Monday, 11 September 2017

Trinity 13: The armour of light

Trinity 13 17


“Put on the armour of light,” says St Paul. We don’t often see people in armour these days, but the people St Paul was writing to – Christians who lived in Rome about twenty years after the time of Jesus – would have seen armed men walking the streets every day. Roman soldiers in their armour would have been a familiar sight.


Paul’s first readers would have known far better than us what armour was for and about, but we probably need to do a bit more thinking to really get it. It seems to me that there are really two reasons why armour matters so much to soldiers. The first is obvious. It equips you for a fight. The Greek word Paul uses doesn’t actually just refer to the defensive stuff, the helmet and breastplate and so on, but to all the equipment a soldier would need, weapons as well. Soldiers need the best equipment they can get if they are going to win a battle, or at least survive to fight another day.  

But there’s another reason why soldiers wear armour, and that is to identify which side they are on. Armour is a bit like a uniform – every army wears something at least slightly different, otherwise you don’t know whether you are shooting at someone from your own side. The Roman soldier’s very recognisable uniform would have told everyone who looked at him that he had sworn to fight for the Emperor, to enforce his will, good or bad, right or wrong.  They would have known instantly what he stood for because of the armour he wore.  

So when Paul tells people that they need to put on this armour, he is saying two things to them. The first is that they are in a battle, and that they need to be equipped for it. We don’t have to be militaristic to appreciate that life is a struggle, full of challenges that have to be faced. The second thing Paul was telling his hearers was that in declaring themselves to be Christians, they have come down off the fence and taken a side. They have committed themselves to God, and that will have consequences for them that they can’t escape.  If we are going to call ourselves Christians, says Paul, we can’t just shrug our shoulders when we see someone in trouble, for example, and say “it’s nothing to do with me – it’s someone else’s job to help”. We can’t just shrug our shoulders at the things within ourselves that need to be straightened out either, and pretend they don’t matter. We’ve signed up to serve a God who created everyone in his own image, and loves them with his whole being, and if we say we are his, then we’ve signed up to do that too.  We are called out of apathy into commitment, into action, called to make a difference,  however insignificant we feel, however young or old we are, whatever our abilities or our disabilities.

Put on the armour, enlist for the battle, take yourself seriously, says this reading.

Of course, there’s a problem with all this imagery of armour. It’s very vivid. It grabs our imagination. But that can lead us astray.  Over the centuries, again and again, Christians have fought wars and persecuted those they think are in the wrong, fired up with crusading zeal. They’ve heard the first part of Paul’s phrase, “put on the armour” and got all gung-ho about it,  thinking it licenses them to throw their weight around. They’ve entirely missed the end of the phrase “put on the armour of light”.

So we have to be really careful with this image. The armour Paul is talking about isn’t made of steel; it’s made of light. That was meant to sound odd, to sound nothing like the arms and armour of a Roman soldier. You put on this armour by loving your neighbour, respecting others, not impaling them on a sharp sword. There’s nothing violent about it, nothing that insists on its own way – quite the reverse. I doubt whether this armour  would have impressed a Roman soldier. And yet , ultimately, the kind of self-giving love Paul is talking about is far more powerful than hatred, far more likely to make a difference that will last.

Paul emphasizes that message at the end of the passage we heard today when he uses this imagery of “putting on” in a different way. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” he says. First we were told to put on armour, now we are told to put on Christ. Be like Jesus, he means. Act as he would have acted. And how is that? Well, Jesus died on a cross, helpless, powerless. He was crucified because of his commitment to the people at the bottom of the heap, because of his rabble-rousing, trouble-making insistence that those on the margins of his society were as worthwhile and precious as those who held the reins of power, and had as much to give. As Jesus hung on the cross he looked like a complete and total failure, far from a conquering hero, and yet, out of his act of self-giving love came life and hope that has changed the world.

Today, as we baptise Ewan, Harry and Kristian they are going to be putting something on. It may not look like armour, but it reflects the same idea. After they are baptised, I am going to put these shawls around their shoulders. Clothing the newly baptised in a white garment goes right back to the earliest days of the Church, and in fact, some commentators think Paul’s words about “putting on armour” and “putting on Christ” were meant to remind people of what happened to them when they came up out of the waters of their baptism. They would have been baptised by total immersion – dunked completely . They would have needed something dry to put on when they came up out of the water. But the white clothes they were given weren’t just a practicality. They were symbols of the fact that they were now clothed in the love of God, that they had put on Christ, that they had taken up this armour of light which would equip them for the new lives they were called to live, loving and helping those around them, making their world a better place.

When we clothe Ewan, Harry and Kristian in these shawls, we remind them that, yes, they go out into a world that is full of challenges and danger. It might sometimes feel like a battle. But they too are clothed in the love of God. And that love, if they can learn to trust it, will help them to face whatever life throws at them, stand up against hatred and prejudice, make the difference to the world that each of them is called to make.  These may only look like flimsy bits of material, but the love they remind us of is stronger than Kevlar. It’s indestructible and eternal and we pray that they will know that they will put it on not just today, but every day.
Amen


Sunday, 3 September 2017

Trinity 12: Bitesized wisdom




There are times when I look at the readings we are going to hear in church and think to myself, “Why bother to preach? The readings just speak for themselves”. Today’s second reading – that list of bits of good advice from St Paul to the Christians in Rome is one of them. “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good…” I mean, what is there to say, other than “Amen”? Perhaps I should just sit down and have done with it.

But on second thoughts, maybe not!

You see, it is one thing to hear a passage like this, and even to understand it in our heads. But it is quite another thing to live it out. Human beings love a simple slogan or motto that encapsulates what they think is the right way to live. “Keep calm and carry on” “ Coughs and sneezes spread diseases”, “Be the change you want to see.”  Whether we post them on Instagram or embroider them on a sampler, or inscribe them on stone, we like these bitesize sayings, but being able to quote them isn’t the same as being able to live them. How many of Paul’s little sayings in this passage do we agree with? Probably all of them. How many of them do we put into practice? Ah, that’s a different matter.

The really important question isn’t “how should I live? We usually know the answer to that. It is, “why don’t I live like that.

We know we should “hold fast to what is good”, so why do we so often find we have let go of it. We know we should “Live in harmony with one another”, but we still get caught up in petty jealousies and malicious sniping.  

The Christians Paul was writing to in Rome were, I am sure, no different to us in this, and I’m also sure that St Paul knew that. He knew that a simple list of do’s and don’ts wasn’t going to change them  on its own. That’s why, to understand this passage, we need to know what has led up to it. We heard the section immediately before it last week. It said, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice.... Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…”  . We won’t get to be people who love genuinely, suffer patiently, bless those who persecute us, live peaceably, just by saying the words, however good we think they are. It is only when we put ourselves into God’s hands as “living sacrifices” , when we let him get to work on us, changing our attitudes, our world view, our priorities, our intentions, that our lives can be transformed in the ways we need them to be.

Today’s Gospel reading shows us what that might look like in practice, and why it tends to take so long!

Again, we need to know a bit of context. In the passage before this Peter had just recognised that Jesus was “ the anointed one, the Son of the Living God,” and Jesus had acclaimed him. “You are Peter – the rock – and on this Rock I will build my kingdom. “
But then Jesus started talking about his death. He would be arrested and killed by the authorities, he said. Peter couldn’t take it in.. Of course he didn’t want to think about his friend suffering, and that bit about resurrection – well that was just incredible anyway. But it was more than that. Peter assumed, like most people of his time, and many people in ours too, that if bad things happened to you it meant you had somehow deserved them, that you had offended God.

Surely, if he really was God’s Messiah, that couldn’t happen.

But Jesus answer was swift and he doesn’t pull his punches. “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”  “You haven’t understood how God works at all,” Jesus was saying. “You’re so used to living in a world where might is right, where people get respect because they are wealthy or strong, that you can’t grasp that God might see things differently.”  

Peter had had a flash of insight when he realised that God was at work in Jesus as he preached and healed. He really was the Messiah. But his insight would have to go a lot deeper if he was going to understand what that meant – that God could also be at work in the pain, humiliation and apparent failure of the cross. His whole world view would need to be overturned before his mind could be renewed, and it didn’t seem like he was ready for that yet. It can take a lifetime, and lots of ups and downs for God to do his work in us.

I read a news story this week about a young woman from Florida, Angela King, who had grown up in a racist, anti-semitic and homophobic environment. As a teenager she had fallen in with a neo-Nazi gang and had become a far-right extremist, plastered with white supremacist tattoos. Eventually she was jailed for a vicious attack on a Jewish shop assistant, and was sent to prison. And there in the prison she found herself confronted with the very people she had always hated and feared most – many of her fellow prisoners were African-Americans. She couldn’t avoid them.

The article I read said this…http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-40779377
"People knew why I was in there and I got dirty looks and comments. I assumed I would spend my time with my back to the wall, fighting,"
What [she] did not expect was the hand of friendship - especially from a black woman.
"I was in the recreation area smoking when a Jamaican woman said to me, 'Hey, do you know how to play cribbage?'" King had no idea what it was and was taught to play.
It was the start of an unlikely friendship and King found her racist belief system crumbling as a result. Her friendship circle widened as she was taken under the wing of a wider group of Jamaican women, some of whom had been convicted for carrying drugs into the US.
"I hadn't really known any people of colour before, but here were these women who asked me difficult questions but treated me with compassion".
During her first year in the detention centre she was tipped off that a newspaper article was coming out about her case. She told one of her new friends how worried she was about the publicity.
"My friend had a job that meant she got out early to help prepare breakfast. The day it came out she stole the paper and hid it so no-one could read it. She, a black woman, did that for me, an ignorant white woman who was inside for a hate crime."
As it happened, King also realised while she was in prison, that she herself was gay – we often hate in others what we really fear in ourselves.
She’s now out of prison, has gained a degree in sociology and psychology and works with an organisation called Life After Hate (https://www.lifeafterhate.org) which supports people like her who have left far-right extremist groups.

Her story spoke powerfully to me as I considered these readings we’ve heard today. I don’t know if she is of any particular faith, or whether those Jamaican women were either, but it seems to me that something very holy happened in the mess of that prison.  Hers is a mind that has been renewed. God has been at work. Her whole life has changed – even the hateful tattoos have gradually been renewed or transformed into loving messages instead. And it all started because a small group of people had the courage to bless someone who persecuted them, to love with a love that was genuine.

Because of that, Angela King has learned to see the good in those she had hated. She has learned that she doesn’t need to use force to be valued or respected, that she can drop the defences the world had told her she needed.  She has learned to love and to be loved. But it took a prison cell to teach her that.

To go back to the question I started with, “why do we find it so hard to live in the way that Paul tells us? Why do we endlessly repeat his words, and yet find they have so little impact on us?” I think the answer is that, as much as we want to be different, we don’t want anything actually to change, because change often hurts and disturbs us. It feels far easier and safer to cling to the patterns of thought and behaviour we’ve grown up with, and maybe grown old with, than it is to see that God could be at work in new ways, in people we have overlooked or avoided. It is especially difficult to see that God could be at work in suffering, mess and failure, in the things we just want to brush under the carpet and forget about, but unless we learn to see God there, we’re unlikely to find him anywhere else.

Both Peter and Paul learned the hard way to look again, to let themselves be reshaped, transformed, as they encountered God at work in a broken, suffering, humiliated man on a cross.  Because of that they were able to see God at work in all the other broken, suffering, humiliated people they came across, and in the brokenness, suffering and humiliation of their own lives. That turned their lives upside down. The wisdom Paul preached came from his own experience. He had seen evil overcome by love. Like Angela King, he had been blessed by his enemies, and encountered genuine love.  

It is easy to say Amen to Paul’s long list of do’s and don’ts, to turn them into slogans on a t-shirt or memes on social media, but if the way of life they reflect is to take root in us – and in a world where hatred and fear so often have the upper hand, it surely needs to - something usually needs to give, to break, to die in us. That’s the bit we find so difficult.

May God give us the courage to find him in the mess as well as the glory, and the grace to let him transform us by the renewing of our minds.

Amen 

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Trinity 11: Sober Judgment



“ I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement.”

This time of year is a time when, for many young people the chickens come home to roost. Over the last week or so A level and GCSE results have come out, and as ever there have been scenes of young people in tears of delight or of disappointment as they have opened the fateful envelopes to find out what the examiners’ judgment is of their work.

Of course, it’s not just students who feel the weight of judgement. Most jobs include some sort of appraisal, formal or informal, annual or ongoing. People may be judged on how many sales they’ve made, how many patients they’ve treated, what their customer satisfaction rating is.  Even Jesus, in our Gospel reading, wants to know what judgements people are making about him. He reveals a surprising judgement on Peter too. Much to Peter’s surprise Jesus sees in him a rock-steady character which no one else seems to have recognised so far.  

Often, of course, the judgements that are most crucial are the ones we make of ourselves. We are often our own harshest critics, comparing our bodies against those of models or sporting heroes we see in the media, our families with others at the school gates, our lives with those who seem so much more certain and sorted out than we are. We’ve all got an “inner critic” asking  “what do people think of me? “ “what do I think of myself?” “Am I doing ok, or just kidding myself?” “Am I a good enough parent, child, spouse, friend worker, Christian…?” 

That inner voice may be negative, but it can also be falsely positive too, convincing us that we are fine and that all is well, when really it isn’t. We are shocked and indignant when someone else points out a failing we need to deal with. It’s a tricky business coming to that “sober judgement” Paul talks about.

Paul has a particular situation in mind when he makes this comment in his letter to the Romans.  He’s heard that divisions have broken out between the Christians in Rome. Some had Jewish backgrounds, others had Gentile, non-Jewish backgrounds. Each group thinks they are better than the other. Jewish Christians assumed that they ought to have the biggest say in shaping the church. After all, Jesus had been Jewish, and they shared with him that deep knowledge of the scriptures and traditions that had shaped him. But the Gentile Christians had embraced the good news that God was doing something new, and they believed that their voices counted for just as much as those of the Jewish Christians.

To complicate matters, a few years before this letter was written, all the Jewish people, including the Jewish Christians, had been forced to leave Rome by the Emperor Claudius.

That meant that the Gentile Christians, the ones who didn’t have all that Jewish heritage behind them, were left to cope as best they could. And guess what? They did just fine – that’s how it seemed to them anyway.

When the Jewish Christians came back a few years later, they found that these Johnny-come-lately Gentiles were disregarding all their treasured rules.  They’d begun to shape a Christian community of their own, and they thought it was all the better because it had cast aside its Jewish roots. God was done with all that history, the Gentile Christians said. Judaism was old hat. Why would God be bothered if you ate pork? Hadn’t Jesus put an end to all that nit-picking?

The Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians were locked into a war of words with each other, each thinking they had it right, and the others were missing the point.

Throughout the letter, Paul comes back to this tension between them again and again. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”,  he says. Neither Jew nor Gentile is perfect.  God is making a new creation, but it’s one in which Jews and Gentiles are equally valued.  Here in chapter 12 he tells these warring groups that whether they like it or not, they are now one body. Everyone brings something unique and valuable.

“Get down off your high horse!” says Paul to both groups. Learn to see yourselves as God sees you, as people with gifts, people he loves, but also people who are flawed and incomplete, people who need others to find the fullness of life God intends for us all. 

It’s good advice. Like most good advice, it’s not exactly rocket science. The interesting question is why we find it so hard to live like this, to come to that “sober judgement”, that realistic reflection on ourselves which would enable us to see ourselves and others clearly.  We puff ourselves up or pull ourselves down. We hide from others and we hide from ourselves. We treat others as less than they are, so that we can feel bigger.

So how can we find the courage to look in the mirror honestly and acknowledge what we see there?

Paul gives us some more clues if we have eyes to see them. Notice how, in this passage,  he talks about the mercies of God, the grace of God, the will of God, the gifts of God. We aren’t just one body, according to Paul. We are one body “in Christ”. What’s he trying to tell us? It is that first and foremost, we are God’s children, God’s creation, people who belong to God, not to ourselves. The gifts we are so proud of aren’t really ours, they are God’s, which he has given to us. The failings we berate ourselves for are just evidence that God’s work in us isn’t finished yet, not a sign that we are intrinsically bad. Or maybe it is even just that we’re trying to be people he never meant us to be. He may not have created us to be Olympic athletes or scientific geniuses or supermodels, so why do we judge ourselves harshly for failing to reach those goals?

Present yourselves as a “living sacrifice” says Paul to these warring Christians. Sacrifice was a familiar part of their world, in a way which it isn’t to us. Essentially, though, when you sacrificed something in the ancient world you were acknowledging your relationship to the god you sacrificed to, your dependence on him. “All things come from you, and of your own do we give you” said the Bible, words we repeat when we offer the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

So Paul tells the Roman Christians that the only way they can come to a healthy sense of themselves is by acknowledging that they don’t belong to themselves anyway. They belong to God. They are God’s possessions. The gifts of the Gentile Christians, their insights, their ideas, which they think are so brilliant and necessary, aren’t theirs at all. They come from God, who is working through them. And that means that the gifts, insights and ideas of the Jewish Christians are also God’s too. Neither group needs to push their own agenda aggressively to silence the other. It’s quite the contrary. They need to listen to each other, so that they can hear God’s wisdom in all its completeness.

We don’t have to be anxious about what we can and can’t do, what gifts we have and haven’t got. We don’t have to pretend to be something we aren’t. God is doing his work, in his way.

The image Paul uses of the body is a good and helpful one, not least because bodies aren’t fixed, static things, machines that can only do one task in one way. Bodies can do all sorts of different things, in all sorts of different ways, to meet all sorts of different circumstances. What has your body done this week? Gone for a walk? Baked a cake? Hugged a friend? Played with a child?  Thought an interesting thought? (Brains are part of bodies too!) Bodies can adapt and learn, and often have to. Most bodies are, or will be, disabled in some way at some time in life, either permanently or temporarily. Illness and injury may limit our bodies, but every body can be a blessing,  to us and to others, in what it can do, whatever that is. Stephen Hawking’s body is almost completely paralysed, and yet, look at what he has achieved.

That’s a very timely message for us here at Seal Church. Several significant people have moved on, or shortly will, from Seal Church over this summer. We’ve lost the Harvey family with their move to Hadlow. We’ll soon be losing Stephen Bloxham, who has shared his many gifts with us so generously over the past 8 years or so - musical, community building, fundraising . As ever, there are members of our congregation who aren’t able to be as active as they would like to be because of illness. And each year, there are some we lose through death. “How will we manage?” people ask me, whenever we have these significant losses to our little church family. “I have no idea”, is the honest answer, but I am sure that the God who gave those people to us in the first place is still at work here, and that he’s providing the gifts we need to do what he wants to. Things may change. They may not be as we expect or are used to. But if we trust God, welcome others and open our eyes and our hearts to what he is doing in our community we will end up with a church that is alive with his life, whatever it looks like!

One commentator on this passage said, “God doesn’t want something from us, he wants us”*. We were created by God. We are his children. When we present ourselves to him as “living sacrifices,” all we are doing is putting ourselves back where we belong – in his hands. And that is all we need to do. This, says Paul, is our “spiritual worship”– the only kind of worship that can really heal us where it matters, straightening out our distorted judgements and enabling us to see ourselves and one another as the beloved people we really are.

Amen  


*Ben Witherington: Paul’s Letter to the Romans p.85


Sunday, 20 August 2017

Trinity 10: What has God put into your hand?


There’s a story told of the sixth century Irish saint, St Kevin, a man known for his feats of heroic prayerfulness. He was a hermit who lived in a cave by the side of Glendalough, a lake in County Wicklow. According to legend, at the beginning of Lent one year, Kevin settled down to pray. He stretched out his hands, as he was wont to do, and sank deep into prayer. So deep was his prayer, that he didn’t notice when a blackbird landed on his hand. So deep was his prayer that he didn’t notice either when she flew away and came back again with a twig in her mouth. So deep was his prayer, in fact that he didn’t notice her going to and fro for all that day, hour after hour, bringing twig after twig, weaving them together. He didn’t notice her bring dried grass and weave that into the twigs either. He didn’t notice until right at the end of the day, when he opened his eyes and realised that there in his hand was a perfectly woven nest, and the blackbird sitting in it. And underneath her were three sky-blue eggs.

“Ah!” thought Kevin. “Now what shall I do? Sister Blackbird has honoured me with her company, trusted me with her young. Hmm! Well, there’s nothing for it but to wait, and while I wait, to pray”. So Kevin did. According to the story, he prayed for days and days, sitting quite still, not stopping to sleep or to eat. One week passed, and two, and in the third week he saw the eggs crack open, and little by little the blackbird chicks emerge. But that didn’t mean he could move. Far from it. Now it was even more important that he stayed still as the parent birds brought food to their chicks. So Kevin just carried on praying. By the time the chicks were ready to fledge and fly the nest, Lent was nearly over, and as Easter Sunday came he celebrated the new life of resurrection, and the new life of the chicks that had grown in the nest of his outstretched hands…

Well, you can believe it if you like, but it’s a good story, whether it happened or not.

I like it because it makes me wonder what unexpected thing God might have put in my hands to deal with. Perhaps it is something which I would rather not handle – maybe Kevin had at least the odd moment when he wished that blackbird had nested somewhere else. Often in our lives there are situations which seem to us to get in the way of what we really want to be doing with our lives. We could be so much better, holier people if only… If only, we didn’t have that awkward boss at work, that difficult relationship at home, that illness to deal with, these cares and worries, those doubts and fears. These things seem to us to be distractions, diverting us from the path we planned to take.

And yet, it is often in facing up to and dealing with these awkward realities that we find the greatest blessing. We find our hearts and lives expanding because of them. Sometimes we may find a solution to them. Sometimes we may end up having to live with them, but what looks like a diversion from the straight road we’ve mapped out can be the pathway which leads to life in all its fullness, if we are prepared to let it be.

The Gospel reading we heard today reminds me of that too. Jesus is in the territory of Tyre and Sidon, foreign territory. Tyre and Sidon were Canaanite port towns to the north of Israel. What was he doing there? We aren’t told. Not having a seaside holiday, that’s for sure. Tyre and Sidon were a byword in Israel for sin and trouble, rackety towns where all sorts of people came and went, where sailors did what sailors have always done on their runs ashore. Maybe the father of the little girl whose mother comes to Jesus was a sailor. It’s certainly unusual for a woman to be out on her own like this, taking the initiative in challenging a male leader. Maybe he was a sailor who had gone away to sea and never come back, a sailor with a girl in every port, and she just happened to be the girl in this one. We don’t know. But she is obviously a nuisance, even to Jesus.

His disciples beg him to send her away, and he seems inclined to try, but she keeps on at him until he gives her what she wants - her daughter’s healing – and he doesn’t just do this, he also acclaims her faith.

It’s an awkward story. Commentators have puzzled over it ever since it was written. Jesus seems so rude. They have tried to say that perhaps he doesn’t really mean what he says when he compares her to a dog and tries to send her away, but I don’t buy that, and I think if the Gospel writers meant us to read it like that they would have said so. I think it is what it seems to be; a story about Jesus learning and growing. I think that’s precisely why he went to Tyre and Sidon – to challenge himself. And I think he found there the challenge that, even for him, felt like a bridge too far. But, helped by this woman, who had just seemed like a nuisance at first, his vision expanded to encompass this Gentile. The Gospel writers, I believe, included this awkward story as an encouragement to their hearers, who were also often struggling to accept those who found their way into the early Christian community,. “Even Jesus found this tough, and yet, what a blessing there was in accepting the stranger – however strange!”

So. I wonder. If we stretch out our hands in prayer today, as St Kevin did, what or who will we discover that God has placed into them? What are the inconvenient, awkward, puzzling realities that we struggle to hold, that we would rather put down somewhere and walk away from? Perhaps, like St Kevin, like Christ himself, we might find that, in God’s economy, there might be blessing hidden in the pain, new life hatching in our hands, if we have the patience and the faith to hold still and watch?

Amen 

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Trinity 9 : Being saved



“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” said St Paul in our second reading, from his letter to the Romans. It’s familiar Christian language. You’ll hear the words “saved” and “salvation” a lot in churches. It’s there in hymns and prayers. But what does it mean?

If you’d been a Christian at the time this church was built in the Middle Ages, you’d have had no
Detail from Doom Painting, St Thomas, Salisbury.
https://www.flickr.com/photos/sic_itur_ad_astra/6009421976
doubt. Salvation was about where you were going when you died. Many churches would have had a huge visual reminder of that too, in the shape of what was called a “doom painting”. They were often painted right here on the chancel arch, where you couldn’t miss it as you sat in church. On one side you’d see the saved rising up to heaven; on the other side would be people going the other way, stuffed down into the jaws of hell by gruesome looking demons. Being saved meant being on the right side of that divide, and you’d want to do everything you could to make sure you were. Salvation, as it was commonly preached and believed, was about having a ticket to heaven when you died. But although doom paintings have, thankfully, gone out of fashion, that view of salvation is still quite common.

But if that’s all that being “saved” means to us, then I think we’re missing something, because what the Bible says about “salvation” is much wider and richer than that. It is wider and richer in two ways, in particular, which I think we often miss.

The first is that “salvation” in the Bible isn’t just, or even mainly, about what happens to our souls after death. It is also about what happens to our bodies before it.

We can see that in our readings today. Peter calls out in our Gospel reading “Lord, save me!” – there’s that word again - but it’s nothing to do with the state of his soul. He’s sinking fast in a stormy sea, literally out of his depth and facing imminent death. The rescue he needs is a physical one, but when eventually climbs, coughing a spluttering, into the boat with the rest of disciples, I am sure he is in no doubt that he has been saved.

In the Gospels, Jesus’ healing work is often described as salvation, “‘Do not fear. Only believe, and she will be saved.’ says Jesus to a father whose little daughter has just died. (Luke 8.50) “‘Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” he says to a blind beggar who cries out to him for help. There may be spiritual change for the people involved. When the cheating tax-collector, Zacchaeus, repents and repays fourfold what he has stolen from people after Jesus has invited himself to tea, Jesus says to the crowd, “today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19.9).  But often the physical healing is all we hear about and yet it’s still described as salvation for those concerned.

Even Jesus’ enemies taunt him as he hangs on the cross with the words, “‘He saved others; let him save himself “(Luke 23.35). It’s the real, tangible changes he has wrought in people’s lives they are talking about. They know they’ve seen salvation happening as he has healed people. What baffles them is that he doesn’t rescue himself. Salvation, throughout the Bible, is as much about physical as well as spiritual things, about the things people are struggling with right there and then, not just what happens after death. The people of Israel are described as being saved by God from slavery in Egypt. (E.g Exodus 15.2) ;and saved again by God from exile in Babylon (Isaiah 45.17) . The Psalmist pleads for salvation from his enemies, and thanks God when he has been rescued from death or disgrace.

There’s a prime example of someone who needs salvation in our Old Testament reading today. Elijah is running for his life. The Queen, Jezebel, is after him. He’d challenged the prophets of her God, Baal, to a contest, and he – or rather his God – had decisively won.  But Jezebel isn’t the kind of woman to accept defeat gracefully. She is spitting tacks, and she’s after Elijah’s skin. So he runs away, as far as he can, out into the desert. And eventually, after a long journey he finds himself at Mount Horeb, huddled in a cave, despondent and exhausted. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” asks God. It’s a good question. He doesn’t really know how to answer it. All he knows is that he has done all he can to stand up for the God of Israel, to defend the faith of his nation, and it isn’t enough. Elijah feels that it is all over for him, and for the people of Israel too. But God has other ideas. To begin with, he reassures Elijah of his presence. It comes to him not in anything dramatic – wind, earthquake and fire – but in the “sound of sheer silence”, or a “still, small voice” depending on your translation. After all the terror and the tumult Elijah has been through, when he has come to the point where he can’t be the big, brave prophet anymore, he lets himself fall into God’s hands and discovers that in God’s presence all is well, whatever else is happening to him and around him.  And then God shows Elijah, that though he thought there was no way forward, God has a plan. He’s already lined up Hazael and Jehu as kings, and Elisha to take up Elijah’s mantle as prophet too. Elijah is saved from his despair, given the strength and the hope he needs to go on. That is what it means for him to be saved by God. 

Salvation, in the Bible, isn’t some nebulous spiritual thing far off in the future, high up in the heavens. It is practical, personal, immediate. It comes to people as they need it, making a tangible difference to their lives. That’s the first thing we often miss.  

The second thing is that salvation, in the Bible, isn’t just a personal possession.
Paul describes salvation again and again in his letters as something which happens in communities, and in the whole of creation. In the passage we heard today he talks about salvation as a state in which “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek” . That echoes his message throughout his letters that God’s saving power destroys the divisions of class, ethnic background and gender that beset his society. A few chapters earlier, he had talked about the whole of creation “groaning” to see the new thing God was doing in the world through the Christian community.  (Rom 8) Salvation wasn’t something you could enjoy in a private bubble, but something which affected everyone and ultimately could heal everyone.  God was “reconciling to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven”  he said in the letter to the Colossians (Col. 1.19) . The Psalm we read this morning spoke of salvation bringing God’s glory to the land, creating a place of where mercy and truth met together, and righteousness and peace kissed each other. In the Bible, salvation is something we discover together, or not at all. It’s about our relationships with each other just as much as it is about our relationship with God, about politics and economics, the way we work, and shop and shape our families and treat the natural world around us.

So – two dimensions which we often miss when we hear the words “saved” and “salvation. The first is that it’s about the here and now, not just the afterlife. If salvation doesn’t make a difference to our lives right now, it isn’t salvation in the sense the Bible talks about it.  The second is that it isn’t just about us, a personal possession, a private matter; it’s something which is for, and about the whole of creation.

There’s a verse in Psalm 18 which has always summed up salvation for me. The Psalmist says, “[God] brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me because he delighted in me.”  Being saved means being brought into a “broad place”, a place where we find life in all its fullness, where we are freed from all that has bound us and made us less than the people God means us to be.  What that might mean in your life right now is going to be different to what it means in mine, but my salvation can’t be complete unless yours is too. And our salvation can’t be complete unless everywhere else in the world the hungry are fed, the poor lifted up, the oppressed set free, all people enabled to find that “broad place” for themselves too.

And if that makes us feel as if the task is completely impossible for us, then that is just as it should be, because if we could do it, then we wouldn’t need saving.  Whether we are trying to eliminate world poverty, stop North Korea and the US blowing us all to smithereens or just trying to cope with the pressures and demands of our own lives, we’ll inevitably come to a point where we realise, like St Peter, that we are out of our depth, in over our heads. We try to look strong, stay in control, keep all the plates spinning and everyone happy, but we’re not up to it. Life is too hard for us to go it alone. We are saved when we come to the limits of our own power and discover the limitless power of God beyond them.  We are saved when we come to the place of “sheer silence”, when we have run out of words and yet discover that God understands us anyway. We are saved when we finally give up thrashing about in the water on our own, and find the courage to allow other hands to lift us up.

Salvation isn’t a ticket to life after death; it’s a way of life before death. It is found in the journey, not the destination. Walking in the way of salvation day by day brings us into a right relationship with God and one another, a relationship of humility and openness. As we call out “Lord, save us!” again and again, we gradually learn to trust that God is beside us anyway, ready to pull us up from the seas that overwhelm us. And if that is true, then we don’t need a ticket to heaven, because heaven is where God is, and God is where we are, in life and in death, which is right where we need him to be. 

Amen 

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Trinity 7:The Kingdom of Heaven is like....



Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52, Romans 8.26-39, 1 Kings 3.5-12

The Kingdom of Heaven is like, like what? When you dare to imagine what heaven may be like, do tiny seeds and yeast come to mind?

Perhaps treasure and jewels are there as symbols which are easier to relate to as things which are instantly desirable, discoveries which we want so much that we would sell everything, our house, our car even our mobile devices if it meant we could have these things. It might appear to the neighbours that such people had lost everything but if only they knew what they had found. Jesus was probably trying to get the crowds which had gathered by the lake to see that if they understood what the kingdom of heaven was like they would want this above everything else.
Put another way Jesus was teasing the minds of the crowd to consider the same question that God asked Solomon in our Old Testament reading’ Ask what I should give you’ which I take to mean what is it that you want right now above all else.
What would our answer be? When we are mourning and in pain and can see only a long dark road ahead what we are likely to want, is to know that God is going to be with us in our suffering, each step of the way. Paul reassures the church in Rome that the spirit interprets our deepest longings, the yearnings we may struggle to articulate to God. At these times we are reminded of the fact that no suffering or loss, no pain or worry sits outside the scope of God’s love for us. He never looks at a situation and thinks’ sorry but you are on your own this time’.
The last part of today’s reading from Paul’s letter reminds me of that feeling of security offered to children lucky enough to have loving parents. As a small boy it felt like my parents were superheroes and I couldn’t imagine coming to any harm as long as they were there. As I grew up I realised the limitations every parent faces and that most are just doing their best, muddling through at times.

The beautiful thing is that whether we were lucky enough or not to have had loving parents Paul reminds us that ‘God is for us’, he’s given his own Son for us and secured for us, everything we will ever need. Despite whatever suffering or ordeals we may have to face we cannot be separated from the love of God in Jesus.
So even if we are so down we cannot pray, even when we cannot feel God’s comfort or healing, he is there with us and always will be and the Kingdom of Heaven is no less real.

The fact that today’s readings are just one of several parables and illustrations suggesting what aspects of the Kingdom of Heaven are like makes me think that Jesus was trying to fire up imaginations, find examples that people could relate to in their everyday lives.
We are reminded that the Kingdom of heaven may often be found in places we don’t expect. We need to open our minds, overcome our prejudices and assumptions to have the greatest chance of catching a glimpse of God’s kingdom.

A young woman told me this week how she was shouted at by a homeless man in the street, he didn’t look very friendly so she sped up only for him to run and catch up with her. As she turned to ask what he wanted he presented her with her purse containing cash, cards and travel passes, ‘you dropped this back down the road’ he said as he handed it over.
In the last part of today’s gospel Jesus refers to the ‘master of a household who brings out of his treasure, what is old and what is new. To most of us today it’s not obvious what this is about but those hearing Jesus were meant to see that whilst there is great value in the wisdom accumulated by their ancestors over the centuries there are also new treasures to be discovered in the Kingdom of Heaven.

There’s no limit to these based upon past knowledge and experience, we have to trust in God and dare to imagine a future with him. Each one of us has potential to bear fruit in a new way, we often just need to find the courage to imagine and then pursue this.
Valuing both the old and new we have potential to achieve most when we come together drawing upon the wisdom and experience of older people but combining this with the energy and fresh ideas of the younger people.

It’s so easy to just accept injustices as the way of the world, particularly when we fail to imagine what something better might look like. When we look back to the greatest changes for the better we realise that they were achieved when people dared to imagine, describe and speak out about a better future even though there was no immediate prospect of it becoming real.
Here are the words of one man who could imagine a better future for all…

‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, … one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.’
Of course, excerpts from the speech of Martin Luther King made in Washington DC in 1963, the last part quoting the prophet Isaiah.

Daring to imagine something that doesn’t already exist isn’t easy for us. Maybe part of the problem is that imagination is often referred to in a negative way alongside delusion and untruth. We may grow up hearing ‘it’s a figment of her imagination’ and then it certainly doesn’t sound like it’s something to be encouraged. Yet Jesus is stimulating the senses of those listening to him, he wants them to fire up their imaginations as he refers to tiny things like mustard seeds which are easily missed altogether yet have potential to become something impressive and yeast which needs other ingredients to create a thing of beauty and sustenance, something that on its own appears to have little use turns out to have powers of transformation.
Surely we can dare to imagine what glimpses of the Kingdom of God might be like. Perhaps when something is so beautiful we cannot help but stare, when our mouth is overwhelmed with wonderful flavours, when the warmth of the sun makes us feel good in a way beyond words. When I asked some people what they thought the Kingdom of God is like they told me of peace, justice, forgiveness, love and freedom from suffering.

Easy things to imagine for all, except of course when they are things you have never known or experienced.
It’s worth celebrating the fact that we are all invited to discover our own images of what the kingdom of heaven is like. Listening to and pondering the clues Jesus gives is essential if we are to heighten our awareness, he’s certainly reminding us that we don’t need to be great theologians by the everyday subject matter used, this is accessible to everyone.

We’ve had many pointers towards the likelihood that we may be surprised when we feel we catch a glimpse of the Kingdom and with it a sense that there is a deeper reality to our existence than the superficiality of a consumer society where people are meant to fit in. Jesus implies that we may stumble across the Kingdom of Heaven when doing something else and in doing so find hope that extends beyond our earthly lives.
Ultimately I can’t tell you and you can’t tell me what the kingdom of heaven is like as we each have to discover this for ourselves. But when we do catch a glimpse, the new reality Jesus told of breaks in, and something is made wonderfully new.

Amen
Kevin Bright


30th July 2017

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Trinity 3: Enslaved to God?


“You have become slaves of righteousness” says Paul in our second reading. The word “slaves” appears four times in that fairly short reading. Slavery is a concept that probably feels quite alien to us, though in fact, according to the UN there are more slaves in the world now than there have ever been , an estimated  21 million . They work in sweatshops, mines, agriculture, domestic service and the sex trade. Some are trafficked far from home; others are enslaved in their own communities. But slavery is something that is officially outlawed and condemned now, so it’s hidden from most people’s view.

That wasn’t the case in Paul’s day. Slavery was an accepted part of life, part of the fabric of society. The great cultures of the ancient world, Greece, Rome, Assyria, Egypt, couldn’t have existed without slaves. No one challenged it. Slaves might have been captured in battle, or sold into slavery, or born as slaves. Some rose to high office and were trusted and loved by their masters and mistresses, but many suffered degrading and harsh experiences, and none were free to live their own lives, or marry whom they chose, or earn their own livings. They belonged to their owners, and, in Roman society, their masters had power of life and death over them. The idea that all people have the right to liberty and self-determination is a very modern one – most of our ancestors would be astonished at it.

It’s important to know that. Sometimes we assume that the people of the past were basically just like us, except that they wore different clothes and didn’t have mobile phones. In some ways that’s true. They felt joy and sorrow, had hopes and dreams, cared about their children and got annoyed with their neighbours just as people do today. But their understanding of the world and how they fitted into it was often profoundly different. They accepted slavery without question. It was the way the world was, and always would be.  Slavery was regarded as shameful, but the shame was attached to the slaves, not to their owners. It was their fault, their destiny, their place in the world to be slaves.

I’ve laboured that point a bit, because I think it’s important we have it in mind when we hear Paul’s words.  When the Christians in Rome read the letter he had sent them, they knew what he was talking about from the inside, because they saw slavery all around them. Some of them almost certainly were slaves. Others were slave-owners. All would be familiar with the sight of slaves, and with the fear of falling in to slavery, and the shame associated with it.  So, when Paul uses the word “slaves” he knows that it will set up powerful resonances in people’s mind.

But, of course, Paul isn’t talking about literal slavery in the passage we heard at all. He is talking about internal slavery if you like, the slavery that binds our hearts and minds.  He is pointing out to a society that despised slaves, and to slaves who despised themselves, that in some ways we are all enslaved. The only question is, what or who are we enslaved to. As Bob Dylan sang, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

We may like to think we are all free spirits, independent minded, that we can do what we please with our lives, but it’s not true. All of us, in some ways, however small, have restrictions on our lives, commitments we can’t shirk, ties we can’t break, burdens we have to bear.

Some of those things may feel, and be, profoundly negative. We may feel enslaved by an illness or disability – something we didn’t choose and can’t escape. We may be enslaved by addiction to something – gambling, alcohol, spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need because it makes us feel momentarily better. We may be locked into patterns of behaviour that are harmful and destructive. We may be enslaved by the opinions of others; we can’t be the people we want to be because we’re afraid they’ll disapprove, that they’ll gossip about us at the school gates, or write snarky things on social media. We may feel enslaved by the expectation that we will climb the social ladder, push ahead at work, get that promotion, even if we really don’t want to. That’s what Paul means when he talks of us being “enslaved to sin”.

But the opposite of that slavery isn’t, as we might expect, freedom to do whatever we want. Instead, Paul talks about us becoming “slaves to righteousness” and “enslaved to God.” What does that mean?

He’s not thinking of God as some kind of brutal overlord, ready to crack the whip if we slack off or get things wrong. He doesn’t mean us, either, to adopt an unthinking, unquestioning faith. What Paul means is that our relationship with God should be one that is whole-hearted, touching the whole of our lives. “Let the Gospel and its values have a claim on you”, he is saying, “on the way you live, the way you behave to others, the way you work and shop and play. Let it shape your life and change you”. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul,with all your strength and with all your mind,”  says the Bible.  Being “enslaved to God” means living that out, day by day, week by week.  Maybe we think Paul is pushing his analogy too far by calling it slavery – it is, of course, our choice to follow him, and slaves don’t have a choice, but it’s his analogy, not mine. And he uses it deliberately to emphasize the totality of the commitment he is talking about, a positive, joyful commitment, but one which should have profound consequences for our daily lives.

We probably all have positive commitments like that already. We may not call them slavery, but we make choices which we know will bring restrictions as well as joy. I am very glad to be tied to Philip by the bonds of marriage, and to have two lovely children who will always be there in my heart and mind, even if they aren’t physically close by.  These things don’t feel like slavery at all – if they did there would be something badly wrong! They feel like freedom, but there’s a commitment involved in any family relationship. Our families have a justifiable claim on our time, our attention, our money. We’re not free just to do what we want – to move house or go on holiday, for example - without consulting them or considering the impact it will have on them.

Jobs and voluntary commitments may also involve a sacrifice of certain freedoms. If we’re lucky, we may be doing jobs we have freely chosen, but even in the best job there’ll be moments when we just wish we could take off for the day, or the week- or forever - instead of turning up for work.

All of us in some ways, then, both positively and negatively “serve somebody”, as Dylan said. Or as St Paul puts it “ Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”  Our choices and commitments can be destructive or constructive, deathly or live-giving – to ourselves and to those around us. We need to choose wisely, to let the right things and people have a claim on our time.

In the Gospel, Jesus reminds us that it is the “little ones” who should come first, the ones who have no voice and no power.  We may look at them and think they are nothing to do with us, that it’s not our job to slake their thirst, whether that is for water, or justice, or a helping hand, or a kind word, but we are wrong. If we belong to God, if we say we are part of his family, then all other people are our brothers and sisters.

What does this look like in practice, when people are living a life of committed love, recognising their responsibilities to God and one another? It looks like the firefighters who ran into Grenfell Tower again and again to rescue people, when everyone else was running out of it. It looks like the churches and the mosques and other community organisations who immediately swung into action to care for the survivors – they didn’t know what they were doing, but they knew they needed to do something. It was their job. It looks like the policeman, Wayne Marques, who I saw interviewed on the television news this week. He fought off the terrorists at Borough Market armed just with a baton, and was badly injured himself, so that he could buy time for others to escape.

But it also looks like those who volunteer day by day in less dramatic ways to help in their communities , who staff the charity shops, befriend those going through tough times, or check in on a frail neighbour. It looks like those who speak out at work when they see something unjust happening, or who campaign for those at the bottom of the heap. Closer to home, it looks like the many people here who care for  this church, and build up its  congregation, so that we can comfort those who come here in times of sadness, and rejoice with those who celebrating. We may just give a cup of cold water, but that says to people, “you matter to me.”  It may seem odd to call these things slavery, but doing them takes commitment and the sacrifice of some of our freedom, our time and our energy. Not much that’s worth doing is going to be easy or quick or painless.

So, what are you enslaved to today? What holds you in its thrall? For all of us, there will be a mixture of answers. There may be enslavements which we need freeing from, things that crush our souls and drag us down. Let’s pray for deliverance from them, for God’s grace to find the freedom he wants for us. But there may also be ties that we rejoice in, commitments that are life-giving and good, things we are called to.  Let’s pray for strength to fulfil them, to embrace them whole-heartedly so we can live out our commitment to God, to one another, and to his life-giving Gospel.
Amen