Saturday, December 28, 2013

Sermon for Christmas 1 C - 8.00 at St Matthews & United service for Stroud team

On the 5th day of Christmas....our True Love gave to us....a reminder that the light shines in the darkness.
At least, I think this is the gift we can claim from this morning's gospel.
A few years ago, a confused curate at Midnight Mass read THIS gospel – to the crowd gathered for tidings of comfort and joy. As the training incumbent I was less than delighted. The preacher that evening would doubtless tell you that he was even more disconcerted - but perhaps a reminder of the darkness is not so very out of place.
So today with the birthday festivities still carrying on around us (Christmas lasts til Candlemass, remember!), we are invited to jump forward, beyond next week's celebration of Epiphany to hear what happened AFTER the wise men went home...Wibbly wobbly timey wimey, as Dr Who would put it.

But it's not exactly good news, is it?
It's a reminder that even as we come together in candle-lit churches crammed with children to celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Peace – the darkness is pressing very close.
Our story has a tyrant more sinister and malevolent than any pantomime villain.Herod the king in his raging has been booed off the stage for centuries – and it's tempting to see him as just a stock figure, there as part of the drama...Except that his spirit survives in our world today.
The darkness much heartbreak contained in just 1 verse of Scripture
When Herod realised that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 
And the weeping of the mothers of Bethlehem is echoed in the weeping of só many others through the centuries – nor are their voices stilled today. In our own lifetime we have witnessed genocide on a frightening scale...and the shadow of the Holocaust still lingers...and the children of Syria cry to us from the camps...
So much darkness that if the full Christmas story was turned into a film, I can't think it would be considered suitable for under 12s.
But we tend to censor the story. We offer our children – and our occasional Christmas visitors to - a sentimental candlelit version of events, complete with added chocolate. No wonder that many leave faith behind as a childish myth as they look full on at the hard places of the world. If Christmas is only about babies and stables and cuddly animals and stars – then there's little point to it.
But today we are reminded that there is tragedy built in from the very beginning. That Emmanuel – God with us – starts out as he means to go on.
He is here as a vulnerable child, forcibly displaced, seeking asylum with his family far far from home.
And in 33 years, his story will end in a similar vein, with God-made-flesh receiving the anger, injustice and cruelty that the world offers day by day.
But – he IS Emmanuel – God with us – beside us in the darkness, and pain and fear...and that's some help, at least. Companionship is always good – and often all that we can offer.

But, though Jurgen Moltmann would remind us that “only a suffering God can save us”, others would argue that if you are stuck at the bottom of a pit, there's not much point in your rescuer jumping in beside you – so that two of you are stuck, with no obvious means of escape. So surely “God with us” is good news only so far as his presence brings hope of change, the promise that suffering will end, that one day the world will be a safe place for ALL children – not just those whom we know and love and shower with Christmas gifts.

Perhaps that's where the epistle comes in, speaking of God bringing many children to glory and of Jesus as the pioneer of their salvation, who first enters into their suffering. It talks of him as a sacrifice – NOT a sacrifice to an angry, vengeful God, but a sacrifice to those structures of evil and oppression, those forces of darkness that still sacrifice children over and over, all around the world. God becomes one of us at Christmas and offers himself up to suffer what millions of children suffer - so that we might grasp what “God with us” actually means.
Because, it is never about endorsing privilege...God “With us” and “against Them”...God siding with one nation, one class, one faith group...
Never, never, never!
God with us means God there with every child, every family.
Yes, God with us is a gift to those who are celebrating Christmas safe and happy and secure – but his presence matters still more for those who are struggling, forgotten, locked away, abandoned, bereft.

The light shining in the darkness...showing it up for what it is...inspiring us, and all who are children of light, to work against the powers and principalities that seem to hold the world in thrall.
For if we are not part of the solution, working WITH God to transform this dark and broken world, then we too are part of the problem. Inaction is not an option.
Because the Christmas story is nothing to do with the saccharine and schmalz we might seem to be peddling. It's about eternity breaking into time...heaven touching that earth can become like heaven.
And that's costly...and hard painful work...for God with us, but for us with God as well.
So, to end, listen to this poem by Steve Turner – and remember that the light which first shone in the stable in Bethlehem was not extinguished on Good Friday – but shines still to bring hope to all the dark places of suffering today and always. Christmas and Easter -two essential parts of the same story – that Great Story in which we all have our place.

Christmas is really 
for the children.
Especially for children
who like animals, stables,
stars and babies wrapped
in swaddling clothes.
Then there are wise men,
kings in fine robes,
humble shepherds and a 
hint of rich perfume.

Easter is not really
for the children
unless accompanied by
a cream filled egg.
It has whips, blood, nails,
a spear and allegations 
of body snatching.
It involves politics, God
and the sins of the world.
It is not good for people
of a nervous disposition.
They would do better to
think on rabbits, chickens
and the first snowdrop
of spring.

Or they'd do better to
wait for a re-run of 
Christmas without asking
too many questions about
what Jesus did when he grew up
or whether there's any connection. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

With love for Christmas

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus

This is the irrational season
Where love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There'd have been no room for the child.

Sending much love many blessings and the hope and joy of new beginnings to all of you this Christmas and for 2014 too

Friday, December 20, 2013

The handyman of the Lord - Sermon for Advent 4C

The handyman of the Lord: homily on Joseph's dream

Behold the handyman of the Lord”
Thus a small boy of my acquaintance, composing his own lines before playing Joseph in his school's nativity play.
He was doing his best with an unpromising part that mostly involves holding a lantern and knocking on unfriendly doors – but when we reflect on to-day's gospel we realise afresh how vital it was that this Joseph listened to his dreams, which were every bit as significant as those of his forbear with the amazing
techni-coloured coat.

Clearly our Joseph is a busy man – so busy that God can only get through to him when he switches off and goes to bed.
Does that sound at all familiar?
It might be worth contemplating later – if you have time!
Certainly Joseph has a lot on his plate.
We don't know how or from whom he heard the news of his fiancee's interesting condition – and can only imagine the dismay, grief, anger the tidings provoked.

All his hopes, plans and dreams shipwrecked in an instant!

Disappointment for him – but something far worse for Mary.
We are told that Joseph was a righteous man, - but to be righteous under the Law would surely lead him to heartbreak.
You see, the Mosaic law was clear and uncompromising: the sowing of wild oats was not acceptable.
Since Mary's pregnancy owed nothing to her betrothed, both she and the father of her unborn child should be put to death by stoning without further ado.

That was what the law demanded, the proper punishment for sexual sin – though a more generous option was available, - the quiet divorce.
It seemed that Joseph must choose between his love for God, represented by obedience to God's law, and his love for Mary.

Righteousness was set to cost him dear, even if he tempered it with compassion.

With this decision and its ramifications going round and round in his head, small wonder Joseph's sleep was plagued by vivid dreams, and visions of angels.

I'm always wryly amused by how often in Scripture an angel's opening gambit is “Do not be afraid”
Who could fail to be at the least thoroughly disconcerted by the appearance of a heavenly messenger – even before listening to his message?
Angels never arrive to confirm the old order, but to herald the dawn of something new as they point to the evidence of God's future breaking in to our present.
Exciting? Possibly.
Challenging? Certainly.
Reassuring? Probably not.
And it is this future that Joseph is asked to embrace.
He is invited to set aside the strictures of the Torah, “the way we do things round here” and revert to Plan A.
Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife..”

It seems he doesn't have to choose after all – not if he can take a leap of faith and believe in his dream.

We don't know if this was a struggle for him.
Our reading of this passage is coloured by the assurance that
the birth of Jesus took place in this way” we know from the outset that the birth WILL happen...forgetting that Joseph had the option to derail the whole thing by clinging to the letter of the law, and the familiar habits of a righteous Jew.
Surely a huge chapter of uneasy conversation and the dawning of cautious hope is glossed over as Matthew tells us
When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded...”

It sounds so simple, even glib, put that way...but I suspect it wasn't.
Trust and obey” is all very well as the chorus of a song – but in my experience that kind of trust is costly. Wrangling with God, whether by night or day, is a familiar part of the journey of faith – and like Joseph we do have a real choice – to go with the grain of God's will or to resist and cling to our own assumption of how things should be.

The weight of Scripture and tradition or a troubled and troubling dream, urging a new compassion?

Which would you use as a guide?

You see – it really isn't straightforward!

Whatever fightings and fears Joseph experienced,
however he got there –
his dream carried the day.
So it was he who named the child and thus plunged himself forthwith into the upside down world of God's kingdom – for in the act of naming he proclaims the babe his own – but the name that he bestows in itself proclaims that this child has another father and a different future.
You will call him Jesus – for he will save his people from their sins”

A name and job description in one...too bad if Joseph had hoped to assert his paternity and satisfy convention by giving the child a family name.
This is the new order in which nobody will have to reap what they have sown – not even a single mother in rural Palestine – for grace and redemption will be available to all.

Fresh hope delivered at the point of darkness and despair.
Joy coming in the morning.

And Joseph's own role in salvation history?
Is he simply required to get out of God's way...just a token figure there to meet the demands of social convention?
The 3rd leg that will stop the stool from wobbling?

He never speaks – not once in all the gospels – but though he is a man of few words, who might seem most at home in the “supporting cast”, his actions really matter.
Mary is passive - “Be it unto me according to your word”, - but Joseph will, again and again, be required to do something –
To safeguard God's baby son by giving him and a name and an identity as the Son of David...
To provide safe escort for the journeys – to Bethlehem for the birth, to Egypt for safety's sake.
Perhaps even to act as midwife, helping that child into the world – delivering the one who would deliver us all.

Joseph's actions make a difference.
Matthew wants us to know that they are part of the way that prophecy is fulfilled – even as they seem to challenge the old order and point to a world changed beyond recognition.
Joseph is a key player after all. God is relying on him – HIM – to bring his plans – and his Son – safely into the world.

We shouldn't be surprised by this – even if Joseph was.

Trudging beside the donkey in a thousand nativity plays, he can stand for each one of us.
God invites us to collaborate with him, to further his plans in our time – but it is always an invitation, never a bullying demand.
While Mary was uniquely blessed as the God-bearer, the Mother of God – the Christ-child needed a father too – the handyman of the Lord, the carpenter who worked with the grain of God's will to make something beautiful in our world...

Let's take our cue from him – and join in with that work today.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Are you the one who is to come?...Sermon for Advent 3A

Are you the one to come, or should we look for another?

Last week we heard about John the Baptist, stepping outside Society into the wilderness, to prepare the way of the Lord in the best prophetic tradition. This week we remain with John, but the Gospel presents us with a very different figure. He has opened his mouth in strident denunciation once too often, and now he’s in prison. The herald on the royal road has lost the initiative and is now confined in a gloomy dungeon. Not surprisingly, he is also a prey to doubts and fears, of the sort that tend to assail most of us when illness, unemployment or some other enforced inactivity allow us too much time alone. So…it’s not hard to empathise with John now, in a way that I couldn’t last week, when he was on top form, making us all feel thoroughly uncomfortable. 
Self-doubt looms large. 
He’s been so sure of his message, utterly convinced that God’s Messiah is imminent…and now, - what’s gone wrong? 
Has he completely misinterpreted everything? 
Did God really want him to be a prophet at all? 
Oh…poor John. His is the experience, I would guess, of everyone who has ever answered a call to ministry, or discipleship. 
He thought he knew where he was going but now something has come up to challenge his expectations and cast doubt on the whole thing. The truths that seemed so obvious in the full sunlight of Jordan’s bank shift and threaten to dissolve in the darkness of captivity. 
We’ve all been there.
“Are you the one to come, or must we look for another?”
But what has changed in the externals, to give rise to John’s questioning? From our perspective, Jesus seems to be doing all the right things…. teaching…healing….restoring life where it seemed impossible. John, though, had a different template for his Messiah, and it’s one we’ve heard described in our Old Testament reading. 
“Here is your God. He is coming with vengeance, with terrible recompense. 
He will come and save you”
Poor John. He doubtless felt that he could do with a bit of saving himself at this point….he’d preached so eloquently about the axe coming to the root of the tree and now the axe was perilously close to his own neck, yet his cousin didn’t seem to be doing much to help. Small wonder that he was anxious. His enemies were not being struck down with God’s vengeance…He had rebuked sinners in God’s name, but now God was not doing anything to rescue him from their hands.  It just didn’t make sense. He must have got it wrong.

In the same way, so many people find that they aren’t able to sustain a belief in God when God seems to ignore their needs, and their distress. They pray for a miracle, but a child dies. God seems indifferent or powerless, and they prefer to look for another, more malleable alternative, a Messiah to match their expectations.
They take offence, just as Jesus seems to expect them to, and move swiftly on, saying with Teresa of Avilla
“If this is how you treat your friends, Lord, then I’m not surprised you have so few”.
However, Jesus does not go into defensive mode, nor does he criticise John for voicing his uncertainties. Equally, he does not mobilise his disciples to rescue John from prison. Instead, he goes on without fuss or drama, simply delivering the Kingdom. He offers John the reassurance that his deeds fit in with one strand of the messianic prophecies, 
“Go and tell him what you hear and see”.
There is no theological debate about the nature of the Messiah, but a radical demonstration instead – phrased in the familiar words of Isaiah 
“the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the good news preached to them”
I do hope this evidence convinced John, and allowed him to sign up with confidence for a new kind of Kingdom, in which cruelty is replaced with mercy, cynicism with confidence, fear with love.
He had chosen to go into the wilderness, to answer his calling as preacher and prophet...but it's the inner wilderness of anxious doubt and near despair that needs transformation – for John, and for us.

That desert experience of doubt is an almost universal one, but the God who brings sight to the blind and raises the dead brings restoration and refreshment even to our wilderness in his own good time. The river which “breaks forth” in the desert has run underground, unnoticed for a long time before it emerges into full view – and that's the way, too, with Kingdom signs, Kingdom action.
We won't always notice anything happening – nor will we feel that God is at work...and perhaps there will be no signs at all until, suddenly, new life bursts forth unlooked for. 
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom…and rejoice with joy and singing”

Advent is the time of great expectations – of travelling hopefully – looking always ahead to see the signs of God's Kingdom breaking in. Despite the darkness of school shootings and sudden bombs...of lengthening queues at the Food Bank and frightening statistics of child poverty...we will not be disappointed.
There is no need to look for another. 
Our deserts shall blossom, so  let us return with singing, and rejoice that we are the ransomed of the Lord – the Christ who is even now at work transforming the world that he loves so much.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Towards a sermon for Advent 2 A at St Matthew's & St Lawrence

It was a delight to spend some time here yesterday, admiring the wonder that is the Christmas tree festival.
To see St Lawrence's full of light and warmth...To wander among the trees and think of all that they represent so many different community groups, so many stories of passions shared and struggles transformed by co-operation, friendship and creativity.
I spoke to one lady who told me she visits every year – and is specially glad of the festival when things aren't going so well in her own life and we agreed that the POINT of Christmas is to light up the tough times – and it seems to me that the festival is an excellent illustration of that.

So – I wouldn't have been too happy if John the Baptist had suddenly arrived in the middle of the festivities & systematically set to to chop down every single tree...

But – in one way he's right.
There comes a time when we do have to clear things away – even things that we've loved and valued.
We need John's intervention – to make us ask what fruit the trees in our life-landscape really bear...whether they are blocking the light and stopping other things from growing or still have a valid and valued place where they stand.

Of course, John is speaking in a specific context. When he talks of taking an axe to the tree he wants his hearer to recall the image we've been reminded of in our 1st reading
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;”
From where John stands, that that noble family tree of God's chosen people looked nothing but a withered remnant.
Those who set out to safeguard its heritage had lost their way and were relying on their family history to assert their value here and now and their ticket to heaven hereafter.
Instead of belonging to a family to be proud of,they'd become no better than a brood of snakes – dangerous and deceitful in equal measure – bearing no fruit whatsoever.

Hence John's role as the mad axeman!

He's such an extraordinary figure as he stands centre stage today.
The unexpected child of worthy, religious parents, from the moment his name was chosen
(John – not Zechariah...JOHN!) he stepped aside from their respectable heritage, chose another path, claimed a heritage with the prophets of old.
Dressed like Elijah he brought his listeners back to their roots, reminded them of their ancient covenant with God.
A man on the edge, he chose to live and minister miles away from civilisation, yet drew crowds from all over the country.
A radical voice he brought new meaning to a familiar religious custom, exhorting his hearers, one and all, to prepare.
Clear away the rubbish, strip out the dead wood, straighten the twisted, distorted pathways of your heart,
The Lord is coming!
Prepare and repent!

That was his message then...but it's also his message for us today.
It's all about bearing fruit – so that we can stand as a sign of God's kingdom.
Our second Advent candle stands for all the prophets who've proclaimed that same message as God's people readied themselves to welcome the Saviour...but it stands too for the prophets of our age...those who, like John, remind us to keep a check on our lives, our churches, our governments – to see if they are bearing fruit

And, of course, Nelson Mandela stands in that same great tradition. He spoke God's truth in the face of persecution – and he LIVED that truth in his determination to forgive.
Prophecy is about DOING as much as about saying...about demonstrating in the face of all that is broken, wrong and distorted that there is another way – the way of the Kingdom.

The bishop of Bradford Nick Baines wrote yesterday
Mandela demonstrated to the whole world the possibility for justice, redemption and peaceful change... he defied the nay-sayers of this world and dared to believe that power could be held without corruption, without violence and with a load of fun. He made the Rainbow Nation a reality and subverted the norms of other political leaders....”

So this week the world resounds with tributes – and that's as it should be...but it's fair to remember that there was markedly less enthusiasm for Mandela from some quarters during the apartheid years. He challenged too much, disturbed things to the point of uproar – and some just couldn't cope with that. Prophets are never comfortable...that's the point of them! They hold up a mirror – to our world, to our churches, to our hearts – and let God's light shine...
Then we can see who we are – fallen people, doing our best in a fallen world – and glimpse too who, by God's grace, we might become.
Because prophets exist not just to cause discomfort for its own sake but to make us REPENT.
That's a word heavy with negative connotations...regret, sorrow, penitence, penance.

But, the Greek word that Matthew uses is so much richer.

This word carries the sense of a whole change of mind, a change of heart. Something about a before.... and an after ….A happening, a reflection, and a decision.
It's not just about understanding and being sorry for past failures – it's about resolve to live in a new individuals and as societies and nations.
That's what Mandela called South Africa to model...and today we marvel at the fruit that was gathered from the tree HE planted.
Fruit of forgiveness and transformation – fruit of hope for South Africa and for the world.
And, like many another prophet, he spoke with passion of something that had yet to come about.

But the prophets speak to us too...
They call us to a larger imagination. Rowan Williams pointed out that while
“”Most politicians represent an interest group, a community of people who vote for them and whose interests they serve. Nelson Mandela was different; he represented a community that did not yet exist, a community he hoped would come into being”
In other worlds, prophets call us to look at the world as it is and then to work to create the world as it might be.
A world that is truly ready for the coming of our Lord...a world that displays Kingdom values lived out for all to see

The call of John resounds through the centuries, a challenge for us this Advent and beyond. He calls us to repent, to change direction and clear away the dead wood because the kingdom of heaven is arriving, that kingdom founded on justice and joy, where mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other...

So – let's rejoice in the kingdom fruit around us today and commit ourselves once more to share in the work of bringing in God's kingdom in our time and in our lives.

Friday, December 06, 2013

The eagle and the ox: Advent bookclub days 2 and 3

I was in school yesterday, being put through my theological paces by year 3, who never fail to pose some challenging,mind-stretching questions.
Yesterday was no exception, from the personally probing
"Do you think you pray enough?" (A: Of course I don't), through the heart-rending "Does God stick by you if you're having a bad time?" (Yes...but He wont always make the bad times stop) to the wildly speculative "What was Jesus' favourite Bible story?"
I wasn't too sure of that...wasn't even sure of my own favourite,to be honest,- but if they had wanted to know my favourite book in the Bible...well, it has always,from early childhood, been John.
John,soaring on eagle's wings above both time and me a sense of the vastness of God...trumpeting His transcendence.
I love John.
"In the beginning was the Word..." and words unlock the mystery,do it for me every time.

But.…I'm a people person listening to stories, discovering how God works through ordinary people, on ordinary days.
Luke and wonderfully, extraordinarily different!
One offering "an orderly account",with an eye for the finest genealogical detail, the other painting his picture with such huge brush strokes that it covers the cosmos.
One placing the birth of Jesus in a particular, specific moment in history, the other reminding us that this child is bilingual, speaking the language of both time and eternity.

Two different voices, addressing different contexts, different needs.
I am thankful for them both.

But, to return to the children's question - I have thought of one answer. Surely,in the weeks leading up to his birthday every year, he must like many another child have asked Mary
"Tell me, - tell me about how I arrived....about how you felt and what Dad said, and who came to see us..."
And gathering her small son on her knee, Mary had the same huge choice to make.
Which version?
The one rooted in history
"The Emperor wanted to count the people..."?
Or the one that she was still trying to understand, the one quite different from the birthday tales of all her son's contemporaries and friends
"It all began with an angel..."

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Deadlines or horizons: a post for Advent Book Club

"A wizard is never late, or early. He always arrives precisely on time", claimed Gandalf.
Well, maybe...but I am no wizard.
The temptation to try and squeeze in "just one thing more", the endless distractions of people, words,pictures, means I am often rudely, shamefully late.
Deadlines are both a blessing and a curse, building up pressure to an almost unbearable degree at times, but ensuring that generally everything gets done in the end.
So I was struck by Maggi's observation that Christmas often feels less like a festival to celebrate, more like a deadline to be grappled with...
And a deadline,of course, is the trip wire that stretches across our time, crossed at our step over the line and we're dead. Not much to look forward to...though earlier today I read of a nineteenth century cleric who greeted his death with words the gist of which was "Hooray and about time too."
But, despite the madness, I do look the two endings of our Advent journey... When the busyness stops, the church door is closed softly and we too find ourselves kneeling at the manger on Christmas day...
And when our life journey ends, when we no longer see through a glass darkly for the glass has been removed and we see face to face. On my ember card when I was priested 8 years ago I quoted the psalmist.
"One thing have I desired of the Lord. This is what I seek. That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple."
That lies at the heart of my Advent longing...that sense of straining forward to glimpse what lies beyond the horizon, the limit of my sight.

Not a deadline after all...

Monday, December 02, 2013

Advent Book Club...

Advent...the season above all when over-busy clergy run the risk of that we will 'have the experience,but miss the meaning'.
Every year I have such high aspirations, and every year I fall over the tangle of fairy lights and festive ribbon and realize I've failed again.

It seems a long time since I had the privilege and pleasure of helping to proof read Maggi's lovely book "Beginnings,Endings and what happens in between"...back in the days of curacy when reading and reflecting, even blogging, was a daily reality. I'm aiming for realism this year, so though I've signed up happily for the Advent Book Club of some twitter friends,I won't expect to blog every day...But it is good to be traveling thoughtfully again, in company with others - and with Maggi leading the way.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thoughts for Advent 1 at 8.00

With not enough time today and an early start tomorrow, I was thankful to find this reflection for Advent Sunday in my archives. The only problem is, I have NO recollection of either writing or preaching it! Did I find it somewhere and archive it because I found it helpful (in which case, profuse apologies to the author whose words I've unintentionally stolen)...? or did I write it under pressure and then erase it from memory as the tide of preparation engulfed me? I've no idea.
But I'm going to use this at 8.00 tomorrow - and very thankful it's available, however it arrived!

We have probably all been on a long trip with a child who kept asking,“Are we nearly there yet?” We know that long car trips are hard for children, but we also know that this question can quickly drive us to the edge of desperation...We know we only left home 20 minutes ago, and this is a two hour journey!
Patience is a virtue........” my father would say...but somehow this was never a virtue I wanted to cultivate.
I don't much like waiting.

This could present me with a problem, then.......for Advent is a season of waiting and expectation. We have been celebrating the season of Advent, waiting for Jesus in the season of hope and expectation for generations, asking again and again
Are we nearly there yet?”
and, in one sense, the answer is “no”...look around you and you can see that the world is still far off being the Kingdom of God..

Yet, in another sense, we arrived there about 2000 years ago, as God entered our world as the baby in Bethlehem....the Kingdom of God broke in to our world, and nothing has ever been the same since.

And in still another sense we know we will arrive breathless and disorganised, on December 25 just as we do every year. The Christmas cake will probably not be iced, the stocking presents largely unwrapped...
The Advent journey is just beginning, so clearly we have a way to go yet.

We can expect to travel through the month of December and we know that we will arrive safely at the manger on Christmas Eve. That's what Advent Calendars exist to show us. Christmas is coming, ready or not, and so Mary will be visited by an angel, a decree will be sent out from Caesar Augustus and the couple will make their weary journey to Bethlehem. Magi, star gazers from far away, will arrive some time later and then we will pack up the whole thing and set it aside for another year........
It’s the same story we have been reading for close to 2000 years. We sing “Silent Night, Holy Night” and it can be as if we are actually transported back 2000 years and we can smell the animals in the stable and hear the unmistakable cry of a newborn baby.

Are we nearly there yet?
The Advent journey also takes us personally through a journey of self-discovery and change. When we sing to the Christ Child
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today” we are inviting God to give us our own personal experience of the holy.

In the third and hardest to grasp dimension of Advent waiting, we hope for the time when the singing of “Joy to the World” will be true LITERALLY. We hope for the time when all weapons of war will be changed to those designed for agriculture. It is the world actually living by God’s laws and it is world where Shalom is fully realized and there is no mistaking that sin and evil are a thing of the past. 
Are we nearly there yet?
Three possible ends to our Advent journey – and each of them is a true part of the whole.
Sometimes we don't feel at all like Christmas and in those years we can go deeper into the tradition of “Emmanuel”, God with us in all our messy every day the places of disappointment, grief and loss.
Sometimes we really, really need to get beyond what can be a superficial expression of peace that only thinly covers the consumerism that marks the traditional Christmas. We need to sit and experience the presence without focussing on the presents that can be wrapped and put under the tree.

Do we wait for something that will last longer than that 35 pound Christmas Turkey that took two people to lift it into the oven? It seems to me that we wait best by living that for which we wait and hope into being. If we hope for peace on earth we wait for it best by living the peace in which we believe in the best we can. We may not be able to beat our actual swords into actual ploughshares (I don’t even have a sword to start the process with) but we can convert some of our resources into food for the poor
We can bring into being the real meaning of Christmas by focussing more on things we cannot buy and on relationships and on the things that will last.
We can live into the peace for which we hope by stepping off the overpowered treadmill on which we live for one day a week and slowing down, recharging our batteries, and focussing on the things we must enjoy before they change...

The passage from the gospel that I read just few moments ago is about being ready at all times, and about not being surprised that we are surprised. It is about being ready to experience grace in the most awful of circumstances because God is present at all times.
So, as we look forward in hope, we can confirm with confidence our answer to that recurring question
Are we nearly there yet?”

Yes we are...because wherever we are in our Advent journey we know that the God who so loved the world is travelling with us.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

First in my heart - a sermon for Christ the King Yr C at St Matthew's

Today, the feast of Christ the King, represents New Year’s Eve for the church. 
Next week comes Advent Sunday when we begin to tell the story of our faith all 
over again. Next year our readings will come more from the gospel of Matthew, after a 
year of emphasis on the writings of Luke – but the cycle of the stories and the shape of their telling remains the same. We are so nearly ready to look forward to the nativity and to the 
coming of Christ at the end of time…but today our readings present us with the end of his 
earthly story, events we last thought about at Passiontide. Altogether, it seems a strange 
time and a strange way to celebrate his kingship…so just how did this feast come about?

I’m afraid it's not good news! It was established only in 1922, as part of a political 
deal struck between Pope Pius XI, and Benito Mussolini. Neither of these men had much 
time for democracy, and indeed Mussolini granted the church wide-ranging favours in 
exchange for political silence. The Feast of Christ the King was part of a package to 
reinforce the authority of both church and state.... So today we're celebrating something 
that arose from a dodgy deal between a fascist politician and a powerful church. Hmnn. 

However, the origins of the feast effectively point up the kind of irony which exists 
when we use human concepts of Kingship and power to describe Jesus at all. As you 
might expect, it's kingship with a twist...we are invited to celebrate the reign of Christ, but 
we look at the gospel and see not a coronation procession but a ride to the scaffold...
Today Jesus holds centre stage,in complete vulnerability, for it is hard to imagine anyone 
with less power than a man fixed to a cross with nails through hands and feet.
There are a lot of people talking about kings and kingship in this story of the death of 
Christ, but most of them are speaking only in mockery. 
Above his head the sign reads “This is the King of the Jews”, sentence and proclamation 
in one. 
The irony is intentional. 
There’s no kingly glory here, no jewels or gold, just a squalid painful death. 
Some king, some leader...with not a follower to his name.
Leaders are called to be strong, commanding...worlds away from the helpless man who 
has no option but to listen to the taunts of the soldiers, their raucous invitation
“If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself”
We know, with the benefit of 2000 years of Christian teaching, that saving himself is not 
part of Jesus' agenda.....though salvation is indeed being won as the crowds gawp and 
We talked about this at Thursday's housegroup – worried that we would almost certainly 
be deserters...choosing safety over friendship, even with Jesus. How could they know, 
how could WE know, who it was who hung there? 

On the whole, we might prefer to gloss over the crucifixion.

Even our epistle could tempt us to do so, with its lyrical celebration of Christ's divinity
“He is the image of the invisible him all things in heaven and on earth were him all things hold together...” 
Here we are celebrating the cosmic Christ...the one whose rule is obvious, non 
negotiable...It seems incredible, as we listen to Paul, that anyone anywhere could fail to 
submit to his rule...It is transcendent...written into the fabric of creation from the very 
beginning.......but the route to reconciliation is hard won...
“By making peace through the blood of his cross”.
A costly kingdom founded on paradox...peace through life through a 
terrible, bloody death.

Do we truly want to be part of it?

There's huge pressure to join the crowd – there always is! And here common sense as 
well as self preservation might well encourage us to do so...It certainly persuades one of 
the two who hang beside Jesus.
I guess the thieves feel they have nothing left to the first criminal takes some 
small vicious pleasure in joining in with his own executioners as they deride the man who 
hangs beside him. Perhaps he has been a lifelong bully..perhaps he has always tried to 
ally himself with the powerful, if the opportunity presents itself.
Certainly he can see nothing to be gained by supporting Jesus.
In extremis, though, there can be a clarity of vision...Inessentials are stripped away as our 
time runs its course – and there is space to see things as they really are. As the saying 
goes, there are no atheists in fox holes, - and not that many on crosses. 
Thus the second criminal recognises and articulates something wonderfully true.
Despite all the ironic mockery, despite the weakness and humiliation, the man beside him 
is indeed a king, so he turns to him in supplication
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”
There is no co-ercian. 
There never has been.
Jesus hasn’t used his power to dominate and manipulate during his ministry, and he isn’t 
going to start now. His way has been one which set people free, giving them their own 
status and dignity. He has formed them into a new community where they are each 
responsible for each other, commanded to love, not to lord it over one another.
This is the king who kneels to wash his servants' feet before they feast...the king who 
chooses not a war horse but a workaday donkey to carry him into his citadel, the king who 
constantly gives away power in order to empower others.
It is the kingdom and its values that matter to Jesus - not his status as the king...
His rule is founded on peace, justice and transformation...on making the broken 
whole...and so it is peace and wholeness that he promises to the repentant thief.
“Today you will be with me in Paradise”
There on that hillside, the drama of salvation is played out...the three crosses representing
the daily choice that confronts us all. 
Love stronger than death holds Jesus there...the man in the middle, with a dying sinner on 
either side, trying to decide what his message, what his kingdom, means for them.

We have to decide as well.

That wonderful hymn Be thou my vision based on St Patrick's Breastplate includes the 
prayer that reflects our epistle
Be thou and thou only the first in my heart.
Paul has led us there with his poetic reminder that Christ is first in all things, but this prayer
is the one for me today.
Maybe its yours as well
Be thou and thou only the first in my heart.
Can you ask for God's grace to pray this and mean it?

We can only celebrate today if our answer to that is a resounding “Yes”...expressed not just with our mouths but with lives truly subject to the rules of his Kingdom.
May we all crown him King of our lives, the first in our hearts, now and always.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Not one stone left....A homily for 8.00 on 2nd Sunday before Advent Year C

Not one stone left on another....earthquakes...famines...plague

That sounds horribly like the pictures we're seen on our screens in the days since typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines
Total destruction
10,000 dead
100s of thousands homeless
More than nine million people struggling to survive without food, shelter or clean drinking water.

It's truly grim – surely one of the worst disasters of our time – the kind of event that makes many people – whether with faith or without – cry out “Where is God now?”

And our gospel this morning seems to be very little help. Where's the good news here?
Who, when they have seen their children swept away and their home destroyed, will in any way be comforted by the assurance that “this will give you an opportunity to testify”
(actually, be assured, that's not what Jesus says)
It's hard to believe that such truly cataclysmic events are really part of God's plan...and actually, I'm not sure that they are – or even that this passage suggests this.

But still...Jesus is looking at the splendour of the Temple – and predicting its destruction.
It's as if he had marched in to our wonderful 175 celebrations last year and told a church full of happy people
The demolition team is on the way”

Shocking, challenging stuff.

But actually – that's not the real point of the reading, is it.
It's all about the people – not the buildings – the people
The people who hang on to their faith against all the odds- in places of real persecution – in Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria...
Those who hang on to God while everything around them is destroyed
Those who even now are working 24 hours a day to bring relief to devestated communities.
By your endurance, you will gain your souls”

When we celebrated that big birthday last year
we invited each of our birthday visitors to write their name on a “stone” for our “living stones” collage. We looked at it, and rejoiced that we had so many friends who wanted to mark their connection with St Matthew's. We kept the collage where everyone could see it for a few months – but after Christmas it got put away in the corner by the organ and perhaps we put away its reminder then too.
You see, that collage is there to remind us that WE are the church...
If our building was struck by lightning tomorrow – the Church in Cainscross would still be here...because it's not the building that counts. It's the people.

When Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple he was saying something almost unthinkable. Jerusalem, and the Temple at its heart – were absolutely central to the Jewish understanding of their relationship with God – the focal point of their identity as His chosen people.
How would they survive such faith-shattering events?
Where would they look for reassurance if the beauty of God's house was destroyed?

But Jesus predicts destruction – quite calmly – with no hint of panic in his words.
With Jesus the emphasis shifts from the building – for its role has been superseded by his coming into the world.
In HIM God and humanity are reconciled – so we no longer need a Temple in which to offer sacrifices
And when he returns to the Father he leaves the Church – the Church in all its messy reality – to live out that ministry of healing and reconciliation...The church that is made up of PEOPLE...
You – me – all those whose names appear on our collage – and more.
The people through whom God's love is made present in the Philippines and a thousand other troubled places in our world today.

We can't rely on our buildings...or our jobs...or our health...or the constant presence of the people whom we love.
Ultimately, like every other short-term protection, they will fail.
That's the nature of life.
Towers and temples will fall. They have before and they will again.
Worlds will fall apart – whether on the huge scale we see in Tacloban or the small scale of the family up the road who are dealing with the loss of a loved one to cancer.
The good news is not protection against that.
The good news is that towers and temples were not all they were cracked up to be in the first place, and that in their falling is the invitation to find the life and hope that will endure even when all is thrown down.
For it is when everything else has failed, when we find ourselves at rock bottom that we see most clearly that only God’s unshakeable love and towering compassion remain.
Our world may come crashing down – but underneath are the everlasting arms, which will never let us fall.

When nothing else stands, God’s love remains.
Know this – and know that love is for you – and for all those who cry out today.
Trust that God will never abandon even one of his children – trust, stand firm and by your endurance, gain your souls.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

What then can we hope for? Thoughts for 3rd Sunday before Advent (Remembrance Sunday) 8.00 at St Matthew's, 9.30 at St Lawrence's

Life death and the hereafter
What could possibly be more important or more baffling?
In this month of remembering we have already celebrated the saints, revisited thankful memories of our own beloved dead and today engage in a very particular kind of commemoration as we focus on those who have given their lives in the service of others...
As we do at any funeral, we need to spend time looking back with loving gratitude...we need to hear the stories of the battlefields, read poetry replete with the pain and pity of war and spend our 2 minutes of solemnity lest we forget - but then we need also to raise our eyes and look forward with hope, even against a background of continued conflict. We look forward, collectively, to the hope of peace – but we also look forward, as the Nicene Creed puts it, to “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”
And that is quite a challenge...because try as we might we have no clear picture of what we are looking forward to. And this can lead to all sorts of wild and unhelpful speculation,- just like the conversation we overhear in this morning's gospel. It might be good to remind ourselves that the Saducees, who open the discussion, start from a place of scepticism. They are asking a ridiculous question because they don't believe in any resurrection at all. They expect a ridiculous answer...because for them this is all cloud cuckoo land.
Their scenario is clearly an invitation to wander up a blind alley, as we hear this tale of a much-married woman,passed on from brother to brother like a family heirloom of dubious worth. Its tempting to join in with the prevailing flippancy and suggest that the one thing the poor lady will want at the resurrection is a break from every last one of them!
But, as Jesus makes clear, to focus on that that would be missing the point.
The sad thing is, though, that some of the questions, ideas and conversations that I listen to, both within the church and outside, seem to be based on very similar expectations. People talk about Grandma having the kettle on ready to greet Gramps when he comes, about Uncle Jim enjoying a pint of Guinness with the lads while he waits for the rest of the family to arrive...
Being human,with our all too limited, finite perceptions, we want to use familiar landmarks as we set out to explore the unknown. So it can seem at times as if all we expect of the hereafter is some kind of gigantic family reunion – like our childhood Christmasses but better, as nobody will fall out, which is just as well since it's going to last forever.

Is that it? Is that really all we have to look forward to??
Please no!
Don't get me wrong.
I absolutely believe that all those whom we love but see no longer are safe in God's care.
And I believe that the 'joy of human love' is not lost or obliterated by death...
God made us for relationship. -with him and with one another and it is,for me, inconceivable that this amazing transformative gift of love which inspires human beings to acts of courage and self sacrifice beyond our rational capacity should ever be lost or wasted.
Love never ends, said St Paul, in one of his wisest passages...and to that I would want to add a resounding Amen.
But I really don't expect heaven to be a perfected version of earth. I know that we might welcome the safety and familiarity that such a vision represents but honestly who wants familiarity when the alternative is to be changed from glory into glory?
Agreed we cannot investigate, weigh up the evidence, establish beyond all doubt just how it will work. We have no idea how it will be, because we are dealing with matters of faith and hope as well as love.
Faith that it will come to pass and hope that when it does everything will be transformed.
What we have now – even at its best- is not what we are waiting for... but we look forward with hope because we believe we ARE waiting for something.
Remembrance Sunday exists to ensure that the mistakes of the past will not forever shape & dominate the future...that we break out of that depressing cycle that insists “History repeats itself. It has to. No-one listens” - but even beyond this we know that we are not caught in an endlessly repeating cycle of error but traveling on a purposeful journey from past to future...
History will run its course and then will come the final fulfillment of God's purpose, creation restored in the life of the world to come. Swords WILL be beaten into ploughshares...there WILL be a new heaven and a new earth...
We cannot grasp how this will come to pass -because we live in the limited perspective of our time bound physical bodies. We cannot help but see through a glass darkly, our best guesses just that - guesses – based on our knowledge of here and now.
And language is inadequate...and our frame of reference always, ALWAYS too let us turn, briefly, to our Old Testament reading.
Job has been confronted with the problem of pain...with the misery of human existence at its very worst...with the loss of all that he loved and valued...and finds equilibrium, finally, in the realisation that God is God...that his ways are not ours...
His words are a triumphant assertion of hope in the face of suffering – and their setting by Handel in Messiah gives them an added impact for today – in the reminder that when words and ideas fail, sometimes the arts can offer the faintest echo of the beauty of eternity. Listen