Saturday, 24 February 2018

A Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Lent

There was a story in my paper last week about South Korea; not the Winter Olympics, but about people there choosing to be sent to prison for a week or so: a secure establishment, into which they’re processed as prisoners, given a prison uniform, locked into a cell with basic facilities, and kept pretty much in isolation. Yes, it’s another crazy Asian idea, designed to deal with the stresses and strains of work and daily life: it is, I suppose, a kind of retreat, though it sounds a bit tougher than most of the retreats I’ve been on.

One of the particular features of the prison environment for these guys in Korea is that all electronic devices are removed from the them as they’re checked in. That must be tough! The other day at a family party I glanced across at my sister and three of her daughters; there they were sitting together but each one busily tapping at a mobile. I was about to make a mildly disparaging remark when I looked round to see that my wife and daughter were doing exactly the same. These days, wherever we are, and whatever we do, we have media on tap. I don’t really understand streaming and stuff, but - given the right number of megabytes at your disposal - you can have pretty much anything or everything that Hollywood or Bollywood or Abbey Road or Muscle Shoals or Broadway have ever produced, right there at your fingertips. Maybe these days - with so much media on tap - we’re less able to cope with being alone than any of our forebears.

But I think it’s every bit as important as ever it was, that we take time to be alone. And retreats, fasting, even a prison cell in Korea, can help us to do this: to think things out for ourselves, to remake contact with the real self behind our public face, to discover our own perspective, make up our own mind, and  choose our own way, rather than having all of that formed for us. Fasting is good for me, however I choose to do it; I used to think of Lent as a chore, but now I regard it as a blessing.
These days we mostly think of fasting purely in terms of food. Many modern diets use the word fasting, like the one where you fast until six pm and then just have a light meal to end the day, on two or three days each week. That one works quite well, by the way, in my experience. But really, fasting is a whole lifestyle change, and it has less to do with food than with time.

Time: these days we have lots of spare time, and lots of choice as to how we spend it. Religion, or I should say churchgoing, is seen as one spare time occupation among many, and it’s easily crowded out by the others. Despite all my best efforts, church doesn’t seem to compete as entertainment. Should it be competing though? If churchgoing is a spare time occupation, what does that say about how we relate with God?

In my childhood days, while not everyone gave things up for Lent, I always felt that everyone thought they ought to. The fast of Lent was part of our culture and tradition, like Ramadan within the Muslim community. Some time ago, a Muslim colleague was asking me some rather searching questions about how I kept Lent. I muttered something about giving up chocolate and reading the Archbishop of Canterbury’s designated Lent book. He shook his head gently and said, “And you’re a minister!”

But then again, to fast in an overly serious and ostentatious way isn’t necessarily good. Jesus didn’t seem to think so: we read of him condemning the Pharisees because they liked to pray on the street corners, where people can see them pray, and they would make their faces unsightly with ash so everyone would know what they were doing. So as one of our Ash Wednesday readings we have Jesus saying we should fast in secret, so that only God will know we’re doing it. Old Testament prophets complained that though the people were keeping all the feasts and the fasts, their lives didn’t match up to what God really wanted. Micah tells us how to be: “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”

However we keep the fast, we shouldn’t be doing it just to tick some kind of religious box. God doesn’t want us to fast, or at least not just for the sake of fasting. Our fasting should be purposeful. Prophets of old pointed out that fasting without thinking about why you do it just makes people bad tempered and grumpy, without changing their hearts one bit. The fast of Lent isn’t about how we get through these forty odd days, it’s about what we’re going to do with the rest of our life.

Even spending a week in a Korean gaol probably means that at the end of the time, though you might come out feeling healthier,   de-stressed, and more truly yourself, once you’ve gone straight back into the tyranny of work, of the media, of the mobile phone, of the rat race, you’ll be back to square one in no time. I think it’s likely to be a very temporary fix.

A temporary fix because those who do it aren’t wanting or expecting anything more: it’s a break from the rush and tumble, but that’s still the life they choose to live. I think Lent has a different challenge from that. Lent encourages us to make faith and belief central rather than spare-time in our lives. Like Abraham, whose whole life was changed by the promise God made him, even though he found it hard to believe to begin with. Like Jesus, who tells those who go with him they must take up  their cross to do it.

Peter tried to shout Jesus down when he told them about the suffering and death that lay ahead for him in Jerusalem. I imagine the others felt the same: their Lord was the Messiah, God’s chosen one, and Jesus was saying sounded to Peter like defeatist talk, like giving up before he started, as though all these plans that surely must work because God was behind it all, would instead fall apart and come to nothing. “You mustn’t say such things!” he protested.

No, Jesus tells him, your way is the way of the world. What Jesus is doing is not the way of the world, as he heads for Jerusalem. There’s nothing short-termist or superficial here, nothing that just looks good on the outside. In fact, the events themselves, when we reach them, will look to Peter and the others like the most dreadful loss, their teacher completely and utterly destroyed. Their hopes destroyed with him.

But Jesus has not gone to Jerusalem to secure the temporary release of some people from the rule of the Roman Emperor; He is going there to take on death and defeat it once and for all, to lift from our shoulders the deadening impact of sin. Love without limits and life without limits, is what the cross stands for.

I quite enjoyed that story from Korea. I wouldn’t want to do the same: I’ve spent one night of my life in a police cell, and I’m in no rush to repeat the experience. But in reality all of life is a prison; to be earthbound is to be unfree - as the words spoken on Ash Wednesday remind us: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But those words are followed by these: “Repent and believe the Gospel.” Like Abraham, we have been given a promise, and it’s the promise of the cross. “Take up your cross and come with me,” says Jesus. Anything else is a temporary fix at best, and even religion is no more than a temporary fix if we keep it as just a spare time hobby. Those fierce prophets of old told the truth when they said, “Unless you do it with your whole heart it’s not worth doing at all.” But Jesus says this to us, and makes this promise: my cross is life and light: live in me, and I will live in you. Amen.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Being a Disciple: "Jesus Comes First"

The first of my series of four Lenten talks after Compline . . .

“If anyone comes to me and does not place me above his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

This is a very hard piece of scripture, and the original Greek can be translated more harshly than the version we’ve just heard, for the literal words have Jesus saying, “Anyone who does not hate his father and mother, et cetera”. But the Aramaic language and thought pattern that Jesus would probably have taught and spoken in didn’t use comparatives in the way we do: the idea of liking one thing more than another, or placing one thing above another, would always be expressed in terms of hating the one thing and loving the other. Even so, it’s a tough ask. Jesus says, “Place me above all those things, all those people that society, community, even the bones of your own body, insist should come first.”

And we know and have heard so many sad stories of cults and sects where adherents are brainwashed into abandoning their families, and erecting a barrier against those who were once their closest friends. It’s the stuff of many a TV drama, and one of the ways in which religion is often portrayed as a negative force.

And yet it does need to be true. We do need to put Jesus first. The great teacher, artist and philanthropist John Ruskin wrote, “He who gives God second place in his life gives him no place.” Again, hard words, and of course we all do it, in fact, and often with every good intention. I’m reminded somehow of the arrow prayer that goes, “Lord, thou knowest I must be busy this day. If I should forget thee, do not thou forget me.”

Putting Jesus first is hard; and our failure to do this should be the beginning of every confession, I think. But when Jesus says, “Follow me,” he means it to be a full-time occupation, and a serious journey. But here’s the point. Here’s what makes what I’m saying different from the divisive and exclusive cults that do so much damage to the vulnerable. Jesus calls us to put him first, to serve him, to do his will - but where does he then send us to do this, and how do we do it? One or two of us may be called to some special work. A few may even enter monasteries or become hermits.

But most of us he sends right back to where we are, into our own home situations, into our own communities, back to our own friends. To work with him there to make his name known and his love felt in the everyday of our own lives. True discipleship doesn’t separate us from our loved ones, it sustains, enriches and enhances our love for them, as we share and show Christ’s love for them.

A story, not from Christianity but from Hinduism, but the moral is apt. In the early morning, before the sun has yet risen, a young man rises from his bed, dresses in simple robes, and prepares to leave his home. He can hear the sleeping sounds of his wife and children, but knows he must leave them. It is time, he has decided, to heed the call of God he has heard for so long. Quietly, he opens the door, steps out and onto the still dark highway, and starts on his journey.

Back in the house, where his wife and children still sleep, God sighs. “Why is it that so many people who dream of finding me and serving me leave the place where I am in order to search for me?”

Monday, 19 February 2018

Wilderness

My first sermon of Lent 2018 :-

Who am I? I recall a man in a film, asking just that question in the first reel. I have no memory of what the film was, or frankly even whether it was actually any good, just this opening scene where this guy’s woken up after having been laid out by some kind of blow to the head. But it was a serious and important question: he no longer knew his own name, or indeed anything about himself. The film followed the events in which he began to piece together his past, and in so doing began to rediscover himself.

We do know who we are, pretty much. If we happen to catch our reflection in a shop window while out shopping in town, we can recognise who it is we’re looking at. Only the more intelligent among our animal cousins seem to be able to do the same: apes, monkeys, elephants perhaps. My brother’s dog had had some sort of bad experience involving a large black dog when very young, and as a result really hated large black dogs. What he didn’t realise was that he himself was a large black dog, so when he saw his own reflection in a mirror he recognised it only as yet another nasty big black dog out to get him, and reacted accordingly. That wouldn’t happen to us, not recognising our own selves in a mirror - or if it did, people would say we’d lost our mind.

Knowing who we are is fundamental to being human. We know what we look like. We're all ears suddenly if we hear someone mention our name. We know the stats: our date of birth, our family histories, who our friends are, what we do for a living, probably our sort code and bank account number, certainly our phone number and postcode. But how well do we really know ourselves? How able are we really to see ourselves as others see us?  More to the point, how able are we to see ourselves as God sees us? And anyway, what things really define us as who we are? What we own, or the clothes we choose to wear? The kind of home we live in, or where we take our holidays?  The sort of company we keep, or whether our job or profession is high in status?

Today, as Lent begins, we think about Jesus going into the wilderness. In Mark’s firm and forceful language, Jesus is driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. He needed to be there, this was something that had to be done before his ministry could begin. In the wilderness he would wrestle with questions about identity and purpose. This was the place to confront things, to sort things out, to get the focus and the balance right. In other words, the wilderness was a place for self-assessment, self-understanding, and to tackle the big issues of recognition, purpose, call.

Recognition, self understanding: I’ve known of people who have had multiple personalities - a major psychological disorder in which, in a very real sense, the person no longer knows who he or she is. Fortunately, that is a rare and unusual condition; but in a sense it’s an extreme form of something that’s true for all of us: we are all in a way more than one person. How I’m defined depends on who’s doing the defining, what the situation is, and what my role is in that situation. I’m one person at home, but not quite the same person at work; as a father, a son, a brother, a friend, a colleague, I play different roles; as a consumer, a voter, an earner, a contributor, I’m judged, perceived, measured and valued in different ways, and subjected to different pressures.

Do you remember 'The Office' on TV? I was never a great fan, but I did see it from time to time. As a sitcom it illustrated and to a degree satirised what happens when people who’d probably behave quite differently in other areas of their lives are required to conform to the very particular norms, conditions, expectations and customs that operate within the rather tightly confined network of people that is an office community. Maybe one reason why I didn’t watch it much was that I’ve worked in offices, and often it felt a bit too near the truth to be entirely comfortable. I’d sit there squirming in shared embarrassment at some of the antics of David Brent, as he tried to cope with it, to manipulate what little power he had and look good within the norms of office life.

Jesus went to the wilderness to separate himself from those whose expectations and assumptions would, throughout his ministry, place conflicting and confusing pressures on him; his task out there was to discover who he really was, as opposed to what other people might say he should be. To do that he needed to be on his own in his Father's presence. Only then could he identify and deal with the voices that would try and drag him off course. He needed to be away from the hustle and bustle of a world in which we're so often denied the freedom to be our real selves because the system forces to conform and fit in, now with this, now with that.

As we keep Lent we recall that time of testing and sorting out. If Jesus needed to do it, we surely do as well. As Lent begins, my question is: “Who am I?” How well do I really know myself? How can I separate what I’m supposed to be, and what I’m supposed to do, as a disciple of Christ, from the myriad different demands on me, the myriad different images of self to which I’m asked to conform?

I read a while back about a parish priest somewhere who decided that he and his church folk should give up everything for Lent. I don’t mean sweets, chocolate, booze, and fags. They gave up all the churchy things they did: the committees, organisations, clubs; even the Mothers' Union stopped meeting, even the choir ceased to practise. Instead, they spent time reading, studying the Bible, and just waiting on God. By the end of Lent they hoped to be able to see more clearly which of all the things everyone was so busy at really needed to be done, and which were just a waste of their time and energy.

He and his congregation had chosen a quite radical way to make prayerful spaces in their lives in which to focus on the stuff that really mattered, what God was calling out of them, what God was wanting them to be and to do as his church. And in the process the vicar had a real sense of rediscovering himself, and gaining a fresh insight into who he was to God, and how God could use him.

I’m not sure I’d manage to do what he did. It must have taken some courage, and I’m sure some people didn't understand what was being done. I’d be afraid people would label me as lazy and uncaring and disloyal. But if couldn’t do all of it, maybe I should do some of it. To give things up for Lent is really only worthwhile in a spiritual sense if it’s part of a wilderness project. You give things up to make space to take things on, and to do things better, and to rearrange the priorities in our lives.

So I need to be asking: what can I do this Lent to make sure I’m praying more, reading more, and for that matter probably also resting more? I need more silence and stillness in my life - for all of us, modern life is generally too noisy. God speaks with a still small voice, we need to be quiet if we’re to hear it. He doesn't force his way in, he waits for us to open the door to him.

So who am I? Who am I this Lent? I hope I can find out - out of all the hundred thousand different ways of being me that the world pushes, tugs, cajoles, tempts, harangues me into taking on - which is the real me, how can I find and fix and identify the me God wants, the me God is calling? I hope I can make the time and space I need this Lent to discover myself, to draw closer to God, and to prepare myself to worship and praise him not just in the hour on a Sunday but in everything I do. This is a precious resource for us, this season of Lent, as the forty days in the wilderness was for Jesus: God is calling us now to learn his ways, to share his love, and to serve him better.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Transfiguration

Sermon to be preached at St Mary's, Trelystan, on the Long Mountain.

It’s a different world up here. There’s a lot more weather up here than there is down below, for a start. The snow settles more readily, and stays around longer. Mountains and hilltops generally are isolated almost by definition. If people are up there it’s because they’ve chosen to be, or have to be. There’s no passing trade. That’s part of what makes this church special. It would be a great place to come to for a quiet day, for a time of recuperation, a time to change tack, to draw breath, and maybe to pray more deeply and with greater feeling than we can manage down at sea level. From the cartoon image of the holy man seated on his slab of rock somewhere in the Himalayas to the reality of pilgrim sites of many faiths in many parts of the world, mountains are held in high regard as places of prayer and stillness, places close to heaven.

Jesus regularly escaped from the busy streets and lanes where so many people wanted a part of him, to pray in the stillness of the hills. The crowds that followed him everywhere must have left him hardly able even to catch his breath, let alone pray. And he needed to pray. Think of that, by the way. If Jesus himself needed to pray, how come for many of us prayer becomes an optional extra, or the spiritual equivalent of the fire button behind the glass, to be broken into and used only in dire emergency?

Today’s Gospel begins with Jesus going up a mountain to pray, not just to take time away from the crowds, but to make himself ready for what was coming next. He had set his face towards Jerusalem, and he knew what awaited him there. His disciples didn’t. They imagined an easy victory for God’s Messiah, and thrones for everyone. But Jesus knew that the victory he would win would cost everything he had to give.

So he climbed the mountain to pray, taking with him the inner circle of his disciples, Peter, James and John. The mountain on which these events probably took place – Mount Hermon - is these days topped by church buildings, and reached via a steep and winding road. Tourists and pilgrims travel up it in Mercedes taxis driven like the wind by fiercely moustached Bedouin taxi-drivers, who hold the franchise. Having ascended that way, I have to say it lacks the spiritual impact of a gentle walk into the clouds. But there are peaceful corners in which to sit quietly and pray, once you’re there.

But when I read today’s Gospel, my imagination does not take me to the Mount Tabor I visited in the Holy Land, it takes me to Cadair Idris. One slightly snowy day in November, twenty years ago now perhaps, I took time out from a clergy retreat at Abergynolwyn to climb as far as I could up Cadair before the fading light forced me back down. That day I had the mountain to myself except for a buzzard or two; the clouds were backlit by the late autumn sun, and that great sweep of ridge above me was magnificent. It was a real spiritual high, and that’s why I can’t help but imagine Peter and the others kneeling on Welsh moor-grass and heather, as they shield their eyes from the transfigured brightness of their Lord.

“It’s good that we’re here,” says Peter. But they couldn’t stay there. They had just a momentary glimpse of glory – clouds, by the way, almost always stand for both mystery and glory in the Bible – just one moment of being almost blinded by the light. Then their blinking eyes see that their Lord the same as he was before, with robes and sandals stained with the dust and grime of the road they must rejoin. For it’s time to get on with the journey.

The disciples go with Jesus back down the hill, back into the real world. Was what they’d seen just an illusion? I prefer to think that for a moment they’d seen through the veil that mostly blinds us, a bit of the glory that’s really always there, a glimpse of their Lord as he truly and always is. Research suggests that many people, maybe even most people, are prepared to admit to having what we might call ‘spiritual experiences’: moments when everything seemed brighter, clearer, holier than normal, moments when something was suddenly understood, times when heart and soul were suddenly lifted. Often people have felt that sort of thing on a mountain, and that doesn’t surprise me one bit. But such experiences are only momentary; we can’t stay there, and we can’t live only for those extraordinary times. We can’t stay on the mountain-top, for there’s a world down there, and that’s where we’re supposed to be, that’s where we’re called to be.

Christian witness and pilgrimage may include such special experiences from time to time, but that’s not what we’re really about. What matters is the love we share along life’s dusty road, the care we offer in the muddle and grime of every day. Spiritual highs are wonderful not for themselves but because they help us get on with living and loving down at ground level. For a moment the disciples saw Jesus transfigured and talking with Elijah and Moses, the two great heroes of the faith. And they were talking about where he was going next, and what he was going there to do. The road at the bottom of the hill would take Jesus to Jerusalem, and to Calvary. And the glory Peter and the others glimpsed up there would be revealed once and for all there: on a Friday in Jerusalem, and on a different hill, as the man who had travelled there to lay down his life in love to save the world, hung and died on a cross.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Cae Post and Hullcoins . . . a sermon

I was sad to hear about the decision to close the Cae Post recycling depot at Trewern. This is a time when arguably we need to be doing more and more recycling rather than less. For Cae Post losing their kerbside contract with Powys County Council was clearly a major blow. I do recognise the financial constraints under which our councils have to operate these days, but I still think that that was a significantly wrong decision.

I remember visiting Cae Post many years ago. One of the younger members of my then church, a lad with some mild learning difficulties, had got a job there, and someone I sang with was involved in management, and showed me round. I have to say that the amount of rubbish thrown out by the average person, family, household these days is truly staggering. You only realise that when you see so much  of it all piled up together. At Cae Post recyclable items were sorted and baled for transfer elsewhere, and this created employment opportunities for people who might have struggled to find work elsewhere. So that for me made Cae Post a resource that shouldn’t be judged - nor should it stand or fall - on strictly financial terms.

In my spare time I pick litter. I don’t go out as often as I should, but as the days get a bit longer I aim do at least one pick per week. Not much of what I pick gets recycled, sadly, nor does much of what’s put into litter bins in street. That’s not financially viable, so it ends up as landfill. We invented money, but now money dictates how we live. Money can close down community projects, and it can even help poison our planet.

That planet is our theme today. It’s the only one we have, and although we might dream of travelling to others, and doing that looks straightforward enough on Star Trek, the reality is that if we don’t look after this planet we’ve nowhere else to go. And we share this planet with other living things, that aren’t just there for us to enjoy, but by their health or otherwise provide an indicator of our own health and our own future.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God.” John’s great inspiration was to identify Jesus Christ as the creative word spoken by God by which - in Genesis, chapter one - all that is made was made. We are the product of that spoken word, and we human beings in particular are by that word made in the image of God. By that we mean that we are sentient, aware, creative. We know things, we can interpret, plan, invent, love. We can imagine the future. Unlike other living things, we know about life and death.

Being made in God’s image, we’ve no excuse not to be God-like ourselves in our care for what he made. Now we may think we’re being God-like in the way we dominate the world, bridge mighty rivers, raise up high buildings, flash messages instantly from continent to continent, or use giant machines to gouge out forests and quarry the earth - or for that matter, to build weapons that, if once used, could lay the whole world waste.

But there’s nothing God-like about that. That’s just throwing our weight around. God’s Word enters what he has made, becomes part of the human story, to show us what being “made in the image of God” really requires of us. The Kims and Trumps of our world may crow about the size of the nuclear buttons they can press, but what’s far more God-like is to put our arm around the shoulder of a grieving mother, or to feed a hungry child, or to wait and watch beside a hospital bed. When we light lights, when we restore balance, when we give time, when we care.

I was driving not long ago in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, a quiet lane miles from anywhere, when I came across a council truck. Two men were loading onto it what looked like most of a kitchen, dumped into a hedge bank in the countryside. I couldn’t help but reflect that if half the effort that must have gone into taking all that stuff out there in order to dump it miles from any place had instead been spent on doing something charitable, our world could be so much nicer.

Easy for me to say. Maybe harder to do. I know I take the easy option or make the selfish decision far too often. That’s one of the reasons why we Christian folk are supposed to take time to pray. Not in order to present God with our list of wants and instructions, but to re-tune ourselves into his creative will, and to re-awaken that bit of us that is made in his blest and loving image. The Christian challenge is to be like Jesus, which is what Jesus asks of us when he says, “Follow me.” He doesn’t just mean ‘trail along behind me’, but listen, watch, take note, see what I do - and now go, and do the same.

So what does it mean for me, for you, to be like Jesus, where we are? This is the Divine Word by whom all things were created. We too are called to be creative, lovingly creative, in the way we balance and prioritise and live our lives.

Hull was in the news last week, mostly because of the Banksy mural that appeared on a disused bridge. Hull was our city of culture last year, of course. But Hull was also more quietly in the news last week because of Hullcoin. You know about Bitcoin? Well, Hullcoin is a virtual currency that’s designed to reward people who volunteer. They can be given Hullcoins in return for their voluntary work, and at shops and businesses involved in the scheme their Hullcoins can buy them money off the usual price of things. Not everyone needs this, of course - but some volunteers are themselves poorly off, maybe they help out because being unemployed they’ve got time on their hands. It’s a nice thank-you, and a recognition of the way in which we depend on each other, if where we live is to be a balanced and healthy place.

Our world here is I think a poorer place for the loss of Cae Post. Maybe that couldn’t be helped. But we’ll be poorer still if we lose what Cae Post stood for: care for the environment allied with care in the community, care for one another. We’ve just this one planet, which we’ve borrowed from our children; we’ve no second home. We can’t afford the luxury of poisoning our own well.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Candlemas

It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. That, I believe, is a Chinese proverb, and the gist of it is that we should never just sit about moaning about the things we don’t like. Maybe we don’t think there’s much we can do, but we can always get on and do something: and each single small candle starts to make the world a brighter and better place.

We don't often light candles these days just to get light, although most winters we have a few breaks in our power supply. And I’m always careful to have some candles in and know where they are, just in case. But what we mostly do is to light candles at times of celebration. We put them on birthday cakes, or on the table when a couple, or a family, or a group of friends meet for a special meal. We like to light candles as part of the decorations when we want a place to look special: real candles on our Christmas tree when I was little, battery operated LED ones on our tree these days.

And of course we light candles in church. The candles we light on the altar are there to draw our attention to the holy table, and to make it the focus of our worship. As we break bread and pour wine and share these things together, our candles help mark the fact that this is a celebration initiated and given and shared by our Lord himself, and that he is present as we meet at his table. 

Candles are also a sign of prayer; whenever I do a day’s chaplaincy at our cathedral I light a candle or two by the shrine of St Thomas, and take some time to remember people for whom I want to pray. Lots and lots of our visitors and pilgrims do the same. We don’t need to - our prayers are just as valid, and will be just as much heard by God, without candles being lit; but somehow we find it helps us to do it.

Partly that’s just because we’re doing something, expressing our inner emotion in a practical action; but candles also speak of the presence of God, and Jesus is hailed as the light of the world. In the Book of Genesis chapter 1, the story of Creation, light is the first thing God makes; the first creative act is to roll back the darkness, and everything else follows. So our candles in church can remind us that God is always looking to change darkness into light, and always close to us; when we meet to worship him, or kneel to pray, he’s not far away, he is as close as our own breathing. We don’t need to shout for him to hear us, we only need to whisper our prayers.

Candlemas really happens next Friday, but we’re encouraged to keep it in place of the last Sunday of the Epiphany season, which is today. Candlemas is the popular name for the feast day known as the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. It’s the story told in the evensong canticle the Nunc Dimmittis: Old Simeon in the Temple sees the baby Jesus in the arms of his mother, and he knows straight away that his long wait is over. This is the child through whom God's salvation will be worked for his people; this is the child born to be a light to the gentiles, given not only for the salvation of his own people, but as good news for all the world.

Simeon sees a small child in his mother's arms, as his parents come to the temple to do what the law requires. He sees a very tiny light, like a single candle flame in a great big dark room. But he knows it is the true light; and however big and scary the darkness may be, once one small candle is lit then it's not really dark any more. Simeon and Anna the prophetess recognised that day a new and special light, a flame to bring light to every dark place, to change everything. 

It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. Often we can feel weak and vulnerable as we look at the world and hear the news. Especially at this still dark time of the year. What can we do, when so much seems so bad? What can we do against the mountains of greed, intolerance, racial violence and hatred, poverty, terrorism, and the gradual hardening of hearts into selfishness that so much these days seems to encourage? People get anxiety overload, and our natural desire to give and to help gets paralysed. And maybe we deal with how that feels by looking back wistfully to half remembered, half imagined past days when everything was nicer and simpler.

But we won’t find the child Simeon rejoiced to see back in the rose-tinted past. He is always striding out ahead of us, and calling us on: “Follow me,” he says to each of us. Light your one personal candle and follow me. And though one small candle may not seem very much, the little light Simeon saw at that first Candlemas is a light to shine for ever, a love that will never be extinguished, and our light is lit from him. Jesus told his disciples that they must shine as lights in the world to the glory of God, and we use those words at holy baptism when we give a candle to a newly baptized child. Being lights is fundamental to our calling as Christian people, whether we’re big and many or small and few.

Most of what Jesus says in the Gospels is directed to the small and few, by the way. Don't be afraid, little flock, he said to his friends. Don't be afraid to be seen to be mine; don't worry that you seem so very small. After all, once you’ve lit your one candle you can light others from it. One candle is a small light, but put them together and they become great. The darkness that seems so strong is forced back and conquered.

The lights went out in the cathedral one day when I was on duty there - I think they were doing some electrical checks, and Hereford is quite a bright cathedral during daylight hours, so it didn’t much matter. What I did observe though is just how bright the rows of votive candles were, all together - a lot of them had been lit that morning. Your light and mine, and others besides, can change the world, if the light that first lights us is the light of Christ, the light with which God first pushed back the dark of chaos, and began his work of creation.

To be a Christian is to be part of God’s creative process. Paul speaks about the Christian community as “having the mind of Christ.” Yes, we have the mind of Christ and the light of Christ: a light to change and transform the world. Candlemas is the traditional very end of the Christmas and Epiphany season. We’ll move on this year to just two Sundays of Ordinary Time - celebrating God’s creation (next week) and thinking of Jesus transfigured on the mountain (the week after), before we enter Lent and turn our faces towards the cross and on to Easter.

As the year moves on, we move on from celebration to action: from candles lit to brighten our Christmas celebration, to candles lighting candles lighting candles as we seek to take what Simeon saw in this little child - God’s promise of love and peace and justice and healing - out into all the world. Mission, in other words. We surely want mission, don’t we? Well, I do. I want this flame to lighten and enrich and change more and more hearts and lives, and I know that that begins here, in me; and in you, too. As candles burn for Jesus here on this Candlemas Day, may they burn also in our hearts. And may we, small as we are, be ready to say yes to being part of his work, witnesses to the world of the love born among us, the light no darkness can quench.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

The Miracle at Cana

A sermon to be preached today at Cefn . . .

It seems a little strange to be speaking about wine at a Methodist chapel, but it is a fact that the first miracle Jesus performed, as recorded by St John, turned water into wine.

It happened at a wedding, and wine does seem to me to be the proper drink for a wedding. I can’t somehow imagine drinking a toast in anything but wine to the bride and groom at a wedding. At any rate, that would certainly have been the case at a traditional Jewish wedding at the time of Jesus. The Jewish rabbis used to say that "without wine there is no joy." Don’t imagine that people went to a wedding expecting to drink themselves senseless - in fact, drunkenness would have been regarded as a most disgraceful thing; but the guests at a wedding would expect good wine to be served and in decent supply. And it would also be a disgrace if the hospitality offered to the wedding guests was found to be deficient.

So at a good and successful wedding you would need to make sure that there was enough wine and to spare. But at Cana there wasn’t, it seems. What a disaster! They had run out of wine! Why should that be, we might wonder. Maybe someone miscalculated, or maybe some of the wine had not been of good quality, and it had turned too sour to be used. Whatever the reason, it was a major problem, and potentially a real disgrace.

So Mary perhaps turned to her son and whispered, "Do something!" If she did, the reply Jesus gave her seems at first to our ears to strike a somewhat harsh note. It comes across as discourteous, really. “This isn’t any of my concern!” is what he tells her, and he seems to go on to say that it isn’t the right time. But any spoken words translated from one language and culture into another are likely to sound strange. It’s perhaps best to think of Jesus as saying to his mother that he won’t be doing this just to get this wedding host out of a hole (which was his mother’s concern), he will be doing it as a sign of God’s greatness.

Mary had faith enough in her son to say to the staff, "Just do whatever he tells you." But what then happened didn’t only save the party, it was one of the Epiphany events in which Jesus the carpenter's son was revealed as the one sent by God, the Christ - for those who had the eyes to see it and the heart to understand.

I quite like the fact that the very first miracle Jesus performed took place at a social do, with the result that a party went with more of a swing than it might otherwise have done. Christians are sometimes tempted to be too puritanical, so it’s good to be reminded from time to time that God’s people are supposed to enjoy life, to enjoy the world, to enjoy his creation in all its wonder and beauty. And, though I hesitate a little to say this in chapel, that might even include enjoying a glass of wine.

A wedding was certainly a good and right setting for this miracle. Prophets like Hosea called Israel the bride of God, because the Covenant made when the Law was given to Moses joined Israel to God as a wife is joined to her husband. That Old Testament image was attached by New Testament writers like Paul and John to the New Covenant made in Jesus, the new relationship into which we are drawn by the cross: we the Church are the new Israel, and that Church is hailed as the Bride of Christ.

The miracle at Cana is a story told by John, and when John tells a story every detail tends to stand for something beyond itself. Some commentators suggest that because the big water jars at Cana would have been intended for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, John may want us to think of them as symbolising the old Covenant. And even the fact that there were six of them might be significant, because in Scripture six is an imperfect number: so maybe John wants us to reflect on the imperfection and insufficiency of the old Law, which is going to be transformed into something new in what Jesus will go on to do.

The miracle changes what was merely water into wine. So again, some scholars make the point that water was what John the Baptist used; but John also spoke of “the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire” - and new wine is a symbol of Pentecost, a symbol of new life in the Spirit. 

Biblical scholars can be a little fanciful sometimes, but we’re on more solid ground when we think of the quantity of water contained in those jars: they would have held something not far short of two hundred gallons. Imagine that much wine released into a wedding! What a sign of the liberality and abundance of God's grace! We can see in this miracle how generous God is. No need on earth can exhaust what he has to give, because what God gives - in Jesus Christ and in the gifting of his Spirit - is himself.

So here we see Jesus take what is imperfect and transform it; the message is that in him we find unlimited and superabundant grace to meet our every need. That word “grace” expresses a love that holds nothing back, and is open to all: It’s for everyone - all may partake, like the wine at the feast. And it’s not restricted to special and holy places; anywhere we meet in fellowship together becomes a holy place if Jesus is there. It’s good, by the way, that this story turns up as a reading each year as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity approaches. This is a gift to break down barriers and confirm unity. We may sing different hymns and worship in different styles and places, but the one loving and generous God pours abundant grace on all of us. 

Wherever Jesus went in life, whatever he did and said, was like water being turned into wine. Invite him in, and hearts and minds and lives and relationships are transformed. Without wine there’s no joy, the rabbis said. But we do have cause for joy, and for hope and courage too: if we give our lives to him, Jesus gives us the new wine of the Spirit as the source and spring of a joy that is real, and that is firmly founded and forever.

A January Walk

On a very cold morning I walked out from our place in Welshpool, through the small woodland reserve at Bryn Glas, then across a field of sheep to the lane below Gungrog Hall. I turned down to cross the canal, and reached the main road. A heron lifted up from among the grazing sheep just ahead of me, and drifted down in the direction of the canal. A small covey of maybe eight or nine redwings took flight from a nearby tree. I had hoped to see their larger cousins, the fieldfares, sometimes present in tremendous numbers, but no joy today.

Over the main road, I crossed a field to pass round the back of the market, busy again on the first Monday after New Year’s Day. Hazel catkins brightened the trees by the path. These “lamb’s tails” are the male flower, opening widely to allow the winter wind to disperse the plentiful pollen. The female flower takes a bit more searching out: it resembles a small bright green bud, topped though with a little star of deep red filaments maybe a couple of millimetres long, the styles awaiting the pollen to begin the process of forming next autumn’s hazel nuts.

I crossed the Shrewsbury road to leave the market behind and cross the fields towards Pool Quay. Soon I shall hope to hear curlews and see sand martins here by the Severn, but not yet awhile. What I did see, standing in a single row along the cliff edge of the river bank, was a line of maybe forty or so Canada geese. There were a few more on the other side of the river, so fifty or more altogether. These are handsome birds, but, frankly, a bit of a pest. They will have been happy to feed on the grass in the field - geese are grazing birds - but I’m not sure why they were all stood in a row like that. They ignored me completely.

A small group of mallard on the water did not ignore me, and splashily took flight down river. A single tree in the field turned out to be well stocked with jackdaws, which also took off at the sight of me (still no fieldfares, sadly).

I reached the main road, crossed it, and made for the canal towpath to head back to Welshpool. There were plenty of examples here of another catkin tree, the alder. Its catkins, dark in colour, were visible, but not yet open and shedding pollen; as they open they will look greener. Catkin trees need to shed huge amounts of pollen, as they are wind pollinated, and can’t target their pollen as insect-pollinated plants can.

Great tits were very vocal in the woodland - their “teacher, teacher” call is one of the first you’ll hear as the year looks towards Spring. A robin was singing from an ivy-clad tree - they sing all year round, as each robin holds a territory through the winter. A lot of ivy had been cut down, but I was pleased to see it had been left there: the shelter it provides is important to birds and of course to the invertebrates on which many birds, like wrens, feed. As if to prove my point, a wren burst from the stacked ivy and crossed the canal in front of me. A pair of moorhens and a few house sparrows were prospecting the reeds, as I left to turn uphill for home.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Epiphany

For services at Coedway and Welshpool :

King Herod, Herod the Great as he was called even in his own lifetime, was a man who must have thought he was in control. We I think would call him a paranoid megalomaniac; after all, he had many of his own sons put to death, as potential threats to his power, which they probably were - though that was maybe not that unusual for a king of his time, I suspect. But how in control was Herod, really? He was a client king of the Romans, part of their empire, within which he’d built up something of a power base; he was respected and feared, and had the ear of the emperor. He had rebuilt cities, and his biggest project had been the great temple in Jerusalem. But even a king as mighty as Herod was constantly looking over his shoulder, watching for the next threat.

And one day, strangers arrived from the east. They were looking for a new king, having seen something special as they studied the stars. People have always wanted to understand and explain the world, to foresee the future, to trace some sense of order and direction in what might otherwise seem to be simply chaotic. And these magi or wise men believed that patterns in the night sky might somehow chart the course of history and the direction of human lives. Many people shared their belief.

So what had they seen? A strangely bright star in the east - though the Greek of the gospel might also mean “a star at its rising” - and many modern translations take that as the better translation. A new star, to speak of a new king. Astronomers suggest it may have been a conjunction of three planets, seeming therefore to be specially bright as their lights were added together. Others suggest a supernova, a distant star exploding. Or it could have been a comet, which might provide more of a sense of movement. Maybe it was none of those things, maybe it was something completely supernatural. Was it something only seen by them? Or was it widely seen, but only they interpreted it in the way they did? In fact, what they saw doesn’t matter so much. It’s what they made of it that counts.

It sent them off to find a king. Perhaps a more careful study of the stars would have led the wise men to avoid Herod. A bit of background research might have made them more aware of what kind of man Herod was. But Jerusalem was the obvious place to go, and even wise men weren't wise enough to imagine that a child born to be king could be found anywhere but in a palace.

Herod, of course, was greatly disturbed. For all his power, he was worried. “And all Jerusalem with him,” we read in Matthew’s account, though I think Matthew would have been referring to Herod’s own court and administration, rather than the wider city. The foundations of Herod’s rule were for the most part sturdy and sure, but they contained one potentially fatal flaw: he was not descended from David. Indeed, he was of somewhat mixed descent, and not everyone accepted his credentials as a Jew, even. Now, I imagine that for many people, even the temple priests, a king in Jerusalem, however dubiously Jewish, was better than direct rule from Rome. And he had rebuilt the temple. But if a king of the line of David were to appear, Herod’s days might well be numbered. Surely the people would flock to such a king?

Herod’s people studied their books, and came up with Bethlehem as the place where a new king might be found. Herod would have been more worried still to hear that: for Bethlehem was David’s city. He tried to turn the wise men into his spies, by asking them to report back to him what they found there. He wasn’t to know that this new king was a different sort of king, whose royalty he’d never have recognised. What sort of a king starts life in a stable? Not Herod the Great, for sure. So the wise men set aside their preconceived idea of where a king might be found, and went to little Bethlehem, where they found the one they were searching for, and offered their symbolic gifts, and knelt in worship. To Herod’s annoyance, they didn’t report back, but headed straight for home, greatly changed in heart and mind - I should think - by their journey and by what they found at journey’s end.

For the king the wise men knelt to worship was nothing like King Herod or the Emperor in Rome. Herods and Caesars, and for that matter Trumps and Putins, want to impose their own order on the chaos of the world. The reason why Herod was called great was all that building he did, the temple especially, and the tough and wily way in which he controlled his unruly domain. But what greatness did he have, really? It didn’t long outlast him.

Herod’s temple and most of his city were demolished hardly more than sixty years after his death. Even before that his kingdom had been broken up and parcelled out, with Judea and Jerusalem ruled directly from Rome via governors like Pontius Pilate. Such is the fate of earthly kings and earthly kingdoms, whatever the stars or those who read them might promise.

Jesus did have a kingdom too - he spoke about it a great deal - but not the same sort of kingdom. We call Jesus the king of love, and love is the currency of his kingdom. This is a king born not in a palace but in a barn, on the edge of things; a king born not to take, or to build, or to achieve worldly greatness or power. This king is born to love and to give, to give without limit: the myrrh the kings present tells us he will give even his own life.

Our world remains a place of chaos and muddle and tragedy. But it’s in this mess of a world that we come to discover love. Love, divine love, is what the wise men encountered and worshipped in Bethlehem; they discovered there the God who does not abandon his people to the chaos, but comes to join us and to walk with us. In the birth of the Christ child God doesn’t take away the chaos of the world, he doesn’t remove pain and tragedy from human life and experience. But he enters the chaos, he takes on the pain: he is come to meet us, to claim us and to save us. He doesn’t conscript us into forced service, but, heart by heart, seeks to draw us into love. 

The magi presented gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh - sacred gifts of mystic meaning, as one of the hymns of the season describes them. Gold for a king: the sign of authority and power, and there is real authority and power here, not just the show and bombast of Herod or Caesar. Incense for a priest: we see here the only priest who is worthy of the job, who is able to be the bridge between his people and their God, to remake the connection our sin has broken. And myrrh for a death: for the one true and perfect priest is also the one true sacrifice, and he will take upon himself the full weight of our sin and scorn.

Each gift from the wise men to the new king represents a gift that Christ himself will give. And we who receive are bound in turn to give: but what can we give that is worthy of him? “What can I give him, poor as I am?” as Christina Rossetti wrote, in a poem that became a carol. What gifts can we bring? Only this: our lives for his life, and our love for his love. As Rossetti went on to say - 'What I can I give him - give my heart.' 

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

John the Baptist (2)

A sermon based on the one I didn't get to preach last Sunday, because of all the snow . . . and edited and re-posted 16/12/17:

“The Lord has robed me in deliverance and arrayed me in victory, like a bridegroom with his garland, or a bride decked in her jewels. As the earth puts forth her blossom or plants in the garden burst into flower, so will the Lord God make his victory and renown blossom before all the nations.” So writes the Prophet Isaiah in our first reading, words written at the time of the people’s return to their own land, and to Jerusalem. As he sets his people free God’s greatness and glory is displayed for all the world to see.

Then in today’s Gospel we’ve read about John the Baptist, the man sent to prepare the way for another new act of deliverance: the promised Messiah. “He was not the light,” says John the Apostle carefully, “but he came to bear witness to the light.” Only Luke tells us anything about the origins of John the Baptist; and for most of those who heard him, this new prophet must have appeared out of nowhere. But out they came in great numbers to hear him there in the desert. And they could tell from the strangeness of his clothing and lifestyle, and the urgency of his message, that here at last was a true prophet like the prophets of long ago.

Those great prophets like Isaiah were treasured and still studied carefully, for people found in their words a fresh promise, something new that God was about to do: the Messiah, God's chosen and anointed servant, would soon come to liberate his people. And there was John, living in the desert, dressed roughly in camel skin, eating locusts and wild honey: all of a sudden someone who lived and looked and sounded like a real prophet. People must have wondered whether he was more than just a prophet. Could this man himself be the Messiah?

But John answered that question with a firm no. He told them that he’d come to prepare the way for one the strap of whose sandal he wasn’t worthy to unloose. That would be a menial slave’s job, by the way. So John was saying “I am less than his slave.”

But he also had a stern warning for the people: you think God’s going to do something new, and you’re right. It’s about to happen, and you’d better be ready. That’s like the things Isaiah and the other great prophets of the Old Testament said to the people of their day: do this now, they said: turn away from living in a way that is making God angry and start again. Take his commandments to heart, and get yourselves ready to meet him.

The words of the prophets were as much about challenge as comfort. The same with John: those who came out to hear thought that their birth as Jews was enough to make them God's people. But John said: “You’re wrong to think that way. To really be God’s people, you must to live as God wants you to, faithfully, obedient to his laws: and the time is short, so take this chance and do it now - begin again, repent, turn away from your old lives, and write God’s law on your hearts: the commandments that for too long you've been watering down, adjusting to fit your own needs.

And John baptized people; baptism was part of the process of becoming a Jew if you hadn’t been born a Jew. So John was treating the people as if they weren’t already Jews by birth. His baptism restored their status as God’s people, making a fresh start. If you’ve ever been to the Jordan, by the way, you’ll know that it’s not one of the world’s great rivers. It’s not the holy Ganges or the royal Nile, it’s not really a match even for the Thames or the Severn. But it was enough to be baptized in; and those who took John's words to heart went into its water to wash their old and sinful self away, and start afresh.

How come John made such an impact? Well, the time was right, the people were longing for change, yearning for freedom. John looked the part and lived the part, and for people tired of hearing the second hand preaching of the priests, he spoke with an authentic voice. And it wasn’t only his words: his whole life was a critique of the status quo; a cry of protest and a call to judgement.

So John I guess was telling people something that in their heart of hearts they already knew, his call was one that in the depths of their souls they’d already heard. So here’s a thought as regards the mission of the Church today. How do we click with the priorities, the hopes, the dreams that people already have? Do we need a different approach? Or do we just need to get on with living the faith we proclaim, and waiting for that point when the time is right and people respond? However we answer that, John’s call to us is to be much more than a Sunday Church.

Now John’s was a voice in the wilderness, and we may often think that ours is too. But things were different then. The desert land between Judaea and the Dead Sea is a barren and inhospitable place - but deserts have a positive role in Hebrew thought. The desert is where a person goes to seriously engage with God, leaving the distractions and comforts of life behind. And prophetic voices often come out of the desert. Mission needs to be based in a community that is seriously seeking God, and seriously praying to God, and placing itself at God’s disposal. John the Baptist was a man who claimed nothing for himself. That must have impressed those who were getting tired of the religious teachers of the day, folk who held high status and made a good living. I am nothing, just the messenger, said John. And today the Church will be most effective in mission when it’s most forgetful of itself.

Those who reject our call to faith will often claim that religion has been the cause of a lot of the bad stuff in human history: war, suffering, division. That’s often been true, and religion is still doing damage in the world, and in doing so offending against the very God in whose name and with whose authority it claims to be acting and speaking. There’s far too much bad religion around. But true mission is not about selling religion. John the Baptist was not selling religion. He wasn’t converting people to religion, He didn’t need to: these were already religious folk.

What John did need to do was to convert their religion into faith. He was preaching to people who did all the religious things, but they’d lost touch with God. I’m sure that’s why John didn’t teach in obviously holy places like synagogues or shrines or indeed the temple itself. That’s where people met to teach and discuss and debate religious matters, but that’s not what John was doing. He was preparing the way, not debating about God, but to speaking directly for God: speaking God’s own urgent word of renewal.

Words like renewal, reform, reformation, revival are scattered throughout the history of the Church, along with names like Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Wesley and Billy Graham. Why so much reform and revival? Because religion needs constant conversion, if it doesn't it gets sidetracked into existing for its own sake, serving its own interests, its own hierarchy or toadying up to the powers that be. It starts to get faithless. Revival is about the renewal of faith, reconnecting with God. And through history, mission happens when revival happens. Mission to those outside the Church begins with mission to those inside it.

So we should never get too comfortable with how we are now, nor too much at ease with the way the world around us does things, or indeed with our own selves. Advent is one of the times when we’re challenged to think things out afresh, to tune into God, to re-create ourselves. John said to the people then: get ready, for the King is on his way; and that prophetic message is just as vital, just as challenging, just as necessary, for the Church today.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Starlings

My "Nature Notes" for January - a second go at writing about one of my favourite birds . . .

I’ve written about starlings before, but the other day a friend was showing me some great pictures of a winter murmuration of starlings around the pier at Aberystwyth, and that has persuaded me to write about them again. Starlings were an everyday part of our lives when I was a child. Our back garden was always full of them, and you heard them singing every day from the housetops. Where we are now, however, we hardly ever see them. For the most part we might just see a little flight pass over, or notice one briefly perch on a neighbouring roof or aerial.

I used to love the sound of our back garden starlings, because they are natural mimics. They will imitate other birds, but often include other noises too. They are quick-witted in other ways too, and able to exploit a wide variety of food sources, though they are basically insect-eaters. In the late summer we do sometimes get a family group of starlings at our garden feeders. They’ve never visited for more than a couple of days, but in that time they do tend to take over; every other bird gets pushed out when a squad of starlings arrives.

Starlings might be the “other garden black bird” - except that their glossy coats are not really black, but have a sheen almost like oil on a puddle, with glints of many colours. In the winter though, their plumage is duller, more matt, and very spotty. Their narrow bills, yellow in summer, are now black. That is a good insect-eating bill, though, designed for probing and stabbing.

Starlings love lawns, and one factor in the decline in the starling population maybe that there aren’t as many garden lawns around; and maybe our homes and gardens are just to tidy for this naturally hole-nesting bird. They are still common, but a lot less common than when I was a child. And declining numbers of common birds should concern us just as much as the disappearance of rare ones. Starlings are also country birds, and impacted by changes in agricultural practice and land use.

At this time of the year, continental starlings join our native birds, so there are many more to be seen, especially in the places (like Aberystwyth) where murmurations are common. Towards the end of the day, starlings gather together in great flocks that behave rather like the flocks of  wading birds like dunlin. I sometimes think that starlings resemble them more than they do the robins and tits and blackbirds with which they share our gardens.

These great flocks of starlings can look almost more like clouds or smoke than a flock of birds. Predators like sparrow hawks may be attracted to these flocks, but in fact the individual bird is much safer within a murmuration than it would be on its own. The hawk finds it hard to focus on any one bird, and will be confused by the constant changes of direction. And eventually the cloud settles down, and the starlings roost safely together. Tykes they may be, but our lives would be much poorer, I think, without starlings.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

The Prophets and John - for Advent 2

Comfort, comfort ye my people. Words from the first reading, Isaiah chapter 40. The Lord is about to act to save and restore his people. Their long years of exile and suffering are over. Isaiah was writing at the time that Israel was restored, and the people were allowed to return and to rebuild Jerusalem; but his words have also been taken as looking forward to the promised Messiah, or Christ.

But as we read on into today’s Gospel our focus settles on the strange figure of John the Baptist, and there seems to be little about comfort in what he has to say.  Only Luke tells us anything about where John come from - Luke tells us that John was the son of a temple priest called Zechariah, and that John’s mother Elizabeth was a kinswoman of Mary the mother of Jesus. The other Gospels say next to nothing about John’s origins, and so far as those who came to hear John preach were concerned, this new prophet had appeared pretty much out of nowhere.

Isaiah and the other great prophets of old were treasured and carefully studied: their words spoke of a new thing that God was about to do: the Messiah, God's anointed servant, would come to liberate his people. But since those days the prophetic voice had vanished from the land, and there'd been no real prophets for centuries. Until John. John, living in the desert, dressed roughly in camel skin, and eating locusts and wild honey, was a man who lived and looked and sounded like a real prophet. And could he be more than that, the people must have wondered? Could this man be the Messiah?

But John answered their questions with a firm no. He had come only to prepare the way, he told them. But be sure that God is about to do a new thing among you, and you need to be ready for that. And here the message of John matches very well the theme we find again and again as we read the great prophets of old. For the most part, there is little comfort in what they have to say.

The word of the prophets is more often challenge than comfort. You believe your birth makes you God's people, but you're wrong. That’s what John told those who came out to hear him, and it’s a constant theme of the Old Testament prophets. You think you’re God’s people, but to really be God's people you have to live in God's way - and you’ve not been doing that. Time is short, and you need to change: begin again, repent and turn away from your old lives - take to heart the commandments you've watered down and adapted to fit your own needs.

So John was a new prophetic voice, giving good news, yes, but with a challenge attached, an urgent call for change. If you’ve ever been to the River Jordan, you’ll know that it’s no great water-course like the Ganges or the Nile, sacred rivers to other faiths. In fact it hardly even matches the Thames or the Severn. In places it's hardly more than a marshy stream - but it was enough. It was  enough for baptism. And those who took John's words to heart went into that water to wash away their old and sinful selves, and to declare that here and now they were turning back to God.

So how was it that John made such an impact? Well, the time was right, and the people were longing for change, and itching for freedom. John looked like a prophet, and lived like a prophet, and, yes, no doubt some of the people who came to hear him were there as much for the spectacle, the novelty as anything else; but there were many who’d longed to hear a new voice of prophecy, and a new call from God.

And, more than that, John was the fact that this man clearly lived the message he preached. People were tired of hearing the second hand preaching of the priests, and John's was an authentic voice: not only his words but his whole life spoke of protest, judgement, and God's urgent call to repentance. He was telling the people something that in their heart of hearts they already knew, a call that in the depths of their souls they’d already heard.

And his was a voice in the wilderness. Today that would mean a voice no-one heard, but things were different then. The limestone desert between Judaea and the Dead Sea is one of the most hostile and inhospitable places in the world, but in Hebrew thought the desert is a positive place. This is where you go to seriously engage with God, leaving behind the distractions and comforts of life. Where else would you expect to hear God’s prophet speaking God’s word?

And the humility of John would have impressed those who were tired of the religious teachers of their day. They could make a good living, and gain high status in society - compare that to John who was seeking nothing for himself. I am only the messenger, he told them. Among you is one the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. To fasten or unfasten shoes was a slave's duty; so John was saying 'I am less than a slave, compared to the one God is sending to you.'

Those who have no time for faith in God often point to the fact that religion was been the cause of more human war and suffering than almost anything else. Sadly that’s often been true. And far too often still we find religion offending against the very God in whose name and with whose authority it claims to speak.

But John the Baptist was not converting people to religion. He didn’t need to do that, for they were already religious folk. Their problem was that their religion had lost touch with God.  So John's task wasn’t to make them religious but to convert their religion. To do that John moved away from the expected religious places synagogues and shrines, the temple, the places where people taught and discussed and debated. For John had come to speak for God, and not about God. His words sprang directly from God, and not from a religious system of doctrine that might claim to have God locked inside it.

Words like reform, reformation, renewal, revival are scattered through the history of our faith, along with names like Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Wesley and Billy Graham. Why so much reform and revival? Because religion needs constant conversion, so it doesn't get sidetracked into existing for its own sake or serving its own hierarchy or the powers that be. And because we should never be too comfortable with where we are and how we do things, or at ease with the things that are wrong and harmful and unjust in the world around us, or indeed within ourselves. That’s what Advent is for: fresh thinking, tuning into God, re-creating ourselves. Prepare yourself, for the King is coming, said John the Baptist to those people then; a prophetic message that’s just as vital, just as challenging, just as necessary, when we hear it now.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Light a Candle - sermon for Advent 1

Last Saturday I was doing a stint as day chaplain at Hereford Cathedral. I like to go down there from time to time and just spend a day wandering about, chatting to visitors and doing my best to answer the questions they have, and saying prayers every hour on the hour. And having a nose round the Cathedral shop, where last Saturday I found they had some “real Advent calendars” - others are available, but these are the real ones. What makes them real? Fairtrade chocolate for a start, but also the Christmas story, told in the windows you open, and also in a little booklet that comes with it. They’ve got them in Tesco as well, if you’re interested.

I bought three, one for each grandchild, though we do expect a fourth to have arrived by Christmas. Mind you, he’ll not need any chocolate just yet. So I went from Hereford to Bromsgrove, where Evie and Alex and Ben live, and presented them with their Advent calendars as well as managing to cadge a bit of their evening meal. They were busy learning Christmas songs for their school nativity play, including this one which I knew. It goes:

"Light a candle in your window, let the night know that you care,
Light a candle in the window, it may guide the Christ child there."

As well as Advent calendars, we also always gave the children in my church when my own kids were the age of my grandchildren now, Advent candles. They were marked with dates down the side of the candle, along with some festive holly leaves, and you lit the candle each day and let it burn down to tomorrow’s date. Another way of counting down the four weeks of Advent. Well, we say four weeks but in fact it’s four Sundays. Today is as late as the season of Advent can start, because this year Christmas Eve and the last Sunday of Advent are one and the same, and Advent is just three weeks and a day.

But I do rather like candles. Candles can be found more in chapels these days than they used to be, but they are of course much more church than chapel, and high church at that. We have lots at the cathedral of course, quite a few points in the cathedral where people can light candles as a focus for prayer, and maybe to remember someone, and people do that in great numbers. Two weeks ago we had a baptism at one of the churches I help at, and we gave a lighted candle to the newly baptized child - or in fact to her older brother to hold for her - while we prayed that she would “shine as a light in the world, to the glory of God.” Candles used in this way become signs of new life, hope, new beginnings. On the altar or communion table of a church candles are used as symbols of holiness and prayer, and signs of blessing. But we use candles in plenty of other places too. On the dinner table, for example, where candles can stand for fellowship, friendship, family - and, of course, romance.

But it's when we get power cuts that any candles we might have really come into their own. Till then they’ve been a delightful optional extra, but suddenly they become essential. I hope you've been stocking up, as my sixth sense tells me this is going to be a long winter, and power cuts are generally part of the package. 

There's a click, and suddenly it's all gone dark. "I'm a Celebrity, get me out of here" has vanished from your TV screen, the joint remains half-roasted in your oven (I speak here for those like me who lack an Aga). Even if you’re not electrically heated you’re in trouble, because the pump on the central heating has stopped. We scrabble to find a match, and to find a candle and a saucer to stand it on; but then at least we've got enough light to do something: in my case to find the basket of logs, so that we can get the burner lit and heat as much of the house as we can reach. We've got a fair few logs I think, and if we do run out then we start chopping up the furniture.

Usually the power isn’t off all that long. But sometimes it is. Thank goodness we had some candles in, we say. We don’t manage very well without light, but even the fragile light of a single candle is enough light to roll back the darkness and keep us sane. 

Many churches and chapels these days have Advent candle rings: four candles (no jokes please) round the ring to count down the Sundays to Christmas, and one in the centre for the Christ child himself. Each candle around the ring represents one component of the narrative of Advent: the scriptures themselves; the great prophets who foretold the new things God would do; John the Baptist, the forerunner who prepared the way; and Mary’s obedient yes to the angel’s message to her. For me the candles of the Advent ring are a reminder that the spiritual countdown to Christmas is every bit as important as all the other things we dash about to do. More important, really: for the season of Advent isn’t only about getting ready to celebrate the first coming of Jesus, the baby in Bethlehem - it’s also a chance to think about his second coming, and to reflect on the theme of judgement and the ultimate sorting out of things.

Is it fair to say that Christians these days don’t seem to think as much about judgement as maybe our forbears did in the days of fire and brimstone sermons? Or for that matter, going further back, the sort of New Testament congregations that Paul was writing to. Since those early year another two thousand have rolled round, and they seem to keep rolling. In the first century Paul and Peter were writing to churches whose members expected that second coming almost any day. They believed they were living in the last days. I don’t know how confident you are about the state of the world today: there’s plenty to worry about - global warming, nuclear accidents, terrorist attacks or maybe a rogue asteroid, but the last judgement as prophesied in scripture is not usually uppermost in our minds.

Candles could remind us just how dark a place the world can be. Candles are often a sign of love, but those who light candles of love - especially in the troubled places and situations of our world - often make themselves vulnerable, a target even. Candles at Advent can remind us that God - who is love - makes himself vulnerable among us as the child newborn whose praises we’ll be singing three weeks from now. Jesus is hailed as the King of Love.  But remember, he is also the King of justice and righteousness, and we and the world stand under his judgement.

Light a candle in the window, let the night know that you care, goes the carol my grandchildren are learning. At the Millennium we handed out candles to every member of our church in Minsterley, as did people in churches and chapels up and down the land: what was asked that as the year 200 dawned there should be a candle lit in every Christian window. It was I think one of those occasions when those of us who’re often meeting in very small groups in our own church or chapel are reminded just what a lot of us there really are.

The reason Christmas is celebrated at this time of the year is that this is the darkest time, this is the time when the world is in most need of light. We don’t know when Jesus was actually born, but now is a good time to celebrate him: as light kindled in the depths of winter; as light when the world seems uncaring and cruel, as light when life seems futile and hope goes begging. When we light a candle we don’t usually stop at one (especially if there’s a power cut); from the first light we light more. And from  the light of Christ many lights of love have been lit and are lit still, and the darkness is driven back, and the night does know that we care. What do these lights consist of? Acts of love and charity, of compassion and care, work to heal and restore and build bridges of peace, to seek out the lost and raise up the fallen. Acts in which we imitate and pass on the love of our Lord.

When you use one candle to light another, and so on so that many are lit, sometimes you’ll look back to see that the original candle has gone out. It’s done its job, and other lights must now carry the work on. We look back and give thanks for those whose lights, whose Christian witness and teaching, have helped to start us burning. But the light that starts it all, the light first lit among us at Bethlehem, that light, once lit, burns for ever. That love, once revealed, lasts for ever. That hand once raised to bless, is a continual and forever blessing for our world.

The child born as a new light is also the King for whom we wait, who promises to come to us and comes in judgement, so that we will one day answer before him. When he comes, how will he find us? How will he find the Church that bears his name? Will we be sleepy and forgetful, will our candles be burning low and guttering out? Or will we be found alert and watchful, caring, compassionate, passing on the flame: with care and courage and prayer, and with a faith that isn’t just a Sunday faith, lighting new candles to reflect and share his love?

Monday, 27 November 2017

This year's Christmas poem

Written after hearing the band my daughter plays with doing "Sleigh Ride", albeit in a warm and comfortable church . . . and with the Church of England's 2017 Christmas campaign "God With Us" in mind.

Christmas again, and tinsel lights are glittering everywhere;
a band is playing “Sleigh Ride” to the shoppers in the square.
The sound of money changing hands, the rush to get things done
when body clocks are slowing in the absence of the sun,
and Christmas pop charts, TV ads, that toy we have to buy:
a time of high anxiety, it’s easy to see why
so many of us dread it, or we feel it’s worn us out;
it’s so much fuss for just one day - just what’s it all about?

It’s not about the cash tills, it’s not even Santa’s cave
where kids are given trinkets when they promise to behave;
a world away from city streets, and under eastern skies
the tales are told of angel song, a star seen at its rise,
and shepherds and astrologers brought to a humble place,
to find to their amazement there the dawn of saving grace,
a child laid in a manger bed, with love-light in his eyes,
and as they kneel they see the tears of joy that Mary cries.

So open ears, dear Lord, to hear beyond the noise we make,
the quiet song of love that greets the Child born for our sake:
in Bethlehem, a brighter light than all our lamps can give -
our one and only Saviour, who is born that we might live.
God-with-us lives among us, comes to teach and to befriend,
to heal, to call disciples, and to love us to the end.
So when the shopping’s finished, and the holly decks the hall,
thank God that by his love is born the greatest gift of all.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

A Sermon for this Sunday "Christ the King"

I was sitting on the top deck of a number 26 London bus, travelling west towards Waterloo, and idly gazing, as you do, into the office windows we passed. It was late in the afternoon, and people were just finishing their working day. In the offices I passed I could see people still busy at computer keyboards, or delving into filing cabinets, talking on the phone, feeding paper into printers. And then all of a sudden the scene changed: the rooms changed from functional office spaces designed for people to work in, to something much more immense and sumptuous. One room I looked into had a great shining ceiling that looked as though it was inlaid with mother of pearl. It was an office of some sort, but not one that needed any desks; instead, it held a suite of very comfortable armchairs, with occasional tables and some swish art deco style lamps. And, if I remember rightly, a palm tree. These offices were very different.

My bus had entered Threadneedle Street, or somewhere very close to it. We were now in the financial heart of London, and these offices weren’t so much about efficiency and functionality as about status, achievement and power. I wonder whether they’ll be quite so grand post-Brexit?

Royalty is our theme today. The last Sunday before Advent is often used to celebrate Christ the King. And you don’t find kings in the ordinary and humdrum places of this world, like offices filled with desks and photocopiers and computer terminals. But you might find one in the other offices I passed. Kings are about status, opulent palaces and demonstrations of power.

These offices in the financial quarter were certainly palatial in style, and all very grand indeed. I’m reminded that in one of the churches I used to serve we had a statue of Jesus in which he was crowned, richly robed, and seated on a throne, looking every inch the traditional image of a king. And he is, of course. He is King and Lord, the one before whom every knee shall bow. But he’s no need of the trappings of kingship that the world holds so dear.

Since this particular church was a bit high church, it had quite a few statues, and it also had a quite lovely painting, Victorian I think, of Jesus wearing a crown. But this was a crown of thorns: Jesus hanging from the cross, not seated on a throne. The cross is his true throne: here’s where his kingship is proved, here’s where he displays his kingly power. That’s the story of the Gospel passage I read: while the kings of the earth provide themselves with trappings and effects that make them look special and powerful and maybe even divine, Jesus is recognised and affirmed as king when he is least powerful in human terms. When he has no power, not even the power to stay alive.

The mystique and specialness of earthly rulers is for the most part smoke and mirrors. In Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe went in an instant from the revered father of his nation to a man the crowds of protestors couldn’t wait to see the back of. As this week we celebrated the seventy years of our own Queen’s marriage to Prince Philip, we might remind ourselves that the fact that she is loved and respected even by many who don’t really support the monarchy has more to do with the genuineness of her as a person than it has to do with the bling of royalty. If anything, as the mystique of royalty has faded, her popularity has grown.

She also has a deep and sincere Christian faith, and, I believe, a genuinely humble heart. As should all of us who follow the King who was crucified, for his cross provides for us a model of kingship. Throughout the Gospels he told stories of the Kingdom. When we think of kingdoms, we tend to think of countries, nations, borders, geographical things. Kingdoms may be acquired by conquest, kings have dominion and build empires; we of all nations know that, since when I was at school most of the world seemed still to be coloured pink on our maps. But Jesus doesn’t talk about that sort of kingdom; the Kingdom he proclaims has no borders or boundaries; it isn’t limited to any one nation or people, but is open to all.

For the Kingdom of God is found whenever and wherever people make him their King, whenever and wherever they acknowledge him as Lord. And that means that this kingdom is being built, offered and shared in many different places - places where people are listening to the word of God and taking that word seriously as they choose how to live. Wherever people do his will, share his love, praise his name. But we also pray “thy Kingdom come.” It is not yet complete; the Kingdom of God is both now and not yet. Now as we serve our King, but not yet as we wait for its promised fulfilment, when at last all things are gathered up in him.

The Kingdom, then, is both good news now and also future promise. But it does need to be good news now, or our words about future promise will ring very hollow. So where will we find it? There’s no need for a palace: the Kingdom of God may well be being built in a street of suburban semis, or in the mud huts of an African village or the lean-to shacks of a Brazilian favela. Perhaps our King is building his palace in a line of refugee tents somewhere out in the desert, perhaps our King is joining the queue at the soup kitchen in some cold northern city. For wherever people are doing his will, he promises to be with us.

At the time I took that particular bus journey I was working for the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG). If that sounds a rather quaint and old-fashioned name that’s because it is: the Society was founded in 1701 by an Anglican clergyman called Thomas Bray, who happened to be born not far from here near Chirbury and was educated at Oswestry School. So for over three hundred years the society he founded has been propagating the Gospel. These days the society has changed its name to United Society, Partners in the Gospel - more modern perhaps, and easier to understand, but I’d like to stick with that world propagation. Propagation suggests that mission’s about rooting and earthing the Gospel, so that wherever we do it, it flowers and fruits in ways appropriate to the soil of that place. 

Those words, “thy kingdom come” aren’t only what we hope for, but also what we commit ourselves to work for. While I was working at USPG I heard so many amazing stories. Like the work of the Delhi Brotherhood with street children in the bustling capital of India. With children who live their whole life on the streets; all they have is what they earn there. They need safe sleeping places, they need training and life skills, and drop in centres to bring in children who often aren’t very reachable and may have a deep distrust of authority and organisation. Why do these people care when others just walk past? Because they know that the King we serve had no place to lay his own head, and they know how he loved the lowly and the childlike in spirit. So his kingship is being proclaimed on the streets and among the children of India.

A young girl came to speak to us after working for six months in South Africa, where HIV and AIDS has had such a devastating impact on communities and families. Many people there still won’t admit to the scale of the problem of HIV, but it’s big and nasty and made bigger and nastier by ignorance and poverty. People need healing and therapy, and they also need care and affection, and advice and education. The girl who spoke to us had decided to train as a nurse so she could go back out there; that’s what she felt God was calling her to do, she told us. Our king sets his throne in the place of suffering and proclaims his reign among the sick and the broken. And today his kingdom is acclaimed in the places where HIV and AIDS rip families and communities apart, and among people no-one else gives space to. 

Those were two stories out of many. I myself visited a project in Brazil that was working with people who, in a favela or shanty town, were rubbish collectors, making a precarious living out of recycling plastic and paper. The Church was helping them form a co-operative and start a depot a bit like the one at Cae Post, so they could make a better and more secure living, and not be exploited by the traders with whom they had to deal.

Jesus stands with those in our world who are exploited, ill-used, cheated - and he hopes too to change the hearts and minds of those who do the cheating. He isn’t a king who gives orders from somewhere remote and on high. When we roll our sleeves up and get on with it, his sleeves are rolled up too. 

Wherever the Kingdom is found, its language and currency are the same. The currency of the Kingdom is love, and the language of the Kingdom speaks words of compassion and care. All of the stories I heard began in the same way, it seemed to me: with people who were feeling the pain of their sisters and brothers, and wanted to respond. Jesus on the cross shared our human pain, and in that pain he reached out in compassion to the robber crucified next to him, and prayed forgiveness for those who had nailed him there.

That love, offered for us, requires something of us. But what can we do, you and I, here and now, to serve our King and proclaim his Kingdom? I know that from this church you give generous support to the mission and aid work of Christians around the world. And in every act of worship we pledge our allegiance to Christ our King, the source for us of leadership and authority, and the fount of justice. And our world cries out for justice, the Gospel justice, the justice of the prophets: justice with a bias to the poor, justice that springs from righteousness and compassion, and that seeks to heal and to restore.

The thrones and palaces of this world convey the message ‘All this belongs to me.’ But in the end all that stuff is dust and ashes. The throne of Jesus, which is the cross of Calvary, has a very different message. It says, ‘All this I have given for you.’ We have been given so much by our king, so how can we hold back from giving in his name and in his service? Giving so that our sister and our brother may truly know the good news of God’s love, the healing touch of God’s hand, and the transforming power of God’s justice? 

May I close with a short prayer: Lord Jesus, thank you that you lift me up and call me forward, and for the many blessings with which you enrich my life. Help me to see in every human being my sister and my brother, for all are made in God’s image and by his love. Grant me strength and vision to live in and by the light of that love; and help me, Lord, never to forget that each person I meet is, like me, the child of a king. Amen.