Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sermon for the Birthday of John the Baptist, St Matthew's, 2012

I wonder if you like your name.
Do you take pleasure in remembering why it was chosen for you, enjoy the sight of your signature, see it as a good reflection of the person that you are?
Or do you wish your parents had been more creative, less conventional – or maybe the other way round...
I like my name – but DISlike the spelling – though never enough to take decisive action to change it....
and I've discovered through years of asking for details as I book in baptisms, weddings and funerals, that many people feel very strongly about their names ...indeed, they are rarely neutral.
Only yesterday a baptism dad, asked for his full names proclaimed 2 out of 3 loud and clear – then resorted to a mumble, so that I had to ask him to repeat himself twice,til he explained that he really hated his 3rd name, chosen as a compliment to his grandfather.

And no, it wasn't Sisyphus or Ebeneezer!

But we do that, don't we...choose names to honour those whom we love or respect, to maintain a family tradition, perhaps to keep a memory alive.

Or there's another approach to naming – when parents choose a name that reflects their aspirations for their child.
Those virtue names that are firmly back in fashion...Faith, Hope, Prudence, Felicity...
names that carry hopes for the future, that try to shape personality and priority by a daily reminder of some lifetime goals..
Those names can be as hard to live up to as the other sort, which honours the past..
You see, we often expect names to carry a message beyond the immediate task of identification.
There's no denying, whatever Shakespeare would have us believe, that names are significant things.

The neighbours who came flocking to celebrate the birth of a son to Zechariah and hitherto barren Elizabeth had firm expectations -that the boy would be named for his father – and in due course, follow him into the family profession as a priest in the Temple.
Zechariah's name means “Remembered by God” - but when God not only remembered but intervened directly in this family's life, the impact left Zechariah dumbfounded.
In the same way, the guests at the baby's circumcision found their expectations confounded.
They had come to watch a tradition observed, to confirm once more their obedience to the Old Covenant between God and Israel...but found Zechariah silenced, unable to express his pride and joy,literally tongue tied....
And Elizabeth – that older mother who should surely have been proudly celebrating the fact that her husband's line would not, after all, dwindle and die....chose that day set apart by tradition, to turn her back on tradition and name her child John.
The first sign of the new covenant to come...a reminder that, whether we co-operate with him or resist him, bemused or baffled...GOD IS GRACIOUS – for THAT is what John means.

What's in a name?
Quite a lot, it seems, when that name is chosen by God – for, of course, an angel had already told the silenced Zechariah that this was to be his son's name...and had planted that same idea firmly in Elizabeth's mind too.
John – a name suming up not just Elizabeth's own perception of this miracle of belated motherhood
-truly this birth has come about by the grace of God alone, - but also, perhaps, representing a prayer and prophecy about that would happen later in John's life...
John – a child sent to remind us from the outset that God is gracious, for certainly this is no ordinary birth – and no ordinary child.

What, then, will this child become?
wondered the guests as they heard Zechariah speak at last, his tongue freed to confirm his wife's startling decision...
His name is JOHN
What will this child become, what is to be the fruit of this extraordinary birth, what the future for this baby graced by God?

Today's gospel leaves that question unanswered, though our reading from Isaiah gives us at least a clue if we really want to look ahead.
Let's stay with the birthday for a moment longer, though...for it offers one further insight into the coming ministry of John.
Had you realised that, apart from Jesus himself, John's is the only birth day that the Church invites us to celebrate?
John the midsummer saint – his birthday exactly 6 months before Christmas, as a reminder that he quickened, leapt in his mother's womb, when Mary came calling with her tale of a visiting angel and some life changing news.
At that point, his identity as a prophet was made clear – for as he leapt with joy, he recognised that his young aunt carried within in her the hopes of Israel and the Promise of God, pointed the way to the One at whose coming he rejoiced.

John the midsummer saint celebrated at this season of long days and short nights because, just in the same way the days draw in from this point of the year til we reach the winter solstice, so John's own light was to gradually diminish,
His mission was to go before Jesus and prepare the way for Him, and so once Christ's earthly ministry had begun the time came when John had to fade into the background and allow Jesus His place.
He must increase but I must decrease” he said – and in this he is a model for each of us in our journey of faith.

But all that lies ahead does his prophetic ministry, clearing a way in the wilderness, preparing the ground for God...
his challenging, disturbing preaching in the wilderness
his imprisonment and terrible death.
Today we have simply the miracle of his birth
and the way that his tongue-tied father finds his voice again, and bursts out in his own stream of exuberant praise that we know as the Benedictus.
Frustratingly, we don't hear those words this morning – but they are familiar to those who grew up with Matins and they are there to be found just after the gospel we've heard today – in Luke 1 67-79. If you do nothing else in response to my words, go home and read those...and ponder the difference that John the Baptist has made to the world, and what this might mean for us.

What then will this child become?
His father seems quite certain of the answer
And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the most high
For you shall go before the Lord to prepare his way
To give his people knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins...”

That sounds like a reasonable job description for one whose very name proclaims that God is gracious...and, unlikely though it may seem, this wild uncomfortable man, is indeed a model
for the Christian life.
Receiving grace, John is called to be a sign of that grace every day, to celebrate it with others, and to help them to see it for themselves.
This is no less the task of the Church...our task.
Receiving grace WE are called to celebrate it with others and to help them to see it for themselves

His midsummer light diminishes as the Christ light burns brighter....but while John lives, his calling is to point others to Jesus, through his words and through his deeds.
While we live, OUR calling is to point others to Jesus, through our words and our deeds.
He must increase, but I must decrease!”
More of Jesus, less of John.
More of Jesus, less of Kathryn, Mathew, Benedict....whatever name your parents gave you, you are here today because, in your life as in John's, God is gracious.
So give thanks and so live that others may see that through God's mercy and compassion the dawn from on high has indeed broken upon us.
Live so that others will come to know that truly God is gracious.
Thanks be to God!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Homily for 8.00 (& maybe 9.30) Proper 6 Yr B

The vicarage garden is, I have to say, so bad that it's funny.
Though I rather enjoy gardening, I simply don't have any time – and Andrew, who might have the time, has less than no inclination.
Couple that with the fact that when the new vicarage went up, I rather suspect that the builders simply dumped some topsoil on the rubble of the old, and add the presence of a digging enthusiast in the form of Libby the retriever, and hens who will eat anything that lies in their path....
You get the idea. Chelsea it isn't.
But for all that, we DO have a wildflower lawn...something I love for all sorts of reasons but mostly because it demands nothing of me at all.
The clover, daisies, speedwell and dandelions that flourish there owe nothing whatsoever to my hardwork or ingenuity.
They are there simply because they have self sown...and actually, if I decided tomorrow that I wanted a perfect stripey lawn, they'd be almost impossible to get rid of.
And that's also the case with the mustard seed in 1st century Palestine.
While some varieties were used as spice and others medicinally, in general they were considered at the very least a pest and often somewhat dangerous.
Why? Because wild mustard is incredibly hard to control, and once it takes root it can take over a whole planting area.
In other words, mustard seed was the ground elder of the ancient world...rarely found in well tended gardens, but overrunning a vacant field...
And that, you know, is the most wonderfully encouraging thought.
Jesus says that the Kingdom is like a mustard seed...which means that actually nothing can stop it
We may think that there are no signs of its presence...may feel that the human race is intent on self destruction, that selfishness, cruelty, death and despair are having things all their own way....but, imperceptibly beneath the surface of our broken, workaday world, the seeds of Kingdom transformation are growing...subverting the patterns of this world in ways that we can neither predict nor control.
And I think that's the point: this kingdom Jesus proclaims is not something we can control.
And it's definitely not safe, not, that is, if we're even a little bit satisfied with the way things are.
Rather, the kingdom comes to turn the world upside down, to make the prayerful song of Magnificat a living reality.
The seeds of the kingdom, tiny but irresistible, are also the seeds of hope – hope which moves us to action.
That's what Jesus offers, the dangerous hope that God's kingdom is coming and while we can neither control or even summon it (the farmer in the first of today's parables has no idea how or why his seeds grow) we can be alert for signs of its coming and celebrate its presence among us.
So this week I invite you to look at the world through Kingdom spectacles...
So now we regard no one from a human point of view”
See things differently.
Be on the lookout for signs of that dangerous, transformative hope of a new reality founded on Love.
And live into it... live your identity as a new creation, brought to birth by water and the Spirit, living in Christ and empowered to be a sign of the Kingdom yourself, in all its justice, and joy

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Trinity 1: a new kind of family

“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother”

Picture the scene.
Jesus surrounded by a crowd so huge that nobody is even THINKING about feeding them...and he's not telling them gentle stories about lost sheep or prodigal sons either...
Instead he is, not to put too fine a point on it, having a bit of a rant.
“How can Satan cast out Satan? …..Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven...”
It's not comfortable listening, even at the beginning.
Nobody much is enjoying themselves...
Small wonder that the Scribes, present perhaps to ensure that orthodoxy is attended to, set out to discredit Jesus – to divert his hearers in mid flow...
“Don't listen to HIM. He's not well...He's raving...Might even be possessed...Ignore him”.
And, in their task of persuading Jesus to shut up, to stop his incendiary diatribe, they recruit some rather unlikely allies...Mary and her sons.
Jesus's Mum and his brothers.

Happy families!

I remember reading this passage while my children were small and thinking
“If my children are ever that rude to me in public – I'll have them across my knee before they know what's hit them”
Nobody likes to hear family tensions being aired in a public space....and certainly the way in which Jesus seems to reject his own flesh and blood is an affront to those “family values” which were as powerful a force in 1st century Palestine as they are, in a rather different way, in 21st century Britain.
So, what's going on as Jesus asks his outrageous, offensive question, one that must surely have stung mother Mary like a slap on the cheek?
“Who are my mother and my brothers?”
What IS going on?
Is it possible that Jesus looks at them without really seeing?
That in the flood tide of his preaching he has actually lost sight of reality, forgotten who he is and where he comes from?
I don't think so.

As they appear, intent on leading him away, calming him down, winning his silence, Mary and her sons are allied with the voice of law and order, concerned to keep up appearances, anxious that Jesus should stop making ways – lest they should all be washed away and perish.
For the moment, they've sided with his opponents in the cause of a quiet life.
But Jesus?
He will have none of this
He rejects both his family and their agenda of status quo, peace and stability, and casts about instead for a new family, a core community more truly able to offer support and encouragement, to share his vision and the task he has embraced as his own calling.
He casts about, and lights on those sitting listening – hungry for his words, for all their tendency to baffle and to challenge.
A disparate group, brought together solely because they are drawn there by Jesus.
A disparate group with but one single calling
To do the will of God.

“Here are my mother and brothers...”
And so the Church is born – as surely as it is at the foot of the cross when Jesus gives Mary and John to one another, as surprisingly as when the Spirit came on the disciples at Pentecost.

The Church – the family of Jesus in truth and in deed...drawn by him and existing to do God's will.
It's as simple – and as difficult – as that!

Bur through the centuries it has proved so very hard for us to keep our grip on that central calling.
It's so much easier to be God's family in name than in truth.
But to live do God's will...that hasn't got any easier.

To do God's will continues to set us against contemporary values
It forces us to speak out against injustice – even the sort of injustice that is such an habitual part of life that we are barely aware of it.
It means that instead of being the voice of stability and tranquility, we find ourselves needing to make waves again and again and again.
It involves us in letting go of much that we treasure and long to cling to.

I'm very fond of Mary Byrne's great hymn “Be thou my vision”....and we often sing it in both our churches.
But think what we're singing
“Be all else but naught to me, save that thou art”
Nothing – not our families, not our friends, not our position in the community, not our much prized quiet lives.......NOTHING is to be more important to us than our focus on God and on doing God's will.

It's hard to think of a less comfortable calling.

It sounds so straightforward
“What does the Lord require of you? To do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God” says the prophet...
or, if you prefer, there is the great Commandment of love for God and for neighbour.
Except, of course, that it isn't.

Doing God's will means, again and again, upsetting other people...and that's hard.
We all like to be liked, enjoy being in good standing in our communities – but as C.S.Lewis pointed out in the final chapter of “Mere Christianity” the choice is between “nice people or new men”.
Too often, in the Church, we've opted for niceness – it might even be our besetting sin – so that tv vicars, for example, when they're not sinister to the core are damply ineffectual – their call to ministry revolving around being kind to children, cats and little old ladies.
Of course, there's absolutely nothing wrong with being kind...but it's not what the church is for!
We are here, purely and simply, to do God's live as signs of God's kingdom of love and justice and joy.
That won't often win us friends or allies...for the kingdom is founded on challenge not complacency.
It won't give us an easy ride, at home or abroad – indeed, an easy ride is almost in itself a guarantee that we've lost the plot.
It has been truly said that if we really preached the gospel, we would empty the churches – for the cost of obedience to God is higher than most of us are willing or able to pay.

But – and of this I'm certain – though doing God's will will not guarantee peace and prosperity it will full us with the kind of joy that stems from knowing that all our security, all our identity, is found in God as we seek to do God's will.

We will stumble, fall and fail a thousand times – our human nature pretty much guarantees that.
But still and all, we ARE God's family – drawn by Jesus, called to do God's will.
So let us pause for a moment, reflect, and confess in our hearts our failure as individuals and as community to BE the Church, the family of Christ...our tendency to settle for an easy compromise, our longing for approval from our family and friends...
and having paused, let us turn our faces to the Son and begin our journey again.
If we do so, I know that God's grace will meet us, raise us from death to life and bring us, through Christ our brother, to an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Trinity & Jubilee...words for All Saints, 3rd June 2012

This is an extraordinary weekend – one of those which surely will live on in our collective memory
The first Diamond Jubilee since Queen Victoria's
A festival of national and international dimensions, that is brought close to home by the multitude of picnics, street parties, Big Lunches and local celebrations of all kinds;
an opportunity to engage with our neighbours as we may not have done for a long time, a chance to celebrate being a community.

That's good because today the Church too invites us to think about Community – GOD in Community, - the relationship that is represented, however imperfectly, by the doctrine of the Trinity.

You'll know so many of the hopeful illustrations...from St. Patrick's shamrock, to the scientist's water/ice/steam or the school children's favourite the jammy dodger – biscuit, cream and jam...or even the Union Flag - but actually I think these take us further and further from what we really need to know.

Indeed, I think we could spend a lifetime attempting to understand the doctrine of the Trinity and, in the process miss the truth of it completely.

In Genesis God declared
It is not good for human beings to be alone”
and as we look at human life lived to perfection in the person of Christ we see him engaging not only with the people that he encountered in his earthly ministry, but deeply, intimately with his heavenly Father, in the power of the Spirit.

Relationship demonstrated for us, a reminder that we are designed to face each other, to draw together not turn our backs and walk away.

It is not good for us to be alone

And, amazingly, though God exists in relationship with God – God seeks relationship with us as well, and draws us into God's redemptive work in the world.

That's the message of the Isaiah reading.
We hear of the prophet coming, as we do ourselves, to worship God ...perhaps with no great expectations.
But against all expectation, he has a transforming experience....seeing God in the royal court, with cherubim and seraphim in attendance.
A vision of heavenly glory that puts even the most extravagant jubilee celebration to shame.
Heaven and earth touching as worship takes place.

And you know -that's how it should be for us, week on week.
In our worship, we should, as our own Bishop Michael has put it, “grasp the heel of heaven”...knowing that our half hearted praise and imperfect prayer is swept up into that great chorus of “holy, holy, holy” that resounds throughout creation
Heaven and earth are full of God's glory”
That's what we sing...week on week on week...
but typing it just now I was suddenly brought up short.
but we, we are invited to participate in God's mission in the world.

Woe is me...says Isaiah
I'm not equal to the vision...small, inglorious, I don't belong in this holy place, tarnished by life's guilt as I am.
I'm no more at home in the courts of heaven than a tramp at a royal Garden Party...

That's the human judgement.
But God sees things differently.
God sees not present inadequacy but future potential...and offers pardon, transformation – and a clear call to mission.

God offers this not just to Isaiah, once long ago...but to us, here and now.
Today we celebrate the response of one woman to the call that she heard from God
We celebrate the way that she has lived out the anointing that, at her Coronation, set her apart for loving service to this country and the Commonwealth.
We rejoice, for whatever your politics, there is clearly much to celebrate.

But all God's baptised children are anointed too.
Each of us is set apart for loving service.
We are Christians ...anointed ones....for “the Christ” MEANS the anointed One...and we are called to be little Christs...

Set apart for loving service, our experience, our journey, matching Isaiah's own.

We come to worship and glimpse for a moment the glory that fills heaven and earth.
We recognise our own wretchedness, but are absolved and transformed.
And then, like Isaiah, we are invited to take our place in God's mission, to reflect in our lives that relationship of self-giving mutual love that is at the heart of the Trinity...
Here I am, send me

Send me to build community....
to engage with my neighbour,
to find meaning in community,
to join hands with friend and stranger...
not to understand but to mirror, as best I can, that relationship of love in which we live and move and have our being.