Sunday, July 25, 2021

Son of Thunder - a sermon for the Feast of St James for "Welcome to Sunday" 25th July 2021

Among those many stories of Jesus that we love to hear, there are literally no examples of Jesus helpless with laughter. We know that he wept. We know he got angry. But we never ever hear that he laughed. This might, of course, be because we human beings often add a measure of unkindness to our jokes...or because he was never surprised by anything...or simply because the four evangelists didn’t think that tales of the Messiah sharing a joke with his friends would help them to win souls for God’s kingdom. I am not sure that's altogether right - but there we are.

But – we do know that he teased those same friends gently from time to time….particularly in his choice of nicknames for them. There’s Peter more rocky than rock-like – yet nonetheless capable of providing a firm foundation on which to build the Church...and then James and John Boanergese … the sons of thunder. Two men intent on making a noise – on being noticed – even when they were frankly missing the point and rather out of their depth.

So here they are – approaching Jesus. along with their mother, with a special request: to be marked out as particular favourites, with the best seats in the house when Jesus comes into his kingdom. They really should have known better. Perhaps you've read that Christian bestseller, "The Shack". I didn't love all of it, but I absolutely have to applaud the way that the author presents God, in each of her conversations with humanity, as reminding each individual 

You are my particular favourite”.

I guess Jesus was like that with his friends – but that wasn’t enough for the lads.                      Or their mum (but then, I recognise that pushy mother syndrome lurking in myself too – so I can’t be too cross with Mrs Zebedee) Much like the spiritual toddlers they were, they wanted recognition. "Jesus! Over here! Pick MEEEEE"…and Jesus wanted them to face up to this as he asked them

“What do you want me to do for you?”

It’s a question he asks again and again.

He asked it of those coming for healing.

He asks it of us too - as we come with our different needs.

"What do you want me to do for you? What are the deepest desires of your heart?"

Think for a moment. What would you say if you heard him ask you that question?

I suspect that actually our deepest yearnings are pretty much universal. Aside from superficial desires, we all long to matter – to make an impact on our journey through life – to know ourselves accepted and beloved for who we are. And God wants that s for us too – but he wants it for us in ways that are good for us, and good for the world. We’re not just here to make a noise – to be notable because of the fuss we make. We can stop jumping up and down and yelling to make God notice us...or practising attention-seeking behaviour ...worrying that if we don't we will be somehow overlooked. 

We don’t NEED to be children of thunder for God to attend to us.

God sees us and God loves us... 

God sees and loves you.

YOU absolutely and incontrovertibly matter to God – so let us try to abandon attention-seeking behaviour and relax into that truth.

And then we can listen, as God calls us to do great things, in sharing that love, in serving others, in building the kingdom in this time and this place, exactly where we are planted.

We can see in James and John’s desire to sit beside Jesus in his glory, how our deeper, spiritual, genuine, yearnings get tangled up with the ambitions of the world. And that’s kind of reassuring really, specially if, like me, you find yourself sometimes doing the right thing for the wrong reason. I know I like to be liked. Human approval matters more than it I'm glad that we can see the disciples as, quite honestly, a pretty ropey bunch, as liable to fall over their own feet and create waves of chaos as to radiate the love, joy and peace that are the gifts of the Spirit.

But for all that, God works in them and through them…

James and John gradually get the message…as they watch Jesus live it out.

Though they have no idea what lies ahead when they eagerly protest that they CAN share their,  Lord’s experiences and drink his cup, as they see him washing their feet, as they run and hide to avoid the way of the cross, they begin to understand what he has been talking about all along.  "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give himself as a ransom for many"

Then they meet their risen Lord and in due time are transformed by the coming of the Spirit, empowered to make a big noise for Christ, in proclaiming the Kingdom.

And so today we celebrate the feast of James the Great.                                                                         Not James the self-seeking.                                                                                                                                  Not James the mother’s boy.

James the Great – apostle and inspiration.

And we think of the thousand upon thousand pilgrims who make their Camino, journeying across Europe to pray at his shrine. Let us travel with them in our hearts and minds, prepared to answer the question that our Lord still asks of each of us

“What do you want me to do for you?” and to answer honestly, knowing our own frailty, of course, but knowing too the reality of his surpassing love.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Who'd be a prophet? Trinity 6 B, 11th July 2021 Coventry Cathedral

 If you could choose anyone from the Bible to invite to dinner – apart from Jesus – I wonder whom you might pick.

I suspect that very few of us would choose John the Baptist.

He is such an uncomfortable character - “Right but repulsive” as Sellars and Yeatman might have put it – and we don’t as a rule welcome the voice of challenge that he exemplifies.

Even when he was drawing the crowds on the banks of the Jordan, he wasn’t known for his winsome, beguiling approach

Addressing them as “You generation of vipers” is, you have to admit, an INTERESTING way to get your hearers on board

John the Baptist is a disrupter, a disturber of the peace – and on the whole we don’t warm to that kind of character, even if he isn’t attacking us directly.

Small wonder, then, that he is short of friends at court.

John has spoken openly against the marriage of Herod to his brother’s wife Herodias, and this had made him very unpopular with the lady concerned. I suspect that this might be because she knew in her heart that her relationship with the King was irregular...You may have noticed in yourself a tendency to particularly dislike those whose words confirm your own secret feeling that maybe you’re not getting things as right as you pretend.

When someone else confirms the rumblings of conscience, it’s really hard to ignore – and hard to enjoy their company while you’re still ignoring their words

 So, here at the centre of the national life, John is making waves – and as his imprisonment is not enough to silence him, Herodias seeks another way.Her husband, caring more for his image than for doing the right thing, is putty in her hands. After all, his kingdom is built upon power and wealth and he can’t afford to show any weakness, whatever good sense the Baptizer seems to be talking. No U turns here. To change his mind, to withdraw his expansive after-dinner offer to Salome, would mean losing face – and that’s something that leaders struggle to do.

 So Herodias has her way


 But surely not very relevant to us today.

Blocking a dissenting voice on social media or refusing to engage in difficult conversations is a world away from silencing anyone for good.

What on EARTH has this passage to say to us, the peaceable, respectable congregation of the Cathedral Church of St Michael, Coventry?

 While we might recognise that we are not above reproach (“All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” remember) we are probably not struggling with the kind of monumental disquiet that Herod and Herodias are experiencing. Or so you might suppose.

As a quick reality-check, it’s always worth asking God to help you consider  just whose kingdom you’re busy building...

(Of course, if you ARE being battered by your conscience, listen to it – and perhaps take your concern to one of your priests so that together we can listen to God and seek God’s healing and forgiveness)

And yet – and yet – there is SO MUCH that we should be challenged by in Church and world alike, so many things that should give rise to every bit as much scandal as the immoral marriage of Herod and Herodias.

Things that diminish our humanity, if we allow ourselves to let them slide as “just the way things are.

Things we – you and I – need to challenge.

 If we do not identify as Herod OR Herodias, then perhaps we are called to be John.

Prophets do not always foretell the future.

More often they speak truth to power...standing on the edge of society, from where they have better view of all that is going on, both good and bad.

What’s the view like from where you are?

I wonder if you have noticed anything in the past week that might need challenging?

A change in legislation that could make it illegal for anyone to rescue a boatload of asylum seekers drowning in the Channel perhaps, or a decision to cut the UK Aid budget by £4.1 billion...A growing tendency to value people in terms of their productivity…The gradual disappearance of integrity in public life...The removal of the £20 top up to Universal Credit…or a decision by the House of Bishops of the Church of England to ignore the recommendations of its own commission, that each diocese should appoint a racial justice officer because they couldn’t afford them – though there are still funds for church plants ...

Those are among the things that have given me pause, at least. You might well be fired by other causes for concern, and look at things from a completely different viewpoint.

That’s fine....but the point is, that there will be times – and this may be one of them – when you and I need to speak.

It can be hard to find the courage to lend our voices to those who are often silenced by the structures of society – but, be comforted, I don’t think it’s likely to cost us our heads.

John the Baptist’s role was to point the way to the Kingdom.

That’s our role, too, as Christ’s Church – and we sell the gospel short if we do not strive to show its values in our life together and in our interactions with  wider society too.

 I’m sorry.

I know this isn’t easy but it feels like one of those inconvenient truths we have to confront now and then.

I did say that John the Baptist was an uncomfortable companion, and if we take on his mantle we may not find ourselves universally beloved.

We may, though, find ourselves closer to Jesus, who tends to be found among the victims when power is abused, who loved, and still loves, to spend time among the marginalised, the defenceless, those of little economic value at all.

If all of this fills you with a degree of panic, you might like to pray with me now, that we may have the courage to speak truth to power, to be advocates of the Kingdom values of justice and mercy, to set our sights always above all on Christ

Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we have dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.

We ask You to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push into the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

Attributed — Sir Francis Drake — 1577