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.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Bible Sunday: Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly

Audio version here 

Over the last week or so you may have seen events and articles commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. In a way, it’s a bit of an arbitrary date. What this anniversary has actually marked is the moment when, on Oct 31st 1517, Martin Luther, a German Augustinian monk, nailed 95 theses – 95 statements – to the door of a church in Wittenberg. They were statements expressing his disagreement with the Catholic belief in indulgences. An indulgence was a formal declaration granting “time off” for people in purgatory, an intermediate state between heaven and hell where the soul was thought to be cleansed. Prayers, pilgrimages and good works could all reduce the time you’d have to spend there after death, according to Catholic doctrine. It was always a bit of a dodgy proposition – there’s no Biblical basis for it – but it was when indulgences started to be sold on an industrial scale for cold, hard cash that opposition to the whole system started to build. Luther wasn’t the first to challenge the sale of indulgences – that’s why I said that this is a rather arbitrary date to fix the start of what we call the Reformation. Over a century earlier, the English priest, JohnWycliffe, had criticised them, and his followers, radical Christians who were scathingly called Lollards – babblers – had kept up the criticism since then, and been persecuted savagely for doing so. Luther’s 95 theses, nailed to the Wittenberg church door, were just another step in a long, slow process of reform, which would eventually lead to the foundation of Protestant Churches across Europe.

The thing that fuelled this reforming urge, both for Luther and the earlier Reformers, was the Bible. It was Paul’s letter the Romans which did it for Luther. As a conscientious monk – perhaps too conscientious – he’d tried so hard to live the perfect spiritual life that it had nearly broken him. “How can I be saved?” was his anxious question. As he read Romans, he was reminded powerfully that salvation was a gift from God. We’re saved by grace, by God’s loving decision and God’s loving action, not because of what we've done or ever could do. That wasn't a new idea, but things like the sale of indulgences had obscured it, because they gave the impression that God’s love could be bought or earned.  

Reading the letter to the Romans opened Luther’s eyes afresh to this central message of the Gospel.  And if it had opened his eyes, he knew that it could open the eyes of others too. But how would ordinary people ever discover this liberating message for themselves? Luther could read Latin, Greek and Hebrew. But most ordinary people never heard the Bible in a language they could understand. If you’d come here to Seal church at any time before the Reformation, the service would have been in Latin, including all the Bible readings. I don’t know how good your Latin is, but my guess is that most people here would have found it pretty hard to follow. It might seem crazy to us now to make it so hard for ordinary people to understand the Bible, but in a sense, that was the whole point.

You see, the Bible is a dangerous book. It’s full of dangerous ideas. It tells us that we are all equal in the sight of God, that God “casts down the mighty from their seats and exalts the humble and meek.” That’s good news for the humble and meek, but you can see why the mighty might not be so keen on it. As well as that, people were genuinely afraid that if untrained people read the Bible they might get it wrong, and imperil their immortal souls as a result. Better to leave the Bible in the hands of those who knew what they were doing with it, or thought they did!

No wonder the powers that be were worried when people like Wycliffe and Luther translated the Bible to make it accessible to all. Luther reputedly went down into the marketplaces of the town where he was staying and spent time listening to the way people actually spoke to each other, catching their idioms and rhythms of speech so that his translation would communicate with them, and it soon caught on. Back here in England Wycliffe had made a translation into English a century earlier. It had been banned – the penalty for owning one was death – but it had circulated widely and now William Tyndale began to make a new translation which, like Luther’s, captured the speech patterns of ordinary people. Tyndale paid for his presumption with his life, since Henry VIII was still staunchly Catholic at this stage. But ironically, less than two years later, after Henry’s break with Rome, he ordered that every church in the land should have its own English Bible, in a translation which was mostly Tyndale’s. Tyndale is said to have prayed as he died, “Open the King of England’s eyes”, and it seemed as if God had done just that.  

Those who’d feared that giving people access to the Bible in their own language would spark revolution were right to be afraid, because it did. It changed the world.  

I’m glad that today we have a Bible we can all read, but for all that, though, I’m not sure that Protestants have really been any better at truly “hearing the word of the Lord” than their Medieval Catholic brothers and sisters were. Anyone who knows me will know that I am pretty passionate about the Bible, and pretty passionate about finding ways of helping people read it. There’s the “Story of the Week” each week on the pew leaflet, the Good Book Club each month which discusses those stories. There are Home Groups, Lent and Advent material for reflection, and all sorts of other things. I care about this book immensely, but I’m also clear that the squiggles on these pages are not, in and of themselves, the word of God. God may speak to us through them, through the stories of those who have struggled with faith before us and left us this record, but he can’t be confined by this book, any more than he could be boxed up in the rituals of the Catholic Church, and when we forget that we soon get into trouble.

At the Reformation, Protestants knocked the statues of the saints off their pedestals, but often they then put the Bible on those pedestals instead. They insisted that every stroke of it had come straight from the mouth of God and should be obeyed as unquestioningly as Catholics had been expected to obey the Pope. Read it correctly – that is, the way those in charge told you to read it – and all would be well. They accused Catholics of idolatry, but then set about making an idol of the Bible instead. That’s a very dangerous thing to do. You can construct a justification for almost anything from the Bible if you pick the right verses; slavery, the oppression of women and LGBT people, imperialism and racism, even child abuse. The Bible gives very clear instruction that rebellious sons should be put to death (Deuteronomy 21.18-21), but I think you’d rightly get into quite a lot of trouble now if you obeyed that particular injunction. That’s why I think it is really important that we grasp that that this book, this physical object, these squiggles on these pages are not in themselves the Word of God. We can be enlivened, enlightened, challenged, comforted, blessed and transformed through them. We can feel God’s breath coming from the pages, but we mustn't mistake the creation for the Creator. The Bible is a precious treasury of wisdom, story, worship, warning and inspiration, but if we truly want to hear the word of God through it, we’ll need to work a bit harder than just lifting proof texts from here and there and assuming we've found simple answers to life’s complicated problems.

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly”, said Paul to the Colossians in the reading we heard today. I love that verse, because it’s a reminder that God wants his word to dwell in us, to make its home in us, to intermingle with all that makes us who we are and enrich us in the process. The “word of Christ” that Paul refers to here wasn't a book. It can’t have been, because this book didn't exist when he wrote to the Colossians. The Gospels hadn't been written yet. Paul’s letters were just scraps of paper circulating around the churches he’d founded. It would be centuries before the list of books we now find in our Bibles were finally agreed on, let alone bound in one volume like they are today.  

So, when Paul talks about the word of Christ, he isn't talking about words on a page, but something far more diverse than that. The people he was writing to expected God to speak to them in all sorts of ways; through the Hebrew Scriptures, but also through each other as they gathered together and shared in the fellowship of their churches, through prayer and prophetic utterance as well as through the stories they were told of the life of Jesus. It may all sound frustratingly vague. They, like we, would probably have like to have a neat list of rules, all bound up in one slim volume, to which they could effortlessly refer – that’s how the Bible ended up on that pedestal at the Reformation. But the truth is that if we try to treat the Bible that way we have to ignore its complexities, read only those verses that suit us, and when we do that, we lose its richness too. The only measuring stick the early church had to determine whether they were hearing God’s word, God’s guidance for their lives, was the measuring stick of love. Did what they were hearing build love and draw them together, or did it bring hatred and stir up division?  

I’m glad that here at Seal there are so many ways in which we can encounter this precious book, brought to us at so great a cost by those Reformation translators. But I hope that we’ll always have the courage to bring our own brains and hearts to it as we read it and hear it. It’s only when we do that the Word incarnate can speak through the words on these pages. It’s only when we do that that God can come to dwell richly in us and in our community bringing us his life, his love and his peace.


Monday, 30 October 2017

All Souls: Heavenly prayer

1 Cor 13.8-13

At the heart of this service is an act of prayer, when we read the names of those we have loved who have died and light candles for them, remembering them before God and one another. I hope all the other aspects of the service are helpful too, but I know it’s that central act of prayer which is the focus, the moment that’s most important tonight.

But what is it we’re doing when we pray tonight?
That’s a question that may be difficult to answer, and all our answers would probably be different.

For a start, the people we grieve were all different. A prayer for a much loved parent who died peacefully in extreme old age will be different from a prayer for someone who died before their time, or in tragic circumstances, or with whom we had a troubled relationship.

Grief changes over time, too, and so the prayers that express it change. I hesitate to say that time heals, because sometimes it doesn’t feel like that at all, but the desperate, raw prayer that screams at God in disbelief when we first hear of a sudden death isn’t the same as the prayer we pray once we’ve lived with that reality for months or years. That doesn’t mean our love has changed; it is just that the human body can’t sustain that first, intense level of shock and sadness forever, even if we wanted it to. As we mull over our memories repeatedly, they gradually become part of the warp and weft of our life, familiar, quieter sadnesses.

And, of course, we may understand prayer differently because we have different ideas about God. Some people here may picture an old man with a white beard when they pray. In fact the Bible doesn’t very often describe God like that, but somehow it is the image that seems to have stuck with people.  For some that traditional image may be benign and comforting, for others it may seem forbidding or distant. It usually depends on the messages we received in childhood. Some may see they person of Jesus in their mind’s eyes when they pray. Others may be praying to something far less definitely formed. They may see God as  light, love, peace, mystery. Sometimes when people pray after a death, it is really those they mourn who they’re talking to. Many people carry on holding conversations with those who’ve died for a long time, if not forever. It is perfectly normal. When you’ve been talking to someone every day for decades, it would be odd if you could suddenly stop doing so simply because they’re not physically present. I am sure, too, that there are people here who aren’t really talking to anyone – divine or human – but who still value the time to remember and honour their memories.

What are we doing tonight when we pray? Many things, and most of them we can’t explain. Fortunately, though, no one is going to ask you to, because Christians believe that there’s no exam to pass before we pray, no special technique we need to master, no right or wrong way to do it. It’s just a matter of turning up. Prayer is just us, as we are, being ourselves in the presence of God. We don’t need to understand or articulate it. We just have to turn up.

“That will be heaven”, said the *poem I just read, “to stand like the sunflower turned full face to the sun”. Evangeline Paterson sees heaven as being like a perfect act of prayer, being in God’s presence and “never turning away again”. And in God’s presence everything else is present too. Even the “circling planets hum with an utter joy”, she says. And it seems to me that if “the circling planets” are in on the act, then surely, those we mourn are also there, joining in the song.

Heaven, for Evangeline Paterson, is a perfect act of prayer, when we are one with God, and one with all that God has made, including those we love. So maybe that means that our very momentary and imperfect times of prayer can give us a glimpse of heaven too. Our Bible reading tonight reminded us that heaven is where we finally see as we are see and know as we are known, fully and joyfully. We may not be there yet. We may feel far off, but in prayer, we can get a glimpse of that moment, an echo of that perfect peace and perfect oneness, which will sustains us until we “never turn away again”.

In a moment the choir are going to sing a song from the Iona community to lead us into our act of prayer and remembrance. “Listen Lord; Listen Lord, not to our words but to our prayer” runs the chorus. It is easy to get hung up on words – the words we pray, the words we use to talk about prayer – but these will, at best, always be frustratingly imprecise, never quite saying what we really mean.  What matters, this song remind us, is not the words, but the prayer itself, simply turning up, and trusting that God – whatever we mean by God - has turned up too. The fact that we are here is enough, with our memories, joyful and sorrowful, with our thanks, with our regrets and our fears. This is our prayer. The God who hears what we can’t say, and knows what we can’t express will do the rest.

*Evangeline Paterson's poem can be found in "The heart's time" by Janet Morley, p.156, but a Google search will probably lead you to it as well. 

Sunday, 29 October 2017

All Saints

Matthew 5.1-12, 1 John 3.1-3 & Revelation 7.9-17
Audio Version here

This month marks 15 years since I was licensed as a Reader in Rochester Cathedral by the then Bishop Michael. That means some of you have probably been listening to me 'spout' from here for around 16 years as I needed some ‘guinea pigs’ to practice on the year before. Thank you. 
It’s an incredible privilege that you allow me an attempt most months at showing why words from this library of writings brought together to form the Holy Bible still offers relevance, guidance and inextinguishable hope for every one of us. I am more certain of that than when I first started even if I’m not always able to convey it to you.

Because all the sermons preached here go on the website we know that they are read by many that don’t hear them first hand. If you think any preaching at Seal is good I’d urge you to offer them to friends and family as it’s a very gentle way to literally spread the Word.
The best sermons have a gripping beginning and a thought provoking end and as many people think the two should be as close together as possible I’m going to crack on with today’s offering!

Have you ever done a self-portrait? I think I did one in my youth, but as some of us get a little older we’d probably rather not, all that time staring at ourselves and focussing on what we really look like in every small detail can be a bit too much. Time will tell whether the current generation of young people always taking ‘selfies’ on their mobile devices will have the same enthusiasm as they get to a more mature age?

We live in an age of audits, inspections and reports. School audits, accountancy audits, medical audits, IT audits, security audits and many more, usually not of our choosing but imposed by the regulatory authority or professional body. But how many of us ever stop to do a self-audit?

As we hear the words from the early part of Jesus ‘Sermon on the Mount’ do we recognise ourselves among those he names as blessed? The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted?

My guess is that for most of us a self-audit would produce the answer ‘sometimes, and that we are still working on much of this with mixed results.’

Compare that with what we think of when someone mentions saints and all things saintly. Heavenly images may abound of perfect people doing incredible things because of their love of God. We may think of famous saints, in recent memory maybe Teresa of Calcutta for her work with the poor particularly in India or maybe ancient saints such as Francis of Assisi founder of the Franciscan Order and famous for his love of animals and stewardship of the natural environment. How could we ever compare?

But consider our own patron saints for this church, Peter who denied knowing Christ and Paul who, as Saul of Tarsus persecuted the church before his conversion on the road to Damascus.

Well at least it’s clear that we don’t have to be perfect to become a saint, in fact perhaps it’s not so much about becoming famous, special or even believing that we are particularly holy and more about being people who keep trying to be more Christ like despite setbacks, disappointments and struggles to cling on to our faith.

The beatitudes that we heard from Jesus might not fully paint a portrait of us but every aspect can be found fully in Christ and in that sense Jesus offers us a self-portrait, one that he wants us to keep striving towards.

We can find saints for virtually every aspect of life and each has a story explaining why. St Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost items very popular with men looking for their car keys, St Francis Caraciollo the patron saint of chefs, another Italian of course, Lidwina for ice skaters, St Yves for lawyers and Isisdore of Seville for computer programmers. It seems like there is a saint associated with every aspect of life but I wasn’t going to fall for it when I heard that there was a great cry for a new patron saint for coffee drinkers, St Arbucks! Whilst we may never be famous in the way of some saints it is clear that every vocation, every walk of life offers a potential route to sainthood. We don’t have to look for something special, only to find Christ in all we do including our daily work, study and relationships.
An easily accessible way to explore this could be by watching a series currently on BBC4 called ‘The Retreat’. At various abbeys the monks are shown not only in prayer and worship but they also emphasis that everything they do becomes an extension of this. If you like sitting on the sofa watching other people work then this is for you.  It’s surprisingly compulsive and relaxing to watch them working in silence at baking, sweeping, iconography, carpentry, gardening and many necessary and routine tasks which because of the way in which they are approached are offered as prayer.

I’ve heard many people say that they feel close to God when gardening or exploring the natural world and this appreciation itself can become prayer and praise which grows into a desire to preserve and protect our world for fellow human beings now and in the future.
Once we don’t associate saints with impossibly perfect people we are able to recognise the saintly aspects of those who have gone before us. Sometimes lives are so busy and full that it’s hard to keep aiming to be more Christ like.

My own mother raising 5 children, one of which was severely disabled, must have had great time pressures but I recall growing up knowing that I was loved and wanted in a way that makes the words in our Revelation reading real to me ‘ See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God. An enduring memory of mine is the prayer card she had wedged into one of the kitchen cupboards, laminated of course so it could be wiped clean occasionally amid the chaos.

It may be familiar to you. Many simply know it as the ‘Kitchen Prayer’.
The first part of it goes…

Lord of all pots and pans and things
Since I’ve not time to be
A saint by doing lovely things or
Watching late with Thee
Or dreaming in the dawn light or
Storming Heaven’s gates
Make me a saint by getting meals and
Washing up the plates.

Although I must have Martha’s hands,
I have a Mary mind
And when I black the boots and shoes,
Thy sandals Lord I find.
I think of how they trod the earth,
What time I scrub the floor
Accept this meditation Lord,
I haven’t time for more.

It’s light hearted but reminds us that God is Lord of all things even the most routine and mundane and that we can engage with him and offer prayer in a multitude of situations.

We often recite together that we believe in ‘the communion of saints’ and we come together in this way when we say ‘Our Father’. Rowan Williams explains that this communion becomes visible as we express who are and make it real through words and actions. Through baptism and being invited to eat with Jesus. Just as, in his earthly life, Jesus expressed his promise to create a new people of God by sharing meals with unlikely people, just as, after the resurrection, he shares food with his disciples as he re-calls them to their task, so it is with the whole Church. We are in the Church because we have been invited, not because we have earned our place.

It’s a reminder that God doesn’t expect the impossible of us, all we have to do is accept his unconditional loving invitation.

John’s letter reassures us of God’s love as his children. The part where he says that ‘ the world doesn’t know us…’ is because the concept of knowing is about being in relationship, fellowship and communion and those who choose to reject this also will struggle to understand this.

Christ gives us guidance to start living know a life that relates to that we might hope for in eternity. In our Revelation reading the author offers a glimpse of what heaven might look like and even if we consider ourselves open minded and inclusive this will be even more so.

It for us to reflect this back into our current lives as far as we are able and show this through our relationships particularly where we encounter other faiths and cultures. 
We hear of worship and praise in this vision of heaven and I feel we have come full circle as we each consider how we can make this part of everything we do.
If we take away only one message today it should be a message of love and hope for all suffering, struggling, mourning, in fear and pain that if we cling onto our faith we can be certain that we will not be let down and that one day God ‘will wipe away every tear.’

Kevin Bright 
29th October 2017

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Trinity 19: The Emperor's coin

Things were hotting up in the Temple in Jerusalem, where today’s Gospel reading is set. Over the last few Sundays we’ve read successive instalments of a long argument Jesus had been having with the religious authorities there.  Jesus had told a string of parables in which they were obviously the villains, not the heroes, as they might have expected. “You show deference to no one” they say – well, he certainly wasn’t showing any deference to them!

It’s not surprising that they want to regain the upper hand, to put Jesus in his place. After all, who is he? Just a carpenter from Nazareth. But the crowds seemed to love him, and that made him dangerous. These religious professionals weren’t necessarily bad people.  They were worried for their nation, for their families, for themselves. It didn’t pay to stir up trouble when you were ruled by Rome, and they wanted to close down this particular troublemaker before he brought disaster on them all. So they cooked up rather an unlikely alliance to stop him.

The Pharisees, religious purists, teamed up with the Herodians, supporters of King Herod, the puppet king of Israel, who was kept in power by Rome, and they came to Jesus with a killer question, which would put him in an impossible position. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor, or not?” If he said yes, he’d fall foul of the nationalists who wanted independence from Rome. If he said no he’d be in trouble with the Romans. One or other of these groups would get him into hot water, whatever he said. He couldn’t win.

Jesus’ response, though, was simply to ask for a coin, the kind of coin they would have paid that Roman tax with. And they produced one, with no trouble at all.

Now at this point, many Bible commentators will tell you that they shouldn’t have had this coin with them in the Temple anyway, and that by getting them to produce it, Jesus has tricked them into condemning themselves. I’ve said it myself in the past. Roman coins had pictures of the Emperor on them, and Jews were forbidden to make graven images. The Emperor was supposedly divine, too, which made it even worse. This is why Jesus calls them hypocrites, this argument says, pretending to be so holy while they have brought this blasphemous coin into the sacred precincts of the Temple. 

It’s a neat argument. Unfortunately, it doesn’t hold water. There’s no evidence that you couldn’t bring Roman money into the Temple. You just weren’t allowed to use it to pay the Temple tax, which funded the maintenance and ministry of the Temple. That tax had to be paid in coins called Tyrian Shekels. That’s why there were money changers in the Temple, so that you could change the money you normally used into as much of the Temple currency as you would need. Those Tyrian Shekels were minted in the city of Tyre, as the name suggests. But here’s the thing. Tyre was a pagan, Phonecian city, and Tyrian Shekels also had images on them, just like those Roman coins. In fact they had the head of the Phonecian God Melqat on them, who was also known as Baal. Large swathes of the Old Testament are devoted to proclaiming Baal to be a very bad thing indeed. Why were these Tyrian Shekels acceptable in the Temple, then? The answer turns out to be rather prosaic. Tyrian Shekels had a reputation for being pure silver, not adulterated with other metals as some were. The religious authorities, it seemed, really weren’t bothered about what was on the coins, so long as they were worth what they said they were.

So this “blasphemous coin” interpretation of the story really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny at all. And that makes me wonder why it has been so popular, why people keep unquestioningly repeating it. It seems like it’s one of those things that we want to be true, even though it isn’t. And I wonder why that is. My suspicion is that we want to feel that Jesus is being really clever here, that he’s outwitted the Pharisees and Herodians. They’ve tried to trap him, but they’re the ones who’ve ended up with egg on their faces. My guess is that deep down, we like that. We like the idea that “our man” has pulled a fast on one them. They wanted to regain the upper hand, but with this trick with the coin, he’s come out on top – and that means we who follow him are on top too.

But if that’s not what’s happening, then what is? It’s true that the Pharisees and the Herodians go away amazed, but what is it that has amazed them?

To understand that I think we need to look more carefully at the answer he gives them, an answer which, frankly, is pretty baffling.
“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”.  What does it mean? What is Jesus saying? Firstly, perhaps, he’s reminding his questioners – and us – that we all  have to live in the world as it is.  There isn’t an opt out mechanism. People have tried to separate themselves from the grubby complexities of life throughout human history. They’ve withdrawn to the desert, formed utopian communities, refused to participate in government, and shunned those who’ve disagreed with them. It’s not just religious people who’ve done this. Political purists can be every bit as exclusive as religious ones.

But all these separatist ideological experiments tend to run into the same difficulties in the end. It’s all very well to draw a line in the sand, to say “this far and no further” but where should we draw it, and how firmly. Radical groups always split – and often keep splitting – over the issue of how pure is pure, how separate is separate, how different do we have to be. Even the famously peaceable, simple-living Amish have split many times, over things like whether they should use electricity or wear clothes with zips in them. It may seem strange to us to fall out over these things, but they’ve come to matter to the Amish. They want to draw a line between themselves and the rest of the world, but they all draw it somewhere different.

“Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s” says Jesus. “However much you might want to have nothing to do with Rome,” says Jesus, “ that’s not an option. Rome is part of your reality, for good and ill, part of the world God has set you in. Pretending it isn’t won’t change anything.”

But then Jesus goes on. As well as telling us to “give the Emperor what is the Emperor’s”, he also tells us to “Give to God what is God’s” . That’s the sting in the tail. Because what is God’s? To put it simply everything is God’s. “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” say Psalm 24. Ultimately, wherever our human loyalties and investments are, God’s claim on us goes beyond them and takes priority over them. And that means that, whether we like it or not, there will almost certainly come a time when the demands of the world around us and the demands of our faith will come into conflict, and there will be no easy, painless way out of that conflict. Jesus knows this, but he’s seems not to be afraid of it, and that, I think, is what really amazes these Pharisees and Herodians.

I don’t think they’re amazed because Jesus’ response is clever. I think they are amazed because it isn’t. He isn’t trying to make them look stupid, or win some sort of word game with them. He isn’t trying to wriggle off the hook they are dangling in front of him. If he was, this provocative answer was a strange way of doing it.  In fact, within a couple of days of this encounter he’ll be arrested and crucified. His ministry was always going to end like that, and he knew it. His commitment to least and the lowest in his society was bound to lead to a head-on collision with the Roman and Jewish authorities, the people who  had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and clinging onto their power. They were never going to tolerate the challenge he confronted them with.

I’m reminded of Daphne Galizia, the Maltese journalist who was blown up this week, apparently because of her long and lonely struggle to expose corruption in Malta. I don’t know what motivated and sustained her in that, but I think the courage that Jesus shows here as he walks straight into the jaws of death comes from his deep awareness that, indeed, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” That includes him, as it does all of us. We are held in God’s hands. We are ultimately safe, whatever the world does to us. Jesus knew that and he trusted it, and that meant that when the demands of love came up against the demands of the authorities in his world, he was able to keep his feet on the path he knew was right.  

So, I don’t think this is a story about a coin trick that turns the tables on some cunning opponents. I don’t think it gives us clever answers to the dilemmas we face as we negotiate our way through the complexities of life.  I don’t think it’s a story about cleverness at all. I think it’s a story about courage. , the courage that comes from knowing deep down in our hearts that we belong to God, that we bear his image, that we’re named, known and loved by him. If we can grasp that, no power on earth can ultimately destroy us.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Trinity 17 : God's vineyard

‘Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard.”

The people who first heard the prophet Isaiah’s words probably thought they knew what they were in for. It was the classic way to begin a romantic folk song, and it sounded as if it was going to be a good one, a tale of romance, of passion, of good wine and sweet juicy grapes. The vineyard isn’t just a vineyard here. It is a symbol of a relationship.

It started off well. He had a ‘vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watch-tower in the midst of it and hewed out a wine vat in it.’ This was a vineyard that had everything going for it; a good position and a caring, hard-working owner who didn’t stint on the preparations. There was nothing hasty or slapdash about what he did. He planted the best vines. He protected his vineyard.

But despite all the careful preparation, all the love that had been poured into this vineyard, all the hope of its owner, everything went wrong.

‘I expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes’  It reminds me a bit of the English folk song ‘The water is wide’ - ‘I leaned my back up against a tree/ thinking it was a trusty oak/ but first it bent and then it broke/ and so did my false love to me.’ Different plant; same sense of bitter disappointment.

In Isaiah’s prophecy things go very rapidly downhill. There is nothing for it but to leave the vineyard to decay. The walls are broken down. It’s overrun by weeds. Even the rain won’t fall on it; it will soon become a desert.

By this stage, Isaiah’s hearers are probably starting to get the message. This isn’t some folk ballad about a human love story that’s gone wrong. It is a picture of God’s love affair with his people Israel. They are the vine. He’d planted them in a rich and productive land after their long slavery in Egypt. He’d given them everything they needed to thrive and bear good fruit, but they’d refused to live in the way he’d shown them. ‘He expected justice, but he saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!’

Isaiah was writing just as calamity was falling on Jerusalem. The Babylonian armies were breaking down its walls. Like the vineyard in the prophecy it would soon be overrun, and left to rot and ruin.  ‘Why is this happening?’ said the people. ‘Here’s your answer,’ says Isaiah. God had done his bit, but they’d never really lived as citizens of his kingdom, never really lived out the life he called them to, a life of justice and peace. The nation had brought this disaster on itself.

Six hundred years later, Jesus launched into a story about a vineyard. He was standing in the Temple talking to the chief priests and elders. They’d have been very familiar with the imagery. Israel was often pictured as a vine or a vineyard in the Hebrew Scriptures – we heard it in today’s Psalm too.  They would have known Isaiah’s prophecy well – he was the most popular prophet at this time. They may have quoted the passage we heard to people themselves as a terrible warning.  ‘Look what happens when people ignore God’s rules’ they might have said, wagging their fingers at the sinners around them, the tax collectors and prostitutes, those who were down on their luck, beyond the pale, condemned by respectable society.

So when they hear Jesus talking about vines and vineyards, they wouldn’t have been surprised, but they would have been suspicious. Where is he going with this story? They have good reason to worry. A few days earlier Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, acclaimed by the crowds, in a demonstration that had put the wind up the settled elites. To make matters worse, he had just told this crowd of religious professionals that tax- collectors and prostitutes would enter the Kingdom of Heaven before they did. And as this story unfolds , it gradually dawns on them that they aren’t the heroes in it; they are the villains, the ones who withhold the vineyard’s produce from its rightful owner. Unlike Isaiah’s vineyard, this one is fruitful, but the refuse to give the landlord his property. He sends his messengers – the prophets – to try to set them straight, but they won’t listen, and even stone them. Finally, says the story, he sends his son, but him they kill.

Why do they kill him? How can they behave this way? Well, perhaps there is a clue in the way that landlord and tenants describe this final attempt to claim that grape harvest. Look at how the story describes this final man who is sent to them. ‘Finally’ it says, ‘he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.”’

To the vineyard owner, this man is a son, a person whose birth he greeted with joy, who he’d seen grow up, who he’d nurtured and loved, who he had hopes and dreams for. His heart is tied to him. He’s proud and happy when things go well for him, weeps when he is hurt. That is what it is like to have a son.

But the tenants don’t see him as the landlord’s son, even though they know he is. They see him solely as the heir – that’s the word they use for him. Heir. That’s a word that’s simply about inheritance, money, what is coming to you. He’s not a person to them, he’s just an obstacle between them and the land they want for themselves. Calling him the “heir” dehumanises him - treats him as no more than an  economic unit. They have to dehumanise him in order to kill him. To them he is no one’s son, no one’s brother, no one’s husband or friend; they deny him his personhood, so that they can get rid of him as they might a piece of rubbish.  

That’s the way these chief priests and elders will treat Jesus – he will be crucified within the week. He can see it’s going to happen because it’s also the way he has seen them treat others, making rules which exclude and demonise people without, as he says elsewhere, “lifting a finger to help them”. They have pushed away those who they judged to be unworthy, the poor, the disabled, widows, orphans, those whose lives have taken a wrong turning. They have behaved as if God’s kingdom is theirs to control, as if they’re the ones who can say who is in and who is out of God’s favour. They have put themselves at the centre, secure within the borders of their self-defined world. In the end, though, as Jesus starkly warns, this will backfire. Their greed and self-protectiveness will bring disaster not just on them, but on those around them too.

The world is not their oyster. It is God’s kingdom. It is not theirs to own and to rule, to declare who can come in and who must stay out. It is God’s. No wonder they start to feel so uncomfortable.  

But perhaps it should make us uncomfortable too. We don’t have to be a first century chief priests to feel like we are – or ought to be – the centre of our universes, to behave as if we’re entitled to treat others as less than human, less worthy of attention and care. We all do it some of the time. 

At its extreme, it produces the sense of entitlement which enables people to massacre others, to take away their lives, as we saw in Las Vegas earlier this week. But in smaller ways, at work, at home, in our communities and in our churches, we can all turn into little empire builders, jealously protecting our turf, clinging onto what we think is ours,  elbowing aside anyone who is inconvenient to us. We don’t usually do it out of calculated wickedness, but because we feel insecure. If we don’t look out for number one, who will? But in doing so we reveal our underlying suspicion that we’re really on our own in the world. We may claim to believe that God loves us, that he’s there for us, but do we live like it? If we did, we wouldn’t need to scrabble for a place in the pecking order of the world, because we’d know we already have the safest place possible, a place in the heart of God. We wouldn’t need to dehumanise others or push them down in order to push ourselves up. We wouldn’t need to cling to possessions, because we’d know that we were securely possessed by God, held in his hands. We’d know, like St Paul that Christ Jesus had “made us his own”.

Jesus’ parable is, like most of his parables, is, at its heart, about the kingdom of God, about what it means to live as God’s people. God’s kingdom will be given, says Jesus, to those who produce its fruits, the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. That doesn’t mean it’s some sort of heavenly reward in the distant hereafter for good behaviour now. The point he is making is that the Kingdom of God comes into being as we live it, where we live it. Like the vine he likens it to, God’s kingdom grows organically, naturally. As we love others, a new bud of that Kingdom vine pushes out from the wood. As we act with integrity, a leaf unfurls. As we build community in the places we are the fruit of the kingdom ripens, bringing joy and refreshment to all around. But we can only enjoy that kingdom, only fully participate in it, when we realise whose kingdom it is, whose vineyard, whose vine. It’s not ours. We don’t make it with our anxious labour. We can’t possess it or control it. We don’t have to patrol its borders or protect it by our unremitting vigilance. It is God’s Kingdom, God’s vine, God’s vineyard. He lovingly grows it in our midst, if we will let him, generously gives it to us so that we can generously share its abundance with all who want its life.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Trinity 15 Striving side by side A sermon by Kevin Bright

Matthew 20.1-16, Philippians 1.21-30
As an employer, someone who regularly hires people for their knowledge, skill and ability to apply it effectively through sheer hard work the parable of the vineyard and the landowner really resonates with personal experience.

Unfortunately it’s the bit about a few people never being happy about their remuneration, package, compensation, wages, pay, however we wish to phrase it, not current employees of course, but some that have crossed my path in earlier years. Calculating fair wages is always going to be an imperfect art but one thing is for sure, envy and whingeing isn’t going to make it right.

If that seems a bit harsh there’s no doubt that Jesus also knew that comparing how generous the land owner has been would raise peoples blood pressure and if it doesn’t get us a bit cross initially then we probably weren’t really paying attention. After all why did the landowner have to ‘rub it in’ for the early workers by paying the last first so that they would see exactly what was going on? Was he deliberately trying to provoke them?

In first century Palestine the fee of one denarius (as referred to in the NIV version) was considered fair daily pay for a family to meet their basic needs, the original Living Wage.

Clearly people should be paid a fair wage for their work without discrimination of any kind but if we feel we are treated fairly should we be bitter if the employer shows generosity to some people? I’m sure that all of us here have bills to pay, financial commitments to meet. So what if the landowner Jesus talks of was thinking all these labourers have families to feed regardless of the hours they have put in and I’m in a position to meet their needs, so I will.
Of course if a trade union had existed it’s likely this practice would have had to stop as it’s not fair to the members. Everyone out, then the landowner would have no labour. That would teach him to be generous.
As usual Jesus leaves us plenty to speculate about in the parable, who knows, maybe the people hired last were often left unemployed because they were weaker than others, had children or sick family to care for or were discriminated against in some way and the landowner wanted to show them that their contribution would also be valued.

Is it a ridiculous thing for me to ask but were they not grateful for the work, were they not proud of their contribution and achievements or did they only care about what they got out of the deal and how it compared with others? After all the bargain struck with the first people employed was honoured exactly as agreed so why did they care about the later workers?
There’s no question that poverty can make life hard, but it’s also true that happiness doesn’t increase on a curve commensurate with increased wealth. An unhealthy relationship with money makes for miserable people but for all fortunate enough to be able to choose what they do with money that doesn’t get spent on subsistence they have the choice whether to be generous or not.

Too much money in wrong hands can also have disastrous results. There’s the famous quote from the wonderfully talented footballer George Best when asked where all his money had gone he replied “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”

Beyond a commercially acceptable return many of the richest people will tell us it’s not about the money. The billionaire investor Warren Buffet said that for him it was just a counter to measure progress and his lifestyle combined with the fact that he has given more away than any other billionaire tends to back this up.

Last week I was at the funeral of a friend and client of mine, it was a long funeral, about 2 hours, mostly because of the range of people who wanted to pay tribute to him. I don’t know whether it’s the same for you when you attend the funeral of someone you think you’ve known someone pretty well over many years there’s often family or friends who have known them differently and you find out new things. It’s quite frustrating as I really want to say to them ‘I never knew that about you’ and explore it further but of course it’s too late.
No one giving a tribute pretended that he lived the life of an angel but a man who worked with him cleaning toilets when they started out told of how they would buy one meal and share it to keep down costs, but how even then he was generous in the way he shared this. As he built up his property empire others told again and again how he surprised them with his generosity and kindness. There was no great gain to him through his generosity but like the landowner he was in a position to do so and simply chose to make people happy or give them a pleasant surprise.

Whilst we and those hearing Jesus talk might immediately relate to what seems fair around wages his Jewish listeners would have been particularly challenged to consider how this principle applied to other aspects of their lives and their relationship with God. If they considered themselves God’s chosen people might they feel they were of greater worth then the gentiles, the latecomers? But if they think like this they fall into the class of the embittered whingers who think they have the right to tell God not to be too generous. Does this mean they didn’t believe in a God of love, compassion and great generosity or maybe it means some came to know him anew?
Maybe the disciples heard the parable as a warning that just because they were close to Jesus they shouldn’t think that they would be given priority over others when it comes to God’s love.

Surely us as mature Christians couldn’t fall into this trap? Could we think that God loves people of other faiths or none less than us? Could we think that people who come to this country willing to work hard shouldn’t be given the same opportunities as those who have lived here for generations?

Then we heard of St Paul writing to the church in Philippi whilst imprisoned in Rome. In some ways it links with the parable we heard in that it also has a lot to do with work. Paul’s not sure how things will pan out for him, he knew that there was a reasonable chance the authorities could decide to have him executed at any time and he is trying to reassure the Philippians that if this happens it doesn’t mean they should feel defeated, the important thing is that Christ is revered and held high.

Yet he knows that there is a lot of work he still can do and believes that God wants him to be released to do it and that both he and the Philippians should remain positive and bold in sharing the love of Christ. Paul is often drawing upon his own experience when he encourages others and isn’t asking them to face possible consequences that he hasn’t faced himself.

Some who have suffered real dark times are able to remain strong in their faith and outwardly composed yet the suffering is real. This was the case for Paul and if we read his second letter to the Corinthians he tells of ‘…pressure far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death.’ Forced to put all in the hands of God he emerged with his belief strengthened.

We hear that the Philippians are urged to remain focussed on Christ and that there is sense of people working together as they ‘strive side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.’ Wonderful words and imagery that feel so different from those who worry about what others are getting but focus on the clear goal of spreading Christ’s love by combining resources, overcoming obstacles and refusing to be intimidated.
It helps me make a little sense of our readings today if we remind ourselves that it is the forgiveness, the grace of God is the real currency we are considering. It’s not something that we can earn and it doesn’t correlate with hours or outputs we can offer, it’s just given freely and generously to all willing to accept it. If we stop to consider how much we have been and want to be forgiven by God how could it ever make sense to ask that this is restricted for others regardless of how late they came to ask for it?

‘Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ Jesus said of those who crucified him.
‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise’ he said to the criminal crucified next to him.

This is what Jesus spoke of when he started the parable with the words ‘For the Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner’, thankfully a landowner who is not focused on who deserves what, his only focus is on providing love and hope for all.

Kevin Bright 24th September 2017

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.

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…
"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 ( 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.