Cainscross…in this year of economic anxiety, natural disaster & political upheaval which is, nonetheless, the Year of Our Lord.
Our Lord.
God with us…not removed from our reality but immersed in it…sharing everything that we lament, all the pain which we struggle with.

Isaiah cries out in desperation for a dramatic intervention
O that God would rend the heavens and come down….and I guess that is the sort of cry that many would identify with.
We want to be reassured that someone is still in control, that things are not as chaotic as they seem…God seemed to be active in the past – and we want more of the same.
In the good times, of course, we feel no need to call upon God.
We’re in control of our incomes, our lives, our politics.
We feel safe, self-sufficient…why would we want to bother ourselves with a God who asks so much of us?

But at the moment, the world is full of frightened people, people who can see the darkness stretching ahead of them and are desperate for any potential source of light.

O that God would rend the heavens and come down

God rending the heavens….coming to us through brokenness…
The brokenness of our lives, and our world
The brokenness of the bread at the Eucharist
That is our route to God.
And, of course, it is one we’d choose to avoid if we could
Nobody wants to experience brokenness…

But remember, we are looking forward, aren’t we?
Advent is good news, right?
God is coming…God is with us…
But we need to remember that God with us has neve been just an easy option…The experience that Mark sketches for us in this "little apocalypse" may help us understand what’s going on around us now.
The church in which he wrote was dealing with the fall of Jerusalem, the end of the world as they knew it…and they were expecting Christ’s return in a matter of moments. But as they waited, things weren’t easy.
Perhaps each generation, in one way or another, faces what it sees as “the last days”, times when the landscape of their lives is radically altered, when valued certainties are swept away.
Here in the church, we bewail the way our neighbours and our children are no longer part of the worshipping family...We long to recreate past times, when things seemed more stable, more certain – but live in a post-modern world where everything is provisional, where truths are seen as relative.
Despite this, we are not called to nostalgia but to invited to look forward.
Keep awake
Look forward, not back.

No, we don't know what lies ahead for us...nor when Christ will come, but I don't think that matters. One way and another, all things will come to and end. We don't know when that end will be – for each of us as individuals, or for this beautiful, broken planet that we call home, but we do know that we can’t carry on as we are forever.
We don't need to know the timetable.
Jesus makes it clear that attempts to work out when the end might come are simply a wasted effort. Much better to use the time now…for what matters is to be awake, alert, ready.

When I was ordained a friend gave me a mug inscribed
“Jesus is coming...look busy!”
It was meant as a joke – and I greeted it with a smile – but it's also a reminder.
While we wait for Christ's coming, there's so much to do to , because we are called to be signs of the kingdom, good news ourselves, agents of hope amid the augurs of destruction.
Our waiting is not to be passive.
Time is a gift to be used in God's service – and these four weeks of Advent there as gift too – not for shopping, stressing, planning and buying but for waiting, expecting, hoping.
We know that there is much that needs to change in our world – there is injustice to be fought, greed to be challenged, cruelty to denounce and that is part of our Advent work as well.

We stand here on Advent Sunday and cry, with all God's people down the centuries,
“Maranatha – Come Lord Jesus”
We stand in the darkness, but we know that the light will soon be here.
And so, truly, we are looking forward.
Forward to new life that will overcome the pain of death!
Forward to a change in the way that each of us lives our lives.
Forward to the coming of the One who makes all things new.

Yes, Jesus is coming – and of course it’s in no way to be taken lightly – but surely, SURELY, that inspires joy and not panic.
This is JESUS.
The one who ate with outcasts and sinners, who touched untouchables and healed the broken
The one who meets us as we are and transforms us through his love and grace.

So don't panic. Panic spoils your concentration just as much as sleep does.
You need to focus, to be ready to respond to another person, to meet them with love.
Don't panic when someone tells you about suffering in the present or suffering to come: keep watch, and respond with love.
Stay awake, keep looking forward and respond with love.
There will be earthquakes and wars and famines, recessions and riots, as well as more personal catastrophes of betrayal, but there is nothing that can derail this train,
Jesus is here, and Jesus is coming.
Come, Lord, come.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Sermon for Christ the King: Year A.

Kings and kingdoms.
A recurring theme in Scripture and in the parables of Jesus.
A sensible image to take us into a deeper understanding of what it might mean to call ourselves Christians
The obvious topic for us to consider on this feast of Christ the King.
Or so it would appear.

Kings and kingdoms.
We all know what they are – don't we?

Maybe not.

It's not just that I've never sung “God Save the King”, that throughout my lifetime coins and stamps have borne a woman's image, that when I use the beautiful altar book presented to one of my parishes in the 1950s I have to substitute "Elizabeth our Queen" for the printed "George our King"...
More than that, the experience of monarchy in the 21st century west is utterly unlike that which we would have encountered at the time of Christ.
Our monarchs are essentially powerless figure-heads, whereas there was nothing nominal about royal power then, and the character of the king was só integral to the ethos of the kingdom that it was almost as if his DNA was written, too, into the fabric of his realm. His word was law – and alot more besides, só that the everyday life of his subjects was affected, for good or ill, by the royal priorities, the royal agenda. What the king says, goes.
Something to think about, perhaps.

If you prefer another analogy, 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 – as much as to judge between sheep and sheep.
You see, even as they set out to follow the shepherd, 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 justice and judgement.
Perhaps that sounds a bit more like what we expect from a king...but if we're still not sure, then perhaps the internet can help. I find it often does!
Earlier this week, I was updating my parish website and searching for suitable images to accompany publicity for this Sunday - the feast of Christ the King.
You might like to try that - it's quite an interesting exercise.
As you'd expect, there are pages and pages to choose from.
Ultra pious, rather saccharine depictions of the Infant of Prague, unexpected links to churches dedicated to Christ the King and a whole galaxy of icons, from across the Orthodox Tradition.
Apart from the photos of church buildings, all these pictures 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" about whom we'll be singing through Advent...but I'm not sure that this is the king of today's gospel.

Oh yes, that king is 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...truly a place of awe.
But if we aspire to belong to the kingdom in the meantime, then there are more important truths for us to hear today, 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 as he makes his grand entrance...and we may be in real danger of missing the essence of the kingdom and the king if we focus too much on the set-piece, deus machina moments that will complete our drama.

It's an easy mistake to make – one that we hear about again and again in the gospels.
Think of the Magi, eyes fixed on the star, dazzled by its brightness into calling at the obvious place – the royal palace of Herod – while the king they seek, like a subversive character from pantomime, waits in the least likely shelter....
Think of the Palm Sunday crowds who seem to speak prophetic truth as they shout “Hosanna to the Son of David” but whose expectations of uprising and messianic triumph are disappointed by the events of Good Friday.
Then think of the ways in which Jesus chooses to explain the kingdom – a mustard seed, a hidden treasure, some leaven mixed with dough - and remember just how close king and kingdom really are...

Not a matter of heralds with trumpets, of unmistakeable majesty after all....but of recognising the king where he is always to be found – with those on the edge.
Suddenly the question of judgement and choices comes close to we realise that it is OUR judgements, our choices, that will make all the difference.
And those judgements, those choices, will be governed by our allegiance – to Christ the king or to other rulers, other ways.

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.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Homily for Remembrance Sunday 2011 St Matthew's at 8.00

They will beat their swords into ploughshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
(Micah 4:3)

Today in this church and at memorials across the country we will gather to remember those who have died in war. Some will remember those lost in battle more than half a century ago – but still loved and missed.Others will focus on much more recent events...Today I'm remembering M,a young soldier whose wedding I conducted in this church just 3 summers ago.How smart he looked in his uniform that day, as he knelt here beside his a widow with a little daughter who will grow up not knowing her Daddy.
Today we're united in our thoughts as we give thanks for selfless sacrifice, confess that we too are part of a broken sinful human race that still follows paths of destruction, and pray for peace on earth & an end to the madness & waste of war.

Micah predicts terrible times of war for the people of Israel. But then he goes on with this amazing vision – the day when peace will replace warfare and swords will be made into ploughs.
Well, after 2700 years we are still waiting! Bad news.
In the years since the end of World War 2
there have been only 26 days
when there has not been a major war raging somewhere on the planet.
With the psalmist we might well cry “How long, oh Lord, how long”
Of course ultimate peace and justice and joy will come only at the end of time in the Kingdom of God.But it is never too soon to start cultivating the oasis of peace in the desert of our war mongering world.
In the words of Mahatma Ghandi,
Peace is not something that you wish for.
It is something that you make, something that you do,
something that you are, something that you give away.”
And if we really want to honour those who died in war,
we can do no better than by building a more peaceful loving world
for their children and ours.
Micah’s vision may not be fully realized, but as Christians we are called to make peace – to turn swords into ploughshares - again and again and again...We know that there is nothing that cannot be transformed by God...and as we wait for the ultimate transformation of our battered world, there are smaller transformations going on...each of them a sign of hope.
So, let me tell you a story...It comes from Christian Aid.
Senhor Sousa Manuel Goao,
was born near Maputo in Mozambique. 
In 1981, aged 23, he was kidnapped at gunpoint
by anti-government rebel troops
and forced to march 150 miles to a training camp in the bush
near the border with South Africa.
'They made us march barefooted
so we couldn't run away.
Anyone who did try and run was lined up in front of us and shot,'
says Sr Goao. In order to survive, his unit would hunt wild animals,
raid farms or attack civilians.
When the cease-fire was agreed in 1992,
United Nations troops were meant to disarm both sides.
They collected some weapons but most remained hidden.
But in 2001 Snr Goao handed over 5 guns -
four AK47s and an automatic rifle.   
He gave them to a small church-based charity
supported by Christian Aid
called the Christian Council of Mozambique (CCM).
In return he received a sewing machine -
he had two already which were given to him
in exchange for guns he had previously handed in.
CCM is a small organization
working with a couple of old trucks that keep breaking down –
but the organisation has collected and destroyed
more than 100,000 guns, grenades and rocket launchers.
Those who give up their weapons are given tools -
ploughs, bicycles and sewing machines.
In a land where many struggle to make enough money to eat,
a simple plough can be the difference between life and death 
The Mozambique government supports the operation.
It knows former rebels would not hand in weapons to the authorities
for fear they would be prosecuted.
The weapons are cut up in CCM's compound in Maputo
and the pieces are handed over to a group of Mozambican artists
who turn them into sculptures.
They even make chairs and coffee tables out of cut-up Kalashnikovs.

It is a practical solution based on the Bible”,
says Mozambican Bishop Dinis Sengulane.
”I say to people that sleeping with a gun in your bedroom
is like sleeping with a snake -
one day it will turn round and bite you.
We tell people we are not disarming you.
We are transforming your guns into ploughshares,
so you can cultivate your land and get your daily bread.
We are transforming them into sewing machines
so you can make clothes.
The idea is to transform the instruments of death and destruction
into instruments of peace and
of production and cooperation with others.”
(Christian Aid) 

Peace and co-operation...
Ideals to cultivate even for we who are spared the horror of living in a war zone.
For, you know as well as I do that the seeds of war come from within....that each of us has the potential to hurt and destroy or to mend and heal.
So, pause for a moment. Think of those things in your life...old resentments, pointless irritations, habits of intolerance or lack of love...
Know that these carry the potential for violence or destruction, that they destroy peace and harmony, within you even if they do no harm elsewhere.
Offer them to God....Lord, remake me...transform and transfigure me, so that I may become a peacemaker, blessed as a child of God.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Reflection for "Journey On; a service of remembrance and thanksgiving"

First of all, I need to congratulate each one of you who is here today
You are making one of the hardest journeys that we ever have to manage– and whether the losses that bring you here are recent and raw or quite distant in time now, you'll know that each day you keep on going represents a victory for hope and courage.

But you'll know too,that however much you are surrounded by the love of family and friends, this journey of grief can be a lonely one...especially as days turn to weeks, and weeks to months.
After a while, you may feel that you really ought to stop crying – that you should be pulling yourself together....
Probably, you know, you shouldn't.
If you still need to weep, then weeping is good...
And it seems very likely that those whom you worry you are worrying are still more than willing to be there beside you, come what may.

But I know as well as you that it can be hard to believe that when you wake in the small hours to an emptiness that it seems that nothing can fill...
It may seem that your grief is something that you HAVE to go through alone...that actually, nobody much cares how many hours of your life you spend in weeping, how many oceans of tears you may shed

But, you know, in reality you are NEVER alone in your sadness.
David, the king of ancient Israel who was no stranger to grief at the loss of a child, discovered that even when he felt most lost and abandoned, God was still there.
He wrote
You keep track of all my sorrows.
      You have collected all my tears in your bottle.
      You have recorded each one in your book. (NLT)
I love the image of God keeping all our tears in a bottle. The sadness that each tear represents matters as much to Him as it does to us...The tears of the families bereaved in the M5 crash, and those bereaved through terrorist violence.
The tears we weep for those we've lost and those we weep for hopes disappointed, for broken dreams.
It is hard to fathom God collecting every single one, but He does. He notices and He records each tear, each lament...and mingles them in one bottle with the grief of his own Son, the tears shed by Jesus.
Jesus wept! Its the shortest verse in the Bible but there's such a weight in those two words.
Jesus wept when he learned of the death of his friend Lazarus. Knowing that death was simply the ending of one chapter – with a whole wonderful story still to look forward to...perhaps even knowing that for Lazarus at that time, death would be transformed by resurrection in a matter of hours.....knowing all that, still Jesus wept.
He wept, I think, not so much for the loss of his friend but because he recognised and shared the pain of the mourners, because in his compassion he felt the overwhelming grief of humanity as we lament our own tragedies and losses.
For Jesus, as for each of us, those tears are a sign of love. It's love that is the meaning of our message in a bottle..and the things of love are always things to treasure.
So weep if that feels right...and even if you remain dry eyed, know that the feelings of love and loss that you are dealing with are so precious to our God that he stores them forever, close to his heart....and know, too, that the day is coming when God will wipe all tears from our eyes, when there will be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying.......for all these things will pass away.