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.