Friday, 7 April 2017

Do you see yourself in the Beatitudes?

This is a question I've asked at the end of our Lent Challenge (to read or listen to the whole of the Sermon on the Mount every day of the 40 days of Lent.) It might be a provocative question, but if it is it was unintended.

Throughout the Challenge, some members have spoken of their feelings of inadequacy around living up to the demands of the Sermon, of not coming up to the standard it seems to require. They have seen it as some sort of goal to be achieved or attained. That's not surprising, and it's inevitable, because we tend to think of life generally in terms of achievement; of living up to a standard, to a standard of living, of behaviour, of morality etc.We talk of having life goals and of our personal development.  It's the norm in our Western culture. It's the 'way the world thinks' as Jesus put it to Peter.

But what most of us don't understand or are only minimally aware of, is that the spiritual aspect of our day to day life in the world should be seen differently. And we only begin to see it when we realize that Jesus, as well as being a teacher, preacher, healer and exorcist was also a mystic. Again, he gives this away when he says to Peter, 'you think as the world thinks, not as God thinks'. He shows this by telling people what the Kingdom of God is like by telling them stories (parables), so that they can glimpse its presence in the here and now. He says that people look and look but don't see; they listen and listen but don't hear. And that's because we have to think how God thinks if we are to see these things and understand the enormity of what he's talking about.

Now, just to get back down to earth a bit and following on from what I've just said, I would say that all of us who've joined in the Lent Challenge should see ourselves as in the Beatitudes, in fact we are living the whole of the Sermon on the Mount already. We might not be very good at it, but we are living it. To say that its demands are too great is to recognize our poverty of spirit. But we have to be careful there too.

To say that we'll never achieve it, that it's too hard a thing to do, that it's impossible, that 'I'm not good enough', is to think the way the world thinks and not as God thinks. Because we are thinking in terms of worldly goals, achievements and ambitions. And it's just a false modesty, pride, the 'humility' that Dickens's Uriah Heep shows which is merely ego pointing towards itself. It's like saying that you can't get in the water and swim until you've learned to swim, or refusing to learn to drive a car until you can drive it. (If you see what I mean! But don't ask me to explain. Just think about it)

To  try and explain this a bit further though; the reason we are here on earth is to 'be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect', to become holy. That means becoming like God, becoming Christ-like or to become 'deified' as they say in the East; to 'become by grace what God is by nature' as an Eastern saint tells us. All of us can say of ourselves at any given moment, in truth, 'I'm not good enough'. But the fact is that God makes us 'good enough'. So, in a sense, we are not entitled to make such a judgement about our self or anybody else, because we are 'saved by grace through faith'. It's nothing we can do ourselves, to quote St. Paul. Furthermore, only God knows how we stand with him. Only he knows how far we are on the path to perfection, how holy each of us is. Nobody else has a clue. And we ourselves haven't much of a clue either.

We do, as individuals and as the Church, make judgements about peoples' holiness, their Christ-likeness, usually based on their good works. But we get in trouble here too. Haven't we been reading, every day, 'On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power (miracles) in your name? Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.' And that just underlines the trouble we can get into when we make judgements, for good or bad.

So, you might ask, how do I know I'm on the right track? Well, you more than likely don't yourself, just like that. As I said, you don't achieve goals in this business. You don't have short term, medium term and long term goals in the development of your spirituality, of your holiness, because who can assess you apart from God? But, nevertheless, as you apply yourself daily to the spiritual disciplines of prayer, study, worship, fasting, almsgiving, your holiness can be, as it were, 'revealed' or 'given away' to the world, in such things as your poverty of spirit, or your mourning for your sin and the state of the world, in your peacemaking wherever that shows up, in your meekness, in your purity of heart, in the way you are living the Sermon on the Mount. And it may indeed be revealed in your good works.

But it's only God who can keep the progress checklist and the record of achievement. If our holiness draws others to God then we might be catching a glimpse of it, because then we might be able to say that we are a light to the world or the salt of the earth. Others may say that and if they do, good. But beware, all the time beware!

Throughout the Lent Challenge I've been astonished (but I shouldn't be really) at how members of the Challenge have 'given away' their holiness. Sometimes it's been in the long comments and at other times it's been in the very brief comments. Others have shown their holiness in their silence and their continuing dedication to the challenge in their daily reading or listening and prayer. And by just being side by side with one another day after day, supporting, encouraging, challenging and comforting. And our holiness is nothing to do with how old or young we are or how long a time or short a time we've been going to church or been a Christian. And nothing to do with how we feel about ourself. And nothing to do with whether we go to church or not. Because those things are things the world thinks of and not what God thinks of.

So thank you all, for your company, for your holiness, and your Christ-likeness which makes you ALL saints.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Christmas - How will it be for You?

It's the Fourth Sunday of Advent as I write. Last Sunday we thought about St. John the Baptist and today, the Blessed Virgin Mary. These two are the two through whom God was able to manifest himself amongst his creation and carry out His mission as one of them. That is, as a human being. Both were essential for the salvation of the world through Jesus Christ. Both of them were essential to God reconciling the world to himself.

St. John the Baptist
But rather than continuing in the heights of theology, I want to let these characters and snippets of their stories shed a light on our own very human emotions surrounding Christmas and the response we have to the prospect of celebrating it as we move through the remaining days of Advent. And to help us I want to include as well, John's parents Zechariah and Elizabeth, and Mary as a potential parent herself.

On the Third Sunday of Advent this year we've met John in prison; put there by King Herod because he called out and criticized Herod for marrying his sister-in-law Herodius. Herodius wanted John dead. But Herod had some respect for John and a sort of curiosity about him. So prison was a compromise. And it's from prison that John sends two of his own disciples to Jesus to ask him, 'Are you the one that is to come or should we expect another?'

Maybe John has been brooding in prison and doubts have set in about Jesus. Even though not too long ago he'd shouted to the crowd that Jesus was the Lamb of God and had baptised him in full view of everybody; even heard the voice from heaven say 'This is my Son in whom I am well pleased'. Even so, he'd had time to think and rethink as he languished incarcerated. And it looks as though another prison, that of doubt, began to surround him.

Jesus doesn't give John's disciples a straight answer, a simple yes or no. 'Believing in Him' doesn't ordinarily come as easy as that. He says to look around and tell John what they see, 'the lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind see and the dead are raised to life,'

So what did John expect of Jesus? It seems he wasn't getting entirely what he expected. And doubt was the result. His story didn't end well. But not because of the doubt, as it happens. The doubt was, maybe, the result of too much thinking time to himself.

Now to John's parents Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah was a priest and his wife Elizabeth of the priestly family descended from Aaron. They were devout, righteous, observing all the demands and commandments of their religion. They had done so all their lives. And now they were old. The one thing missing from their lives was children. And both of them, very much of Jewish tradition, felt the disgrace and shame this meant, in their culture, for them both.

Zechariah, chosen by lot one day to burn incense at the altar in the temple is going about his business behind the curtain when he's visited by God's chief messenger, the Archangel Gabriel and told that Elizabeth will have a son and he's to call him John. The account in the Bible tells us that he was terrified at the appearance. And who wouldn't be? But then the disappointment, disillusionment and dismay of decades of unanswered prayer seem to come crashing in on him and he responds 'How do I know this is true?'

'Because I'm from God and I'm telling you so,' was in essence what Gabriel replied. But the penalty for Zechariah's doubt was that he would be struck dumb until John was born. So doubt at the presence of God active in the world and doubt at God's working in Zechariah's and Elizabeth's own lives was their very human response, devout though they were. And as we've seen, years later, doubt would encroach upon their son's response to God working in the world.

The Blessed Virgin Mary
The Panagia Portaitissa Icon
A few months later Gabriel is on his Master's business again and this time visits Mary to tell her that she will conceive a son and she is to name him Jesus. At the meeting with Gabriel, Mary we are told is 'perplexed' and 'ponders on what it could mean'. I like to think that in that moment, she like Zechariah was 'struck dumb', but just for a few moment, as the weight of what she was being told sunk in. But after the initial shock her response wasn't doubt, but a sense of awe and wonder at what God was doing in her life. 'Let it be to me according to your word', she says. Mary's response to God's working in the world and in her own life was at that moment at least, awe, wonder and faithful acceptance. 

So, when you come to hear again about the events of that first Advent and Christmas and think about what they mean for you and for the world, what will your response be? At the end of all your thinking, when your reason has given up because it's all too much to cope with intellectually, what are you left with? Probably the emotional response of either doubt or awe? Or somewhere in between swinging from one to the other?

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Santa Claus - The Guy's a real Legend

On 6th December every year, the Church worldwide remembers and gives thanks for Santa Claus!

St. Nicholas - Bishop of Myra
An Icon from Mount Athos Greece
Well, to be specific, St. Nicholas; the original and only and for ever abiding, Santa Claus, who was bishop of  Myra in the 4th century in what is now southern Turkey. He was a great champion of the orthodox Christian faith and was one of the signatories of the first Council of Nicea, where the Creed of the Christian faith was agreed. St. Nicholas was notable, amongst other things, as a man of great compassion and generosity; and it's from this that the traditions and stories around him, including that of being a miracle worker, grew.

The particular story about St. Nicholas which eventually had him evolve into Santa Claus appears in a few variations. But the one I like best goes something like this:

In the town where St. Nicholas lived, there was a poor man who had three daughters, each a year apart in age. But the man was so poor that he couldn't afford dowries so that his daughters could be married. He was at his wits end, and took the awful decision that his daughters would have to raise the money by becoming prostitutes.
St. Nicholas heard about this so,  when the first daughter was old enough, and wanting to stay anonymous, he came by night to the poor man's house and threw a bag of gold through an open window, so saving the girl from an awful fate. A year later when the next daughter had to think about marriage, St. Nicholas did the same, bringing a bag of gold, by night and throwing it through the window opening. When the third daughter became eligible for marriage, St. Nicholas came to the house again, by night, but this time, all the windows being closed, he climbed on the roof of the house and threw the bag of gold down the chimney.
Now, it just so happened that the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them by the mantlepiece to dry, and the bag of gold that St. Nicholas threw down the chimney fell into the girl's stocking. And so all three of the girls were saved.
Well, it might be a story, but in every story in the Christian tradition there's some truth or Truth. This story in particular gives an insight into St. Nicholas's great generosity and compassion, which has been enshrined in the giving of gifts either on 6th December in some countries around the world or on Christmas Day as in the UK. So in that way, the spirit of St. Nicholas lives on today.

I think it's a great shame to consign Santa Claus to the level of fiction and fairy tale. St. Nicholas was in his time what we would say of any person who's some sort of hero these days, colloquially - 'A Legend'. And I like to believe that he's a living legend that shows up in at least a couple of images today.

There's the larger than life 'Ho ho ho' character we see in grottoes at Christmas Fairs and shopping centres at this time of the year, complete with his sack of gifts, giving presents to children, and who comes down the chimney when everybody's asleep on Christmas Eve and leaves just what we wanted.

 And then there's the one that I prefer nowadays, who we see as more of a mystical figure, amongst the decorations around the house. He carries a 'man bag' and a Christmas Tree over his shoulder. Often there's a child or two with him. He's for me the one that lives and moves between the dimensions of past and present and future. He's kindly, but a little intimidating. He can appear at will to turn a nightmare into a dream and makes dreams come true.

Both of these characters turn sadness into joy, bring light into darkness and spread love and hope and faith into a world that can serve up so much tragedy. And whenever we give gifts to others that do the same for them, at whatever time of year, then we can honestly say that we believe in Santa Claus, because it's in the same spirit that St. Nicholas gave that we are giving too. It's the way that God gives and the way in which Jesus Christ gave himself out of love.

Yes, Santa Claus is a real, living legend!

The Prayer of St. Nicholas' Day:

Almighty Father, lover of souls,
who chose your servant Nicholas
to be a bishop in the Church,
that he might give freely out of the treasures of your grace:
make us mindful of the needs of others
and, as we have received, so teach us also to give;
through Jesus Christ our your Son our Lord.

Ho, Ho, Ho! Merry Christmas!
A 'Mystical' Santa
A Santa Claus from Skiathos Greece

Saturday, 11 July 2015

What do we do with the Truth?

Amos 7.7-15; Ephesians 1.3-14; Mark 6.14-29

"What's it got to do with me?" is a good question to ask of all our scripture reading. At first sight you might think the beheading of John the Baptist has nothing at all to do with you. You might look on it as another sad martyrdom, the consequence of daring to challenge authority and power in the name of God. And we can pass over it quickly and get on with reading about Jesus, because that's who the gospels are really all about. Really? ARE the gospels really about Jesus?

For my money, the gospels are probably more about us, if you see what I mean. Jesus's life and work are directed towards us and so are for us. So the gospels are about us, rather than about Jesus. So even this story about John's demise has something for us. This story's got everything to do with me; and you.

And I'm not sure that John is the central character in this story. For me, it's Herod; and his tortured grappling with the truth. It's there that the story's for me; and for you.

The characters either side of John and Herod today are the prophet Amos and St. Paul. Each came to reveal the truth to the people they felt called to. And what was the peoples' response to them and the truth they brought? Amos was told by the religious authority to go away. And he did, eventually. He simply retired and for the first time left a written record. St. Paul, as we know, eventually ended up a prisoner sending letters here and there from Rome.

So, to be banged up in prison wasn't something out of the ordinary that happened to St. John; because he told the truth to people who had trouble facing it. Oh, and remember Jesus? He was killed because he did the same. So the question for me is, "What's my/our response to the truth?" Herod gives us a good insight and that's why I think he's the central character in the story.

St. Mark says of Herod, "...Herod feared John, knowing he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him." Isn't this such a tortured grappling with the truth? Herod's wife wanted Herod to kill John because he said their marriage was wrong, but Herod was afraid to kill him so he put him in prison instead.

Herod was fascinated and challenged by John at the same time. He knew that there was something very special about him, something he needed to hear, but at the same time something that repelled him. So when his wife told him to get rid of John, Herod instead put him away somewhere; not getting rid of him altogether, but, in a sense, putting him away in a box that he could open from time to time if he felt so inclined.

Unfortunately, that way of dealing with a difficult situation didn't last because eventually, something more important than the truth for Herod showed up; which meant that he had to let go of his even tenuous grasp of the truth. To save face, he had to keep his promise to young Herodias. And that, in the moment, was more important than the truth and the truth was sacrificed; and served up in front of him, dead. And I guess that there was something inside Herod that died at that moment too.

If St. John represents the truth to us, don't we often respond as Herod did to St. John, to the truth that presents itself to us; whatever that truth is about? It could be truth about our relationship with our work, our family, the Church, God, our self. Only you know where in your life, the challenges to us of the truth lie.

The truth fascinates us, that's why we are fascinated by Jesus. We love to listen to him. But he perplexes us as well. He troubles us, mightily. He challenges us like no other. And so, how much of his teaching that we find fascinating but a bit too challenging and perplexing do we separate out and put in a box and leave out of sight because it's too much; and just visit it from time to time when we feel we have to or when we are forced to? You'll know what bits of Jesus's teaching you find too hard. And you'll find them too hard because there's something more important. And the easier option is to serve that instead. And we do. Because the truth hurts. And so we have this tortured grappling with the truth throughout our lives; between the truth and what to us is more important than the truth.

Yes the truth hurts. But it doesn't harm. Because the truth makes us free (John 8.32) What do you do with the truth?

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Maundy Thursday

John 13.1-17, 31b-35

With thanks to the late Anthony de Mello, Jesuit Priest and mystic and his book 'Awareness', for the inspiration for this and for the story (adapted)

"I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. As I have loved you, you also should love one another."

This sentence from today's gospel reading is a golden thread that reaches through all the events of Holy Week and Easter. This time, these last days and hours of Jesus's life, is a time packed with so much action, a time of high drama, of grief and sorrow, betrayal, torture, murder and death; of fear and wonder and joy and resurrection. 'Heights and depths beyond description',  to quote words from a well known hymn.

And that golden thread of love reaches back to the dawn of creation and forward to this present day. Oh, that we could be aware of it. Oh, that we could simply see it and then maybe understand it. Then all our problems would be as nothing.

But we get stuck and we don't see; and we don't understand. Just as Peter couldn't see what was happening and didn't understand. And Jesus said to him "....later you will understand". Maybe, later, we will understand too.

You see, we can come away from today with the idea that love is about acts of service, love is about sharing bread and wine, love is about sticking together. And that's where we get stuck. We are bewildered by all these things going on in the lives of Jesus and his disciples and we get stuck there. Peter got stuck because what Jesus was doing was unthinkable.  All he'd been taught, all he'd learned in his religion and in his culture bumped up against this action of Jesus washing his feet. And it was his beliefs, his opinions, his ideas and values that blinded him to the love present there, the love that was always present and always would be present.

And we get stuck because we can't understand Jesus either. All that we learn and are taught in this world, all our ideas and beliefs and opinions, and theology, stop us seeing and hearing Jesus; stop us seeing and hearing love.

And so we find ourselves asking how Jesus can say "love your enemies", "pray for those who persecute you," "if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also". How can he wash the feet of the man who was going to betray him? How can he pray, as he's being nailed to the cross, "Father, forgive them, they don't know what they are doing?" How can Jesus do and say these things? And even worse, how can he ask us to say and do the same?

Well, it's because what Jesus means by love isn't the same as what we might mean by love.

The difference between Jesus and us is that Jesus sees people beyond any thoughts, feelings, ideas, opinions and beliefs he might have about them. His love, the love he asks us to have, he casts on the good and bad alike, equally, as the sun shines on good and bad alike. And that's a problem for us too isn't it?

What we call love for someone is shaped, by our thoughts, feelings, ideas, opinions and beliefs about them. And we get attached to those thought, feelings and ideas, stuck fast to them. Its that attachment we call love. It's that that we love, not the person their self.

Let me explain what I mean if I can. It's not easy. A baby is born into the world and all it gets to know about the world is shaped by, first the child's parents, then its teachers, then relatives and friends and employers and colleagues and on and on in its life. So as the child grows up he or she is filled with all sorts of ideas and opinions and beliefs and values that it thinks are its own, but are really other peoples. We call that "education"!

And when the child grows up to be a man he's in the pub one evening enjoying a drink with a friend after work, and the friend asks him, "Are you voting Conservative in the election on 7th May?" "Oh no," he says, "I'm voting Labour. My father voted Labour, my grandfather voted Labour and my great grandfather voted Labour. So I'm voting Labour."

"That's stupid logic", says his friend. "If your father was a horse thief and your grandfather was a horse thief and your great grandfather was a horse thief, would that make you a horse thief?" "Oh no", he says, "then I'd be Conservative."

But you'll say, all these ideas and beliefs and values I've taken on are what make me, me. These are my life. Well no, actually. What is truly you, the you made in the image of God lies beyond or beneath all of that.

And that's why Jesus could say "Greater love has no man than this, that he lays down his life for his friend." That quotation isn't about going to war to fight for your country or stopping a bullet for your friend. It's about dying to, dropping your attachment to all your ideas, thoughts, beliefs, values and opinions about your friend so that you can truly love your friend.

That's the 'life' Jesus says you've got to lose so that you can gain life. When you drop all your attachments to your beliefs and opinions about someone then you truly love them and in truly loving them that's when you truly live, that's when you are raised to eternal life.

When you drop these attachments, when you die to this stuff, these ideas, opinions, beliefs about yourself and others, is when you begin to bear fruit, the fruit of love.

And that's what Jesus meant when he said to Peter, " will understand." And I have a suspicion that he finally began to understand when the cock crew.

And when you do see, finally; when you do understand how Jesus could wash the feet of his disciples or at least begin to see, that's when Jesus begins to make sense. That's when all he did and said begins to make sense. And you see then too that this sense that it's making is THE Truth and truth not just for Christians but for Moslems, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and every person and religion in the world. because this Truth is maybe the only truth; the Truth of the love of God, the golden thread reaching back to the dawn of creation and out into eternity and eternal life.

And, one last thing, notice the word 'should'; "As I have loved you, you also should love one another." You can't make yourself love like Jesus loved, you have to die into it, just as a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies so that it bears much fruit

"I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. As I have loved you, you also should love one another."

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Palm Sunday

Passion Gospel Mark 15.1-end

Today we begin the most important, the most 'dramatic' week in the Church's calendar. Holy Week. And we begin the week by celebrating the Lord's triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

What is asked of us this week?

We are asked to: '....go with Jesus, in faith and love, so that, united with him in his sufferings, we may share his risen life'. So say the words of the introduction to the service today.

But what does that mean?

I have the notion that many think this week is about trying to imagine what it was like to be there, in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago in the last days and hours of Jesus's life; and to imagine the experience, to take on to some degree the anxiety and sorrow of those days; and then on Easter Sunday to try and experience some of the emotion, the joy and wonder and, indeed, fear that the disciples experienced at Jesus's resurrection.

And that's no bad thing, but it can never be for us what it was for them, no matter how vivid or even fevered our imagination. And although, sometimes, the wording of our worship asks us to 'walk the way of the cross', I believe that Jesus walked the way of the cross so that we wouldn't have to. He died that we might live - however you interpret that, and it's here at the start of Holy Week that we can begin to think about what that might mean for us.

I said that Jesus walked the way of the cross so that we wouldn't have to, yet we recall the words of Jesus in our gospel reading from last week (John 12.20-33) about the grain of wheat falling into the ground and dying so that it bears much fruit. And Jesus says we have to be like that seed; and that we have to lose our life to gain it. These are difficult words. In another place Jesus says we have to take up our cross and follow him if we are to be his disciples. And we hear Jesus also say in yet another place, 'I have come that you might have life, life in all its fullness'.

All these references to death and life and resurrection. So if Jesus died, that we can have life, what is it that we should be thinking about this week? What are all these references, these allusions to death and life about?

To see it properly, we have to think about all that Jesus did and said, the whole package, the whole man. We can't just take isolated statements out of the context of his whole life and expect them to reveal something profound to us. We have to look at the whole man because Jesus preached what he lived. His life was the message.

In his life and death Jesus is showing us what it means to be truly human, what it means for us to be made 'in the image of God', what it means to become what God intends for each and every one of us. And as we read this week about Jesus dying, we are meant to ask ourselves what it is about us that has to die to become what God intends, to experience a resurrection in this life, to have that fullness of life now that Jesus came to give us.

And notice that in that parable about the grain of wheat, the seed isn't put to death, it isn't killed, as Jesus was put to death, it simply has, in some way, to die to become fully what it's meant to be. There is a difference between 'being killed' and 'dying'. And we too don't have to be put to death, there is nothing in us that has to be killed so that we can become what we are meant to be. So often we look at ourselves and others and knowing our and one anothers weaknesses and failings try to put something to death in ourselves because of it, to put part of us to death to become more virtuous. We feel we have to make ourselves better. But that's not how it works. Yet something has to die that we can become more like Christ, see more of the image of God in us, to bear more fruit.

And maybe this is the cross that Jesus is meaning when he says that all of us has to carry our own cross if we are to become disciples of his. What that something is in me that has to die only I and God know. And the same applies to everyone. If we know what that something is we are fortunate indeed. Maybe each of us this week, as we travel through it with Jesus might ask God to reveal it to us and show us how it might die so that we might live and on Easter Sunday experience in our own life now, a resurrection of some sort.

A saint once said that the Christian life is one long dying. What has to die in you that you might have the life of Christ and become all that God intends for you, with life in all its fullness?

Sunday, 28 April 2013

A Sermon on Change for a local Context

Fifth Sunday of Easter -  Acts 11.1-18; John 13.31-35

If you wish to listen to the sermon please click here