Saturday, 23 November 2019

Christ the King

A Sermon for the Sunday before Advent, to be preached at Marton, Leighton, Welshpool Methodist, and Corndon Marsh Chapel.

Next Sunday we start a new church year, as the season of Advent begins. And of course we’ll be looking forward to Christmas, and our celebration of the birth of Jesus. So it may feel a bit odd that our Gospel reading this morning should be something from the other end of that story, part of Luke’s account of the death of Jesus.

But we end our church year by acclaiming Christ the King, and for me this Gospel reading provides an important insight into what his kingship means, and how it’s proclaimed. Our own royal family has been in the news this last week, and not necessarily for good reasons. My paper was headlined “Crisis at the Palace”. I think we all have huge respect for our Queen, and rightly so; she’s served country and commonwealth well, and with a deep sense of duty, both to her people and to God. Nothing can take that away; but respect for the family as a whole has been dented by recent events.

But if we’re looking for leaders, where else do we go? We’re in the midst of a general election campaign that it seems no-one wants, though some may agree that it’s necessary. People I’ve spoken with over the past week or two, whichever way they’ve decided to vote (assuming they’re even going to vote), most of them seem to have the philosophy of voting for the least worst option. “Not one of the lot of them is any good!” I was told yesterday.

It’s no surprise that many people over the past few months have come to see the political establishment as both inept and self-serving. Leading candidates on every side see no need to correct or apologise for false and inaccurate claims or counter claims, and instead simply repeat them. On Christ the King Sunday we’re reminded that whoever we choose for government, Christians have a greater loyalty, to the one ruler who truly is worth our devotion and service.

But I worry about the increasingly tribal nature of our society. New technologies and social media have helped this along I think. And prejudices get formed and reinforced by a sense that we have to stay loyal to our own tribe. We no longer relate to our actual geographic neighbours, just to the tribe to which we’ve decided we belong.

Or so some of the commentators tell us. And while I don’t think they’re completely right, or I hope not anyway, neither are they completely wrong. That’s why our political parties are all over the social media, using Facebook, Twitter and of course emails to an ever greater extent. I had three emails yesterday just from one particular party, including one purporting to come directly from its leader, despite never having been a party member or supporter. As a floating voter, I do try to listen even to those I don’t naturally agree with; but people with a strong tribal loyalty will often want to shut out and stop their ears to opposing ideas or troublesome facts that might challenge where they stand. And social media makes it easier to do that, I think.

Having said that, tribalism itself is nothing new. People have always belonged to tribes. Back in my school days, we were all either Mods or Rockers, and the really keen ones tried to customise their school uniforms accordingly. And tribalism was one of the forces at work two thousand years ago in the events leading up to today’s Gospel reading. Members of the religious elite had manufactured charges against Jesus, and stirred up the crowd, because they saw Jesus as a threat to the security of the realm. Meanwhile, the Roman governor and his forces were happy enough to facilitate this man’s death, if it would keep things quiet.

“The King of the Jews” read the sign above the head of Jesus. He didn’t look much like a king though; in fact, weak, helpless and broken, he was the antithesis of a king. He hung there as the victim of the prejudices and fears shaped by the religious, cultural and political tribes to which those who crucified him subscribed.

But as he hung there, there were two other men hanging with him. on three crosses. One of the men challenged Jesus. “Save yourself and us” he cried, but you get the feeling he didn’t believe for a moment that Jesus could actually do it. This man is obviously not a real Messiah. He’s weak, he’s broken, he’s humiliated. He’s going nowhere.

I feel a bit sorry for that criminal. He taunted Jesus, and couldn’t believe in him, but he was in agony, he was dying. And maybe in all this pain he was also incredibly angry with Jesus for having done nothing to stop the dreadful thing that was happening. If he could stop it, why didn’t he? It’s the other criminal who surprises me. In this most dire situation he still saw the truth of Jesus, the innocence of Jesus. He recognised the goodness of Jesus even as his own world imploded in pain and fear.

It took a criminal, justly facing the punishment his crimes deserved, to see that the most powerful person on that dark hill was the one everyone else thought of as the weakest. And that, as others would come to understand later, what looked like a cross was in fact a royal throne, and what looked like a death was in fact the defeat of death. To him, Jesus replied, “Today you’ll be with me in Paradise”.

Who would look for a king at a place of execution? Or for that matter in a manger in a cow shed? This king defies our natural expectations of kingship. Kings should never be vulnerable, or at the mercy of others. But his way is not the way of the world. A conference I was at some years ago in Brazil had as its motto “Um outre mundo es possivel” (A different world is possible). Christ the King Sunday reminds us that this King, the King who forgives and heals, who loves, who dies even for those who have mocked and denied and abandoned him, this King seeks to lead us to that different world.

I don’t expect this world any time soon to leave behind its tribal insecurities and feuds. And I doubt those who promise that after this election everything will be sunny and wonderful again, once he or she gets the keys to Number Ten. But I do hope we make some progress towards recognition, penitence and healing. We may be tribal, but our shared humanity is worth much more than our tribal fears. And no tribe has all the truth. So let’s not indulge in mockery, prejudice or fear. Let’s continue to stand for goodness and justice and truth. And let’s pray with that criminal at Calvary, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Nature Notes - Birdwatching in Sydney

Having made an Autumn visit to Sydney, NSW, I had a couple of weeks of watching birds most of which were completely new to me. Though not all of them were. The first European settlers brought European birds with them so that they would feel at home, so house sparrows, starlings, blackbirds and goldfinches are all part of the avian scene. I saw quite a starlings, but the commonest bird in Sydney was another bird of that family, again not a native Australian bird, but one from the Indian subcontinent, the common mynah. They were all over the place, and very noisy. Like starlings, they gather together in urban trees at sunset, chattering noisily.

The most obvious native birds were the sulphur crested cockatoos, which are large, noisy and dazzlingly white in the sun. Other cockatoos included little corellas, and galahs. All of these can be very tame, and at the national park visitor centre I had to wade through a flock of feeding cockatoos and coots on the grass outside to get to the Gents! Sulphur crested cockatoos have adapted well to urban life, and I have a great picture of one perched on a shopping trolley outside one of the big malls. A more surprising urban bird was the Australian white ibis, a sociable heron-like bird that can be found hunting for scraps right in the heart of the city. One person I spoke to referred to them as “Bin Chickens”.

Other parrot species abound, but most of them are a lot shyer than cockatoos, though I was able to take some good shots of rainbow lorikeets, fast and noisy flyers that are adapted to feeding on flowers, crimson rosellas and other colourful small parrots. But I didn’t see any wild budgerigars, which are more associated with the open plains.

Mention of coots earlier reminds me that some birds have such a global range that, for example coots in Australia and coots here are the same species. There is also a moorhen, but the Australian bird, the dusky moorhen, is classed as a distinct species. The related but larger purple swamphen, though, is another species with a wide global distribution, and can be found also in India, South Africa, and Spain.

Other birds are migratory, and travel all the way from here to there, or there to here. These include waders like the greenshank, and seabirds like the Caspian tern I was able to see while out whale watching. Another bird found both here and in Australia is, to my surprise, the great crested grebe. They have dabchicks too, but the Australian bird is a different species from the dabchick, or little grebe, found here.

I saw lots of other interesting birds: magpie larks, red tailed finches, red necked avocets, Australian pelicans, royal spoonbills, black swans of course, wattlebirds, and the iconic kookaburra. Australian ravens with their strange and mournful cries, and magpies which are totally different to ours, and not actually members of the crow family. Black winged stilts with their impossibly long legs. My favourites were probably the tiny, long-tailed and highly coloured fairy wrens. I can’t wait to go back!

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Hating Your Family?

A sermon on Proper 18 Year C readings, mostly Luke 14.25-33.

We’ve two readings today which both merit a sermon, but it’s not easy I think to preach about the two of them together. Our first reading was virtually the whole of Paul’s very personal letter to his friend Philemon - but while I will just touch on that later, I’d like to speak about that difficult Gospel reading in which Jesus - quite shockingly to my ears - tells us that to be his disciples we have to hate our own families. That so much flies in the face of everything I’ve been taught to do as a Christian, that I think we need to explore that further.

It was very possibly the playwright Tennessee Williams who described friends as “God's way of apologizing to us for our families.” Like many a cynical comment, it’s not without a grain of truth. After all, as another saying puts it, “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your families.” But in reality the distinction between family and friends isn’t so clear cut. You can be best friends with people you’re related to, and you can be badly let down by people you thought were friends.

And anyway, I’m not sure Jesus is talking only about blood relatives. I think he’s probably including anyone you’re close to and connected to, friends as well. It’s a really tough thing to say, it’s hard to accept. But let me say two things straight away. The first is this: Jesus spoke toughly because he needed to be tough. There’s no room for fair weather or part time disciples in his band, any more than there’d be room for fair weather or part time soldiers on the eve of battle. Those he called came straight away; they gave their full and complete commitment. Nothing less than that is acceptable.

And having said that, the second thing I want to mention is that there’s a translation issue here. Aramaic doesn’t do comparatives the way we do. Where we’d say, “I prefer tea to coffee” someone speaking in Aramaic would need to say “I love tea and hate coffee” in order to make the same comparison. So Jesus is actually saying, “Your loyalty to God must be above even your loyalty to your family.”

But it’s still pretty tough. One of the ways in which I express my faith in God should surely be within my own family. I have responsibilities and loyalties there I can’t just walk away from. Having said that, we’ve had an example this week, haven’t we, of what happens when what you strongly believe is right is the opposite of what your brother strongly believes is right. Some people are praising Jo Johnson for his courage; others are denouncing him as a traitor. I make no comment on the issue itself, except to say that the Christian disciple can’t compromise on his or her faith in Christ, and sometimes there will be hard decisions to be made.

Discipleship or a commitment to follow Jesus as Lord requires serious resolve and loyalty. It doesn’t mean actually hating or even abandoning our families, but it does mean making sure that God comes first in my life, before even the most precious other things. The reason why Jesus talked about families wasn’t to belittle them and say they’re not important; it’s in fact exactly the opposite. Family is really important, and well deserving of our time and energy and commitment. These are the people to whom we belong, and who belong to us. But even they, even our close families, must take second place to God.

Indeed, even our own life must take second place to God. Jesus also talks about laying down our life for his sake and for the Gospel, and tradition assures us that almost every one of the first apostles accepted a martyr’s death. Laying down our life: Jesus says that when we place at his feet our freedom to choose, we will receive that freedom back again. Disciples are there to learn the master’s ways, to see through the master’s eyes. And this can lead us into a creative and loving relationship with those around us, our friends and families, the special people in our lives. And it won’t be the same as before. We may be more patient, more ready to help and to serve, more able to listen, to take seriously what others are thinking, how they feel.

And discipleship opens up our vision of family. Family - in terms of our own blood relatives - isn’t the limit of our vision or our love. And while being a Christian shouldn’t make anyone turn their back on their own family, but it should be something that widens the bounds of family. We may be born into one family, but we are then baptized into a greater one.

And I’d want to go on to say that for all the blessings of  family, human families can also be cramp and limit and control, in ways that aren’t always helpful. Pushy parents may require their children to achieve what they failed to achieve themselves. Or they may restrict the options and freedom of their children by forcing them to follow a set path, or maybe work in the family business. Children may feel they have to stay within a particular orbit, rather than strike out on their own, because that’s what family loyalty requires of them.

I hope that as a Christian my vision of family is wider that that, freer than that. The bonds of love within a family should never prevent each member being valued and applauded for who they are, and offered freedom and space to grow as their own people. Indeed, love should surely encourage this, within what is healthy and safe. I think that, though it can be hard as a Christian parent to live with this, even the faith of your children surely has to be their own faith, something they’ve freely thought out and chosen and accepted, rather than a thing forced on them or required of them because that’s what we do as a family. We can’t order our children to believe what we believe, we can only hope to live our what we believe in a way that maybe they can look at and see that it makes sense for us, and maybe therefore will make sense for them. The only way to really teach the faith is to live the faith. But there is always the risk that your children won’t take your faith to heart. They may have to encounter faith in a different person, or a different place, in order for it to make sense for them.

So families can be tough going, and things don’t always work the way you want. And if some of us some of the time look for support from friends instead, or maybe blow off steam with a few drinking buddies, that’s no great surprise. But actually if we run away from our families to Jesus, he will send us back there. Faith is lived out in ordinary places, just where we are. Not everyone has to be a missionary or a monk, and discipleship doesn’t really require us to hate our families, or our friends, or any source of love and comfort and fellowship in our lives. Put God first, that is important. But then as we relate to one another as God’s people we’ll find we don’t hate family, but we will see maybe how to do something about the stuff that can go wrong: relationships misused, relationships that are controlling or toxic, and that element of spiritual blindness that, if uncorrected, means we fail to see the damage we do. Discipleship encourages us to place divine love at the heart of every human relationship.

So finally, a word on the connection between all of this and that letter Paul wrote to his friend Philemon. He wrote, as you’ll recall, about Philemon’s runaway slave Onesimus, who’d made his way to where Paul was and had in the process become a Christian. Paul sent him back, and asked Philemon to accept him now not only as a slave but a Christian brother. There’ll maybe be another time to discuss slavery itself; let’s just say it was a fact of life in the Roman empire, and Paul doesn’t challenge it here. But what Paul is asking is important. In Christ we relate to one another in a new way. Christ becomes part of the relationship. So Paul asks that this new Christ-inspired element should be part of the picture as Onesimus returns home: that Onesimus the slave should be accepted as more than a slave, accepted with love, and recognised as one who is part of the family, his family, our family, the family of Christ.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Pecking Orders - a sermon for Trinity 11

(Luke 14.7-14)

Last Sunday afternoon I was sitting in the garden of friends, counting the butterflies on their Buddleia. On a warm and sunny day many different species were being attracted to the sweet scent of the flowers. It’s called the “butterfly bush”, and that day it was doing just what it says on the tin. And one thing I noticed was that there seemed to be a definite pecking order - even among butterflies, it seems, some guys get the best seats at the table, while others have to wait their turn.

So there before me in insect form was the theme of our Gospel reading today. In all human situations, there’s a pecking order too. And isn’t it annoying and frustrating when people get noticed not for having the best ideas, not for their commitment, not for their hard work, but just because they’re good at being noticed! “Make sure you’re in the right place at the right time,” they tell you. “Make sure you grease the right palms,” even.

But here’s an important warning we’ll come back to: “A person may spend his whole life climbing the ladder of success only to find, once he gets to the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall,” said by the monk and Christian writer Thomas Merton.

In today’s Gospel we find Jesus engaging with a pattern of behaviour that’s all too familiar. In every walk of life, there’s a pecking order. It’s how we are, and vicars aren’t all that much better. The way we live and relate together is judged by a whole range of status signals, some subtle, some quite brazen and blatant. These signals communicate where we are in the hierarchy, or where we think we are; they say how we want others to see us. Where you’re placed at a formal dinner can be part of that. Are you on the high table? Or are you somewhere down below. And, if I’m honest, even if I really don’t want to be at the top table, and wouldn’t be comfortable there, I can still get cross when I see someone else placed in a better seat than mine when so far as I can see I’m every bit as good and capable as they are, and maybe a whole lot more so.

And it’s not just who sits where at formal dinners: think about all the many ways in which a message of status and standing is communicated. Whether you qualify for a marked parking space, or your own private office. How many birthday parties your child is invited to from school - or indeed how many children come to hers. What the number plate is on your car: is it a 19 plate, a 69? Or your own personal plate, perhaps? Where do you buy your clothes? Everything about us says something, and much of it can be interpreted in terms of rungs on the ladder.

Well, at the time of Jesus the seating at a meal was quite a big thing. Where you sat signalled your wealth or prestige or status, and of course the host might also manipulate the seating pattern. Say you were giving a dinner: you might wish to arrange an advantageous marriage between your daughter and some particular young man, in which case it could be good to place his father higher at the table than perhaps he might have expected. Or you might want to move someone down to a lower place if you’d been offended by him in some way, or if, say, he’d treated you badly or unfairly in some business transaction. In this way a meal became the stage on which social niceties were observed and arranged, and social politics played out. And it might well all be open to the street: anyone passing could assess your standing, and see the honour in which you were, or were not, held.

At first reading, Jesus doesn’t seem to be challenging this. I might have expected him to condemn this ridiculous system of status measured by where a person sits, but instead he seems to be talking about how best to use the system. “Don’t go to the highest place, for you might be sent somewhere lower,” he says. “Take the lowest place, and maybe that your host will say to you, ‘Friend, come up higher’, and everyone will see the honour you receive.” But of course the reason he says any of this is to make this vital point: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, while those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus may not have openly challenged the status systems of his day, but he was in fact doing more than just giving advice on how best to play the game. It’s nice to think that if I took a lowly place my host might call me up to sit higher. But he probably wouldn’t; and if my whole reason for taking that holy place was that I’d be publicly honoured, it’s going to be really annoying when that doesn’t happen. The big risk of taking the lowest place is that you might well end up staying there.

Jesus said, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled.” Thomas Merton said that those who’re so keen to climb the ladder may find it’s leaning against the wrong wall. What Jesus is really saying is I think that if our greatest aim is to put ourselves above others, we might well find ourselves with lots of shiny things, and we might have the grudging respect of those who’re looking up at us - but we might also end up with cold and empty hearts. All along the ladder was leant against the wrong wall. We exalt ourselves at the cost of our integrity and our soul.

Think about what jockeying for position can do to a person. We’re seeing enough of it I think just now in our own nation’s political life. But it happens everywhere. We’re annoyed by the unfairness of it all: one person is rewarded without really deserving it, while another gets shoved down a rung despite all their best efforts. We’re exhausted by the endless competition. The working environment can become toxic when ambitious personalities clash. Things get twisted round so that it’s all about them. We walk on eggshells; and the truth is the first victim, when people are in it for themselves.

Jesus says, “All who humble themselves will be exalted.” But not necessarily within this system. If I humble myself in order to be noticed, and sit low down in order to be invited higher up, I strongly suspect I’m going to be deeply disappointed. Jesus is really talking about not playing the status game any more, he’s telling me to get off that ladder.

And if I’m no longer playing the game, maybe I’ll find I’m making some creatively different choices. Maybe I can stop looking for a way to get to that next rung on the ladder, and instead look for ways I can lend a hand. Maybe I can move from being a toxic element in the organisation to being a healing one. Maybe I can get away from a “what’s in it for me” view of the world, and start thinking about what the world might need from me, rather than what it ought to be doing for me. Then maybe I’ll find I’m beginning to get things the right way round. I may be climbing a few rungs even, but this time on the right ladder.

That’s a matter of spiritual discipline, to start with, anyway. I need to make the decision to go against my natural desire to aim for my own comfort and status and power. But maybe as I make that effort I’ll find that craving to be the best and to have the most begin to ebb away. As I work at it, taking small steps, maybe there’ll be something Christ-like within me that begins to grow.

We can’t free ourselves from the status system, because that’s how human communities, and animal communities work, even butterflies on Buddleia bushes. There’ll always be a table and there’ll always be people jostling for the top positions on it. But we do have a choice about whether we go along with all of that. I can choose where I want to sit. I can choose to be where I’ll be useful, rather than where I might be noticed, or have the best shot at success and money and power. And if I’m making the right choices, for the sake of Jesus and seeking his help, it’ll be his ladder I’m climbing, the one that frees me from being tied to status and worldly styles of success.

I don’t need to make a big show of things, or pretend to be something I’m not. Jesus knows my true worth, and I know that that worth isn’t a matter of where I sit, but how I love, and by whom I am loved. And I am free to live a life thankful for what I’ve been given, rather than anxious about what I can get. Amen.

Friday, 23 August 2019

Sermon for this Sunday Trinity 10 (Proper 16)

"Happy holy days" said the sign outside the United Reformed Church by the English Bridge in Shrewsbury. Well, it’s a holiday weekend, and holiday and holy day are really the same word. We’re reminded that back in the days when our fore-fathers were mostly serfs and villeins, the only time they had off from their labours was when the Church had its holy days. Some modern bank holidays are still Church festivals, but not this weekend. Still, the weather's come right for us, and the roads will be packed and the beaches crowded, and anyone with any sense knows they’re much better off staying at home.

But all work and no play is never good for us. We need our rest and recreation, and 'recreation' is of course re-creation, being re-made. We get used up if we don't rest, we become less effective, less what we should be, not just as productive workers, but as people. Old Testament prophets like Isaiah told the people that God wanted them to keep the Sabbath, in order to be right with him, and so that he would bless them. Refraining from Sabbath journeys was part of the deal, I recall, with this weekend’s crowded roads in mind.

The people should also honour the Sabbath by not pursuing their own interests, I find, when I look at Isaiah. And that phrase,  not pursuing their own interests, provides an important clue to what the Sabbath is for: it’s not just a rest and break from, it needs also to be a positive means towards. Sabbath should be time away from the slog and routine of work, but not only that: also a time to tune ourselves back into what is divine, to what is of God. If we’re to be re-created we surely need to be seeking the mind and heart of our Creator.

Religion should be a liberating force, but all too often it isn’t. So easily religion fails to liberate, and cramps and imposes instead. As Sabbath often did at the time of Jesus.

And that’s why Jesus needed to tell the people: 'The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath'. He wanted them to get things the right way round. Our Gospel finds him in the synagogue responding to the desperate need of a woman suffering from what sounds a lot like rheumatoid arthritis. He heals her, but on the Sabbath it’s wrong to do that. Perhaps the synagogue leader feared he was losing control. Maybe he thought his service might become a free-for-all healing session. “There are six other days in the week, so come and get healed on one of them,” he tells his congregation. 

What would I have done, if Jesus had turned up at my service and done this? Would I have rejoiced that one of God's children had been released from slavery and suffering, or would I have moaned about the disruption of my carefully planned and ordered act of worship? About lack of discipline and things not being done properly? Would I have felt my nose being pushed out of joint?

Maybe so! And yet, how had Jesus really broken the Sabbath?  He’d not been pursuing his own interests or attending to his own affairs. For surely God wanted this woman released from her imprisonment to disability. To make the Sabbath an excuse for not helping her surely would have been to misuse it. For God wants the Sabbath to benefit us, to heal us, not to oppress or imprison us. He made the Sabbath for us, and not the other way round.

Sunday isn't the Jewish Sabbath, which was Saturday, the seventh day, on which God rested from creation. But it’s our holy day, and often used in the same way - as God's day, when no work can be done. As recently as when I was young, the Sunday Sabbath was a day of enforced stillness and inactivity imposed on the whole of the land. Mum didn’t dare hang out the washing in case the neighbours saw it. Shops were closed. Buses and trains didn’t run. Even the pubs were closed, over the border, anyway.

Now Sunday’s pretty much a free for all. Has the pendulum moved too far the other way? Perhaps so. Many people work on a Sunday, so maybe our churches should be doing more during the week to cater for those who can't come on a Sunday even if they want.  But Sunday leisure activities have grown out of all proportion, Sunday sport too - and it’s big business these days. Even Sunday telly. It was the Forsyte Saga that first did for evening prayer, and the TV companies have never looked back; Sunday early evening is regarded as a prime slot, and Songs of Praise gets shunted off into an early afternoon corner.

And people tell me they’d like to come to church but it’s the only day they can visit the family, or the only day their children can do football, or swimming, or ballet, or whatever. As a Rotarian, almost all our district events are now programmed for Sundays - and a higher proportion of Rotarians are churchgoers than would be true elsewhere. And that’s without the lure of Sunday sports, or Tesco.

We can moan about that. But does the Church have any right really to insist that those who aren’t members should have to observe its holy day. We've ceased to be a Christian country, not so much because of the impact of other faiths, but because we prefer to be secular. And though for better or worse the Church still has a stake in the structures and hierarchies of British society, the decline of its influence is inevitable and unstoppable, or so it seems. The loss of Sunday as a national holy day is just one of the more obvious symptoms of that.

Where does that leave us as Christians and churchfolk? With an opportunity for witness, perhaps. It’s a witness to our faith if we keep our holy day even though the world around us doesn't. Like Muslims keep Friday, or Jews Saturday, as holy day even though the rest of the world carries on regardless.

Well, most of us probably don't keep a Sunday Sabbath as well as we might. It's uncomfortable to be different in what we do from our neighbours and friends. We may well end up paying little more than lip service to our holy day, maybe squeezing in a visit to church when we can, or watching Songs of Praise if we manage to work out when it’s on. Or of course we could go to the other extreme, and become super-zealous holier-than-thou Sunday keepers who can look smugly down on those who don’t manage to do what we do and what everyone ought to do. Either of these would be a shame. They both sell the Sabbath short, as God’s special day. 

Vicars often get comments like, “Not a bad job, yours, you only work one day a week!” But I don’t work on Sunday, I reply. I go to church, and for me Sunday isn’t Sunday if I don’t go to church. It feels wrong, like something important is missing. But I don’t work. Vicars work five days a week, take one day off, and take the first day for worship. So I was told, back in the day.

But for me Sunday, however I spend it, is a day to do honour to God. And I’ll always try to keep it with serious intent, and to use my Sunday in a way that preaches and proclaims the love of God and the desire of God that everyone should find healing and salvation in him. It’s the Sabbath, a chance for a change of pace. And even for people who aren’t religious, some sort of Sabbath would be good. Not one imposed by me and my Church, just a day off from all the other stuff. It’s how God made us to live, it’s how we are re-created.

But for me to keep Sunday as a Christian Sabbath must be a positive thing; it’s about what I do, not what I’m stopped from doing, it’s me saying that God comes first in my life. Sabbath is his gift to me; and I should use that gift to seek his grace and learn of his purposes, so as to use every day in his service.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

An evening sermon for next Sunday, Trinity 9

Texts: Isaiah 28.9 to 22 and 2 Corinthians 8.1 to 9:

To be honest, it doesn’t look as if politicians have changed very much, from the days of the prophet Isaiah to now. A babble of meaningless noises, says Isaiah, who might well be describing the House of Commons on a bad day, or even on a fairly good one.

In fact, Isaiah was of course accusing the leaders of his day of listening to every voice except the right one, the one they should be taking to heart, the voice of God. These leaders claim to have the keys to success and safety and salvation, but they’ve ceased to pay attention to the Lord, and to take his words - indeed, his offer of rest and comfort - to heart. Their boastful confusion dooms them to failure; even the word of the Lord itself has become meaningless babble to their confused ears.

I don’t want to make any comment on any topic within the confused world of our present-day politics, and certainly not the one beginning with the letter “B”. But I can’t help but think that the adversarial nature of our political system is beginning to fail us, and I hate the ease with which people in high places lie and dissemble and cloak the truth. To recover and move forward, our nation is seriously in need of reconciliation, or else our society as a whole may become too deeply fractured to repair.

Perhaps that will be a role for the Church, though Church itself isn’t always a harmonious and peaceful place. How do we find ways to belong together, when sometimes we deeply disagree? It isn’t easy, but we need to remind ourselves that love isn’t conditional upon the person loved getting everything right. If it were, God wouldn’t love me, or you; and yet he does.

I think that perhaps our two readings tonight contrast a group of people in it for themselves - the leaders of the nation so firmly condemned by Isaiah - and a group of people who, potentially at least, are there for one another, as Paul encourages church folk in Corinth to contribute towards the needs of their sisters and brothers in Jerusalem.

Chapter eight of second Corinthians contains verses much used by preachers on Christian giving and in stewardship campaigns. Paul was very anxious that the church he had helped to found in Corinth should play its part in helping the mother Church in Jerusalem, where things were not going well. And as he urges the Corinthians to give generously, he uses a number of different ways of appealing to them.

Firstly, he challenges them, by telling them how generously the Christian communities in Macedonia has responded; secondly he urges them to complete what they’ve already started - a bit like the teachers along our cross-country course at school: “Come on, Rowell, you’ve run this far, you can’t give up now!” That, presumably, was the role to be fulfilled by Titus, as Paul writes “We have asked Titus to bring your share in this work to its  completion.”

Thirdly, he praises the past record of the Corinthian church, and encourages them to recognise just how rich they are in so many ways. They’ve set themselves a target to keep to, that’s part of his argument. But maybe also he’s saying something about not just feeling sorry for someone in need, but actually acting on how you feel. Pity that remains only that, without being turned into a generous action, is without value. The New Testament scholar William Barclay, commenting on this passage, notes that the tragedy of life isn’t that we have no high impulses, but that we fail to turn them into fine actions.

But finally Paul reminds his Corinthian readers of the generosity of Christ. He was rich, writes Paul, but for your sakes he became poor, so that you in turn might be rich. We might think of wealth in terms of possessions and assets; but for Paul things we own should always be understood in terms of opportunity: our way to do in the world something that reflects what Christ has already done for us: Christ who, in Paul’s words to the Philippians, “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.”

The imitation of Christ is our highest call. Paul himself speaks of completing the work of Christ in his own poor body. And when Jesus says to his disciples, “Follow me,” he’s not really meaning the physical act of walking along the highway. He’s saying, see what I do, and do the same. Learn from me, take my example to heart; be as like me as you can be.

So let me now turn back to say a little more about the first point Paul made to the Corinthians, which was about how open handed and generous was the response of the people in Macedonia, in Thessalonica and elsewhere. These Macedonian Christians had been having a pretty hard time of it themselves, and they weren’t  by any means well off in terms of money and possessions; and yet, writes Paul, “from their poverty they have shown themselves lavishly open-handed.”

Doing some research recently in advance of a Christian giving campaign I want to carry forward on my patch this autumn, I discovered that the highest weekly giving in the Church of England comes not from some wealthy stockbroker belt diocese in the south-east, but from an old industrial region that has to be one of the least well-off bits of the Church.

That surprised me, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. Often those who have least to give are among the most ready to give. I’ve experienced standards of generosity and hospitality in African villages and South American shanty towns that leave the often measured and careful hospitality of these parts far behind.

The Jewish feast of Purim - which celebrates the saving of the people from a plot by an official of the Persian Empire to kill them all (you can read the story in the Book of Esther) - anyway, at Purim, gifts are part of the celebration, and it’s a firm rule that, however poor you are, you must find someone poorer than you and give them a gift.

Maybe, of course, a degree of poverty helps you to understand what it’s like for others going through the same thing, and so to sympathise with their plight. A man with a single piece of bread tore it in two and gave half to a man next to him who had nothing. “Here!” he said. “Now, though neither of us has got enough, at least each of us has something!”  Whereas Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, when told that the people had no bread, replied, “Let them eat cake!” That sounds like a scornful response, but really she simply was unable to imagine a situation where someone might have nothing to eat. She was too rich to interpret and understand poverty.

Isaiah tells the Marie Antoinettes of his day that the Lord is about to measure them, and the measure he’ll be using will be the measure of justice: justice as a plumb line and righteousness as a plummet, is how Isaiah puts it. They’ve this one chance to turn aside from their thoughtless and arrogant ways. This is one of the places in the Old Testament understood as a prophecy of the Messiah - as Isaiah speaks of the corner-stone of great worth that will be laid in Zion. Against it, those who rule without really caring will be found wanting.

One last thing. Speaking of the generosity of the Macedonians, Paul writes that “they gave themselves.” Charity is a word that has become somewhat degraded these days. That’s partly the idea of charity as something that allows you to look good and maybe boast a bit, maybe done mostly with the aim of drawing favourable attention to oneself or reviving a flagging celebrity career. Or we may think of charity as what you do with the spare coppers, the bits of cash you can spare without noticing. Nothing wrong with that as such, of course, but maybe there is if it’s only that. Really though charity is a word interchangeable with love - or it was, anyway. Those who truly give, give something of them-selves, not just the spare cash.  I have things given me that immediately call to mind the person who gave them.

So personal giving is always something special. And the highest example of personal giving, and the motivation for all that we give, is or should be that Jesus Christ gave everything for me, and for you, and for the world. In him, and him alone, we find the corner-stone on which our own generosity and sharing rests and finds its foundation; in him, and him alone, we see the one who makes plain in a life that gives all it can God’s love for me and you and the world; and God’s call to us to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with him.

A morning sermon for next Sunday, Trinity 9 . . .

Texts: Hebrews 11.29 to 12.2, and Luke 12.49 to 56:

I reckon that this morning’s readings are among the hardest to understand, hardest to accept, and hardest therefore to preach from, in the whole church year. The Gospel especially. Back at the start of the year, within our Christmas services, we joined the angels to acclaim the birth of the Prince of Peace. And yet now we hear the man that child grew up to become say to his disciples, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division and dissent!”

We’ve seen already in our first reading, from Hebrews, how lots of bad things happened to lots of good people in the Old Testament stories. I have to admit that as a young choirboy I used to really enjoy singing those bloodthirsty words from Christopher Wordsworth’s hymn “Hark the sound of holy voices”: “Mocked, imprisoned, stoned, tormented / Sawn asunder, slain with sword . . .” Though at the same time I did rather hope that none of those things would have to happen to me.

And Jesus says on many occasions, to many different people, that there’s a cost to following him. Here he pulls no punches at all, as he speaks about families divided, one against another. That’s difficult to accept; our families are really important to us as Christians, and even beyond our families we’re surely supposed to be doing our best to live together in harmony and peace.

But there is peace, and there is peace, you might say. The Hebrew word for peace is “shalom”, and shalom means a lot more than just that the guns are silent, and we’re not actually at war. Shalom is respecting the rights of every person, and reaching out to the poorest and most vulnerable, making space for them; shalom is about wholeness, wellbeing, safety and health. If those things are lacking, then whatever peace we may have is conditional at best, incomplete, not the peace God desires. Shalom is the peace of God that passes our human understanding: true and lasting peace, the deep peace of the anthem by John Rutter that will close our TaizĂ© service this afternoon.

And that godly peace is fundamental to the life and message of Jesus, from start to finish. He was what he was born to be, the Prince of Peace; when he healed people he pronounced God’s forgiveness, and sent them on their way with a blessing of peace. On Easter Day the risen Christ greets his disciples with the words, “Peace be with you!”

There can be no doubt of the desire and longing of Jesus to bring a deeper health and wholeness to our world. His message is all about the shalom peace that is his Father’s will for all creation. And yet he says, “The members of a family will be divided against one another.” There’ll be those who refuse to hear and accept his call, those who can’t accept the change in their own lives that’s required of them. And so the peace that God desires - shalom - comes at the cost of lesser forms of  peace.

What do I mean by lesser forms of peace? You can get a form of peace by balancing arms against arms. In the United States the National Rifle Association seems to believe that peace is better preserved by handing out more guns than by controlling them, despite all the evidence to the contrary. As countries we aim missiles against one another that we hope we’ll never have to use in what’s known as MAD - Mutually Assured Destruction.

It’s the difference between peacemaking and peace keeping. You can keep the peace by holding people apart and preventing them from landing their punches. But making peace requires a change of heart, a spirit of forgiveness, and a reconciliation that allows all those involved to begin again. It’s hard to do, and it’s not always possible. Sometimes peacekeeping is as much as we can manage, but it should never be what we allow ourselves to be content with; it should never be our benchmark.
Lesser forms of peace are kept in communities, institutions, families even, too. We may hide the truth, try to look as though it’s all right, pretend that something bad isn’t happening.

Like the family whose lives are distorted by the emotional or even physical abuse perpetrated by one member, but who won’t let on to anyone else that life at home is anything but perfect. Like the child falling into drug addiction, or maybe involved in gang culture, while parents perhaps choose to ignore the signs and hope that somehow it’ll all come right again. Like the workplace where the toxic behaviour of a colleague or maybe a boss has to be tolerated, because maybe the alternative is you get handed your cards.  Like the many situations where we see problems and we know they’re there, but we pretend not to have seen them, say nothing and try to keep the peace. Or some kind of peace.

There is, alas, a long way to go before all God’s children can know the wholeness and well-being of shalom. In the meantime often we have to make do with the avoidance of conflict. But we must always recognise that there is more to do, and further to go. Peacekeeping is never really enough. Being members of God’s kingdom - praying as we do, “Thy kingdom come” - commits us always to desire more than the small and incomplete forms of peace we can manage to keep.

Jesus was, let’s be honest, an uncomfortable person to have around. He reached out the wrong sorts of people, made time for those who were outcasts, people other folk shunned, and upset the status quo. Eventually they put him to death: the price of the peace he preached was division, rejection, and the cross.

We haven’t had many christenings this year: next Sunday’s at Leighton is I think only the third of the year. In it I shall mark the sign of the cross on the forehead of the little girl who’s being baptized, and her parents and godparents will say, for themselves and also for her, “I turn to Christ.” All of us who’ve been baptized have made that promise, or it’s been made for us: “I turn to Christ.” At confirmation we make it for ourselves, and every time we receive holy communion we do in fact remake that baptism promise: “I turn to Christ.”

And turning to Christ, and taking seriously the promises made in baptism, is about a change of heart and a change of life. It commits us to shalom, to God’s deep and forever peace. The tension in that is that we naturally want to avoid conflict, we want to be liked, and it’s tempting to settle for a lesser peace, to accommodate and to compromise. There’s nothing wrong with compromise, and we have to do whatever is possible as we serve God and serve one another. But Christians should always be aiming higher and wanting more. Shalom, God’s true peace, calls us to stand against injustice, to make no cheap deals, and to truly love our neighbour. To preserve a lesser peace at someone else’s cost, or by turning aside from a someone else’s pain or unjust treatment, is to trade God’s shalom for a poor imitation.

Christians are not called to be nice; we’re called to be loving, to be generous, to be forgiving, to be true, and to stand firm against all that seeks to deny the true reign of God’s love. But not necessarily nice. There’s no Christian ministry of being a doormat, and letting other people walk all over us, even though that, too, might preserve some kind of peace. Let’s never confuse humility with inertia. It’s not enough; it’s not what God wants; it’s not what the cross stands for.

Hard readings today, indeed. But maybe the more important question when you look at them isn’t “Why did Jesus teach that following him could lead to division?” but “Why doesn’t our faith disturb people more than it does?” Do we hold back when we should be speaking out? Should we be bolder, more challenging, more questioning, less accepting?  Those who speak the truth in love may not always be heard gladly, but if we’re too afraid of dissent and division maybe we’re turning aside from that deep shalom peace for which Jesus lived and died, and for which our troubled world, and our own souls, long.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Not a sermon about money?

 . . . proper 13, year C, preached at Holy Trinity, Leighton:

On the front page of last month’s magazine I said that I’d be talking a bit about money and Christian giving during the autumn. This sermon isn’t it; we’re not there yet. Having said that, today’s Gospel is one example of the many places where Jesus talks about money and possessions, and about how we relate to the stuff we own. You might not think so, but Jesus said more about money than about most things.

The story St Luke gives us begins with Jesus surrounded by a crowd of people, and he’s teaching them. And a man comes up to him and says, “Tell my brother to give me my share of the family property.” That may sound a bit brazen, even a bit odd, but a rabbi or religious teacher would have been regarded as having the right to arbitrate in a dispute of that kind.

But Jesus refuses to get involved. And instead he uses the opportunity it gives him to tell a story about what’s really important in life. We sometimes call it the Parable of the Rich Fool. And the first thing I’d want to say about it is that the main character isn’t a bad man. He’s worked for what he’s got, and as a farmer he’s done well.

None of his wealth has come from cheating anyone or stealing from them. And his plans make sense as well. To build some bigger barns to store it all seems not an unreasonable thing to do. He needs somewhere to put the good harvest he’s brought in, and what’s ever wrong about saving for a rainy day?

Nothing, is the answer to that question. So why do we call him the Rich Fool? Why is he called a fool in the parable? Not because he wants to build some new barns. Not because he’s rich, even. Not because he’s ambitious, either. All of these are things we’d be right to praise in many an entrepreneur. But there is a spiritual hollowness in this man, and we can see that most plainly revealed in the dialogue he has with himself.

Here’s what he says: “What am I to do? I have not the space to store my produce. This is what I will do, I will pull down my barns and build them bigger. I will collect in them all my grain and other goods, and I will say to myself, ‘You have plenty of good things laid by, enough for many years to come: take life easy, eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.’”

If you add up all the personal pronouns, all the I me my words - and the you and your words because after all it’s himself he’s talking to, you’ll find there’s an awful lot of them. One commentary suggests it’s not far short of a quarter of the words - I, me, mine (and you and yours as well, as it’s himself he’s talking to).

There’s the spiritual emptiness of this man. It’s all about himself. He’s probably got family, friends, and presumably a workforce to help him bring in all that great harvest. None of them gets a mention. Nor does God, by the way. It looks very much as though he thinks he’s produced all his wealth himself, and that it’s his entirely to possess, his alone to control.

Today’s world is sometimes described as the “I me my” generation. Think of what Gordon Gecko, as played by Michael Douglas, says in the film “Wall Street”: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works.” It seems a self-centred view of the world finds less challenge than it used to; almost everything is assessed in terms of the money it makes. But this story suggests this is nothing new. Jesus wouldn’t have told it otherwise.

The other delusion that distorts this man’s relationship with his wealth is this: he seems to think the clock is going to go on ticking. He’s forgotten, or he’s chosen to ignore, the uncomfortable reality that one day time runs out for every one of us. None of us is here for keeps. And ultimately, what we keep for ourselves, we lose.

My old parish church at Minsterley has memento mori above the main door people used to enter the church by, on the west front. They’re a bit gruesome, skulls and cross bones, and glasses with the sand running through them, copied I think from one of Wren’s churches in London. They remind everyone as they enter of the Ash Wednesday words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

For the man in the story, that happens that very night. And so the truth is made plain, that wealth and possessions can never save us. The clock one day will stop ticking. We might invest in new and more expensive clocks, but even so, one day they will cease to tick.

Let’s turn for a moment to our first reading, Paul writing to the young church in Colossae. Paul’s colleague Epaphras had taken the Gospel message to Colossae, and the people there had embraced it with great enthusiasm. But one thing Paul wants to tell them is that there need to be some radical changes - the way they used to live can’t be the way they live now.

And what that boils down to is this: where before they lived an every man for himself kind of life, now they need to be living for one another. Christ has so freely and completely given you life; now you must be giving life to each other.

The new church at Colossae was learning to live as people who belonged to Jesus. And if we belong to Jesus, then so do the things we own. So nothing I own really belongs to me. Nor does the talent and skill that helps me to earn. Nor does the time. All of it is God-given, and mine only on loan.
That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t delight in it and enjoy what I’ve been given; but it does mean I think that the way I use what I have should reflect the generosity and the love of God. Unlike the Rich Fool, I should plan with more than just me in mind.

We live in the consumer society, and it can be hard to move away from a consumerist analysis of ourselves, or to shake off our need to keep up with the Joneses. But this parable calls on us to shift our priorities: to move from being consumers of resources to being instead stewards of what belongs to God. We may find we begin to ask different questions about how we use what we have, questions like: “Do I really need this, or could I live without it?” “How can what I have benefit the wider community?” or “What opportunities do I have to do some good?”

That doesn’t mean our own personal needs drop out of the equation; that doesn’t mean our own lives should be cramped or uncomfortable. It’s about restoring the balance. Does Jesus condemn wealth or ambition? I don’t think so. But he does see these things as there to be used in his Father’s service. And if they’re not seen and used and valued in that way, they can become spiritually dangerous. For if our possessions get too important, do we still own them, or have they started owning us? That’s what happened to the man in the story.

As he tells the story, Jesus invites us into a new way of living, and a new way of relating to the things we own. Paul was saying something similar to those new Christians at Colossae. He wrote, “Put on the new nature which is constantly being renewed in the image of its Creator and brought to know God.” Jesus calls us away from the inward focus of I me my. He invites us to be outgoing and outward-looking. He calls us into a deeper relationship with God and therefore with one another. A new and thankful way of living, marked by generous love and by caring compassion. And the treasure we find there is far greater and much more enduring than anything we might pack into our storehouses and barns.

Friday, 5 July 2019

You're going to reap just what you sow . . .

I’ve mostly tuned out of the Brexit debate, since it seems that for better or for worse the future of our country is now in the hands of the members of one particular political party, and I’m not a member of that or indeed any political party. But I was interested and slightly alarmed to hear one member of that party saying a week or two back that he was happy to use “Any means necessary to achieve Brexit.” I think he was referring to the idea that Parliament might be prorogued, but the frisson of alarm came from that phrase “Any means necessary.” It’s the sort of thing, I thought, that might be said by a revolutionary or insurrectionist rather than an elected politician. Anyway, it seemed to me to symbolise the way that in today’s world the end seems increasingly to justify the means.

In our Gospel reading this morning, we see Jesus sending seventy of his followers to prepare the way. They’re to visit every place he’s heading for; and they’re going there like lambs set among wolves. Jesus is under no delusions about the reality of the task: it’s going to be tough. But the instructions he gives to the seventy are simple and straightforward. “Announce ‘Peace’ to every household. Cure those who are sick. Proclaim to people that “The kingdom of God has come close to you.”

That’s very different from “by any means possible.” Here the means are matched to the end. To truly preach the Kingdom we ourselves must choose to live in the Kingdom. Last week’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians listed fruits of the Spirit that included peace, kindness, gentleness and self control. This week’s reading has Paul telling them, “Let us never tire of doing good.”

He then goes on to warn his readers that “Everyone reaps what he sows.” The Lou Reed song “Perfect Day” includes that line, turned round slightly, as Reed sings, “You’re going to reap just what you sow.” The song describes a day out with the girl who was to become his first wife. A day of simple, peaceful pleasures that allowed Reed, a troubled soul if ever there was one, to feel good about himself, to forget his confusions and demons.

The song tells the story of one person having time, patience, gentleness and love for another whose life perhaps is short of such things. You’re going to reap just what you sow. I think that in a nutshell that was the mission Jesus entrusted to the seventy he sent out, and to us as well. Mission may be a big thing that aims to change the world; but that big thing is made up of a series of single, simple acts of love and care.

Jesus sends us out to find where healing is needed and where people are short of love. And to say in those places and to those people that “the Kingdom of God has come close to you.” But that means the Kingdom must be present in us. Preparing the way for our Lord to come into broken places starts with us playing our part in the mending process - not “by any means possible” but by actions and attitudes that are true to the example of our Lord himself. We can’t manipulate or coerce people into the kingdom, or persuade them by reeling out flashy but hollow promises; only by living Christ’s way of gentleness and patience and love.

So our mission as Christians is to love our world into becoming receptive to Jesus Christ. Wherever things are broken, or people are laid low, ignored, or treated unjustly, Jesus calls us to say to them - people who’ve been hurt, abused, left out - that God knows and loves them, has a place in his heart for them, that they are invited in to his kingdom.

To do that, Jesus told the seventy they should carry no purse or bag, and not even wear sandals. To do mission we need to be vulnerable: too much protective gear can cut us off from those to whom we’re sent. There’s no circumcised and uncircumcised, says Paul to the Galatians. All are one in Christ. We in church are no nearer heaven - nor further away - than those who aren’t here with us. We just have a bigger responsibility, that’s all. Jesus sends his people out from the safety of our church buildings with this simple but tough task: “Go out and meet your brothers and your sisters, and show them my love.”

It’ll never work, they say. It’s naive beyond belief, they say. We know how society works, they say, and it don’t work like that. But it is how Jesus worked, and the only way we can truly and persuasively speak of him is to be like him. In our gentleness and our openness and our love. The means has to model the end. The end has to be visible in the means.

Now having said that, sometimes the brokenness we see around us seems just too big, and we ask “What can we do? Where can we even start?” People sometimes talk about mission fatigue, when we’re faced by complex and confusing problems, and can’t locate any one clear target to aim at, and the enormity of the task defeats us. The temptation is simply to withdraw to where we ourselves feel protected and safe.

Well, I’ve a cartoon at home that shows a huge block of stone, labelled “injustice”. Figures on the top are looking down, to where far below someone is chipping away with a tiny hammer and chisel. One of the people on top says to another, “Don’t worry, it’s only a Christian.” People who can only do the small things may seem not to be achieving very much; but when those little things are added together, they change the world. Desmond Tutu said something along those lines.

“You’re going to reap just what you sow.” Jesus calls his friends to show that love is the only redemptive power in the world, and to do that right where we are. God’s Kingdom isn’t somewhere far off, it’s close by us, because his kingdom is wherever people are daring to love and to give and to be open and gentle and kind. It’s wherever people choose to go against the world’s ways of neglect, manipulation and violence.

I do wonder what those seventy guys thought, what they feared, as Jesus sent them out. Were they thinking, “This can’t possibly work!” I might have been. But if they were, they came back completely changed, overjoyed at the signs they’d seen, and the things that had happened.

And maybe each one of the seventy had accomplished just some small thing, maybe one little random act of kindness. But the overall effect was that demons were turned back, that the bad stuff that messes people up was stopped in its tracks. Or as Jesus told them, “I saw Satan fall from his place of power. A wise old abbot was once asked what the opposite was of love. “Hate, surely,” said one of his monks. “No,” said the abbot. “Not hate, but apathy. Hate is a hateful thing, but at least it knows what it’s doing. Apathy does nothing, and pretends things are all right, or that the problems are too big to solve. Hate may campaign against love, but apathy simply ignores and forgets what love should do.”

My favourite image of love is love as a candle. Maybe only a small candle, but that single flame will drive back the darkness. There may not be much light, but it is no longer dark. And once one candle is lit, it can light more candles: light is added to light, and the darkness driven further back. Each single candle has the potential to flood the world with light. And love’s like that too. “You’re going to reap just what you sow” - maybe the seeds I can sow won’t amount to very much on their own, but if I hold back from sowing them they’ll achieve nothing at all. While if I am prepared to dare to sow them, they’ll become part of a campaign to change the world.

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Hand to the Plough - A Sermon on verses from Galatians 5 and Luke 9

(Proper 8 Year C)

“No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

In the days when farmers worked their land using a horse or an ox to pull the plough, they needed to be vigilant, looking ahead. Not that they don’t still - but back then, to plough a straight furrow would take the farmer's full concentration. You might look back briefly, to check that all was right behind, but if you did anything more than that, if you relaxed your concentration on the row ahead, things could go very wrong.

Jesus uses the image of the plough when responding to people who are offering themselves as disciples - and what he says to them and therefore to us is simple and stark: if you want to come with me then it’s got to be the most important thing in your life. There’s a saying that goes: “He who gives God second place gives him no place.” Discipleship is a tough ask. Some people give away all they have, throw off the trappings of the secular life, and go off to join a monastery or convent. I’ve known a few who’ve done that, and greatly admired them. But I couldn’t do the same, I know. For most of us, following Jesus is something we have to fit in to the reality of life in the secular world, earning a living, looking after families, all the stuff we have to do.

But even here, Jesus says, “Put me first; plough without looking back.” Today's Gospel begins with Jesus having “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” We know that he knows what awaits him there. He is going to Jerusalem to fulfil the task his Father has set. This is where he’ll complete the story of his obedience to his Father’s will. So today we see Jesus himself setting his hand to the plough, and not looking back, even though the road he takes, the furrow he ploughs will lead to his death. It’s a passage to stir our hearts. Jesus could have chosen to go anywhere, by any one of a thousand different ways, he had the same freedom any of us do in life. He didn’t have to go to Calvary and the cross. But he chose to do so, setting his course to Jerusalem.

“Those who set their hand on the plough and look back are not fit for the Kingdom.” Our Gospel reading will go on to mention some of those people, and we’ll see from that how to follow Jesus is never an easy ask, nor can it be part time. Several people came and offered themselves as disciples, but for each one there was a caveat, something they had to do first, something that takes priority. But before we come to those people, we might think about the Samaritan village that turned him away.

It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that a Samaritan village should reject a Jewish teacher. Jesus was going to Jerusalem, and Samaritans didn’t accept that Jerusalem was the holy city, the right place to worship God. And anyway, Jews and Samaritans didn’t ever really mix. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, either, that the answer to this from the disciples of Jesus was to suggest he should call down fire from heaven to consume them. How dare these people not welcome the Master? Their minds were full of thoughts of revenge.

Jesus turned and rebuked them; for that could never be his way. We’re not told what Jesus actually said; but one ancient copy of this Gospel does include some extra words, in which Jesus points out that the Son of Man hasn’t come to destroy human lives but to save them. The Samaritans had acted out of ignorance; they’d failed to recognise who and what Jesus was.

Lots of people around us today also don’t know who Jesus is. So how do we react to them, and how should we? Not, surely, with condemnation or rejection, nor by simply ignoring them or writing them off. To be true to the example of Jesus, we should respond with patience and care, with blessing even. All that we do as Church should I think have in mind our need to reach out to and share with those who are not yet signed up to what we believe, and don’t yet know Jesus. The Alpha course we’re planning in our deanery this autumn is a case in point. And I hope that people who don’t yet know Jesus may come to recognise him there.

Anyway, then we come to Jesus among his own people. They were much more welcoming than the Samaritans had been, and indeed a number of them were keen to offer their services. “I'll follow you,” they say, “wherever you go.” The first person to say that wasn’t immediately welcomed by Jesus, however. Maybe Jesus could sense the shallowness of an offer that was skin deep rather than heart deep. It’s easy to say the words, but much harder to put those words into action. “Do you really mean what you say?” asks Jesus, in effect. “Will you really give up the comfort of your home to follow someone who has no place to lay his head?”

So with the next two encounters. There was the man who said, “I’ll come, but I must first bury my father!” And there was the man who said, “Let me first say goodbye to the people I love!” These seem to me to be quite reasonable requests, but Jesus was quite uncompromising in rejecting them. I have to admit that’s always caused me some unease. “Let the dead bury their dead!” sounds a quite uncaring thing to say. But I think the point here is that there can be no negotiating prior to saying “Yes”.

The Christian life can’t be shared by all the other loyalties and interests we have; it has to take priority. Once we set our hand to the plough, we have not to look back.

I’m reminded of the vows said at a wedding service. They are in fact acts of enslavement. Each partner gives himself, herself, completely to the other, holding nothing back, offering the whole self. Of course, we then offer back, and receive back, the freedoms we might need to make it all work: to do our own thing at times, to keep our own interests. But the complete offering of self each to other has to come first. I’m reminded also of when I first went to see my Vicar about my feeling that God might be calling me to be a priest. He did his level best to put me off - not because he didn’t think I was called, but because he wanted to make sure I’d really thought through how tough it might be.

Probably a lot of the people who flocked round Jesus and thought they might follow him were looking for a gentler ride and an easier Master. Maybe they turned away sorrowfully, wishing they could have gone with him. But it’s hard to give up the comforts and certainties of life. It’s important that anyone making a big decision is challenged. Have you really thought this through? Have you really measured what this will cost?

It’s costly and tough, but, as Paul wrote to the Galatians in our first reading, it’s the way to freedom, the freedom of the Spirit. It rather sounds as though the Galatian church wasn’t doing so well. People were falling out, and people were getting into bad ways. Paul tells them to watch out. We’re set free by the Spirit, but freedom doesn’t mean we can just do what we want and behave how we like, he tells his readers.

Paul lists the vices to be avoided. We can imagine most of those vices were part of the scene in Galatia, since Paul generally writes in response to very real situations that need sorting out. I have to say that no church today is completely immune from the same problems and issues. And occasionally things go very wrong. Human beings are fallible and frail, we make mistakes, we fall out, and sometimes we’re not nice to know, even in churches. One thing to remember, though, is that even when we’re not very loveable, and even when we don’t manage to love one another, we are all still loved by God; that simple statement has to be at the heart of all that we say and do and believe as his Church.

And Paul goes on to list the marks of a Church that is truly open to the gifting of God’s Holy Spirit. These are the things we should aim for, and this is how God’s will can be achieved and fulfilled in us - the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This is where truly hearing the call to follow Christ should lead us. This is what should happen when we place our hand on the plough and don’t look back.

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Legion (a sermon)

I was reminded the other day of the story of a man whose wife rang him while he was driving along the M1 to warn him that she’d just heard reports of a car driving the wrong way down the carriageway. “One car?” he replied. “They’re wrong there - there’s hundreds of them!” What reminded me was the interesting experience I had last Saturday of coming round a roundabout - the one at the bottom of the road from Forden - heading for the Welshpool bypass, only to meet a little blue car driven by a neat elderly looking gentleman, coming straight towards me the wrong way round the roundabout. I was a bit surprised; I have to say that he seemed remarkably unconcerned.

A single wrong decision when driving can have immense and long lasting consequences. If you do happen foolishly to drive down the wrong slip road and end up on the wrong carriageway of a motorway, how do you get off? I was once driving in Basingstoke when I suddenly realised there was another carriageway to my left. My blood froze and I was on the verge of panic, until I realised that they were in the process of converting the road from single to dual carriageway, and the new carriageway was still under construction.

And what’s true of driving is equally true of much else in life. Harmful behaviour patterns can be very hard to break or change, varieties of addiction more so. It isn’t just whether you can make the changes in yourself, it’s also the way you get labelled by others, what they see in you and expect from you. If you’re travelling the wrong way down the carriageway of life, it can be very hard to find a way off. What we today might identify as mental illness, addictive behaviour, or perhaps criminal or sociopathic tendencies, would in past times have been thought of in terms of demon possession. And the man in today’s story had gone a very long way down the wrong carriageway; he’d acquired loads of demons. People had given up on him and were afraid of him, so there he was, living in squalor among the tombs.

It’s an amazing and very dramatic story, but we may be tempted to disregard it because we don’t think in terms of demon possession these days, or most of us don’t; and maybe even because we feel bad about Jesus allowing all those pigs to jump to their deaths.

But I think it’s a story with much to tell us and to teach us. And though we might reject the idea of people being possessed by demons, people living with certain forms of mental illness would relate to it very well. That’s what it can feel like to them: that other voices are controlling and seeking to direct them. And to be honest all of us probably know times when we say in exasperation, “I no longer feel in control of my own life!”

Nowadays we can identify a genetic component to schizophrenia, and we can see how forms of paranoia are linked to the abuse of certain drugs, like skunk marijuana, or related to post traumatic stress disorder. Our understanding of mental illness has grown, but it still inspires fear. Bad decisions and bad things that  happen can set a person down a wrong carriageway they can’t get off, not on their own, anyway. But along the way, they may scare other people, who shun them and write them off.

The man in today’s story had been so written off, and people were so afraid of him, that he’d become as good as dead, or maybe he just wished he was dead. He lived among the tombs. I guess there were people in the village who still cared about him, but they were afraid and they didn’t know what to do. The best they could think of was to chain him up, but that didn’t work. We may talk about a “complex” when referring to types of mental illness; it isn’t easy to unravel things once you’ve travelled a long way down the wrong road. In our reading that translates as being possessed by so many demons that he gave the name “Legion”. But some part of him wanted release, which is why he met Jesus, while much within him didn’t, was too far gone, which is why he spoke as he did. But Jesus had time and patience and compassion for a man everyone else had written off.

The story itself gets quite strange: the demons negotiate with Jesus, effectively, and Jesus allows them to go into the pigs rather than being banished altogether, upon which the entire herd of pigs rushes over a cliff and is drowned in the lake - which was bad news for the pigs, and also for their swineherd! Pigs of course are unclean animals for Jews, so maybe they didn’t matter too much. William Barclay, in his commentary on this passage, suggests that the destruction of the pigs was necessary to demonstrate to the man that his demons really had gone for good. But for me it speaks simply and starkly about the destructive power of the things - the habits, the abuses - that we allow wrongly to take control in our lives. They can be deadly.

Bad decisions, bad advisers build on themselves, so that they take us further and further along the wrong road. Depression or not being able to sort things out, face up to problems, conquer fears, or live with a sense of failure or loneliness may lead a person to take solace in alcohol or some other drug, which may seem to make things better but in the end only make them worse.

May I say, by the way, that I’m not only talking about what we diagnose as mental illness. I don’t in fact believe there is a clear boundary between sanity and mental illness. The things that are out of control in a person we label as mentally ill are to a degree shared by all of us. And any one of us is capable of making bad choices in life, putting our trust in the wrong petty gods or the wrong human prophets.

The people of the town reacted to the healing of the man there by the lake by telling Jesus to go away. Barclay talks about them not wanting the balance of their lives disturbed. He may be right there, since they do seem to have quickly realised that a person with this much power would be an uncomfortable presence. He’d want to change them too. To accept Jesus we do need to accept the need for change: “You can’t follow me and look back,” he said to his disciples. And that could translate into, for example:

You can’t follow me and still make people work for you under such bad conditions; you can’t follow me and still have racist opinions; you can’t follow me and still be wasteful in the way you use the earth’s resources; you can’t follow me and still be prepared to allow people to live in substandard housing. He might well be saying all of this to us and more. He might even be saying, you can’t follow me and still walk past or abandon or lock up those who are mentally ill. And anyway, it isn’t only the obviously and scarily mentally ill who are in the grip of bad decisions.

Here’s where my initial story of the man going the wrong way down the motorway breaks down a bit. Going with Jesus may often be the exact opposite of going along with the crowd. Maybe the man seeing all those drivers coming towards him was after all the only one going in the right direction. The man cured of those demons wanted to stay with Jesus, but Jesus sent him home instead - to those very people who’d told him to go away and leave them alone. It’s easy to be a Christian when I’m away on retreat in some holy place; but the place where Jesus needs me to be a Christian (and you too) is here in the place where I am, and now in the hour that I’ve got, and of course not only on a Sunday, but tomorrow too.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

I saw something in my paper the other day that rather startled me. “Asteroid near miss on Scotland” read the headline. Wow, I thought, how come I never heard about that? When I read the article I discovered that the near miss actually happened some half a billion years ago. But scientists it seems are just now making sense of the evidence off the west coast of Scotland, unravelling the mystery of a traumatic event from very long ago, that they can still read in the rocks deep below the waves.

It was a very interesting story, not least because like most of us I’m fascinated by mysteries. Whodunnits are among my favourite reads, and I’m also interested to discover local legends and traditions like the story of Mitchell’s Fold. It’s fascinating to see how people make sense of mystery, work out what’s going on, crack the code. I’ve just started reading a book about Bletchley Park, where the German Enigma Code was cracked in World War Two: remarkable people unravelling a mystery.

Which brings me to today, Trinity Sunday, a day that marks the Church’s engagement with the greatest mystery of all, the nature of God. Preachers on Trinity Sunday sometimes feel the need to delve so deeply into the various theological texts and theories that their congregations are sent to sleep within the first few minutes. All the stuff we learn at theological college but never use at any other time. Let’s see what we can do to explain the mystery of the Trinity, and unravel the mathematical formula that say “three in one and one in three”.

Or maybe we shouldn’t do any of that. Maybe we should just accept and live with the mystery and wonder of the unknowable God. Most of us live with a lot of things we don’t understand and can’t explain, even though we tend to want mysteries to be demystified. I don’t have the faintest idea how my TV or my laptops or my washing machine actually works. I don’t even understand how my toilet flushes, not really. But somehow I manage to live with those mysteries.

Of course, the reason I can live with that is that I know someone somewhere does know how these things work, and if I need to I can ring someone up who’ll come and fix them when things go wrong. Or if I do want to do it myself, I can probably find and download some instructions.

But God is unknowable, and even the best books of theology are only a set of someone’s ideas and theories. The nearest we get to understanding is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Something we can say about God that we can all agree on, and adhere to. And it begins by admitting that God is unknowable. What Trinity goes on to do is to talk about the ways God reveals himself to us.

So the real question for today isn’t, “How can I explain God?” but “How does God seek to connect with me, and with you? And into the  day-to-day living of our lives?” That’s what this doctrine is really about. What it certainly isn’t is the last word about God, the explanation at the end of the whodunnit. Trinity isn’t God summed up and explained, and neatly wrapped in a box. Trinity is us talking about how God engages with us, meets with us, and seeks a part in who we are and what we do.

Last Sunday - Pentecost or Whit Sunday - we celebrated the birth day of the Church in the fire of the Holy Spirit. The Church began, not with an explanation of things, but with a gift. God’s glory and love understood by those first apostles not as an idea or a doctrine but like fire that pulsed through their every vein. This morning’s Gospel reading has more to say about the Spirit. We hear Jesus tell his friends that “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

As human beings we’re programmed to look for answers, and to make rational sense of what we see and hear and touch around us. And we may well choose to stop there and not go beyond the things we can fully understand and explain. But the Holy Spirit is given to lead us into a deeper truth than that.

A truth that isn’t about explanation but engagement. As the apostle John wrote, “No-one has ever seen God.” But God reveals himself to us: as Father, Creator, as the man Jesus Christ, who called himself Son of Man but whose disciples came to see him as Son of God, and as the Holy Spirit, God opening eyes and minds and hearts in a new way, giving us gifts, and linking us in fellowship. I think of this as God saying yes to us in three ways: the yes of creation, of our being - existing, thinking, feeling, loving; the yes of salvation, God lifting from us the burden of our failure and sin; and the yes of empowerment, God choosing and calling and equipping us to live fruitfully as his people.

I’ve been humbled by the faith I’ve found in very poor places. Maybe the complexity of our lives and our material wealth gets in the way of knowing our dependence on God. We can meet all our own needs, leaving God there to plug the occasional gap, or as an emergency support, or (sadly) as a life option we can discard. Whereas in the favelas and shanty towns and African villages I’ve visited people seem to have a deeper and more direct sense of God’s presence and call, and of the centrality of faith.

God wants to say yes to us wherever we are; he says yes most vividly in Jesus. In Christ all the love of God is there in a in human form, in a human life: in the humility of his birth; in his engagement with those whose lives needed changing, healing, transforming; and in the sacrifice of the cross.

At Easter the empty tomb changed forever the life journeys of the apostles. From the despair of Good Friday they began to see that on the cross love had won the greatest triumph: death itself had been overcome. And the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost turned a band of folk who should have been crippled by fear and failure into the fearless first missionaries of the Church: they knew God was with them; his love, like wind and fire, had made them unafraid of anything, unafraid even of death.

So the doctrine of Trinity isn’t an academic exercise designed to explain the nature of God so much as people needing to understand and use and pass on their own living experience of God, people who’d been on the road with Jesus, who’d stood by the cross, and who at Pentecost were convinced that Jesus would always be with them and they with him. And that in Jesus and in the gift of his Spirit, the power and glory of the Father was also present.

Love is the key to it all. The love that filled them as the Holy Spirit came upon them is inseparable from the love of the Father who loves us into being, and the love of the Son who saves us from sin and death. The Holy Spirit is the love of Jesus gifted among his people, and Jesus says, “I am one with the Father.”

Trinity is about being drawn into the heart of God’s eternal love: Trinity tells us that relationship and love are fundamental to God. The icon on the middle pages of our weekly sheet is a very famous icon of the Trinity created by the Russian painter Andrei Rublev in the 15th century: in it, Trinity is expressed as a close and intimate relationship, a community of three, that is nonetheless also hospitable and welcoming to all. Trinity is our human attempt to speak of the God who promises always to love us, and to be with us at every turn and through every struggle.

A Church bearing the name of the Holy Trinity should therefore be a place of community and hospitality. Like the God who offers himself to us as Father and Son and Spirit, and whose love is steadfast and sure, however fickle we may be.

So for me Trinity isn’t about explaining the mystery. Trinity’s about how God meets us, relates to us, leads us and calls us. He calls us to be Trinitarian: to offer hospitality, to build community, to dare to care, and to take the risk of loving. And all of this we do in praise to the God who gives himself to us as Father and Son and Spirit, with a love beyond all we can imagine, and with a yes that creates and heals and equips.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Pentecost (sermon)

“Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and still you do not know me?” That’s what Jesus says to Philip at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading, and they’re words that speak to my own doubts and uncertainties. Sometimes and in some places I’m sure and confident about what I believe, but that’s not true all the time. Sometimes faith’s a struggle, and my sense of being called gets weak and faint. And maybe Jesus is asking the same question of me: “Have I been with you all this time and still you don’t know me?”

Pentecost was one of the big Jewish festivals, not as important as the Passover, but big enough to bring a lot of people into Jerusalem. The wine harvest happened at Pentecost, which is why some people were quick to dismiss the joyful band of disciples that day as having drunk too much of the new wine.

But they’d been filled with the new wine not of the grape but of God’s Holy Spirit. And all the ifs and buts of faith, all its uncertainties and inhibitions, had been lifted from them, to leave them full of wonder and delight: each of them experiencing God’s love in a deeply personal way: as flames, distributed, and resting on each of them - that’s how it’s described. But also as something shared and bringing them into a new closeness together, as they were so powerfully made aware of the closeness of God, and the triumph of his love.

I’ve got lots of favourite hymns, one of which we’ve already sung this morning: “Come down, O love divine.” Any top ten of my favourites would probably be different on any different day. But if there’s one hymn I think would always be there, it’s the one that begins “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” These days it’s often sung to a great new tune which must be of fairly local origin as it’s called “Corvedale”. But I also sing it to an old Welsh tune as a solo at concerts; and I sang it recently at the memorial service for a friend.

I like this hymn so much because its theme about how when our faith gets officious and judgemental and narrow minded we’ve lost touch with God’s generosity and grace. And these words especially always strike home: “But we make his love too narrow by false limits of our own, and we magnify his strictness with a zeal he will not own.” I’m sure God always sees further than the narrow judgements we make, and is more generous by far than our moral strictness. The Holy Spirit came upon the disciples on that first Christian Pentecost as a direct experience of transforming love. They were so overcome with joy because they knew, not just as an idea or doctrinal statement but as something that ran through them like fire, just how much they were loved. That’s why they went straight out onto the streets to tell people.

But there was a day after Pentecost, and a day after that. Even for those first fired-up Christians there’d be days when faith was more a slog than a dance, days when the skies and the streets were cold and grey. Last week at morning prayer I was reading from the first Letter of John; and in chapter 2 John writes about those in whom the fire had obviously cooled, for they’d left the fellowship and gone their own way.

Nearly forty years ago I was made a deacon, and I remember the day clearly. It felt like Pentecost: I was on a real spiritual high, with the sense of God welcoming me in with the gift of his Spirit, on that special Sunday. But I remember the Monday that followed too, when the real task of ministry began, and my sense of being fully called and equipped wasn’t quite so strong.

My ministry’s never been an easy ride. It’s included some great times, but sometimes I’ve fallen out of love with the Church, and at times it’s annoyed or appalled me. But I haven’t always got it right either. As Paul wrote, God entrusts his message of love to mere earthenware vessels, to us fallible and breakable human beings. At times we do make his love too narrow. But Jesus has promised not to leave us without help: to send his Holy Spirit.

On that first Christian day of Pentecost, narrowness was done away with, and barriers were broken down. People from all over the world could hear the apostles speaking to them in their own language. Amazing! So what really happened?

People from all over the place could hear good news preached in a way they could understand. They’d all have been Jews, or else proselytes, believers who worshipped alongside Jews. It took a bit longer for the Gospel to reach across the barrier that separated the Jewish world from the world beyond. And probably all these people spoke Greek, since Koine or common Greek was very widely spoken across the Roman Empire.

Not a real miracle after all then, you might say. But a miracle is much more than a magic trick. The miracle of Pentecost isn’t really the speaking in tongues, however that actually happened; it’s the fact that, as those tongues of fire rested on the heads of the disciples, the barriers were broken down between what’s divine and what is of the earth, between the sacred and the secular, and between every sort and class and race of people.

God’s love is for everyone, and within that love we see one another and understand one another in a new way. Each one of us is someone loved by God, someone bearing his image. Wherever we are, God is with us, longing for us to turn to him and open our hearts to him, longing to fill us with the radiance of his love: a love that is immeasurably broad and wide and deep.

And that love shone in the life of Jesus, which is why he asks, “Have I been with you all this time and still you do not know me?” And I don’t always know him. On those grey and dismal times when prayers are hard to come by, I find myself thinking that however loudly I speak them they won’t be heard. Is that because I make his love too narrow, by false limits of my own? Am I closing my eyes to things I should be seeing? Have I settled for a smaller, more manageable God, who fits into my lifestyle?

All of those things, at times. And maybe also it’s just that things are no longer as fresh and new as they once were. God is always doing new things; his love is always sparking off new and beautiful events, changing lives, healing situations. But maybe at times I’ve been looking in the wrong places. I might expect to find God in church, but he isn’t locked inside this or any other sacred building. The message of Pentecost is: “Wherever two or three are gathered together, there am I in your midst” - God’s promise to be always with us. We can build walls around the places where God’s supposed to be, and try and dictate the places in which he belongs. But it won’t work. The message of Pentecost is that God doesn’t stay where we try to put him.

Today’s Gospel reading challenges us to see God in new ways; to open our eyes wider, to open our minds and our hearts wider too. By all means look for God in churches and cathedrals, but don’t expect to only find him there; see him also at work in the kindness of strangers, in the beauty of the natural world, in each person who takes risks in the name of justice and peace, in each person who reaches out to people who are weak or needy or broken or hurting. The message of Pentecost takes us out of our own comfort zone to see further: as the Taize chant puts it “Ubi caritas, et amor, deus ibi est” (Wherever love and charity are, God is there). Barriers were broken on the birth day of the Church, and when barriers get torn down there’ll always be a sense that we’re stepping into the unknown.

That’s certainly what the disciples did that day, as they left the safety of their lodging to shout and sing and laugh and pray out on the streets. And there on the streets of Jerusalem the Church was born. And they and we are met in ministry and mission by a love beyond words, and the assurance that in God the unknown and unknowable, we are known; we are treasured; we have a place in his love; we find in him our true and lasting home.