Sunday, 31 December 2017

Christmas 1: Pondering Christmas



The angels left and went into heaven… the shepherds returned [to their sheep]…

This time of year, the week between Christmas and New Year, is often a time when people are going home from family visits, returning like those angels and shepherds, and picking up the threads of their lives again. My two children were with us for Christmas, but Michael went back to Southampton on the 27th and Ruth flew back to Lisbon on the 28th – from Stansted – she managed to pick the only airport seriously disrupted by the snow to fly out of! Fortunately, she got back safely with only a little delay. Even if you haven’t had visitors or been a visitor, though, there’s often a sense that things are getting back to normal after the Christmas break at this point. People are going back to work, groups and activities are starting again. However good a Christmas you’ve had, that can feel like a relief, especially if you put the tree up really early and now all the needles have fallen off. But there’s a danger that in our haste to clear Christmas away we may miss the chance to hear its message to us.

That’s why it matters that in the church at least, Christmas has only just begun. The Magi haven’t reached Bethlehem yet, and won’t do for another week, and then after that the Christmas season continues, with what you might call the “sub-season” of Epiphanytide, until Candlemas at the beginning of February. We’re a long way from being done with this story of the baby born in Bethlehem.

The reason why we cling on like this is that Christmas isn’t just a day. The work of bringing up a baby, as any parent can testify, doesn’t end with its birth – that’s just the beginning, and it’s what comes next that really matter. That’s just as true for Jesus as it is for anyone else. The person who seems to be most aware of this in today’s Gospel reading is Mary, of course - and maybe Joseph too, though he’s not mentioned here. They are the ones who will have to care for this child, who will have the sleepless nights and anxiety, as well as the joy and tenderness of holding him close.  We are told that Mary “treasured” the words she had heard and “pondered them in her heart.” The Greek word translated as “pondered” is only used in this one place in the Bible. Its literal meaning is to bring together, or more accurately to throw together. It is sunballo if you’re interested.

I like that. It’s as if Mary is carrying a rag bag of emotions and experiences at this point, all the things that have been thrown at her, trying to make sense of them. There was the initial appearance of the angel, and his announcement to her that she would bear a child, with all the risks of scandal that involved. Then there was her emotional visit to her relative Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. Then there was the journey to Bethlehem at the diktat of a foreign emperor. Then there was nowhere for her and Joseph to stay. She’s had to lay her child down to sleep in a borrowed manger far away from home, and then these shepherds turn up in the middle of the night, with stories of more angels. She knew that something extraordinary was happening, that this child, according to the angel, was God’s son, the Messiah, the one who who would “cast down the mighty from their thrones”, which is something  the mighty tend not to be too keen on, so she knew there would be trouble ahead. But what would the future hold? What was she supposed to do now with this child? How could she bring him up with the resilience and the courage he would need? How would she find that resilience and courage for herself?  All these thoughts are jostling for her attention – thrown together in her mind as she holds her child to herself.  

We don’t get that sense of the “thrown togetherness” of all of this in the English translation of that word sunballo – pondering gives a rather different feel to it, but it’s a good word too, a word worth thinking about.  The word ponder is linked to ponderous, of course; it’s about things that are weighty. We get “pound” from the same root. Mary is weighing up all these things that have been thrown at her. They lie heavy in her thoughts. They can’t be cast off like the scrumpled up wrapping paper and Christmas packaging that litters the living room carpet by Boxing Day. They can’t be ignored, they won’t just blow away in the breeze. These are thoughts she will carry around with her all the time. She’ll sometimes struggle to bear them as her child grows and begins to live out his ministry.

Mary ponders in the days after Jesus is born, and if we want Christmas to be more than a couple of weeks of eating, drinking and singing carols, more than a mushy moment in the candlelight, we need to ponder  the thoughts, feelings and questions it has provoked in us too.  We need to allow those thoughts and feelings and questions to have their proper weight,  to have substance and reality in our lives. Where has  Christ been born in us this Christmas? Maybe it has happened in a some small impulse we have felt to set something right, to do something new, to let our lives be changed.  What will we do to turn those impulses into reality? Where has light shone in the darkness for us, and what is that light showing us about ourselves and our world? What will we do to help that light shine out?  The angel told Mary to call her child Jesus – in Hebrew it would be Yeshua, the same name we anglicise as Joshua, that famous Old Testament warrior. It means “God saves”, but how has Christ come as a saviour to us this Christmas. What do we need saving from right now? What do we need saving for? Where do we need God’s help, and how shall we reach out to find it? The Christ child, God’s word and God’s work, lies in the manger of our hearts – what are we going to do to help him grow up and grow strong?

It is easy for Christmas to feel like a bit of a dream, a time out of time, but the questions it asks us are real questions about our real lives, about our relationships, our priorities, our callings. They demand and deserve real answers. Holding onto Christmas isn’t just about keeping the crib up and not packing away the tinsel too soon. It is about finding and nurturing that life which God is trying to bring to birth in us, respecting it, taking it seriously, so that it can grow to fill us, transform us and save us. How shall we do that? That is what we are called to ponder today.  

Amen 

Monday, 25 December 2017

The Owl's Christmas - a story for Christmas Day

To listen to the story click here Audio version  

I don't read the stories I tell on Christmas day - they are told, without notes or a script. The written version of the story is just a guide! 

This story is based on an old tradition that all the birds of the air came to worship at the manger except the owl. I wondered what he might have been doing instead... 

On the night when Jesus was born, an owl flew through the dark skies near Bethlehem, calling out “Whoo! Whoo!” as it always did. The darkness didn’t bother the owl at all. He was born for the night, a creature of the night. He could see in the dark, and he could hear a mouse creeping through the grass in a field a mile away. But the noise he heard in the middle of that deep, dark night, wasn’t what he was expecting at all. Cock- a – doodle-doo! It was the cry of a cockerel! But it was nowhere near dawn. What was happening? The cry came from the direction of Bethlehem, and the owl decided he should go and check it out. So he flew as fast as he could on his silent wings towards the village. He soon found the cockerel, standing on the roof of a ramshackle stable, cockadoodledoing his heart out.

‘What’s going on?’ said the owl. ‘It’s hours till daybreak!’

‘But tonight something very special has happened’, crowed the cockerel. ‘God’s Messiah, his Son, has been born, the one we’ve all been waiting for, the one who is coming to show us how to love one another and to live in peace! And he is right here, in this stable! See – all the birds are here to greet him! Why don’t you join them?’

The Owl peered through a gap in the thatched roof. There inside he could see a mother, and a father, and a baby lying in the manger, and around him, all the birds of the air. The lark was singing a sweet song to lull the baby to sleep. The stork was plucking soft feathers from her own body to cushion the baby’s head. The robin was fanning the feeble fire with his own wings till it’s breast turned bright red – as it still is to this day.

‘Whoo me? Go in there? No!’ said the Owl., I can’t go in there. It looks lovely, but it’s far too bright. The light will hurt my eyes. And anyway, I am a creature of the night. People shiver when they hear me cry. They think I am the sign that something bad will happen. I will just stay outside and watch from here.’

And that’s what he did. All through that night and the nights that followed he watched over the baby, as shepherds came to visit him and then visitors from far away arrived with strange gifts. In the day time the owl tucked himself under the eaves and slept, but at night,  he watched to make sure the child and his family were safe.

All was peaceful until, one night, in the deepest part of the  black midnight,  owl, with his sharp hearing heard something he didn’t like at all. He heard the noise of marching feet, and of swords and spears, and of men talking to each other in gruff voices. ‘Can’t think why King Herod has to send us out on this job in the middle of the night to look for this baby he’s so angry about! Couldn’t it have waited till morning?’ ‘He must be really determined to get rid of him – a child born to be king, those wise men said – a rival for Herod – no wonder he’s rattled.’ ‘Anyway, it’s no good us complaining about it. We’ve just got to follow his orders – or we’ll be for the high jump ourselves!’

What was this? thought owl, alarmed. King Herod’s soldiers! Coming to get rid of the child! And the mother and father fast asleep below! He must do something!

‘Whoo! Whoo!’ he called out, as loud as he could. Down below, Mary and Joseph sat up in the straw where they had made their bed. ‘What was that?’ said Mary. ‘Just that dratted owl’ said Joseph. ‘I’ll see if I can chase him away in the morning. Mind you, I’m not sorry to wake up. I was having a terrible dream. I dreamt that King Herod was trying to get rid of our baby, and that God was telling us to take him and run. You don’t think there could be anything in it, do you?’ ‘No, surely not! Why would a great man like Herod want to harm our a poor baby? It’s not as if he’s got an army to command’ said Mary, ‘and even if there is something to worry about, I’m sure it can wait till morning. Let’s go back to sleep while we can – if that owl will let us – and think about it tomorrow.’

‘Whoo! Whoo!’ called the owl, even louder. How could he make them listen? The soldiers were coming closer. He could hear them. Summoning all his courage he flew down from the roof and into the stable. The firelight was bright, dazzling, but the owl was determined. He flew right up to Joseph and took his sleeve in his beak and started to pull on it. ‘What on earth is going on? Get off me!’ said Joseph. But then, Joseph and Mary heard it too – the sound of those swords and spears and marching feel – still far off, but unmistakeable. The owl was right. The dream was right. Jesus was in danger.

They picked him up from the manger, and quickly gathered together their few belongings, and stumbled out into the night – the stars and the moon were covered in thick clouds. ‘But where will we go? And how will we find the way?’ said Mary. ‘Whoo! Whoo!’ called the owl, a little way off. ‘The owl seems to know where we should go,’ said Joseph ‘we may not be able to see in the dark, but he can. Let’s follow him!’
They headed towards the owl. He waited for them to catch up, then flew on, hooting again. On they went, on a dark path that lead between the hills, far, far up into rocky valleys with steep sides until they came to the mouth of a cave. The owl flew straight into it, but Mary and Joseph hesitated just inside its mouth. Above them could hear the skittering of bats, and they felt spiders’ webs brush their faces. ‘Ugh!’ said Joseph. ‘I hate this darkness, and the things that live in it!’ ‘But what other choice do we have?’ said Mary. ‘And the owl has been kind to us – and isn’t he a creature of darkness too? Besides, doesn’t it say in our Scriptures that the darkness is no darkness to God, that to him the darkness and light are both alike? And at least we’ll be well hidden ’ ‘Hmm’ said Joseph. ‘Perhaps…’ ‘Whoo! Whoo!’ called the owl. They inched their way deeper into the cave, feeling ahead of them with their hands, until all of a sudden,Joseph felt, under his hand, a rough, hairy head, and pointed ears and a long nose, and sharp, sharp teeth. Just at that moment, the clouds parted and a shaft of moonlight lit up the cave. Joseph looked down. And there, looking up at him, was a great, grey wolf, yellow eyes gleaming in the glow. ‘It’s a wolf! Mary. The owl has brought us into a wolf’s den. We’re done for!’ But the wolf just looked up at them, and the child in Mary’s arms, with kindness and love in its eyes. It made no move to attack them. ‘Oh Joseph! I don’t think the owl would have brought us here to be eaten by a wolf . And doesn’t it say in our Scriptures than when God’s kingdom comes he will teach all things to live in peace and the wolf will lie down with the lamb and live in peace. I think  our lamb of God is safe with Brother wolf here. Let’s find somewhere to sit down at the back of the cave and rest, and hope the soldiers give up and go home.’

But the owl was still listening, and he knew it wasn’t to be so. The soldiers were still coming closer, spreading out to search the rocky valleys in twos and threes. He could hear soldiers coming up the path to this valley, this cave.The owl knew he needed to act fast. ‘Whoo! Whoo!’ he called to the other creatures in the cave, and flew down to a rock by the wolf’s side. A bat flew down from the cave to join them, and a spider scuttled out from under the rock and up its sides. There was a growling and a muttering and a skittering and soft whooting as they seemed to talk together and then, as Mary and Joseph watched, the owl flew out of the cave up and perched in a scrubby tree above it. The bats flew out in a great cloud and hung upside down from the rocky ledges along the valley side. The wolf padded a little way out from the cave, and hid himself behind some rocks, and every spider in the cave scuttled out to the cave mouth and began to spin. To and fro across the cave mouth they spun their silk, until it was a thick curtain hiding Mary and Joseph and the baby.

They were just in time, because just at that moment, two soldiers came  stumbling up the pathway to the cave. ‘What about this then? A cave – that would be a good place to hide. Should we have a look?’ ‘Nah. Don’t be daft! Look at those spider’s webs. They must have been there ages, to be so thick – no one’s been in this cave for years!’ The soldiers began to turn away, and inside the cave, Mary and Joseph silently sighed with relief. But then one of the soldiers said to the other, ‘ Mind you – we could do with a rest ourselves, and that cave would do nicely for twenty minutes kip.  No one would notice if we had a bit of shut-eye. Maybe we could have brew up. We can easily slice through these cobwebs with our swords.. What do you think?’ ‘Yeah, why not?’ said the other. And they drew their swords and raised them, ready to cut their way into the cave…

But the owl saw, and the owl heard. ‘Whoo! Whoo!’ he called out. And he launched himself from his perch, and all the bats swooped down with him from the rocks, and they tangled themselves in the soldiers hair and scratched at them with their claws. ‘Spiders! Owls! bats! – what is this cursed place?” said the soldiers, trying to beat them away. And then, from his place behind the rocks,  the wolf put up his great grey head and opened his great slavering mouth and howled with all his might, a howl that turned water to ice, that turned wood to stone, that turned knees to jelly. And he stepped out from behind the rock, and ran at the soldiers, eyes glowing like coals,  teeth glinting in the moonlight. And they dropped their weapons and they ran and they ran and they ran! They ran as far and as fast as they could, and they never came back again.

And inside the cave, Mary and Joseph laughed softly to themselves, with relief and with gratitude for all that these creatures of the night had done for them and their child.

And in the morning, before they set out on their way, they promised that they would bring up their child never to be afraid of the darkness, or the creatures that live in it. And they were true to their word, because when he grew up this child, Jesus, never shunned or feared those who found themselves in dark places and dark times. And when he hung on a cross and the sky turned dark in the middle of the day, he remembered it for himself too. God is with us in the darkness, just as he is in the light; to him the night is as bright as the day.
Amen


This story is based on fragments of folklore, but it is an Anne Le Bas original. Please credit me if you use it elsewhere! Thanks
For more Christmas stories, click here. 


For more about the tawny owl....
https://www.livingwithbirds.com/tweetapedia/21-facts-on-tawny-owl

Midnight Mass


John 1.1-14 & Isaiah 52.7-10

In the beginning…

If you’ve been rushing around getting ready for Christmas and you’ve come here this evening to hear readings about mangers, babies, shepherds, magi and stables I can only apologise.


John’s gospel doesn’t begin with the story of Jesus’ birth in the detailed sense, and we wouldn’t be the first people to hear these words and struggle to make sense of them. When you heard them you may have done so as a prologue, poetry, a declaration or something you might expect to find in a hymn. You may think where’s the bit about the birth of the Christ child? Well it’s in there but the greater focus is on what God can offer us, which gives an important insight into his nature.

The Christmas message from John is that God invites every one of us to be born as his children, to truly be children of God.

It’s the part where John tells usHe was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.’

‘Power to become Children of God’, power to become children? Mmmm that’s an interesting one isn’t it do you associate power with children? Perhaps more so at Christmas when failing to meet their expectations in the present department might not be well received. One lady I know through work told me that her 4 year old had been waking up at 4.30 am every morning since early December asking whether it’s Christmas yet, so her expectations might be building! Maybe if you want to watch something on TV and they want to play the Xbox the balance of power is against you, maybe if you get some new technology and you want to get it working without spending hours reading manuals you might have to make some concessions.

One little girl went to see Father Christmas at her local shopping centre but stormed off when he asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she turned to her mother in a disgusted fashion and said ‘ he hasn’t even bothered to read my email’. Teenage children will know that once you stop believing in Father Christmas you start getting clothes as presents, perhaps they lose their child like powers at this point?

Of course in reality children aren’t all powerful, I remember being punished at school for speaking in class, being sent out to play in freezing weather when I’d rather have stayed indoors and feeling that I had to ask permission to do so many things. Power to become children! The preacher Tom Wright more accurately describes it as power to become powerless, authority to be under authority.

Would the prophet Isaiah have recognised this vulnerable baby as the triumphant God he sought? He did indeed bare his holy arm but that of new born boy rather than a conquering warrior.

 

Though the character of God starts to make sense when we realise that it’s this powerless vulnerable human form of a baby that he chose to take when he sent the light into the world. God is being redefined and we get to know him so much better when we take time to look at who Jesus is.

There’s nothing wrong with a sentimental view of Christmas with the baby Jesus as long as we don’t let it hide God’s promise for us. He is offering us every positive aspect of the parent - child relationship, nurturing, feeding, protection and above all love.

Many of us experience a sense of powerless to change the sadness and evil we see in the world, many others are left feeling powerless and forgotten including homeless people, refugees and those living in loneliness. When we consider such people we are reminded that Jesus experienced homelessness, life as a refugee, a humble birth place. He didn’t pace the corridors of power but mixed with prostitutes and those collecting taxes for the despised occupying Roman army. He refused to follow meaningless temple rituals and refused allegiance to the emperor because he knew that the systems were there to control and oppress the very people he cared for and he came to show a new type of kingdom which honoured sacrifice, humility and servanthood.

It can be an overwhelming realization that the one true God who created the universe, who was there ‘in the beginning’ chose to come to us a servant with a depth of compassion that we struggle to comprehend.

As we look to Jesus the nature of the otherwise invisible God is revealed to us in a helpless baby who grows into the man who dies on a cross.

Surely this makes us think that maybe we are sometimes looking for meaning and guidance in the wrong places. It’s often when men and women have the courage or instinct to go against the grain of what is accepted as normality by so many that we find the greatest rewards. A moment of sanity broke in when a football was kicked into no man’s land in Flanders, the site of horrific human slaughter in WW1, and on Christmas Day 1914 and the opposing forces found they could play sport rather than kill each other for a while.

Many people are naturally sceptical about the phrase ‘born again’, maybe it’s the association with sun tanned TV evangelists who always seem to have the toll free number in the corner of the screen for our credit card. I’m sure they share the same fake tan with the TV sales channels.

Yet being ‘born again’ in the sense that we can become children of God and start a new relationship with real depth and meaning is what we are being offered. A relationship which is not burdened by the weight of our past failures, an invitation which doesn’t have any preconditions and which is for absolutely everyone without exception or time limit.

God doesn’t want to keep himself to himself but comes to us, seeks relationship with us, shows us what is important to him and then it’s for us to decide whether we want to accept. It’s the living relationship day by day which is important, not the mere knowledge.

If Christmas is to mean anything beyond decorations and sentimentality then it has to be lived out, on a daily basis through our imperfect lives in the real world. I love the words of one fellow preacher who beautifully describes this as ‘the supreme defiance of pessimism.’

At this time of year when days are at their shortest I’m rather pleased that we took over what was a pagan festival, to have Christmas lights in all their formats which offer welcome illumination from the darkness. When some people moan that Christmas is over commercialised I guess we Christians have to hold up our hands and admit that we did nick it off those with other ideas in the first place.

People will relate to darkness differently but when we speak of dark times it is unlikely to be in a positive context. People have felt that they are walking in darkness at times of war and oppression when they suffer the consequences of greed and injustice.

I took my summer holiday in Washington DC this year and discovered how Churchill and Roosevelt used the illuminated community Christmas tree outside the White House as a sign of hope in 1941. Just a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbour and the entry of the U.S. into WW2 Franklin Roosevelt declared defiance ‘against enemies who preach the principles of hate and practice them,’ stating ‘we set our faith in human love and in God’s care for us and all men everywhere’.

Most of us will have our own dark times, losing someone we love, facing frightening illnesses, feeling ground down by hardship or rarely finding love and kindness.

I’m all for joy and happiness, merriment and feasting at Christmas but we’d need to have our heads in the sand to think that this is the case for everyone. For those who are generally finding life hard this can be made even harder at Christmas by the unrealistic expectations of others to be joining in when all they really want to do is find some peace. It often invokes strong memories and for some it can be painful and empty.

Although it’s sometimes easier said than done such times are those when we need to draw on the depth of our confidence as children of God, people he considers worthy of love and respect, people he trusts to care for each other and his world.

It reminds us of the choice we must make and to accept Gods invitation to life in the light as children loved by him seems overwhelming, to do anything else is not life at all.

So I end by wishing us all a Christmas which leaves us certain in the knowledge that we are loved by God who came to give us eternal hope, whose light continues to shine and the darkness did not nor never will overcome it.

Amen

Kevin Bright

Midnight Mass Christmas 2017

 

Monday, 18 December 2017

Advent Breathing Space 3: A child is born



During our three Advent Breathing Spaces this year, I’ve been picking up on the theme of birth and babies, which our daily Advent reflections have been exploring, and I’ve been using some of my own poems as a “hook” to hang my thoughts on. In this third and final service, I’d like to begin with a poem I wrote when my children were still in primary school. It was, perhaps, an attempt to remind myself what it was all really supposed to be about, in the midst of the day-to-day realities of family life, the piles of washing, petty squabbles and lego all over the floor. It’s called “Parents should be singers of a song”.

Parents should be singers of a song,
murmuring the ancient lines
like waves into the seashell ears of new-born children,
    "You are beautiful,
      and beloved
      and the best thing in the world."

The whispered tune is tangled through their hearts,
and, humming with the resonance of love,
the contrapuntal melodies turn softly in the pathways of their souls,
to spin the strands of safety with their song of reassurance.
    "You are beautiful,
      and beloved
      and the best thing in the world."

And when they are grown, these love-sung children?
When they are grown they echo still with music.
    "You are beautiful,
      and beloved
      and the best thing in the world."

You’d have to ask my children how much the aspiration matched up to the reality! All I can say is that I am very proud of them both, and that it is a privilege to be their mum, and I hope they know it! But I knew then, and I know now too, that no family is perfect, no parent manages to sing that song all the time. Sooner or later, parents and children are bound to disappoint each other.

I spend a lot of my time dealing with families in the course of my ministry. Weddings, baptisms and funerals give me a privileged glimpse of their inner workings, as well as all the normal ups and downs I get to hear about between those moments. The conclusion I’ve come to after this exhaustive research is that all families are different, but none of them is perfect.   

The series of daily Advent readings I’ve been posting this year, on Biblical birth stories, show us that things were no different in ancient times.  Any attempt to glorify Biblical family values soon founders when we actually read the Bible.

Children in the Bible were born into families that were incestuous, polygamous, or abusive. They were born to slaves who had no choice in the matter, and to free-born women who might as well have been slaves for all the power they had to direct their own lives. They were bereaved of mothers, fathers and siblings. They fought among themselves, locked in bitter rivalries that stretched over lifetimes. They were refugees and economic migrants, oppressed by war and famine and political situations they had no control over.

Sometimes Biblical parents were good and loving. Sometimes they were shockingly bad. Mostly, like all parents, they were a mixture, trying to get it right, but often failing just like modern parents.

When that happens, when parents fail their children, or children their parents, it’s important to know that our families don’t exist in self-contained bubbles, and nor where they meant to. Our first reading spoke of God, “from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.”  Our human families are just a part of his great family. Our love may be limited and fallible, but his is not. We may be pushed to the boundaries of our patience, but his knows no boundary. It is longer and higher and deeper and broader than anything we can ask or imagine. We, and our families, are part of an eternal and limitless family.

The early Christians were very much in tune with this reality. In following Christ , they found they had suddenly acquired brothers and sisters they never imagined they might share kinship with. Rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Gentile. For some, this family might be the only family they now had, because they had become estranged from their families of origin, but for all, there was a new sense of identity to be discovered and owned. Whoever else’s sons and daughters they were, they were also  the sons and daughters of God. Whatever other household they belonged to, they also belonged to the household of God. In those famous words of John , “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God”.

This is our truest and deepest identity. It isn’t in rivalry with the sense of identity we have in our human families. It is beyond, above and beneath them.  All our human families, with their joys and sorrows, their love, and their failure to love, are held in God’s embrace. He can forgive and heal whatever in them is broken or lacking. Parents don’t have to parent alone – God parents with them. Children can know ultimate safety, even though their human parents can’t always protect them.

“Parents should be singers of a song”, I wrote, and sometimes they are. But whether they are or not, the good news Jesus was born to proclaim is that God, who is Father and Mother to us all, sings within us. And if we learn to listen to him, he can fill our lives with his music.

“You are beautiful
and beloved
and the best thing in the world.”



Amen

Monday, 11 December 2017

Advent Breathing Space 2: A Child is Born



Tying in with our daily Advent reflections about the birth of children in the Bible, these three Advent Breathing Spaces pick up some more general themes we find in the Bible about children and childbirth. Each talk has a poem in it – one of mine – tonight’s will be at the end of this talk.

Last week we thought about the miracle of the birth of any child, the sense in which every birth changes the world even if only a little. This week’s readings, though, point us to the birth which we celebrate at Christmas, the birth of Jesus. If every birth changes the world, then this one absolutely transformed it. That’s the case even for those who aren’t Christian. The course of history, the fate of nations, our musical and artistic heritage, our laws and our customs were all shaped by the fact that Jesus came into the world.

In fact, though, we know very little about his birth for sure. Luke and Matthew are the only Gospels that tell us about it, and they tell stories that are very different. There are shepherds in one, Magi in the other. One starts in Nazareth, the other seems to take place completely in Bethlehem. They’ve got some common features. Bethlehem seems significant, and the child is born to ordinary, even poor, parents against a backdrop of danger. But whether either story is historically accurate is very hard to tell, and, in any case, Matthew and Luke weren’t really trying to give us an historical account. Their stories are more like an overture, giving us hints of what is to come, setting the scene, helping us to see not what happened, but why it mattered.

We have surrounded these Gospel stories with tinsel and magic and highly unlikely details, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” - like no baby, ever! But the central point that the Gospel writers make is that this child is, to outward appearance, no different from any other, not special, not an obvious candidate for Messiahship. He’s not born in a palace, where the Magi expect to find him. He’s not even born in the comfort of a home. He is born among the animals, lain in their feeding trough because there is nowhere else.

We see babies like him all the time in our news reports today. He’s the baby born in a refugee camp in a cold, muddy tent. He’s the baby quietly starving in Yemen. He’s the baby born right here in the UK, to parents struggling to make a home in a B & B, because they’ve been evicted by their landlords and can’t afford the deposit for a new place. He’s the child whom no one really notices, who doesn’t look as if he – or she – will ever amount to anything. And yet, in the case of Jesus, he does, because God is at work in him.

And God is at work in him not despite his ordinariness, but because of it. This is what the Gospel writers are telling us in their stories. He is an ordinary child, born to an ordinary mother, but he will go on to have an extraordinary impact. His ordinariness will be hurled back at him throughout his life. His opponents will ask him, in fury, “Who do you think you are?” again and again. “Why does this carpenter from a backwater in Galilee, with no qualifications, no pedigree, think he can turn our traditions upside down?” they will complain. His death will be a last, desperate attempt to put him back in his place. Crucifixion was deliberately humiliating. The Romans used it to concentrate the minds of those who witnessed it, so that they wouldn’t be tempted to get ideas above their station.

But Jesus embraces his ordinariness because his whole life was a sign that God comes to us where we are, which isn’t, for most of us, anywhere grand. He chooses fishermen and tax collectors, women and children, as his closest circle of friends and followers. When he casts about for symbols that will remind them of his presence, he doesn’t go for champagne and fois gras, but bread and ordinary wine, their staple diet. “This is where you’ll find me”, he says, “in the people who attract no special notice, in the bits of life that are disregarded and in the parts of yourself that you’d rather ignore too. That’s where I’m needed, so that’s where I’ll be.”

That’s the message which brought hope to his first followers. They were people like Paul, who wrote that the whole of creation was  “groaning in labour pains”  waiting to see the  “the revealing of the children of God,” waiting for the moment when people would learn to see themselves and each other as the people we really are, beloved and precious to God, however ordinary we might feel to ourselves. God comes to us, in Christ, in all that is ordinary, and in doing so, makes it glorious by his presence.

So here is tonight’s poem. It is simply called “He is here”.

He is here

He is here,
blood-streaked from his mother's womb,
slippery purple with rage
- ejected from comfort -
helplessly beating the cold air
in the powerless protest of childhood.

He is here
in voiceless pain,
naked,
debased,
unnamed with the dead of the killing fields.

He is here
in the commonest things of life.
In rough wine, acid on the tongue
and the crumbling bread of the poor.

He is here
unremarked,
in the eyes which ask for help.

He is here, this Lord of Heaven.
He has slipped, unnoticed, into the thread of life.
He is here, this God of holy splendour.
Commonplace and ordinary,
he has soaked himself into all that is overlooked,
saying,
"Touch me,
  break me
  eat me."

He is here,
he is here,
he is here.


May 89

Anne Le Bas

Monday, 4 December 2017

Advent Breathing Space 1: A Child is Born

The address from the first of our Advent Breathing Space Holy Communion Services.


During our three Advent Breathing Space services this year, I am picking up the theme of our Advent daily reflections, “ A child is born”. As you’ll know, if you are following them, they trace almost all the stories of children being born in the Bible.

In these services, though, I’ll be thinking a bit more generally about the theme of birth in the Bible and what it might mean to us, not just the birth of actual babies, but birth in its widest sense.
I decided too, that I would introduce each of these three talks with one of myown poems. That may be a bit self-indulgent, but I’m hoping you’ll forgive me, because each of them reflects something of my own ruminations on the subject, just as these talks do.

This week’s poem is one I wrote about ten years after the birth of my first child, Michael.
It recalls his first day in the world, and my first day as a mother. He’d been born on a Sunday morning, and we were the only occupants of the four bed ward in the maternity hospital at the imte.
It’s called “You and I”, and it goes like this.

You, startled in your fishbowl crib,
and I,
washed down and lain between cool sheets
after the sweat and blood of your arrival
watch each other.

Left alone,
(- we were the only ones last night
committing miracles -)
we find ourselves fixed in conspiratorial surprise,
gazing, as if,
for all that we shared
nine months swelling expectation
this was somehow not what we expected.

Most of all,
(and strange!)
we never thought
the world would now be
quite so different.
I,
transformed from isolated independence
find I am become the wellspring of the future,
tied through time and over oceans to the whole of life.
You,
opening a space, and love and grief, where there were none,
forcing your way into the fabric of existence
have enlarged the universe
with your small, growing self,

Your dreams did not encompass change
and mine were limited to tiny hands and nappies
yet between us
we have changed the world.



As that poem expresses, giving birth doesn’t just change the lives of the child and its parents, it changes everything. Who knows what that child will grow up to be and to do? When a child comes into the world, the future is altered irrevocably. It is a profound mystery. A person who didn’t exist now does. Someone who was just a figment of your imagination is now real, and may be nothing like you imagined. Maybe you are quiet and cautious, but find yourself with a child full of energy and no sense of danger! Maybe you are an intrepid traveller, and find you have given birth to a child who just wants to stay at home. Maybe your child has abilities or disabilities you weren’t prepared for. Whatever else children do, they always surprise us.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, though. After all, the God who gives them to us is a God of surprises. As our first reading reminded us, this is the God who sits in a formless void at the beginning of time and brings into being something that has never existed before - light. And then he follows it with a whole great panoply of other things, from the moon and the stars to the worms and the whales. God is, first and foremost, a creator. By his word he gives birth to everything that is. The writer of this first great story wasn’t writing science or history when he wrote this. He was trying to encapsulate the greatest truth about God, that he is a God who does new things all the time. It’s in his nature to do so.  

Maybe that’s one reason why Jesus was always so keen on putting children centre stage when he talked about the new kingdom he was bringing in, as he does in our Gospel reading. They’re a constant reminder of the creative imagination of God. In every child God recreates the world. Through their birth, he does something that has never been done before, and those who welcome children get to share in that endless creativity.  

As I said at the beginning, though, not every birth that matters is a flesh and blood one. Other sorts of birth can be just as creative, just as world changing as the birth of a child. We may give birth to new ideas and initiatives. We may create hospitable communities, or new possibilities for people who feel hopeless about themselves. We may bring into being love and joy where there were none before. As we do so, co-operating with our life-giving God, all of us can bring to birth a new world.  


In the silence tonight, then, let’s think about our children – not just the flesh and blood babies, but all those others too. How have we changed the world with God, and what children does God still call us to bear as we learn to work with him? 
Amen 


Sunday, 3 December 2017

Advent 1: The God who comes to us

Audio version here

Isaiah 64. 1-9, Psalm 80.1-7, 16-18, 1 Cor 1.3-9, Mark13.24-37

Advent can be a confusing idea. It falls to my lot to explain it to children and I tell them, of course, that  the word means “coming”, from the Latin “advenire”. ‘What’s coming?’ I ask them. The answer is usually ‘Santa’, or sometimes ‘Christmas’, but whatever it is, it normally has something to do with what is going to be under the tree for them. After a bit of prompting I might get something about the birth of Jesus. But I can’t blame them for wondering what that has to do with coming, because the baby Jesus has, obviously, already arrived. We’re two thousand years too late for his coming. There’s not much point trying to get ready for it now, is there? It may be good news, but it’s old news.

And yet Christians through the ages have still kept Advent as a season of expectant waiting, lighting the Advent candles, one more each week, opening the windows on the Advent calendars, one more each day. Something is coming, we proclaim. But what is it?

One answer, traditionally, is that Advent is a time when we prepare for Jesus’ second coming at the end of the age, “‘in clouds’ with great power and glory” as our Gospel reading put it. His first coming was as a baby in Bethlehem. Traditional Christian belief says that he will come again one day in majesty. St Paul called it “the day of the Lord Jesus” in our second reading today. Like the Gospel writers, Paul believed that Jesus would return in the very near future in a very literal way. On that day, the heavens would open. It would be like a king leading his victory parade only much, much better. The dead would be raised. There would be a judgement, a reckoning, but ultimately Christ would usher in a new age of peace.  

By the end of the first century, though, it hadn’t happened as those first followers had expected, and there was a crisis in Christian faith. Had something gone wrong? The early Christians thought again about what Jesus had said and done. He had said, after all, that no one knew – not even him – when this Second Coming would happen.   “Maybe we got it wrong,” they thought. “Maybe this isn’t a sprint. Maybe it’s a marathon. Maybe the second coming of Jesus is further off than we thought, or is different from what we imagined it would be.”

Many people feel rather uncomfortable with the idea of the Second Coming today. Christ coming through the clouds? Stars falling from the heavens? It all sounds like a rather overblown disaster movie. But Christianity has never entirely abandoned the idea. We’ve never given up the belief that God will, one day, create a “new heaven and a new earth” as the Book of Revelation puts it – it’s still there in the creed we say each Sunday.  However we feel about it, it’s good that it is there. It has also often sustained and strengthened people going through hard times, because its underlying message is that God’s love is stronger than hatred and oppression. Whatever the world looks like, whatever it throws at you, God is ultimately in control – the bad times won’t last forever. African American slaves sung about Jesus’ return often in their spirituals. It was precious to them because it told them that their suffering wasn’t the end of the story. There would be a better future, even they didn’t live to see it. It helped them to hold onto the truth that they were God’s precious and beloved children when they were being treated as if they weren’t even human.  And in doing that, it gave them strength not only to endure but also to challenge the powers that oppressed them. And that strength eventually helped them win their freedom.

The people who wrote our Old Testament reading and our Psalm today would have recognised their experience. The readings we heard were written in troubled times, from troubled hearts. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” cried Isaiah, as he looked at the ruins of the nation of Israel, which had been hammered into the ground by the Babylonians. The Psalmist howls at God too, wondering where he has got to. “How long will you be angered, despite the prayers of your people? You have fed them with the bread of tears.” For all the despair and fury in these words, the fact that they were uttered at all is an expression of faith. You don’t shout at God and demand that he acts if you don’t think he’s there, or don’t think he cares.  That’s why it’s ok to be angry with God when we need to be. He doesn’t mind us shouting at him – he only minds when we ignore him and hide from him. These Old Testament writers expected that, sooner or later, God was going to do something decisive to help them. They just didn’t know what, or when.

For Christians, even if we struggle to understand the Second Coming literally, it expresses something that is vital to our faith. It says that we believe that God cares, that he hasn’t abandoned his creation, but wants to heal it and bless it. That’s true all year round, but our focus on the Second Comin in Advent challenges us to trust that statement of faith. Can we believe in God’s love even when there is no sign of it in our lives at the moment? Can we hold onto hope even when everything around us speaks of despair? Do we really think that God is in charge?

So Advent is about the past; we remember God coming to us in the baby of Bethlehem. And it’s about the future; trusting that God in his majesty has our lives in his hands and will deliver us from our troubles in one way or another. But Advent is also about the present, about what we do now, while we are waiting. After all, the present is the only time we can do anything about. The past is gone, the future is yet to come. The present is the only moment in which we can act. So there’s a third focus to Advent, a third sense in which God comes to us, and that is here and now, minute by minute, day by day, if we have our eyes open to see him.

Someone once said that Advent is about the God who comes to us in history, in the past, in majesty, in the future, but in mystery now, threading himself by his Spirit into our daily lives. History, mystery and majesty.

Now is the moment for mystery. That’s why Jesus reminds his followers to stay awake, to watch. “You don’t know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn”   he says. The night was traditionally divided into four watches of around three hours each at the time of Jesus, from six at night to six in the morning. Whatever time of night it is, Jesus is saying, however deep the darkness, the job of the doorkeeper is to watch out for the moment when the master shows up so he can let him in. In the same way, we’re called to be on the lookout for God, not out of fear, but in joyful anticipation, because when God shows up in our lives, in our church, in our world, when God is at work, good things start to happen. Life bursts forth from death, love overcomes hatred, hope defeats despair. We may need sharp eyes to see the small signs of his presence, but if we’re not actively looking, if we’re not awake, we may miss him completely.

What sort of things do I mean? What sort of things do we need to be on the look out for? It may be somebody coming up with small idea which could easily be squashed or ignored. We had a great evening yesterday singing carols in Seal High Street as the lights were switched on. Lots of people said how great it was as a way of bringing the village together. That initiative started as one person’s idea. We have JD O’Brien to thank for it. But others encouraged it and helped it to grow, sensing that the God who loves communities was in it. God showed up, along with the rest of the crowd, and drew people a bit closer together. It is one in a number of small initiatives that we’ve been part of in Seal over the years, which have helped us to build relationships and make links between people, bringing God’s blessing to them, perhaps easing someone’s loneliness just a bit. But to spot those opportunities we have to have our eyes open, and trust that if we act lovingly, God will show up.

Or there was the person who told me the other day that sometimes in worship she has a sense that there is more going on than is apparent on the surface. It would be easy to just put that down to a stirring bit of music, or a well-worded prayer, but in noticing it, she recognised that in that moment God was at work here, for her, but maybe for others too. “The Lord is here”, “His Spirit is with us”, we say, but do we believe it?

Pastoral conversations often leave me with the feeling that I’ve been standing on holy ground too, that something special has happened, that God has shown up with new insights and something has shifted.  

God can come to us in many ways, if only we have the eyes to see them.

Advent means coming –God comes to us, in the past, the present, and the future, in history, in mystery and in majesty. God comes in history in the child of Bethlehem. He comes in majesty at the end of time, whatever we understand by that. But between those two comings, he comes in mystery, popping up in our lives in the people we meet, the situations we deal with, the worship we offer. Our task is to wake up and notice him, to begin every day in expectation that we we’ll see him at work and to end every day recognising where that has happened and giving thanks for it. If we do that, then every day can be Advent, a day when God comes to us, showing up in our lives to bless and to heal us, and through us to bless and heal others too.

Amen


Sunday, 26 November 2017

Christ the King

Matthew 25.31-46, Ezekiel 34.11-16 & 20-24
The part of Matthew’s gospel which includes today’s reading also has messages about what happens when we fail to prepare contrasted with those who are ready when the time comes. There are the foolish bridesmaids who had no oil for their lamps which they carried to meet the bridegroom and missed out on their opportunity unlike those who carried flasks of oil with them. Then last week there were the slaves given talents by their master, one of the three failed to put his to work and was cast out as a result. Today we hear of sheep and goats and it’s about being prepared to use our understanding of who God is to his glory as opposed to being unprepared for his judgment.
Jesus’ words could be taken as a provocation to take economics and politics seriously because when their power is in the wrong hands the effects on millions of people can be devastating. There’s a message that it’s simply not acceptable to ignore those in need, poverty, oppression or sickness. To do so makes us unrecognisable as Christians. The way we organise society is at the heart of Jesus’ message and nothing could be further from God’s kingdom than disregard for our most vulnerable members.
Angus Deaton the Nobel-prize winning economist (not to be confused with Angus Deayton the comedian) offers some rare positive facts on global poverty. Because bad news dominates our headlines and critics are often seen as more morally engaged not many people are interested in hearing stories of steady progress, it’s really rather dull isn’t it. However over the past 20 years global poverty has halved but only 1 person in 100 knows this if asked. Even our churches focus so much on the places of extreme poverty and need that it’s something we rarely hear. In 1820 more than 90% of the world’s population lived on the equivalent of extreme poverty in 2015 it was less than 10%. It’s important that we don’t believe that our world is on a one way trajectory to misery, poverty and oppression as it creates a feeling of hopelessness and apathy which achieves nothing. People are being helped and positive outcomes are happening, it’s just rarely news worthy.
So everything is OK then? We wish. The United Nations back the positive statistics but point out that while this is a remarkable achievement, one in five people in developing regions still live on less than $1.90 a day (the official definition of extreme poverty), and there are millions more who have little more than this daily amount, plus many people risk slipping back into poverty. Impacts of climate change, war and economic crisis still impact the poorest the most.
For such people it’s hardly the abundant life that we know Christ desires for all humanity. Our reading from Ezekiel tells us that the God we worship is one who longs to rescue lost sheep and bring them to safety and peace, but it also tells of his displeasure with the strong who deliberately deprive those in need, who keep taking more than they need even if they can see the cost to others around them. When all this is considered it’s hard not to reflect on the way we live. We hear from the prophet that God is on the side of the sheep who are pushed away from their share by the fat and strong. That he seeks to bring healing to the victims, the oppressed who have suffered due to the greed of others restoring body, mind and spirit.
Of course if you are living in extreme poverty statistics showing a positive trend are not going to offer much comfort. It’s a bit like being told that life spans are lengthening, it offers no comfort to someone who loses a loved one prematurely.
How we help those in need is both easy but also incredibly complex. On one level we can respond to many good charities giving our time and/or money, we truly would have to walk around with our eyes closed to be unaware that there are many in need of help. Perhaps we are the generation least able to say ‘Lord when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty’ or in need, as pictures are beamed not only into our homes but onto screens of all sizes in so many places.
It must be a common occurrence to feel that our little bit of help won’t change much but we have heard a hard hitting message in today’s gospel that doing nothing is not an option for a Christian. I don’t see this as salvation by works but an overcoming of barriers which obstruct our recognition of Christ in each other. Recognition that Jesus is not a distant deity but the suffering, unjustly treated, victimised and ultimately crucified human being. God has chosen a human suffering figure to illustrate what kingship is truly all about. Jesus is telling us that in caring for the poor, the sick and the imprisoned we are serving God.
As intelligent people we need to use our God given brains to recognise our opportunities to do so. Lord Bird, founder of the Big Issue recently pointed out how expensive it is to be poor in our own country. For example if you live in social or other rented housing and pay your rent on time for many years this isn’t recognised for a credit rating yet those who pay their mortgage on time build up a positive credit history, a digital identity and access to credit on the best terms rather than using loan sharks or getting terrible deals on basics like white goods.
Christian Aid has a tax justice campaign aimed at greater fairness for countries rich in minerals who are not benefitting as they should. We can lobby and support such actions and ensure that we pay our own taxes to fund essential services which often help those in greater need. Strong legal systems upholding the rule of law offer the best hope of justice to the poorest and are to be highly valued. Jesus’ message probably leaves many of us feeling guilty because we know in our hearts that we could do more yet we are unlikely to ever feel we do enough. Whilst some seem to have an incredible caring capacity many people with busy lives struggle to know what they should really do.
Should we be running up to poor looking people and asking whether they live on less than $1.90 a day and then telling them they don’t meet the definition of extreme poverty if they shake their head? A lot of the commentaries I read on today’s gospel make it sound like serving those Jesus describes as an easy, almost cosy thing to do that leaves both sides with a nice warm feeling. I’ve been inside prison and actually some of the people are actually quite scary and it wouldn’t be easy to spend time with them. I tried to help someone coming out of prison and he shoved it back in my face. I’ve lent money to poor people and they have neither thanked me nor paid me back. I’ve visited the sick in hospital and had to leave them to go and throw up. I know that many of you will have had experiences that have been equally discouraging. Quite frankly I can see why sheep are used in the story because they often seem so much more straightforward than people, perhaps some literalism is in order and a bit of shepherd work would be easier!
Yet many people serving others accept this as normal and expect nothing else going go on with their work day after day, the Salvation Army comes to mind. It can sometimes be hard to see Christ the King in the face of those we try to help. Yet we must persist, even if it means finding new ways to serve each other which are more sustainable for us personally often using our strengths, skills, influence or wealth.
Compassion and care for the poor and vulnerable needs to become natural to us so that we try to make it part of all we do. We should care for the poor and vulnerable because in doing so we reflect God’s glory, compassion and unconditional love. We could even sense the nurturing of our own souls.
Care for the poor across the globe is one of the things that the church has done well for a long time from Victorian schools to support for refugees and something we should proudly seek to sustain. As we celebrate ‘Christ the King’ today if we understand our role as subjects in his kingdom the vision that Jesus wants us to work towards becomes clearer and by playing our part we become more Christ like.
When we care for those in need, we are implicitly caring for God. God feels the pain of the vulnerable but even more the joy of their restoration to wholeness. The sick, weak, young and old can must all be held highly valuable and worthy of protection and service in the life of our churches.
A final thought. Is all this stuff good news? It certainly is for many but as mostly comfortable Christians is it good news for us here today? Where do we see ourselves and God in these situations? I think Jesus’ words we heard are disturbing, challenging and yet hopeful which makes it highly worthy of personal, prayerful reflection.
Amen
Kevin Bright 25/11/17

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Second before Advent: God's Treasure (Breathing Space evening sermon)



This morning at our All Age Worship, I asked people to think of what they wanted to give thanks for today. They came up with all sorts of suggestions ; family, friends, faith, the glories of creation, work and community. But I’m not sure they knew quite where I was going with this line of questioning. After all, what did thanksgiving have to do with the Gospel reading we’d heard, the parable of the Talents? We all know what talents are. The ability to sing or dance or juggle. Surely the message of the parable was simple. We all have special skills. We should use them, not bury them.

That’s a perfectly good message, but I don’t think it’s the message of this parable.

To Jesus’ first hearers, a talent wasn’t something you went on a talent show to display. It was a unit of measurement often used for weighing precious metals. A talent was about 4 stone, or 28 kilogrammes. Gradually it became a unit of currency, and it represented a lot of money. A talent was worth about 15 times the annual salary of an ordinary working man. 

So this is a story about a seriously rich man. He gives one slave 5 talents to look after ; that’s 75 years’ worth of wages . The second gets 2 talents – 30 years’ worth – and even the third slave is entrusted with 15 years’ worth. All of them are given a huge amount. The master doesn’t say what they’re to do with it, but the first two trade with it and double their money.

The third slave though, is afraid, and we probably sympathise. Trade is risky. Investments can go down as well as up. What if he loses it all? He believes, rightly or wrongly, that his master is a harsh man - he doesn’t want to risk a penny of what he’s been given.  So he digs a hole and buries it.

But when his master comes home he is furious. He could at least have invested it with a banker, where it might have made some interest! he’s told, before being unceremoniously thrown out. It probably seems unfair - and I think Jesus means us to feel that way. I think he means to play on our empathy for this slave whose fear has made him too cautious to do anything at all with the treasure he’s been given.  

The disciples who first heard this story – Jews like Jesus -  had grown up knowing that God had given them great treasures as a people, things they gave thanks for. They gave thanks for their law, the law God had given them to help them live together well. They gave thanks for the covenant relationship he’d called them into – they would be his people and he would be their God. They gave thanks for the Temple in which they encountered him. All this, and more, had been entrusted to them. They knew it was precious beyond measure. But what should they do with these treasures? There are tensions throughout the Hebrew Scriptures about this. Should they make their treasured inheritance available to others, take it out into the world and share it? Or should they guard it carefully, make sure no one got their hands on it, in case it was polluted or damaged?  Should they keep gentiles out of the Temple, exclude them from the covenant, nit-pick over the law, even it became a burden rather than a blessing in the process? Some Jewish people, like the Pharisees and the Essenes, urged separation as the way to holiness. Others said that God wanted the knowledge of him to spread out in to the world “as the waters covered the sea,” and never mind the risk of their faith changing in the process.

Christians have often fallen into the same dilemma. Often they have thought – “better safe than sorry, stick to the old ways, just in case we provoke God into anger.”  When we think like that all we are doing is digging a hole for our faith. Should we be surprised if the church shrinks as a result and the stingy message we preach is rejected.

Jesus’ parable isn’t about those special skills we now call “talents”. It’s about treasure and what we do with it, about what it means really to “treasure” something. It encourages us to take a look at ourselves. Are we over-cautious, over-anxious, so afraid we’ll get it wrong that we daren’t do anything?  I don’t think it’s just about religion, either. It’s about the whole of life, all those things we value and give thanks for.  It’s about our families, friends and communities. How do we “treasure” them and let them be places where God’s kingdom grows? How can we “treasure” creation, so it is a blessing for everyone? How can we “treasure” our work, so it doesn’t just keep the wolf from the door, but become a place where God is at work too?  Are we prepared to be open-handed and whole-hearted in what we do, or are we too afraid of falling flat on our faces to have a go at anything new?   


Jesus calls us to trust the generosity of God.  He’s not the harsh master the slave in the story fears. He’s the  God who gives of himself again and again, from an immeasurable source of love. He is the God who even gives his own son, even though we kill him, and who  who longs to enrich us day by day with his treasures, and through us to enrich the world. Amen 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Remembrance Sunday: A little child shall lead them



Isaiah 11.6-9, Mark 9.33-37

In early September 1939 the largest mass movement of children that has ever taken place in the UK got underway. It’s estimated that at the start of WW2 something like 1.5 million children were evacuated from their homes to areas thought to be safer. I know that there are people here this morning who have personal or family experience of being evacuated or receiving evacuees. Some children were even sent overseas. My grandmother thought very seriously about sending my mother, aged 7, and her 5 year old sister from Plymouth to family members in South Africa, to escape the bombing in Plymouth, only changing her mind when several ships carrying evacuees were torpedoed. There were agonising choices to be made.

For some who were evacuated, their time away from home was wonderful; new experiences, perhaps better homes and lives than they had known, fresh air and space. For others it was misery, put more or less at random in the homes of complete strangers who might or might not treat them well. Many evacuees were brought home within weeks; their families missed them too much. But others never really came home at all. Family bonds were broken during the war, parents were killed, homes were destroyed. There was no one and nowhere to return to.

At home or evacuated, war left its mark on the children who lived through it. Food was rationed. Nights were interrupted by air raid alerts, and you never knew what the next day would bring. A  clergyman I worked with, who’d been a child in London during the war, once told me how it became routine for him to go into school in the morning and find a desk empty, a friend no longer there, killed in the previous night’s raids. He recognised the impact it had had on his ability to form friendships for ever after.

Mercifully, children growing up in the UK don’t have to endure things like this now, but that’s not the case for children in other parts of the world. UNICEF estimates that there are currently something like 28 million children around the world who have been driven from their homes by war. 28 million children. I’ll repeat that number because you may wonder whether you heard it right. Some have become refugees in other countries. Others have been internally displaced, seeking shelter in other parts of their own countries, often in overcrowded camps, without access to health care and education. And of course many more children are still in warzones, some of them even forced to fight themselves. That 28 million is just the ones who’ve got away.

It’s natural and right, on Remembrance Sunday, to think of and give thanks for members of the armed forces who gave their lives in war.  Their names are the ones recorded on our War Memorials. In modern wars, though, far more civilians are killed than military personnel. While wars were once predominantly fought between armies on battlefields, or warships on the ocean, now they are often fought  through aerial bombardment and drone strikes carried out from a distance, or by guerrilla forces fighting street to street in towns and cities. It’s estimated that something like 80 – 90% of the casualties of modern warfare are civilians – and many of them are children. Adults declare war, but children suffer the effects. And as they grow up, the things they’ve seen don’t leave them. The trauma of war can leave them anxious and insecure or bitter and angry, fuelling another cycle of violence in the next generation.

Children are often overlooked in times of war, but the Bible readings we heard today both put children right at the centre of the story. In the reading from Mark’s Gospel Jesus takes a little child and literally stands it in the middle of his fractious, squabbling disciples. They’ve been arguing among themselves about which one of them is the greatest, and Jesus was obviously very aware of this.

His disciples had imagined that the Messiah, God’s chosen leader, would be a great military or political leader. They’d come to the conclusion that Jesus was this Messiah, and they were longing for him to show his hand. They were sure that through him God would throw out the occupying Roman forces, and usher in God’s new kingdom, a kingdom like the one their great King David had ruled over. They imagined crowns and thrones, and power for those who were closest to the new king. But who would be greatest among them when that day came, the right hand man?

They’re obviously embarrassed when Jesus calls them out on this. They didn’t realise he’d been listening. Deep down they know it is a silly thing to argue about – as most of our arguments are. “What were you arguing about ?”  he asks them. But he doesn’t press them for an answer. Asking the question is enough. Instead he simply takes a child, a small child, and puts it in the middle of them. Look at this child, says Jesus. The kingdom of God isn’t about sitting on thrones and wearing crowns. It’s not about throwing your weight around and having people bow down to you. If you want to know what the kingdom of God is about, what really matters in it, then this child is it.

What did Jesus mean?

The key thing we need to know is that, at the time of Jesus, children were even more vulnerable than they are today. There were no child protection laws. There was no United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Childhood wasn’t sentimentalised, or regarded as a special, more innocent time of life. Children were entirely at the mercy of their fathers, who had power of life and death over them. They weren’t really counted as of much worth until they got to an age when they could work.  I am sure that many were loved, but they were essentially powerless, and whenever they are mentioned in the Bible that’s what we’re meant to keep in mind. The Gospels sometimes call them “little ones”, but that phrase doesn’t just include children. It is anyone who is disempowered in some way – by old age as well as youth, by disability, gender or social status. “Little ones” are the ones at the bottom of the heap, left to fend for themselves.

It’s sometimes said that you can tell how civilised a nation really is by the way it treats people like these. In the Kingdom of God, says Jesus, they come first - not out of kindness, or worse still, pity, but because they are the place where God’s work starts.  The Kingdom of God isn’t built by mighty armies that conquer and subdue by force and terror. Its greatness isn’t shown by splendid robes and golden crowns. It is seen when the needs of the marginalised and vulnerable “little ones” are centre stage, rather than being shoved to the periphery. 

Jesus tells stories in the Gospel about the Kingdom of God being like a tiny seed or a grain of yeast, something almost too small to see, but which can grow into a great tree or raise an entire loaf, given time. Littleness matters to him. He pays the ultimate price for standing up for the “little ones” in his society when he’s crucified like a worthless criminal on the waste ground outside Jerusalem. But he never turns back from his commitment to them. Miss these people out, says Jesus, and you miss out on God, because they are where he is at work, they are where his kingdom begins.

Detail from “The Peaceable Kingdom” by Edward Hicks 1780-1849
“A little child shall lead them,” said Isaiah, in the passage our Cubs and Beavers read to us. That passage is often called the vision of the “Peaceable Kingdom”. It was written at a time of great conflict and turmoil for the Jewish people, who’d been crushed by the Babylonians. It looked like it was all over for them, but God hadn’t forgotten them, says Isaiah.  There could be a better future. But it wouldn’t be a future in which the powerful lorded it over everyone else. It would be a time when rivalries and divisions were put to an end, even in the animal kingdom. Wolves and lambs would live in peace. The picture on the service sheet  is a detail from a painting of this scene  by Edward Hicks , a Quaker living in Pennsylvania in the early 1800s. He despaired, as we all do sometimes, when he looked at the world around him. Even among his Quaker brothers and sisters, bitter squabbles and rivalries often took hold, as they do in any close community.  He painted many versions of this scene – he’s famous for it. But each one is slightly different, and experts reckon that the differences between them probably represent the ups and downs of the relationships in the community around him.

In the version I’ve given you, I think that lion looks as if his patience is starting to wear thin with the child who is pulling at his mane, and the leopard seems to be about to lose it too. They’re holding it together, but only just. Maybe it’s hard for them to give up the instinct to snarl and snap, to make themselves feel big and secure by making other animals feel small and afraid.   Hicks’ picture is a reminder that peace isn’t something we can ever take for granted. It takes hard work from all of us for it to thrive. It takes a commitment to respect one another and to refrain from throwing our weight around. It takes the courage to trust that we have enough of what we need so we can hold it in open hands and feel safe sharing it. We may not think that anything we do will make much difference to the course of world history, for good or ill, but the truth is that the seeds both of peace and of conflict are sown in the tiny, everyday things of life. They’re sown in our relationships and attitudes, our prejudices and fears, the decisions we make, consciously or unconsciously, about who we’ll listen to and who we’ll dismiss. Small things matter. Small people matter. The little things are the big things, or they will become so one day.

On this Remembrance Sunday, may we keep in mind God’s children, his little ones, and the littleness that is in each of us if we are honest, the part of us that’s afraid, insecure, not sure which way to turn for help.  And may that little child, outside us and within, lead us in the paths of peace, for all our sakes.
Amen