Friday, 25 November 2016

Advent - a sermon for this Sunday

Today is the beginning of Advent, the first of the four Sundays of preparation before Christmas. By tradition it’s also the start of the new church year. Here in the northern hemisphere it’s also the darkest time of the year, so the annual countdown to Christmas is a time when we’re bound to find ourselves engaging with the great themes of light and darkness.

These are themes tackled by many an artist, many a composer. Not least among them is Haydn, whose great oratorio ‘Creation’ opens so dramatically with his setting of God’s first great sentence of command in creation: ‘Let there be light!’ Let there be light, says the Lord, on the first day of creation, Genesis chapter 1 - let there be light, and there was light. And God called the light day, and the darkness he called night.

In Genesis chapter 1 light is of the very essence of creation, it needs to be there before anything else can happen. The darkness before light is announced is uncreated disorder: in the new world that is made darkness will have its part, but it will be contained within clear limits, not to break clear of the bounds that have been set for it.

And a message repeated over and over in Scripture is that God’s people are to be children of light, children of the day, and to have no truck with deeds of darkness. But at this time of the year the light begins to seem weak and feeble, and the darkness around us gets really big and strong.

Light and darkness are great themes in the Gospel story as told by the apostle John, right from its very first verses. And the awfulness of darkness is made plain in his story of the eve of the crucifixion, a darkness Jesus must enter alone. As the Last Supper draws to its close, Judas gets up and slips furtively from the room. And as he leaves, John tells us in three words that ‘it was night’. And we know that the forces of chaos are mounting.

The cross is a place of new creation; by the cross we are newly created as God’s people, set free to serve him in a new way. There was darkness at noon, we’re told, on that first Good Friday; there was a deep and deadly darkness as Judas slipped from the room, and later in the Garden of Gethsemane as the guard arrived at dead of night to arrest him. This new creation will happen in the face of the terrifying reality of rampant, uncreated darkness.

We don’t cope well with the dark. And long before Christianity reached these islands our forebears had a deep and primaeval fear of darkness. They’d have been ready to believe the sun itself to be dying as the days grew shorter and colder. In pagan Rome the midwinter festival that early Christians took over to celebrate the birth of Jesus had been the feast of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun, held just as the days began to lengthen again. In even earlier times maybe human sacrifices would have been made to appease the gods who were snatching away the light.

Now we’ve grown up, we understand the science, and those days are far behind us. But deep down we still hate the shortening days; our minds and bodies react to daylength in ways we can’t fully control. Darkness remains a persuasive metaphor for all that’s wrong and bad - all the stuff that hurts in our world. There’s bad news on the telly all the year round somewhere, but I know that I get more depressed by it when days are short and the nights are long.

We may not like to hear it, but bad news is my concern and yours, because as Christians we’re on the side of light. We’re to be light to the world, and what light does is contend with the darkness and overcome it. But unlike our Lord in whom there is no darkness, we have darkness and light mixed up inside ourselves. We strive to do good and be filled with light, but we’ve got our dark side, there are dark bits within the best of us. We need to face up to that: which is one reason why we don’t celebrate Easter without passing through Lent, or Christmas without these weeks of Advent.

For these weeks are given as a time for reflection and preparation - and in Advent especially to consider the reality of judgement. We know from Scripture we must account for our deeds. Speaking as someone who’s never good at getting ready for Christmas - shopping, card-writing, planning - I know how much I need Advent: not just to get all that stuff done, but more importantly to prepare myself spiritually, to welcome the child Jesus born in Bethlehem, and to be ready for his second coming in judgement.

Now while light is a good thing and something to celebrate, light can also be uncomfortable. It can be the light of judgement, light to expose the stuff we’d rather keep hidden. It can be the light that shines in the face of the one being interrogated, or the searchlight to pick us out as we try to sneak under the fence.

Christians differ in our understanding of the second coming of Jesus. For some it’s an event in future history, perhaps just around the corner; for others it’s a metaphor for what happens to each Christian individually at life’s close. But either way, it’s about being judged, which is something the Bible has a lot to say about. Jesus had a lot to say about being judged. We don’t like to be found out, but the Bible is clear on this: we shall be found out, that’s a promise, for we can hide nothing from God.

So the question I take into Advent is this: “How does what I give to Jesus compare with what I know he’s given me?” I need to be honest about my answer. As I prepare to celebrate the birth of the holy child at Bethlehem, I must also consider how I match up to the man that child became and his call to me to follow; how I match up to the cross on which he died, whose image I am called to bear. I’m called to be a child of the light; dare I live in light and rejoice in light and make light my home? Can I lose my fear of light exposing me, the real me being revealed? Advent is given to me and you as a time to set aside the works of darkness and to be clothed with light: may Christ our morning star dawn bright within us.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Christ the King - a sermon for this Sunday

In my old Sunday school Bible I’ve a lovely image of Jesus as a gentle Shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders. I like it; it works for me: Jesus the Good Shepherd. I like to think of Jesus as my Shepherd, my Brother, my Friend, someone who’ll stay with me on life’s rocky roads. A couple of weeks back I was asked to take a funeral service and the family asked me to read ‘Footprints’: you remember the story I’m sure: the two sets of footprints along the beach, mine and Jesus walking with me - but at the tough times only one set, but not because he’d abandoned me - the prints were his, he was carrying me. Like the shepherd carrying his lost sheep back to rejoin the flock. I like to think of Jesus being there to lift me and carry me when things get tough.

But that’s not the image of Jesus I want to focus on this morning. For Anglicans like me who are hooked on church years and seasons,  today’s the last Sunday before Advent, which begins next week, and it’s kept as ‘Christ the King’ Sunday. So today’s image is Jesus the King. I wonder: if we were to take a vote on the most popular image of Jesus, or title for him, how high would ‘King’ be in the charts? Maybe not quite as high as Shepherd or Companion or Friend.

But King as a title for Jesus has good Biblical provenance; it’s there at the heart of the Gospels. I’m about to sing the part of Artaban, the Fourth Wise Man, in a choir piece for Christmas called ‘The Fourth Wise Man’, based on a story written by an American called Henry Van Dyke. Artaban, left behind when the other three wise men set out to find the new king whose birth was signalled in the stars, spends his whole life searching for the king. How and where he finds him, or is found by him, we’ll come back to later. Artaban may not be Biblical, but the other wise men are: Matthew’s Gospel begins with the birth of a king. Later it would be as a King that Jesus was dragged before Pilate, as a King that he was sent to death, with a crown of thorns placed on his head as soldiers knelt to offer mock obeisance. This man says he is King of the Jews, that’s what Pilate was told; and Jesus never denied the charge.

What does the word king mean to you? Someone at the top of their game, someone with authority, someone who can’t be beaten. Maybe Elvis as the King of Rock and Roll. Or those born into royalty, like William the Conqueror, Henry VIII, Louis XIV of France, or Ivan the Terrible, or Peter the Great, Czars of Russia. These are people with immense power that they were ready to wield. These are people who could command and expect to be obeyed. People who could demand of others that they should die for the state or indeed for the throne. People who could throw their weight around big time. Of course, that includes the kings in our Bibles, like David or Solomon.

Pontius Pilate represented a kingdom of this sort, an empire, even, and an emperor who was almost godlike in his power. So when Jesus was presented to him as someone claiming to be a king, Pilate had to take it seriously. But Jesus told him: “My kingdom is not of this world.” The images of kingship the world provides us with don’t help us understand the kingship of Jesus.

Or indeed, the kingdom he came to proclaim. But here’s a poem I came across the other day, which might help:
     It is easy to trace a kingdom
     marked by a flag, a border, held by force of arms.
     It is easy to tell who has the power
in the kingdoms of this world.
     It is not so easy to see this kingdom,
     for here there are no borders,
no flags, no force of arms, no powers.
     There is only the realm of God, the truth of God, the word,
bounded by you and me, by us, and by the Lord.

So this is a kingdom different from the kingdoms of the world, defined not by pomp but by humility, not by acreage of land but by service and care. But within this kingdom the king himself still commands and seeks our obedience.

And maybe that’s a problem for us. If we think of Jesus as a king we have to admit that Kings give commands, and their subjects are supposed to obey those commands, to be loyal and true, and ready to serve without question. In ancient feudal societies the subjects of a king really belonged to him, just as the image of the king on a coin meant that that coin belonged to him, even if it happened to be in your pocket. That’s not such an easy or welcome image in this day and age. It might be asking too much of us. Humbler images of Jesus are nicer, so we don’t have to think too hard about his authority over us, so we don’t have to face that big question: Am I prepared to let someone other than myself be Lord of my life? Am I prepared to let this man be?

Jesus the Good Shepherd, or the Brother, Friend, Teacher, Healer, Companion, Saviour: these are all good and valid images of Jesus, and all of them convey some measure of his love and grace and gentleness. And yet perhaps are they all a bit too user-friendly and unchallenging? - an image of Jesus as our best friend, but not quite Jesus the unique and only Son of God. Celebrating Christ the King today is maybe quite important: we need to make sure we have in the Jesus mix (if you like) the authority of the King, the authority of the Holy One sent by God to rule his people.

Jesus is not an in your face King; he restores rather than limits our freedom. But he has authority. He told his disciples that if they loved him, they would listen to his voice and keep his commandments. As we live out our Christian faith, love is there centre stage, but obedience, the disciplined keeping of our Lord’s commands, is also vital to how we need to be. Jesus the King has real power and authority, he is more than worthy of our respect and obedience and service. But his is never the cruel and demanding power of a despot or tyrant - it’s the power of compelling love, love that draws us to find at the cross his throne, and there transforms us to bear fruits of sacrificial love in our lives, as we see his sacrifice, and his law is written on our hearts.

In the fanciful tale of the Fourth Wise Man, Artaban’s journey takes him to the cross, but he’s too late to use the last of his precious jewels to redeem Jesus and save him from his faith. All the other jewels he bought to present to the new king have been given to help or save or redeem people in need. As his own life ebbs away in what seems to him like abject failure, he is suddenly aware of Jesus speaking to him, and assuring him that in each person in need Artaban had met with his Lord, and in each act of kindness he had served the king. Echoes, of course, of the parable in Matthew’s Gospel of the sheep and the goats.

Faithful obedience can be tough; in the story, it was for Artaban. As it was in the true stories of those we remember as saints or heroes of the faith within Christian history. But they too met Jesus in the faces of the poor, the sick, the needy, those other folk rejected. If we love someone, and are dedicated to them, there’ll be times when we find ourselves doing things we don’t want and wouldn’t choose to do. When we make wedding vows in church we promise a commitment that is ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.’ We offer love to another person - in effect we give ourselves to them - but we also express our trust that they will do the same in return.

Kings on earth may be tyrants: demanding loyalty but giving nothing in return, except the threat of punishment. Jesus is not that kind of king. We serve him because his love meets our love - no, more than that, we serve him because his love precedes our love. He died for us while we still rejected him; and when we do turn to him and strive to live according to his will he meets our every effort with a fresh outpouring of grace. And it’s then that, as Jesus says over and over again in the gospels, the Kingdom of God is not far from us. So blessed be the name of Jesus, Shepherd, Friend, Brother, faithful Lord and Saviour, and great and wondrous King, now and for evermore. Amen.

Friday, 11 November 2016

All Shall Be Well - a sermon on the Gospel for this Sunday, Luke 21.5-19

(St Julian's, Norwich)

Many centuries ago a lady called Mother Julian of Norwich wrote of the vision God had given her - that 'all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.' I was reflecting on those words while out walking one day last week. It was a crisp autumn day, with a cold start to it, but in the open woodland I was walking through many of the leaves remained on the trees in a variety of autumn colours. And Mother Julian’s words just seemed to be right for the way I felt - words of quiet confidence and trust: "All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

The world may not feel quite like that just now. This has been a strange year, and many of us feel much less certain now about the path ahead than we did at the start of the year. But Mother Julian knew darkness and uncertainty too; and yet she wrote those words (and much more besides about the goodness and constant love of her Lord). She was an anchoress or female hermit in medieval Norwich, and we don't know her real name for sure; perhaps she was Julian, which could be a female name then as well as a male one, but she could be called Mother Julian because St Julian's was the church in which she had her cell. At a time when she was dangerously ill and indeed near death she was given a series of visions of God's great tenderness and love, and she reflected on those visions for the rest of her life.

At this darkening time of the year, it can take us a while to adjust; I don’t much like the short days and dark nights, it can get me down, and most of us are not good with darkness. Of course, we can keep it at bay to a far greater degree than our forebears could, so much so that we could kid ourselves that we've got it all tamed and under control. But deep inside we know that’s not true, and the same fear of the dark that our ancestors knew still lurks within us. And yet back in those darker medieval times, long before electric lights, Mother Julian was able to say with serene confidence: "All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

Well, they were easy words to play with as I walked through the woods on a sunny morning, but I hope they’ll stay with me as things get darker. Which they will, of course. Leaves fall; the wind turns to the north, the sun retreats behind clouds, but all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. That’s the message, too, of today’s Gospel reading.

A good message to have in mind on Remembrance Sunday. Many years ago, but at just about this time of the year, I was privileged to meet with Desmond Tutu, and to hear him preach; and here are some words he famously wrote: "This we believe: that good is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate; that light is stronger than darkness, and life is stronger than death." Those words arose out of a faith that sustained him through the years of apartheid in South Africa. They could just be a mantra, comforting but lacking real meaning - but to me the events of that man's life's journey prove otherwise, and they connect to the promise given to Mother Julian. For why is it that all shall be well? Because good is stronger than evil; because light is stronger than darkness.

In our service candles are lit on the altar table. There’s an old Chinese proverb that says, "It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness." As soon as one small candle is lit in an dark room it immediately starts to drive back the darkness. And  once one candle has been lit, others can be lit from it, and the flame is passed on. You could just sit out the darkness and save your matches, but that’s not our way. Jesus said, "Shine as lights to the world," and as his people we’re called not only to light candles for ourselves, but to light them for others too, to be ready to pass the flame on.

Every candle lit in church is a statement that light is stronger than darkness, and life is stronger than death. At Remembrance the focus of our prayer should be not just to pause at the memorial of those who died, but to ensure that their light is passed on.

We give thanks today for those who stood firm at the darkest times in defence of freedom - not only their own freedom but that of the world. “Nation will rise against nation,” said Jesus. The first great war of the last century was supposed to be the one that ended all wars, but in the event the world had a mere twenty years or so of fitful peace. And since then, war and violence continues, as it has throughout human history, and maybe now in more confusing, testing and dangerous ways than ever before. And yet that promise remains true: “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” - as we continue to trust in God, and as we continue to choose to live lives dedicated to his love, and as the cross continues to be our sign.

The word 'crucial' is rather overused in the modern world. All sorts of things are crucial, we're told, only to find them really of temporary and passing importance. But the word crucial really means “of the cross.” The lights we light on our altar bring us back to that most decisive event in human history, a drama played out in the shadows, far from the centres of power, on a dark day for the world. A man was put to death, though he’d done no wrong.  He hung there and died, though he could have saved himself. He was laid in a tomb, but three days later that tomb was empty.

That’s what draws me and lifts my heart at dark and testing times. That’s what lies at the heart of what we’re doing here today. The cross should be a threat and a curse, speaking only of defeat and disaster, but it's been made a sign of triumph, and as we look at it and pray before it we can know that love is stronger than hate, and life is stronger than death. That light is stronger than darkness. The apostle John calls Jesus the light of the world;  our humble candles reflect that light, a light to drive back the darkness of sin and death, to restore our hope, and to help us make sense of it all.

Mother Julian was dedicated to the cross; she had herself come close to the cross, and she'd felt there the radiance of the love offered for all the world to see: the power and beauty of a love for her, and for all the world, with no limits to its reach.

Whatever else we may have or hold or own in life, love is more precious; and it's the opportunities to receive love, to offer love, to share in love that make human existence worthwhile; anyone who settles for anything less than love is missing out.  This is the good news proclaimed by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and celebrated by Mother Julian and Desmond Tutu and many other fellow pilgrims: love isn't just for here and now, fleeting moments to grasp while we can; it is for ever, it's what makes sense of us; and it's God's eternal desire and design for us. Even as we stand and remember, even as we look at the news bulletins and wonder and worry, even as the leaves fall and the sky darkens, even at the times of betrayal and hatred, “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Shine, be a light for the Light of the World, do something about the darkness, love, be strong, and pass your light on.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Peace - a sermon for Remembrance Sunday

Well. After one of the more interesting weeks of recent human history, what does the world look like and feel like on this Remembrance Sunday? The American Presidential election is I think just one more example, if a particularly compelling one, of a process that is under way in our world, and gathering pace. I refer to the end of the liberal consensus in western politics.

For the whole of my lifetime, it’s been true that for the most part there has been a fair measure of agreement across the main political parties in this and nearly all western democracies, regarding what one might call with a small “l” a liberal world-view. Thus, to take one example, Mr Cameron’s government, though Conservative and of the right, legalised gay marriage, and was able to find majority support for this quite widely across the political spectrum, the media and to a degree society in general. I say “to a degree” because what I call the liberal consensus makes it quite difficult for anyone to speak openly against it; there is a general view that (quote) “this is how the world should be, this is progress, and though you may find it uncomfortable, you need simply to accept that this is what ought to happen.”

This liberal consensus is breaking down. Maybe the silent majority has found its voice; maybe the new dimension that is social media - Facebook, Twitter and all the rest - is beginning to make a decisive difference in politics. Mr Trump may become cuddly, inclusive and even sensible once in the White House - but the forces that put him there have been released from their dormancy. In the UK any vote taken in Parliament would overwhelmingly have been in favour of remaining in the European Union; the voting population, or enough of them to matter, begged to differ. And the drift is to the left as well as to the right: most Labour MP’s wanted Mr Corbyn gone - but not the members of his party.

Why all this political stuff, you may be asking - and what relevance has it to Remembrance Sunday? For me, just this: that extremist forces and movements are growing in our world, and I for one no longer feel as safe or as certain about the future as I once did. Those we honour and remember today fought to preserve our freedom, and they fought with the hope in their hearts of peace, and a new beginning, and a better world. Many of them died with those hopes unfulfilled - but, for the most part, for all the mistakes that have been made, our history since those two great wars of the last century has been one of progress, greater understanding, shared prosperity and freedom.

These things are precious. They don’t just happen; they cost lives, lives we remember today. Freedom: that includes the freedom to believe different things, to express contrasting opinions, to vote in different directions. When the iron curtain was dismantled at the end of the 1980’s, the whole continent of Europe was able to share - for the first time - the standards of freedom, free speech and democracy that was so much at risk in 1939, and continued to be suppressed in the east under the sway of Stalin and his successors.

What worries me now is the rise of movements and tides of opinion that are anti-democratic, that are extremist in the sense that they permit no debate; the “I am right, therefore you are wrong” mentality. The political philosophy that in Hitler’s Germany became, “I am right, and if you don’t agree with me then you will have to be dealt with.” The German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller, imprisoned by the government of Adolf Hitler in 1937, famously said: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me.”

The greatest threat to a free and just and participative society is intolerance. We see it of course in militant Islam, and especially in the appalling crimes of the ISIS movement, which frankly bear no relation to the true teachings of the prophet Mohammed - but which continue to seduce and persuade young people from our own and other free western countries. Why that should happen is a question for another time, perhaps, but it’s clear that the people who recruit them are looking out for those who are disaffected, vulnerable, and idealistic, people whose minds can be twisted.

How do we fight intolerance, in the new and dangerous forms it takes today? The temptation is to become less and less tolerant ourselves, and perhaps that is what’s happening. But freedom and tolerance are what makes our society special; this is what the people we remember today fought to defend, to preserve and to build. It could be that by defending some spurious idea of national identity and wellbeing, we end up damaging and even destroying the real thing.

But why is any of this a topic for Christian sermonising, within a church service? I think because peace is a special word in the Bible, and in the teaching of Jesus; and peace in scripture is never just the fact that people aren’t fighting. Peace is about safety, about belonging, about justice, about family. Every man under his vine and his fig tree; swords beaten into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Not peacekeepers - often that’s what our armed forces are required to do, to hold people apart, to keep the peace when anger and tension are simmering away underneath. And it’s a fine and important job, and we commend those who are doing that difficult and dangerous work today. But peacemaking is something that we’re to do all the time, not only when there is a threat or promise of war. It’s about building the values that hold us together, than celebrate diversity, that promote compassion and care.

When you look at the beatitudes, those verses at the beginning of chapter 5 in Matthew’s Gospel that begin with Jesus saying “Blessed” - “Blessed are the pure in heart . . .” and so forth - Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who live with others in mind, those who don’t grab for themselves but make room for others, which is what humility and meekness are all about.

What they are not about, though, is letting those who are intolerant and have selfish or evil intent just walk all over us. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail; blessed are the peacemakers - those who are working and campaigning for a society built on foundations of justice - which in the Bible is never the blind justice of the law courts, but always a special care for those in most need of it - the poor, the marginalised, those who need support.

Though I’ve been a couple of times in some fairly scary places, I have never fought in a war. Neither have most of us here. I’m grateful for that. Not everything is well with the world I live in, but it is for the most part still a world where more good things happen than bad things, and where I can live in peace and know that my neighbours do too. Thank God for those whose sacrifice, not least on the field of battle, preserved and helped build that world. God preserve me from ever taking that world and its peace and freedom for granted. And God give me the vision and the courage not to leave the ongoing task of peacemaking to others or to defer it till tomorrow, but to accept my responsibility here and now and where I am to play my part in building kingdom values. To quote from the famous song written by Jill Jackson and Sy Miller in 1955: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

Tuesday, 1 November 2016


The noise and the bustle
has all but stopped us in our tracks,
where we stand on shingle, looking out
across the great southern Pacific. Here
seabirds of many kinds skim the surfing waves,
crowding in earnest competition
for the abundant fish of these waters,
gift of the Humboldt Current.

It is early morning, and in a gentle drizzle
that belies the definition of this place
as desert coast, we lift our glasses
and count the pelicans. Where we stand
the air is still; all the sounds we hear
come from the crash and bustle of the coastline.
Near us, white egrets stalk in complete silence
the shallow water of a marshy lagoon,
and bright flycatchers branch-hop through the trees.
All of a sudden a kingfisher flashes past,
electric blue like the ones back home.

I am not in this place for long
and must make the most of my time here.
I need to get it all in, get it all down,
and make what I can of things.
So I have been here since dawn, with a busy day ahead,
places to visit, people to meet,
pictures to take. I am not really here for the birds.

Too soon we need to turn and walk away, leaving
the mad dash of wings up and down the strand
to continue with the turning tide.
We get into the car, rejoin the urban human bustle.
Everything here is moving at such a pace;
everywhere time is short, and growing shorter,
and every living thing is dying,
though we alone have the grace to know it.