Saturday, December 24, 2011

Instead of a Christmas card

As is fast becoming traditional, this year has seen a very patchy success rate in sending Christmas messages to all those whom I love. But, for me at any rate, it's really all about the baby. May you all know the peace and joy that is His gift to us...
In other words -


Salus Mundi - Mary Coleridge 

I saw a stable, low and very bare,
A little child in a manger.
The oxen knew him, had him in their care,
To men he was a stranger.
The safety of the world was lying there,
And the world's danger.

Light looked down and beheld darkness

Thither will I go said Light

That’s the most important journey, of course…the journey we are here to celebrate…the journey that makes all the difference to everything….
But St Luke’s account of the nativity is full of journeys.
Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem,
The angels come from heaven to the shepherds
The shepherds hurry to the manger.
It’s as if even at his birth Jesus is intent on stirring us up, on moving us out of our familiar ways, taking us out beyond our comfort zones.
Ironic, then, that we’ve transformed our celebrations of his birth into the epitome of traditions. We dream of Christmasses “just like the ones we used to know” and exclaim in distress if an “essential” carol somehow gets missed from the Midnight Service or too many features of our own ideal festivities are altered without permission.
Ironic because that baby is born to challenge and to change us…
The shepherds went on their journey – they saw the good news story with their own eyes – and then they had to go home and demonstrate that the baby’s birth really was good news for the whole world. Once the angels had stopped singing and gone on their way, the good news depended on them. Who would have believed their wild stories of a sky filled with angels if the events of that night had not changed the shepherds so that they began to live a new kind of life?
They turned from people who had been on the receiving end of good news, - who had heard it and seen it, - to people who were good news themselves.
And now we are invited on the same journey…called to travel even to Bethlehem
We’re not there just to see, marvel and return home to the status quo.
We go, just as we are, because we have no other option.
That‘s the only way that we can go.
No possibility of white-wash or self-deception here, since the Opne we go to visit is our God, our creator, a helpless baby swaddled against the night air.
But though we are all of us welcome as we are…we are called there to be changed.
There’s another journey to make…from self interest to love, from anger to peace, from despair to hope…
As we stoop to enter the stable, that cramped space that contains Someone greater than the world and all that is in it, we are invited to change….to offer our poverty, our inadequacy, our disappointment, our fear and to receive back riches, strength, comfort beyond all expectation.
We come as we are and are changed till we are as He is….

LIGHT looked down and beheld darkness.
Thither will I go,’ said Light.
Peace looked down and beheld war.
Thither will I go,’ said Peace.
Love looked down and beheld hate.
Thither will I go,’ said Love.
So light came, and shone.
So peace came, and gave rest.
So love came, and gave light. 
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Waiting for the present: a reflection for the 2011 Carol Service at St Matthew's

I wonder what you really want for Christmas, what you most long for as we look forward now to the coming festivities.
I know that if this were a congregation of children, everyone would have their hands up by now...but I'm not expecting that.
Instead I'll do some guessing.
Perhaps what you really want is your family gathered safely around you?
Or maybe health and security in the New Year?
Perhaps you dare only to hope for a pair of woolly gloves or some gift-wrapped cosmetics?

Those readings we heard from Isaiah are full of longing...for something quite different.
I wonder what you thought as you listened. Isaiah's prophecies, messages from God that look into God's future – are writings that were old long before Christ was born.
Perhaps you wondered why we had to listen to something that seems so far removed from the reality of daily life in 2011?
After all, that glorious vision of peace that is described here seems to be still just a vision: even as we prepare to celebrate the birthday of the One who came to make true peace a reality for all the world.

It's not easy, waiting...
It never has been.
It wasn't easy for Isaiah – we can hear the longing in his writing as he speaks of that day when the world will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.
And still we wait.
We look at the news and see greed and violence, cruelty and injustice – for ours is a world that bases its behaviour pretty much on “Me first and bad luck to those who stand in my way”..
No sign, then, of the lion lying down with the lamb – in our world or in our churches.

And it's easy to lose turn our back on God, or dismiss his promise of peace and transformation as just a pretty story to share with the children...something you grow out of when no longer look your best in a halo made of tinsel.

But nonetheless, we keep on celebrating – idealists and hardened cynics, the deeply faithful and the frankly sceptical...because life without hope is unbearable, and even the most hardened atheist can see that things could be better than this.
We need a Saviour – though we may not much like the one we are given.
You see, the God whose birthday we celebrate does not come to us in an unmistakeable demonstration of divine power...wading in to put everything right, however much we may wish that is what he would do!
Instead he creeps into the world, squeezes in where there is no room prepared – just another baby born in poverty, crying in the night with no proper roof over his head...
He does not come with all the might and splendour of a king, but begins his life as a refugee, fleeing from the terrible violence that Herod stirs up in his jealousy and rage....and of course the end of his life matches the beginning, as he hangs on a cross, with criminals on either side and a jeering mob at his feet.

I doubt if we would have chosen that sort of Saviour...because, of course, his way of life and even his way of death are what God invites each one of us into.
Jesus shows us, from the moment he finds a bed in the rough, dirty straw of the stable, that our own comfort, our own desires, are never part of the picture.
He doesn't offer us the easy life
BUT he does offer us hope.

Christmas and Easter are two sides of the same coin.
We believe in a God who loves us so much that he chooses to share EVERYTHING that we experience as human beings...The joy of family life, that we sang about in our opening carol, but also the effects of sin and strife that we've just remembered...
The choir's lullaby reflects this, combining soothing pictures of angel wings and considerately silent lambs with the shocking violence of all that lies ahead
Full woes in store for thee, for cruel men thy death shall plan and nail thee to a tree...”
Yes, we believe in a God who brings peace – at the cost of violence and death to himself.
We believe in a God who makes a gift of Godself to us, even if we seem to prefer plastic toys or gift wrapped cosmetics.
And we believe that actually, God's peace can be ours even as we wait...
and that we can be the agents of peace and goodwill in our own community...that as we come to worship the Christ-child in the stable, we can turn our worship into action, as we take our part in brining about that wonderful vision of which Isaiah spoke.

As we heard St Luke's account of the greatest gift of all, we listened once more to the message of the angels
Glory be to God on high and on earth peace”
Peace and goodwill
That's something WE can bring about, in our community – as we turn away from old grudges, reach out to neighbours and strangers and open our eyes to notice the forgotten, those whom nobody includes, those whom it is hard to get along with.

It's not easy...peace making is always costly but if we really tried, we could make ourselves into a gift for this community ...a gift that reflects God's love and is full of the hope of God's kingdom, not just at Christmas but on every day of the year.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Highly favoured? a sermon for Advent 4B

Behold the servant of the Lord
May it be with me according to your word.

It seems to me that, on a bad day, teenagers fall broadly into two categories. There are those who are world-weary beyond their years, whose only response to startling news of any kind is a characteristic shrug and a sigh of “Whatever”
And there are those who seem to think that we're all intent on making life hard for them...because, after all, it's all about them.
Their response to almost any announcement is an outraged
You've got to be joking!”
and it seems to me that often, in our behaviour towards God, there's more than a touch of the teenager about us.
We seem to be quite good at assuming WE know best how he should run things...and to descend into something quite close to the mood swings and slammed doors of teenage life if God doesn't fall into line with our expectations of just how our own pet deity, God in a box, should behave.
It's as if we thought that God existed just for our benefit – to smooth OUR way, to care for those whom WE love...
As if God was not just a personal God but OUR personal God...

I guess that must be part of human nature – perhaps part of what is unfashionably known as sin...We so place ourselves at the centre of the universe that our own agenda becomes the only thing we can really focus on.

David, certainly, was no stranger to believing it was all about HIM.
If you need any evidence, just think of the way he indulged himself with Bathsheba – and read some of the emotional outpourings of the psalms..
What's more, as befitted one of the greatest kings of Israel, he was absolutely determined to cement his place in history by being the one to finally pin God down – or at least to enthrone him – to be the one remembered for building the most magnificent Temple of all time.
Because, of course, if he was the one who built the Temple, he was in effect acting as God's host....and thus had God firmly and conclusively under his thumb.
God in a box once again.
His arguments sound good and plausible.
It's not right for me to be living in a palace of cedar when the Ark of God is in a mere tent...
But there's another agenda at work, for David knows that if he is the builder of a Temple, he will control the religious life of his people.

God, though, has other ideas, and is always greater than even the most amazing shrines we create for Him.
Ours is a God on the move...not one who wants to settle in a who is out and about, at work amid his people.
It's impossible, I think, to read this passage without seeing the image of a great Cathedral – a house dedicated to the glory of God – and that ramshackle encampment of tents set out before it.
And, with that image in mind, it's impossible not to ask questions.
Where would we most naturally expect to find God?
In the beautiful buildings dedicated to his glory?
If God worked according to our rules and conventions, that would be the only possible answer......but God's agenda is utterly different and so we must expect to be taken by surprise, again and again.

Ours is, famously, a God of surprises
He won't play by David's rule, won't be confined for the benefit of one man, or one family.
He has a larger scheme in mind
Ours is also a God who makes covenants.
Having put paid to David's ambition to win lasting fame through his architectural endeavours, God captures David in a covenant, which enshrines their relationship from then on and paves the way for all that follows...but never quite as we might expect.

For when God does pitch his tent on earth, it is not within the golden splendour of the Temple...nor in the palace of the King of Israel.
Instead God settles in the womb of Mary, - who is thus transformed into the ark of the new Covenant.
Amazingly she, an ordinary teenager in a small town, is able to offer a response of obedient hospitality that eludes most of us.

You'd expect confusion, even indignation.
You've got to be joking! What do mean I'm going to have a baby? I'm not married!
And later......what do you mean I have to travel on a donkey while I'm almost ready to deliver?
What do you mean I have to have my baby in a stable with animals? What do you mean I have to up and leave with my new baby and travel to Egypt of all places? What do you mean I have to watch my son
die? WHAT????? You've GOT to be joking.

But remember, though David's offer of accommodation for God was also an attempt to control God's self, Mary's response is something very different.
Behold the servant of the Lord
May it be with me according to your word.

Being 'gifted by God, highly favoured' is no guarantee of security or peace....
Whenever we reflect on Mary I'm reminded of some words spoken to God by Theresa of Avila
If this is how you treat your friends, it's not surprising that you have so few of them”
Who knows what Mary would have answered had she known what lay ahead...what her childlike confidence in God would really entail.
But somehow she is enabled, by God's grace, to set aside the teenage certainty that “It's all about me” and to make room in her heart, her body, her life for God's transforming presence.
It's not easy, even then, for her.
She is perplexed “How can this be?” - but nonetheless she is able to cede all control to God – and so finds herself intimately involved in the outworking of God's agenda for the world.

We too may find ourselves much perplexed – longing to have faith, to co-operate fully with God, but holding on too to that “all about ME” agenda that constantly gets in the way.
God's idea of what it means to be “highly favoured” is that the favoured ones are fully involved in God's work in the world...
Fully involved in alot of pain,in a spear piercing the heart, in that process of self emptying that is both at the heart of incarnation, and part of our daily discipleship...

God doesn't call us as self-absorbed teenagers, convinced that it's “all about ME”
He calls us as children, prepared to trust those we love to ensure that all shall be well...
He will undoubtedly surprise us, subvert our expectations (we might be wiser to look for him in the camp than in the Cathedral), will take us along roads that we would never have chosen, to places we don't much want to visit......

If we can offer the hospitality of our hearts and our lives, then God can do great things in us too.
Can we, dare we, pray today with Mary
Behold the servant of the Lord. May it be to me according to your word”

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Good news on Advent 2

With thanks to Revd Anne le Bas, whose sermon said most of what I had hoped to convey, with a fluency and coherence I was failing to match. Part of this sermon is a direct quotation of her words.

Where's the good news this morning?
Mark says that he is beginning to tell it, but it's not that easy to recognise at first, as we listen to our two prophets.
At first glance they might not seem to have much in common.
First we have Isaiah with his message that, for me at least, comes always with the music of Messiah pouring a liquid perfection that offsets the impact of the words...
Comfort, comfort ye my people...”

Or then again, there's John.
A wild man striding towards us out of the desert...beginning Mark's gospel without any preliminary niceties...bringing us straight up against our need to do some serious work if we want to be ready for the coming of the Lord.

Isaiah sounds a much safer bet as we curl up by the fire in anticipation of the cosy pleasures of a 21st century Christmas.
But actually, they share the same message.
We need, I think, to remember that comfort means, literally, give strength....fortitude...for our readings, though good news, are comfortable only in the sense that we meet the word in one panel of the Bayeaux tapestry, where we encounter Harold “comforting his troops” by nudging them with the point of his spear.
Nothing to do with warm slippers and chestnuts roasting on an open fire...but all the same, these ARE tidings of comfort and joy – though not quick route to an easy life.

You see, though we try, year on year, to focus on keeping Christmas safe and unchanging, that's not what Advent invites us to.
Listen to those prophets
Prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

Every valley lifted up...every mountain made low...that sounds very much like an earthquake...something that changes the landscape so drastically that nothing can ever be the same again.
Prepare a highway for our God...
Nobody ever welcomes a new road, however much they may use it afterwards...
Whenever one is mooted, the press is full of stories of protestors anxious not to see valleys and hills levelled, and the natural contours altered beyond recognition. No matter that a greater good may be evident, - perhaps an historic market town will be freed from the impact of streams of heavy goods vehicles, threatening the foundations of houses that have stood for centuries.
We don't like change...
Neither change in our surroundings, nor, I suspect, change in ourselves.

That's unfortunate, because unless we change, we won't ever be truly ready.
That's the message of Isaiah AND of John
We need to change, to repent because the kingdom of heaven is arriving.
That's why we find ourselves surrounded by purple at this season
Because Advent is a season for repentance
Now is the time for us to recognise the ways in which our lives are off course and to turn again.....
It's the only way
You can’t set things right if you don’t admit first that they are wrong.

The trouble is that most of us really hate doing that. We don’t like to feel
guilty or ashamed – feelings that almost always go with owning up to sin and
failure. In fact we’ll often do almost anything to avoid those feelings...
Even in our weekly Eucharist, we don't, I suspect, take the time to really look at ourselves in that short rite of penitence at the start of the service.....though that process of recognising our failures and our sins is crucial to our entry into the new life that Christ offers. Of course,traditionally the Church of England hasn’t insisted on individual confession to a priest on a regular basis, as the Roman Catholic Church has – though that option is available and valued by many who take their Christian lives seriously.
In any case, a corporate act of penitence is there in most of our services, and there with good reason.
Firstly, the fact that we begin with confession reminds us that we need to come out of hiding when we come to worship. If our relationship with God isn’t based on honesty then it is not going to get very far. And secondly the regular practice of confession tells us that it is safe to come out of hiding, safe to be ourselves, safe to present ourselves to God,
warts and all, and that’s where all this gloomy talk of repentance becomes a
message of good news.

The first letter of John tells us that “If we say we have no sin, we deceive
ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins he who is
faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all
unrighteousness.”  Let’s hear those crucial words again. “He who is faithful
and just will forgive us.” That’s not a maybe or perhaps; it’s a definite.
He who is faithful and just will forgive us. “ Often we find it hard to
repent, hard even to acknowledge there is anything to repent of, because
deep down we think there is nothing that can be done about it anyway. We
think that it’s unforgiveable, irreparable. No wonder we want to hide it. We
are afraid it would overwhelm us if it came up into the light. We claim to
believe in God, but actually we don’t. We only believe in us, in our own
ability to set ourselves straight. If we can’t think of a way to deal with
our sin, we assume that God won’t be able to either, so it is best to keep
it all firmly under wraps and hope it stays that way.

Mark tells us, though, that this is not the case. There is good news. It isn’t that we are just fine and dandy as we are. It is that God is not defeated by our sin – not even by the sins of those who nail Jesus to the cross. The love and forgiveness that seems quite beyond us – to give or to receive - is not out of God’s reach at all.

We just need to recognise ourselves as the flawed and failing people that we have the courage to engage with the road-works, to prepare the way in our hearts and our lives and then.....well, then the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all people will see it together.

Good news indeed.