Sermons (Older)

Sunday 18 October 2015 – Terry Alve

MESSAGE – Holistic Health – St Luke

Luke the Evangelist, the author of the third gospel account (and the Acts of the Apostles) is symbolized by a winged ox or bull – a figure of sacrifice, service and strength. Luke’s account begins with the duties of Zacharias in the temple; it represents Jesus’ sacrifice in His Passion and Crucifixion, as well as Christ being High priest. The ox signifies that Christians should be prepared to sacrifice themselves in following and serving Christ.

Luke is also recognised as a physician – a practitioner of the healings arts in his day. However, he embraced spiritual healing in the name of Christ. An outcome of being an early Christian was to expect God’s healing grace to be manifest. It is this ministry of Luke that I want to focus on today.

Healing and Evangelism were, for S. Luke, integrally interwoven. He subscribed to a Christian faith that recognised God’s sovereignty in all things. All things spiritual, physical, mental and familial.

In many respects Professor Mason Durie’s 1994 Te Whare Tapa Wha model of Hauora or Wellbeing goes a good way to representing the kind of view that S. Luke espoused in his writings – Luke – Acts.

Hauora envisages each of the 4 walls (sides or edges) of the whare, represent these 4 wellbeing categories:

  1. Te taha wairua – spiritual health
  2. Te taha tinana – physical health
  3. Te taha hinengaro – psychological (mental) health
  4. Te taha whanau – family health

Te Hauora does not define wellbeing as physical health alone; nor any of the other categories alone. It is when they are synthesised that we can expect to be well. In particular wellness without God in our lives is an oxymoron to Maori – it does not make sense!

It is notable that the front side of the whare depicts Te taha wairua – spirituality. For many Māori modern health services lack recognition of taha wairua (the spiritual dimension).  We might even say that a Pakeha presentation of the Gospel is the same. Wellness is asserted to be the product of the diet, exercise and medical care we receive. There is little expectation in many quarters that the Wairua or Spirit has much to do with health and healing.

In a traditional Māori approach, the inclusion of Te Wairua, the role of the whānau (family) and the balance of the hinengaro (mind) are as important as the physical manifestations – te tinana – of illness.

We read today in Luke 10

Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”[

What a beautiful picture of Hauora – Wellbeing.

Being welcomed into the family (town or community) – Te Whanau

Acceptance through table fellowship (eating) or affirmation – Te Hinengaro

Curing the sick – physical healing and wellbeing happens – Te Tinana

And, God will be near to you contributing to your spiritual wellbeing – Te Taha Wairua

In the Gospel we read that Christ would come with the disciples’ visit in mission. Christ’s friends would come with hope, healing and holiness. Individuals and the community will be transformed – made whole.

We also read today prophetic words about the Messiah in Isaiah 35,

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

The presence of Christ makes a difference. Isaiah envisages that Christ’s coming has power to enlarge our tent. To enable us to think beyond the limitations of our faith. To imagine and receive more than we dreamed possible. In particular to find wholeness of body, mind and spirit.

So I ask you today, ‘What does that mean for you?’ Given that Christ comes with, as it were, healing in His wings, Malachi 4:2  But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. What is Christ offering you today?

  • Strength in your weak places?
  • Courage in the face of fear?
  • Improved sight – physical or spiritual – if you like, ‘insight’?
  • Improved capacity to hear, deafness overcome – perhaps even the ability to listen to others better?
  • Leaping rather than lameness?
  • Or, the ability to express yourself with joy; overcoming your tongue-tie!?

Psalm 147 adds to the healing graces:

He heals the broken-hearted,
and binds up their wounds.

  • Are you living with wounds of grief that the Son of God would minister to today?

Perhaps you are a bit like Paul in today’s epistle, feeling very alone. 2 Timothy 4:

11 Only Luke is with me.

  • He had been badly let down by those he thought were his friends. Today’s saint was the only one there for him at this point. Who’s there for you in your need at the moment? Perhaps you need more support. From God? From others?

Or, is there another need you come to the Saviour with today?

Today we gather up our faith together with God and in this healing focus, prompted by our remembrance of S. Luke, we reach out to God afresh. We pray for belief that the God of the impossible would make possible the provision of our need.

I’d like us to keep a time of silence now. Active silence as we live for a moment with whatever awareness has come as we have listened to God’s words and Gods promises for me.

In a wee while I am going to ask you to bring your request to God, by coming to our healing table; pausing a moment mindful that Jesus is here; before taking a leaflet from the table. I will then be available to anoint you with blessed oil and offer a short prayer before you return to your seat.

Or, perhaps you come today with a reinforced sense of God’s blessing and provision already and all you want to do is give thanks to God. If that’s the case, come and give thanks.

Let us Pray this prayer of invocation

Like the first disciples before the coming of God’s power at Pentecost, we wait in faith, and pray.

Be with us, Holy Spirit; nothing can separate us from your love.

Be with us as of old, fill us with your power, direct all our thoughts to your goodness.

Be present, Holy Spirit; bring faith and healing and peace.

Prayer after Ministry

God our healer, keep us aware of your presence, support us with your power, comfort us with your protection, give us strength and establish us in your peace. In the name of Christ our Saviour we pray. Amen.


Sunday 11 October 2015 – Terry Alve

Where is God – The Christian’s Dilemma

Where is God when I need divine help?

Why do I struggle to feel the presence of God with me?

Does God care when I am in a difficult place?

Our readings today are notable for their portrayal of the way of faith as challenging, and the seeming absence of God a very real dilemma.

Job 23

‘If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.

Job knows, despite his affliction and his great loss, that he has not abandoned God. Yet God seems to have abandoned him. God is nowhere to be found.

King David knows he has done wrong and has sought to confess his sin, yet his sense too is that God is nowhere to be found.

Psalm 22

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.

Then there is the righteous rich man in the gospel story who has diligently kept the commandments, and yet still has not found peace with God. Jesus looks at him with love and says,

Mark 10

21 … ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money[a] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’
22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Jesus goes on to talk about how difficult it will be for those with wealth to enter (or remain in) the Kingdom of God. It will be like getting a camel into Jerusalem through the ‘eye of the needle’ – a little door in the wall of the city that even people have difficulty getting through! Perhaps the point being made in the story with which we began, given that Job was a very rich man who was seeking to make sense of his great material loss.

In these readings today we are reminded that entering and keeping Christian faith is problematic. Finding God to have a chat with can be difficult. Having assurance of forgiveness is not guaranteed at times. Living a good life may not be enough, as the rich man learned.

So what gives? Are we missing something? Does God play with us when are down? This whole question of the seeming absence of God in the life of the believer is a very real issue. It’s the reason why some Christians have abandoned the faith.

The good news is that God’s silence does not mean God’s absence.

We are strengthened in and by suffering.

Our other reading today was from Hebrews 4

Jesus the Great High Priest

14 Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested (tempted) as we are, yet without sin.16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Unlike Job and the Psalmist, as Christians we have Jesus Christ as our great high priest. We have his example as the sinless Son of God to help us on our way. His way encourages us to be bold in our approach to God. To expect to find mercy and help in our times of need, as indeed Job and the Psalmist did, at least ultimately.

So we ask ourselves today what are some guidelines for journeying through our troublesome times, as some have called them, ‘our dark nights of the soul.’ May I suggest the following prescription:

  1. Confess sin – David was right to come clean with God and confess – Ps 51 (‘Have mercy on me, O God…’) and 1 John 1 assures us that, ‘if we confess our sins God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ Even if we do not feel forgiven or continue to live with a sense of shame, the fact is that we believe in a God who is bound to forgive the sin of the genuinely penitent.
  2. Call on God for strength – and remind yourself that God’s promises are for us, for a future and a hope! Psalm 22:9,10 reminds us that God has strengthened us in the past and will so again…
  3. Resist self-pity – know that there is a fellowship of suffering out there; that you are not alone and that God is working God’s purposes out in the life of every believer. Note: Mark 10:28-30
  4. Know that you are surrounded by a body of believers – beginning with your own Christian fellowship or Church. Hebrews talks about the cloud of witnesses. You may be too down to have a sense that your prayers are getting through, but there are those who intercede for you, including the Spirit who intercedes for us in our weakness with deep sighs and groans. (Romans 8:26-27)
  5. We live in a sinful world – good and evil surround us and sometimes the evil seems to be more powerful than the good. However God’s assurance is that the goodness of God will prevail for the penitent believer. Keep your eyes firmly fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of your faith. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

Today we have wrestled with the reality that there are seasons where there has seemed to be the absence of God in our lives. It is most likely that some here today will be in that place even now. My prayer is that you have found some light somewhere in what has been shared today. Remember this message will be on the Parish website shortly – can I encourage you to read it and note anything that is helpful.

Next Sunday is St Luke’s Day. St Luke was a Physician in his day, as well as a disciple of Jesus. There is much in his writings – his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles – that speaks of God’s healing grace. We will explore something of this in next Sunday’s service, and have a healing focus. It might be that some will be open to prayer with anointing and laying on hands. We’ll talk more about that next week.


St Francis – Sunday 4 October – Terry Alve

The Blessing of Pets

During spring, people in various places may notice something odd. A procession of animals, everything from dogs and cats to guinea pigs and even horses, is led to churches for a special ceremony called the ‘Blessing of Pets.’

This custom is in remembrance of St. Francis of Assisi’s love for all creatures. And how they moved him to praise God.

Francis, whose feast day is today – October 4th, loved the larks flying about his hilltop town. He and his early brothers, staying in a small hut, even allowed themselves to be crowded out by a donkey.

Francis wrote the ‘Canticle of the Creatures’, a song to God’s living things. It includes these words,
“All praise to you, Oh Lord, for all these brother and sister creatures.”

Jesus in our Gospel reading today, referring to the creation, invites us not to worry. He speaks of the birds in the sky and reminds us that our God in heaven takes care of them. Likewise God draws our attention to the wild flowers and how beautifully they are clothed. Yet we worry about food and drink and clothing. While God loves the created things; he especially loves us his children and will care for us, as well as everything else in all creation. We share in that care as we care for our pets.

That there are today over 1.5 million cats in the N.Z. (almost 2 per household on average), reminds us of the continuing affection we have for our furry, feathered or finned friends. And there are 0.5 million dogs in NZ’s dog database of which about 160,000 or a third have been micro-chipped by caring owners.

For single householders, as well as couples and families, a pet can be a true companion. Many people arrive home from work to find a furry friend overjoyed at their return. Many a senior person has a lap filled with a purring fellow creature.

One of the real issues for my siblings and me when it came time two years ago for mum to enter a retirement home hospital wing was her attachment to her three cats. She would need to leave them behind. Her cats had become her primary relationship in her aloneness. Thankfully the home she transferred to had a weekly practise of having a pets’ afternoon. Each Wednesday cats, dogs, rabbits, birds and other assorted small creatures came to visit. One time soon after a visit I saw mum with band aids to her neck as a result of a zealous cat’s attention. When I questioned her about the ‘incident’ it was brushed off as inconsequential!  Mum very obviously found the pets’ coming a highlight of her week, until she went to be in God’s closer presence a few weeks ago.

The bond between person and pet is like no other relationship, because the communication between fellow creatures is at its most basic. Eye-to-eye, a person and their dog or cat, are two creatures of love. From time to time people enjoy the opportunity to take their animal companions to church for a special blessing. Church is the place where the bond of creation is celebrated.

In Franciscan churches, a friar with brown robe and white cord often welcomes each animal with a special prayer. The Blessing of Pets usually goes like this:

“Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. You inspired St. Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless these pets. By the power of your love, enable them to live according to your plan. May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures! Amen.”

The Blessing of Pets prayer we will use today is a little shorter than this one.

As prayer is offered, a pet is gently sprinkled with holy water. Believe it or not, most pets receive this sacramental shower with dignity, though sometimes I have seen cats flatten their ears a bit as the drops of water lightly pelt them.

But the owner is happy, and who knows what spiritual benefits may result?

Some people criticize the amount and cost of care given to pets. People are more important, they say. Care for poor people instead of poodles. Certainly our needy fellow humans should never be neglected. And what about the damage dogs and cats do to NZ wildlife like native birds and kiwis? These are challenges and all pet owners are called to be responsible; caring for their animals and keeping them securely tethered, especially when endangered wild-life is nearby.

However, I believe every creature is important. The love we give to a pet, and receive from a pet, can draw us more deeply into the larger circle of life, into the wonder of our common relationship to our Creator.

Our 2nd reading today wasn’t from the Bible, but a story about St. Francis and the Wolf! A wolf that used to terrorise the people of Gubbio in Italy, a long time ago. The story recounts how when St. Francis came face to face with this wolf, he called out to it saying:

“Come to me, Brother Wolf. In the name of Christ, I order you not to hurt anyone.”

At that moment the wolf lowered its head and lay down at St. Francis’ feet, meek as a lamb. And from that time on the wolf and the townspeople lived in peace. The story concluded,

“When the wolf finally died of old age, the people of Gubbio were sad. The wolf’s peaceful ways had been a living reminder to them of the wonders, patience, virtues and holiness of St. Francis. It had been a living symbol of the power and providence of the living God.”’

Whether or not this legend is entirely true, it reminds us that St. Francis was gifted to be able to restore order into creation that had been marred by hostility and suspicion and fear. And let’s remember the prophet Isaiah who wrote about God’s intention for the creation,

“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

Finally, let’s hear again how our first reading today concluded,

Genesis 1:24, 25 – The Sixth Day

24 God said, “I command the earth to give life to all kinds of tame animals, wild animals, and reptiles.” And that’s what happened. 25 God made every one of them. Then he looked at what he had done, and it was good.

Adapted from, Kevin E. Mackin, O.F.M. of the Holy Name Province, USA


Farewell Sermon – 27 September 2015 – Deborah Broome

Be salty!

James 5:13-20; Esther 7:1-6,9-10, 9:20-22; Mark 9:38-50
So, after nine and a quarter years, one more sermon. What is it that God might be saying to us through our readings this morning? What is it that God might be asking us to do? Let’s start with the reading from the letter of James. It’s a vision of a caring community, where wisdom is found and resources are used for the good of all, and for the benefit of those who are not yet its members, for the last, the lost and the least. James sets out a vision of a community whose members pray with and for each other, being open about their needs and their failings. A community where people are helping each other on their faith journey, each person living with and for the others, working together to bring God’s kingdom closer. Never stop trying to be that sort of community. Never stop trying to deepen your personal and corporate prayer life. The Archbishop of Canterbury said this week that ‘Praying is simply sitting before God and allowing him, through Jesus, to shape who we are’. So have confidence in your praying; use the ‘How to Pray’ resource Worship Group has developed, and all the other help that is available, because – as James reminds us – prayer is powerful and effective.

And did you notice what James does? He recounts the story of Elijah, and reminds them of Elijah’s praying. So keep on telling the stories of this community. Tell the stories of the people who were important here in the past, and how God was working in their lives – not just to look back, but even more to look ahead, to what God might do in your lives in the future. Tell the stories of recovering from the fire, of funding and building the hall, of when we first started Messy Church, and tell them with a sense of expectation, knowing that God will continue to work in this place.

And while we’re on the stories of the past, remember the story of Esther. Today’s reading is from the heart of the story, but let’s back up a bit and fill in the gaps. Esther has become queen, but without anyone realising that she is Jewish. Her cousin Mordecai, who raised her after her parents died, has also won the king’s favour because his vigilance foiled an assassination plot. But Mordecai refuses to bow to the King’s 2nd in Command, the evil Haman, who then plots the destruction of the whole Jewish people. The part of the story we hear today focuses on Queen Esther’s successful attempt to save her people from destruction. She and Mordecai reveal Haman’s plot to the King, he has Haman hanged, and the people are saved. A feast day is set aside to remember the salvation of the people, by eating and drinking and giving gifts to the poor. Someone said incidentally that many Jewish festivals follow the pattern ‘they tried to kill us; we survived; let’s eat.’

The fascinating thing about the book of Esther is that God hardly gets a mention. Not at all in the Hebrew version. Yet there is a sense that God is there, in the background, all the time. Mordecai says to Esther, before she embarks on the risky step of going to the king to seek safety for her people, ‘Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.’ (4:13-14). We get the feeling God has set Esther up as queen so that she can save her people. There are a lot of coincidences in the story of Esther and, as the old saying goes, coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous.

Esther, and Mordecai, had the courage to act, to risk themselves in order to rescue the Jews from the fate Haman had prepared for them. In this story, and in our lives, God saves through the actions of God’s people. What are you being called to do? When might you need courage to act?

The story of Esther invites us to see God’s will, not through burning bushes and other miracles, but through the ordinary course of events. Watch out for coincidences. Keep on discerning when God is acting in the things that happen daily. Keep on asking each other where God might be at work in each of your lives, and in your common life together.

And then, from Mark’s Gospel we have the disciples getting whiny. ‘We saw this guy casting out demons, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us’ – as if the disciples were some sort of exemplary unit worthy of being followed. But only Jesus is that. The disciples were the ones who were arguing just before then about who was the greatest. They needed to remember, and we need to remember, that it’s not a contest. The goal of faith isn’t winning. It isn’t about who can be better. And it’s not about comparing yourself to others: you are you – not someone else. Which is, of course, extremely good news: we don’t have to compare our praying, our talking about God, the way we serve, with others. Mark’s Jesus makes it clear that arguments about status, or trying to divide up people into little categories of ‘us’ and ‘them’, don’t belong amongst followers of Jesus. Those things are stumbling blocks – and Jesus uses all sorts of colourful exaggerations to make sure we get the point that doing things that exhaust us or make us feel bad about ourselves or judgemental about others, that make us stumble in other words, are things we should cut out of our lives. Instead, keep on being yourselves, and think of yourselves as belonging to an inclusive, not an exclusive, community.

What we really need, says Jesus, is more saltiness. This is the MasterChef moment. These past few weeks Alister and I have been watching MasterChef, and each week at least one of the contestants is told off by the judges for not putting in enough salt. Salt is a wonderful seasoning agent – but if it loses its saltiness it is simply useless. We Christians are called to be salt, to season the world around us – worshipping God, reaching out to others, bringing new life and flavour to our communities. This is our calling and our identity as disciples: to have salt in ourselves and to be at peace with one another. So find ways to preserve and increase your saltiness. Be full of flavour so that you can impart some of that flavour to others. That’s the way to make a difference in the lives of people around here, to be the church at the heart of the community.

So that’s it. Be yourselves, the selves God is calling you to be: a salty, caring, praying community that changes the world around you. Keep telling the stories of this place, not to lead yourselves back into the past but to launch yourselves into the future. And follow Jesus – because that’s what it’s all about.

Following Jesus

13 September 2015  Mark 8:27-38

We’re almost exactly half way through Mark’s Gospel. So far we’ve watched Jesus teach and heal, seen him care for people and feed them, heard him interact with the crowd and the religious authorities. All along, we’ve seen the various characters trying to work out who Jesus is. It’s only alert readers like us, who’ve heard Jesus described right at the beginning as ‘Jesus Christ the Son of God’ who know. Now suddenly Jesus asks his disciples two questions: who do people say that I am, and who do you say that I am?

The disciples come up with John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets as things people are saying about Jesus, and these are sensible answers. There’s a lot in Jesus’ ministry that’s echoed what those people had done and how they were remembered: calls to repentance, healings, and meals served in the wilderness. And then Peter opens his mouth and the game changes. ‘You are the Messiah, the Christ’, he says. And Jesus orders them to keep this to themselves.

The thing is Peter has got it right – only, really, he hasn’t. He’s got the title right, but the meaning wrong. By ‘Messiah’, ‘Christ’, Peter and the others are thinking Jesus is the political liberator they’ve been hoping for, the true king of Israel, heir to the throne of David. The one who would push King Herod back into obscurity, and challenge the Roman occupiers. They were expecting big political, powerful things from Jesus – but that wasn’t what Jesus was there for. So Jesus tells them all to keep it quiet and instead begins to teach them about the suffering and death that will happen to him.

Do we, I wonder, make the same mistake that Peter made? Think of Jesus as some kind of Superman, zapping all the world’s problems away – zapping all our problems away too? If so, we need to learn some more, before we can take up the call to follow him.

So Jesus begins to teach them about what would happen to him. And did you spot the contrast between the secrecy about Jesus being the Messiah, the Christ, and the quite open teaching about suffering and death. It’s like Jesus couldn’t allow himself to be proclaimed as the Messiah until the meaning of the title had been redefined. It’s not a political, powerful kingly figure any more, it’s a suffering, dying, rejected one instead. Jesus had to help Peter and the others get the meaning right before the title could be used.

And then Jesus calls the crowd and his disciples and says to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ Jesus is inviting them – as he invites us, and as he invites Arya this morning – into a relationship. And before anyone can say ‘yes’, they have to understand what that relationship will mean. This is, if you like, the ‘informed consent’ form. Because following Jesus isn’t something that just happens in theory, or something we can do from the side-lines, like following someone on Twitter or Facebook. It’s more than just getting people’s posts and clicking ‘like’. Following Jesus means actually following him, and the way we do that is by denying ourselves, and taking up our cross and acknowledging that Jesus is ‘the way we need to follow and the truth we need to know’.

So what might this following look like? And let’s remember what it’s not. Jesus is not calling us to becomes doormats for other people to wipe their feet on. This is not about letting ourselves be bullied, or denying ourselves chocolate biscuits. Denying ourselves is rather about acknowledging that God is part of us and therefore that it’s not our will but God’s that determines what we do with our lives. We’re being asked to give up control – to stop trying to run things our own way all the time, and instead deciding to let God run things. It’s about relying on God instead of the bunch of security blankets we like to surround ourselves with – whether that’s financial cushions, or fancy titles that define our sense of identity, or the habits that let us do things the way we’ve always done them. Following Jesus is about being prepared to do what God wants us to do – because that is what Jesus did: taking the steps God’s love was wanting him to take on our behalf. Following someone means doing what they did.

What Jesus did was to carry a cross. And Jesus calls those who want to follow him to pick up their cross as well. So what does this mean? And again, let’s remember what it’s not: the cross we’re called to carry is not the burdens life imposes from the outside. It’s not a difficult family situation, a crushing debt, frustrated hopes and desires, or any sort of disability or disappointment. And a cross is not a random form of suffering. In Jesus’ day it was the punishment those in power imposed on rebels or troublemakers who dared to confront them. A cross is what can happen when you challenge the status quo on behalf of others. It’s the risk run by anyone who faces up to helping those who need help, doing what is right, speaking truth even when it’s unpopular. The sort of things that Jesus did.

But it’s not like we go out looking for suffering, or walk round wearing a T-shirt that says ‘please persecute me’. We can’t always know in advance where doing the right thing or living a life that is different from and challenging to those around us will lead. Sometimes we find that doing what is right simply succeeds, other times it can mean pain, rejection, sorrow. But, somewhere along the road, there will be costs. If you’ve never had to count the cost of following Jesus, then something is wrong somewhere. Maybe you’re not following as closely as you think you are.

The thing is, what we do with the invitation to follow Jesus is connected to what we answer to Jesus’ question, ‘who do you say that I am?’ If we think Jesus is just a great moral teacher, we’re going to enjoy sitting and listening, but getting up and following when we don’t quite know where we’re likely to end up is going to be too much of an ask. If we think of Jesus as a Superman who can zap our problems away, we’re not going to want to follow when following starts to cost us. But if we know Jesus as the Son of God, who was prepared to suffer and die and rise again in order to change the world, and if we have a relationship with this Jesus who has promised to be with us always, then we will follow, and keep on following, even when it gets tough. That is my hope for Arya today, and for all of us: that we will follow Jesus, now and in the future, and join him in reshaping the world around us.

God’s generous impartiality

6 September 2015  James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7: 24-37

‘My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?’ James, the writer of this letter, is helping people understand what real faith looks like. How can we tell if we have a real, lively, growing faith – or a fake faith, with all the appearance of a relationship with Jesus but none of the reality? One of the answers lies in how we treat people, and especially how we treat people who are different.

Real faith shows no partiality. It doesn’t make a distinction between different types of people. But it sounds like that’s actually what was happening in the communities to which James was writing – a bit of old-fashioned bias. James doesn’t cautiously skirt around the issue but jumps right in with his pointed question: ‘For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand here,” or “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?’ James is calling people out on their tendency to play favourites, to be more respectful towards those with money and power than they are with the poor. Judging others like this is about fake faith, not real faith.

And this isn’t a memo written to a specific Christian community like all the letters Paul sent. It was a general message, directed at Christian communities at large. Which just goes to show how common playing favourites is. There seems to be an inbuilt tendency to favouritism, however much we try to guard against it or to pretend to ourselves it isn’t there. Sometimes we can’t seem to stop ourselves. We notice it in the way we respond to items on the news. When we hear about an industrial dispute my guess is we each tend to come down on one side or the other, whether it’s ‘nasty company trying to force good workers into line’ or ‘stop being silly, accept what you’re being offered and get back to work’. We tend to favour those whom we think are most like us – and those whom we think could be of most help to us. And we tend to want to ignore those who are different from us, or those whose problems make us realise how lucky we are.

It sounds like the congregations James was writing to had a problem with money and social status, giving more respect to those who were richer and more powerful. Which is what the world tends to do, doesn’t it – that world that James referred to in last week’s reading when he said that good religion is ‘to care for orphans and widows in distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.’ After all, it’s the world that allows those with a lot of money to enter New Zealand under the investor or investor plus schemes, while countless refugees wait in camps and substandard accommodation for a place on a very small quota.

God loves with a generous impartiality, and wants the Church to show the same kind of love. Tom Wright tells how in some parts of the early church there was a rule that if a regular member of the congregation came in, an usher would look after them, but if a stranger, particularly a poor stranger, arrived, then the bishop would leave his chair and go and attend to the newcomer. James, of course, is advocating more than simply treating everyone equally: he is reminding people of the way God chose the poor to be heirs of the kingdom.

James is asking us to consider how our lives reflect our faith. He is asking us to look at the way we treat other people as a key indicator of how we relate to God. Loving our neighbour as ourselves – what he describes as ‘the royal law of scripture’ – isn’t a big audacious goal for a few especially holy people to aim at (you know, like clergy and members of vestry). It’s on the ‘to do’ list of all of us, every day. We’re to put aside our tendency to judge others according to what they look like, what they enjoy doing and whether or not they are nice to us, and accept people for who they are, children of God. And love them.

Because God does this with us. God doesn’t make distinctions according to people’s rank or occupation or moral character, or even on whether they are nice to God or not – God simply loves everybody. And expects us to do the same.

We see this with Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. He’s in the region of Tyre, a largely Gentile area, and is approached by a woman seeking healing for her daughter. She is Gentile: an outsider, not a Jew – and yet something in her leads her to ask for help from the Jewish teacher and healer. Or maybe she was just desperate to have her daughter well again. Only at first, Jesus says that he comes principally to Jews – until the woman makes a snappy come-back and he accepts her claim and heals her daughter. And we don’t particularly like Jesus’ rebuke to that Syrophoenician woman: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” We don’t like the contrast he draws between the ‘children’ of Israel and the Gentile ‘dogs’. We wonder how Jesus could possibly have said something so mean and insensitive, so we try to find a way to make it sound all right. Some commentators point out quite rightly that it’s a diminutive: ‘dogs’ doesn’t mean big fierce dogs, but friendly little ones, pets, puppies; as if calling someone a chihuahua rather than a rottweiler made it OK.

We shouldn’t be that surprised to find ethnic tension showing up in a text from early Christianity,. The thing that sticks out for me, is that this was an encounter in Gentile territory, in the region of Tyre. Jesus had chosen to go there, so he was not averse to the idea of meeting Gentiles. Remember the episode last week, about fulfilling the purity laws? If an ethnic group is feeling under threat one of the first things they will do is draw tight boundaries around themselves by enforcing the laws that govern who’s in and who’s out. In response to that, Jesus declared all foods clean. Now here he is, in Gentile territory, discussing healing with a Gentile woman.

It’s possible that when Jesus spoke as he did to the woman, in the style of rabbinic argumentation, it was to teach a lesson, not to the woman, but to those around him. To those who had just heard him critique the way the purity laws were operating, which was to cut people out, to exclude rather than include. Jesus is articulating the position those people would take, to keep Gentiles like the woman and her daughter away from any possibility of healing. And, in the end, the story tells us that the woman’s daughter was healed. Healing came to the Gentile woman, and to the deaf man with the speech impediment in the following episode, because God does not show any favouritism.

And that’s the challenge for us. Not to show partiality to those who are like us, or those who could help us. Not to play favourites – but to love as God does. To love our neighbours as ourselves whoever our neighbours are and wherever they come from. That’s how we can tell that our faith is real, and it’s shown in the choices we make and the actions we take every day.

Our inward hearts

30 August 2015  Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23, James 1:17-27

‘Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.’ The first thing is that this is not about hand washing. For why should there be any dispute about washing hands before meals – it is, after all, basic hygiene. This story is more about how to be a good Jew in the first century, about who is offering a way of life which honours the God who spoke through Scripture, and about the condition of our hearts.

The Pharisees’ and scribes’ objection to the disciples’ eating with unwashed hands isn’t really about hygiene. It has to do with ritual uncleanness rather than simply washing off dirt. The issue of what is clean and unclean and how such uncleanness is passed on has its roots in the Old Testament purity laws. To guard against the danger of becoming spiritually unclean, some groups washed their hands ritually before meals, and here they criticise the disciples for not doing the same. Their focus was obedience to God’s commandments, finding a way of honouring God, finding a way to be holy – as God is holy.

We shouldn’t, by the way, base our understanding of the Pharisees on some of the polemic against them that we find in the Gospels. To do that is like thinking you understand all the depth and richness of Irish culture by listening to a bunch of English people tell Irish jokes. One of the achievements of the Pharisees was to bring Judaism out of the Temple into the synagogues and schools and homes and thus within the reach of ordinary people. They were gentle and spiritual people, who took the practice of their faith seriously, and Jesus probably had more in common with them than with other Jewish groups. Doubtless there were hypocrites amongst them, as there are in all religious communities, but judging the whole community of Pharisees by a few hypocrites is like coming to conclusions about Christians based on encounters with fundamentalists

The Pharisees laid a lot of stress on holiness, on living life in a way that honours God. That’s where the purity laws and all the other regulations came in. And that is what all spiritual practices are about. The entire apparatus of Christian spirituality: praying the Lord’s Prayer, the services in the Prayer Book, different types of music, icons and incense, Bible study courses, candles and vestments, singing in tongues, public liturgy and private prayer, sacraments and sermons – all of this diverse mixture has a central purpose: to connect what we are on the inside with the God in whom we live and move and have our being. Outward acts relate to inward motivation, and so the Bible and tradition talk about the heart, the core of the human person.

I’ve been teaching this week on Sacraments, for our diocesan Anglican Studies programme, and I reminded the students about the definition of a sacrament in the Catechism: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ to the Church. Both of those components are needed – the outward, visible elements that we can touch and taste, that we can hold in our hands, and the inward, spiritual grace, the way God affects something deep inside us. The sacraments are a wonderful combination of inward and outward, and they prompt us to think about the relationship between what we do outwardly with our bodies and what is in our hearts.

When everything is working as it should, outward and inward are consistent. When the particular outward actions that we do line up with our inward motivation, with wanting to have a heart like God’s heart, then what we do can help us to become more open and loving. But when things get out of kilter, as they did with some of the Pharisees, then we have problems. For as Jesus told his disciples, what comes from the heart is the thing that makes the difference. The purity laws pointed to something deeper, the need we all have for a purity of motive. By focusing on outward purity (on hand-washing and what kinds of food you were permitted to eat), and on outward actions (how many candles, what type of bread) we can end up avoiding the challenge of what is going on within the human heart.

Jesus’ point is that good and bad outward and physical actions come from inward and spiritual sources. Our often damaged inner motivations are the real problem to which things like the purity laws are pointing. And, when we’re honest, we know this don’t we. The unkind words, unfair actions, and less than charitable thoughts we catch ourselves firing at others – as well as the ‘envy, slander, pride and folly’ Jesus mentions here – come from what is inside us, our inner motivations, our hearts. It’s like those strong words in today’s reading from the epistle of James: ‘rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness’. What Jesus is offering, though at this point in the story it is only implicit, is a cure for the problems of the human heart, a change away from the motivation that results in all those wrong actions we find ourselves doing. He is offering a way of life which honours the God who spoke through scripture, the God behind all the original purity laws and the other ways in which human beings try to live a holy life. What Jesus is offering is nothing less than the kingdom of God.

How do we become part of God’s kingdom? It’s about being connected to God, opening our hearts towards God so that we can love with God’s love. It’s about connecting others to God, as people have connected us to God in the past, opening our eyes to God so that we can see the goodness and the godness in others. It’s about opening our hands to receive what God has to give us so that we can pass those blessings on to those around us. When our heart is right, when we act lovingly towards others, our actions are in part a gift from God as well as from ourselves. For as the apostles James said, ‘Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Today, and every day, we are invited to let our hearts rest in the changelessness of God.

Abiding with Jesus – when it’s not easy

23 August 2015 John 6:56-69;Ephesians 6:10-20;1 Kings 8:22-30,41-43

Sometimes, things are not easy. Jesus has fed people in the wilderness and spoken of himself as the living bread that came down from heaven, but some refused to believe in him and turned away. Sounds like even Jesus had it tough! Then the Ephesian community are reminded that they are in the midst of a battle for which they are offered armour, the whole armour of God. The writer is playing with an extended metaphor, but this is serious stuff.

We’re aware, aren’t we, of destructive forces at work in the world. Watching the TV news reminds us often that evil exists, and that racism, homophobia, religious intolerance and bigotry are all manifestations of it. Even if we don’t use the same terminology as the writer to the Ephesians, we don’t doubt that there are unjust and evil forces, even if now they show themselves as corrupt rulers, or uncaring and callous bureaucracies, or people who leave bombs in public places. Even on a lower level, there is selfishness and greed. And Christians are called to oppose evil, wherever we find it – which is where all that armour comes in.

And we are reminded too that struggle is a part of life, and that sometimes it is our struggles that help us to grow, almost like a butterfly fighting to emerge from its chrysalis. Being stretched is crucial to faith development: so often it’s when we go through difficult times that we find our relationship with God becomes closer. Sometimes too our struggles aren’t with the external things, with the selfishness, greed and cruelty that get themselves into the news. Sometimes our struggles are more internal.

What are we struggling with at the moment? For some of us, it might be uncertainty over what the future will look like, after the end of September. Others may be facing health challenges, or problems at work. And then there are the perennial struggles – with tiredness and the busyness that often produces it, and with our fears of not having enough, of not being enough. That’s one I struggle with, and I suspect too it’s one that we as a parish grapple with at times.

Once you split off the metaphors all the items of ‘armour’ boil down to the things that are part of this life that we share: truth, right living and a concern for justice, faith, the knowledge of what Jesus has done for us, the word of God, and that bit about having as shoes for your feet ‘whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace’. That sounds like a sturdy pair of running shoes or tramping boots! Let’s remember these things, and consciously take them with us into each day, for they are there to help us.

Because, sometimes, it isn’t easy. Sometimes acting for justice and proclaiming the gospel of peace seems a tough ask. Sometimes what God is calling us to do seems challenging. The crowd around Jesus was initially enthusiastic about the idea of him as one like Moses who could provide miraculous bread, like the manna in the wilderness, but they had trouble with the idea of Jesus as the manna itself, the living bread from heaven. They grumbled and complained, much as the Israelites grumbled about the manna. And when many of Jesus’ disciples heard what he was saying they said ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ I’m guessing that sometimes, that’s a question we have asked ourselves.

And I’ll let you in on something: ‘this teaching’ or ‘this saying is difficult’ are the ways that’s usually translated, and that makes sense – but the Greek word used is ‘this Logos’ – and those of us who remember the very beginning of John’s Gospel know that’s how Jesus is referred to there, as the Word, the Logos. So there’s a feeling that what those disciples are saying is that ‘this Jesus is difficult’. And maybe that’s partly true. Because this life that we lead together is one which asks something of us, and sometimes it asks a great deal. Living as a Christian is not always easy.

But it’s like the speech that President John F Kennedy gave back in 1962, where he told people, ‘We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.’

And if Kennedy could say that about a space programme, surely we can say this about what is arguably an even greater challenge and an even greater goal: building the kingdom of God. This was the challenge, the goal, the calling that Jesus spoke most about – acting to make God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. That’s not something we can do on autopilot, and it’s not something we can do solely in our own strength. Working for God’s kingdom means relying on God, trusting that God will be there, trusting that – as Solomon proclaimed when he dedicated the Temple – God is a God who keeps promises.

To eat the bread of life, to partake in Jesus as manna, involves relying on God. John’s Gospel talks about it in terms of ‘abiding’, or ‘remaining’ in God, in Christ: ‘those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.’ It’s when we feed on Jesus as manna that we abide with him, and receive his life. We do this through communion, but we also do it in other ways – through prayer, through Scripture, through gathering to worship as we do today.

But sometimes ‘abiding’ with Jesus is difficult. Staying with Jesus and learning from him is a long process – and our society so often encourages us to look for the quick fix, the instant solution. That was part of the problem with the crowd: at the beginning they were attracted to Jesus, seeing him as a new Moses figure, working miracles, providing victories. When they’d travelled around with him for a bit they learned that Jesus is actually offering the long road of discipleship: not a quick fix at all, but something much more satisfying. Think of the difference between a loaf of bread that has taken time to rise compared to a packet of two-minute noodles.

This morning invites us to follow the example of the twelve, those who stayed with Jesus when many turned away. They knew it was not always going to be easy, they knew there were no instant solutions – but they also knew that with Jesus was where life was to be found. ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’ May their words be ours, and their commitment ours also.

We are what we eat

 16 August 2015  John 6:51-58

Jesus said, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ Jesus has fed a multitude and walked on water – signs of who he is. And for the last few Sundays we have been listening as Jesus and the crowd and the Jewish authorities all talk about what he has just done. Jesus clearly shocks everyone by speaking of eating his flesh and drinking his blood – and it’s even worse in the Greek where the word shifts from a polite ‘whoever eats’ to something more like ‘chewing’: ‘those who chew on my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life’. It sounds like cannibalism, and if we find it strange it’s nothing to how Jesus’ original audience heard it, with dietary laws that banned the consuming of even animals’ blood. But Jesus risks shocking them all, because he wants them to understand who he is and what he is offering.

We of course hear this passage and think ‘Eucharist’: the body and blood of Christ, the bread and the cup of Holy Communion. Jump several chapters forward in this Gospel and we discover that John’s version of the Last Supper Jesus had with his friends the night before he died doesn’t have anything in it about bread and wine: no ‘this is my body, this is my blood’. Instead it’s all here, in the feeding and the talking about it accounts in this chapter. This is about Eucharist. And Eucharist is what we’re going to talk about today.

Most of us here are used to receiving communion, but many of us would be hard-pressed to explain exactly what it is and what is going on when wine and wafers are taken and blessed, broken and given, when words are said and we receive the wafer and sip the wine. What is it we are doing? We have, I believe, got the order right: first receive, and then try to work out what it means. That, after all, is how Jesus did it: he sat everyone down and fed them, and only afterwards talked about what he had done and what it meant. And for Anglicans, no-one is prevented from receiving communion because they can’t understand it or articulate it theologically, which is one of the reasons that newly baptised babies also get to share in this meal that unites us.

For that is what it is, a meal, the family meal of the Church, and when we gather around and share it together we are doing something that is ordinary, and yet profoundly extraordinary. It has its origins in the meal Jesus had with his disciples ‘on the night before he died’, and even though – quite early on in the early Church– the Eucharist became detached from the sort of meals that we have at Friday Socials, it still remains a meal in a symbolic sense. The key thing is the taking together of food and drink.

As a meal, the Eucharist links to the stories of Jesus feeding multitudes that are in all the Gospels. It looks back to all those meals Jesus had with people in the towns and villages of Galilee, and to the banquet we will share with him at the end of time. For ancient peoples like Israel, meals were sacred occasions. They still are, in some places in the world, but less so here – many meals are eaten alone, or while watching TV, or food is grabbed and eaten on the run. Perhaps we have lost that sense of the specialness that happens when we gather around a table and share food with family and friends, colleagues and strangers. One of the signs that we take the Eucharist as a meal seriously is when we regard other meals with reverence.

For eating together bonds people together – we talk about ‘the bond of table fellowship’ and what we mean is that when we share a meal with someone we get to know them in a whole new way. When I was a diplomat there was even a budget for this: deepening relationships with those we were dealing with was seen as that important. That’s why we will say shortly ‘We who are many are one body, for we all share the one bread’. We are bound tightly to each other by this meal.

And we are not just bound closer to one another when we share this bread and this wine together. We are also bound closer to Jesus Christ, and to God. For Christ is present here, and when we eat the bread and drink the wine we receive him. It is, incidentally, a very Anglican thing, to believe that Christ is really and truly present, and yet not to need to understand exactly how this happens. Richard Hooker said ‘it’s enough to know, when I come to the Lord’s table, what I receive there, without searching or inquiring how Christ does it. What the elements are in themselves isn’t the key thing: it’s enough that to me as I receive them they are the body and blood of Christ’. When we come to communion we meet Christ there: what the disciples found at Emmaus, we also find: ‘he was known to them in the breaking of the bread’.

Emmaus is a resurrection story, and so is this. That’s why we do it every Sunday. When we celebrate the Eucharist we are remembering Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Eucharistic prayers are creedal – they sum up what it is we believe. They tell the whole story, from creation to fall, to Jesus; from the Last Supper to the cross, to the empty tomb, to the ascension, and to the worship of the saints in heaven. It’s all there – and every time we participate in Eucharist we get to proclaim it over and over. This ‘do this to remember me’ is anamnesis, a refusal to forget. We keep telling the story until we know that we ourselves are part of the story, that this is our life. We see how Jesus took the bread, and blessed it, and broke it, and gave to those at table and we know ourselves to be similarly taken by Jesus, and blessed and – yes – broken, that we may be given away to the communities and the world we are part of.

Jesus says, ‘whoever eats me will live because of me.’ This is about relationship. It is only by making Jesus so integral to who we are – as food becomes our body, nourishes us, becomes part of us – that we will indeed live abundantly and eternally. For as Jesus becomes part of us in this organic way, who we are and how we are can change. His life becomes our life. We are what we eat. When we come to communion we come to meet Jesus and to be fed by him. We come to be filled afresh with the presence of Jesus. When we are conscious of how we have failed to be what we claim to be we are encouraged to begin again. We can be renewed, cleansed, strengthened – strengthened to love and to work for Christ in the world around us.

The Eucharist is the meal of God’s kingdom. We should never forget that: ‘It is Christ who invites to the meal and who presides at it.’ (BEM B29) The word from which we get ‘Eucharist’ means ‘thanksgiving’. So let us today give thanks for this meal that we share, for the connection with Christ and with each other which deepens when we gather together around this table to share bread and wine.

A life beyond ourselves

2 August 2015  Ephesians 4:1-16; 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a; Psalm 51:1-12; John 6:24-35

‘I therefore, … beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.’ These are words that might be said to us – well, actually, words that are said to us, for we too have been called to a life, and we too are asked to live up to our calling. How do we do this? There’s a lot of practical stuff here, in the passage from the letter to the early church in Ephesus that we hear this morning, that can help us – and a lot of it can be summed up in the phrase ‘bigger than me’. We’re called to a life in community, a life that is bigger than ourselves alone, a life in which each of us can say that ‘I, as an individual, am not the star of my own life’. That’s why we are pointed towards a set of qualities that only make sense when we are part of a community: humility, gentleness, patience, and bearing with one another in love. Easy words to say, hard qualities to live out – but these are virtues that determine the feel of a community, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, the ‘life together’. We might perhaps paraphrase ‘bearing with one another in love’ as ‘cutting each other some slack’: if someone does something that feels annoying, or mistaken, then it’s about putting the best possible interpretation on whatever it is, reaching out in love. How can we show humility and gentleness to one another? Where have we seen these qualities amongst us lately?

‘I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.’ The people who first heard that were living in a city much like Wellington: a diverse population, with a huge variety of trades, religious groups, and social classes. And the members of the Christian community were likewise diverse – and that was a good thing. Such differences make life interesting. The call to unity is not a call to uniformity: we don’t all have to be the same. But it’s important to ‘maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ – and that’s a familiar phrase, isn’t it. We say it at the introduction to the Peace in one of our eucharistic liturgies. What’s crucial to this unity is to remember the things that unite us, the things that hold the Church together. Seven times the word ‘one’ is used: one body, one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.

‘The one hope of our calling’ – there’s something there about being committed to a common goal. Again, it’s a ‘bigger than me’ moment: we are journeying together, and together we are working towards common objectives. That’s why Vestry regularly checks on how we at St Anne’s are doing with our parish goals each year, and why we all hold ourselves accountable, in every parish, for how we are working on our diocesan goals. But those goals are variations, aren’t they, of one big goal, the big hope that unites us: building the kingdom of God. That’s the big picture – and that’s why gifts are given to us. Again, different gifts, given to different people, but they are all for the same purpose: to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. ‘The saints’ are all of us, and every one of us is to be equipped for ministry, for the sake of the whole body of Christ. It’s another of those ‘bigger than me’ moments.

And we’re to grow, until we come to maturity. And it’s no surprise that we hear this passage in Ordinary Time, the time when we are reminded that growing in faith, in our relationship with Christ, growing closer to God and to each other, is what we are supposed to be doing. The writer here offers a couple of important signs of growing up. We’re growing in Christlikeness when we know right from wrong and don’t get confused, tossed to and fro by all sorts of weird ideas, and we’re growing up when we don’t think of ourselves all the time, when we know how to be a member of a team. Another of those ‘bigger than me’ moments.

And there’s something else about this life that we are called to live, that comes into our first reading and the psalm. It’s about knowing ourselves and knowing – as King David came to know – that in spite of how we’d like to think of ourselves, we are all sinners. That’s the bad and the good news about David – Israel’s greatest king. We catch him this morning at the end of a spectacular fall, adultery with Bathsheba and engineering the killing of her husband Uriah. That’s the bad news. It’s clear that the prophet Nathan’s ultimate allegiance is to God and not to the king, and so he confronts David with a clever parable. And that parable lets David get in touch again with his own integrity: he realises he has sinned and he confesses it.

What David experienced we also go through. I’m guessing that none of us have engineered anyone’s death, but sin is sin, and we all do it. That’s why we begin every service, as we began this morning, with confession and absolution: ‘we have failed to support one another and to be what we claim to be’ We fail, often, to lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called. But just as David was forgiven, so too are we. And just as God called and used David, so God calls and uses us. That’s the good news. And perhaps part of what makes it possible to exercise humility and gentleness and patience with one another is the realisation that none of us are perfect. Fortunately, we don’t have to be perfect for God to use us to build the kingdom.

But what is crucial is that relationship we have with Jesus. In the aftermath of Jesus’ feeding a huge crowd of people they ask him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ And he answers them ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent’. That belief is about relationship. It’s about being open to what God is doing. It’s about allowing God to use your life to change the world.

One of the things that unites us, in this one body of Christ, is the realisation that there is a hunger that is not physical. That there is a spiritual hunger that everyone feels. It’s what Augustine meant when he prayed ‘God you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.’ Today, and every Sunday, we have come to have that hunger satisfied. We have come here to have Jesus put on an apron and spread a table before us. We have come to receive bread and wine and to know ourselves loved, and forgiven, and called into a life beyond ourselves.

And we have come for something else. All around us there are places that sell bread. Brumbies, the supermarket, the Thorndon Farmers’ Market: people go there to get the bread that will sustain their physical bodies. Let us never forget that we here, in this community, are a place to which people can come to receive the bread of life. We are those who, having eaten that bread, go out into the world around us, showing by our actions and our words and our whole lives that we know the source of that bread. So let us lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called, so that others also may eat of the bread of life.

Grandmothers

St Anne’s Day – 26 July 2015  Ruth 4:13-17; 2 Timothy 1:2-7;Luke 1:26-33

Today is a special day. It’s a day that all of us look forward to, because today we celebrate a very special person – our special person, the saint our church here is named for: St Anne. Anne was the mother of Mary of Nazareth, and so she was Jesus’ grandmother. And today is special because in celebrating Jesus’ grandmother, we also celebrate our own grandmothers, and those who have had a grandmotherly role in our lives. So if you are a grandmother, you are very very welcome today.

Today we remember some of the grandmothers in the Bible. We heard earlier about Naomi. The book of Ruth tells her story, for she was Ruth’s mother-in-law, and Ruth went with her when she came home to Israel after a famine. Naomi helped Ruth find her way in a strange culture and helped engineer her marriage to Boaz. And when Ruth and Boaz had a son, Obed, Naomi looked after him. Having a grandson meant for Naomi that she had a future – and it really was an amazing future. Naomi was the great-great grandmother of King David, one of the most famous people in the whole Bible. So if you’re a grandmother, and you’ve helped your family settle into a new culture, and looked after young children, then – like Naomi – you’re welcome this morning.

And today we also remember Timothy’s grandmother Lois. Timothy was a young man, at the beginning of his ministry. And the writer of the letter wants to encourage him, by recalling the way his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice taught him the faith. Faith – having a relationship with God and knowing about the things that help that relationship to work – is something that doesn’t always come automatically. Like a lot of things in life, it needs to be taught, or to be caught from someone else. That’s partly what happened with Alister. One of the mementos here this morning is his grandmother’s walking stick. ‘Nana Hen’ not only taught him to pray, but she prayed for ‘her 3 boys’ to become ‘preacher men’. And they did: Alister’s father, his brother and Alister himself all became priests. We’re reminded this morning about how important it is to pass on our own faith and our own traditions, to our children and to others who come to join us. So if you’re a grandmother, and you’ve helped pass on faith to your family, then – like Lois – you’re welcome this morning.

And today we remind ourselves what St Anne’s life would have been like. We don’t have many stories about her, but some of it we can work out for ourselves. Anne’s life would have be that of a typical Jewish woman of her time, looking after the household chores and the needs of her family. A simple way of life: going out in the morning to get water from the local well, washing her children, gathering wood and sticks to make a fire for cooking. During the day, Anne would gather food from her garden and go to the market to buy and sell produce. She would help look after the domestic animals, prepare the meals, care for children, visit with friends and neighbours. And Anne not only cared for her daughter Mary and for her other children: Anne was also a grandmother, with a flock of grandchildren to watch over, Jesus and his brothers and sisters and cousins. It’s the sort of life that women have lived for centuries, making a home for their families.

Today we hear how Anne fits into the story, as the mother of Mary, who became the mother of Jesus. In the Gospel reading we’ve just heard we have Mary being told she would bear a son, who would ‘be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High’. And that is ultimately the reason we hear the stories of Mary and of Anne: because of Jesus. And that is why we are here this morning: because of Jesus. It is Jesus, God’s Son (the Son of the Most High), that we worship and serve. Within that story – the story of how God took human flesh and became one of us, to live on earth and share our laughter and our tears, our feasting and our frustrations – the lives of Anne and Mary, of Naomi and Ruth, Lois and Eunice, have immense meaning. As have the lives and the stories of all of us, and of our grandmothers. For we are part of a community, the community of those who have gone before us in our families, and in this parish family.

Communities are formed by story-telling, and grandmothers are often the ones who keep the stories and pass them on to the new generations, who pass on their wisdom, who act as a buffer between children and parents. Grandmothers are the ones who have the time to sit and listen. They are the matriarchs, the role models, the guides. When we celebrate St Anne today we are also celebrating our own grandmothers and grandmother-figures.

Grandmothers are the ones who hand down the traditions and see that the important things aren’t forgotten. As I contemplate leaving this community for another ministry, I recall how the first time I led worship here was on St Anne’s Day in 2006. And I remember that back then I was wondering who would be the grandmothers for me, as I got to know this parish – who would be the ones to tell me the stories about this place, and hand on to me the traditions about how we do things. One of those ‘grandmother’ figures was Gay Duncan, whose funeral was held here at the end of May, but she wasn’t the only one. To all of you who passed on the stories – a profound thank you. At some point there will be a new vicar here, and you will have the opportunity to share the stories and traditions with him or her – but that is for the future. Today, we are together here, as we celebrate this special day.

Today we give thanks for St Anne, and for our own grandmothers, and those who have been like a grandmother to us. And we give thanks for our parish family and for all that we are to each other. As we do this, let us together take up the challenge of being to this community what St Anne was to hers: let us be people who make a home for others, who lead children to faith in God. Let us be people who can sit and listen, who share their wisdom and tell the stories. Let us all, whatever age we are, be St Annes to those around us.

Bible Sunday

19 July 2015    Mark 6:30-34;53-56; 2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Ephesians 2:11-22

So, it’s Bible Sunday – a chance for us to celebrate the gift of Scripture. You know, some years ago, I remember feeling guilty about how little I read the Bible. I’d have all sorts of good intentions, about reading it every day, but somehow nothing much happened. Except that I found that guilt is definitely not a good motivator for anything. I’m wondering if that sort of thing has been your experience too. Fortunately for me, something happened to change how I interacted with the Bible.

There’s nothing like three years of theological college, and then being faced, week after week, with three readings and a psalm which I had to come to grips with and make something of that I could offer to people on a Sunday, to get someone reading the Bible. And somewhere in the process of reading it regularly I discovered that I had grown to love it – this collection of books from so long ago that sometimes seems alien and yet can bring us up short by how it connects with our lives. And that’s one of the reasons for us to read it: because it connects with our lives, with what we do not only on a Sunday when we come to worship, but with the Monday to Saturday most of our time.

Take our Gospel reading today. ‘The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “come away to a deserted place and rest awhile.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.’ Doesn’t that feel familiar! Whether it’s those early days in a new job, or working long hours because there’s a sudden rush on at work, or being at home with young children who follow us everywhere (even into the bathroom) – we know what it’s like to be that busy. So we can relate to the disciples here. They had returned from preaching and healing in the villages, just as Jesus had told them to, and now they were reporting back, excited and probably exhausted. And realising that they needed some space to rest and re-charge, Jesus takes them away by themselves – except that the crowd catch up with them again. The crowd saw them going and hurried there on foot and arrived ahead of them, and Jesus began to teach them many things.

What comes out is the excited exhaustion of the disciples, the desire of the crowd to know more, and the compassion of Jesus. We get the sense that these are real people here, people like us, with our passion for meaningful work, our need to rest, our wish to learn what we can, and our longing for a Jesus who can care for us when we are tired and yet teach us even when he is tired. Our longing for a shepherd. The Gospel speaks to us here – and it’s a common theme throughout the Bible – of the need for refreshment and renewal. It’s a necessary message, in an age and a culture that speaks of ‘workaholics’. It’s a reminder of the practice of retreat, of nurturing our spirits, caring for our souls, of the danger of letting our lives get out of balance.

Take our Old Testament reading today. Things had begun to settle down for king David: there was a break in the fighting with his enemies, a God-given breathing space. David loved God, worshipped God, and wanted to honour God by the building of a temple. He says to the prophet Nathan ‘see now I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’ And he offers to build a house for God to live in. Again, this is something we can relate to – because for centuries, Christians have done the same thing. We like the idea of sacred space – only sometimes, over the years, people tried to out-do their predecessors by making grander and more imposing buildings in which to worship God, as if any building – or all of them together – could house the Almighty. But God told David indirectly that a house of cedar – or stone, or brick, or concrete – was not what was wanted. God prefers to dwell in another kind of temple: one made of flesh and blood. God will make a house, and it will be a house of people, David’s dynasty, and the Israelites. The word ‘house’ is used over and over in this reading, with three different meanings: David’s palace, God’s temple and David’s dynasty – don’t you enjoy a God who makes puns!

And what David was told is still true today. God continues to be alongside and within people. However important buildings are to us, God’s home is not in the buildings. God’s home is people. It’s a reminder that God is with us in all the Monday to Saturday moments of our lives, whether we’re at work or at home, by the sports field or in the shopping centre. And God is amongst the people we meet there.

And sometimes, that’s where things get difficult. Because sometimes, when we meet people who are different from us, we don’t always get on. I love the way the Bible doesn’t try to pretend everything is always rosy. I love all those stories of dysfunctional families in Genesis, and only partly-functioning church communities in the Epistles – because that’s what real life is like, isn’t it.

Take our Epistle reading today, from the letter to the Ephesians. When we first hear it, there’s all this stuff about circumcision, uncircumcision, and blood – scarcely part of our cultural fabric. Except that it’s really about conflict – and that certainly is something familiar to us. The Ephesian community was still carrying the scars of conflict between new Gentile Christians and those who’d been born Jewish. The circumcision and the uncircumcision are two separate groups within humanity, each thinking of the other as outsiders, cut off from God. Each group couldn’t understand, couldn’t cope with people who came to God from a different path. They argued over how best to serve God, how best to worship God – it was a common theme for those early Christian communities like Ephesus, and yes, a common theme in the church through the ages. It seems there’s always the risk of tension between those who’ve grown up with the old rules about worship and those who come in from the outside and dare to ask the question ‘why should we do it like this?’

‘Remember that once you Gentiles by birth were without Christ, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel … but now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near’. The good news is conflict need not be forever, and new beginnings are possible. The good news is that God has brought uncircumcision and circumcision together – not as one uniform bunch but as people united in Christ yet still different. This sounds very like one of our key principles here at St Anne’s: our valuing of diversity, the way ‘we don’t all have to think the same’.

This letter assures us that through Christ divisions are made whole, so that all can be members of the household of God, with Jesus himself as the cornerstone. We get the same sort of building metaphor that we find in 2nd Samuel. In Christ ‘the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.’ And that’s one of the things the Bible shows us, over and over, that people matter to God, that people are God’s dwelling place, that God makes a home in us – not only in this place, on Sundays, but everywhere, Monday to Saturday.

Years ago I’d made the mistake of thinking, in effect, that when I love the Bible I’ll read it more. But what I’ve come to realise is that I’d got things around the wrong way. I’ve found that when I read the Bible I love it, and the more I read it the more I love it – because it shows me what is possible in my life.

God’s grace is enough

5 July 2015  Mark 6:1-13, 2 Samuel 5:1-5,9-10, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Think back to two Sundays ago, and Jesus calming the storm. ‘Who then is this?’ the disciples asked each other. This time around, it’s the locals at Nazareth asking that question, and it’s not one they’re framing positively. After travelling around, preaching and teaching and healing, Jesus goes home. Only he doesn’t get the warm welcome the accompanying disciples might have expected. Instead, he gets rejected. The locals ‘took offence at him’: Who then is this? Just where did this man get all this? – he had the same teachers as we did. ‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses’ and all the others? They think they know who he is and where he comes from, so they convince themselves he can’t possibly know anything special or have any unique powers. His very familiarity confuses them.

We can ask ourselves what’s going on here, but I’m thinking the locals’ reaction had very little to do with Jesus and an awful lot to do with them. Maybe they feared that if Jesus, the carpenter, the local boy, had somehow got all this extra wisdom and power and was able to do wonderful deeds, then maybe the same might be required of them? Maybe they saw a change in Jesus and, afraid of change themselves, they resented him for it.

I wonder how Jesus felt that day. It’s painful when those you care about, those you’ve grown up with, scoff at you. When they reject you and what you are offering. How does Jesus cope? Well, he’s surprised at their reaction but he doesn’t let it distract him. He goes right on with what he is doing. He still loves, he still heals. We’re told he ‘laid hands on a few sick people and cured them’. Even if he couldn’t do any mighty deeds of power, anything spectacular, because of the mocking scepticism around him, he still heals those who come to him – and that made a difference in their lives. And then he moves on: Jesus departs from his village, but the attitude of the locals doesn’t drive him away from his mission, from doing what God wanted him to do. And – and this is the key thing here – what applied to Jesus also applies to his followers.

Jesus sends his disciples out to teach and heal, and he tells them what to do when the same thing happens to them. If they ever went to a place that would not receive them: ‘as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet.’ What he’s saying is that sometimes, it might feel like you’ve failed, but don’t let this stop you doing what you are called to do. Sometimes, when you’ve been trying to share your faith or talk about the God-moments in your lives, it might not turn out a roaring success. That’s OK. Don’t let the failure cling to your feet. Go on with the next challenge: look for a new beginning.

So Jesus sends the twelve disciples out to continue his work, to take authority over evil, to heal, and to invite people to change their lives. When you think about it, this was a risky strategy. If people were sceptical about Jesus, the local boy, the carpenter’s son, they were going to be even more so about this bunch. Some were fishermen (great muscles but poor education), one was a tax collector (great at creative accounting, but a really bad reputation) and all of them were a bit slow on the uptake. In fact it’s one of the great themes of Mark’s Gospel: how the disciples repeatedly fail to grasp who Jesus is and what he’s on about. Yet these are the very people he sends out on what is arguably the most important job there is. He doesn’t wait for them to improve their qualifications. Or even to feel ready for the task he is entrusting to them. He just sends them out, as they are. And they go.

Augustine put it like this: ‘There were just a few men, the merest handful, untrained in the liberal arts, completely uneducated, as far as pagan philosophy is concerned, with no knowledge of literature, no equipment in logic, no trappings of rhetoric. And Christ sent them out as fishermen with the nets of faith into the sea of this world; and in this way he caught all those fish of every kind, including – more wonderful, because rarer – even some of the philosophers themselves.’ (City of God, XXII.5.)

And – and this is the other key thing here – what applied to Jesus’ first disciples also applies to us. For we have been entrusted with a similar task. We too are called to take authority over evil and banish it from our midst. We too are called to be healers. We too are called to invite people to change their lives. And, like Jesus with the twelve disciples, God isn’t going to wait until we understand everything completely, until we have great faith or manage to get it right in every area of our spiritual lives before sending us out. God knows that much of what we are being sent to do will seem unfamiliar, and scary – and God sends us anyway.

And maybe it’s better like that. If we think we are perfectly qualified to do all that God is asking us to do, there’s a risk that we’ll think it’s us that’s doing it. Like the Israelites (and David himself) might have thought that David was king because he was a successful military leader, when it was actually because God had chosen and anointed him to shepherd the people. ‘And David became greater and greater, for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him.’ Thinking that any success we have is because of us can lead to pride, can put the focus on ourselves and not on God. Paul understood this – that’s why he boasted, not of his strengths, but of his weakness. He rejoiced not in what he had done, but in what God had done. He knew that it’s often at the point of our greatest weakness that God can touch us the most.

I think that’s what lies behind Jesus’ instructions to his disciples not to take a whole bunch of stuff with them. To take the bare minimum, and to rely on those they were going to for even basic hospitality, being dependent on the kindness of strangers. To be vulnerable. Because it’s only really when we are vulnerable and aware of what we do not have that we can really know God’s grace.

Let us remind each other of what Paul said to the Corinthians: God’s grace is sufficient for us all, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So let’s not worry about being ‘good enough’ or ‘ready enough’ to carry out the tasks that God is giving to us. Let’s embrace them, just as we are, for there is work to be done – God’s work, and God needs us all to do that work. And that is what mission is. Every service of worship ends with an acknowledgement of this: God’s blessing go with you, as you go and do God’s work. The words ‘mission’ and ‘dismissal’ are related: we are dismissed – sent out – to fulfil the mission that God has entrusted to us.

Shortly we will share bread and wine together, letting God strengthen us for the tasks we have taken on in following Jesus. And then I will bless you and the liturgical assistant will send us out with the words ‘Go now to love and serve the Lord. Go in peace.’ And we will reply, ‘Amen. We go in the name of Christ.’ Maybe we are nervous, maybe we don’t feel we have the right qualities or the right qualifications, maybe we feel people won’t listen to us because they know us too well, maybe we think we have failed too many times, maybe we are wishing God had asked someone else – but that doesn’t matter. Amen, we will say, we go in the name of Christ.

Abundant grace

28 June 2015  2 Cor 8:7-15, Mark 5:21-43; 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Ps 130

The Corinthian church thought well of itself. When Paul’s letter was read out and they heard him say ‘Now as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you’ – they would have nodded with appreciation. You can almost hear them thinking ‘Paul gets us!’ And then Paul goes on ‘as you excel in everything, so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking’. It’s literally in ‘this grace of abundance’. This is the bit about which Tom Wright says that Paul manages to write two chapters about money without once mentioning the word.

And that’s because, while Paul is writing about money, it’s not just about that. The mother church, Jerusalem, is in financial need. Christians at Corinth – a city of considerable financial means – had started collecting funds for the poor in Jerusalem a year ago, but their initial enthusiasm seems to have fallen off. ‘Now finish doing it’, Paul urges them. And I guess, most of us have on occasions been a bit like that: started something with a great rush of energy and then our enthusiasm has cooled a bit and we’ve needed a reminder. So maybe we can relate to the Corinthians. Meanwhile, the churches of Macedonia, who were actually very poor themselves, have made a huge contribution to the Jerusalem Fund.

Part of what Paul is talking about here is family – and that’s another word that doesn’t get used explicitly, but is lying just under the surface. The people of God are members of a common family, and in a family, sisters and brothers help one another. Churches reach out and help each other: if one group of believers has a lot, and another group is in need, then those that have more assist those that have less – knowing that if the situation is ever reversed, the help will be there. Parishes are generous in their help for each other. We can see this happening in our own lives, can’t we, in the way we are building a relationship with St Anne’s Porirua, and sharing with them the extra things we have from our fairs and garage sales. We can see it too in Bishop Justin’s letter this week about reaching out to those affected by the flooding in Whanganui, holding them in our prayers and looking for ways to offer practical help as they begin the months of rebuilding.

But as well as talking about family, Paul is also reminding the Corinthians about something else. He’s addressing them, not as givers but as receivers. And that too is how we can hear his message to us, for we too are receivers. We are receivers of the grace of God. We are receivers of the grace of Christ who, though rich, yet became poor for our sakes so that by his poverty we might become rich. For Paul, everything flows from this, from the goodness and generosity of God through Christ. That was the defining thing in his life, and he wished for it to become the defining element in the lives of the Corinthians – and in our lives.

For Paul is saying that our relationship with God, and what God has done for us in Christ, should spill over into every area of our lives. There’s actually no distinction between what we do for God, and what we do for others, between our worship and our daily living. I think Paul would see signing a cheque, and putting it into an envelope and putting that envelope into a collection plate as just as much an act of worship as holding our hands out to receive the communion bread. That’s why he has as much concern that the Corinthians learn how to be generous in all sorts of ways as he is that they make a large contribution. Gracious giving – giving that is grace-filled – to help those in need is based on Christ’s own sacrifice for the Corinthians – and for us. That’s why we are to be generous – because God’s grace has come to us before we even began to think about money, or jobs, or anything else that we get preoccupied with.

For the God-life – the life that Christ lived and the life that God wants us to live – is filled with grace and generosity. Jesus showed this over and over. Over and over Jesus acted out stories of abundance. Because that’s what God’s grace is like. Abundant. Generous. Overflowing. That’s the sort of kingdom we are invited to be part of.

Look at this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Mark. Jesus pauses, on his way to visit a sick child, a dying twelve year old girl, in order to heal a woman who has herself been sick for the last twelve years. Because his love and concern and power to heal are limitless. There is more than enough healing to go around. These stories of healing, like so many of the kingdom parables, are there to remind us of the sheer abundance of God’s grace. They are there to get us away from the scarcity mentality that makes us scared to be generous now in case we won’t have enough for ourselves in the future. God is a generous God – and it’s when we acknowledge the extent to which we are receivers of God’s grace that we are empowered to be generous ourselves.

That’s what was happening right at the end of today’s passage from Paul’s letter to Corinth. He’s quoting from something the Jewish ones amongst them would have known well – the story of the manna in the wilderness. You remember how it goes: the people were starving, and God rained bread from heaven which they gathered each day. And however much they picked up turned out to be enough: the one who had too much discovered in the end that they didn’t have an excess, while those who could only gather a little found they had no shortage. That’s grace at work.

And the stories of generosity continue. In our Old Testament reading today we hear David’s mourning for Jonathan and Saul. He grieves for his best friend – that we can understand. David and Jonathan had been close friends for years. But David also mourns his fallen enemy, the one who had spent years hunting him down and trying to kill him. His lament is incredibly generous in its forgiveness of Saul. And it reminds us that of all the kings of Israel, David was the one who was closest to God. And, as the psalmist knew, there is forgiveness with God, who doesn’t keep account of what is done amiss. David knew that forgiveness, like healing, like love, like respect, doesn’t have to be rationed around God.

Today’s readings are about generosity, about overflowing love, and forgiveness, and healing. About (as the Greek puts it) ‘this grace of abundance’. This is God’s grace which we have all received, and to which we are invited to respond by living it out in our own lives. So let’s do two things this week: first to acknowledge to ourselves – and maybe, when we’re brave, to others – what we have received lately from God, the many ways God has blessed us; and second to respond with a like generosity, a similar grace, to others. For today invites us to see ourselves first as receivers, and then as givers – gracious, generous, grateful givers who have received so much from our gracious and generous God.

In the boat with Jesus

21 June 2015   Mark 4:35-41; 1 Sam 17; Ps 9:9-20; 2 Cor 6:1-13

Did we notice how that Gospel reading began? ‘On that day’ – a day when Jesus had been teaching a large crowd of people about the kingdom of God, including those parables we heard last Sunday. And there were so many people gathered around him that day that Jesus got into a boat on the sea and sat there, in a natural amphitheatre, while he taught. And afterwards, when evening had come, he gets his disciples to go across to the other side of the sea – and so ‘they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.’ Jesus sat in a boat to teach people in a series of parables about the kingdom of God, and here he is, still in the boat, as a sudden storm comes up. And this story also serves as a parable about discipleship in the kingdom of God.

Because here we are, in the boat with Jesus. Look upwards. Look up at the ceiling, and see how it is designed like the hull of a boat. And this whole area of the building, where the congregation sits, is called the nave – and that comes from the Latin word for a boat. For centuries, people have thought of the Church as a boat – inside it we are safe and secure, but sometimes we sail on stormy seas. So this is a parable for us, a parable that involves us. We are in the boat – and out of the blue, a sudden storm is happening. ‘A great windstorm arose, and the waves began to beat against the boat so that the boat was already being swamped.’

This feels familiar, doesn’t it. There we are, trying to live our lives alongside Jesus, and things are going OK – and then something happens that throws us off-balance. Sometimes it’s as simple as getting an email about unexpected new role, or a sudden argument, or a bad test result at the doctors. Something happens and it’s not plain sailing any more. It’s scary. And then – what I think we all tend to do is what Mark tells us comes next. Jesus is fast asleep in the middle of all this, and they wake him up and say to him ‘Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?’

And don’t we all do this? Feel that God’s asleep and hasn’t noticed what’s happening to us? Think that we’ve been abandoned? Ask ‘where is God in all this?’ Wonder if God actually cares? I’m not going to ask for a show of hands for who’s done this – because I have a hunch that all of us would have our hands up. Because I think that we’ve all felt like this at one time or another. So here we are in the boat with the other disciples, and it’s stormy and we’re scared, and Jesus is asleep.

And then Jesus wakes up and calms everything down. ‘Peace! Be still!’ The wind stops, and the sea is calm again. And then, only when the storm is over, does Jesus ask why everyone is so scared, and why – in spite of having been with him for a while – they still haven’t any faith. It’s a question we have to answer sometimes, don’t we. Why, when we’ve been around Jesus for as long as we have, we forget sometimes that he is rich in power and love and that all of that is available to us. When something goes wrong we forget that the kingdom of God is still around us, and our lives can be filled with peace and hope, even in the middle of a storm. Part of discipleship is remembering that Jesus is always with us and loves us and can help us.

Because what happens next with the disciples is what can happen with us. ‘They were filled with great awe and said to one another “who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”’ We too have to acknowledge that Jesus is God. That all the power and might of God is in him. That all the power and might of God is on our side. It’s like what young David said, when faced with Goliath: ‘You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel …. This very day the LORD will deliver you into my hand … so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel.’ Part of discipleship is acknowledging the power of God. Of being able to say, with the psalmist, that ‘the Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a tower of strength in time of trouble’. Part of it is not letting ourselves get so distracted by the big, scary, or frustrating obstacles we face that we forget that we are the people of the living God.

And part of discipleship is – for us no less than for those early disciples – to listen to Jesus when he says ‘let us go across to the other side’. He was calling them to go with him to the other side of the sea of Galilee, into Gentile territory. Into a place where they’d be outsiders, unsure of exactly how to behave, uncertain of how they would be received. The journey was scary, but so was the destination. And Jesus still calls people onwards, away from their familiar worlds and into strange new places. Jesus still asks us to go somewhere new so that others can get a taste of what the kingdom of God is like. What new places have you been called into lately? What new things has our community at St Anne’s been asked to do? Part of discipleship is being prepared to go outside our comfort zones, to take up invitations that will stretch and challenge us, not knowing what the future will look like but only that Jesus is on the journey with us. That Jesus is in the boat with us.

And sometimes, that will be hard. St Paul knew what that felt like. He writes of great endurance, afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger – the list goes on. Fortunately few of us will have to put up with all of that. Sometimes Paul knew honour and good repute, but sometimes it was more dishonour and ill repute – and that can happen to any disciple. Sometimes, people might speak well of us, but there may be times when we’ll get laughed at or treated like an idiot. And sometimes it will indeed be tough, and sometimes it will indeed be scary. Remember that it was when the disciples were doing what Jesus wanted them to do – going across to the other side of the sea – that the great windstorm arose. One of the reasons this story has always been important to the Church is because it reminds us that having Jesus with us in the boat is never a guarantee that there will not be storms in our lives.

So as we think back to last Sunday and the parables of the kingdom of God, let’s remember this one as well. The parable where following Jesus and trying to live into God’s kingdom and share that with others can be a rocky ride in a small boat. The parable of discipleship where life can be scary and outside our comfort zones and where sudden storms can arise – but where Jesus is in the boat with us, and the power of God is surrounding us. And next time we are faced with a situation which seems too big to cope with, may we hear Jesus saying ‘ Peace! Be still’ and may we know then a great calm.

The (small) seeds of God’s kingdom

14 June 2015  Mark 4:26-34, 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

One of the things we remember especially about Jesus is the way he taught – using parables: little stories that connected with people’s everyday lives and made them think. Today we get to think about the kingdom of God. ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground … it is like a mustard seed’. All the time, Jesus kept coming back to the kingdom of God. It’s at the heart of what he taught, how he interacted with people, how he healed the sick and challenged those who thought they had it all under control. The kingdom of God was Jesus’ favourite theme.

And here is a collection of agricultural parables drawn from the Galilee of Jesus’ day: someone scattering seed on the ground and getting on with their lives, a tiny mustard seed being planted. The trouble with farming, and with gardening, is that it’s imprecise and uncontrolled. Seeds are sown, and then deep down in the soil, where we can’t see, something happens – and then there’s a plant, and then a harvest. As Jesus says, the seed sprouts and grows, without the farmer knowing how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. All the farmer has to do is leave it alone and trust that something is happening – and not, like children sometimes do, dig the seeds up every day to see if anything is growing yet.

Someone said once there are two possible traps Christians can fall into: one is not caring enough about our faith journey (maybe coming to worship every couple of months and picking up a Bible at home once or twice a year), and the other is trying too hard. I think Jesus is speaking to the second problem here. He’s reassuring us that we don’t have to exhaust ourselves – as individuals or as a congregation – trying too hard, and getting discouraged if we don’t see immediate results. When there’s no immediate sign of new growth shooting up we don’t have to conclude we’re doing something wrong and are simply no good at this sort of thing, and give up. And we mustn’t got so caught up with worrying about the harvest that we neglect to sow the seed in the first place. We just need to trust. Jesus is saying: sow the seeds and wait – God is doing something.

Have you ever had someone thank you for something you’ve completely forgotten? You know what I mean: someone tells you about something you said that really made a difference in their life – and you’ve no memory of it at all. Or you did what you thought was a small favour for a friend, and months or years later you find out it was the thing that stopped her sliding into despair. Or perhaps it was someone who’d never really gone to church or connected with God until you mentioned that you do – and 18 months later they turn up here one Sunday.

Those sort of experiences, when some small thing we say or do almost unaware changes someone’s life, are seeds that we sow. They can lie there, buried in a person’s heart, until the right moment, and then something happens. The seed sprouts and grows, and life is different. The sowing of seeds like that begins a process over which we don’t have control. We can interfere and spoil it all by over-watering, or we can help a bit by getting the right fertiliser in the soil, but we can’t really control it. Trying to control things is like digging up the seed to see if it’s sprouting yet.

So what seeds are we sowing? What seeds might St Anne’s, as a congregation, sow in the future? What seeds have other people sown in the lives of each of us for which we can give thanks? Jesus is saying, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground: sow the seeds and wait – God is doing something.’

And Jesus goes on: the kingdom of God ‘is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’ Jesus is setting up a contrast between a gigantic shrub and the tiny seed that produced it. The seeds of the kingdom of God are the mustard seeds, the tiniest words, the most inefficient attempts to reach out, the little actions of every day. In the kingdom of God, small is magnificent.

It’s like what happened in our first reading today. Samuel goes off to anoint the new king, and tension builds as he works his way through all the sons of Jesse, starting from the eldest and rejecting them all, one by one. Back then, the custom was to favour the eldest son, and if for some reason he wasn’t available, then the second son would be honoured. That’s not what happens here. Despite the declaration that the king would be ‘among the sons’, all of them are passed over. David, the youngest, was so off the radar that he wasn’t even there – he was away looking after the sheep. And that’s what we need to remember: God rejected all the older ones, all the tall, well-built sons who had been raised to think themselves important – and God chose the youngest – little David. God chose the mustard-seed son, and he grew up to be the greatest of Israel’s kings.

What does this mean for us? What does this mean for St Anne’s, where we sometimes describe ourselves as a ‘small parish’? I bet lots of us here have, at one time or another, looked across at other parishes, or at congregations from other denominations, and felt a bit envious of the number of people, amazing programmes, and amount of resources we see there. Today I’d like us to embrace this parable that Jesus told. Anyone who’s tempted to describe us as a small parish, please stop. We are not ‘a small parish’ – we are a ‘mustard seed-sized parish’.

And there’s something else going on with the mustard seed. Jesus is being funny and subversive all at the same time. Here’s what the Roman author Pliny said: ‘Mustard … with its pungent taste and fiery effect is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once’. (Natural History 19.170-171)

So when you grow mustard for use in cooking or medicine there’s the danger that it will simply take over the garden. In fact, Jewish law at the time of Jesus made it illegal to plant mustard seed in a garden – because it would grow and grow until there was nothing but mustard. The mustard plant is a dangerous one. Uncontrolled. Tenacious. Once it’s there, it’s not going away. Sometimes, it’s good to be reminded of Jesus’ subversive sense of humour. What do we think this might mean?

Think about that this week. But for now, let’s embrace our inner mustard seed, and remember that our words and actions are seeds that we sow, from which God will bring a harvest.

Te Pouhere Sunday

Celebrating our life as a Three Tikanga Church  7 June 2015

Luke 6:46-49; 2 Corinthians 5:14-19
Today we think some more about who we are. We can ask ourselves ‘what does it mean to be us?’ – us as Anglicans living here, part of the church of this province of Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia. It’s a day where we can celebrate our life as a Three Tikanga church. And I really like the fact that today, Te Pouhere Sunday, comes just a week after Trinity Sunday. Last week, we celebrated that God is One and also Three, the unity and diversity that is God – this week we celebrate the unity and diversity that is our church. There’s a certain symmetry in that, and I like it.

But first, let’s think about our Gospel reading for today, the parable of the two foundations. I was talking to Raj at the garage this week, the day after all the rain and the flooding in Dunedin, and we were feeling glad that such things are unlikely to affect us here in Northland. We’re built on rock here and, as Raj said, we’re up high and all the water drains downwards. This is exactly the sort of place you’d want to be building. And I remembered back to five years ago when we were renovating our parish hall, and how the first thing the builders did was to jack the hall up and re-pile it. Foundations are important: without a strong and secure foundation the whole building and everyone inside it are vulnerable.

That’s what Jesus was hooking into when he described those who not only come to him and hear his words but also act on them as being like people building a house who take care to dig down to lay the foundation on rock. There’s a consistency there that matters: words and actions lining up. We not only listen to what Jesus says to us but we put it into practice. That is the foundation on which we build our individual lives and our common life together, as the people of God in this place.

And why that Gospel reading was chosen for today, Te Pouhere Sunday, is because Constitutions are like foundations – they’re something we can build upon. Today we have an opportunity to give thanks for Te Pouhere, our Constitution. When it was drawn up in 1992 it was something genuinely new – in the words from our reading from the second letter to the Corinthians, it was a new creation in Christ: everything became new. And it provided for the three partners of this Church to order their affairs within their own cultural context: so we have Tikanga Maori, Tikanga Pakeha, and Tikanga Pasefika. Now foolish people don’t really care what they build on, or they opt for the easy way out. After all, digging down into rock to establish a firm foundation before building a house is difficult and time-consuming. And drawing up our Constitution in the early 1990s was like that: those who were involved at the time say it was a tough process, with a lot of straight talking required.

And even today sometimes, working together with the other Tikanga, with our Maori and Pasefika partners, can be like that. Sometimes things take a little longer, sometimes there can be tensions over the sharing of resources (who gets how much money), or who decides things that touch our common life together. It’s not always easy, working with this constitution which is the foundation of our life together. But that is true of anything truly worth doing. And when Maori, Pakeha and Pasefika worship and work together we are enabled to become something greater than each individual Tikanga could be on its own. It is a way of showing, to each other, and to the world at large, the love of Christ which is the source of our joy and an essential part of our friendship with God.

So when we ask ourselves ‘what does it mean to be us?’ as Anglicans living here within the church of this province of Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia, what sort of answers do we come up with? One is that being us means we value diversity, that we see it as good, one of God’s blessings to us – a blessing from the triune God in whom there is also diversity alongside unity. Even though many of us live and worship within one Tikanga, the Constitution, te Pouhere, provides a model for how we can live, for it says there is never only one right way to think, to act and to worship: there can be several right ways, several ways of living out our calling to be people of God. And knowing that there are several right ways to do things fits in our life together in this parish, where we often celebrate the fact that we don’t all have to think the same.

Being us, being Anglican here, means also that we value choice, for which Tikanga someone belongs to isn’t fixed by ethnicity, but it is something they can choose. It’s about where you find your home, which language and customs you primarily use in worship and in parish life. And knowing that we have that choice, and that there are several ways in which to worship and live means we’re less likely to live in silos, associating only with those who are like ourselves. We can share our lives and our resources with one another, and learn from each other. And this in turn reminds us of the importance of partnership, of the joy that can come from working together on a common task. It helps us to live out of that diversity which we find inside God, which we find in the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Being us, here in Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia means that we can live, work and worship in company with people who are different from ourselves. Te Pouhere, our Constitution, gives us a wonderful gift. Like the strands in the flax cross which is our symbol, strands which are for ever moving outwards, it keeps us facing away from ourselves, reminds us that we are part of a larger unity. And when we use te reo Maori, and the languages of the Pacific, in our worship we acknowledge that larger unity and deepen our sense of belonging to one another.

And being us, being part of a church that recognises a diversity of ways of being and doing things, helps link us to the world outside the church. New Zealand is much more a multicultural society than it was even when my family came and settled here in the early sixties. So it’s good for the church to reflect this, and to do so in a way that honours our history, that honours where we have all come from, and the things that have happened in this land. In that sense, our Constitution is an expression of mission. It keeps us moving outwards together, partnering God’s ways together. It says that all of us are Christ’s body, Christ’s work in the world. And that reminds us that we build our lives on the foundation of hearing and acting on Christ’s words when he sends us out to share with others the good news of God’s love and grace. And so we pray

Blessed are you, God of Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia
in all the peoples who live here,
in all the lessons we have learned, in all that remains for us to do.
Blessed are you because you need us;
because you make us worthwhile,
because you give us people to love and work to do
for your universe, for your world, and for ourselves. Amen.

Holiness, Love & Calling

Trinity Sunday, 31 May 2015 Isaiah 6:1-8; Ps 29; John 3:1-17;Romans 8:12-17

Trinity Sunday encourages us to think about who God is, and who we are. It reminds us that God – the One God whom we worship – exists in three persons and is known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Trinity describes the way that we, as Christians, experience God. We know God as God is revealed in the person and life of Jesus, and this revelation happens by and through the Holy Spirit. The Trinity speaks to how we discover and experience who God is. But today also speaks to how we experience ourselves. It speaks of holiness, and love, and calling.

Isaiah comes to the temple to worship one day and encounters God. And he is suddenly, overwhelmingly, aware of the holiness of God. God is so holy that even the angels cover their faces in God’s presence. Being faced with such holiness, how would we react? How would we feel? What would we do? The psalmist says, ‘The voice of the Lord makes the oaks to writhe, and strips the forest bare: while in God’s temple all cry Glory.’ What happens inside us when we hear that? In the instant that Isaiah is overwhelmed by God’s holiness he is struck by a sense of his own sinfulness. He feels unclean, unworthy, he experiences himself as lost. Maybe you’d feel the same – I think I would.

But this God who is holy and majestic is a God of love. God is reaching out to people in a deep and personal way, wanting to connect with those who have somehow become lost, wanting to send someone to call them back home. ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ God calls Isaiah to be that person. And we need to remember that God is still holy, still loving, and still calling people to bring others home.

To bring home ones like Nicodemus, who could so easily be living in our neighbourhood. He’d probably describe himself as a spiritual person, as so many of our friends would. He knows a lot of things – he’s a bit of an expert in his field, and yet he senses something is missing. So he slips out one night and goes looking for what he lacks. He goes to see Jesus and in a long deep conversation he learns – and we learn – that God loves the world and everything in it. He learns – and we learn – that Jesus was sent by God to save us, just like Isaiah was called, only more so. And Nicodemus learns – and we learn – that that the Holy Spirit brings us new life, helps us to be born from above, enables some of that holiness to rub off on us.

For as holy as God is, God doesn’t wait until we have ticked all the right theological and moral boxes, or become a religious expert like Nicodemus, or until we have changed enough to be loveable (like Isaiah felt he needed to). God just loves. And we, like Nicodemus, are invited into relationship with this holy, calling, loving God. We are invited into something that will give us a sense of belonging that we have been missing, and will let us experience what ‘being found’ feels like after being lost.

And it’s when we enter into that relationship that we can experience and then maybe understand a little of the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Paul tells the community of Christians in Rome that ‘all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.’ And that means that we can relate to God as one would relate intimately to an earthly parent. ‘Abba’ is Aramaic for ‘daddy’. It’s the endearing term children use with their very own father. This takes the child of God into the same relationship that Jesus had with the Father. Our life as Christians is gathered up into the life of the Trinity, and into the love, and the holiness, that is at its heart.

We are called into this relationship. For some, the call comes with the power of a thunderstorm, with the voice of ‘the glorious God who makes the thunder upon the great waters’ (as the psalmist puts it); for others, it is a still small voice so that we have to quieten ourselves to listen – but we are all called, and we have to decide how we answer that call. Sometimes we respond as Isaiah did, with an awareness of how different we are from God, and how much we lack, and that sort of response acknowledges that God is a great deal more holy and more splendid than we are. But another way we respond is to call God ‘Father’, Abba, to find ourselves in a place where we are deeply and intimately loved. And yet another way in which we find ourselves responding is by our willingness to be, as Isaiah became, the ones who are sent to share with others the message of God’s love.

For there is something in this day that asks us to reflect on who God is, and who we are. To acknowledge that we are not holy and far from splendid, that we can feel that something is missing inside (just as Nicodemus felt) – but also to reach out and accept the love and the call that are offered to us. We’re invited to sense the wind of the Sprit blowing through our lives and so to call God Father, just as Jesus did. For today, as always, there is something that invites us to experience holiness, and love, and calling from the inside. God as Trinity is, as St Augustine described it, the One who loves, and the One who is loved, and the love that unites them: God is the Lover, the Beloved, and Love itself.

Maybe we don’t always understand, with our minds, how this works. But maybe it’s more important to understand with our hearts how it feels. For Trinity Sunday is not about an idea that we believe in. It is something that we live. What matters is the experience of God, witnessed to in Scripture and in our own lives. What matters is knowing ourselves to be a people who belong to a God who loves, a God who is Love, and then living out of that experience of holiness and love and calling so that we can help to draw others in. For it is the Triune God, in all of that holiness, who loves and calls us, and so we can respond, with the angels and with Isaiah by saying first ‘holy, holy, holy’ and then, ‘here am I, send me’.

The breath of God

Pentecost, 24 May 2015  Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27,16:4b-15; Ezekiel 37:1-14

Exciting. Disturbing. Energising. Chaotic. Moments of clarity or of confusion. All these and more are what it feels like when the Holy Spirit comes. We sense some of these when we look back at what happened the first time, when we listen to the reading from Acts. That’s a peculiar mixture of things, isn’t it. And alongside the wind and the fire, there’s two things going on with the people in this story – can anyone remember what they are?

The foreign languages spoken by the disciples. And these were uneducated people from Galilee – they’d never been taught to speak anything much beyond their own language, yet here they were being understood by a bunch of foreigners. That’s the first thing. And then there’s the boldness with which they spoke. Right up till then, the disciples were frightened, hiding away in case someone came and arrested them like they’d arrested Jesus. Yet here they were speaking up bravely and publicly about Jesus. Together, those two things helped so many people hear the good news about God’s love and power, shown through Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, that the Church was born. God’s Spirit was poured out on everyone, and everyone who welcomed it belonged to God. Today, Pentecost, is the birthday of the Church – it’s our birthday, and so we celebrate it.

But we kind of miss the point if all we do to celebrate our collective birthday is to retell the stories about the past. About all the exciting, disturbing, confusing and chaotic things that happened on that day in Jerusalem when a bunch of frightened, uneducated people stood up and started speaking. Because if what we do is just to talk about the past it would be like celebrating someone’s birthday by showing just their baby photos and not talking at all about what they are doing now, and their hopes and dreams for the future. What we do today, as we celebrate Pentecost, is to connect the presence of the Holy Spirit with our lives today – right here, right now.

That’s what our readings this morning can help with – even the one from the Gospel of John, which sometimes seems quite abstract. But what Jesus is saying there boils down to two key things. Jesus was about to go away – to be killed, rise again from the dead, and then return to his Father in heaven. His friends wouldn’t be hanging out with him every day. But, Jesus says, it’s going to be OK, because the Holy Spirit will come. The Holy Spirit is God’s way of being with us always, once Jesus wasn’t there to be seen and touched any longer. So today we can remember that God is with us always and everywhere. Who else thinks that is really good news? And there’s something else that the Holy Spirit does. The Spirit helps us to know what is true. And that’s also good news, because all of us face a whole lots of claims every day about what is right and good. Buy this, don’t eat that, do this if you want to be successful, say that to get people to like you – all of that sort of stuff. So Jesus is saying that God’s Spirit works deep inside us, helping us to know which claims are really true, helping us to know what is the right thing to do. That’s what I meant at the beginning when I talked about moments of clarity. Who else thinks that is really good news?

Today invites us to recognise the Holy Spirit alive and acting, not just on one particular in Jerusalem way back in the first century, but always and everywhere today. This day challenges us to ask where the Spirit is in our communities and our world. But sometimes we have trouble with this, and I think I know at least one reason why this is. Who can remember what happened in our first reading, the one from the prophet Ezekiel? It was a really dark time in the history of the people of God, and Ezekiel had a vision in which there were all these dry bones lying around. And then the bones all came together, like assembling a skeleton and putting flesh onto it. And then God breathed into all the bodies and they came back to life again.

You see, the Holy Spirit is the breath of God breathing in us. And this is why it can be hard to recognise the Spirit at work within us. Because we’re seldom aware of our own breath. We just breathe in and out, mostly without thinking much about it. It’s only when there’s something wrong – if we’re puffed from running, or we have a cold and our noses are all stuffed up – that we’re suddenly conscious of our breath. Mostly it’s just there, and we wouldn’t be alive without it, but we’re not aware of it. It’s like that with the Holy Spirit. Without God’s breath in us we wouldn’t be spiritually alive – but most of the time we just sail along without being aware of it. That’s why it’s good to think about it, as we do today – just as we started this service by becoming aware of our own breathing. So this week, let’s pause every so often to focus on our own breathing. And as we do that – let us remember the Holy Spirit, God living inside us.

One of the things that reading from Ezekiel teaches us is about hope. It’s a gloriously weird story, and also a gloriously hopeful one. For it reminds us that Holy Spirit can not only bring dry bones back to life, but it can resolve situations that look hopeless. And God’s Spirit can give us the words to say when someone asks us about Jesus, and also the courage to speak them.

But there’s something else it’s good to remember. As anyone who lives in Wellington knows, you can’t control the wind. It blows and blows, and there’s not much we, or the Met Office, can do about it. The Holy Spirit is like that. We can’t control it. When the Spirit is around it can be exciting, and energising, but it can also feel disturbing, confused, chaotic. But one thing’s for certain: the Holy Spirit is God calling us into adventures. What adventures do you think we’ll have this year? What adventures might we have this week?

Chosen

10 May 2015  John 15:9-17; 1 John 5:1-6; Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98

What does it mean to be chosen? What do we think when we hear Jesus say – for he says it to us, as surely as he said it to those first disciples – ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you’? What does that feel like for us? I think for me (and I’m not one to ask other people a question unless I’m willing to answer it myself) it means a whole range of things. It gives me a feeling of being loved and wanted, the security that says I’m not going to be left on the outside (you know, like those moments at school where teams are being picked in the playground and you never want to be one of those kids that always seem to be the last to have their names called out). So knowing myself to be chosen by Jesus makes me feel loved, and secure. And it gives me a sense of belonging with a whole lot of other people, of being part of a community, that community of the chosen. Those are all good feelings.

And yet … there is also something just a bit daunting about having been chosen by Jesus. Because there are tasks that go with it. Being appointed to bear fruit – and lasting fruit at that. Being obedient – doing the things that Jesus wants us to do, going places we are called to go – and often those are things we don’t necessarily know all the details of ahead of time. Everyone who takes their relationship with Jesus seriously will know what it feels like when you are called to do something that’s scary, or difficult, or that will ask from you more than you think you have to offer. And it’s significant that in this part of John’s Gospel, the part that’s called the ‘Farewell Discourses’, Jesus is simultaneously comforting his friends and preparing them for what their future will look like. Because there’s comfort & security here, and also challenge. They – & we – are chosen, loved, & called into tasks that are bigger than we are.

This is actually good news. Jesus says he is saying these things so that his joy may be in us, and our joy may be complete. For there is joy in knowing ourselves to be known and held and loved and entrusted with a task. We have the love and the joy that only Jesus’ friends have, we have all the blessings that go along with our relationship with him – and we must also understand that we are blessed in order to be a blessing to others. And that’s the way it has always been. Right back to Abraham and Sarah, and all through the story of God’s people Israel, runs the thread that God’s people are blessed so that they can be a blessing to others. What does this mean for us? One way, I think, that we see this being worked out in our daily life is that through joining together, with those who quietly put bags of sausages into our fridge, and others who push the BBQ out onto the forecourt twice a month, we at St Anne’s can be a blessing to the people of this community. How else do we see this worked out? How else can we share with others the blessings we have received from God?

John’s community, the one to whom today’s epistle reading was first written, were going through a difficult time. Things were confusing, they were sometimes afraid, and unsure what to do. But they get called back to the basics: you know who you are, and whose you are, and you know what you have been told from the beginning, the truth of what you believe. So there’s no need to panic or argue with one another: God has the situation under control. Focus on living your faith instead – or as the writer puts it: go out and conquer the world. It’s a reminder that God chose us, and loves us, and plans to use us to change the world and make it into a better place. Again, it’s God blessing us so that we can be a blessing to others.

And what we most have to do is love – that’s the key command: love God and love the people of God. This isn’t always as easy or as straightforward as it sounds. One of the interesting things about being the people of God, about being chosen, is that God is wondrously indiscriminate in whom God choses. This is about remembering, in the midst of our delight about being chosen, that we are not the only ones. We watch Peter come to grips with this in today’s reading from Acts. It takes up the story of his dealings with Cornelius, a centurion who was favourably inclined towards the Jews but who was still, unmistakably, a Gentile. And, of course, unmistakably, a member of the occupying Roman forces. In the normal course of events he and Peter should never have met, and certainly never eaten together or prayed together, but we see here how God calls unexpected people and invites them to become part of the team. Peter and those with him were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on these Gentiles. They had to accept that it was not just Jews that were chosen – that being chosen by God can happen to anyone. Absolutely anyone.

We shouldn’t underestimate the element of surprise here. The shock of having their ideas about who was in and who was out completely overturned. Where they had been thinking that the only way to God was the way they had come to God, they found themselves having to recalibrate. Where they had been thinking that the only right way to do something was the way they had always done it, they found themselves having to accept that in God there are infinite possibilities.

And that got me wondering. Who are the people we would be most surprised to hear that Jesus had chosen? What are the paths that we would be most amazed to discover can be taken to reach God? And mixed up in all those elements of surprise is the idea that amongst the chosen with whom we are called to share our lives and our sense of being the people of God are those who are different from us. To whom might we be called to open our doors and our lives? Are they people who think differently, like different music, those who are much younger or older than us, or who completely piss us off, were it not that they are our sisters and brothers in Christ, and chosen by Jesus just as we are? When were we last surprised by how and where and in whom God is working? When have we joined the psalmist in singing to the Lord a new song?

Because today reminds us of the sense of surprising newness that comes with being the people of God. That newness sits alongside – and is part of – the joy and the love and the challenge of being chosen. For Jesus said ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.’

Abiding and bearing fruit

3 May 2015 John 15:1-8, Acts 8:26-40, 1 John 4:7-21

Part of growing up, I think, is coming to realise who we are. To work out the constants in our lives, the non-negotiables, who we are when no-one’s looking, and how we fit into the world around us. Another part of growing up is realising whose we are – and that’s about belonging. To whom do we belong – our primary relationship? Who are the people we belong with – what community are we part of? When Jesus describes himself as the true vine, he’s helping his disciples do both these things. Within Jewish tradition, the vine was a symbol of Israel: God brought a vine out of Egypt, planted it in the promised land, and God tends it. When Jesus is saying ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower’ he means he is the true Israel, the one who shows God’s purposes. And his followers are God’s people: as long as they stay connected to him this is who they are and whose they are: people of God. It’s no coincidence that the liturgy we use today – the one we call ‘p404’ but let’s give it its proper name – is the ‘Thanksgiving of the People of God’. For it is as the people of God that we gather today, just as it is as the people of God that we live our lives throughout the week. A French cardinal [Cardinal Suhard] summed up what this life entails. Following Christ, being a witness, he said, ‘means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.’

So Jesus tells his disciples that they are the people of God, branches of the vine, and reminds them how they are to live. He says, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.’ Two words are repeated over and over in this Gospel passage: ‘abide’ and ‘fruit’ ‘abide’ and ‘fruit’ – and they are linked. ‘Abide’ is about staying connected: the branch must remain joined to the vine – otherwise it’s just a dead twig, only suitable as kindling. The branch is nothing without its connection.

Abiding in, remaining in, the vine: it’s the language of intimacy, of a deep and trusting relationship. For John, salvation is, above all, a relationship with the Son and with the Father through the Son. It’s through this that healing comes, to individuals and to communities. It’s the language of hope. And it’s the language of dependence – and today, we’re suspicious of dependence. We want to be independent, self-reliant, able to stand on our own two feet, able to go it alone.

What Jesus is telling us this morning, is that going it alone is fine if all you aspire to be is kindling. But if we’re after something more, then we need to be prepared for a life of dependence, of relying not on ourselves but on God, of staying connected to the vine who is Jesus. Because it was through the close relationship of Jesus and his followers that the good news was proclaimed. And it’s only through the close relationship that we have with Christ that the good news of God’s love can still be proclaimed to our world today.

For the other repeated word is ‘fruit’. And the thing we have to remember is that grape vines don’t exist in order to be an interesting landscaping feature – to cover up an unsightly wall, to make the countryside look pretty. The whole point of grape vines is grapes. Grapes to be turned into wine, or raisins, or to eat, all fresh and juicy. And what is true of this image is to be true of us also. The people of God do not exist to be an interesting landscaping feature, to have beautiful buildings, or to be yet another interest group, or one more ‘volunteer organisation’ amongst many. We exist to bear fruit. It’s an outward-looking purpose: the vine does not eat its fruit: the fruit are there for others. What fruit are we bearing at the moment? What fruit will come from us this year?

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts shows us what ‘fruit’ might look like, what it might be like when we allow God to work through us to touch the lives of others. For Philip let himself be available, was willing to be used by God, was listening to God’s voice within him. And he was looking outwards, to someone who was not yet connected to the healing life and strength of God – someone, indeed, that by the standards of the law would be excluded from a Jewish congregation. Philip engages with this eunuch, bringing him into the ongoing conversation of faith, explaining the scriptures for him. Such a simple question – ‘do you understand what you are reading?’ – surely that’s one we could ask as well. Part of abiding in Jesus is letting the words of scripture live inside us. This story assures us that there are no boundaries to where the gospel might spread, no-one who might not be welcomed into the People of God. When we read this, we are seeing God’s grace in action. Where else have we seen God’s grace in action lately?

How can we bear fruit? How can we imagine being beyond ourselves, and making ourselves available for God to use us, as God used Philip? The necessary thing is being connected, abiding in Jesus. For there’s no way we can live up to our potential, bear the fruit that we are here to bear, if we have no grounding, no sense of who we are and whose we are, no sense of possibility outside ourselves.

And when the Gospel speaks of bearing fruit, and when I invite us to ask ourselves what our fruit might be this year, it’s not to lay down a ‘should’. This is not about feeling guilty, deciding that we’re going to work really hard on our fruit-bearing skills, squeezing fruit out of ourselves with extra effort. The vine bears fruit because the vine-dresser is good, and prunes well, and because that’s what vines do – as long as the branches stay connected to the main vine. We have a choice – to go it alone, or to accept a life of dependence on God; to choose to abide in Jesus, or not, to be fruitful or to opt for a career in kindling.

How do we abide in Jesus? How do we choose the place our souls abide? John’s letter is useful, for helps us to look inwards, at the quality of our life as a community, here at St Anne’s. John’s letter says that those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. There’s a feeling of stability in that image, of resilience, being able to weather emotional storms and whatever the world might throw at us because we are joined to God deep down inside us. And a sign of that abiding in God is how we treat those around us, our families and the members of our church community. How can we help each other stay closely connected to God? Because, again, we can’t go it alone. We are here to help each other know who we are and whose we are. And I know what helps me enormously is the feeling of being part of a community, of having all of you to ground me, and keep me honest, and work with me. What helps us all is being people who can encourage each other when it’s tough and celebrate together when things go well. Because we’re in this together, aren’t we, as we help each other to live in such a way that our lives simply would not make sense if God did not exist.

The Lord my shepherd

26 April 2015 Psalm 23; John 10:11-18

‘The Lord is my shepherd: therefore can I lack nothing.’ The trouble with this psalm, I suspect, is that some of us know it so well that we can say it on autopilot. It’s a psalm of contentment and trust in God – and if we’re not careful we can over-sentimentalise it. Because there’s more to the biblical image of a shepherd that the comforting feeling we get when we hear this. It’s helpful to remember that back when this was written the role and title of ‘shepherd’ were used for leaders. It’s a royal image: kings were the shepherds of their people; indeed the opening words of this psalm in the Latin are ‘Dominus regit me’ – the Lord rules me.

It was the shepherd’s job to protect and provide for the flock: to lead the sheep out each day to find fresh pasture. There’s a very basic set of wants that the shepherd provides: food, drink, tranquillity, rescue when lost, freedom from the fear of evil and death. These are the things that God wants to provide for us. These are the things that we do not lack. What’s not on the list, of course, is all the plethora of things that advertising tries to make us want. Because that’s what advertising, especially on television, does: it aims to create a sense of ‘I must have this new thing in order to be happy, or to appear attractive, or to feel successful.’ There’s also the compulsion to be constantly entertained. Let’s try not to get sucked into all this. Because this psalm reminds us that the life of a sheep is a simple one, and invites us to trust that the shepherd will provide us with all that we need.

In the Holy Land there are no fenced fields – and no feeding out of hay or silage. The shepherd leads the sheep out each day to graze in the wilderness, to find pasture, going further and further afield where necessary to get to fresh grass. Grazing in ‘green pastures’ beside peaceful waters is the ideal – and it does not always come easily. Shepherds have to know what they are doing – knowing the terrain, and knowing their sheep. It’s common for a group of shepherds to gather at midday around a spring or well where the sheep can drink, rest – and mingle with one another. Of course, when that happens the flocks all get mixed up together. When it’s time to move on, each shepherd gives his call and his sheep recognise that and trot off after him. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading ‘I know my own and my own know me.’

Something I discovered this week is that sheep are afraid to drink from moving water, even if it is shallow. If there’s a flowing stream nearby the shepherd will dig a short channel that leads away from it so the sheep can line up and drink – that’s what the psalmist means by the still waters, ‘the waters of peace’.

And it was the shepherd’s job to make sure that the flock was kept safe from animal predators and people who might steal and destroy them. The sheep were valuable: to lose even one was costly – and so the shepherd was ready to risk his life to keep them safe. Because one of the things about sheep is that they have no defences. Dogs have teeth, cats (as some of us know very well) have claws, horses can kick and run, but sheep have no bite, or claws, and they cannot run fast enough to get away from a predator. Their only defence is the shepherd.

So the shepherd guards the sheep, protecting them, going in search of them when they are lost, and guiding them in the right paths to take. The point of this is that nothing is static: the shepherd and the sheep are on a journey together. And yes, sometimes that journey will take us through ‘the valley of the shadow of death’: having God with us does not always prevent us from going through difficult times, does not stop anything bad from happening to us. Evil and death are real and must be faced. But when the journey means that we have to go through (and not around) suffering, we can know that God is with us.

And then the imagery changes: we have a woman preparing a banquet, an abundance of rich food and drink, and the special favours reserved for an honoured guest. In that culture, perhaps even more than today, feasts are part of the rituals of thanksgiving, of celebration. What does it mean for us that the main thing we do together, with God and with each other, is a meal, the Eucharist? That God spreads a table for us?

The psalm ends with a reference to ‘length of days’. It’s a delightful ambiguity: it could mean ‘for our lifespans, for all the days of our lives’ or it could mean ‘for all of God’s days’, ‘for eternity’. Perhaps it means both. And perhaps ‘dwelling in the house of the Lord’ is there to remind us that wherever we go we are in God’s house: that all things were made by God and all nature is God’s.

The psalm talks about God, while the Gospel places Jesus in the role of the Good Shepherd – Jesus who indeed laid down his life for the sheep. This is where any temptation to sentimentality falls over, for the shepherding that Jesus did took him to the cross. Does that change how we look at this image, and all the places in Scripture where we encounter the figure of the shepherd?

It’s worth turning this psalm around and allowing ourselves to think, not just of the leadership of God, and of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, but of ourselves, and what kind of sheep we want to be. If God is indeed our shepherd and, as the metaphor suggests to us, our king, what does that rule look like? Where and how do we let God reign over us?

What do we actually need, that we know God will provide for us? And what constitutes the still waters, the waters of peace, from which we can drink and alongside which we can rest? The psalm reminds us of the need for rest, and refreshment: how intentional are we, do you think, about remembering to rest instead of always rushing around?

What does it feel like, to remember that we (as sheep) are immensely valuable to God, that each of us matters to God – and that we are so valuable that Jesus laid down his life to keep us safe? How does that affect how we think about others, about those we know who do not yet have a relationship with God? How might we act towards them, if our actions are informed by our knowledge that each of them also matters so much to God?

Where is our journey with God taking us at the moment? Do we have a sense that Jesus is guiding us? And are we prepared to follow Jesus through the valley of the shadow of death – to experience difficulty, to risk suffering? What does trust look like for each of us? What does trust look like for us as a parish, or as a diocese?

How do we celebrate together, and where do we see signs of the abundance that God can give us? And if the entire created universe is God’s house, how does this affect how we care for this planet? What does it feel like, to know that God’s goodness and mercy are chasing after us? Will we keep running – or allow ourselves to be caught? This week, let us allow ourselves to be chased after and caught by God, and let God lead us to places where we will be fed and watered and rested, so that we can continue our journey with Jesus.

Signs of resurrection life

19 April 2015 Luke 24:36b-48

Another week, another resurrection appearance of Jesus to his disciples. It’s like we have to keep hearing the stories, keep talking about them, to reinforce in our minds and our hearts that the resurrection is real, that Jesus is alive, and that no one story can do justice to such a mind-blowing experience. So here we are, back at Easter Day itself. The women have seen the empty tomb, heard the resurrection message from the angelic visitors, and told it to the disciples. Peter has rushed to the empty tomb; Cleopas and his wife have met Jesus on the road to Emmaus, recognised him in the breaking of the bread, and raced back to Jerusalem to tell the others. And then, suddenly, Jesus himself stands among them.

The first thing he says to them is ‘Peace be with you’. We heard the same thing last week, in John’s Gospel. And this is something we need to remember: Jesus brings peace to the anxious. Let’s expand on that a bit. Jesus knew how the disciples were feeling. He realised that the events of the past three days – his arrest, his death, and now his resurrection – had completely thrown them. He understood their fears. And Jesus knows how we feel, and understands our fears. And to disciples then and to disciples now he brings the peace that is deeper then we can comprehend. One of the signs of resurrection life is that peace.

And then Jesus acknowledges not only the fear, but also the doubts that have arisen in the disciples’ hearts. Again, it’s like last Sunday’s reading from John. Resurrection is so earth-shattering that it’s accompanied by doubt, and by disbelief, and by wonder – and we shouldn’t be surprised about all that. And then Jesus goes on to reassure the disciples that it really was him, and no bodiless ghost that stood before them. He shows them his wounds and he eats in front of them. Ghosts don’t eat, but living people do.

We shouldn’t miss the significance of this, this emphasis on the physicality of Jesus’ presence. Jesus is not only showing them that he is really and truly alive – as if that wasn’t important enough on its own – but he is showing them that the risen Christ is the Jesus who died. He’s removing the possibility that the one worshipped by disciples then and by disciples now is some sort of ‘eternal Christ’ disconnected from the Jesus of the historical past. And what that means is that we can’t cut the pain out of our understanding of what happened, for Jesus’ resurrected body bears the marks of the suffering he endured on our behalf. We can’t opt for a form of resurrection life – for Jesus and for the Church in our own day – that cuts out suffering for others and a real engagement with the issues and the pains of life in this world. Easter is forever joined to Good Friday. One of the signs of resurrection life is a willingness to embrace the cross. Another sign is a deep engagement with the world around us: with people’s pains as well as their joys, with their physical hunger and need for shelter as well as their spirituality, with the fabric of this earth and clean air and unpolluted seas as well as philosophy. Jesus’ resurrected body was real, and that heightens our engagement with all forms of reality in our world, the day-to-day world we actually live in.

And then Jesus reminds them of what he said to them before his death: again, there is continuity between the words of the risen Christ and those of the historical Jesus. Jesus goes on to interpret Scripture for them. He unpacks ‘everything written about [him] in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms’ that must be fulfilled. The idea of prophecy and fulfilment runs through this Gospel. And Luke is also stressing that the good news of Jesus Christ is in continuity with what God had been doing for centuries, that the resurrection is grounded in the history and the hopes of God’s people Israel. One of the signs of resurrection life is a trust in the consistent faithfulness of God. Another sign is a deep and abiding commitment to Scripture. Scripture reveals God’s living word in Jesus Christ: we meet Jesus in the pages of the Bible, and we also understand that Bible through Christ. He opens our minds as he opened those of his disciples on that first Easter Day.

And then Jesus gives his disciples a mission. He sends them (that’s what the word ‘mission’ means) to share the message of repentance and forgiveness, the message of fresh starts and new lives, with everyone. We are sent to share the same things. He tells them that they are witnesses of his life and his death and his resurrection. And the same goes for us: we are witnesses too, witnesses to what God has done for us in Christ. And the two things Jesus said to his disciples back then he says to us today. First he says to start from where you are. Those earliest disciples had to begin from Jerusalem, because that is where they were. We begin where we are: in the places we spend our time – our homes, our schools and workplaces, where we live and where we play sport or meet other people. And the second thing Jesus says is the assurance that disciples, then and now, do not have to do all this by themselves. Disciples then and now are ‘clothed with power from on high’: God’s Holy Spirit is alongside us, to speak for us and through us. You see, God never calls us to a task without also empowering us for that task. One of the signs of resurrection life is this sense of mission, this knowledge that we are sent, in God’s name and with God’s power, to share God’s love with the world around us.

So what does resurrection life look like? It looks like this: peace for the anxious; doubt and disbelief and wonder all mixed in together. A willingness to embrace the cross, not running away from suffering (our own or other people’s); a deep engagement with the world around us, with the issues that matter to this planet and to the people that live on it. A trust in the consistent faithfulness of God, knowing we have a relationship with a God who has an extremely long track-record of keeping promises and walking with God’s people; a deep and abiding commitment to Scripture, to reading and hearing it, reflecting on it, and trying to live it out. And a sense of mission, a feeling that we are called and empowered to share God’s good news with others.

That’s what I think resurrection life looks like. What do you think? What does resurrection life look like to you – and where do we see signs of it in our own lives, and in our common life together? That’s something to think about this week.

Doubting is OK

12 April 2015   John 20:19-31

So it’s a week after Easter Day, and we have a reading about something that happened a week after Easter Day. There’s a certain symmetry in that, a certain sensibleness in the Lectionary’s gift to us. But before we get to the part that happened a week later, we are taken back to the evening of Easter Day itself. The disciples are holed up somewhere, scared that the Jewish authorities would come and get them as they had arrested Jesus, fearful, perhaps that they would be killed as well. Mary Magdalene has come with an amazing report about meeting the risen Jesus, and they don’t really know what to think about that. Then suddenly, they don’t quite know how, Jesus is there amongst them.

He shows them his hands and his side, the wounds of the crucifixion, taking them back to the violence, the grief, and the despair of the previous Friday. And then Jesus turns them towards the future. ‘Peace be with you’, he says to them. ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ They don’t get to linger too long in the past, with their pain and their fears. They don’t get to hide behind locked doors either. Instead, they are given a job to do: they are sent out into the world, to speak God’s forgiveness. And they are given the power to do this, for Jesus breathes on them and says to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ This is John’s version of Pentecost: no strange languages, just the peace which comes from encountering the risen Jesus.

Only, not everyone amongst the disciples encountered the risen Jesus. One in particular was not there that evening: Thomas was missing. And when they told him what had happened, he wouldn’t or couldn’t believe it. We’ve nicknamed this guy ‘Doubting Thomas’ but I suspect he’s a favourite with many of us. He’s the sceptical one, the one who wants proof, not hearsay. He’s the one who says, ‘unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’ Thomas is the one who refuses to believe just from what his friends tell him: he wants evidence that he can see and experience for himself.

And, actually, so do we. We want what he wants. We want the proof. And we feel more than a bit jealous of all those first disciples who were there, who saw Jesus walk into the room, who felt his breath on them, who touched his hands. We even feel jealous of Thomas, in spite of the nickname. Because then we come to what happened the week after Easter.

For that time, Thomas was there. That time Thomas did meet the risen Jesus. After a week where Thomas had been listening to all their excited stories of what it was like, what Jesus said, how he acted, this time he is there. What’s more, Jesus seems to know about Thomas’s insistence on touching as well as seeing, his need to finger the wounds. But surprisingly when he sees and hears Jesus, Thomas doesn’t feel the need to touch any more. He comes out with an amazing confession of faith: ‘my Lord and my God.’

Today’s reading is for all the Thomases we know. For all those who want to see and experience for themselves. For all those who aren’t afraid to voice their doubts. For all those who refuse to go along with what everyone else is saying, but who still hang around because even though these people are saying something which feels like nonsense, they are still a community to be part of. This is for all the Thomases we know – and some of them are us.

This story of what happened the week after Easter Day reassures us that there is a place in the community for those who aren’t scared to doubt, and to voice that doubt. It reminds us that faith and doubt are not incompatible with one another. That when we meet people who, like Thomas, are brave enough to say they have doubts about all this Jesus stuff, their honesty is worthy of immense respect.

And this story reminds us that within a community people can be in different places and experience things at different speeds. It was like that with the process of experiencing the resurrection. In John’s Gospel Jesus appears first to Mary Magdalene, and he sends her with a message to the rest of the disciples. But even after hearing her testimony, we find them still hiding behind locked doors, scared of what might happen to them. Then they see Jesus, they begin to experience the resurrection for themselves, and it’s only Thomas who is left behind, still wondering, still waiting, still hoping. Until the week after Easter Day, when Thomas had his own encounter with the risen Jesus.

What does this story say to us? For those of us who are Thomas, for those who have doubts, it tells us to be bold enough to express those. Because nowhere is Thomas told, either by the other disciples or by Jesus, that doubting is wrong, or something to be ashamed of, or something that good people do not do. Doubting is OK. It is part of life, and it sits alongside the hope that Thomas had, the hopes that we all have, that violence will not triumph, that death is not the end, that the resurrection is real and Jesus is alive. Those were the hopes that brought Thomas back to the house again, the week after Easter Day. Perhaps those are the hopes that have brought us along here today.

And this story says to those of us who have Thomases that we know that there is something that we can do. We can say to all the Thomases in our lives what the other disciples said to that first Thomas: ‘We have seen the Lord’. We can respect the doubting, the questioning and the continued hoping of all the Thomases around us, and we can remember what it was that led Thomas to his great confession of faith: ‘my Lord and my God.’ It was his encounter with the risen Jesus. And that is the challenge to us all: to speak through our words and our actions of our own encounters with the risen Jesus. To live so that those who meet us can know that the resurrection is real and Jesus is alive. And to worship so that those who hear us at prayer can know that we have also received the Holy Spirit that Jesus breathes onto his disciples, that we are in the presence of the God who made heaven and earth.

A disorderly and unpredictable universe

Easter Day 2015 Mark 16:1-8

That’s it. That’s how Mark’s Gospel ends. ‘So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’ All the earliest manuscripts of Mark end the story right here – and in the Greek it’s even more obvious, because it’s right in the middle of a sentence. The women are terrified and the other disciples are in disarray, and absent from the scene.

Years later, people who wanted things tidied up had a couple of goes at tacking on other endings to Mark. But as originally written, there is no sense of completion, none of the rejoicing that’s found at the end of the other Gospels. Mark’s ending is so abrupt it’s not really an ‘ending’. There is no easy resolution. And sometimes, that is what life is like, what our lives are like.

We know this, don’t we. When something happens, when tragedy strikes, we sometimes see the people involved searching for that elusive thing the media calls ‘closure’. But often ‘closure’ never happens. We can’t always resolve our griefs, heal our hurts, or situate ourselves in an orderly and predictable universe. When we find ourselves going through an experience like that, that is when we need the ending to Mark’s Gospel. For this is a story that resists closure.

These women – Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome – had looked on from a distance as Jesus died an agonising death. They’d waited at home over the Sabbath, numb with grief, frustrated with inactivity, and scared that the Romans would come after them as well. And then, very early in the morning, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb to anoint the body in the proper way. They had been worrying that his body was too secure, that they wouldn’t be able to get into the tomb because of the large stone placed across the entrance. What they found was the opposite problem. The tomb was open – and empty.

There was no body. Just a messenger telling them that Jesus was no longer there – that he had been raised to life. They had missed him because he was off already, on the way to somewhere else. It’s no wonder the women were seized with terror and amazement. A dead body, still lying where they had left it, waiting around to be anointed, was secure and predictable. It was somehow much easier to cope with, even in their grief, than the thought of Jesus alive and free to wander the world.

Mark’s ending that isn’t an ending speaks to a world in which we have trouble making sense of it all. A world in which we don’t always understand what is going on, still less, how things are happening. Where we can’t tie everything down to the solid and the predictable. Where we are sometimes forced to entertain the possibility that there aren’t always satisfying resolutions. A world which is our world, the one we actually live in.

But there’s something else going on here with the terrified and amazed women. Just before that abrupt non-ending the angelic figure tells them that Jesus is not in the tomb: ‘But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee: there you will see him, just as he told you.’ This is, for the women, and for all of us, startling good news, for it reveals to us a Jesus who keeps his promises. For Jesus had explained already that after he was raised up, he would go ahead of them to Galilee [Mark 14:28].

The women, of course, had no idea how this happened, and for that matter neither do we. But I have learned over the years that ‘how’ questions are not the most important ones. I haven’t a clue how email works for example, but that doesn’t stop my eyes lighting up when I see a message from someone I love in my inbox. Because after all the really important questions are the ‘who’ questions. The ‘how’ of the resurrection matters far less than who was raised – that this is Jesus, the one in whom God’s love for us was revealed and proved; that this is Jesus who keeps promises, who goes ahead of his people and will meet them in the place that is most familiar to them.

And the angel’s message to the women was good news especially to Peter, Peter who had been the most important of Jesus’ followers, one of the inner circle – because the last time we saw Peter in this story he was busy denying that he even knew Jesus. And that means the message is good news for you and for me, for it means that nothing we do is so awful that Jesus cannot still want to meet us, that he cannot still love us. It means that however far we run, we cannot outrun the grace of God, that wherever we go to hide, we will still find Jesus there waiting for us.

And the good news is that Jesus is still alive and free and wandering our world. This is a Jesus who can’t be confined by the tomb, any more than by the plots of his enemies or even by the hopes of his friends. Even by our hopes. Jesus is on the loose. It’s like the figure of Aslan in the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis. Aslan is a lion – ‘not a tame lion’ we are told repeatedly – and he is the Christ-figure. He’s introduced with the words whispered by the Narnian creatures to the human children who have entered their world, ‘They say Aslan is on the move.’

In going back to Galilee to meet the women, and Peter, and the other disciples, Jesus was taking them back to the place of his earliest ministry, to where it all began. But when they got back there, they would find it changed, transformed. That is what we are invited to discover – because we too are challenged to return to where we first met Jesus. We’re challenged to go back into the wider world outside this building, to find where Jesus is waiting for us and to join in what he is doing. Because Jesus is on the move, alive and free in this disorderly and unpredictable universe in which we live. Alleluia, amen.

It is accomplished

Good Friday 2015  John 19: 16b-30

After the questioning, the flogging, the mocking with the purple robe and the crown of thorns, Pilate hands Jesus over to be crucified. ‘So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull …Golgotha. There they crucified him.’ And so we come together today to honour Jesus as he dies, and we come because this day raises for us issues of life and death, guilt and forgiveness. This day makes us ask questions about who Jesus was – and who is he for us.

Death, any death, can seem like failure. It’s partly why the medical system struggles so hard against it. And Jesus’ death, at the end of a week which began with him riding into Jerusalem welcomed with palm branches and symbols of kingship, certainly seemed like a huge failure – the ending of so many people’s hopes, their dreams of freedom from oppression, of God’s kingdom being ushered in at last. We can wonder sometimes whether it felt like that to Jesus himself – and we listen out for the despairing cry from the cross ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ We identify with Jesus’ feelings of abandonment, with the sense of overwhelming tragedy, with the despair.

Which is why, when we come to John’s Passion story, we have to recalibrate. Because John tells it differently – and the richness of the biblical witness reminds us that this story is bigger than our attempts to understand it, that truth is greater than we are, that Jesus is divine as well as human. For in this Gospel, in all of the chaos of this day, there is someone in charge, someone who knows what is really going on. Even when things are at their darkest, even when Jesus is being crucified, there is someone – Jesus – who is in charge of things. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke as they leave Pilate’s headquarters Simon of Cyrene is pressed into service, forced to help Jesus carry the cross. Here Jesus carries the cross by himself.

Here, the women are standing near the cross, not watching from a great distance, and as he is dying Jesus honours his mother and his friends, arranging for the disciple whom he loved to care for Mary. And here, even at the very end, this Gospel tells us that Jesus is still in charge, that he still has the power to determine his response to his life. Here Jesus ‘gave up his spirit’; the crucifixion does not take it away from him. He dies a death he freely chooses.

For in this Gospel, Jesus never stops obviously being God. The one who so often proclaimed his oneness with the Father could never be abandoned. All along he was waiting for his ‘hour’ to come, and finally it is here. And the ‘hour’ for which he came is an hour of glory, not suffering, and so he dies with a cry of victory on his lips: it is finished, it is accomplished.

In all the Gospels Jesus came to suffer and die and be glorified – but here, in John, the suffering humiliation and the glorification are combined. Jesus is glorified not in spite of his death, or after it (in the Resurrection) but actually in and by his death. The crucifixion is portrayed as an enthronement.

This seems strange to us, doesn’t it, that such a death could be glorious. We are too conscious of the pain: of Jesus’ own pain, and that of his mother and the other women and the Beloved Disciple who stood near the cross watching. We are too worried that seeing the glory in this suffering might seem to glorify all suffering – as if it could. But that is not what John is doing here. He sees Jesus’ whole life and his death as a revelation of God’s glory. Perhaps, if we can understand this, we will start to look around us for other signs of the glory of God, for other reminders that God is never less than God, that Jesus – human as he is – is never less than divine.

That is why Jesus’ death was not a failure. Indeed, the way this Gospel shows it to us, it is a triumph. Jesus had accomplished what he came to do: he had fulfilled his ‘hour’. And John is conscious that, as Jesus himself knew ahead of time, the Cross was not the end. Jesus rose again. And so what we have here is John telescoping time, seeing the risen, ascended, and glorified Jesus as always triumphantly alive, even here, even today, even on the cross. This is a reminder that for God there is no past or future, that time is all one under God, for it is part of the created universe. The crucified Jesus is God, from before the creation: the Word who was in the beginning, the Word who was with God, the Word who was God. His death also, therefore, shows us the glory of God.

When we see Jesus, even Jesus on the cross, we see the God who wants to give us abundant and eternal life, who offers us wholeness and freedom. These are difficult things to come to grips with, the thought that our wholeness and freedom comes at such a price. Perhaps, if we can begin to understand this, we will start to ask ourselves what we are doing with the abundant life we have been given, and whether we are conscious that the eternal life that is ours has already begun.

Jesus’ last cry is one of victory: I have done what I came here to do. God’s will has been accomplished in my life. Perhaps this day on which we ponder issues of life and death, questions about who Jesus was and who is he for us, can prompt us to ask ourselves whether we are doing what we have been put on earth to do, and how God’s will is being accomplished in our lives.

How do we honour Jesus?

Palm Sunday 29 March 2015  Mark 11:1-11; Philippians 2:5-11

It’s the lead-up to Passover, the great Jewish festival of liberation, of a people being freed from slavery and oppression. Thousands of pilgrims are streaming into the holy city of Jerusalem, coming to worship, and coming with their hopes that this year freedom just might happen for them. Now a procession is making its way into the city. It’s an impressive affair: the leader on a huge warhorse, surrounded by horses and men, glinting swords, imperial red uniforms, Roman shields. Yes, Governor Pontius Pilate is making his way through the gates. The city, always edgy, is even more tense than usual, and so the army is out in force. Pilate is anxious to put on a good show, to demonstrate his power. His grand procession highlights how superior he is, how wonderful is the Roman empire he represents. He holds the reigns of a warhorse to show his mastery of statecraft. It’s elaborate public theatre.

Over on the other side of the city, on the road down from Bethany and the Mount of Olives, comes another procession. A rag-tag bunch of people – a few fishermen, some women, maybe a man who used to be blind, who used to beg for his living. This crowd have spread their cloaks on the road, and thrown down leafy branches they cut in the fields. And they are shouting out something – something about Hosanna, and the coming kingdom of their ancestor David. This is also elaborate public theatre.

And yes, there is a man at the centre of this procession also. Riding, not a warhorse, but a donkey colt, borrowed for the occasion. He has set this whole thing up, arranged the loan of the colt, chosen the route. He too enters the city as a pilgrim. But he alone remains silent, and he alone knows what the week ahead will bring.

This is a very public moment in Jesus’ ministry. Right through Mark’s Gospel who he is has seemed like a big secret: keep quiet, don’t tell anybody. Now he sets up a procession which invokes the idea of kingship. Spreading cloaks on the road, cutting down branches to wave or to throw in the path of a procession isn’t something you’d do for just anyone – it’s how you welcome a king. There’s a whole series of precedents for this behaviour, a whole set of things that say ‘here is a king coming to take possession of his throne’. And the shouts of the crowd around Jesus reinforce this: ‘blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!’ They call out ‘hosanna’ – a prayer for salvation: ‘save us now!’

Only, the silent man is riding a donkey colt. So counter to all the ideas of what a king should look like, what a king should do. It’s a little bit ridiculous, just like the motley collection of people walking along beside him. This is subversion on multiple levels. The rag-tag procession of quite ordinary people – farmers and fishers, women from the villages and a once-blind beggar – subverts the grand show that Pilate is putting on over on the other side of town. But the people who are welcoming Jesus as king and who are, let’s face it, all too probably expecting him to throw out the Romans, are also going to have their ideas of kingship subverted.

The man riding the donkey colt stays silent. Unlike other Gospels, where Jesus talks back to the Pharisees, to the teachers and scribes who try to make the crowd shut up and go away, here he utters not a word. And unlike other Gospels, where Jesus immediately sets about clearing the traders out of the temple, here he merely goes to the temple, looks around a bit but then ‘as it was already late’ he just goes off to Bethany for the night. Such a strange anti-climax. This is not the way a king would behave. And though the donkey colt doesn’t say ‘king’ it does say ‘Messiah’ – the great leader the Jewish people had been expecting for centuries. Only, this isn’t the way they expected the Messiah to behave either. This isn’t the way to throw out the Romans. This isn’t the way to free the people from slavery and oppression, and taxes, and high prices. and noisy neighbours, and quarrelsome children, and demanding parents, and all the other things that made them (and us) feel trapped.

So this silent man on the donkey colt enters the city as a hero, but subverts all their expectations and disappoints their dreams. It’s no wonder the shouts of ‘hosanna’ turned into ‘crucify him’ only a few days later. There’s nothing so angry as a crowd that has had their hopes snatched away just at the point where they thought they might be getting something.

So where do we come in? What does this silent man on the donkey colt, this Jesus on his way into Jerusalem, say to us? Because he is, of course, more of a king than they (and we) realise. But in his redefining of kingship he challenges our ideas of what power looks like – and our ideas of what God looks like. This is the one who ‘did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but [who] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.’ The one who humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death. This is a king who keeps his majesty well-hidden, a God who comes as a lowly figure. Since we tend to become like the things we worship, what does it mean for us that our God was willing to abandon all that power for love of us? What does it mean for how we treat one another?

And let us think of that crowd, those people who formed that strange procession on the road down from Bethany and the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem. True, they did not understand. They were mistaken in what they thought Jesus was going to do for them. They were fickle. And yet – and yet, they were willing to throw their cloaks on the road, sacrificing the one extra layer of clothing they had in order to honour a king. Think of the man who owned the donkey colt. He was willing to put his property at the service of Jesus, without asking any questions. Think of the two disciples Jesus sent into the village to get the colt. They were willing to do what Jesus wanted, right away, even though they were puzzled. What about us? Are we willing to do all those things, in our context? What does sacrifice look like for us? What does generosity with what we own look like for us? What does obedience look like for us? Above all, what does honouring Jesus look like for us?

We wish to see Jesus

22 March 2015    John 12:20-33; Jeremiah 31:31-34

There’s a tradition of having some words from today’s Gospel reading inscribed inside or around pulpits: ‘We wish to see Jesus’. I’ve seen that sign at least once, and maybe some of you have too. It’s a challenge to preachers, to make Jesus visible by what they said. But I think those are actually words for all of us. Because we all want to see Jesus, and so they encourage us to look around us for signs of Jesus’ presence. And we are all challenged to make Jesus visible by what we say and what we do.

There are people around today who are like the Greeks who came up to Philip and said, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ People who are searching for something – for meaning, for something bigger than themselves, for something to commit to or something that will make them into a better person, or for something that will ease the loneliness and give them a community to belong with. You know: people like us – for those are things that we all want: you, me, everyone. Those are things that we are all searching for. And the challenge for each of us is how to live so that people who wish to see Jesus – both those who come to worship here and who are part of our St Anne’s community, and those who aren’t – can meet him in and through us.

We don’t know who those Greeks were who came up to Philip. They could have been Gentiles, or they might be Greek-speaking Jews from communities outside Palestine. They had heard of Jesus, as many people had – this scene after all immediately follows Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and isn’t long after the raising of Lazarus. As people might have said, if all this was happening in our own day, Jesus was trending on Twitter. There’s a buzz about him, and people are curious. And it’s like any time something big and important seems to be happening: people are wondering, whatever this is, is it for me?

So, how have we seen Jesus? What have we seen of Jesus in these last few weeks of Lent? What has Jesus revealed about himself to us? So far in the Gospels we’ve seen Jesus being tested in the desert, and we can link that with our own times in the wilderness, our own moments of testing; we have seen Jesus inviting us to lay aside our attachment to autonomy and enter into a relationship with him that will ask something of us. We’ve seen Jesus calling us back to relationship with God, telling us that the place where God and humankind are to meet is in Christ’s very body, and inviting us to declutter our spiritual lives from all the things we think we ‘should’ be doing. We’ve heard Jesus sharing the good news that God is on our side. That God loves us and wants to heal us and fix what is broken in our lives. These are all things we have seen Jesus doing through the pages of the Gospels this Lent – so how have they made a difference to our lives? Because in John’s Gospel, to ‘see’ isn’t just something we do with our eyes, it’s something that touches our heart and mind. Seeing is about believing, about having a relationship.

How well do we see and know Jesus? Because if we are to be able to introduce Jesus to others, to help others see him, we need to know him ourselves – not as a bunch of ideas, things that we’ve been told about him, but as someone we encounter ourselves, every day. Where have we seen Jesus at work in our world? Where have we known God’s love and forgiveness in our own lives? What has been the result when we have stripped back some of the things we thought we ‘should’ be doing and focussed instead on deepening our relationship with Jesus? When have we felt God asking us to take a risk and followed that call – and what happened when we did? When have we as a parish seen Jesus at work? These are the questions we can wrestle with as we seek to be even more ‘the church at the heart of the community’.

Because there’s a challenge that a lot of mainstream churches face, and we’re no different – to be like Philip and Andrew in today’s Gospel reading, to help those who come saying ‘we wish to see Jesus’. So often churches just assume that developing a relationship with Christ occurs somewhere else, and all that needs to happen to new people is for them to be gathered into the life of the congregation – to find their way onto the rosters. Somehow churches like ours have to reach out to those who are saying ‘we wish to see Jesus’, or even ‘we’re not sure about Jesus, but we’re willing to check it out’. To those who are wondering, ‘whatever this is, is it for me?’ As we head into our Annual General Meeting (and I swear I didn’t rig the lectionary to give us this reading on this date) we need to ask ourselves how easy it is for people to see Jesus in each one of us? And in us as a group, as ‘the church at the heart of the community’? Is there anything we might be or do differently, to let people see Jesus more easily in us?

Part of what might be involved in living like that is the other challenge that comes out of our Gospel reading this morning. ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ Jesus is using something really simple, that his friends had often noticed, to tell them something profound about what would happen in his life and their own. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. And that, after all, is what seeds (any seeds) are for. Seeds have to fall into the earth and die, have to change, so they can bear fruit. They have to give up their separate existence, the hard shell that surrounds them, and let that soften and fall away so that the new life can come out. The choice is between remaining solitary – just a single grain – and bearing much fruit.

That’s a choice that we face too. Do we keep ourselves apart, want to hang on to our separateness, prefer to see ourselves as individuals wanting what’s best for ‘me’? Or are we prepared to give up some of that separateness, to let our hard edges grow soft, to realise that we are part of something bigger than ourselves? Because the promise of the grain of wheat is that if we give up our solitary existence, and if we are willing to change, and to turn our whole future over to the power of God, we will bear much fruit. If we do as Jesus did, and reach out to people outside ourselves, instead of being focused on our own needs, like a seed that wants to stay separate. If we can keep on asking (as someone on Vestry put it) ‘what can we do for the community?’ instead of ‘what can the community do for us?’ And the fruit we are promised is John’s metaphor for the life of the community of faith: the life, the good things that come to a community, and the life that spreads from that community into the world around it.

Remember the life and the promise in Jeremiah’s message. This was a message of hope, written in a dark time in Israel’s history: hope for a new covenant, a new relationship with God. A life in which God’s covenant wasn’t an external agreement that could be easily broken, but something that was living inside the heart of every person. Remember that we can know God, and be a community where God’s love and God’s promises are deep in our hearts. Where we sense God’s love and power at the core of our identity. That’s the sort of community we are called to be. The sort of community where anyone who wants to see Jesus can come and encounter him. Where if someone should say ‘I want to see Jesus’ they could be told ‘come to St Anne’s Northland-Wilton – that’s where you’ll see Jesus’.

God’s love for the world

15 March 2015  Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

Are we there yet? You know that question – because it’s not just children who ask it. It’s the one everyone seems to ask on a long journey. Today the Israelites trekking slowly through the wilderness have been asking that question for so long that their impatience gets the better of them. Back to them in a moment. The early Christians who were the first audience for today’s epistle reading were also working out if they were there yet. They found themselves in an intermediate stage: they had, by God’s grace, put aside their former pagan ways which would have brought them only spiritual death, and are were now alive together with Christ, but they are still living through this present age with all its imperfections. They still await the glories of the age to come. And then there’s us, travelling along on our Lenten journey, and beginning to ask ‘are we there yet?’ Sadly no, Lent still has a way to go: we are not yet at Easter, and there much to go through before we can get there. What we, and the early Christians, can hold on to however, while we continue our journey, is the amazing love and grace of God.

But let’s go back for a moment to the Israelites in the wilderness. It’s a curious passage, and there’s no easy way to resolve it. The journey is taking longer than they expected, they face dangers they had not anticipated, and it’s all too hard. So they complain – they blame both Moses and God for their predicament. ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?’, they say. And then it becomes strange and confusing. Poisonous snakes bite the people so they die, and when they acknowledge the wrongfulness of their complaints God tells Moses to set an image of a serpent on a pole so that ‘everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ This makes us ask whether God sends crises in response to complaining. Israelite impatience is seemingly punished by death; complaining about food is also seemingly punished by death. Put like that, none of us would have survived a long car journey as a child.

It’s interesting though that neither the narrator nor God actually says that God sent the snakes because the people complained. It’s the people that drew the conclusion that it’s a particularly nasty punishment – just as we sometimes think, when something really bad happens to us, that we are being punished for doing wrong. When that happens we need to remember that God doesn’t tend to act like that. Certainly, crying out to God in complaint isn’t usually condemned: there’s a whole biblical tradition, especially in the psalms, that involves complaint or lament.

But the people interpret the snakes as punishment, ask Moses to intercede for them, and then the bit with the snake on the pole happens. Note that the snakes don’t disappear: the people still get bitten, except now God offers healing if they look in that direction. What’s going on here is that the people are searching for meaning, trying to make theological sense out of the events of their lives. What all of Israel’s historians knew is that of all the people who escaped from Egypt only two reached the promised land. Everyone else died in the wilderness, and a new generation of Israelites entered into Canaan. So we get repeated stories of complaining and rebellion which they use to explain the deaths of the others.

To the people in the wilderness and to those who wrote down these stories, their lack of faith was a violation of the covenant, and so something to be punished for. I don’t think, incidentally, that I would have seen it that way – I remember those places in the Gospels where Jesus challenges the connection between sickness and death and a God who wants to punish human wrongdoing – but that’s how they viewed it. And there’s something else, which maybe we can learn from: the ancient Israelites who wandered through the wilderness did not experience God as a safe and comfortable companion. God was utterly Holy and utterly Other. Maybe we have domesticated God a wee bit. And although I don’t think I like the idea of seeing God as a dangerous and unpredictable presence in my life, what I do know is that whenever we think we’re got God all figured out then we’re ignoring part of the mystery of who God is.

Another thing that fascinates me is what happens at the end of that passage from Numbers. What God gives is an instrument that heals snake bites, and not the promise that no-one will ever be bitten. And something about that rings true. Because Jesus certainly never promised that nothing bad would happen to those who followed him faithfully – but he did promise that he would be with us through all the good and the bad things that come about. It’s like – if I can divert onto Mothering Sunday for a moment – parents know that often the most loving thing is not to wrap our kids up in cottonwool so that nothing will ever hurt them, but to be there to help and comfort and get them back on track again when they do get hurt.

So there are snakes, and people are dying, but God provides a means for healing where the pain and the danger is at its worst. The raised bronze serpent was a reminder that God was with them. And so is the cross. Later on in John’s Gospel the lifting up of the bronze serpent in the wilderness is associated with the lifting up of Jesus on the cross. Jesus tells his disciples and the crowd that ‘I when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’. [Jn 12:32] He’s indicating the kind of death he was to die, a kind of death that people who lived in Judea under the Romans would have been all too familiar with. But it’s more than that. The lifting up of Jesus also points beyond the cross, to his rising from the dead. For John, the cross wasn’t only about death: it was about the entry into new life.

And it was, for John and for Paul, and for whoever wrote Ephesians, a sign of God’s love for all the world – God who, ‘out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ’. Following Jesus’ talk with Nicodemus we get a kind of summary of God’s good purposes for the world: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’

This is the good news that God is on our side. That God wants to heal us and fix what is broken in our lives. And this is the hope and the promise held out to everyone who ‘believes’. This ‘belief’ is less about intellectual assent and ticking doctrinal boxes and much much more about relationship. Turning our lives towards God, in the way the Israelites in the wilderness turned to look at the symbol of healing. It’s about being connected to God – getting up every day and trying to live the God-life, trying to let our lives speak of the relationship we have with the One who powerful and mysterious and yet rich in mercy, the One who will show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus.

It’s about relationship

8 March 2015  John 2:13-22; 1 Cor 1:18-25; Exodus 20:1-17

Jesus went up to Jerusalem, and he goes to the temple. There he finds people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. In the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke), this happens towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, but John puts this right at the beginning. This way it sets down some markers about who Jesus is, and how the religious authorities are responding to him. Right from the beginning in this Gospel, Jesus is claiming a power and authority that links him with God; here, the temple is ‘my Father’s house’.

The temple was there so that people could meet with God, and experience God’s grace and God’s love. A place to go to give thanks to God, to ask forgiveness for their sins. When Jesus gets there, just before a major festival, the temple is full of animals and the people selling them, and others changing money from the regular currency to the special temple coinage so that people could make a purchase or pay their temple dues. The animals were there to be purchased for sacrifices, offered in accordance with the law of God. What Jesus saw is exactly what one would expect to see. Nothing is out of order at this point.

And yet, Jesus drives all the animals, all the doves and those who were selling them, all the money–changers, out of there. In the other Gospels, he’s angry at ‘a den of robbers’, what he sees as sharp practices, exploitation of those coming to buy their sheep or their doves – but not here. Here, something else is happening. Here his objection is that the temple has been turned into a marketplace. Except that under the temple system you needed a marketplace. You needed somewhere to buy your sacrifices.

What’s going on under the surface is Jesus calling for a change to the entire system. No more sacrifices. No more getting right with God through performing certain prescribed actions in a correct way. No more confining God to a certain location. Jesus is hinting that the temple itself is not necessary. It’s no wonder the religious leaders weren’t terribly pleased!

We heard Paul writing to the Corinthians about how Jews demand signs – and we see just that happening in the temple. They want a sign for why Jesus is doing this, and they get one, but it’s one which will happen in the future. And the sign points not to a proof but a person. ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,’ says Jesus – but he was speaking of the temple of his body. Jesus would die, but after three days would be raised to life again.

This sign speaks about where God is located. Not in the temple but in the person of Jesus. Put simply, it’s not about the building, it’s about the relationship. And it’s not about things that people do, trying to put themselves right with God through fulfilling the law, sacrificing the right kind of animal in the right place – it’s about the relationship.

Jesus’ actions that day in the temple remind us of things we can forget, common mistakes people have made. Confining God to a specific location. Thinking we can save ourselves by doing things. Neglecting the relationship we have with God in favour of other activities. We can probably all think of ways we’ve done those things. And you can see this happening in what we have often done with today’s first reading. Did you notice how it started? ‘Then God spoke all these words’. This tends to get called ‘the ten commandments’ – but perhaps a better name for it is the ‘Decalogue’ – the ten words. This is God’s direct address to the people of Israel. And the words start with relationship. God says, ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery’. What’s ended up being called the Ten Commandments is not a law code, a body of laws that are meant to float free of the story that surrounds them. They are words given to a person by their God. It’s God saying: I am your God, I am the one who brought you out of slavery, I am the one who is leading you into freedom. Here, then, is how you live in the light of this: you live in relationship to me; and in your relationships with me and with each other and with the whole of creation, you live as I do. That’s ‘the first word’ – and then we get the second word: ‘you shall have no other gods before me’.

The law is a gift of a God who has redeemed people. ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ are words for those who have a relationship with God, words for those on whose behalf God has already acted. And that word gives shape to all the others: idolatry, giving to something or someone else the trust and honour and worship which is due to God alone, is the basic sin, and everything follows from that. The law, as a gift, was meant to nurture the relationship between God and God’s people – except that it got turned into a series of rules and regulations that became important in their own right. They got turned into ‘shoulds’ – and we know how burdensome and life-denying a bunch of ‘shoulds’ becomes.

But Jesus calls us back to relationship. The old way of worshipping, the old emphasis on doing things to get right with God is to be replaced by something else: the place where God and humankind now are to meet is in Christ’s very body. Jesus himself is the temple: he is where we encounter God, just as he is the way by which we are brought back into right relationship with God.

What does this mean for our lives? Have they become like the temple, full of clutter, full of things that were intended get us closer to God, but which no longer help us to do that. Things that are stopping us from seeing and relating to God. Do we need some spiritual spring cleaning in our lives? I guess that’s part of what Lent is about, for me and maybe for you as well. It reminds us to take stock of our spiritual lives, the things that function as our temples, and notice what needs some more attention, what needs cleansing, or repair. It turns out that reading John’s account of Jesus cleansing the temple during Lent is a very ancient tradition, something the Church has done since way back. It symbolises the purification of candidates who were preparing for baptism on Easter Eve. As we prepare for Easter, let us take this opportunity to strip away some of the religious ‘shoulds’ we’ve ended up with, and concentrate on nurturing our relationship with God.

And to help us nurture that relationship, here’s a challenge that those of us who were at our diocesan hui yesterday got from Bishop Justin. Turn to someone sitting near you and finish this sentence: ‘Jesus makes a difference in my life because …’ Hear each other’s answers about how Jesus makes a difference in your life.

Embracing relationship

1 March 2015 Mark 8:31-38;Genesis 17:1-7,15-16; Romans 4:13-25

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’ That’s what Jesus said – and I guess we wish he hadn’t. It sounds, at the very least, an unattractive prospect. Even if we’ve reduced ‘taking up one’s cross’ to a metaphor, since we’re lucky enough to live in 21st century New Zealand and not 1st century Roman-occupied Palestine and so have never actually seen someone dying slowly on a cross. But even as a metaphor, it’s not one we want. So we come here, on the second Sunday in Lent, and hear this Gospel read, and maybe we are trying not to listen too hard in case we hear something that might apply to us. Or maybe we latch on to the bit about ‘denying ourselves’ and connect it with giving up gin or chocolate biscuits or whatever it is we’re doing this Lent, and heave a small sigh of relief that we can tick that box. Well, sorry, but no.

Or maybe, since our Lenten studies on ‘Sharing the good news’ have started us looking for good news wherever we can, you’re sitting there wondering if I can pull the good news rabbit out of the cross-carrying, self-denying hat. In which case, recalling Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s statement that ‘Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death’ is probably not going to help matters.

Or maybe, we’re all just sympathising with Peter. Peter who, in the passage just before this, has recognised Jesus as the Messiah, but who now can’t cope with the talk of Jesus suffering and being rejected and being killed, and so takes him politely aside and tells him to cool it. I suspect lots of us are like Peter – able to believe things about who Jesus is, but not wanting to accept what that might turn out to mean – for Jesus and for us.

We do, of course, have the option of leaving aside the Gospel we don’t really want to hear and focusing on Abraham and Sarah. Back in Genesis, God is making a covenant with Abram, promising that he and Sarai will be the ancestors of a multitude of nations. This is Abram, remember, who has no child by Sarai his wife, who has gone for plan B (having a son by the slave girl Hagar), and who is wandering through the desert. But making a covenant is not like signing a contract. A covenant is about relationship. In establishing this covenant with Abraham, God is promising to be God to him and to his offspring throughout the generations. God is promising a relationship that will last forever.

And so, in entering into this covenant, are Abraham and Sarah – their new names a sign of this new relationship they have with God. They are setting out on a life where it isn’t just the two of them, going where they want, doing what they want, and taking the slave girl and her son, their flocks and herds along with them. They are setting out on a life lived in relationship with God Almighty – a life that will ask of them things they won’t always understand and things they’re not sure they can do.

When Paul holds up Abraham as an example of faith, when he says ‘his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness’ that’s what he means. For faith isn’t so much about believing, or intellectually agreeing with, a list of doctrines – it’s much more about relationship. And it isn’t so much about what we do, and whether we keep the right rules (‘the law’, as Paul puts it) – it’s more about relationship. Paul is talking about the trust that Abraham had in God, a trust that grew deeper and stronger as he gave glory to God. Abraham and Sarah nurtured their relationship with God. As they praised God, the relationship got even stronger. So that even though God would sometimes ask of them things they didn’t always understand and things they weren’t sure they could do, that relationship was always there. A covenant that lasts forever.

Which brings us, I suspect, back to Peter, and the difference between believing ideas and having a relationship. Peter was able to believe the right things about Jesus – he got the ‘Messiah’ bit right – but he didn’t understand and couldn’t accept what that was going to mean. For Jesus too was talking about relationship: that’s why he says, ‘If any want to become my followers…’

Jesus is inviting us into a life of relationship with him, just as God invited Sarah and Abraham into an enduring covenant. And one thing we know about any sort of relationship, is that you can’t do it if you insist on complete autonomy. And you can’t have community if everyone walks around in their individual silos. Jesus said ‘if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves’: I’ve never read that as a command to become a doormat, or to think that I somehow don’t matter. After all, Jesus’ very life and death tells me that I matter to God; and we are commanded to love our neighbours as we love ourselves – so obviously I am to matter to myself as well. What ‘denying myself’ means, I believe, is giving up the stupid idea that I can go it alone, that I can do life all by myself. It means giving up a claim to autonomy, and instead embracing relationship and community. That’s relationship with Jesus, with God Almighty – just as Abraham and Sarah found – and relationships with other people. Being part of a community, like the one we have here; not retreating into little silos.

And Jesus also said, about any who want to follow him, ‘let them take up their cross and follow me’. For us, here in Aotearoa New Zealand, this is a metaphor. If we stay safely in this country we are unlikely to be killed for our faith, although if we take it seriously it will certainly cost us something. But perhaps part of what ‘taking up our cross’ means is Jesus inviting us into what the cross meant for him: not just suffering and death, but his whole embrace of humanity. His entrance, as a human being, into this world where all humans suffer and one day face death. That is another thing that unites us, that we are not autonomous agents who live life on our own terms: we are beings created by the living God, sharing a common humanity, and a common mortality, with those around us. Jesus embraced our humanity and became forever connected to us. He chose relationship, and invites us to make a similar choice.

Perhaps, to take up Bonhoeffer’s phrase, when Christ calls us, what dies when we accept that call is our claims to autonomy, our habit of trying to run our own lives without reference to anyone else. We still have choices, of course – God has never wanted robots, and Abraham, and Sarah, and Peter, and all the others were certainly not that – but we embrace the joys and the challenges of community, and a life lived in relationship with Jesus and with others. So is this good news? Well what do you think?

Good news, on a day of hope

Ash Wednesday 2015  Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

So the year has come round again, and here we are. Gathering together in the early morning or after a busy day, starting out on our Lenten journey together and wondering what these next six weeks or so will ask of us. Perhaps we are hoping to strengthen our connection to God, to be touched – as I believe God wants to touch us – with a new awareness of God’s love, a deeper understanding of just how much we mean to God. Perhaps we will be challenged, as this year’s Lenten studies might challenge us, by the call to be God’s hands and feet, reaching out to the least, the last and the lost. Perhaps it will be the events of our own lives that might challenge us, and God who will hold us together. Right at the beginning of Lent, as we are today, we simply don’t know.

There are many, many things, of course that we don’t know. The ashes, we are told, speak to us of the frailty and uncertainty of human life. One way to unpack that is to say we know we will die, but we don’t know when and what will happen before that. And this is one of the things that unites us as human beings and sets us apart from other species: we know that one day we will die, and we get to choose how we live our lives up to that point. And it’s that ability to choose how we live that stops this annual reminder of our mortality from dragging us down, that makes Ash Wednesday into a day of hope.

‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and follow Christ’ I will say to each of us shortly, and that is good news. We are invited to remember the past – not just our own pasts, and the faults and the mistakes and the sins we would, quite frankly, prefer to forget, but instead we gather up the courage that God gives us and face these things – but also the distant past, the past long before any of us came along. We are invited to remember the past of Eden, of God creating humankind from the dust of the earth, and the closeness of the relationship between humanity and God before it all went wrong. Remembering this is good news, for it can awaken in us a longing for that closeness to return, and that gives us hope and leads us onwards. And the words we hear as we feel the touch of ash on our foreheads are good news for they remind us of the choices we have: the choice to turn away from the sins and mistakes of the past, the choice to turn towards Christ. Ash Wednesday assures us that while we have choices like these we do not live as victims, even if the world around us should feel unfriendly.

There is a real-worldishness about this day, and that too makes for good news. We can stop pretending that we are not sinners, and decide to do something about that. And of course, what we ‘do’ about that is that we stop trying to do things so frantically and instead learn to rest in what Christ has done for us. And maybe there are other things that we stop doing as well. You’ve probably heard that question – which isn’t a traditional Ash Wednesday question, but it could be: ‘if you knew you were going to die in six weeks, what would you do, how would you spend that time?’ And perhaps that is a good question for us to reflect on during this season of Lent. And the point of the question – as well as the conversations with loved ones and the repairing of relationships that would probably happen – is when, having worked out what we would do if we knew we would die in six weeks’ time, we get to the follow-up: ‘so why aren’t you doing those things right now?’ Because what we would find, I suspect, is that if we knew our time was that limited, we would stop doing things that are not life-giving, that exhaust our souls and deplete our energy. ‘Giving things up for Lent’ is, after all, a traditional practice – so perhaps we should give up the things that drain our spirits, that drag us down and stop us feeling the joy that God wants to share with us. Worrying, criticising, trying to go it alone and acting like we have to carry the world’s weight on our shoulders – perhaps these are things we might give up. And Lent gifts us with an opportunity to look at how we use our time, and our money, and what we pay attention to – and in these six or so weeks we might find ourselves making some different choices.

And some of the choices that we make can be good news for others. Lent offers us the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. Listen to Jesus’ words to his disciples. Jesus assumes that we all give alms – giving money or goods to help those who need it, that we all pray, that we all fast – denying ourselves something at certain times to remind ourselves that all we have is a gift from God and not the focus of our lives. And he’s saying that doing this to get attention for ourselves or to look good before others is missing the point. ‘Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.’ Jesus is inviting us, in that old-fashioned phrase,’ to do good by stealth’. Or, if we want a modern equivalent – and yes, this is a huge anachronism – we’re invited to live as Secret Santas. To bless others, without them knowing who is responsible. To give of ourselves, without wanting to be thanked . To make room in our lives for others, so that they, as well as we, can draw closer to God over this season. ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and follow Christ’: let us hear this as good news, for ourselves and for those around us, and give thanks to God for this day of hope.

We too need healing

15 February 2015 Mark 1:40-45; 2 Kings 5:1-15

It’s still close to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. At this early stage, Mark is telling us about Jesus – who is he is, what he does, and about what discipleship as one of Jesus’ followers might look like. We watch, as Jesus encounters various people – and here he meets a leper. What this man had, incidentally, is not the same disease as the modern leprosy (also known as Hansen’s disease), which is extremely chronic but not very infectious. What he, and Naaman, and others in the Bible described as having ‘leprosy’, had was something which made them unclean, not just in a physical sense, but also spiritually.

Having a skin condition like that meant you were cut off from the rest of society. The laws that governed life back then commanded that anyone afflicted with such diseases must live alone: their dwelling must be ‘outside the camp’, and wherever they went they had to cry out ‘unclean, unclean’. And while they had the disease they couldn’t approach the Lord – they couldn’t worship.

We can’t really underestimate the impact of all this. Mediterranean cultures, like Maori and Pacifica ones, are group-oriented. They need community to live. And without community, and human contact, and being able to eat with others, and being able to worship, life is very, very tough. Just think what it would be like, to be forced to live like that. Forever on the margins. What the man suffered was more than just physical pain: there was also the misery of being seen as unworthy of being part of the community.

And then Jesus comes along. So far we’ve seen Jesus gathering a team around him, healing, teaching, praying. What’s he going to do this time? When he meets this man, Jesus reacts immediately. He’s ‘moved with pity’ – but in the Greek it’s even stronger. It’s a gut reaction: he sees something and acts instinctively. And what does Jesus do? He moves towards him. He stretches out his hand and touches the man. Imagine what that would feel like! If you’d had to keep away, stay at a distance from everyone, never be touched – and then you meet Jesus and he touches you. That communicates love and welcome, and so much more. Because when Jesus touches the man he becomes ritually unclean too. His touch says he is willing to share his isolation, that he is willing to join him on the margins.

And what happens is that the man is healed. And so that everyone will know that he is healed, Jesus sends him off to the priest, to have his skin inspected and to offer the customary sacrifices set down in the law. This makes the healing public, and brings him once again into the religious as well as the social life of the community. Finally, he can now join the others in worship.

One of the interesting things about this scene is that the sick man, now healed, is restored to his community, while Jesus can no longer travel freely or even enter the towns anymore. We don’t know why Jesus asked the man to be silent, but maybe it was because he knew this would make it difficult to walk and talk and preach and heal freely. Whatever the reason, he heals anyway, regardless of the cost. It’s like he trades places with this man, accepting restrictions on his own freedom so that this man can find his.

What Jesus did, we who follow Jesus are also called to do. We are called to have compassion, to reach out to other people, to show them love and make them welcome. To reach out especially to those who are shut out of the communities we take for granted. And we are called to care for others even when this will be difficult. When caring for others might lead to us being excluded, forced out to the margins of society. When we see someone suffering we’re called to move towards them, not away. Reaching out with compassion to make a difference in someone’s life can bring us joy – but it can also be hard. And tiring. And sometimes the change in the other person is not obvious, so we don’t always know that we have made a difference. So what are we to do? What can help us to respond, as Jesus did, with love and compassion?

Something that might help us is to realise what we have in common with Naaman, and with the man described here in Mark’s Gospel as a ‘leper’. The disease they have, the sickness the Bible calls ‘leprosy’, is a visible condition – noticeable on a person’s skin, or on the walls of houses, or on fabrics and leather. It’s obvious – and that’s what makes the social exclusion easy. Everyone can see it. If you’ve got a condition like that, you can’t hide it, or try to pretend to your friends and family that it’s not there. And that means that if you are afflicted like that, you can’t pretend to yourself either. You know you are in need of healing. You know that you need help, and compassion, and perhaps a miracle.

That’s the thing with something on the surface. Imperfection is obvious. But, actually, all of us are imperfect. All of us have things wrong with us: faults in our characters we wish weren’t there, habits we can’t break even though we try, emotional scars that haven’t quite healed, loneliness we try to cover up. It’s just that most of us can get away with pretending – to those around us and to ourselves – that we are perfect. Or if not perfect, then at least better than just ‘OK’. Unlike Naaman and the man in today’s Gospel, we are seldom forced to admit that we are in need of healing. That we need help. That we need Jesus’ help.

One of the things being a disciple of Jesus asks of us, is that we accept that we aren’t perfect. That we acknowledge that something inside of us is broken and we can’t fix it. That we are unable to save ourselves. We know this in theory, of course, don’t we. That’s why Good Friday, and Easter Day, happened. That’s why we mark our foreheads with a cross in ashes on Ash Wednesday. But knowing it in theory, and admitting it in practice, are two different things. And admitting it in practice can be hard.

So next time we see someone suffering, and especially if, like Naaman and the man in the Gospel, they are suffering in a way that cuts them off from the community, maybe it will help us to show the sort of love and compassion that Jesus showed, if we can remember that we too are in need of love and compassion. Maybe it will help us to reach out and help if we acknowledge that we too need help. Maybe it will help us to deal with the imperfections, visible and invisible, of those we meet if we admit that we too are imperfect. So that along with the man with ‘leprosy’ we too can say to Jesus: heal me, make me clean – and then feel Jesus stretching out his hand and touching us with love.

On not doing everything

8 February 2015    Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

Most of the time, I love this time of year. It feels exciting when everything is starting up again after the holidays. I start to wonder, what will God have in store for me this year? How will God use us as a community? But there’s sometimes also a feeling of … trepidation. I look at the calendar already filling up fast with meetings and services, I register the fact that Lent will soon be upon us, and I start to feel a little anxious. A bit overwhelmed. Is it like that for you? Or is this just me? And I don’t just mean the parish calendar is filling up – it’s like that with most parts of life, isn’t it. Work, school, clubs – isn’t life so much busier these days than it was in the days that Jesus lived in, the times when St Paul was planting churches? Well, actually, I don’t think so. I really don’t think so. I think life has always been busy, and it’s always been about juggling a bunch of different things to do. We’ve just forgotten some things about how to do that.

We’re like the Israelites in our first reading. This bit of Isaiah was written towards the end of the Exile, when everything was very dark. The Israelites had been torn away from their land, all that was familiar, all that helped them connect with God. They’d been so beaten down by life they had forgotten God was with them. Now that time was coming to an end, and the prophet was commanded to speak words of hope. And to remind them of things they had forgotten. ‘Haven’t you known, haven’t you heard, have you not understood?’ They had forgotten the greatness of God.

And this is one of those things that makes me think we’re not so different now from the people of the past – because we still have a tendency to get side-tracked and to forget. To think that because our problems feel so much bigger than us, that they’re bigger than everything, including God. Our forbears among the ancient Israelites had done just that – got hung up on their own difficulties, swamped by everything that was going on around them – and so Isaiah is sent to assure them that God is still there with them. God is strong, but also full of tenderness. God never grows weary, but understands our human frailty. Isaiah’s words are rooted in the real world, in the feelings of people like you and me. He acknowledges that we might feel weary and weak, tired and faint, that even young people with all their boundless energy might suddenly run out of steam – but ‘those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles.’ Of course, there’s no point in saying something like this if you were talking to people who never felt tired!

But what Isaiah is saying to those early forbears he’s also saying to us. To those who have suffered, who’ve known depression or grief, to those who feel that every day is like trying to climb a mountain and everything they do is a struggle. It’s a message of hope. The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. And all those problems that surround you – they’re just a bunch of grasshoppers when you look at them from where God sits. That’s about perspective. He’s telling us, when we feel overwhelmed, to remember our source of strength. To remember that God can be our strength. We get the same thing in the psalm: we might be weak, but God is strong.

And another thing that can help us, when we start to feel anxious or swamped, is the thing that Jesus and St Paul shared, a sense of priority, of what most needs to be done. Paul had a focus, a compulsion even, to proclaim the gospel – to share with those around him the good news of God’s love and grace. That was his priority, and so he arranged everything to let him do that. He cared about those who were different from him enough to meet them on their own terms – that’s what he means by ‘becoming all things to all people, that I might by all means save some’. And that’s how he determined what he did with his time and, just as importantly, what he chose not to do. Because no-one, not even St Paul, can do everything.

Someone else who had to choose what to do and what not to do was Jesus. Did you notice that? Today’s Gospel reading shows him healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law from a fever, and later healing many who were sick with various diseases, all flocking to him to be cured. The next day Jesus gets up very early, while it was still dark, and goes off alone to pray. And Simon and the other disciples come hunting after him to say there’s already a huge crowd queuing up to be healed. Only … Jesus doesn’t. He says no. Instead he goes on to the neighbouring towns, to preach there.

Jesus too had a clear sense of where his priorities lay. He knew he couldn’t do everything. If he was in one place, it meant there were several places where he wasn’t. He chose to go on to the neighbouring towns, even though there were people back in Capernaum who wanted to be healed by him. Not only that, but Jesus managed not to be controlled by the expectations of others. ‘Everyone is searching for you,’ Simon and his friends say when they finally track Jesus down – and Jesus doesn’t fall into the same trap as many of us would do and go ‘I’m terribly sorry, I’ll be right back’. Jesus has this really strong awareness of what he should be doing, and he keeps himself focused on that. Isn’t that amazing!

How did he get that focus? Because that’s the key distinction, isn’t it, between getting sucked in to the expectations of others (which is a bad thing) and a proper accountability within a community or a workplace (which is a good thing). And the answer lies, I believe, in what he’d been doing just before Simon and co found him. It was the prayer, the continually listening to God and seeking God’s will for his life. Getting a sense of what God’s priorities were.

That is the other thing that can help us, at this time of year when everything is starting up again, or at any other time: the thing that can stop us from feeling overwhelmed with all the possible things we could be doing. Because after all, I suspect that Jesus had far more people queuing up and wanting him to do things than any of us will ever have.

So what we can do is to learn to listen to God, to hear what God is most wanting us to do, and then to keep focused on doing that. This doesn’t necessarily mean getting up super-early and going off to a deserted place, but it will mean finding a way to pray that works best for us – finding a way to have that relationship with God where we can allow God to guide the way we use our time.

And there’s something else we can remember. There will always be too much to do at any one time, but that’s OK. Oscar Romero, the martyred Archbishop of San Salvador, said this, and I find it really helpful: ‘We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.’

The Lord comes to the temple

The feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple 1 February 2015

Luke 2: 22-40; Malachi 3:1-5 2

There’s something going on with our readings this morning. Look at the headings: Jesus presented in the Temple, the Lord comes to the temple, entrance into the Temple; as we celebrate the feast of the Presentation most of our readings relate to the temple. We say together the psalm sung by pilgrims entering the temple, we hear about Jesus being taken by Mary and Joseph and presented to God like every other first-born, and in Malachi the good news is that the Lord whom people seek will suddenly come to his temple. It reminds us how important worship was to God’s people back then, how important worship can be for us today. And it’s a reminder, just in case we’re in danger of forgetting it, that when we come to worship, we’re not the only ones here: God shows up as well. The Lord we are seeking comes to the temple, to the sanctuary, to the worship space in which we gather.

Do we forget this? Would it change things if we thought of our worship as God welcoming us into a holy place set apart to honour God? Because to enter the presence of the Living God, as we do when we come to worship, is to risk an encounter in which we may be overpowered. Do you remember what Moses was told, beside the burning bush? ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.’ Worship gives us the opportunity to encounter the Transcendent. As the characters say of Aslan (the Christ-figure in CS Lewis’ Narnia allegories) he is ‘not a tame lion’. What does this lack of tameness mean for us? How often do we come to worship expecting to encounter Someone greater than ourselves, expecting Something to happen?

Something about our readings this morning encourages us to come to worship with an awareness that we and God will meet here. Liturgical scholar Richard Giles says, ‘Worship is a God-centred activity, in which God is made real to us, is enfleshed among us. Far too often Christians have been under the mistaken impression that when we assemble in the church building, we are the only people showing up for worship, whereas the mystery and the wonder is that God shows up too.’ How can we remind ourselves, and each other, of the meeting with God that happens when we come together for worship? That the Lord we are seeking really does come to the temple, to the sanctuary, to the worship space in which we gather.

This morning we hear about Simeon and Anna. They were often in the temple – indeed we’re told that Anna never left it – but this day was different. This day the Lord came to the temple. And God came, not in power and majesty, not as a refining fire or a purifying agent, getting everything and everyone for the great and terrible Day of the Lord. God came, not like this, but as a small and vulnerable baby, not six weeks old. What’s that all about? Perhaps this can remind us that when God shows up somewhere it’s not always as we might expect. That God can surprise us. That we might want to be ready for God to surprise us. That trying to pin God down to looking and sounding how we might expect God to look and sound is not going to get us very far. Imagine what we might have missed, because we were stuck in our old expectations!

Simeon and Anna however look at this child and see in him the consolation and the redemption of Israel. They look at this small baby in his mother’s arms and recognise the long-awaited Messiah, the one who would bring healing and hope, joy and peace, to the people, and glory to God. Somehow, they were able to look at a baby and see a Saviour, when everyone else just saw a baby. Whenever we tell this story, maybe it should be with a prayer that we might have eyes and ears open to recognise God in whatever form God comes to us. That when the Lord we are seeking comes to the temple, to the sanctuary, to the worship space in which we gather, we might recognise him.

Simeon and Anna were expecting something to happen, expecting God to act, expecting God’s anointed one to come to them, some day, if not that day. They never gave up hope. It’s that sense of hopeful expectation that helped them to recognise Jesus when he appeared before them in the temple. That’s how they could look at a baby and see a Saviour. It’s a reminder to us that if we want to see God we need to be seeking God. If we want to see where God is working we need to be actively looking for signs of God’s presence and God’s action.

And what of Mary and Joseph? That day they were focused on going to the temple to fulfil some important rituals: the purification ritual for a new mother and the redemption or buying-back of the first-born from service to God. (It’s actually two separate things, which Luke conflates here.) They’re being faithful to the law – in fact, we’re told five times that they did everything required by the law of the Lord. Mary and Joseph are there to do what so many other new parents had done before: on one level, them coming to the temple that day is nothing much out of the ordinary – it’s just people being faithful about worship.

And yet – what happened that day made all the difference in the world to Simeon and Anna. Because of Joseph and Mary’s faithfulness, they got to encounter the long-awaited Messiah, the one they had been looking for. Because of the faithfulness of two people, others got to experience God in a new way. What if that sort of thing happens today? What if that happens here? What if, when each of us comes faithfully to worship, we help others connect with God in a new way?

There’s a lovely story about a mountain village somewhere in Europe, where a wealthy nobleman, wondering what legacy he should leave to his townspeople, decided to build them a church. He didn’t let anyone see the plans or the inside of the church until it was finished, so they all gathered there at the grand opening. The general consensus was that it was stunning, a magnificent building. Until …. someone said, ‘Hang on a minute! Where are the lamps? It’s actually quite dark in here. How on earth are we going to see?’ The nobleman pointed to some brackets in the walls, and then he gave every family a lamp, which they were to bring with them each time they came to worship. ‘Each time you’re here’, he said, ‘the area where you sit will be lighted. Each time you’re not here, that place will be dark. Whenever you fail to come to church, some part of God’s house will be dark.’

Maybe, our celebration of the Presentation of Jesus in the temple is here to remind us to look out for God even or especially when God looks different from how we imagine. For the Lord we are seeking comes to the temple, to the sanctuary, to the worship space in which we gather. But maybe today is also to remind us that, just by being faithful, we can help someone else to encounter God.

Encountering the risen Christ – Conversion of St Paul

25 January 2015   Acts 9:1-22; Galatians 1:11-16a

So today, we’re remembering St Paul: how his life was turned around, and what he did with that new life. The account of what happened as Saul was approaching Damascus is so important that Luke gives it three times in the book of Acts: once here, told by the narrator, and then later on, as Paul tells the story twice more to different groups of people. We shouldn’t, incidentally, get hung up on the names Saul and Paul: back then people often had a Hebrew name (Saul) and a Greek or Roman one (Paul). What is clear is that Saul was a persecutor of the new Christian movement, the followers of The Way. He’d been there at the death of Stephen, the first one to be killed for his faith. He was educated, well-schooled in Jewish law and tradition, he was energetic and persuasive, and he was doing all he could to stamp it out – until, that is, he had a personal encounter with Jesus.

And then he changed. And the first change was one all those around him noticed at once. Instead of storming into Damascus ready to question people and arrest those he found to be Christians, Saul was led, weak and blinded, into the city, dependent on those around him. What a come-down! And yet one of the things we find in Paul’s letters is an awareness that his weakness allowed him to rely on God’s strength. That God can use human frailty. That our powerlessness can reveal God’s power. That, for Paul and for us, is a hard lesson to have to learn.

And what of Ananias? Things would have been very different had he not been so tuned in to what God was saying, so obedient and willing to risk everything. He’d heard of this man Saul, was frightened of what he could do to all the Christians in the city – and yet, because he loved and trusted God, he goes to Saul and calls him brother. Could any of us have done that? On a good day, I’d like to think maybe I could – but if I’m really honest I’m not so sure. Ananias shows us what courage and faith and a spirit of forgiveness for the past and hope for the future looks like. When we give thanks for Paul’s life and ministry, we can also thank God for the ministry of Ananias.

Right from the beginning, Paul had a sense of what God was calling him to do: to proclaim Jesus to the Gentiles, to bring those who were religious outsiders into a relationship with God. To bring God’s name before people with power, and to carry on relating to the people of Israel. These weren’t easy tasks! Another of the things we find in Paul’s letters is an acknowledgement of just how hard it could be at times. Saul the former persecutor was hounded by his own Jewish people and by the pagan authorities. But he didn’t give up, even though at times he found it all incredibly difficult.

Because what happened is that Paul changed: Saul the persecutor, the zealot, the one who breathed out threats and murder against the Christians, became one of the great leaders in the same movement he had tried so hard to destroy. But on another level, he didn’t change. God took all of Saul’s education, all his knowledge of Jewish law and tradition, all his energy and his persuasive powers of speech – all of these things, all of these gifts – and used them. God put all of the old Saul to work for the gospel.

Paul was able to see – and this is another of the things we find in his letters – that there was an essential continuity between the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the God who acted in Jesus Christ. He never stopped aching for his Jewish brothers and sisters to see this too, but he reached out, for the rest of his life, to the Gentiles, the outsiders, sharing with them the story of God’s love and grace. Because he knew that God’s grace is for everyone. If God could love a former persecutor, if Jesus could die for someone who tried to destroy the church, then God’s love and grace are really and truly available to everybody.

None of us, I suspect, have been quite as energetic, quite as outspoken, against fellow Christians as Paul was – and maybe that’s where Paul has the advantage over us. After all, huge and public wrongdoing is very possibly easier to acknowledge and repent from than all the smaller and less noticeable sins which you and I manage to commit every week; and knowing yourself forgiven something huge makes us more ready to forgive the minor failings of others.

Saul the former persecutor changed, and became one of our faith’s early and greatest heroes. But even as we remember Paul’s conversion we acknowledge that today isn’t just about him. In fact the last thing Paul would have wanted was a day focusing on him. Today is also about us, and what our lives can show. Paul’s life was turned around, that day on the road outside Damascus, and it happened because of a personal encounter with the risen Jesus. But it’s not just about one day: the change in him lasted until his death because of continuing encounters with Jesus.

What about us? How do we encounter Jesus? Because Paul’s experience wasn’t like that of Mary Magdalene or Simon Peter: he did not meet the risen Jesus outside the empty tomb or beside the lake. He had an extraordinary encounter with Jesus – and maybe that could happen to some of us: I have known people who have heard voices or seen visions and met Jesus that way. But Paul also continued to encounter Jesus in Word and Sacrament, heard God speaking to him in Scripture and touched God in the breaking of the bread. We remember what the voice that Paul heard outside Damascus said to him: ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’. Paul continued to encounter Jesus in the Church, since Jesus identified himself with the Church. We likewise meet Jesus in the body of Christ. It’s what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls ‘Christ existing as the community’. And Bonhoeffer doesn’t just mean that Christ exists in the Church as a whole, as some sort of generalised, ideal society. He means Christ exists as the actual local church, in real-life congregations like this one of ours here, and like the communities to which Paul wrote all his letters. In real-life congregations, with all their differences of opinions, all their past histories of agreement and disagreement. Christ exists as the community.

And so we meet Jesus in Word and Sacrament, and in our community here, and as that community, we show Jesus to others. And we do this because, like St Paul, we too have been changed, and are being changed, by our encounters with the risen Christ.

Come and see

18 January 2015  John 1:43-51; Psalm 139: 1-5,12-18

Right now, while it’s still the beginning of the year, we’re tracking through the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Last week we saw him baptised, this week we see him joined by some of the first disciples. And what we get this morning is somehow part of the heart of this Christian life that we are helping each other to live. After John the baptiser bears witness that Jesus is the Son of God, two of his disciples go off to follow Jesus. One of those is Andrew, who in turn tells his brother Simon (soon to be nicknamed Peter) about Jesus and then brings Simon to meet him. That’s in the bit immediately before today’s Gospel reading. The day after that happened, Jesus finds Philip and calls him to follow. And he does. Not only that but then Philip, like Andrew before him, goes and tells someone else about Jesus.

So that’s one thing we can note: telling people about Jesus is one of the things that’s central to this life of ours. It sounds so easy when Andrew tells Simon, and if you’re like me, you kinda wish it could be that easy for us to tell people. Which is why I really like this scene with Philip.

Because the person Philip tells is Nathanael, who doesn’t seem all that easy-going. He certainly doesn’t get up and follow, just like that, just like Simon Peter did. In fact, Nathanael comes across as a sceptic, a bit of a snob. He’s one of the cool guys, chilling out there, under the fig tree, and he comes out with his smart aleck remark about Nazareth. ‘Dude, this guy’s from … Wainuiomata.’ And you can almost see him giving Philip an eye-roll. And this is why I like this bit – because I’m guessing Philip already knew Nathanael was the sort of guy who’d come out with a remark like that. After all, if you’ve just found the messiah, the one everyone has been waiting for for hundreds of years, you’re probably going to rush off and find someone who’s special to you to share the news with first. Like Andrew telling his brother Simon. So my bet is that Philip’s telling a really good friend, Nathanael. Which means that maybe he should have figured out the smart aleck remark, the ‘I’m so superior’ response. He might have known Nathanael would come out with something like that. Just like us, with our friends and colleagues – we can probably work out which ones are likely to scoff, or make fun of us, if we tell them something that sounds even vaguely ‘spiritual’.

But Philip goes and tells Nathanael anyway! And so maybe we should as well – because all this stuff about Jesus is news that’s too good not to share, especially with good friends and colleagues. And what I really like about this scene is Philip’s reaction when Nathanael gets all dismissive. Philip doesn’t give up, going away all hurt or angry, or embarrassed, deciding that’s the last time he’ll ever share anything with Nathanael. And he doesn’t shoot back a scornful comment, or get defensive, or any of those reactions which I’d probably have. He doesn’t argue back by giving a long list of famous people who have come from Nazareth. He’s really not fazed by what Nathanael says. Instead he just says calmly, ‘Come and see.’

‘Come and see.’ What a simple thing to say! – And that’s what I meant when I said what we hear this morning is part of the heart of our Christian life. Because that is how we can respond to all that we see God doing. ‘Come and see’ is what the angels said to the shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem. ‘Come and see’ is what Simeon and Anna said to all the people they spoke to after they saw Jesus. ‘Come and see’ is our response to the story of Easter – to the good news that sin and death and all that traps us has been defeated. ‘Come and see’ is what we’re invited to say to those we know who are seeking something more from life.

‘Come and see’ is not pushy. It is, if you like, the exact opposite of what all those pushy people shout out on street-corners (you know, the ones we are terrified of being compared with). It’s a gentle invitation to check something out for themselves – simple and non-threatening.

‘Come and see’ is what Philip says to Nathanael – and it works. Nathanael goes off to see Jesus – and then, somehow, Jesus seems to know him, recognises him as someone of integrity, someone without deceit. This surprises Nathanael, and I think it’s the same surprise that often comes when someone really encounters God for the first time. Because what we can find, what I have found, is this sense of being really and truly known and really and truly loved. And only God can do that with us. I have a hunch that what Nathanael was thinking then is what the psalmist meant when he said ‘Lord you have searched me out and known me: you know when I sit down and when I stand up, you discern my thoughts from afar.’

This sense of being known and held and loved is good news for everyone who is unsure of their place in the world, who is seeking something to belong to, something bigger than them, but who carries deep inside a feeling of not being good enough. It’s good news for us, when we think like that, and it’s good news for our friends and colleagues and relations, for all those we know who may be searching.

Do you think ‘come and see’ is something we could say? As I said earlier, it’s simple and non-threatening. It leaves room for someone to decline. It needn’t make us sound like some kind of religious nutcase. Because it’s not our task as Christians to ‘prove’ that our faith is true, it’s not our job to convert others or persuade them to become Christians. Our task is simply to say ‘come and see’.

Maybe we could practise this. Maybe, if we can work out what we like about being here at St Anne’s, we could start inviting people to ‘come and see’. It might be to meet others at Thursday Munch or a Friday Social, it might be to the Blokes’ breakfast. We could say, ‘come and see’ to the neighbour’s kids who might enjoy Messy Church, or the Boys’ Club. We might even invite someone to ‘come and see’ what we do on Sunday mornings.

‘Come and see’ are words anyone can say. Philip said them. You and I can say them too. Because it’s a way to start someone down the path of encountering God and realising that they are known and held and loved by someone greater than themselves. So let’s practise. I invite you to turn to someone sitting near you, and tell them one thing that you like about being part of our community at St Anne’s. And then maybe you could find a way to tell someone else about that during the week, and invite them to ‘come and see’.

Beginnings

Baptism of the Lord 11 January 2015Mark 1:4-11;Gen 1:1-5; Ps 29; Acts 19:1-7

This is what Mark gives us instead of the Christmas story: no baby in a manger, visited by shepherds, no child given gifts by the magi – instead it’s an adult Jesus meeting up with John the baptiser out in the wilderness, and the heavens being ripped apart as God breaks through. It’s direct, it’s chaotic, and it all happens very fast: this is a very Markan way to begin the new year. Jesus has come among us and look, a new day has begun. It’s like the beginning of everything, when God was creating the heavens and the earth. Jesus has come, to give us a second chance at Eden, at restoring that relationship with God that was there at the beginning of all things. Here, at the beginning of a new year, we are offered a new chance at Creation. What is it that we would like to be new and different about this year?

We go back to that beginning, and see again the Spirit-wind of God sweeping over the face of the waters as the world was created. We hear again, as the psalm says, ‘the voice of the Lord upon the waters’. We enter into the chaos. When God makes a new beginning it is frequently chaotic. In my experience, and maybe in yours as well, beginnings are often chaotic times: think moving into a new house, starting a new job, trying to settle down in a new city. And Mark’s Gospel does chaos well. We hear the spirit-wind and the voice of God upon the waters of the river Jordan as Jesus is baptised. We see and hear these things and we know that God is doing something.

And what God is doing is ripping the heavens apart. When Jesus is baptised in Matthew and Luke the heavens are merely ‘opened’ – here in Mark they are ripped apart, because God cannot stand the separation any longer. We get the very same word at the other end of this Gospel, when the temple curtain is ripped in two from top to bottom as Jesus dies on the cross. What separates humanity from God is being torn apart, and it is God that is doing the tearing. What is it that distances us from God, and how would we like that distance to be removed this year?

For we see and hear these things and we know that God is doing something, here and now, in our lives today. And we are invited to remember that God has already done something in our lives. We are invited to remember the Holy Spirit and the voice of God upon the waters of our own baptism. For the Spirit was there, when each of us were baptised, just as it was when Jesus was baptised in the Jordan, just as it was sweeping over the face of the waters at the beginning of all things. The Spirit of God, the breath of God, the mighty wind of God – and the word (in Hebrew and in Greek) means all of those things – is what gives us life, what empowers us to get up every morning and live the lives and do the things that God wants us to. As the people Paul baptised in the reading from Acts discovered, the Holy Spirit is the presence of God within us, God’s guiding love and creative power. It is a limitless source of energy on which we can draw – this day, this year and on into the whole of our lives. Today, we’re invited to remember this. Where would we most like to see the Spirit’s power in our lives this year?

Today we remember the things that connect us to Jesus. The human life that he lived. The human lives that we live. The water that flowed over him at his baptism; the water that flowed over each of us at our own baptism; and the action of the Holy Spirit at each. The experience of being called a beloved child of God. We can do what God is calling us to do because we are connected to Jesus, because God has laid claim to our lives. In our baptism we have been marked as God’s forever. How do we want to live out our identity as God’s beloved ones this year?

Baptism is a new beginning, a new creation made by the Spirit sweeping over the face of the waters. And both for Jesus and for us it is a commissioning for ministry. All the Gospels show us Jesus starting his ministry, of touching lives and healing bodies, of calling people into relationship and proclaiming the kingdom, after his encounter with John the baptiser. Baptism is Jesus’ commissioning for ministry. In that last chaotic week before Jesus was arrested and killed, the religious leaders came to him and asked, ‘By what authority do you do these things?’ And Jesus answered by referring to his baptism, ‘Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of human origin?’ What he’s saying is ‘I was baptised – that’s how all this started’. Is that something we can say of ourselves, if someone were to ask why it is that we do what we do? Would we like to be able to say that?

For we too have had that commissioning for ministry. We too have felt the touch of water on our heads. And whether or not we can actually remember the moment – and I’m guessing that most of you are like me, and can’t remember our own baptism at all – doesn’t matter. What does matter, is that we are baptised and that God did something to us in that moment that will never leave us. And that something commissioned us for ministry, gave us a role in continuing Jesus’ own ministry of service in the world and sharing with people the good news of God’s reconciling love. (And if that sounds familiar it’s because it comes from the Catechism at the back of our Prayer Book.) Whatever specific ministries we each may have during the course of a lifetime all have those things in common: service to others and sharing God’s love. We are called to be practical people, compassionate people, with eyes for the needs of our neighbours, wise to the actions that bless, answering ‘yes’ to what God asks of us. How do we want to fulfil our ministry this year? How will we serve those around us and speak of God’s love?

As the new year begins in earnest we stand, like Jesus, with one foot in the Jordan and the other stepping towards the future. We are, like Jesus, secure in the knowledge that we are beloved children of God, and we have also been given new life and power by God’s Spirit. So we go on into this year, hearing the words spoken to every newly-baptised person: ‘may you grow in the Holy Spirit, fulfil your ministry and follow Christ your whole life long.’ And as we prepare to fulfil that ministry, not yet knowing all that God might ask of us in the months ahead, let us also listen to the words of the psalmist: ‘You Lord will give strength to your people: you will give your people the blessing of peace.’

Journeying without a star

Epiphany: 4 January 2015   Matthew 2:1-12

There are many journeys we take in the course of our lives. Some are fairly definite: the trips to the dairy, the walk to the bus stop, even the long car drives when we take our children away to university in another city, but the real journeys – the journeys that change us – are different. Those are the journeys when we aren’t quite sure where we might end up, or what we will find when we get there. That is the journey the magi took.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ Wise men, magi, ventured out on a journey, prompted by a star they had seen at its rising, a star that betokened the birth of a king. We mostly brush over the beginning of their journey; we tend to picture instead the magi trekking through the desert, guided by the light of the star shining down on them. But what really intrigues me is why they started out in the first place. What was it, do you think, that made them want to pay homage to a new-born king of whom they knew very little? What hunger had been woken in them when they saw that star? Augustine prayed, ‘O God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you’: was it that kind of restlessness, I wonder, that got them moving? And what is the restlessness that we find inside of us, and have we courage to start on our own journeys?

Because it would have taken courage for the magi to carry on with their journey, having only the memory of a star, and the restless need inside of them. All the carols picture them following a star throughout the long expedition, being led onwards by its light, ‘westward leading still proceeding’, a star guiding them forwards. That’s not the way Matthew tells it. The star is there right at the beginning, and then seems to vanish, only reappearing as they rush from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, trying to stay one step ahead of Herod. That fits with some of the journeys I have been on, and maybe it’s like that for you as well: the initial drive to set off, with a sudden rush of energy, the long confusing stage in the middle, where you wonder what on earth made you want to do this, and all the uncertainty of trying to work out if you are on the right track or just hopelessly lost, and then – as you begin to get closer to your destination – then and only then are there signs that you are, indeed, on the right path. Only as the end of the journey is in sight do you start to think that maybe you are getting somewhere, maybe it hasn’t all been wasted. Only as the magi get close to Bethlehem do they see the star again. The traditional carols do them an injustice, for they underestimate their courage, their holy stubbornness. They underestimate too the need inside of them, that kept them travelling onwards, to an unknown destination. When have we felt a need like that?

So the magi listen to king Herod and set out on the last leg of a long journey, and finally the star appears again and, here at the very end, guides them to the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. Here, as they arrive at last at their destination, they know that their journey has not been a pointless exercise. They have found the king they were seeking. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

That is where the best of journeys – the journeys that change us – end: they end with an encounter with Jesus, and they end with worship. Sometimes we, like the magi, are not always sure what we are looking for – but when we find Jesus we find our destination and our purpose. We find the rest which our restless hearts have been seeking. And the only way to respond is the way the magi also chose: to open our treasure chests and offer to Jesus the things that are most precious to us.

The magi remind me of so many people today. For they were not Jewish, not religious insiders. They had not read the scriptures and they did not know the ancient prophesies. They are not like many of us, with years of listening to sermons and a working knowledge of at least some church jargon. They are like all those people that we work with, that we meet at the sports club or the supermarket, those who describe themselves as ‘spiritual, but not religious’. And they were searching for something – which turned out to be a search for Someone – and they had the desire and the courage and the stubbornness to keep on journeying until they found him.

How can we help the magi we live amongst today? How can we help them to come at last to Jesus, and to find their destination and their purpose? Perhaps one way to help is to listen to their questions and to take those questions seriously – after all, even Herod could do that. And even Herod knew what to do when he didn’t know the answer: he called on those who might know, and listened to what they said.

But perhaps the best way we might help those modern seekers, those ‘spiritual, but not religious’ friends, and relatives, and colleagues of ours, is to be honest about our own journeys. To share what it feels like when we are trekking through the desert without a star to guide us. To admit that quite often we don’t have all the answers, and that sometimes we don’t have any answers at all, only more questions. To find somehow the words that can describe the restlessness we have known, and which we still know sometimes, and the heart’s rest we can find in worship and in serving others.

This year, may all our journeys – those journeys that really matter, those journeys that change us – be to Jesus. And this year, may we travel along with all the modern magi, those brave, stubborn, searching folk, and may we help them reach their destination which is theirs, and ours, together.

What child is this?

28 December 2014  Luke 2:22-40, Ps 148, Gal 4:4-7, Isaiah 61:10-62:3

It is, of course, still the Christmas season. The world around us may be over Christmas, but we will keep celebrating until Epiphany. But it’s perhaps a good chance to pause, now that the presents have been given, received, unwrapped and played with, and start to work out what child this is, whose birth we have rejoiced in. Mary and Joseph have met with Simeon and Anna, and the holy family has returned home, back to their ordinary lives – as we too will return to our ordinary lives after the holidays are over. But as anyone who’s settled back into home with a new baby can remember, what you have to find is the ‘new normal’.

And what we too have to find, each year at this time, is the new normal: all through Advent we were in a state of waiting: waiting for Christ to come to us, waiting for Jesus to be born. And now that part of waiting is over, and Christ is amongst us. True, we are still waiting for Christ to return at the end of time, but we are waiting as ones who know what it is to have Jesus in our world, God come amongst us. This is our new normal: that we live in a world that God has entered. That’s why, I think, the lectionary gives us Psalm 148 every year on this first Sunday after Christmas: the Gospel readings change but the psalm doesn’t, and in this psalm every part of creation praises God. Sometimes it’s good to remember that we humans aren’t the only ones who can praise and glorify God. Sometimes it’s good to remember that the child whose birth we are celebrating is one who is praised and worshipped by the whole creation.

We were waiting for this child to be born for the four weeks of Advent, but in today’s Gospel we meet people who had been waiting even longer. Simeon was an old man, weighed down by a vast hope. For years he’d been looking forward to the fulfilment of God’s promises of consolation and redemption for Israel. The same goes for Anna, the elderly widow, worshipping in the temple, praying and fasting, and waiting. And there were others too, those to whom Anna passed on the good news, for we are told that she spoke about the child ‘to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’. I wonder how many people Anna went and told, bubbling over with excitement and praise for God because of this child who had been born. For this child is one for whom people had been waiting many years, because of what he would do for God’s people.

What had he come to do? There’s one of those handy summary statements in the part of Paul’s letter to the Galatians that we hear this morning: Jesus, God’s Son, was born under the law in order to redeem those under that law, so that all of us could be adopted as God’s sons and daughters. This is the point where our jargon-sensors go off, as ‘redeem’ is one of those jargon-words we tend to use without always remembering what it actually means – so here’s the background to it. In ancient Israel, if you couldn’t pay all your debts you could sell yourself into slavery, and it was the duty of your closest male relative to come one day and buy you back. The word redeem means ‘to purchase a slave with a view to setting him or her free’. The law, originally intended to be a good, positive thing, had provided not freedom but bondage. And so what Jesus came to do was to release humanity from that slavery by ‘redeeming’ us – by buying us back. If you forget about human beings and think about jewellery held at an old-fashioned pawn shop, you get the picture.

Jesus was God’s Son, and also ‘born of a woman’ (in Paul’s words): he was both divine and human, able to relate to God and to human beings like you and me, and it was this dual relationship that meant that he could redeem us. As a human being he was close to us and so could buy back our freedom, as God he was able to deal with the law in a way that humans proved unable to do. Something I read puts it like this, ‘Because he was both human and God, Jesus is able with one hand to gather all humanity under his care and with the other to usher us into the presence of God.’ This child whose birth we sing about came to make us children of God, no longer slaves but adopted into God’s family.

This is what lies behind all that ‘redemption’ language that we hear in Galatians and in today’s Gospel. How are we going to respond – not only to this talk of a ‘redeemer’ but to the news that he has come, that Jesus has been born to fulfil the promises of God? We can respond in the ways that Simeon, and Anna, and the prophet Isaiah respond. Simeon responded in prayer, not only praising God for this child, but recognising the effect this birth would have on his own life. Simeon had a sense of where he fitted into God’s plan. He realised that the coming of Jesus meant that his own work, of waiting and watching, was now over. Some of us may feel like that, towards the end of our lives, but for others there’s an appreciation that the arrival of Jesus, this child that has been born, gives us new tasks and a new energy. It sounds like Anna felt like that, as she went to speak about Jesus to all those who had been looking for Jerusalem to be redeemed.

Isaiah too responds in prayer and in worship. He celebrates ‘the garments of salvation’ and ‘the robe of righteousness’, this sense that clothes worn outwardly are revealing an inner reality. There’s something there about how we can live, isn’t there: how can we show by what we do, and what we say, and how we look, that we are rejoicing in the birth of the redeemer, in the arrival of the one who will free us from all that holds us in bondage? For after all, the best ‘advertisement’ for Christianity is Christians who can speak joyfully about what God has done for us.

With the weather now getting warmer the gardens are springing up with things that we’ve planted earlier. This is a good time to hear Isaiah use that very image to tell people that the Lord God will revive God’s people, causing righteousness and praise to spring up before all nations. This is a time to be grateful, for the coming of the Christ-child, and for God’s people through the ages who have, like Anna and Simeon, spoken of what that child means for the world. It can be a time to understand more fully what child this is, whom we celebrate today. It’s also – as we prepare to farewell 2014 and welcome in 2015 very soon – a time to be grateful for all that God has done in us and through us during the past year. I invite you to turn to someone sitting near you and share one thing for which you are grateful to God at the moment.

O Holy Night

Christmas Eve, 2014  Luke 2:1-20, John 1:1-14

While they were there, in Bethlehem, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. And almost ever since, we have kept this night as holy. Sometimes people in English country villages have believed that at the stroke of midnight even the animals would kneel down and pay homage to the birth of the Christ-child, as they did long ago by the manger in Bethlehem. We picture the ox and the ass in the stable, the cows and the sheep in an English barn, the sheep and the dairy cows out in our fields and we like to imagine them kneeling, able to do what maybe we have forgotten how to do, able to recognise holiness.

For this is a holy night, a night filled with starlight. Even if, in the middle of a bad summer in Wellington, there are clouds and wind, and maybe rain, somewhere inside of it all the stars are shining brightly – for this is the night of the Saviour’s birth. Maybe that’s something else we’ve forgotten how to recognise: this need of a Saviour, of someone to come and free us from all that enslaves us, to free us from our so-human propensities to stuff things up on a fairly regular basis. Someone to rescue us from the messiness of our lives. Maybe we’ve forgotten we need a Saviour, and so when one is born we’re not quite sure what to do, particularly when that Saviour is a baby who seems in more need of our protection. But that is part of the mystery of this night, that one who comes into this world as a vulnerable child, as a new-born baby, is the one who was in the beginning with God, the one through whom all things came into being. The Christ-child is the Word become flesh, come to live among us and to save us by doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. And so tonight, we greet him and pay him homage.

For this is a holy night. This is the night when the weary world can rejoice, the night when we ourselves can throw aside our own tiredness, even the self-inflicted tiredness of our lives in this season, the weariness of all our rushing around shopping and cooking and trying to get everything finished. We can rejoice, for the child who is born this night will call us to come to him, will give rest to us and to all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens. The Word become flesh this night is the gentle one who promises us rest for our souls. And so tonight, we greet him and pay him homage.

For this is a holy night, and part of the holiness comes with the hope that is born. There is always something holy about hope, for it holds out the possibility of a world that is different. A world where the home of God is with mortals, where every tear will be wiped away, and death will be no more, and mourning and crying and pain will be no more. And even though these things may not happen immediately we have the promise of them, and if we can open our eyes wide enough we see signs of this new beginning all around us. A new and glorious morning awaits us because of what happens this night, because of the Child who is born this night. And so tonight, we greet him and pay him homage.

For this is a holy night, the night that awakens hope, that shows us glimpses of joy. This is the night when the shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flock heard the angel voices announcing the good news. This night we hear the angels too, and even if we do not know enough about visits from angels to be afraid of them, we find ourselves listening hard, trying to understand what this good news might mean for us. So we too follow their advice and take ourselves off to Bethlehem, a name which means ‘house of bread’, to see lying in a manger the baby who will be bread broken for the world. And so tonight, even though we do not understand, we greet him and pay him homage.

For this is a holy night, the night when we encounter the light shining in the darkness, the light that the darkness cannot overcome. For this child who is born tonight and laid in the straw of that manger is the true light which comes to enlighten everyone. He will enlighten us, too, if we allow him to, if we are able for a moment to admit how much we do not know, how much we may never know. If once we can acknowledge the darkness that exists around us, we will be ready for the light of the Christ-child to shine into our hearts and to transform our whole lives. For tonight, it is this light which is coming into the world, and so we greet him and pay him homage.

For this is a holy night, the night that puts us in touch with something greater than ourselves. We are not used, in these celebrity-obsessed times, to encountering real greatness, the sort of greatness that brings us to our knees. We are more used to people who are well-known for some sporting achievement, or notorious for some scandalous behaviour, or famous merely for being famous. But this child who is born this night is truly great, and when we follow the shepherds into the stable and look down at the baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in the manger, we suddenly find ourselves beholding glory. For this new-born child is God incarnate, come to be part of our world and to transform it, this night and forever more. This tiny baby is the Word become flesh, and we can see his glory, full of grace and truth. So we greet him, and falling on our knees, we pay him homage, for this is a holy night, the night divine, the night when Christ was born.

Ordinary people

Advent 4  Luke 1:26-38; Luke 1:47-55 21 December 2014

One of the interesting – and quite scary – things about this God that we’ve come here to worship is God’s habit of taking the initiative. Look at this morning’s Gospel reading. This angel comes up to a girl called Mary and greets her. ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you’, is what the angel says. There’s no indication of anything particularly exceptional about this girl, no sign that she has done something special, no suggestion that she has sought this encounter. She is simply there, and God seeks her out. What we hear about Mary this morning is like what we see when we watch Dominic getting baptised: the initiative isn’t with Dominic (or even with his parents) any more than it was with Mary. The initiative is always with God. God seeks us out. God calls to us – and we are invited to respond.

Only when God calls to us, we don’t always understand. We can get perplexed – just as Mary did. And remember, at that stage all that the angel had said to her was ‘Hi, God favours you, God is with you.’ No mention at that point of a baby – Mary gets perplexed just by God showing up in her life when she wasn’t expecting it. She’s beginning to sound more like you and me at every moment. Because I’m guessing that it doesn’t occur to us much either that God would want to come and be with us. And as for the thought that God might want to ask us to do something, that God might be showing up in our lives to offer us a job – well that’s perplexing and confusing to the power of ten.

The thing is, that very few of us think we’re special, and because we’ve somehow got the idea that God only uses the really exceptional people, we tend to think we can sit on the terraces and watch as all the God-stuff happens. Only God makes a habit of working through ordinary people. What happens, over and over, is a pattern of God choosing someone unexceptional to carry the story along. God favoured Mary, and invited her to be the mother of the Son, but it wasn’t because of anything particular about her. And God is with us, and invites us to encounter the good news and to share it with others, not because of anything particular about us, but because we are the ones who are here, now, at this time. We are the ones God is calling to. And as I said earlier, that’s not only interesting but kind of scary, because none of us is safe from God showing up in our lives when we aren’t expecting it.

But it’s OK, because, just as with Mary, if God calls to us and invites us to do something we get the chance to say yes or no. We get a choice. We get a choice about whether we want to be involved in changing the world, in turning the established order of things upside down – which is what Mary’s song is all about. We all get a choice – you, me, and young Dominic. Because another interesting thing about God, as one of the early theologians has remarked, is that ‘without God, we cannot; without us, God will not’. God is offering us an opportunity, not only to experience God showing up and being part of our lives, but to share this with others, to take Jesus to the world around us, as Mary was invited to do this.

There’s a custom in Germany, where part of Dominic’s whanau come from, that when a child is baptised a verse of Scripture is chosen for them. Dominic’s comes from just a little further on in Luke’s Gospel from today’s reading [2:10-11]: ‘But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’ It’s from the Christmas story, the angel appearing unexpectedly to the shepherds and taking the initiative to send them off to Bethlehem to find a baby. We’ll be invited to do that ourselves in just a few days’ time, to go to find the new-born baby. But for now, we can hold on to the promise of good news and great joy. We can remember that this news is meant for all the people – which means, doesn’t it, that we and others are needed to carry that news to all the people that we live amongst.

Today we lit the last of the candles from the outside of our Advent wreath. All through Advent we’ve been working our way towards Christmas, reminding ourselves of the hope we share as we wait for Christ to come to us, to come as the baby in the Bethlehem manger, and to come again at the end of time as the Lord of all. We’ve lit candles to remind us to be alert and to watch for his return, to help us to remember that Christ brings peace to all who trust in him, that he is the bringer of true and everlasting joy. The candle we lit at the beginning of today’s service is to remind us of the love that God has for us. And fairly soon we’re going to be lighting another candle and someone will give it to Dominic and tell him to walk in the faith of Christ, crucified and risen, shine with the light of Christ. You see, Dominic, when he is baptised, isn’t just given a candle: he will be invited to become a candle, shining, each day of his life from now, on with the light of Christ. It’s the same invitation shared by all of us who are baptised.

I’m wondering today if something similar happens with the Advent wreath. Maybe we who see it are invited to become like that wreath, shining out the hope and the peace that our faith gives to us, radiating the joy of knowing God and sharing the love we receive from God with everyone around us. Maybe Advent isn’t just a season of the year that we move through, a spiritual pause in the middle of all the end-of-year mayhem and the busyness of shopping and getting ready for holidays: maybe it’s something that we can live out in our own lives. Maybe, as we become Advent wreaths, we can shine the light of God into the dark places of the world and speak words of hope and promise to our friends and neighbours. For we are the ordinary people, whom God is inviting, like Mary, into an extraordinary task.

The Witness of John

 14 December 2014 (8am)  John 1:6-8, 19-28

‘There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.’ That’s how we first hear of John the baptiser in the Fourth Gospel. We hear of him as a witness. Here in this Gospel we don’t get the scruffy clothes and the weird diet that we have come to associate with John, and we don’t get his strange and confronting message of repentance. He seems to us, indeed, more or less normal – and that is a good thing, for it helps us to connect with John. For what John does is what we also are called to do – and what John does is to point people to Jesus.

Today’s reading tells us much more about who John wasn’t than about who he was: he wasn’t the light; he wasn’t the Messiah; he wasn’t Elijah; he wasn’t the prophet. John’s message is so ‘not about him’. He was there, and he makes an impact, but he continually tries to direct the attention somewhere else – to someone else, and that someone is Jesus. John was a witness, and he was a voice, a voice crying out in the wilderness, and he was crying out not about himself, but about someone else. John was a voice telling people to prepare for someone who was coming, someone whose sandal thong John was unworthy to untie.

There is this huge sense, when we listen to John, that he knew how he and Jesus fitted into the overarching story of God’s plan for the world. He knew that at most, he was the warm-up act, the singer that comes out to open for someone else, to get the audience ready to listen to the major star. John was there, speaking and baptising, to get people ready to encounter Jesus.

This is the thing we have to remember. It’s not about us. Even the things we are doing for God are not about us. Come to think of it, even the things we are doing for the Church are not about us – and they’re not about the Church either. If we are writing prayers, arranging flowers, handing out prayer books or taking minutes at a meeting, those things are done so that people can be ready to meet Jesus, to encounter God. What John can help us to see is that we, and the things that we do, are there to connect people with God.

It’s interesting the way the priests and Levites try to distract John from this by wanting him to talk about himself. ‘Who are you? Why are you doing these things?’ And John somehow manages, not to dodge the question (like a politician trying to wriggle out of answering a journalist), but to put it into its proper place. To put the right thing into the spotlight.

Like the man whose name was John, you and I, and the Church as a whole, are sent into today’s world as a witness. To point people to Jesus, to get them ready to encounter God. How John undertook this task can become an example for us – and John’s witness was three things: it was humble, it was confident and it was public.

Humble we have heard about, the recognition that the important thing is pointing away from ourselves to Jesus. It’s the difference between being a mirror and being a signpost. John’s witness was also confident – and that’s sometimes an unusual thing in these postmodern times. Big overarching stories have gone out of fashion, and everyone’s perspective is often taken as valid; there’s the idea of ‘my truth’, ‘his truth’, ‘their truth’ – and nothing that is simply recognised as true by everyone. But we are here because we believe that the gospel, the good news of God’s love and grace, is true – true enough to base our lives on. So we, like John, can have the confidence which comes from that certainty, certainty that is grounded on the character of God. That is not to say there is no room for doubt, and for honest questioning: doubt is not incompatible with faith, and we have a God who can more than cope with our questions. But part of our calling it to speak of what we know, to tell of our experiences of God.

And John’s witness was public. Where did we ever get the idea that religion was to be a private matter? How could we ever think that a person’s faith was to be some sort of confidential secret? What people believe, about God and about themselves and their place in the world, will determine how they act – and so is going to be obvious to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. And even if this is true about other religions (and I’m not sure that it is) it is not true about Christianity. Christianity is not a solely private affair. There has always been a public, indeed a political, aspect to what we believe and how we act, rooted in the confession ‘Jesus is Lord’.

So our witness, like John’s is to be these three things: humble, confident and public – and I think all three of those are needed. A witness that is humble and confident but not public is just a whisper, and one that is humble and public but not confident is going to be confusing to people, and possibly to ourselves as well. And of course, a witness that is confident and public but not humble is going to get up people’s noses, isn’t it. So this week, as we continue through Advent, let us remember John the Baptiser, the one who came as a witness to testify to Jesus, the light who is coming into the world.

The beginning of the good news

Advent 2, 7 December 2014  1:1-8; Isa 40:1-11; Ps 85:1-2,8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a

‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ That’s how Mark’s Gospel (which is the first-written of all the Gospels we have) starts out: abruptly, getting off to a flying start, plunging us right into the middle of the action. It’s the same way, actually, that Mark’s Gospel ends: abruptly drawing us in, teasing us with the thought that we are involved, still living out the ending that isn’t really an ending. That’s something that waits up ahead for us: we’ll come to that at Easter. But for now, we have a beginning, the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. And the good news starts with getting ready: a messenger preparing the way, a voice crying out in the wilderness. The good news starts with the uncomfortable figure of John the baptiser, out there in the wilderness by the river Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

In what way is this ‘good news’? Well, for a start, it happens in the wilderness. The gospel of Jesus Christ begins in the wilderness. And one of the things we know, from reading the Old Testament, is that God’s delivering of God’s people always begins in the wilderness. Think Abraham, tracking through the desert, think Moses turning aside to see a burning bush, think the Hebrew tribes trudging through the wilderness from Egypt all the way to the promised land, think Elijah. The wilderness is the place where God meets us. It could be an actual wilderness, the Desert Road on the way to somewhere else, or it could be the painful, messy wildernesses of our stuffed-up lives. Either way, it’s a place we can stop hiding and engage with God. What do we want God to say to us in the wilderness?

So there are all the people, going out to John in the wilderness, and being baptised by him in the river Jordan. In what way is this ‘good news’? In what way can admitting our failings, acknowledging our faults, being washed clean, and making a new start be good news? Well, put like that, it’s a no-brainer, isn’t it. Before we can enter the future we have to deal with the past. Before we can begin to imagine a new life we have to get the old one sorted out. John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins holds out to everyone the possibility of a new start, the incredibly hopeful notion that the future can be different. That’s a good message to hear in the second week of the church’s year. It gets me wondering, how do we want our future to be different?

And John was baptising in the Jordan – and the Jordan isn’t just any old river. It’s a marker between the old life and the new. After the ancient Israelites were done wandering through the wilderness, learning how to be a free people instead of a bunch of slaves, they paused. And then they crossed over the Jordan and entered the Promised Land. They began a new life together as the people of God living in the place God had called them to inhabit. And they placed rock cairns and used rituals to remind them, through the centuries, of that journey across the Jordan.

So we have come today to a place of beginning, a place where good news is proclaimed. The people that Isaiah was living amongst needed both of those things, and maybe we do as well. This is Second Isaiah, the Isaiah of the Exile. Jerusalem had been destroyed and a large number of its people were forced into exile, carted off to Babylon, away from all that was familiar and all that connected them to God. And it’s to them that God’s voice comes speaking comfort, proclaiming love, promising a highway through the desert, offering a new beginning. God’s voice comes to those who are so downtrodden that all they can see is their own inconstancy, a people withering like grass, fading like the flowers. It’s to them that hope comes, to them that the voice shares the good news that, however fickle the people feel themselves to be, it is God that is constant. The word of our God will stand forever.

Good tidings are spoken over Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, the places where God’s people languish: ‘Here is your God!’ See, the Lord is coming, strong and powerful, and yet ready to care so gently for them. The good news that God will come is not just spoken by Isaiah to the Israelites in exile. It is spoken everywhere, in every age, to people who admit their need of comfort, their need for a new start, their need of God. It’s spoken to those, like the psalmist, who want to hear what the Lord says, who know that God will speak peace to God’s people; to those who long to see mercy and faithfulness meeting together, justice and peace embracing.

This good news that God will come is spoken to us, but sometimes we don’t quite know how to react. We rush around getting ready, and asking (a bit like children on a long car journey) ‘are we nearly there yet?’ Is God nearly here yet?’ Or we forget about God’s promised arrival and give up waiting altogether, needing to be reminded – along with Peter’s audience – that God’s watch keeps a different time, and God is a God of patience.

Today assures us that God is indeed coming. We’re invited to prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness, to make a new start in our own lives, just as John the baptiser invited those in his age to begin again, just as the Israelites crossed the Jordan to the promised land. We’re invited into a new life together as the people of God living in this place, to which God has called us. Today invites us to go forwards into the future, a new future, but one filled with the knowledge of God’s constancy through the ages.

It’s about this time in December, isn’t it, when friends ask us, or we start to ask ourselves ‘are you ready for Christmas?’ Making the cake, buying presents, getting the lamb or the turkey, and trimming the tree all seem to be part of it. I discovered this week that if I want to, I can download an app for my phone that will give me a 3D Christmas Countdown with live wallpaper and a snowfall of lights (whatever that last bit is). But here’s the thing: Christmas will come even if we’re not ready. Whether or not we are there with food and drink and prayers and presents, and Advent calendars and apps on our phones – Christmas will still happen. The Christ-child will be born in the stable, and the world now – just like the world back then – will very possibly not be ready.

Because God will act in God’s own timing. And God will prepare a way through the wilderness even if we can’t quite manage it ourselves. And that’s because God so wants to comfort us, feed us and care gently for us that God will seek us out. God is so used to encountering us in the wilderness that God will enter our wildernesses and wait for us there. Today we hear about the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And even though we’ve read on ahead and know how Mark’s Gospel ends (or at least we think we do), let’s stay with that sense of new beginning. Let’s whisper that good news deep into our souls, and speak it out to the world around us – because some things never change, and good news is needed now just as much as it was back then.

It’s not just about the baby!

Advent Sunday, 30 November 2014 Mark 13:24-37; Isaiah 64:1-9;1 Corinthians 1:3-9

So it’s Advent, not only the beginning of the Church’s year, but the start of our preparations for the coming of Christ. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been hearing Christmas carols over the supermarket soundtrack for a couple of weeks now, and the shops are full of Santas, decorations and ideas for presents. And Children’s Church are practising our Christmas Pageant which we’ll enjoy on 14 December. But guess what – it’s not just about the Baby!

If church seasons were people, Advent would be the one who is really good at multi-tasking. Because Advent invites us to get ready for the coming of Christ – and that happens in two separate ways: the coming of Jesus at Christmas, God born as a baby in Bethlehem, and the coming again of Jesus at the end of time. We try to hold both of those thoughts in our minds throughout Advent, but I have a feeling that it’s the first coming – the baby in the Bethlehem manger – that we tend to want to concentrate on. And we kind of push to one side the second coming, and all that end of the world stuff, which is why we get surprised and wonder what to do with things like our Gospel reading for today.

I have a hunch that we want to concentrate on the Advent themes around the baby coming to the manger for two reasons: first, it’s easier and second, it sounds like more fun. It’s easier because we’ve all, in one way or another, had some experience of babies. If we can’t quite get our heads around the idea of God coming to our world as a new-born baby – which is (you have to admit) a bit weird – at least we know what a baby looks like. And we’ve all, in one way or another, had some experience of Christmas, so we know (sort of) what we’d like that to feel like. So the coming of Jesus as a baby at Christmas is easier to think about, much easier than Jesus’ second coming, in glory to judge the world at the end of time – because, by definition, that is something entirely outside our range of experience. And besides, Christmas certainly sounds more fun than the world ending, and that’s why the rest of society has caught hold of it and we hear those carols in the supermarket.

But we’re invited to remember that it’s not just about the baby. And that the coming again of Christ is good news. That’s why we get that reference to the fig tree: ‘from the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.’ Now that’s a reading for this time of year! – except that here in Aotearoa, we’d say it’s when we see the pohutakawa beginning to blossom we know that summer is on its way. The coming of summer is good news, isn’t it! And that’s why Mark’s Jesus describes his future coming again in those terms. The focus isn’t on the tough times, or the disruptions, or the judgement, but on God’s blessings that lie beyond them, blessings for those who recognise themselves as the clay which God the potter is fashioning into something better than they can imagine. On God’s gathering together all of God’s people, ‘from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven’ to go and be with God forever. To enjoy God’s presence for ever sounds like the best news of all.

But to be able to look forward to this depends on something else, and that’s remembering that we aren’t actually from here. We’re on earth as strangers and pilgrims, on a journey together to somewhere else. This is about getting our priorities right. We have a hope and a focus beyond the minutiae of daily life. That’s what Paul was encouraging the church at Corinth to remember: that they were there to use all the spiritual gifts God had given them as they ‘wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ’. All of Christian existence is set within the framework of a yet-to-be-fulfilled hope. This world is not all there is! Christ will come again to triumph over the powers of evil and death.

The real difference between the Church and the rest of society isn’t that we do Advent now and only begin celebrating Christmas on the night of 24 December, while everyone else starts Christmas from some time in mid-November. The real difference is that not-yet-fulfilled hope we share, the hope of the new heaven and the new earth, after the world as we know it has come to an end.

The Church has a unique reference point because of its focus on eternity. We are called to witness to a reality that lies beyond this world. It is this that sharpens the way we participate in the life of the society around us, this that encourages us to work for a better peace and a purer justice, even though there can be no lasting peace and perfect justice in this age. This hope is what inspires our efforts to bring an end to evils, even though evil will not end until the world itself does.

As you know, I’ve been looking this year at what St Augustine has to say about the situation we find ourselves in, living as members of a Christian community in the middle of a secular society, being church here in Aotearoa New Zealand, being in the world but not belonging to it, just as it says in John’s Gospel. How do we do this? I found Augustine has some really useful advice in his City of God and much of that revolves round his focus on all this ‘end of the world’ stuff that we hear about in Advent, which the Church describes in the word ‘eschatology’ – the end times – and on the return of Christ. Because it’s this focus on eternity that gives to the Church a confidence about the future which it needs, which we need, in order to be deeply engaged with the life of the society in which we live.

There’s a paradox here, isn’t there: we’re focused on eternity, on what will happen after these present times come to an end – and yet we recognise that daily life and work matters, that human society has a claim on us. We are strangers and pilgrims, passing through this world on the way to somewhere else – and yet we, and the Church we are part of, are called to be actively involved in this world, committed and engaged. We’re called, in fact, to spend Advent looking forward to the coming again of Christ at the end of time, and to preparing for the birth of the baby in Bethlehem.

So let’s do this. Let’s spend the next four weeks getting ready for Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, and making all our preparations for Christmas. And even though we know that all those carols in the supermarket are a wee bit early, we can, if we wish, enjoy them anyway, or perhaps just appreciate how the society around us enjoys them. But let’s also spend this time thinking about the end of time – about the coming again of Christ in glory. Because it is this that can really shape our priorities for the years ahead – for this new church year that begins today, and for all the years beyond that.

Christ the king

23 November 2014   Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

Today, the last Sunday of the Church year, is the day we’re invited to celebrate the reign of Christ. I guess today is a sort of hinge, between the old year and the new. We get a chance to look back, at the year we’ve just been through, and think about how Christ has been Lord over what we’ve done during this year. Where, and how, and when, has Christ’s ideal of the world had power in our lives? How have we worked – together and on our own – for the coming of God’s reign? And today is also a chance to look forwards, to what we want the future to be like – looking forward to both the (maybe distant) future when Christ will come again in glory, and to the year ahead and what our lives and our actions might be like.

And we look back, and we look forward, because the Feast of Christ the King invites us to do two things: to acknowledge the kingship of Christ and to participate in it. It’s about recognising that Christ is Lord of our lives. To think about him ‘raised him from the dead and seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named’, as it’s described to the Ephesians. Traditionally, New Zealanders don’t really do hierarchy, do we. We don’t tend to have a highly developed sense of who is above and below in a hierarchy – we’re inclined to think of everyone as more or less on the same level. And for many of us, we tend to relate to Jesus as he’s described at the end of our liturgy today, as ‘Jesus Christ the servant, our friend and brother’. While that’s certainly a true way of looking at Jesus, today invites us to see the one for whom God ‘has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all’.

I don’t know about you, but I have to admit I don’t usually think like this. That’s why I’m glad of today, of the reminders that this day gives me. Of the invitation to think about God’s reign in my life, and imagine how I want to be part of that kingdom. Because if God’s reign is to matter, then it can’t just matter in the abstract, in some vague theoretical way. If it’s going to matter, it needs to matter in the sense of what I do with my life on a day to day business. On what we do with our lives. Not just in some ‘age to come’, in the possibly distant future, but today, tomorrow, this week.

Today gives us a chance to realise that we are a part of all this. That God is calling us to a different way of being in the world. What this might look like is going to vary, between people, and contexts, but a good place to start could be the parable that Matthew’s Jesus tells, the one about judgement at the end of time, the sorting out into sheep and goats. When I hear this I think about one of those drafting gates on farms.

The thing people often forget about this story is the element of surprise. Everyone was surprised. They all say ‘Lord, when was it …?’ ‘When did we do these things?’ When did we not do these things?’ The way it’s told is that no-one knows which group they belong to, whether they are going to be classed as goats or sheep. It’s like that other parable about wheat and weeds growing together, or Augustine’s account of the City of God and the Earthly City: no-one knows who is in which group, and that’s a rather lovely reminder that we don’t have to waste our time judging everyone or trying to second-guess God. We can just get on with loving God, and loving our neighbour, and trusting that God’s love for us, and our love for God will come out in our actions.

This is not about trying harder. It is not even about making more of an effort to give food and clothing and cups of water to people. Nor is it necessarily about trying hard to see Christ in the faces of those we are helping, as if that would give us extra motivation: as if we would be more inspired to visit and care if we could imagine we were caring for Christ himself. Yes, right at the end we might find that Christ was present in those we helped – but that’s not why we cared for people. We care because they need to be cared for, and we care because that is the sort of people we are. We care because we can’t stop ourselves.

For Matthew, caring behaviour, ethical behaviour, doesn’t come from effort, from trying harder. It comes from character. Matthew often points out that trees are known by their fruit: ‘every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit’. [Matt 7:17, 12:33] The judgement that so amazes everyone shouldn’t really come as that much of a surprise, because it just brings out a reality that’s been there all along.

Matthew’s Jesus doesn’t ask us to try harder. He doesn’t command us to become salt of the earth or light to the world. He just tells us that is what we are. Sometimes I think that the important thing isn’t whether or not we believe in God – it’s whether or not we can accept God’s faith in us. Whether or not we can live up to what God thinks of us.

Maybe that’s what the writer of Ephesians meant by praying that that community would receive a spirit of wisdom and revelation. Maybe all of us could pray to have the eyes of our hearts enlightened, so that we may know what is the hope to which God has called us, what are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe. So that we might know how great God is, and how much God loves us.

Today, as we celebrate the reign of Christ, we’re invited to acknowledge ‘the working of his great power’, in the world around us and in our own lives. We’re encouraged to participate in God’s kingdom, to be part of this today, tomorrow, this week, and next Sunday as we head into the new church year.

Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, and we’re invited to do this whenever we come together to worship, on Sundays and during the week, we ask ‘your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ That has to be more than just words that we say on autopilot. Claiming Christ as king, believing that God’s reign will come, is not just a faint hope about one day in the future. It has to do with our present, with how each of us lives in the day-to-day, and how we live together. So how are we living into God’s kingdom? And how will we live this out in the week ahead? What concrete things can we do, today, tomorrow, and in the days ahead, to show how Christ is reigning over our lives?

It ain’t easy

31 August 2014   Matthew 16:21-28; Romans 12:9-21                               

What a difference a week makes!  Last week Peter gave a brilliant answer when asked who he thought Jesus was: Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God.  Now he goes from hero to zero: unable to stand the thought of Jesus being arrested and killed, he takes him aside and begins to rebuke him – and then gets told ‘Get behind me, Satan!’  I don’t know about you, but there’s something about all this mutual rebuking that makes me feel a bit uncomfortable, and I was trying to work out which seemed worse: Peter telling Jesus off, or Jesus responding, not that politely, to Peter’s advice.  For people who’ve been travelling around together for some time, they’re clearly not both on the same page.  This is a real life, real time moment of disagreement, by two people who are part of the same community.  I guess what’s really interesting, and helpful, is that afterwards Jesus carries on hanging out with Peter, and even takes him up the mountain to witness him being transfigured before them.  Afterwards, Jesus continues on with teaching, preaching and healing, still including Peter as part of his inner circle.  The good news here is that, in spite of the hero to zero journey, Jesus doesn’t ask Peter to leave the group.  Disagreement, even as raw as this, can still exist between people within a community, and Jesus is endlessly patient.  And it’s also good to realise that Jesus can cope if we also find some of the things he says difficult.

Which is just as well, isn’t it!  Because I have a hunch that many of us find all this talk of denying ourselves, and taking up our crosses and following Jesus, fairly tough.  I know I do – and I don’t think I’m the only one here.  Part of the problem is that in today’s instant society we want things to happen quickly and smoothly.  We want an easy, painless, way to do things, and denying ourselves, and taking up our crosses doesn’t sound fun, or easy.   But there isn’t a ‘discipleship-lite’ option.  ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’

It’s a tough ask, isn’t it – and yet, I think I get what Jesus is saying.  Because I can think back to times when I haven’t denied myself, when I know I’ve been selfish and put myself first, and tried to hang onto things and get my own way at the expense of someone else – and what tends to happen then is that I feel miserable.  I may have gained the whole world (or at least the last chocolate biscuit) but I don’t actually enjoy it.  Whereas when I do give up something for someone else, there is often a real satisfaction.  I read this week some research that showed altruists (those who are kind to others without seeking to benefit themselves) gain a sense of connection and belonging – one of the biggest factors in increasing happiness.  So when we are prepared to lose something, we find we gain something else in return.

We are those who are called, invited, if we want to be followers of Jesus, to take up our cross.  Now I see two problems here.  The first we’ve touched on already: it’s not easy to do this.  Some days go well, and we can feel the love of God flowing through us to others, and then there are days which are just – hard.  I have days like that, we all do.  The other issue is that we’re not always sure what ‘take up your cross’ actually means.  It’s lost its literal connection with crucifixion, and as a metaphor it’s not that specific.  What does this life to which we are called look like in practice?  How do we describe discipleship?

That’s where it’s good to read Romans.  Paul is setting out here some details of just what following Jesus might be like.  It’s loving one another, being willing to serve the Lord, in what ever way God wants to use us.  It’s staying hopeful even, especially, when things get fraught and angry words and bad news pile up in the media.  It’s helping fellow Christians, our sisters and brothers in Christ, and it’s being hospitable not just to friends but to people we don’t know that well – reaching out to strangers with the love that God gives us.   Taking up our cross, following Jesus, means not trying to get even when someone hurts you, but reaching out to them and asking God to bless them.  That’s hard.  It means having empathy, rejoicing with those who are rejoicing and weeping with those who weep.  It means not being concerned for our own egos, and not trying to make ourselves look better or wiser than we are.  Paul gives us a bunch of things we can do to be the sort of people Jesus invites us to be.

But, as I said earlier, and as I suspect we are all thinking to ourselves, this is not easy.  We know this, Peter and Paul knew this, and Jesus knows also that we find it tough at times.  And there will be days when we can’t manage it, either individually or collectively.  When someone else doesn’t quite manage this, or does something mean, or stupid, or hurtful – what do we do then?  Well, we forgive them – partly because forgiving belongs to living the life Jesus invites us to live, and partly because we know there’ll come another day when it will be us that doesn’t make it, and we will need another person to forgive us.  For this is what living as part of a community is like, as Paul knew only too well, as Peter knew, and came to know still further.  Living as a community means that even as we do the work of taking up our crosses and carrying them, we help and support and encourage each other.

And that mutual support is one of the things that makes the life of discipleship not only possible but joyful.  Because when we see someone putting into practice the grace of God, when we hear someone talk of what God has been doing in their life, when we can feel the peace of Christ in the hands of friends or even strangers, then we can get up each morning and let God’s love shine out of our lives too.   Let’s think for a moment, where can we find joy in living as a follower of Jesus?  I invite you to talk about that with someone sitting near you.

Living worship

24 August 2014 Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20, Psalm 124, Exodus 1:8-2:10   

‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.’  What’s Paul on about here?  We kind of glaze over at this talk of ‘sacrifice’, don’t we, because either it’s completely alien to the way we think of worship, or else we associate it with giving something up.  Either way, it doesn’t sound an attractive option, does it.

But what Paul is doing here is teaching us how to live our lives.  What’s come before this in his letter to the early Christians in Rome has been some fairly concentrated theology.  Now, in these last few chapters, he turns to ethics: to the way our faith shapes our actions, to the way Christ’s life and death and resurrection touches our individual lives and our life together.  He’s asking us to switch off the autopilot which sucks us into the way the rest of the world works: ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect’.  This is about letting our whole lives be shaped by God’s will.  Not just a little bit of our lives, not just the Sunday stuff, but all our Monday to Saturday time as well as Sunday.  And not just that part of our lives that we think of as ‘spiritual’, but our whole lives: how we think and feel, how we exercise and care for this planet, and what we spend our money on; our hearts and minds and bodies.  Paul is saying that following Jesus, loving God, is a complete package.  He’s encouraging us to offer to God something that is living and filled with joy.

Inside here is the idea that being holy doesn’t come naturally.  I guess we kinda know that, don’t we!  It takes some time, and it’s something we have to work at consciously: no-one ever seems to get holy on autopilot.   It’s about intentionally making room for God, giving over every aspect of our lives, so that in the end worship is something we live out each day, not something we attend for an hour once a week.

Fortunately, we don’t have to work all this out on our own!  We offer living, holy worship, not by sacrificing an animal or bowing down to an idol, but by offering the kind of gift-sharing in community that Paul talks about.  Because this is something we do together: Paul says bodies plural, but one sacrifice.  He’s describing a community in Christ where the gifts of others are valued, where each of us uses our gifts on behalf of the body as a whole.  (Incidentally, it’s that sort of thinking that’s encouraged me to take my study leave, so that I can better use the gifts of scholarship God’s given me for the church.)  What Paul says today invites us to think about how we recognise and develop each other’s gifts, and how we encourage one another to make room for God in our lives.  We’re here to help each other to be transformed.  If you want to think of fairy stories, we can be Cinderella’s fairy godmothers for each other, except that it’s not a single flick of a magic wand that is going to transform us but daily, weekly, yearly, encouragement and prayers for one another.

I’ve read this passage dozens of times, but one thing that really struck me this week is that so much of Paul’s ethics is about being part of a community.  I don’t think he’d understand the modern idea that everyone is an individual, intent on making their own way through life and getting their own needs met.  For Paul, the Christian life is about community, about together helping each other to switch off the autopilot and follow Jesus more closely, together using our gifts to reach out to the world around us.

For we are the community of those who have been called and gifted by God.  We are the community of those who can answer, when Jesus asks us who we think he is, ‘You are the Messiah, the son of the living God’: you are the Christ, the anointed one, the one in whom we see God.   Because that’s the key question, isn’t it: who do we say that Jesus is?  Who do we believe Jesus to be?  What we say in reply doesn’t, of course, affect who Jesus is, but it does affect the type of people and the type of community we become.   If our emphasis is on Jesus as a teacher, we might think the most important thing is learning our way around doctrinal statements; if we see Jesus as a great moral example, then that’s going to lead us to watching how we and others live up to a set of ethical standards.  But if we answer that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, the one who has all the power of God and the love of God then we as a church will want to be living out of this power and this love.  We’ll know that we have available to us all the resources of God, the one whom the psalmist reminds us ‘who has made heaven and earth’.  We’ll know ourselves as a community of disciples whose life together is characterised by working to bring about the reign of God.

When Jesus asks us who we think he is and we can answer, ‘You are the Messiah, the son of the living God’, then we will also be a community of those who do not fear anyone else asking us that same question.  We will be those who can answer – with our actions, or yes, with our words – when one of our friends or colleagues or relations asks us, ‘who is Jesus?’, that he is the one who speaks to us so very clearly of God that we follow him and try to live the kind of life that he invites us to live.  We will be those who aren’t conformed to the world around us, but who have the courage and the inner peace to act differently – just as those midwives Shiphrah and Puah acted differently when faced with the pressures of the Egyptian state.

Paul’s words to the Romans and Peter’s faith-filled articulation of who Jesus is remind us that our identity as church, as the community of God’s people, is tied to the identity of Jesus.  We are those who present ourselves, this and every day of the week, as living embodiments of worship, reaching out to others in the name of the living God.  And we do this as a community, as a group of people who are working together.  How might we help each other to do this?  I invite you to talk to someone sitting in a pew near you about that.  How might we help each other follow Jesus and live out our worship?

What good news looks like

17 August 2014 Genesis 45:1-15; Matthew 15: 21-28 ;       

I’ve only been away a fortnight, and Jacob has wrestled with an angel, lost his favourite son Joseph, and grown old and grief-stricken.   Joseph’s brothers – jealous of his place as his father’s favourite – had planned to kill him, and then sold him into slavery, as you heard last Sunday.   And now, only a week later, here is Joseph in charge of Egypt, second in command to Pharaoh.   It’s like the international date line, only more so.

In the space between last Sunday’s episode and today’s, Joseph has ridden the roller-coaster of family rejection, to slavery, to a favoured position in his master’s household, to an unjust accusation of sexual harassment, to lying forgotten in prison for years, to release and gaining the favour of Pharaoh, to his rise to power and authority over the land of Egypt.   It’s a journey that has taken over 20 years, and now Joseph is an important ruler and his brothers, much lower down in the pecking order, are coming to Egypt to escape a famine.

We think things have moved super-fast – but for Joseph it was anything but.  Sort of like flying long-haul, but without the inflight movies, the regular food and the timetable which tells you how many hours to go.  All those years in prison for something he didn’t do, wondering when the Egyptian court would remember him, wondering when anyone would remember him – those were agonisingly long moments.  Except for one thing: Joseph’s relationship with God.  At a dark moment in Joseph’s life we are told: ‘But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love’.  [Gen 39:21]

Now Joseph’s brothers are here, back in Egypt for their second food-buying trip.  Joseph’s been fencing with them for a while, still appearing to them as an Egyptian ruler, and his latest trick has been to frame his brother Benjamin for stealing his silver cup.   Now he claims Benjamin as a slave and offers to let the other brothers go free.   It feels like a test – will the brothers abandon Rachel’s other son into slavery, just as they sold Joseph all those years ago?   Will they grasp at their own freedom, in spite of the grief this would cause their father Jacob?  There’s a moment of suspense, and then one of the older brothers, Judah, tells Joseph that their father has already lost one beloved son, and will die if he loses another: he will not grieve his father any more, and so he offers himself as a slave in place of Benjamin.   It seems Judah and the other brothers have changed over the years.  They don’t hate Benjamin, the new favourite, as they once envied and hated Joseph.  They don’t pursue their own ends ignoring what this would do to their father.  They care about Jacob.  They show compassion.  They acknowledge the guilt of what they did to Joseph.  Now they’ve repented and want to save Benjamin.

Another moment of suspense.  What is Joseph going to do?  Is this the time for final revenge?  Is this the point where he can get his own back, repay every day as a slave, every night in a prison cell?  He sends the Egyptians away.  He weeps, overcome by his emotions.  He acknowledges who he is – not as part of the court’s power structure, but in terms of family relationships:  ‘I am Joseph.  Is my father still alive?  … I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.’  He doesn’t ignore what his brothers did to him, he’s not in denial over what happened, but he reassures them.  ‘And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life . . . . It was not you who sent me here, but God.’

Joseph doesn’t deny what his brothers had done to him, but he forgives them.  He urges them to bring Jacob there, so that he can take care of them all.  It’s a moment of reconciliation, of grace.   And he gives them, and us, a theological lens through which to look at his story.  ‘God sent me before you to preserve life . . . . It was not you who sent me here, but God.’  He says the same thing to his brothers years later, after their father’s death: ‘Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.’ [50:20]  Notice what he doesn’t say.  Joseph doesn’t blame God for his brothers’ actions – it was they, not God, who sold him into slavery.  But Joseph does affirm that God was able to use those wrong actions and turn them to good.  He helps his brothers to see that God has been at work all along in the events of Joseph’s life.  He helps us to see that too.

It can be helpful to see that God’s purposes are at work in ways that are often hidden and unnoticed.  It can be helpful to see that God is able to use the negative things that happen to us to achieve a good end.  As St Paul wrote to the early Christians in Rome: ‘We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.’ [Rom 8: 28]  It can be helpful to think of God in charge all the time, even though this realisation often only comes to us, as it did to Joseph, right at the end of the story.  Sometimes, we only work things out much, much later.

Guiding us to look for God’s hand in events, to sense the divine at work, is one reason we continue to tell the Joseph story.  But there are other reasons, other sources of hope, other pieces of good news.  The story of Joseph and his family, the picture of Joseph weeping upon his brothers’ shoulders, gives us hope, for it shows us forgiveness after much wrong.  When we hear the Joseph story we remember how family relationships can be fraught.  None of us, I suspect, have been sold into slavery by our siblings, or been tempted to do that to one of them – but we have all, I also suspect, known what it is to be jealous of someone’s place in our parent’s affections.  We have all, I’m willing to bet, been hurt by someone close to us and been tempted to get our own back, to use whatever power we have to make them pay for what they did.

So we tell and retell the Joseph story for the hope it give us.  That forgiveness can be possible.  That grace exists.  That healing can happen.  That the closeness of family and community life can be achievable even after pain, not by burying the hurt and pretending it is not there, but by acknowledging it and also acknowledging the deeper relationships that never quite go away.

That is the good news in the Joseph story, just as the good news in the story of the Canaanite woman is that people (even people like Jesus and his disciples) can always learn a new way, that those who are different don’t have to stay as outsiders but can be welcomed into the community of those who are fed and healed.  These stories give us hope – and they show us what God’s good news can look like.  I invite you to turn to someone sitting in a pew near you and talk for a moment about this question: What signs of hope have you seen lately?  What does God’s good news look like to you at the moment?

Living Stones

St Anne’s Day (27 July) 2014       1 Peter 2:4-10;  Isaiah 28:16-17             

 ‘Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’  Or, as one modern paraphrase puts it, ‘Present yourselves as building stones for the construction of a sanctuary vibrant with life, in which you’ll serve as holy priests offering Christ-approved lives up to God.’   So that’s what we are, you and I, and that’s what we can rejoice in today as we gather to celebrate St Anne and this parish in which we live and worship together.  We are living stones.

We see lots of stones in the course of a week, don’t we.  If we dig our gardens, there are stones.  If we take a walk alongside the Hutt river or through Otari Wilton’s Bush, or even just along the street, there are stones.  On its own, a large stone could be a landscaping feature, but we really don’t want to find one in the middle of a flower bed or where we’re planting our potatoes, and anything smaller could well just trip us up. Fortunately, we’re not called to be that sort of stone.  We are building stones, stones to be used to make a house – a place where people can come for shelter, to be warm and safe and gather around tables to eat and drink with one another, as we too will gather and eat lunch together in a little while.

We are stones to be built together into a spiritual house – and that means we here at St Anne’s, like other parish communities, are called to be a place where people can come for shelter, to be warm and safe when life seems tough, a place where friends and strangers gather around tables to eat and drink with one another, and where we gather around this table, to share in the Jesus-meal that makes us who we are.

We are stones to be built together – this is an image that reminds us that we can do more together than we can do on our own.  We’re to be a strong building, not just a pile of individual stones – because an individual stone is more like something you stub your toe on.  So the image says something profound about how we work together, how we join with one another, how we need each other to be who we are called to be in Christ.   It says something about our identity, and about how our identity is tied to Christ and shaped by what we read in the Bible.  After all, that reading from the First letter of Peter is organised around a series of Old Testament texts: there’s bits from Psalms, Isaiah and Hosea in there.  It’s a reminder that our lives – individually and together – are moulded and shaped by the stories and the values that we encounter in Scripture.

And our identity as Christians, and our life together as Christian community, as living stones, is tied to Christ.  For Peter writing that letter, and for us, Christ is the one described by Isaiah as the foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation.  He is the Cornerstone in the building that we are making together – the one that we all line up against.  If through careless workmanship or through a subsequent earthquake stones get out of plumb with the cornerstone the building gets a lean on it and eventually falls over.  So who we are and how we are called to live is secured by our close and continuing relationship with Jesus Christ.  We are to be part of a building alive with Christ.

There are days, of course – and maybe you have them too – when I feel more like a pebble, small and insignificant.  Or like a stone that’s a bit misshapen, or one that’s been under pressure and been cracked, and has a whole lot of dirt embedded in the cracks.  Maybe you can relate to that.  That’s when it helps to remember the imagery that Peter uses.  We are living stones.  Yes, we’ll have a few cracks, a few odd bumps here and there; a few chips taken out of us – but we have been chosen.  Chosen by God and being built together into a spiritual temple, smoothed and polished and fitting together around the cornerstone.  Living stones, with the capacity to grow as disciples, to grow into closer followers of Jesus.  Living stones being built into something which can proclaim God’s mighty acts, which can speak out and tell others of the difference that God has made in our lives.  Even when we don’t feel it, we are special and important, and Christ is alive in us, and we are learning to share our God-moment stories.

Part of what lies behind all this imagery is a picture of the temple in Jerusalem, the most sacred building in the world for the Jews.  By the time this letter was written the temple had been destroyed by the Romans.  A part of the temple’s outer wall still remained however, and that became the holiest spot in Jewish life. Throughout the centuries Jews would make pilgrimage to the city and headed for this wall, the Western Wall, to thank God.  There’s a centuries-old tradition of writing prayers and inserting them into cracks in the wall (you can even email prayers to a website in Jerusalem to be printed out and placed in the wall.)  One of our prayer stations today echoes this custom.

So, today and always, let’s let ourselves be built, like living stones,  into a spiritual house.  Together we are invited to be part of building the kingdom of God in this place.   There’s no one right way to do this: there are lots of ways to build God’s kingdom, and that’s part of the usefulness of being living stones – we can be built one way, and then another, to suit our changing circumstances.   We’re going to have some fun with this right now.  We’ve all got lots of building blocks – duplo – and we’re going to build something together.  Working together with the others in your pew, start to build something that can be part of a house.  It might be a wall, or a doorway, or a table and chairs to go inside.  Once you’ve built it, get someone to bring it up to the front to add in with all the other sections.

So like living stones, let ourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  For there is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides God, there is no rock like our God.

Letting Scripture live in us

20 July 2014 – Bible Sunday  Mathew 13:24-30,36-43; Genesis 28:10-19a; Ps 139, Romans 8:12-25 

‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.’  Our sentence today, on Bible Sunday, encourages us to let Scripture take up home inside us.  There’s a danger in that, of course, and the danger is that, like anyone who comes as a guest and stays on to become part of the family, when we let the word of Christ dwell in us richly it is going to change us.  It’s going to affect how we see the world, how we see ourselves, how we see God.  True, there are some differences between our world and the worlds into which the Bible was first written, but when we look at the big picture, the great arc of Scripture, those differences are often less than we think.  And I rather like John Dominic Crossan’s comment that it’s not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.

One of the things we see when we read the Bible is its raw honesty about what life is like in this world we live in.  It’s not perfect.  Evil exists, and it exists alongside good.  That’s what Jesus was getting at in the parable we hear today.  Good and evil intertwined, like weeds among the wheat in a field.  What’s more, there are good and evil people, all mixed in together, and they are us.  Because most of us, inside the Church along with outside it, aren’t simply one thing or another: we are both types of plant.  You and I are both wheat and weeds, sometimes we do or we think good things, sometimes we do or we think something bad.  I guess we knew that, deep down inside us, and maybe there’s some comfort in having the Bible point it out.

The question is, what do we do about that?  Because there’s a tendency I think we all have, and that’s to want to concentrate on the bits of us that are good, and to project onto others the bad, and then want to cut it down.  Only Jesus here is encouraging us not to do that – to ‘let both of them grow together until the harvest’, and then let God make the final judgement between good and bad.  And that’s challenging.  After all, can’t God do something about all the evil right now?  What use is a God who can’t get rid of evil right away?  This is not the only place in the Bible where we get the feeling God is working to a different timetable from us.  And this is not the only place where it seems God is a whole lot more loving and less judgemental than we are.

Notice that Jesus, and the God-character in the parable, isn’t denying the existence of evil.  And there’s that long biblical tradition of the prophets, who weren’t afraid to point out evil and to speak against it.  It’s more that the task of making those judgements, of seeking out evil and tearing it up like the weeds mixed in with the wheat, is ultimately a task for God not for us.  For one thing, it’s not always easy, with our frequently limited perspectives, to distinguish one from another.  And the other thing, as I’ve already mentioned, is that there’s good and bad mixed up together inside each of us.  So Jesus is relieving us of the burden of trying to judge everyone (including ourselves), encouraging us to be patient with the world around us and with one another (and with ourselves), inviting us to remember the love and the grace of God.  Because in the strange world of the parable, where the separation is graciously postponed until the end, it may even happen that the weeds can become wheat.

And while we’re thinking about wheat and weeds mixed in together, just look at Jacob.  He belongs in our world too – the world in which nobody is perfect and no family is perfect.   With the Bible’s usual honesty it’s clear that Jacob’s family – like all the families in Genesis – is hugely dysfunctional, and Jacob is a crook.  He’s just done the dirty on his father and elder brother by cheating Esau out of the blessing due to him as the eldest son.  He’s now on the run, guilty, scared, facing an uncertain future.  Because of what he’s done, he’s cut off from his family and alone in the world.  Except that – and this is something else the Bible reminds us about over and over – no-one is so alone in the world that God is not with them.

As the psalmist says, ‘Where shall I go from your spirit, or where shall I flee from your presence?  Remember the vision Jacob had: he saw a stairway reaching all the way to heaven, and angels going up and down.  This is not about heaven being ‘up there’ – somewhere else, and at another time (usually after we die).  This is about God coming to our imperfect world right now, touching our lives on this earth.

Jacob’s life was touched.  His encounter with God changes him – the way we too will be changed in every encounter we have with God.  Jacob doesn’t stop being a crook, however, as later episodes in the family story will tell us.  But he does have an awareness that he and God belong together, that he is taking on this relationship with God for himself, not just as something that comes to him from his family.   When we find Jacob’s story in the pages of the Bible, when we hear him say, ‘Surely the LORD is in this place – and I did not know it!’ it encourages us to look out for signs of God’s presence.  They may come when we are guilty, or scared, or feeling alone, they may come when we experience the care of other people or the beauties of nature, they may come when we are asleep – but they will come, for what God says to Jacob God also says to us: Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.

We get another glimpse of what it looks like when we see God in our world and what our place is in this big story in today’s epistle reading.  Paul acknowledges, over and over, that our world isn’t perfect.  When he talks about ‘flesh’, as he does in his letter to the Romans, he’s not talking about our bodies, but about a power, along with sin, that resists God’s Spirit.  And that can make for tough times, for suffering, and sometimes we bring that suffering on ourselves and on others.  But Paul’s telling us where we belong in all this: as children and heirs of God.  It’s a hopeful message, a message of God’s Spirit being present and active in our world.  When we let the word of Christ take up home inside us, we won’t lose sight of that hope, nor can we forget that we are beloved children of God.  Knowing that can change us, for it can help us be gracious to ourselves and to each other, just as it can help us learn to live more like God’s children, more like disciples of Jesus, more perhaps like wheat.  I invite you to turn to someone sitting in a pew near you and talk for a moment about this question: What is one verse or passage in the Bible that helps you remember that you are a beloved child of God?

What we do with our money

13 July 2014 Genesis 25:19-34; Romans 8:1-11;Matthew 13:1-9,18-23  

Everything that we have comes to us as a gift from an amazingly generous God.  Paul reminded the church in Corinth, ‘What do you have that you did not receive?  And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?’  We’re taking a few weeks to think about what we do with all that God has given us, and how we live out our relationship with God in the decisions we make about how we use the talents we have, how we use our time, how we use our money and material resources.  Because that’s what stewardship is, and it’s also what discipleship is.   What we do with our time and our gifts and our money shows what our relationship with God is like.  Just as we whether we put God first when we’re deciding how we spend our time and our money, our energy and our talents – or whether we give God what’s left over when everything else has been done.  Because discipleship is about priorities.

We meet someone who had a pretty strange idea about priorities in our reading from Genesis.  Esau and Jacob don’t get on too well – they’ve been fighting since before they were born – and they look at things very differently.  Esau is all about short-term gain.  He comes in from a hunting trip, and he’s hungry, so he’s willing to barter his birthright as the eldest son for the instant gratification of some red stew.  His family inheritance, which in this family is tied to the covenant promises God has made, means little to him.  Jacob, on the other hand, values their inheritance – and he’s willing to wait a long time to see the family destiny accomplished.  Certainly he gets nothing in the short-term from the bargain with Esau – but he can see the big picture.

Someone else who is focusing on the big picture is  Paul.  He’s always looking at the really big picture – what God has done for us in Christ.  He’s trying to help the Romans see that, to get them to open their eyes to the amazing gift they have been given and to live out of that gift, as they live out of their relationship with Christ.

And then we get another of Jesus’ quirky stories, designed to make us all think – the Bible calls them parables.  ‘Listen!  A sower went out to sow.’   Only this is a pretty strange sower, and he’s certainly not into short-term gain, because he’s chucking the seed simply everywhere.  It goes on the path, on the rocky ground where there’s hardly any soil, it goes in amongst all the thorns where the emerging  seedlings are going to get choked – and then some of it actually lands on good soil where it can grow well.  And it does: a huge crop is produced.

The interesting  thing with this story is that people often focus on the soil, and the different things that happen to the seed in each place, and think about different ways folk can respond to the ‘word of the kingdom’.   And I think that’s largely because  the sower – who is the Jesus-figure here – is a bit of an embarrassment to anyone who is into careful use of resources.  Because he scatters the seed carelessly, recklessly, seemingly wasting it – and yet a good crop is produced.  And that huge crop of grain is after all the big picture reason for sowing in the first place.

It’s a fascinating story to read together the Sunday we think about what we do with our resources and our money, isn’t it.  Because when the word ‘stewardship’ isn’t being misused as church jargon for ‘fund-raising’ it’s taken to mean ‘playing it safe’ ‘not wasting what we have’.  And here Jesus does not play it safe.  Here the sower, the Jesus-character, is a picture of extravagant generosity.  He does not hold on tightly to the resources he has – he’s willing to risk it for the sake of the kingdom of God which is, after all, the big picture here.

Our God is a generous God.  Not only giving us so many different gifts, but willing to risk everything by trusting the furthering of God’s kingdom to a bunch of unpromising folk like the original disciples, and to disciples ever since, right down the ages till you get to us.  Augustine said of those early ones, ‘There were just a few men, the merest handful, untrained in the liberal arts, completely uneducated … with no knowledge of literature, no equipment in logic, no trappings of rhetoric. And Christ sent them out as fishermen with the nets of faith into the sea of this world; and in this way he caught all those fish of every kind.’   That was them – but that can be us too, for God is still risking everything by trusting us with the task.  Our God is a generous God, and God loves it when we are generous too.  Part of being disciples is responding to that call to be generous, with our time and our talents, and with our resources and our money.

On one level what ‘being generous’ means is going to look a bit different for each of us – after all, we each have different incomes, different mixes of talents and different calls on our time and energy, so the amounts of time, money and service we give are going to vary.  And you know I’ve never been that interested in how much each of us gives in the offertory each week or each month, nor in how much we give to other charities.  But I am interested in the things that we share: the desire to live the God-life, to let our relationship with God make a daily difference in our lives.  And  I’m interested in how much we are all growing as disciples of Christ, and part of that means increasingly letting God into our financial decisions  – whether it’s our decision on our offertory giving or our decisions on all the other things we do with our money.  And I’m interested in other things we share too, like wanting our community here at St Anne’s to be one that blesses others, as we seek to be the church at the heart of the community.  How are we using the resources we have to be a blessing to those around us?  How generous can we be with what we have?

Being a disciple means we’re invited to be part of something bigger than ourselves.  God invites us to be part of making God’s kingdom happen in this part of the world, and in the locations where we spend the other days of our week – at our schools, our workplaces, our homes, and in all the situations where we find ourselves each day.  We can make that kingdom happen with how we put our talents to use, with how we allocate our time, with what we spend our money on.  I stop and think sometimes how amazing it is that God should pick a bunch of ordinary people like us to do something wonderful with, and how that says something about God’s faith in us.  When I think about how faithful and generous God is it challenges me to live a faithful and generous life in return.  How about you?  I invite you to turn to someone sitting in a pew near you and talk for a moment about this question: What is one way we can use the resources we have to make God’s kingdom happen around here?

What we do with our time & talents

6 July 2014   Romans 7:15-25a; Matt 11:16-19,25-30; Gen 24:34-36,42-49,58-67

All that we have comes to us as a gift from God.  As St Paul wrote to our Christian forbears in Corinth, ‘What do you have that you did not receive?  And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?’  He’s talking about their relationship with a generous God who delights in gift-giving – and when we think about our own stewardship, as we are at the moment, that’s where we begin: with the God who gives us gifts.  Do you remember our Pentecost service a few weeks ago, and the balloons with the different gifts on them?  And the reading where Paul told the Corinthians, ‘To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good’.

This is a really useful reminder of two things: first, that God has given each of us particular gifts and talents, and second, that we haven’t been given those gifts just to make ourselves feel better.  We’ve been given them to glorify God and serve others.  Using the talents God has given us, and the time that God has also given us, is one of the ways we live into our calling to be disciples of Christ.  Looking at our stewardship is part of our discipleship goal – it  helps us grow as disciples.  Last week we thought about the way discipleship means putting God first in our lives.  Part of what that means in practice is putting God first when we make decisions about how we use our time and our energy, about what we do with the talents we have been given.

This week we start with Paul writing to the Romans and trying to work out how to live a life obedient to God, wanting to do right but somehow always stuffing up.  Paul tells it like it is, and I guess we can all relate to what he says!  But the brilliant thing is that he’s not trying to guilt-trip himself, still less trying to guilt-trip those he was writing to, or indeed us.  At the end he turns to Christ amid his fear and failing and frustrations, and gives thanks that Jesus has rescued him from all his restless striving.

We are not called to a life that focuses on trying so hard to keep a bunch of rules and to live up to people’s expectations of us.  That’s what Jesus, as well as Paul, was speaking against.  We’re responsible before God for how we use our talents and the time that God has given us.  But if we’re not careful we can fall into the trap of seeing this as all about function.  You know, where performance and accomplishments are what matters.  Where we focus on crossing things off the to-do list.  When this happens, we lose the capacity simply to enjoy God, people, and the life God has given us.

Jesus said ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’  Jesus was aiming his words at the religiously exhausted, those labouring under the yoke of the Pharisees who acted as if you had to do this, and this, and this, and do it all exactly right, in order to be accepted by God.  Jesus rejected this.  He said ‘come to me’ – not come to a to-do list.  It’s a call into a real relationship, to a true discipleship where we can learn from him.

And this is what Paul found, and what I’ve found, and what countless others have found over the centuries: when we’re living out of that relationship with Jesus, and using the talents that God has given us, there is a joy in it all. That, after all, was one of Paul’s key messages: God has done so much for us, has given us so many gifts including the gift of eternal life, and so we act out of gratitude not out of guilt.  We don’t trudge through life trying to keep up with a bunch of rules and ‘shoulds’ but live out our new life in Christ in a spirit of thankfulness.  And part of what that means is living as us, and not trying to be someone else, just as it means using our own gifts and not trying to copy someone else’s.  That’s one of the reasons incidentally that church communities use gift discernment courses (like Harmony or Network) so that people are enabled to take on the roles – inside and outside a church setting – that use the gifts that God has given them.

It is not that the life Jesus invites us to will be one of complete ease.  Paul knew that following Jesus carried risks and challenges, as Jesus himself also made clear.  We are called to a life of humble service, but it is a life of freedom and joy.  In the life yoked to Jesus we are not only freed from the burden of sin but freed also from the need to prove ourselves, freed from the hamster-wheels of activity for its own sake.  And in this life we discover that when we use the talents and the gifts we have been given we are free to rest deeply and securely in the grace of God, knowing how much we are loved.

This is the life we are called into, you and I – the life of a disciple.  We are invited to participate in ministry and mission, and that means that we’ve been invited by God to be part of what God is doing, here in this community and across the city.  We’re invited to partner with God in building God’s kingdom.

It’s like the invitation that came to Rebekah in today’s reading from Genesis.  God  had promised Abraham that he would be a blessing to others through his many descendants.  Now it’s time for Isaac to marry and Abraham’s servant is sent to find a wife, one who’ll be willing to leave family and homeland to travel to a place she’s never seen before.  So he stops at the village well and prays for a sign: the young woman who not only gives him a drink but also offers to water his camels will be the one.  Rebekah doesn’t realise it but she’s being given an invitation to be a part of what God is doing in and through the family of Abraham.  She’s invited to partner with God in creating the dynasty through which all the world will be blessed.  And Rebekah is a model of courage and hospitality.  She offers her time, her strength and the resources of her household to this servant.  Indeed she shows the same sort of wild generosity that God does – her offer to water the camels is no two-bucket gesture: a camel, I discovered, can take in as much as 30 gallons … and there are ten camels … so she’s drawing about 300 gallons, about 1300 litres of water.  Maybe there’s a bit of humorous exaggeration going on, but what stands out is Rebekah’s generosity and her willingness to make herself available for God to use.

We too are asked to be generous with our time and our talents, not out of a feeling that we ‘should’ but so that we too can join in becoming builders of God’s kingdom.  We’re invited to be yoked together with Christ, to work together with God, who has given us so much.

To help us think about this, I invite you to turn to someone sitting in a pew near you and talk for a moment about this question: What is one talent that God has given you, and how are you using it?

Putting God First

29 June 2014  Genesis 22:1-14; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42       

Interesting set of readings with which to begin our 2014 Stewardship Programme!   We have Matthew’s Jesus talking about the connection between disciples and God, Paul writing to the Christians in Rome that they are slaves of righteousness, and then there’s God and Abraham and Isaac.  If there was a competition for everyone’s least favourite Old Testament reading ‘the binding of Isaac’ has got to be on the shortlist!  One way of looking at it is to see this as an explanatory story about the shift from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice.  Certainly it’s clear by the end of the story that God is opposed to child sacrifice, for humanity generally  and for Abraham, so let’s approach this as we would one of Jesus’ parables.  These are stories meant to challenge, to provoke, to make those who hear them ask questions – so what might this story be saying to us?

We’re told that God tested Abraham.  He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’  He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’  So that’s what Abraham does – goes off in the morning with Isaac, and everything else needed for the sacrifice except the animal.  Once they get close to the place Isaac is the one who carries the wood for the fire.  The thing is that the command to sacrifice Isaac cuts right across the promise God had already made to Abraham.  Abraham had been promised that his descendants would be as numerous as the sands on the beach, as the stars in the sky, and this promise was to be fulfilled through Isaac.  Isaac wasn’t just Abraham and Sarah’s beloved son, the child of their extreme old age, hoped for, waited for over many years;    Isaac was the connection with God’s promise, the sign of God’s faithfulness.  And now Abraham was being asked to give up Isaac.

They reach the place of sacrifice, Abraham builds an altar, and lays his son on top of it.  Then, at last, God calls to him, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’  Abraham sees a ram caught in a thicket by its horns and sacrifices that instead, and calls that place ‘The Lord will provide’.  Some scholars have suggested that God has laid this test on Abraham because God has risked everything on this one man, and God needs to know if he is faithful.  Certainly the questions behind this are about trust, and obedience, and who really comes first in Abraham’s life.  Did he trust God to fulfil the promise even without Isaac?  We know already that Abraham is not afraid to argue with God, yet here he does not argue – he simply obeys.  Abraham demonstrates that God really does come first in his life – before Isaac, before his hopes and dreams for the future, before anything else.

What about us?  Oh I don’t mean that we would ever face anything like the strange and terrifying test that Abraham faced, nor that we can fully understand exactly what is going on here.  But there is something this story asks us to acknowledge.  All that we have, even our own lives and those of the ones who are dear to us, belongs ultimately to God, who gave them to us in the first place.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, ‘What do you have that you did not receive?  And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?’  The story of the binding of Isaac assures us that God will provide, that God will be present.  Because Abraham showed he put God first in his life before even Isaac, because he was willing to give up Isaac, he ended up with the knowledge that God would provide and with Isaac as well.  It’s a story about trust and about priorities.  What are our priorities?  How much do we really trust God?

Paul writes to the Romans, telling them that since they have been set free from sin they have become slaves of righteousness.  If we think this is strange, try to imagine how Paul’s original audience felt about it!  They had actual experience of slavery – some as slaves themselves, others as slave-owners, still others as freed slaves anxious to put that behind them.  Now Paul tells them they are all slaves – but of God.  And the key thing about being a slave, as everyone understood back then, was that you knew who your boss was.  You knew who was in charge.

Paul is inviting them to live out their faith, their relationship with God, in concrete ways: to show by how they act who is really the boss of their lives.  He’s telling them that when they live into the new life they have been given, when they put God first of all, they will be made holy.  There is a freedom which comes with this: Paul calls it freedom from the power of sin, from the tendency to stuff things up on a fairly regular basis.  Slaves of God get freed from this.

What about us?  Who is really in charge of our lives?  Whom do we put first?  Over the years I’ve come to realise that putting God first is a decision that actually has to get made on a daily basis – otherwise my default setting kicks in and I start to think my life is all about me.  Over and over we are called to put God first.

Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel affirm the relationships between disciples, Jesus, and God: whoever welcomes disciples (who are God’s representatives) welcomes God.  He’s saying we, Jesus, and God are intimately connected, and that small acts of service to people the rest of the world might consider unimportant actually matter very much.  Again, it’s about living out our relationship with God on a daily basis.  That’s what stewardship is, and that’s what discipleship is.  Stewardship is how we look after and use all that God has given us.  Stewards are representatives, ones who look after what has been entrusted to them by someone else.

We are all stewards, and God has entrusted us with our lives, our talents, our time, and our material resources (including our money).  How we use all these things says a lot about what our relationship with God is like.  That’s another way of saying that the decisions we make about our time and our talents and our money say a lot about our discipleship.  Good disciples are good stewards.  And the central thing about living as good stewards is acknowledging that God is first in our lives.  There’s a whole series of videos on you-tube with people talking about their lives and about how they relate to God, and they all end the same way, with the person saying their name and stating ‘I’m so-and-so and I am second’.

Stewardship is about trust and about priorities: being willing to put God first in our lives and trusting that God will provide everything we need.  Acknowledging that everything we have actually comes to us as a gift from God anyway, and so seeking to use it all in the way God calls us to.  We’re going to spend the next couple of weeks thinking about this.  To start us off, I invite you to turn to someone sitting in a pew near you and talk for a moment about this question: What is one thing we can do to remind ourselves to put God first in our lives?

Belonging with others

Te Pouhere Sunday    22 June 2014     John 15:9-17              

One of the delights of tutoring Diploma of Anglican Studies students was the day I spent with many of them on a marae in the Manawatu late last year.  One of the papers people were studying was Te Marae, an introduction to the role of the marae and the way it functions in Maori communities today.  I listened as, one after another and with varying degrees of nervousness, the students spoke their mihimihi.  Those are the introductory speeches which happen at the beginning of a gathering after the more formal pōwhiri.  Individuals stand to introduce themselves, so those who don’t yet know them have some basis for connecting.   I was inspired to work out my own mihimihi, so that I too could introduce myself in that way.

Kia ora ki te whanau
Ko Chunuk Bair te maunga
Ko Thames te awa
Ko Southern Cross te waka
Ko hahi Mihinare te iwi
Ko Tikanga Pakeha  te hapu
Ko Pihopa Justin te rangatira
Ko St Anne’s Northland Wilton te marae
Ko Alister te tane
Ko Katherine e Sparky nga tamariki
Ko Deborah ahau
No reira, tena toutou, tena koutou tena koutou katoa. 

The idea is that people share where they have come from and who they are in relation to all this.  It starts with the land, with geographical features associated with your tribal area: naming your mountain, your river.  Those who weren’t born in this country still get to do this.  Ko Chunuk Bair te maunga: Chunuk Bair, a hill high on Gallipoli is my mountain, for it was standing there one ANZAC day many years after I migrated from England that I decided it was about time I became a New Zealand citizen.  I was born in London, so naturally ko Thames te awa – the Thames is my river.  The boat in which my family came to this country was the Southern Cross, so that is my waka.

Naming the iwi, the tribe, is where it gets interesting.  Some of the Anglican Studies students are Maori so they naturally identified their iwi, their tribe, and their hapu or sub-tribe.  Others however came from Scotland, so that became their tribe, while their clan was the hapu.  But what several of us did, and what I chose to do, was to think of it in spiritual terms:  we are all part of te whanau a te Karaiti, the family of Christ, but for some our tribe is our denomination.   Ko hahi Mihinare te iwi, ko Tikanga Pakeha te hapu: the Anglican Church is my tribe, and my hapu is Tikanga Pakeha.  Pihopa Justin, Bishop Justin, is my rangatira, my ‘chief’, and here, St Anne’s Northland Wilton, is my marae, the place where I speak, the place where I am at home.

After that comes family members.  Some named their parents, others their spouse and their children: Ko Alister te tane, ko Katherine e Sparky nga tamariki.  And then, at the end, you name yourself: ko Deborah ahau.

Why am I sharing this with you today, on Te Pouhere Sunday?  It’s because celebrating our life as a Three Tikanga church, as we do today, reminds us that who we are is related to who others are.  Knowing and sharing your ancestry, your whakapapa, as you do in mihimihi, is to know your identity.  You only know who you are if you know how you got here: who your ancestors were, who the significant people in your life are, how you got to this country, what the land that has shaped you looks like.  In a very real way, you do not belong to yourself alone – you belong with others.

Living and worshipping as a Three Tikanga church means living in partnership with the other Tikanga.  We in Tikanga Pakeha are woven together with Tikanga Maori and Tikanga Pasifika.  We do not belong to ourselves alone.  We work together, extending hospitality towards one another.  This was something our team at the recent General Synod / te Hinota Whanui found: that bonds of friendship forming across Tikanga is a real strength.  One of the motions discussed there resulted in a decision that Tikanga Maori and Pakeha will have a day together before the next General Synod, to talk about matters of partnership and bicultural development and how resources get shared out.  It’s about Maori and Pakeha getting closer together, and then joining with Pasifika for te Hinota Whanui itself.

The thing is, for us to be Tikanga Pakeha only makes sense alongside the other Tikanga.  And the three Tikanga have a long history together.  At the beginning, of course, the Anglican church in Aotearoa New Zealand was Maori, from when Samuel Marsden and Ruatara preached the first Christian sermon on Christmas Day 1814.  Eventually the Maori church of the missionaries (including many Maori missionaries) was joined by the settler church as more Europeans came to this land.  The islands of the South Pacific were part of this Province too from a long way back, and Polynesia became a diocese in its own right in 1990.  Today we can celebrate some of our shared history.

And perhaps most of all, we can celebrate our realisation that who we are is related to who others are.  We do not exist on our own.   And this is one of the most basic lessons of our faith.  We are part of the Church, and the Church – as the Catechism reminds us – is the body of which Christ is the head, and all baptised persons are members.  We cannot be Christians on our own: we are connected to others, and together we fulfil our mission and our ministry.  Today we rejoice in what unites us to others and remember that the love that began it all was the love between Jesus and the Father: ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.’  Who we are traces itself back to this relationship.

When I look even further back than the river Thames, the ship called Southern Cross and the heights of Chunuk Bair, I find that ultimately I have another mountain and another river.  For I am not myself alone, and we share a common mountain, the hill of Calvary, and a common river, the baptism that joins us to Christ and to one another.  Jesus himself commanded us to ‘love one another as I have loved you’: kia aroha koutou tetahi ki tetahi, me ahau hoki kua aroha nei ki a koutou.   Let us then live out of that love, as together we reach out – with each other, as with our Tikanga partners – to share in the mission of Christ.

Trinity & mission

15 June 2014 Matthew 28:16-20; Genesis 1:1-2:4a; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13

So that is how Matthew’s Gospel ends, with the resurrected Jesus giving the disciples their final instructions.  Jesus has been vindicated by God, he has passed through death, he has all authority in heaven and earth.  When someone comes to you from the other side of the grave, he’s worth listening to.  And this is what he says, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.’  It’s what we have come to call ‘the Great Commission’ – this is Jesus sending his disciples out to make other disciples.  He’s sending out those who already know him, to talk to those who are still outsiders and bring them into the community of those who know and love God.

Jesus is commissioning his disciples for mission in the name of the Trinity – which is of course one of the reasons we read this today, on Trinity Sunday.  ‘Commission’, like ‘mission’ is about purpose: it’s about being sent out with the authority to do something.   Jesus is sending us out too, but sometimes I think we’ve turned the Great Commission into something that’s a problem for us, something we’d rather not think about.  I think there are two mistakes we can make about ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations’, and the first is to think it has absolutely nothing to do with us.  That’s when it gets called ‘the Great Omission’, isn’t it.

We sometimes want to think this has nothing to do with us – that in spite of the opening acknowledgment of the authority Jesus has, we treat it as a suggestion, about an activity we might want to think about some time or another, or we look around for the wiggle room.  Or we hear it as something about going overseas on mission trips, and because not everyone is called to that life, we ignore it.  And I say ‘we’ because I have a hunch I’m not the only one who’s tuned this out.

The other mistake is the opposite of thinking this Commission has nothing to do with us – and that’s to think it has everything to do with us.  That we’re supposed to do this all on our own – and when we think that, we feel completely daunted and give up before we even start.  That’s when it helps hugely to remember what Jesus says right at the end: ‘And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’  We are not on our own.  We have not been given a task to do by someone who delivers a few basic instructions and then goes off to the movies for the afternoon.  We are called into action by someone who stays and works with us, called to disciple others and bring them into the family of God and we do this together with that God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit who is right here helping us.  Here, right at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we get the connection between mission and the Trinity.

Mission is not something we do on our own: it is the mission of the Trinity, into which we join.  Today we’re invited to think about that, and to find the connections between mission, the Trinity, and us.   Mission looks outward.  ‘Go therefore’ is about something other than simply waiting for those who are like us to come to us – it’s about going out, to those who are different from us, reaching outward towards those who are spiritual outsiders and welcoming them into the faith community.  And we get that sense of looking outwards when we look at God.

The persons of the Trinity are not turned in on one another, existing in a loving but closed-in bubble.  From the very beginning God was reaching out – reaching out to create not only the natural world and all the living creatures, but also us: people with whom a relationship is possible.  We heard some of that in today’s reading from Genesis, the first creation story: God creating the heavens and the earth and all the living creatures, and finally ‘let us make humankind in our image’.

We are the ones created in God’s image, and so – right from the very beginning – we are the ones created to reach out to others, created to welcome others into a loving community.  When we do mission, we are being true to ourselves, the selves we were created to be, created in the image of an outward-looking God.

Paul gives us an idea about what a community like that might look like at the end of his letter to the Corinthian church.  He’s writing to a diverse bunch of people, of all incomes and social classes, who were trying to live the sort of life God wants.  He’s not making an appeal for uniformity – he doesn’t want them all to be the same, or even to think the same.  He is wanting them to act together, and to have the same mind that Christ does, to have that kind of love – and he knows that is simply not possible without the power of the Holy Spirit.  Paul is appealing to the Corinthians to become the new creation that God is equipping them to be.  He wants Christ’s grace, God’s love, the Spirit’s sense of community to be with them.  He wants the community that is at the heart of God to show in the way they relate to one another and to the world around them.  That grace, that love, that communion is the divine power that creates and sustains the world, the Corinthian church, and our own church communities today.

We are created in the image of God, and we who are members of the Church are baptised into the Trinity, baptised in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  How then do we live into our creation and our baptism?  How can we be like the God who made us and who welcomes us?  Firstly, we can live in love to one another and to those around us.  And this isn’t always easy, as we know well, and so we draw on the grace and the love and the community that is within God.  Secondly, we can embrace the diversity amongst us, as we embrace the diversity within God.  We don’t all have to be the same, and our differences together add up to something far greater than each of us could be on our own.  And thirdly we can reach outward to others, the way God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – reaches outwards to us, drawing others in to the circle of God’s community.

Today, on Trinity Sunday, we are reminded of our mission.  We are reminded of the welcome extended to each of us by God, and prompted again to take seriously Christ’s command to go and make disciples, to go outwards and welcome others.  And we are assured that we don’t have to do any of this on our own.  We work together with each other, and we work together with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, without whom nothing is possible and with whom nothing is impossible.  The life we are called to live as Christians is a life that reflects the nature and the actions of the Trinity.  Maybe that’s why meetings, within this parish and all over the Church, traditionally end with us saying together that last verse from Paul’s letter, as we remind each other of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.’  May it be with us ever more.

The gifts of the Spirit

 8 June 2014   Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13                 

Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that I like shopping.  I enjoy choosing the right gift for other people, getting them something that is special and that really suits them.  I even like Christmas shopping and working through a list of people to buy for, and I still remember the year I went in for joint presents for some of my relatives.  I gave one family a big jig-saw puzzle – something they could do together, and where everyone, including the children, could be part of it.

Today we celebrate a birthday – the birthday of the Church.  We celebrate the day when the Holy Spirit, the very presence of God, came into Jesus’ followers and gave them new life and energy.  The Spirit set their hearts on fire and let them share with others what they themselves had experienced: the presence of the living Christ.  People heard the good news of what God had done and were baptised: that was the day when the church was born.  And every year we celebrate that, and give thanks for the life that is in us.

And – because it’s a birthday – there are presents.   Today we celebrate what God has given to us.  The Holy Spirit gives us gifts: abilities, talents, things that can help us be what God wants us to be.  God gives us gifts through the Holy Spirit so that we can show the world the love that God wants everyone to have.  And the gifts of the Spirit are like that big jig-saw I gave my family: they aren’t individual, take it away into your bedroom and play with it there, kind of presents, they are joint presents, given to the church as a whole, given to this faith community as a whole.  As Paul said to the Corinthians ‘To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.’

Because God’s really into community-building.  The Spirit’s gifts are given to each of us for the good of the whole church – and that doesn’t mean just for an inward-looking group of people, but an outward-facing one, a church that exists for the benefit of those who are not, or not yet, its members.

And this joint present involves all of us.  To be gifted by the Spirit isn’t something that happens to some of us but not to others.  In all that he writes, Paul never gives lets us think he expects some people in the church to be the ones who are ministering, and that there are others who are simply ministered to because they haven’t been given any of the Spirit’s gifts.  We all get gifts – different ones – and we can rejoice together in all the diversity of gifts that God has given to us as a community.  That’s partly what Paul was encouraging the Corinthian church to do: to acknowledge and celebrate all the different gifts.

Faith, wisdom, helping, hospitality: these are community-building gifts, and we should use them for those around us.  Use them to care for others, to let them see God through us.   Teaching, evangelism, leadership, shepherding, encouragement – these too are about growing a community and building it up, letting others see what God has done and will do in the future.  Giving, administration, craftsmanship, creative communication – making things that the community can use, using art or music, reaching out to those around us.  Intercession – praying for other people, mercy or compassion – caring for others, letting them see the love of God.   These are gifts given to us as a group, given to share with the people around us.  We are blessed so that we can be a blessing to others.

And some of those gifts sound like stuff that applies to everyone, don’t they.  All Christians  are called to be compassionate and merciful – because that’s how God treats us.  All Christians are called to evangelise, to reach other to those who don’t know God, to introduce people to Jesus, but some are specially gifted in that area, given an extra serving of faith and effectiveness.

So what are my gifts, what are your gifts?  What are the gifts that we can offer to each other, and to the communities we are part of?  Are we brave enough to ask each other that?  Are we caring enough to look for the gifts within each other, and then to tell someone else when we recognise something special within them – something that can be developed and used for all of us.  We’re going to have a go at that now.

Everyone has a balloon: look at which gift it represents.  If you don’t think that’s a gift God has given you, who else here might be showing that gift?  Give them that balloon, and get their one in exchange.  If you don’t think the gift on the new balloon fits you, carry on swapping.

Around the walls are sheet with more information about the various gifts.  This is a bit random, so we can’t guarantee that everyone will end up with something that fits them.   But it’s a chance for us to find out about some of the different gifts God’s Spirit  can give, and to acknowledge some of each other’s gifts.  Remember that everyone has at least one gift, often more than one.

Knowing God, knowing our work

1 June 2014   Acts 1:6-14; John 17:1-11      

‘When Jesus had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’  On the Sunday after Ascension we see the early disciples adjusting to their ‘new normal’, to a world in which Jesus was no longer physically present with them.  Of course, for us it’s always been like that, hasn’t it, so sometimes we can wonder what all the fuss is about.  The thing about the Ascension, the bit we can miss if we get side-tracked by the stuff about Jesus being taken up into heaven, is that it’s about spirituality, not gravity – just as it’s about vocation, and not about geographical location or timing.  It’s about how we relate to God, and how we start to work out what we are called to be and to do.

The Ascension means taking seriously the idea of the Church as the body of Christ, and the identity of each of us as a part of that body.  If Christ’s work is to continue, it’s up to us.  Yes, we’ll have help in that (Pentecost is only a week away!), but it is for each of us to fulfil our role as whatever part of the body we are called to be.  That’s why the disciples were asked, ‘why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’  Why are you just standing there?  You have work to do: stop looking up – look around you, look at where God has placed you!  That’s the same thing we can say to each other: let’s look around us and work out what God is asking us to do, so that the work of Jesus can continue.  We can find out a bit more about what that work might look like in Jesus’ prayer in today’s Gospel reading.

Have you ever noticed that in John’s Gospel there’s no moment where the disciples come to Jesus and say ‘Lord, teach us to pray’ to which he responds with the Lord’s Prayer.  What John gives us is this scene.  And in John, Jesus’ prayer before he is arrested isn’t out in a garden, alone but for the sleeping disciples – it’s here, sitting around a table after a meal and some long conversations.   Like the end of dinner parties that we’ve been at, when we sit there relaxed by good food and good company.  John’s ‘Jesus, teach us to pray’ moment comes here – Jesus prays, and the disciples can listen in to hear how he does it.  So it might help us to think of this as a model for our own prayers, as we too listen in this morning to hear how Jesus does it.

Jesus looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.’  Jesus talks to God out of who he is – that’s the first thing we can notice.  Jesus knows who he is, and what his relationship to God is – and he expresses that in his praying.  So who are we?  When you come to prayer, think ‘who am I before God?’ and express that in your praying.  Think ‘what sort of relationship do I have with God?’  and express that.   What comes out in Jesus’ prayer is the love between him and the Father.  God loves us too, just like that – so when we are praying we can remember that we are talking to someone who loves us very much.

Something else that Jesus teaches us in this prayer is that knowing God is important.  ‘And this is eternal life’, he says, ‘that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’   Eternal life is knowing God, and knowing Jesus.  That’s such a simple idea for us to grasp, isn’t it – it comes down to knowing God and knowing Jesus.  And that means not knowing about Jesus (as we might know about the inside of a car’s engine or how email works) but being in a relationship with Jesus, with God.  Knowing God as someone who is part of our lives, whom we talk to each day, about our day and how it is going, and about whoever else is near us.

And then Jesus says, in this prayer his friends get to hear, ‘I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.’  That’s something else that really comes across in Jesus’ words: he knew what work God had given him to do.  Do you know what work God has given you to do?  That’s another way of saying do you know what your vocation is?  Because everyone has a vocation – that’s not a church jargon word for getting ordained or joining a religious order.  It means a sense of being called to be and to do something, and God calls everyone.  What God has called you to do?

Jesus knew what work God had given him to do, and he says ‘I glorified you on earth by finishing it’.  Jesus knew how he could glorify God.  So here’s a big question – do we know how we might glorify God?  Do we know how we might glorify God?  Has anyone ever asked you that before?  Is the idea that what you do will bring glory to God a strange one for you?  Maybe it shouldn’t be.  After all, Jesus’ prayer here isn’t just for him: it can be a pattern for how we can pray.  What would it do to our lives if we prayed every morning ‘God I want to glorify you today – show me how’?  Does anyone else find that scary?

Jesus goes on to pray ‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you’.  Jesus lived in the knowledge that everything he had came from God.  Maybe that was how he could be so generous with his time and his energy – because he knew he only had it as a gift.   Maybe that’s something for us to remember too – that all we have comes to us as a gift from God.  Knowing that can help us to be generous.

And then Jesus says, I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. … And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.’  Here the disciples hear Jesus praying for them – and we also hear Jesus praying for us, because he makes it clear (in the bit that comes after today’s reading) that he is asking not only on behalf of those who were with him at that time, but on behalf of all those, down through the ages, who would come to believe.  Jesus prays for people and lets them hear it.  And I know, from the times it’s happened for me, that hearing someone pray for you is really special.  Maybe that’s something we could do more of here – to pray for each other, aloud, and let them listen.

Jesus prays for us: he loves us and asks for God’s protection on us as we go about our work.  He knows that work, whatever it is, will not always be easy, and so he prays that God keep watch over us, and that we love and support each other, that we may be one.

So, in this post-Ascension world in which we have always lived, what matters is spirituality and vocation – knowing who we are before God, knowing and being in relationship with Jesus and living out of that.  Praying out of that.   Knowing the work we are called to do, and how we can glorify God.  And supporting each other as together we look around us and work out what God is asking us to do, so that the work of Jesus can continue.

Making connections

 25 May 2014    Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22; Psalm 66:8-20        

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and spoke to the Athenians.  He’s visiting Athens, the centre of civilisation, the philosophical capital of the world.   He’s been doing his usual thing, going to the synagogue and arguing with his fellow Jews, and he’s been visiting the marketplace and talking to people there.  What he’s been saying, about Jesus and the resurrection, has intrigued this bunch of sophisticated Athenians, so they get Paul along to the Areopagus and ask him to tell them more.  The Areopagus was kind of like Civic Square and the Public Library – where all the philosophers hung out.

I think what Paul does there is really useful stuff for us to listen to, because it can give us a few clues about how to approach the task that the writer of today’s epistle recommends to us: to be ready to give an account of the hope that is in us, and do it with gentleness and reverence.  Because that’s what Paul is doing.  What Paul has already said has made the Athenians curious.  People today are often curious.  We can so easily assume, can’t we, that those around us just aren’t interested in God, or Church, or faith, and say nothing because of that – when actually people are often curious.  But they don’t like to feel judged, or spoken to in some funny language.  How can we, like Paul, work with people’s curiosity?

Paul reaches out to the people just where they are, he’s talking to them in their own terms, using the sort of language they can relate to, right in the middle of their own marketplace.  He’s not bringing in a bunch of church jargon, which can sound like a foreign language to those who aren’t part of that scene.  Paul here quotes ancient Greek poets and philosophers; his message, like all his sermons, is steeped in scripture, but for this one he sticks to the bits that sound like philosophy.  He knows his audience and he speaks their language.   Now that can make us think – what sort of audience might we have, if we were trying to talk about Jesus, and what language would they be used to hearing?

Not only does Paul use the sort of language his audience is familiar with, he speaks in a way they can relate to.  What he says is actually a well-constructed piece of classical rhetoric.  He starts with a bit of flattery – but it’s not empty flattery: there’s truth here.  ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.’  Now that sounds like today – except that the people we talk to are more likely to want to describe themselves as ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’.  Paul is not being judgemental, and he isn’t assuming that just because the people he is talking with don’t worship as he does that they have no interest in spiritual things.  That is so like folk today: people are seeking, as the Athenians were seeking, for some larger reality to connect with.

Paul has noticed this.  He encourages them in their spiritual searching.  He tells them, ‘For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” As Paul’s been going through the city he has noticed what’s important to the people who live there.  That’s something we can do: notice what is important to the people we meet.  Think about the people we spend time with – what do they care about?  And how can we make links between the things that matter to them and the God we worship?

Because again, that’s what Paul does.  He says, ‘What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’  He’s making connections.  He’s connecting up the Athenians’ spiritual searching, their experience of creation and the God whom he, and we, worship.  And he’s appealing to their common humanity.  We are all human beings who have life and breath, who share common ancestors.  At a point where so much separates the Athenians from himself – their never-ending quest for novelty and desire to grab hold of anything new that was going around, their many statues and altars which he, as a good Jew, would have hated – Paul focuses on what unites them: a common humanity, a common search for God.

He says we’re created to seek and discover God: searching for God, perhaps groping for God,  and eventually finding God.  St Augustine said something similar, after years of  searching: ‘O God you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.’

A God to seek out, for the Athenians, and for us, and for those we meet today.  And sometimes people have to do a lot of searching before they do connect with God.   Our task is to make it easier for the people we know to do that connecting.   And we have to realise for ourselves, and help others to see, what Paul told the Athenians, that God doesn’t live in shrines made by human hands, not in buildings, whether temples or churches, not in objects – whether statues, or fast cars, or other ‘stuff’ that can fill our lives:  God lives in people.

Paul was introducing to the Athenians the radical notion that God is about relationship.  Not about objects, not about sacrifices or human service, but relationships.  We are God’s offspring, God is not far from each one of us.  The life we are offered, the life we are called to, is one of relating to each other and to God – the God ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’.

And then Paul does something risky.  He’s being making connections between the Athenians’ lives and the God he worships – his God, our God.  Now he takes them further.   Because engaging in a common discussion about our world, and the things they have noticed, their experience of creation, their searching, can only go so far.  Paul mentions the resurrection.  He finishes his speech with the thing that differentiates the God he is proclaiming from everything else: the resurrected Jesus.

It’s risky, because it risks rejection by his audience.  For some people a Jesus who is alive today will be taking things too far, and they will walk away.  That’s what Paul found.  The bit that comes just after today’s reading from Acts recounts how some scoffed at this talk of resurrection – but others asked to hear more.  And some of those Paul was speaking with became believers.   I guess Paul’s other lesson to us, if we have than experience, is not to take any rejection personally, not getting despondent or annoyed.  After all, he’s showing us how to give an account of the hope that is in us, with gentleness and reverence.   Maybe we can help each other to learn how to do this, so that we can more readily say in a conversation one day what the psalmist says: ‘Come then and listen … and I will tell you what God has done for me’.

Untroubled hearts

18 May 2014     John 14:1-14; Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-6,16-18        

Jesus said, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?’  We hear this passage often at funerals, don’t we, and sometimes we hear it or read it, or have it suggested to us, when we are in the middle of something bad.  The trouble is, that’s just when it’s hardest to hear!  When you’re already feeling nervous, or scared, or shattered, having someone say ‘do not let your heart be troubled’ is not that easy to take in.  But let’s remember where this comes in John’s Gospel.  It’s part of the long speech John gives to Jesus between the Last Supper and the walk out to the garden of Gethsemane.  Judas has already left to complete his betrayal, and Jesus is preparing the disciples for what is to come.  So maybe the best time to take on board the message ‘do not let your hearts be troubled’ is before the trouble actually starts.  And remember that Jesus himself knows what it feels like to have a troubled heart: only a little bit before this, just before Judas went out into the night, we’re told that Jesus was ‘troubled  in spirit’.

Jesus is trying to get his friends ready for tough times.  He’s preparing them not just for what they will go through when he is arrested, beaten and crucified; he’s also coaching them for the life they will live when he is no longer with them, the life they will have after he returns to the Father.  Jesus is not claiming that nothing bad would ever happen to them – just as he’s not claiming nothing bad will ever happen to us.   But he is helping them to prepare, giving them some messages to settle into their hearts for the future.  This is, if you like, the Johannine equivalent of the ‘get ready, get through’ messages that the civil defence people give us.  Except it’s not having a cupboard full of baked beans that will help us get through the tough times, it’s the relationship we have with Jesus.

Jesus is promising that the relationship will continue.  That after his arrest, during and after his death, after his resurrection and ascension, the relationship he has with his friends will continue.  He will still be part of their lives.   So if we are worried or scared about what the future has in store, or if we are right in the middle of something bad and wondering how we will cope, this is what Jesus wants us to know.

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.’  We are not alone in a hostile world.  Jesus is here with us.  ‘Believe in God, believe also in me’ – and when Jesus says that, he doesn’t mean belief as giving intellectual assent to certain propositions, he’s not talking about which doctrinal boxes we can tick.  He means that what will get us through is the faith – and that means, the relationship – we have with him, and with the Father.  ‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.’

This talk of dwelling places, of ’abiding places’, is comforting, isn’t it.  That’s one of the reasons we sometimes hear this passage at funerals – because the image of Jesus going ahead to prepare a place to stay, like those people who went ahead of a caravan to prepare the camp ground, locate the water supply, cook the food and get everything ready for the main party of travellers – is a source of reassurance.   It’s an image of welcome, hospitality, and community.  It tells us that we – and those we love who have died – will not be left alone in the middle of an unfriendly landscape.

And then Thomas steps in,  ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’  Like many of the characters in John’s Gospel, Thomas hears it literally.  ‘Jesus, where are you going?  If we’re going to get there too, we need a map, a diagram, a sign post, a GPS – something that will make sure we end up in the right place.’   Jesus carries on with the metaphor, offers comfort which is infused with all the power and love and grace of God.  He says ‘I AM’.  ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life.’  Several times in this Gospel, Jesus says ‘I AM’: I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the gate for the sheep, I am the good shepherd.’  What he’s doing is connecting himself and who he is with God, with the one whose name given to Moses at the burning bush is ‘I AM’.  Jesus is signalling the very presence of God.  It’s an invitation to be connected to God, a welcome into a new sort of life.

He says, ‘If you know me, you will know my Father also’ – but what he means is that you do know me, and so you know the Father also – for ‘whoever has seen me has seen the Father’.  These words are hugely comforting, for the disciples, and for us.  They link us intimately to God, to the God whom we meet in Jesus, the God who is with us with all the power and the love and the grace that can get us through bad times and good ones.

That is something that Stephen knew.  We see him in the book of Acts, meeting his death.  And Luke tells us, ‘while they were stoning Stephen, he prayed.’  It sounds an impossibly difficult and painful situation – but what comes across is that Stephen’s heart was not troubled.  He prayed – not a panicked ‘help me, get me out of here, beam me up, Scottie’ sort of prayer – but a prayer of trust and commitment.  I have a hunch that you don’t pray like that by accident, all in a moment: you learn to pray like that by praying like that before it gets that tough.  Entrusting your day – all that you are and all that you do – to God.  Doing that every day.  Learning to say with the psalmist, ‘You are my God, my fortunes are in your hands.’

Stephen was able to die like that – with an untroubled heart, trusting God, forgiving those who were stoning him – because he had lived like that.   None of us will meet a death like his, but we can aspire to a life like his.  A life of trusting God, forgiving those who hurt us.  A life that does not fear being alone in a hostile world because we know that Jesus is with us.   Jesus, who is the way, and the truth and the life.   Poet WH Auden wrote these words:

He is the way.
Follow him through the land of unlikeness
You will see rare beasts
And have unique adventures.  
 
He is the truth.
Seek him in the kingdom of anxiety
You will come to a great city
that has expected your return for years.
 
He is the life.
Love Him in the world of the flesh
And at your marriage all its occasions
Shall dance for joy.  

He is the way – follow him.  He is the truth – seek him.  He is the life – love him.   What I have found is that if I can manage to live in relationship with Jesus like that (and some days I manage it better than others), then my heart can indeed be untroubled.  So may all our hearts be.

Hospitality & abundant life

 11 May 2014   Psalm 23, John 10:1-10, Acts 2:42-47               

We know what this is, don’t we.  It’s about giving food, drink, shelter to friends and strangers.  It’s about showing honour, respect, love to others, those who are part of our faith community and those who are outside it.  It’s about sharing what we have, being generous, reaching out to those around us.   There’s a whole bunch of stories right through the Bible that hinge on hospitality: Abraham entertaining the angelic visitors by the oaks of Mamre, the widow of Zarephath sharing with Elijah what she thought was her last bits of flour and oil, Jesus spending the Gospels going to dinner in people’s homes and feeding them with bread and fish and wine.

Hospitality is as basic to Christianity, to living the God life, as worship: we show our relationship to God just as much by how we are at Morning Tea and Friday Socials and Free Food Fridays as we do by how we pray.  And here’s the thing: the reason we do this, the reason we show hospitality to others, is because we realise how much of God’s hospitality we enjoy.  We want to bless others because we know how much God has blessed us.

That’s what comes across in the psalm we say together today: The Lord is our shepherd.  God looks after us, provides us with shelter, rest, protection, food.  The psalm reminded everyone who sung it in ancient Israel of what God had already done for them in the past, and what God would do for them in the future.  During forty years in the wilderness, Israel lacked nothing: God provided bread and meat, manna and quails, each day, God gave them water when they were thirsty and protection from all their many enemies.  God guided them in right pathways, leading the people like a flock to holy pastures, directing them in the right ways to live and to worship, the right ways to treat other people.  God does that for us today.

The psalm reminded the people of all the times and all the places God accompanied them: ‘I will fear no evil, for you are with me’.  ‘Fear not, I am with you’ is the basic thing that God or God’s messenger says to everyone right through the Bible: I am here to shelter and protect you, I am here to nourish you, I am here so even when it looks like you are surrounded by those who want to hurt you, you are never outnumbered.  ‘Shepherd’ can be read as a metaphor for the reality ‘I am with you’.  God does that for us today.

Shepherd imagery works best for those who are in need of comfort, those who are feeling at risk, insecure, those for whom life – whether that’s personal life, or community life – feels a bit precarious.  When you are worried by what you don’t have – whether that’s enough money to buy groceries, or to buy a sound system, enough work to give you a sense of purpose and to make a contribution, enough time and energy to do all the things you think you should – then it’s incredibly comforting to be able to say ‘The Lord is my shepherd, therefore can I lack nothing’.  When you aren’t sure of the way to go, uncertain what is the right decision you should be making, or frightened of things that seem to threaten you, then to know that Jesus is the one who ‘calls his own sheep by name and leads them out’ gives peace and hope and courage.  When we are tempted to focus on what we lack, then to hear Jesus saying ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ is just what we need.

What does abundant life look like?  We get a picture of some of it in the psalm, don’t we: ‘You spread a table for me in the sight of my enemies, you have anointed my head with oil and my cup overflows’.  There’s that generous hospitality that God offers, that hospitality we see in so many of those stories: Abraham providing a huge feast, Jesus feeding the crowds to such excess that they gathered up twelve baskets of leftovers from five barley loaves and two fish.  We want some of that abundance!

What does abundant life look like?  Jesus doesn’t really define it here – but it’s useful to remember that his words aren’t isolated from what has come just before, and that’s the healing of the man blind from birth.  We heard that story a few weeks back, during Lent.  Jesus’ words here, about being the gate and the shepherd for the sheep, are part of his way of interpreting that sign that he has just performed.   For the man born blind, abundant life was sight.  It was freedom and a chance to earn his own living, to take part in the economic and social and religious life of his community.

Abundant life is contextual.  For that blind man, it meant sight.  For the farmer living through a drought it can be several hours of soft gentle rain, for the single parent it could be companionship and a meal they haven’t had to prepare for themselves, for the overworked student it might be friends saying here’s some books you can borrow and let’s work together on this assignment.  Abundant life looks different to different people in different places.  What’s common is that it’s a response to whatever is robbing God’s children from being able to participate joyfully in the life that God wants for them all.

Perhaps this passage is inviting us not just to hear Jesus saying ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ but to participate in this promise.  To reach out to others, and join in Jesus’ mission to offer abundant life to all of God’s children, those who are part of our faith community and those who are outside it.  To say to people who are anxious, ‘Fear not, God is with you’.  To say to people who are excluded, ‘you can be part of a community’.  To say to those who are weary, ‘come and rest, come and sit near the waters of peace’.

Remember the stories of Abraham entertaining the angelic visitors – and afterwards being given a son in his and Sarah’s old age, the widow of Zarephath sharing her oil and flour with Elijah and having enough to keep going through the years of famine, the stories of Jesus feeding the multitude with a small gift of bread and fish.  People didn’t exercise hospitality out of the abundance they already had: the abundance – the gifts, the food left over – came afterwards.

Maybe there’s something there about sharing what we have, being generous, reaching out to those around us.  Maybe there’s something there about how abundant life is seen in the exercise of hospitality.  That looks quite a bit like the picture of the early Church we see in the book of Acts: sharing time, and food, and possessions with others – living the God-life together with brothers and sisters in Christ, and wanting to reach out and share this with those around them, welcoming them into the community.

Maybe there’s something there about showing hospitality to others, because we are grateful for how much of God’s hospitality we already enjoy, about remembering how much God has already blessed us, and so reaching out to bless others – for in doing that we can receive even more of a blessing.  Maybe part of being able to say ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ is a willingness to be a shepherd, a guide and comfort and host, to others.

Coming to Easter with questions

Easter Day 2014     John 20:1-18    

How many of us have come here this morning filled with joy, ready to celebrate, rejoicing in the gift of new life? If that is you, then know that those feelings are part of Easter, part of why we have come today. To delight in this new thing that God has done, to worship and to praise. To shout alleluia.

How many of us have questions this morning? How many of us have come here uncertain, unsure of what this all means, hesitant about what Easter might say to us, and how it might fit into our lives? If that is you, then please know this: questions are part of Easter, uncertainty is part of Easter – and always has been.

Mary Magdalene came to Easter with questions. Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb. As she walked there she was filled with questions: why had all this happened – why did Jesus suffer and die like that? Why did the dream have to die? Why did so many of Jesus’ followers run away and hide? What was going to happen to them all now? Big, big questions – the sort you can’t help asking when someone you love dies and when you have to say farewell to a dream. And practical questions too: who was going to move the stone away so that she could get to the tomb to anoint the body? And what sort of condition was that body going to be in anyway?

So Mary came to Easter with questions – and then she saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. That answered one question but led to others: why would anyone steal the body? And where was that body now? So she ran off to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ So then Peter and the other disciple race each other to the tomb, find it empty, have this strange reaction where they believe but don’t understand – and then they go home, leaving Mary weeping amid all her questions. Where was the body? What were they going to do now?

Mary is still weeping, still asking questions, still looking for the body, when she sees Jesus standing there – and it’s only when he calls her by name that she realises who he is. She realises she is looking at Jesus, the risen Lord – that he is alive again, that death could not hold him. So Mary goes and tells the news to the disciples: ‘I have seen the Lord!’ And this was surprising, amazing, good news. It’s quite clear that Mary and Peter and all the other disciples were not expecting anything like this to happen. Well, you wouldn’t, would you?

Mary came to Easter with questions, and many of us have come with questions. Actually someone said this week that every honest person comes to Easter with questions – questions like could such a thing really happen? And how could it happen?   And you’ve got to admit that the answer to ‘could that really happen?’ has got to be yes – after all, if this is God we’re dealing with and not some small domesticated imagining then anything is possible.

As to how Jesus was raised from death, I’ve never been that good at how questions – and there are many things I use every day without understanding how they work. So I can cope without knowing the how of it, and I guess Mary Magdalene could cope as well, and so could Peter and the beloved disciple and all the others. All those whose lives were changed by their meetings with the risen Jesus, and all those whose lives were changed when they encountered men and women who were living those transformed lives.

Because that’s where we come up against the other big honest question of Easter: what difference will this make to my life? And that’s the question that Easter asks of us, for an encounter with the risen Lord will change us. How could it not change us?

Easter was the beginning of something totally new, something totally radical. In Easter God surprised us all with unlooked-for joy, calling into question our preconceptions, our old ways of doing things, the well-worn pathways of our minds. A world in which Jesus could be raised from death, a world in which Easter could happen, is a world ripe with possibilities. For Easter is when all our broken dreams meet the amazing power of God.

Easter speak to us of the Big Story, the story of the Bible, and of the people of God in every age. The story is that God is always reaching out. Always. Always, but especially when we are sad or confused. When we wake up and wish we hadn’t, when we get out of bed and our bare feet walk across the shards of broken dreams. When we stand there weeping amid all our questions, then God comes to us. God came to us in Jesus, as a baby lying in a feed box for animals, as one who sailed with his friends in a fishing boat across a stormy lake, as one dying an agonising death on a Roman cross – and God comes to us in Jesus who is always and everywhere alive. God reaching out to show us what wanting to connect looks like, what forgiveness looks like, what love looks like.

When we know ourselves to be part of that Big Story, when we catch sight of the risen Jesus, then our lives can be changed, our world transformed.   So this morning, may we say with Walter Brueggemann:

deliver us from our bafflement and our many explanations. Push us over into stunned need and show yourself to us lively. Easter us in honesty; Easter us in fear; Easter us in joy, and let us be Eastered. Amen.

The True Glory

Good Friday 2014    John 19:16b-30                                       

So they took Jesus, and he carried his cross to Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, and there they crucified him. We get the details of all the official business – the argument over the titulus, the inscription on the cross: the ironic announcement of Jesus’ kingship. We get the casting lots for Jesus’ clothes, and then we get the women standing by. In all the crucifixion scenes in the Gospels the ones who stayed around longest were the women.

And then it seems that everything else fades into the background and the spotlight shines on Jesus, his mother and the beloved disciple. Even when he is dying he is conscious of others – of their needs to be looked after, of their needs also to have someone to care for. That’s something that speaks to us, for we too need to be loved and to love. When a loved one dies, one of the hardest things is not having someone to look after, to cook for, perhaps even to tidy up after. From the cross Jesus affirms the importance of relationships. In life, in death, in life beyond death, we are not meant to be alone. Today let our participation in this Good Friday, this day of suffering and death, lead us also to nurture the relationships we have, and to reach out to those who have no-one.

And then, Jesus does something else that speaks to us, that speaks to the actual lives that we live. He acknowledges a need for something else: a drink of water. He is thirsty. We remember that he has done this before, when he met the Samaritan woman at a well. He was thirsty then, she had come to fetch water – and their conversation ended with the woman and her whole town drinking from the living water that only Jesus can provide.   All because Jesus admitted his thirst.

We too thirst. Sometimes we thirst for water, sometimes for living water. Sometimes what we need is physical: drink, food, clothing; sometimes we thirst for something less tangible: affection, significance, love, a chance to contribute. Sometimes we thirst for God – but possibly not as often as we know God thirsts for us. What are you thirsting for right now?

And when we thirst, how good are we at admitting this? Or do we try to pretend we don’t need anything, try to act like we have it all together?   From the cross Jesus affirms the importance of recognising our needs and the needs of others, of reaching out to someone else and saying, ‘help me’, of reaching out to someone else and saying, ‘let me help you’. We cannot now be the ones to put a sponge full of sour wine on a branch and hold it out to Jesus – but every day we are given chances to see Jesus thirsty and give him something to drink. The king in Matthew’s parable says to the righteous, ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me’. And the righteous are confused and ask when they did these things, and the king who is Jesus says to them ‘just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’. Today let our participation in this Good Friday, this day of suffering and death, give us courage also to admit our needs to those around us, and to reach out to the thirsty, the hungry, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned and care for them.

And then, when Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished’.   Finished can mean a lot of things. His suffering was over: no more thirst, no more pain, no more struggling to breathe as he hung on the cross. His life was over: Jesus was dead. We sell Easter short if we gloss over the death. If we skip from the excitement and rejoicing and Palms of one Sunday to the excitement and rejoicing of the following Sunday without going through the loneliness and arrest and mocking and torture and death and silence and grief of the intervening days we have missed the point. Too much of the culture that surrounds us tries to deny death. We use strange euphemisms: ‘passed on’ ‘passed away’ ‘lost’ – anything to shy away from the reality of death. The Gospels don’t.   They make it clear that Jesus died. He was dead. His life was finished.

Finished can mean a lot of things. Not only was Jesus’ life over, but the work he had come to do was finished. Completed.   This was the end – and when we hear that we think back to the beginning: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’. When Jesus says that word ‘finished’ and dies it is with a sense of accomplishment. Years later, an English sailor wrote these words: ‘There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory.’

And that is what is happening here. For John, the true glory is here. In all the Gospels Jesus came to suffer and die and be glorified – but here, in John, the suffering humiliation and the glorification are combined. Jesus is glorified not in spite of his death, or after it (in the Resurrection), but actually in and by his death.

‘It is finished’ is a cry of victory. It is a cry that says ‘it is accomplished!’ That says ‘I have done what I came here to do. Because of this, others will have life in my name.’ Wherever he is in this Gospel, Jesus reveals God’s glory through who he is and what he does.   And he reveals God’s glory most of all here, on the cross.

From the cross Jesus affirms the glory of God and reveals his union with God. Today let our participation in this Good Friday, this day of suffering and death, encourage us to seek God’s glory: to look for it and notice it all around us, and to work for it in what we do.   To reach out to others and glorify God by our presence and our actions.

Pilgrims crying hosanna

Palm Sunday 2014    Matthew 21:1-11; Psalm 118:1-2,19-29        

We shout out hosanna, and hail Jesus as a prophet. We wave our palms and our branches to welcome him. We picture him riding in on a donkey and remember Zechariah’s prophecy of the king entering his city.   It’s a day to celebrate. This is the day Jesus enters Jerusalem. He enters as a pilgrim, greeted with the same words that greeted all pilgrims who came to the Temple: ‘Blessed is the one that comes in the name of the Lord’.

Today we are the Jerusalem crowds. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus is acclaimed by his disciples; we’re not quite sure what the crowds thought about it all, though we know the Pharisees amongst them weren’t impressed. But in Matthew, the hosannas came from the crowds that went ahead of him and that followed him. They were the ones shouting hosanna! So today, that’s who we are.

Hosanna is a line from the psalm we began with: ‘Save us O Lord’, and it continues ‘Lord we pray you to give us success’. It’s almost a typical prayer, isn’t it, from this crowd we are part of: Help us, God; save us – and while you’re at it, give us success. What were the crowd asking Jesus to do? How did they want him to save them? It’s possible their expectations were no more defined than that wish for security and success, that prayer which could be ours as well. It’s also possible that for many of them ‘save us O Lord’ had a lot to do with kicking out the Romans, getting rid of their political oppressors. It’s also possible that they wanted to be saved from the temple system – and that when Jesus enters the temple soon afterwards and overturns the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves they thought their dreams were about to come true.

But after that … they fell silent for a few days, appearing every so often listening to Jesus teaching. Then the crowds were there when Jesus was arrested. And then, on the Friday, that same crowd that had shouted all those loud hosannas were calling out ‘let him be crucified!’

Again, we ask what was it the crowd was wanting from Jesus? Had they misunderstood him, had misread the signs? Concentrated perhaps too much on the ‘king’ and too little on the ‘gentle, humble, riding on a donkey’ part? Did they want more of the overturned tables and felt cheated when Jesus simply carried on with his teaching? After all, teaching, however useful, is relatively unspectacular. What is it that we want from Jesus? Are we looking for the kind of leader that will overthrow the power of secularism and return the church to its former glory? Are we looking for some of that security and success? And what do we do when we realise that following someone who emptied himself and became like a slave means we’re called to do the same? What do we do when the excitement dies down, the palms dry out and get all brown and faded?  Do we too start shouting ‘crucify’?

Well, not quite like that, of course. We will hear ourselves shouting for crucifixion later on this week, when we’re holding a service sheet in our hand and those words appear in the bold type which means we are supposed to join in altogether. But it’s not as if we mean it … is it?

Today is a difficult day. We enjoy the ritual of the palms, the fun of making a mess, dropping palms and ferns and branches everywhere. But we don’t enjoy the questions today asks of us, the way it makes us acknowledge our fickleness, our tendency to go along with the rest of the crowd, the way we get annoyed and look for someone to blame when things don’t go quite according to our plans. Ash Wednesday, all those weeks ago, asked us to come to terms with our mortality, to acknowledge that we will die. Palm Sunday asks us to acknowledge something else about being human – our inconstancy, the way we can turn against people we have admired or loved or followed, especially when we think our security or our success is under threat.

And how easy it is to congratulate ourselves – to think that by celebrating Palm Sunday we have acknowledged Jesus as king in a way that the Jerusalem crowds failed to do. But recognising Jesus as king, and his claim on our lives, is not just for Palm Sunday, nor just for any other Sunday.  We celebrate Palm Sunday best when we allow Jesus to be our king on Monday to Saturday as well. We can process along the street and into this building with our palm branches.  But if we do not process back out again, into the world to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty and visit the sick and prisoners, then we might just have to admit our fickleness, our inconsistency. If we follow Jesus with our palm branches but do not follow him to the dark places of the world, to the margins of society, to the locations where people are sad or sick or lonely, then how different are we really from the Jerusalem crowds?

So today is part rejoicing, and welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem and into our lives as king, and part admitting our collective fickleness and our failures to follow consistently. Perhaps that is another way of saying that today is about acknowledging our common humanity. You, me, the Jerusalem crowds, and all our ancestors in faith ever since: sometimes we get it right, sometimes we get it wrong. But we come today as pilgrims, and so we can say, with Jesus and with pilgrims from all ages, ‘We give thanks to you O Lord for you are gracious, and your love endures for ever.’

Out of the depths

6 April 2014   Psalm 130; John 11:1-45; Ezekiel 37:1-14                      

Our readings this morning start with lament and end with new life. Do you know what lament is? It’s an expression of sorrow or mourning. It’s what you cry out in the middle of a tragedy, when you decide that screaming and raging is a better option than sitting in stony silence. The Bible is full of laments – there’s even a whole book, Lamentations, that’s named for them. When something goes badly wrong in our lives, when disaster happens, when loss or sickness overwhelms us, we lament. Pouring out our sorrow and confusion and anger to God does not show a lack of faith – far from it: lament arises out of a relationship with God in which we feel safe enough to voice the darkness.

Lament is spoken out of the depths of suffering. ‘Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord: give heed O Lord to my cry’ says the psalmist. That’s the basic lament: I am down here in the depths, I am suffering, I want God to wake up and listen to me. The cry is a demand to be heard, an insistence that God listen – and it’s based on a certainty that God is there, and that God cares. This psalm is about God’s very character: God isn’t to be feared because of anger and judgement, but is to be revered because ‘with the Lord there is love unfailing’. And so, in the midst of suffering, the psalmist waits, and we wait. ‘I wait for you Lord with all my soul: and in your word is my hope.’

Buried inside lament – and often very deeply buried and a long way inside – we can find hope. That too is part of the lament tradition, and it comes out of that relationship with the God to whom we cry out. But trying to ignore the suffering and fast forward to the hope doesn’t work. There is an honesty in lament which does not disguise the pain and bewilderment.

We see this in our Gospel reading. We have to engage with the experience of Martha and Mary – with their grief and their confusion. They both lament, they complain to Jesus that he had come too late, that if he had only got there on time their brother would not have died. Part of their suffering is the pain of Lazarus’ death, that absence they can see stretching out into the future. Another part of it is their bewilderment: they do not understand why things have happened like that.   That’s how we react, isn’t it, when we lose someone or something: a comment I have heard over and over ‘I can’t understand how this can have happened; why has this happened now; why has this happened to me?’

Grief, confusion, and despair. It’s what Ezekiel was feeling. He was one of those deported to Babylon when Jerusalem was overthrown in 598BCE. He has a vision of a dry, dead place, full of dry, dead people. ‘The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.’ This depth of despair comes from multiple traumas. Jerusalem had been utterly destroyed, but before that had been years of siege warfare, disease, and famine so bad it led to cannibalism. And then the people were torn away, sent into exile away from the land that God had given them and away from the places where all their worship happened. When it’s that brutal, the only thing you can do is lament.

Today’s readings force us to engage with the emptiness, with grief and confusion and despair. The lament tradition gives us permission to cry out of the depths. It gives us a way to acknowledge the pain. And after that – and only after all that – it offers us signs of hope.

God says to Ezekiel, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.’ The amazing thing is that in the midst of the death and the despair God encourages Ezekiel to do something. God invites Ezekiel’s help, commands him to prophesy, to speak God’s word to the dry bones. ‘Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’ It is when Ezekiel obeys, when he prophesies as he was commanded, that the bones come together, and when he speaks again to the breath, then the breath, the spirit of God, enters them and they live. I’m left wondering, what would have happened, if Ezekiel had not spoken? Maybe it’s an indication of his trust in God that he opened his mouth. Maybe it’s an indication that when you’re that far down in the depths you’ll try anything.

Jesus comes to the tomb of Lazarus, and he weeps there. Jesus is no impassive observer of other people’s grief: he knows what it feels like to mourn for someone you love. He comes to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. And Jesus tells those there to do something. In the midst of the death and the grief, Jesus encourages the mourners to act. Jesus invites their help: ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha protests, a realistic, gutsy protest: he’s been dead four days – it stinks. But they take away the stone. Jesus prays, and cries out, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man comes out, and he’s still all tied up in the grave clothes, and Jesus again asks the people to act: ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ Again, I’m left wondering, what would have happened if the mourners had not taken away the stone?

There is hope for us in these stories. There is hope, for both of them say to us that we do not have to shy away from the darkness and pretend it’s not there. There is hope, for they say to us that God is in there in the darkness, that God is with us, that God is listening, that God is weeping. There is hope, in the promise of new life that can come out of grief and confusion and despair. Hope in the Word of God and the Spirit of God: ‘Lazarus, come out’, ‘Come from the four winds, O Spirit, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’

We have a relationship with a God who can sit in the depths with us and then call us onwards into new life. We have a relationship with Jesus who said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’ John tells the Lazarus story because it is a signpost, pointing to the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. We read it now, two weeks before Easter and a month after the ashes of Ash Wednesday, to remind us not only of the reality of our own deaths but of what comes after that.

The reality of resurrection does not mean that suffering will not happen, that grief will not visit us, that darkness will not cover us. Lament gives us the courage to face these things, and it gives us a way of responding. Lament is when we cry out to God ‘I am in the depths, listen to me’ – and lament is also when we hear God speaking to us ‘I am here in the depths with you, listen to me.’ On the other side of lament – and we cannot go around it, only through it – is an invitation to new life, to be part of the life that will never, never die.

Seeing as God sees

30 March 2014  1 Samuel 16:1-13; John 9:1-41; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14

I’m always fascinated by what our Lectionary serves up to us the day we gather for our Annual Meeting. Over the years I have come to respect the gifts it gives us. Today the readings revolve around seeing, and not seeing; the idea of how we see things and how God sees things. The story of Samuel has all the intrigue of a palace coup and all the tension of a beauty pageant: God has looked at the current king, Saul, and seen someone who is no longer doing what is right. A new king is needed, and the prophet Samuel is despatched to choose him. He goes to Jesse, for God has provided a king from amongst his sons: the only question is, which of the sons is the chosen one?

One by one Jesse’s sons pass in front of Samuel. He looks at the eldest one, Eliab, who sounds like he’s tall, dark and handsome: ‘Surely this is the one,’ thinks Samuel. But no – and a warning from God: ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.’ This is an indication that God does not see as we see. We have a tendency to look at the externals, to judge people by their outward appearance – admit it, we do this all the time, don’t we! We judge people by the clothes they wear (are they scruffy or clean, is that skirt too short?), we look at the colour of someone’s skin, at the tattoos they show, at how fat or thin they are, at how different from or similar to us they appear, and we judge them, and that determines how we treat them.   I know I’ve caught myself doing this, and so God’s word to Samuel is a reminder to me that God sees differently. God looks at what is in the heart. So some questions for us: how are we seeing each other, how are we seeing people we seek to reach out to in the communities we live and work in? What are we not seeing when we focus on the externals? How can we see as God sees?

One by one Jesse’s sons pass in front of Samuel. One by one seven of them are rejected: ‘the LORD has not chosen any of these,’ says Samuel, asking if there is another son anywhere. It’s a little like Cinderella – is there anyone else who might try on the glass slipper? Yes, there’s the youngest, but he’s away looking after the sheep. The tension mounts: Jesse and his sons wait, we the audience wait, until this youngest one finally arrives. There’s a lovely irony when the first thing the narrator tells us is that he’s rosy-cheeked, red headed, has beautiful eyes and he’s handsome. God says to Samuel – this is the one! So Samuel anoints this youngest son, the shepherd boy, as king, and then (and only then) we are finally told his name: this is David, Israel’s greatest king.  What are we seeing, and what are we not seeing, when we are choosing people for any task? Do we focus on age, on experience or lack of it, or can we see something else? How can we see as God sees?

And then the Gospel reading: there’s a lot of people here who don’t see very well. There’s the man who’s been blind from birth: at least he knows he can’t see. He knows he needs something from Jesus. He knows what Jesus has done for him – and he speaks of that, repeatedly. This man can help us to see that the simple telling of our stories, the telling of what has happened to us, what God has done for us, matters so much. It’s interesting to notice the progression in this man: he goes from talking about ‘the man called Jesus’, to recognising Jesus as a prophet, to calling him Lord and worshipping him. Perhaps that is a path that we or people we know have also travelled. So how do we see Jesus? Who is Jesus to us? There’s a sense in which our answers to that question lie behind all our AGM reports, for surely what we do here at St Anne’s is determined by how we see Jesus?

The blind man knows what he doesn’t know – the disciples don’t. They ask Jesus ‘who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ They look at human suffering and see sin as its cause – all they want to know is which person sinned. They are unable to see a different way of looking at things, that there are many causes of human suffering other than sin. That’s the problem when you have fixed ideas about something, you see only what you expect to see. That’s why it’s always worth asking ourselves when we consider a situation: what are we not seeing? Is there another way to look at this? How can we see as God sees?

Then there are the blind man’s neighbours, and those who had seen him before as a beggar. Except that they hadn’t really ‘seen’ him, had they? When he came back from the pool of Siloam able to see they couldn’t agree on whether he was the man they had seen begging, or not. They’d looked right through him all those years, not seeing him as a person with hopes and dreams, not seeing him as someone they might have a relationship with. In their way, they were just as ‘blind’ as he was. Whom do we not see? Whom do we tend to look right through? How can we see as God sees?

And how do we see ourselves? Do we see ourselves as people who are always short of something – as ones who lack time, or resources, or rest, or friends? Or do we see ourselves as ones whom God loves and cares for, as people who lack nothing, because God is our shepherd and we have everything we need? As we begin our AGM, how can we see ourselves as God sees us, as ones whom God delights to comfort and shelter, as people for whom God spreads a table and anoints them with the oil of blessing?

We read today’s Gospel and we see how Jesus, the light of the world, takes away the man’s blindness, and at the same time invites us all to lose the blinkers we can find sometimes ourselves wearing. What are we not seeing? How can we see as God sees? The story challenges us to ‘live as children of light’. As we look forward into this year with new goals and a new Vestry, how can we help each other to do that? How can we help each other to live as children of light?

Living Water

 23 March 2014  John 4:5-42; Romans 5:1-11; Exodus 17:1-7            

A woman comes to a well to draw water, and a man is sitting there, tired and thirsty.  The man is Jesus.  We don’t know who the woman is, though later tradition gives her a name: Photini, the enlightened one.  At this stage, though, she’s a bit invisible.  She’s not seen as a human being, but more as a collection of labels: Samaritan, woman, woman with a difficult past, Samaritan woman with an untidy life.  She’s come to the well in her village to draw water, at noon.  Perhaps she didn’t want to go out to the well earlier in the day with the other women, or they didn’t want to go with her.   Perhaps she’s content to be invisible, wanting to stay in the background, trying to keep a low profile, scared that she’s not good enough.

She’s surprised when Jesus asks her for a drink.  She’s not the sort of person most Jewish teachers of the time would have cared to have been seen with.   Perhaps he doesn’t know about her the way everyone in the village thinks they know about her, she wonders.  But Jesus knows her story, her secrets, and he sees her as a human being, not a bunch of labels.  He treats her with respect.  To him, this woman is not invisible.

I learned a new word this week.  Atychiphobia.  It’s the fear of failure, the fear of not being good enough.  I suspect all of us here have felt this at one time or another.  It’s the fear that stops people attempting anything new, stops them taking risks, least they crash out in failure.  So they settle for mediocrity or they sabotage themselves again and again.  They want to be invisible, want to keep a low profile, stay in the background where no one can see them.   Anyone else felt this?  Fear like this has people coming to the well to get their water in the heat of the noonday sun so they can avoid being with those they think might look down their noses at them.

There’s a lot of people, outside the church and within it, who have atychiphobia.  Those who are scared that ‘if people here knew what I’m really like, they wouldn’t want me’.  Those who won’t take on a new ministry, or a leadership role, or learn to speak a new language or play a musical instrument in public, in case they make a mess of it in the initial stages.  People can end up with atychiphobia if they’ve had a bad experience involving failure in the past, or if love or approval was somehow linked to performance when they were younger.  They don’t think they can do something perfectly so they don’t attempt it at all.  They can only envisage more of the same: more failure, more criticisms, more of what has always happened. They become victims of their circumstances.

The thing the woman came to realise was that Jesus knew her, and loved her.  The thing Paul was helping the Christians in Rome come to realise was that God knew them and loved them and Christ died for them, even while they were sinners.  They did not need to be righteous for God to love them – that was one of Paul’s great messages.  We do not need to perform well in order to enjoy God’s love and approval.  We cannot make God love us more (or love us less) by what we do.

I suspect one of the hardest things may be to realise that we are, indeed, loved by God.   Certainly the ancient Hebrews were having a hard time believing that.  They were travelling through a desert and had run out of water – and they saw this as a sign that God wasn’t with them, didn’t love them.  They had forgotten the way God had saved them from Pharaoh’s army, had provided manna for them to eat.  They tested God: ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’  They grumbled against Moses: ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children with thirst?’  They saw themselves as victims of their circumstances.

The story of the woman at the well is there to remind us that it doesn’t have to be like this.  People do not have to hide themselves away, thinking they’re not good enough, not loved, afraid of failing.  For Jesus holds out to everyone the offer of living water, a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.  The Jesus who sees past all the labels, who knows all the secrets and all the untidiness of people’s lives and still loves them, wants them to drink of living water.

Living water is that which gives energy, new life.  It’s a sign of celebration and abundance.  It’s what can put an end to atychiphobia.  Drinking that living water is what gave the Samaritan woman, Photini, the courage to change, to speak up, to act differently.  It helped her to see herself as Jesus saw her.  It can help us to see ourselves as Jesus sees us.

Because of that encounter with Jesus, Photini, the woman at the well, came alive.  She left her water jar and rushed back into the city, going to share her experiences, her good news, even with those who had been careful to keep her on the outer.  She left behind not only her water jar, but also her fears: her fears of failure, her feelings of not being good enough.  She left behind the attitude which only expects more of the same, and instead began to admit the possibility that God can do something else, something new, something wonderful.

That’s a lesson the ancient Hebrews had to come to learn.  When Moses struck the rock and water gushed out they needed to realise not only that God was with them, but that God is able to do something new, something totally out of the ordinary.  They seemed to take a long time to learn that bit.  The rest of the story of Israel’s wandering through the wilderness has the people repeatedly acting like victims, whinging to Moses and about Moses, grumbling to God.  The story of living water took a while to take root amongst them.

But because of the meeting between Jesus and Photini, the Samaritan woman, the rest of her village, the community that had tried to exclude her, came to drink of the living water also.  She becomes an evangelist, she shares her story  – and others are blessed through her.

When have we been like that?  When have we put our fears of failure, our worries about not being good enough, to one side and rushed to share the good news of what God has done for us?  And when have we reached out, daring to do something new, prepared to take a risk, feeling the energy of living water bubbling within us?

Let us pray:

God our hope,
may your living water empower
our thanksgivings and our prayer;
for we put our trust in you the living God,
risking disappointment, risking failure,
working and waiting expectantly.  Amen.

Journey into the unknown

16 March 2014   Genesis 12:1-4a; John 3:1-17            

Beginnings are fraught with uncertainty.  Our reading from Genesis gives us the uncertain foundation of a family just starting out on a path to a new way of life and a new relationship with God.  This is a family that will one day grow to include us – except that no-one knows that yet.  Nicodemus is uncertain too.  He’s not sure who Jesus really is, and what he is saying.  He’s not sure what Jesus is asking of him and what his life might be like if he responds.  I guess all of us can relate to uncertain beginnings.

Abram was called to go – to leave behind the familiar and journey into the unknown.  God said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’  Leave behind everything that you know and head off towards somewhere else.  Go out into the unknown.  Eventually you will find out where you are supposed to end up – but not at first.

To say this sounds scary is a huge understatement.   It always amazes me that Abram went, just like that, ‘as the Lord had told him’.  He went, without even a comment about how old he was and what a big ask it was to be expected to move on like that when he was 75 years old.   When was the last time you left the comfort of the familiar and went down a new and uncertain path?  When was the last time you responded to God calling you into the unknown?  And a cautionary note: if we haven’t moved out of our comfort zone lately and gone somewhere new, done something new, talked to someone new, then we should probably ask ourselves how well we are listening to God and following Jesus – because God always calls God’s people onward to new things.

Incidentally, I think there’s a reason it’s like that.  When we’re surrounded by the comforting familiar, it’s easy to run on autopilot, relying on ourselves and the way we’ve always done things and thinking we’re doing quite well.  When we’re faced with the uncertainty of the new and unknown we have to rely on God.

We know so little about why God called Abram: there’s no obvious qualities or virtues that we can see.  But as the story moves on, it’s precisely Abram’s quality of trust that becomes the defining characteristic for a life of faith.  For our life of faith.  Paul takes the story of Abraham as a sign of what is at the heart of the gospel: relationship with God, a simple trust in God’s call.  ‘Abraham believed God, trusted God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’  Abram trusts this God, and builds a relationship with God.  He is willing to head off into the unknown, with only a promise to keep him warm at night.

That promise is bigger than he is.  God promises to make of him a great nation, to give him land and many descendants.  The land is the land of Canaan.  As Abram journeys on, year after year, every time he crosses and re-crosses that place, God says to him: I will give you this land.  Towards the end of his life he still doesn’t own much of it: he is still ‘a stranger and an alien’ residing amongst another people, and when Sarah dies he buys land in which to bury her.  But the promise matters, and it is repeated over and over as the story unfolds.  The descendants include us.  People of three faiths – the three great monotheistic faiths – trace their ancestry from Abram, Abraham as he became.  Abraham is the shared ancestor of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  These things affect how we treat others: we are the descendants of one who is an immigrant, who lived as a stranger in the land he had moved to – and so we treat the immigrants we encounter in that light.  Indeed it’s one of the basic commands God gave to the people of Israel: be kind to immigrants, to ‘strangers and aliens’, for that was you, once.  And we are part of a very large family – and so we treat other Christians, and Jews and Muslims, in that light.  It was good to hear one of the local rabbis welcoming Tric Malcolm into her new role as City Missioner recently.

God said to Abram, ‘I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.’  God’s promise to Abram is bigger than he is; God’s promises to us are bigger than we are.   Abram and Sarai were promised blessing, but the blessing was not for them alone: they were blessed in order to be a blessing for others.   We too are promised blessing, but the blessing is not for us alone: we are blessed in order to be a blessing for others.  The church does not exist for itself alone.  As William Temple, one of last century’s archbishops of Canterbury, said, ‘The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members’.  We are here to reach out to others, to share with them what we ourselves have received: the sense of being part of a community who can support each other on our journeys, the feeling of having a meaning and a purpose to our days, and above all the knowledge that we are known and held and loved by God.

And this is a life-long process, just as Abram’s journey took his whole life.  Abram obeyed God’s call in the moment when he ‘went, as the Lord had told him’ – and in all the moments after that.  Nicodemus too had to understand that the process of being born ‘from above’ is a life-long process.  It’s not one instant  – as being ‘born again’ is Christian jargon in some circles for a moment when someone recites a prayer accepting God’s claims on their life – it’s an ongoing journey.  Someone described it this week as ‘a daily process of flipping the card on our door that says to God “Please do not disturb” to “please come in and help us clean our room.” ’

It’s an ongoing journey and it’s an uncertain one.  We don’t always know what we are getting ourselves into, any more than Nicodemus and Abram knew.  The wind of God’s Spirit blows where it chooses – and, as we in Wellington are aware, wind can be exciting but it can also be disrupting.  As we take what we did yesterday in our parish Visioning Day, and craft some goals that will guide our life together over the next year, we do not know exactly what will happen.  But that is all right.  Some things will continue, as just as they did for Abram and for Nicodemus, and some things will change – again, as Nicodemus and Abram found.  But in all this we have each other as companions on the journey and above all we have the God in whom we put our trust, the God who knows us and loves us, and holds us while we are on that journey.

Being human, making choices

9 March 2014    Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11; Romans 5:12-19 

Two readings, two stories of temptation and testing, two very different responses.  And two versions of what it really is to be human.  The difference lies in the choices the people make.  We start with the archetypal human beings – Adam and Eve, as they came to be called.  In the part of the story that comes before what we hear today God had created these human ones, and called them into a task.  Their vocation is to look after the world that God had created, their identity is as beloved creatures, made to relate to God in delight.  Adam and Eve are equals – equal in calling, equal in identity, equal in God’s love for them – and equal in their capacity to make bad choices.

Jesus too has a vocation – to be the one who saves and heals the people of God, to build God’s kingdom, and he has an identity, as God’s beloved Son.   In the part of the story that comes just before what we hear today Jesus is baptised by John at the Jordan, has seen God’s Spirit descending like a dove onto him, listens to a voice from heaven saying that God is well pleased with him.  He is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, the place of encounter with God – and there the choices that he makes are different ones.

Adam and Eve are together in the garden, in the place where God has put them, when a serpent comes to hoodwink them. ‘Did God really say that, about what you can and can’t eat?  … No, that won’t happen, you won’t really die – something good will happen in the end.’  It’s all very plausible, but this is the voice of a crafty deceiver.   It’s useful sometimes to read Genesis with one eye on Exodus – and in Exodus we have the crafty Pharaoh who repeatedly deceives the ancient Hebrews, saying he will let them go and then reneging on the deal: Pharaoh, whose symbol was a serpent.  Eve and Adam listened to the voice of a deceiver.  What deceptive voices do we listen to?  What are they telling us about God, about ourselves, about other people?

‘You will not die,’ says the serpent, ‘for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and your eyes will be like God, knowing good and evil.’  The serpent makes it sound an attractive prospect – to be like gods, to be like God.  If you were like that, you wouldn’t really need God any more, would you – you could do it all yourself.   Adam and Eve are being invited to craft their own identity without reference to God, independent of their relationship with God.  So that’s the path they choose – and then they find it all goes wrong.  They are naked, vulnerable, distrusting each other, distrusting God.  Human frailty is set before us.

A deceiver, a tempter, comes to Jesus in the wilderness, in the place where God has put him.  He’s hungry, and the tempter comes up and says, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’  It’s the same basic choice, isn’t it – to craft his identity outside of his relationship to God.  To grab something for himself, without trusting that God will provide for him.  Then the voice says, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you”, …  “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’  The deceiver wants him to question who he is in relation to God, the same way we too can be hoodwinked into distrusting God’s wish to help us.   Was he really God’s beloved Son?  Are we really God’s beloved children?  Does God really care?  And then, finally, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’  The ultimate temptation: to treat God as less than God, to treat something else as God instead.  It’s the same temptation that Adam and Eve faced, the same basic one that we face: to put something else in God’s place, to define ourselves outside of our relationship with God.  How have we been defining ourselves lately?

Jesus, however, makes better choices than Adam and Eve did.  He chooses not to listen to the deceptive voice dangling lies in front of him.  He chooses to rest in his relationship with God, chooses to hold on to his identity as God’s beloved child, chooses to stick with the vocation he was called into.  He’s saying – to the deceiver, and also to Eve and Adam and to us: It is God that truly gives me life – not anything external like bread, or fruit, or possessions.  It is God that I trust to take care of me – without having to prove it to me in this moment.  It is God, and God alone, that is worthy of my honour and my worship – and not anything else like success, public acclaim, or how many Twitter followers I have.

It is Jesus, described in the letter to the Hebrews as one has been tested as we are, yet without sin, one who can sympathise with our weaknesses, who can guide us when we face choices of our own.   For these stories give us two versions of what it really is to be human.  Being human is to have to make choices: to be given the chance to choose whether we craft our identity in terms of our relationship with God, or not.  To choose to stick with what God has called us to do, or to wander off in search of something else.  We face choices like this all the time – as did our archetypal Adam and Eve.  On that day, in this story, they chose badly; on other days they doubtless made better choices.  Sometimes we will choose well, sometimes we will choose badly.  Life – human life – is like that.

But there is one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love of God for us, however we choose.  At the end of the part of the story we hear today Eve and Adam are a picture of human frailty: naked, vulnerable, distrusting each other, distrusting God.  But in the part that comes after that, God clothes them, making garments of skins for each of them.   As St Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome: ‘But the free gift is not like the trespass’.  The grace of God, and the free gift in the grace of Jesus Christ, have come to many, for whatever choices we make in a day, the love of God is constant.

So does it actually matter what choices we make?  Well yes, it does.  God loves us however we choose, but as the Adam and Eve characters in the first story would tell us, when it all goes wrong, and you are naked, vulnerable, distrusting each other, and distrusting God, it’s not pleasant.  It is better by far to try to stick close to the purpose for which we were created – to our vocation and our identity.  To shut out the deceptive voices whispering in our ears, and to shape our lives around our identity as beloved creatures, made to relate to God in delight.  Because that is what we are made to be, that is what being truly human is supposed to look like.  This Lent, may we help each other to grow more fully into our true humanity.

Live to make a difference

Ash Wednesday (5 March) 2014  Isaiah 58:1-12

In a few minutes I will issue an invitation.  I will take ashes and make on my forehead and then on yours the sign of the cross.  And I will say, as I do that, the words ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  Turn away from sin and follow Christ.’  On one level that’s a fairly prosaic statement of fact.   We are dust and ashes.

About 96% of the mass of the human body is made up of four elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen.  Most of us – about 60% of us – is water.  Carbon accounts for 18% of our body mass – and carbon is what ashes are made of.  Dust is made up of anything that’s broken down into small bits – dirt, pollen grains, skin cells, rocks that were once in space, all consisting of the same atoms as the rest of the universe.   Dust and ashes – that’s us, and everything else.  But we don’t hear it like that, do we?  When I mark our foreheads with ashes we don’t think of molecular chemistry.  We think of something else.

Today is Ash Wednesday.  A week ago, on another Wednesday, I took a funeral here in St Anne’s, and then stood near Katharine’s coffin in the small crematorium at Karori and committed her body to be cremated: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  That’s what we think of as we receive the sign of ashes, isn’t it: we think of our mortality – or perhaps we try not to think of our mortality.  If we are brave, we remember that one day, each of us will die.  And remembering that is not a bad thing.  Henri Nouwen said that ‘only by facing our mortality can we come in touch with the life that transcends death’.  Only by acknowledging that we will die can we become more aware of the gift of the life we have and of the offer of eternal life held out to us.  That’s the advantage of the funeral service, for it continues: ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord’.  Facing our death invites us to look at the new life which will come after it.  This is part of Ash Wednesday’s gift to us.

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, and Lent is also a gift.  At the start of this service I invited you to observe a holy Lent, ‘by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God’.  What does that mean for you?  What it means, I think, is this: all of those things add up to asking ourselves these questions: Who are we?  How do we relate to God?  How do we relate to ourselves?  How do we relate to other people?  As a particular variation on this last question: how do we relate to people who have less than we have?  Because that’s where almsgiving comes in.  That’s where Isaiah comes in.

It can be easy to think that Lent is about observing religious rituals.  Penitence, prayer, fasting, reading Scripture – they all sound like that, don’t they.  But that’s why we hear Isaiah at the beginning of Lent, for Isaiah reminds us (as he had to remind the people of Israel before that) that true worship is not about observing rituals but about changing the way people live.  ‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?’  Lent offers us the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.  How do we relate to other people?  How do we relate to people who have less than we have?  This Lent, let us seek out occasions to ask, and answer, those questions.

And as we do that, as we take up disciplines of self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and meditating on Scripture, let us remember something else.  Lent is not about earning our way into God’s favour, for we can never do that.  God will never love us more that God already does, whatever we do or don’t do in this or any season.  Lent is not about trying harder, making a huge effort.  It is, I think, more about admitting our weaknesses, our need of God.  If whatever prayer, fasting, Scripture-reading or giving of our money or our time to charity we do this Lent feels difficult it is there to remind us of our dependence upon God even for the ways we seek to honour God and follow Jesus.  It is there to remind us that we are human – that we are humbly, and gloriously, dust and ashes.  So let us embrace our humanity, and let us live this Lent to make a difference in the lives of others – other dust, other ashes, other children of God.

Do not worry

2 March 2014    Matthew 6:24-34; Isaiah 49:8-16a; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5     

One year, as Lent was approaching (as it is this week) and wanting to ‘give up’ something other than chocolate or whisky, I decided to give up worrying.   It was prompted by an article I read which said that, at the core of it, worry says we aren’t trusting God.  And that worry is something we have a choice over: we can choose to worry about something or we can give it to God and let go.  That was a useful thing for me to read, as I tended to think worrying about stuff was just the way life was – and maybe you’ve felt like that as well.

Part of the problem with worrying – and I think this was one of the things Jesus meant when he told his disciples not to worry – is that it doesn’t actually accomplish much.  It rarely changes anything, it seldom gives us peace, and it takes up a lot of time and energy that could be better used.  After all, if we’re in the throes of possum-caught-in-the-headlights worry we’re unlikely to be able to envisage other options that might actually help a situation.  Part of the problem with worry is that it distracts us.  It makes our circumstances look bigger and God look smaller – and that’s why practising the discipline of not allowing ourselves to worry can transform our relationship with God.

Jesus says don’t get all preoccupied about what you will eat or drink.  He tells his folk to look at the birds flying in the air: they go where there is food and God provides it for them, and God will feed us also, since we are more important than they are.   Note that Jesus doesn’t say that food is unimportant – after all, he is the one who bids us pray for our daily bread – but he wants us to live trustingly.  As to the clothes we put on, Jesus encourages his folk to realise that they are worth more than what they wear.  It’s an invitation, isn’t it, to get our values straight: we are worth more than the birds and the flowers, God’s kingdom and God’s justice are worth more than us – so let’s value what is really most valuable.  Let’s value God’s kingdom, for when we put that first in our lives, instead of worrying about food and clothing, we will have more time and energy to put into working for that kingdom to come, to working for God’s justice towards the last, the lost and the least.

So we’re invited to worry less and to trust more.  And even as we do this, we know that bad things will still happen.  The path of not-worrying opens up a world of possibility, of hopefulness, but it is also a world of fragility, and vulnerability.   This is where trust comes in.  Lilies and birds, after all, can’t defend themselves but must trust God’s providence and love.  We are invited to do the same.

This is where it’s good to remember how Isaiah described this God.  This God said through Isaiah, ‘Can a woman forget her nursing-child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.  See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.’  What kind of God is this?  It reminds me of when exam time comes around.  I always know when people are getting ready for exams because they come up for communion and I know what they’re studying as they write little swat notes on their hands, to drive the information into their minds.  I used to do the same.  And then just before the exam the little notes have to get washed off so no-one’s accused of cheating.  Well, says Isaiah, that’s what God does with us.  Except that God doesn’t wash our names off: our names are tattooed onto the palms of the divine hands.  God will never forget us.  God will always be with us.

That is the God we are invited to trust.  Trusting God instead of worrying about things does not mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us.  We still live fragile, vulnerable lives: at some point pain and difficulties will spring up, but we can know that God will be with us.  There is, I’ve found, something very liberating about giving up the worry habit.  I’ve discovered it does two things: it stops me feeling that everything comes down to me, that everything rests on my shoulders.  It reminds me, in fact, that I am not God, and should not try to be.  Accepting the discipline of not worrying is an invitation to let God be God, and to let us be merely us.  Or maybe that should be, to let us be merely but magnificently us.  For we cannot be truly ourselves, we cannot be the selves that God created and called us to be, if we are so busy trying to be God instead.

The other thing that giving up the worry habit does is prompt me also to give up the control habit – because worry and control tend to be linked.  Has anyone else found this?  If we stop worrying we often find we are freed from attempts to control the people around us.  We can trust them to do what they need to do, or perhaps what God needs them to do – which, of course, is not always what we want them to do.

Reading what Paul wrote to the Corinthians makes me think that he too had managed to kick the worry habit.  Because as well as being linked to control, worry is often linked to judgement.  We worry what other people will think of us – we worry about how they judge us.  We worry what we ourselves think of us, about our negative judgements of ourselves.  (This isn’t just me, is it?)  But listen to what Paul says: ‘But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. …  It is the Lord who judges me.’  Paul – bravely, endearingly – had managed to stop worrying about what himself, or other people, or anyone else but God, thought of him.  Imagine, if we could be like that, how much more time and energy we would have!

So, what was the result, several Lents ago, of me giving up worrying?  Well, I didn’t manage it entirely.  There are some things I still fret about.  I still have a tendency to hand problems over to God, and then to ‘borrow them back’.  But I worry much less than I used to, and I know how liberating it is to stop worrying and let God run the universe.  I think what Jesus is inviting us to do in this morning’s Gospel is to let God be God, and to trust that God.  To trust the God who has hands with our names tattooed on them.

Choose life!

16 February 2014  Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Ps 119:1-8 Matthew 5:21-37; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9  

At the end of their journeying in the wilderness and the beginning of their entry into the Promised Land the Israelites are given a choice.  We get the same choice offered to us, at what is for many of us the end of the holidays and the beginning of the new year.  ‘I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.’  We get a choice between two options: life and death – life and what’s good versus death and what’s wrong.

‘See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.’  When put like that, it’s a no-brainer.  Who wouldn’t opt for life and prosperity?  Who wouldn’t turn away from death and adversity?   It all sounds fairly straight-forward – a cause and effect sort of thing – but something interesting is going on here.  The book of Deuteronomy is set out as a series of sermons from Moses, the great law-giver, to the people of Israel just before they get to go into the Land of Promise.  But in reality it’s a book written much later, just before and around the time of the Exile, to a people who have failed to follow God’s commandments, to a people who are about to suffer some of the possible consequences of not heeding God’s word.  It’s written for a people who were invited to choose life, but who somehow slipped down the other path and ended up in disaster.  So there’s promise here, and there’s also a warning.

What do these choices mean?  What does it mean to choose life or to choose death?  More than simple existence is at stake here – it’s not just a matter of clicking on the ‘life’ option and then getting on with the rest of the day.  What ‘choose life’ means is set out in a couple of quick three-part summaries, as Moses tries to explain to the people what they are being invited to do.  They can choose life ‘by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances’, they can choose life by ‘loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him’.

What does choosing life mean for us?  I think it’s the same sort of things.  Choosing life means, first and foremost, loving God.  That reminds us of something, doesn’t it.  It reminds us of the great commandment, which comes earlier in Deuteronomy: ‘you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.’   Choosing life for us means loving God – and love here is something that involves our whole selves: our hearts and our minds, our wills and our bodies.  It’s not just an emotional experience and it’s more than an intellectual thing going on in our heads.  It really does involve all that we are, head, heart and hands.  The invitation to choose life is an invitation to a holistic way of living, where loving God – with every part of us – is our first commitment.  What might that look like for us?  How can we help each other live in that holistic fashion?

And second, choosing life means walking in the ways of God and obeying God.  And I’ll let you into a secret: what the Hebrew actually says for that last bit is ‘listening to the voice of God’.  Because there was back then a really clear link between hearing the voice of God and obeying it – that’s why the translators short-circuit the ‘hearing’ and cut straight to the ‘obeying’.  Is there that same link in our minds?  Because this is what discipleship means: walking and listening, following and obeying.  We see it in Moses’ words and we hear it in today’s psalm.  What does our discipleship look like?  How committed are we to listening out for God’s voice and doing what it says?  How can we help each other to walk in the ways of God?

Then we get the third pairing in the handy summary statements.  Choosing life means observing God’s commandments, decrees, and ordinances, and holding fast to God.  We choose life when we act in the ways God tells us to act, for the whole point of the commandments is about treating other people and treating God in appropriate ways.   Jesus is saying the same sort of thing in our Gospel reading: interpreting the commandments in a way that leads to life.  And we choose life when we cling to God, for God is the source of our lives – of my life and your lives, and the source of our common life together.  How can we encourage each other to hold fast to God?  How can I model for you what clinging to God looks like in practice? 

‘I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses’ – Moses’ words to the people are an invitation to walk down a path that is life-giving, an encouragement to make good choices instead of bad ones.  They will be held accountable for their choices, as we are accountable for ours.  I think Paul is doing something similar in what he writes to the church in Corinth.  He’s holding them accountable for the choices they have made and for their growth – or rather, their lack of growth – in the Christian faith.  Basically he’s telling them that focusing on the personalities of various leaders and splitting into factions that are arguing with one another is all a bit immature.   So he reminds them that the church belongs to God, not to particular people.

I find it really interesting that we get this reading just after we get back into Ordinary Time, back into colour-code green, symbolising growth.  We get it just when we’re reminded that  following Jesus means growing in faith, growing closer to God and to each other.  We don’t have the problems they had in Corinth – we’re not dividing up into little cliques the way they were – but we could all do with encouragement to keep on growing as Christians, and to help each other to grow.   Take a moment now to look around at the people sitting near you.  These are the people who will help you to grow closer to God this year.  These are the ones whom you will help to grow in faith.  Together we will help and encourage each other in the choices we make, we will inspire each other to love God, to walk in God’s ways and to hold fast to God.   Together, we will choose life.

A Life that makes a difference

9 February 2014     Matthew 5:13-20; Isaiah 58:1-12; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12     

We are the salt of the earth – this is what Jesus calls us.  He’s not, we notice, telling us to be salt, he’s saying that is what we are; describing us, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, ‘using the image of the most indispensable commodity on earth’.  Salt is necessary for life.   Salt was so valuable that Roman soldiers were paid in it: that’s how we get the word ‘salary’.  And that’s us: indispensable, necessary, valuable.  Before we had fridges and freezers to keep our meat from going off, it was preserved in salt.  But here’s the thing: if you want the salt to be effective, it has to be thoroughly mixed in to the thing it’s preserving.  If we want to make an impact on the world, we have to be mixed in to the communities we are part of.  There’s no room in Jesus’ words for a holy huddle: we aren’t salt for ourselves, we’re salt for the earth, for the people around us, for the schools and workplaces and homes and clubs we belong to.  We are salt for the streets we live in.   How have we been salt this last month?

As salt, we are the ones who add flavour and zest.  If you watch Masterchef you’ll remember all those times contestants are told off for forgetting to add the salt, and if you’ve ever tried potatoes or roast meat without it you know what I mean – it tastes boring.  We’re invited today to remember that we’re the ones who are here to flavour the communities around us – we’re red hot chilly peppers for Wellington, we’re Five Spice powder for Northland, Wilton and Karori, warm cinnamon for our streets.  We are here to make our world taste alive.  So how are we doing at this?  What have we done together that we can celebrate?  For it’s together that we are salt – Jesus is speaking to and of a community, not to individuals.

‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.’  There’s a warning here, isn’t there.  Only when salt stays salty can it be used to preserve and to flavour.  If it loses its saltiness it’s just taking up space.  Only when the community of disciples, the community of those who’ve accepted the challenge of following Jesus in our daily lives, remains true to how Jesus has described us can we make a difference in the world.  How salty are we at the moment?  How can we make more of a difference?

We are the light of the world.  Again, that’s what Jesus calls us.  He’s not asking us to be light, he’s saying that is what we are.   And again, we’re not light for ourselves: the purpose of a lamp isn’t to sit there going ‘wow, aren’t I a beautiful lamp’ – a lamp is there so that other people can see to read, to move around, to look into the eyes of those they love.  A lamp is there for others to live.  And that’s what we’re here to be: light for the world around us.  How have we been shining lately?

Lights are there to chase away the darkness – and you only have to look at a newspaper or listen to the news to realise the shadows in many lives.  War, poverty, depression, sickness: the light of the world is needed as much now as it was in Jesus’ day, as much as it was when the prophet Isaiah lived. ‘Is not this the fast that I choose’, says God, and then spells it out: ‘to loose the bonds of injustice, … to let the oppressed go free,  … to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house… Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly’.  We are the light of the world when we work for justice, when we give practical help to people who need it.  We are the light of the world when we cook sausages and give them away, and when we collect money so kids at Otari School can go to camp.  When else have we been the light of the world lately?

 ‘You are the light of the world. … No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.’   And that’s the thing about being light: it’s only a light if it’s seen.   Turning on a torch and then keeping it under a bucket is a waste of time and space.  Our light is there to be seen, not covered up.

But Jesus’ words are an acknowledgement that, sometimes, our lights do get covered up, buried under bushel baskets.  What sorts of things have done that, I wonder?  Sometimes I’ve got the feeling that what covers our light up, here at St Anne’s, is an inferiority complex, one that comes from comparing ourselves to bigger parishes, congregations with more people or more resources.  That can lead, I think, to a lack of confidence that can easily stop our light from shining in the midst of the communities where God has placed us.  Or it can incline us to sit and wait – for more resources or more people – before we think we’re ready to shine forth.

What Jesus says this morning reminds us that lights don’t end up underneath bushel baskets or buckets by accident – that only happens if someone put them there.  ‘No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket’ – and that’s not what Jesus intends for us.  Jesus intends our light – light for the world around us – to be placed up high where everyone can see it, so maybe it’s time to take away any bushel baskets that are lying around and let our light shine before others.

We are the light of the world, and this is where God has placed us: here, so that our lives can shine with the good news of Jesus, and give life to those around us.  And if we’re feeling nervous about this, and maybe we are, then it might be good to remember how Paul approached his ministry in Corinth.  Because this is what he said: ‘When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.’  Paul knew it wasn’t about him, but about the power of God.  He knew he didn’t need big words or great wisdom – he just needed to see everything through the lens of Jesus Christ and what Jesus had done, not only for him but for those he was talking to.

And when that same Jesus tells us to ‘let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’ we know also that it’s not about us.  It’s not about us going out and being salt and light so that we look good – it’s about glorifying God, and living so that others may have new life.  Jesus’ words today tell us what we are – salt of the earth and light for the world.   We can already think of ways we’ve been this in the past.  Today, as the new year gets under way, we’re invited again to contribute our taste and our light to all the communities we are part of.  We’re offered the chance to live a life that makes a difference in the world.  Thanks be to God.

The Lord whom you seek

2 February 2014 Presentation of Jesus in the temple

Luke 2: 22-40; Hebrews 2:14-18; Malachi 3:1-5

February is here: school, work, and parish life are starting up again after the holidays, and yet we’re back in the Christmas story.  Anyone else wondering what’s going on?   What’s happening today is the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, which the Church has kept as a feast-day for hundreds of years.  We get the details in our Gospel reading, where Luke conflates the custom of purification for a new mother, forty days after the birth of a son [Leviticus 12], with the redemption or buying-back of the first-born from service to God  [Exodus 13:1-2, 11-16; Numbers 18:15-16].  The purification ritual gets Mary and Joseph to the Temple, the idea of redeeming the first-born sets up the part where Simeon and Anna encounter the baby Jesus.  Tucked away inside this are some ‘don’t blink, or you’ll miss it’ details which can help us as we try to live the God-life.

The first of these is the sacrifice offered by Joseph and Mary: ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons’.  This was the sacrifice given by someone who couldn’t afford a sheep, which is what people with a bit more money were to offer.  Jesus was born into a poor family.  That’s something that we can remember, every time we get worried or frustrated over what we lack – whether that’s as an individual, as a family, or as a parish.  It doesn’t take a whole lot of resources to live the God-life.  What it takes is faithfulness.

And that’s another of the details Luke puts in: the faithfulness of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to the law.  Five times (just in case we missed it after only two or three mentions!) we’re told that they did everything required by the law of the Lord.  Throughout his Gospel Luke gives us a radical, turn-the-world-upside-down Jesus, but it’s radical within the boundaries of the requirements.  There’s that balancing of the new and the traditional which we ourselves seek, of creativity and rules, of faithful obedience.  I read this and ask myself, where am I being called to faithful obedience?  Where are you?  Where are we as a parish?

Another detail we notice is one that’s not there: there’s no mention of Joseph and Mary paying the redemption price to buy back Jesus from service to God.  Ever since the Exodus, every first-born was to be dedicated to God, but after a while the special role of serving God was given to the Levites and so other first-borns could be bought back by paying five shekels to the priest.  Except not here.  No shekels were handed over.  Like the child Samuel, Jesus remained ‘belonging to God’.  That tells us something about the one whom we worship, and it invites us to ask questions about our own lives.  To what extent do we live as ones who belong to God?

That’s a challenging question for the beginning of a new year, isn’t it.  And I’m the first to admit that living as one who belongs to God Is not always easy.  There are times when I manage to stuff things up, and times when I know I’m winging it.  That’s when the grace of God is so welcome, and part of that grace is to know that Jesus knows what it feels like.   For he didn’t come to help angels, but human beings, as the writer to the Hebrews puts it.  He became like his brothers and sisters, he knows what suffering and being tested feels like, and so he is able to help us when we get into difficulty, when we find things hard.  Every time we see Jesus as a baby, we are reminded that he was made human, like us: that he has walked the path that we also walk.

And so we have Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus as a forty-day old baby to the Temple, and there he encounters first Simeon and then Anna.  All babies are cute by definition, even if they have big ears or a squashed nose, but to me one baby looks much the same as any other baby (unless it’s my own).  Simeon and Anna, however, look at this child and see in him the consolation and the redemption of Israel.  They look at this baby in his mother’s arms and recognise the long-awaited Messiah, the one whose coming was foretold, the one who would bring healing and hope to the people and glory to God.

Have you ever stopped to wonder how they could look at a baby and see a Saviour when everyone else just saw a baby?  We get a clue, I think, in our reading from the prophet Malachi: ‘the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple’.  Anna was seeking.  Simeon was seeking.  He was, we are told, ‘looking forward to the consolation of Israel’, to the age foretold by the prophet Isaiah, when God would come to comfort God’s people.  She went on, we are told, to speak about the child to all ‘who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’, announcing that the one who would come and ransom them had arrived.  It’s clear from these two that if you want to see Jesus it pays to be seeking him, to be expecting him to be somewhere.

Simeon and Anna were expecting God to act, expecting God’s anointed one to come to them – if not today, then the next day.  It’s that sense of expectation that led them to recognise Jesus when he appeared before them in the temple.  That’s how they could look at a baby and see a Saviour.  It’s a reminder to us that if we want to see God we need to be seeking God.  If we want to see where God is working we need to be actively looking for signs of God’s presence and God’s action.

And I think this story is an invitation to all those amongst us who are elderly.  You know who you are!  You’re invited to be Simeons and Annas for us: to seek God and so see God and then point out to us where you recognise the presence and the acts of God.  This is particularly for anyone who feels sad or frustrated that their years of active work and more active ministry – of doing things – are behind them.   You have the chance to model for us all what seeking the Lord looks like, so that the rest of us don’t lose sight of the task given to everyone who is baptised: to discover what God is doing and join in.

So as we get ready for the great February start-up, we are called back to basics: to faithful obedience, to trust God rather than be side-tracked by what we think we lack, to live as ones who belong to God.  And, above all, to seek God, to expect every day to recognise signs of God’s presence amongst us and God’s actions in our world.  Because if we seek those things, then we will see them, and seeing them, we can give glory to God and hope to those around us.

Ordinary people, ordinary (extraordinary) lives

26 January 2014        Matthew 4:12-23      

‘As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.’  We hear this, and I’m guessing that quite a few of us simply cut off.  We think Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John were incredible people having an incredible experience, and it’s no wonder they left their nets and the boat and followed Jesus; but it doesn’t fit with our experience, so we put it aside.  We disconnect.

The idea of being called to leave our work and our surroundings can hit us in two ways.  For some, it’s hugely scary – leaving behind all that is comforting and familiar, and venturing out into the unknown.  Even if it’s in response to a call from God, it’s still a daunting prospect.  We hear this story and we get nervous: what if God asked us to do that?  Best not to listen too closely.  For others, it can actually make us a bit jealous: a chance to get away from the daily grind, from a difficult or boring job, to do something we feel will bring more meaning and purpose to our lives.  I remember when I left Foreign Affairs to go to theological college in the mid-90s how envious some of my colleagues were.  We hear this story and we get frustrated and resentful: nothing like that ever happened to us.

But there’s more to this story than recipes for fear or envy.  Jesus was proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, was at hand.  And the Gospels show us more than one way of working for God’s kingdom to come.  Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, and other disciples were called to leave their previous settings and travel around with Jesus, watching him, listening to him, learning how to fish for people.  But Martha, Mary and Lazarus were called to stay right at home in Bethany, carrying on with their lives, offering hospitality to Jesus whenever he came to visit them.  Zebedee was called to stay behind and keep on fishing.  God calls people in different ways: we can’t always assume that what happens with someone else reflects how God will want to use us.  How is God using you?  What is God calling you to do and to become?

We hear this story, of the dramatic call and the dramatic leaving, and we can get either scared or envious – but there’s more to it than that.  And much of the ‘more to it’ is actually quite routine.  Yes, the calling of these four disciples here is more spectacular than what happens to us most days – but it’s also more spectacular than what happened to Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John most days.

There were days for them that were routine.  A lot of trudging along dusty roads, up and down Galilee, going from village to village, through Samaria to Jerusalem and back again.   Spending a lot of time with the same bunch of people – my guess is that by the end of three years they’d heard all each other’s stories and all each other’s jokes many times over.  There were probably times they thought Jesus should speed things up a bit, and times when they thought he was going too fast.  There were probably times they wondered what they were doing and was this really what they had signed up for.  There were many days when the unspectacular was the norm.

Most of the time, our lives are fairly routine.  We have phone calls to make, meals to cook, emails to answer and gardens to weed.  We go to offices, or schools, or to the supermarket; we clean our houses and some of us come here and mop the hall floor or vacuum the carpet in the chancel.  None of it feels particularly holy.

We hear other people’s stories and we focus on the dramatic: significant conversations, overwhelming encounters with God, powerful moments of prayer.  We search for peak experiences like those and end up assuming that some people are special, some people are born with spiritual talent that we just don’t have.  We look around us, or we read about amazing leaders, or we hear about Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, and we think they are the extraordinary ones and we are just ordinary and have somehow missed the boat.  Or – like Zebedee – have simply stayed with the boat instead of leaving it and going off into the spectacular.

Most of the time, our lives aren’t that dramatic.  We don’t drop everything to start a new life very often.  Some of us never do this at all.  But in every moment God offers us anew an opportunity to follow and to keep on following.  For the whole point of it is that God calls ordinary people.  That’s the point about Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John: they weren’t highly trained scholars, they weren’t ‘religious professionals’ – they were ordinary people making a living by catching fish.  God calls ordinary people – people like you and me – who are busy about our work and our lives, busy being family members and neighbours, friends and colleagues – God calls us to follow and get involved with the project of bringing the kingdom of God ever closer.

And we can do that from in the middle of our ordinary lives.   We can do that as we carry on with the gardening and the shopping, we can do that as we talk to people and read and write and file pieces of paper.  God can be present in every conversation, in every trip to the supermarket, in every time we stop and notice something in the street.   Sometimes God is there overtly, obviously, as we talk about the God-moments in our lives, but never forget that God can also be there in the background, in the tone of voice we use, or the cups of coffee we make, or when we reach out to help someone else when maybe we didn’t have to.  The routine, everyday ways in which we follow Jesus.  The times we live out our faith and our faithfulness; the times when we worship, when we pick up our Bibles instead of a magazine, the times when we pick up a magazine and let it move us to prayer.

As we do this, we can find what Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John found: that the skills and talents they already had – in their case skills at catching fish – can be used by God for a larger purpose.  Sometimes it means putting those skills to work in a new setting, sometimes it means staying put, keeping on with the day job, letting God use us in that.  Never underestimate the way God can act through us as we go about our everyday tasks of work or friendship or hospitality.

Our calling isn’t necessarily to be dramatic.  Our calling is to live our ordinary lives faithfully, to find Jesus and follow Jesus in the routine days as well as the special ones.  Because the whole point of it is that God calls ordinary people and enables us to live extraordinary lives.  God invites us – each one of us – to get involved with the project of bringing the kingdom of God ever closer, just as God calls ordinary parishes – ordinary parishes like this one – and entrusts us with building a part of that kingdom.  How is God using us?  What is God calling us to do and to become this year?

See, recognise, talk

19 January 2014      John 1:29-42; Isaiah 49:1-7            

Do you remember last week?  We saw Jesus baptised by John in the Jordan, and we thought about what our baptisms mean to us.  Today we have another take on it, and again we can put ourselves, and our community here at St Anne’s, into the picture.  John’s Gospel doesn’t show us Jesus being baptised, instead it takes another tack.  ‘The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”’ John sees Jesus and recognises something in him and talks about it.  That’s all quite simple: he sees Jesus and recognises something in him and talks about it.

And then he does it again the next day.  ‘John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ ‘  This time, John’s two followers start to get curious about this Jesus guy, so they head off after him.  And then Jesus notices them tagging along, and asks them an interesting question: ‘What are you looking for?’  Jesus quite often asks questions like that – we find him asking people what they wanted him to do for them, and then he heals them, if that’s what they want.  I guess Jesus asks us the same questions: what do you want me to do for you?  What are you looking for?  …  When you came along here this morning, what were you looking for?

I get the feeling that John’s two disciples didn’t have that clear an idea what they were looking for – which is comforting for us, when we don’t really know either.  So they greet Jesus politely as a teacher and play for time by asking where he’s staying.  And then Jesus offers an invitation, such a simple invitation, but it ends up changing their lives: “Come and see.”  So they go off, and spend the rest of the day hanging out with Jesus.  And then one of them, who turns out to be called Andrew, goes and gets his brother Simon.  He’s doing the same thing as John did earlier: he sees Jesus and recognises something in him and talks about it.  And then Jesus looks at Simon, and knows this is a guy who’s going to stick around, and he gives him a new name.  And Simon Peter and Andrew follow Jesus not just till the end of that day but for all the days thereafter.

What started with simple curiosity about someone who’d been pointed out to them in the street turns out to be life-changing.  I wonder how many of us have a story like that.  Because I read something this week that makes sense: ‘Most of the time, we move toward God in small steps taken as much out of curiosity as out of faith.’  We move to a suburb and one day decide to check out the building on the corner and gradually find that ‘church’ has become a community and not a building; we make a new friend and end up meeting more of their friends and get curious about what makes all these folk tick; we think something called Messy Church sounds fun in a weird sort of way and it can’t do any harm to see what it’s like just once; we start to wonder what God is like and if it’s really possible to have a relationship with God.  We might not know what we’re looking for but we’re willing to go along with our curiosity.

But a lot of this depends on what sparked Andrew’s and Simon’s curiosity in the first place: with John and then Andrew seeing Jesus and recognising something in him and talking about it.  And this is the other place where we, and our community here, can find ourselves in this story.  Where do we see Jesus?  Where do we notice God’s presence?  And if that sounds a bit vague, let’s ask ourselves this: where have we seen God at work this past week?  Or where have we noticed the places where God needs to be?  Maybe something we could help each other with this year is to get better at seeing Jesus in all the places where he is, to be able to find God in all things.

And then we can do what John and then Andrew did: see Jesus, and talk about him.  To share with those around us some of what we recognise in him.  This doesn’t need to be a big deal – after all, we talk about stuff that we notice a lot of the time.  Here’s an example: What do we notice about this community here at St Anne’s?  At this point I invite you turn to someone near you and share one reason you like this church, one reason you like to come here.  And if this is your first time at St Anne’s you might like to talk about what brought you along here this morning.            …         …

How was that?  The thing is, I discovered a while ago that some things get better with practice – whether it’s riding a bike, learning French vocab, or using a new smartphone.  And maybe talking about why we do some of the God-stuff in our lives is also something we can practice.  I guess the other thing we could do is invite someone to come with us next time we’re off to a meal here or a worship service, or a study group.  To invite them to ‘come and see’ what it is that we like about this bunch of people or this place where we find ourselves this morning.  That doesn’t need to be a big deal either – after all, we invite people to things all the time.

We can be John, seeing Jesus, and recognising something in him and talking about it.  We can be Andrew and his friend, letting our curiosity move us on in small steps; we can be Jesus, saying to those we know, ‘come and see’.  And when we do this, we’ll find that the story we read today lifts itself out of the pages of the Bible and takes root in our lives.  Because there’s something else that we hear this morning:  Isaiah calling the people of God to move beyond themselves and to take on a greater role in the world: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

It’s like what I was saying last week about baptism making us part of something bigger than ourselves.  We here at St Anne’s have a task which we share with faith communities everywhere: we’ve been called by God to make known the transforming love of Jesus – to see Jesus, and recognise something in him and talk about it.  To spark the curiosity of others.  We exist, not for ourselves, but for those who are not a part of the Church, those who don’t yet know God’s love.  As Isaiah put it: to be a light to the nations, that God’s salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

 

What baptism means to me

Baptism of our Lord   12 January 2014   Matthew 3:13-17, Acts 10: 34-43           

‘Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptised by him’  OK, Matthew’s had his thumb on the fast-forward button.  We’ve met Jesus the baby, and the child escaping from death at Herod’s hands, and now we’ve jumped about 30 years ahead, to Jesus the adult coming to John for baptism.  All four Gospels tell of Jesus’ baptism, but only Matthew first hits the pause button for a conversation between John and Jesus.  ‘John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?”  But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.”  Then he consented.’

The question here – and it sounds like it was an issue for Matthew as well as for the early church – is that John’s baptism was about a call to repentance and seeking God’s forgiveness.  It was for people conscious of their sin.   Except that we’re told Jesus was like us in all things, only that he was ‘without sin’. [Hebrews 4:15b] Jesus came ‘to take away sins, and in him there is no sin’. [1 John 3:5]  So Jesus didn’t need repentance and forgiveness from God.  The debate Matthew puts in between him and John gives people a chance to wonder about this and to ask what’s going on here.

And what seems to be going on is a couple of things that show Jesus reaching out to us.  We see Jesus submitting to baptism to fulfil God’s righteousness, and so he models for us what submitting to the law looks like.  And we see him standing in solidarity with sinners.  When he stands there in the water in front of John he’s in solidarity with all those who often feel unworthy of God’s love and grace.  He’s standing there with us.  As so often in his ministry, Jesus puts himself alongside you and me and all those who know that they’re not perfect, who admit they stuff up.  There, in the Jordan, Jesus reaches out to us.

And so Jesus, like us, is baptised.  Jesus’ baptism began something in him.  The next scene Matthew gives us is Jesus going away into the wilderness on retreat and then beginning his ministry in Galilee.  All that Jesus does, from this point on in the Gospel, is a living out of his baptism.  It’s sort of like that for us, isn’t it, only we first have to work out what our baptism means for us.  Our baptisms, yours and mine, were a beginning.  Many of us were baptised as infants (I was about 11 weeks old), or as children, and so we learn the meaning of our baptisms after the event.  And even for those who were baptised as adults, we still have to learn what it really means in the years that follow.  It’s like that with any sort of major vow: those of you who have been married for several decades will look back at your wedding day and realise everything that you didn’t know then about what marriage was really all about.

So all the rest of our lives we’re working out what being baptised means for us, and coming to understand what began in us on that day.  What does baptism mean for you?  What difference does it make in your life that you are baptised?  What ministry were you called into then – and what new ministries are you being called into this year?  Those are big questions – too big for you to answer right away, unless you’ve already been thinking about this.  So here’s the plan – carry on thinking about them over the next week or so.  Try and work out what impact being sprinkled with water several years ago has had on you.  I’m keen to know what answers you come up with – actually, I think we’ll all want to find out what others amongst us think – because knowing what baptism means for us at St Anne’s can help us all as a community the next time we witness the baptism of someone here, and make promises together to share with the newly baptised ‘what we ourselves have received’ and pray for help to nurture them in the faith we share.

So that’s the plan: think about what your baptism means to you, and let’s start  talking about it.  Something that might remind us is water – so next time you have a shower or wash your hands or get caught in the rain, think then about what that sprinkling of water on your head has come to mean.  And because if I ask you a question it’s only fair for me to answer it myself, here is what – at this point in my life – my baptism means for me.

It means I’m part of something bigger than myself.  It means I’m part of a family that’s been going for a couple of thousand years.  I’m related to Peter and Cornelius (that’s the guy Peter was speaking to in our reading from Acts): they are part of my whanau and so are Lydia and Augustine and Mary Sumner and Pope Francis, and so are all of you.  We are family, brothers and sisters together – that’s why, when I give you communion, I greet you as my brother or my sister: because we are baptised.

Baptism means I’m part of something bigger than myself in another way.  I’m part of a life which is about more than just me.  It’s a life where I can’t go around only thinking of myself, a life where I have to consider others, and I have to consider God’s claim on me.  I’m committed to seeking to love my neighbour as myself and to strive for peace and justice; to forgive others since I know that God has forgiven me; to working together with the whole Church to proclaim the good news through what we do and what we say.  It’s not always going to be an easy life, but it’s my life – it’s our life – because of baptism.

And I’m glad I can’t remember my baptism.  My memory goes back a long way, but it doesn’t go all the way back to 11 weeks old.  For it really matters to me that I was baptised that young, because it tells me that this wasn’t something that came from me.  The initiative was God’s.  When Jesus was baptised the voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.  God says that to everyone when they are baptised.  God said that to each of you.  And God said that to me, when I was too young to have done anything much beyond cry and poop and sleep, and at that age none of that was done consciously.  We can’t and we don’t earn God’s favour.  God loves us, pure and simple, and baptism proclaims that over us and speaks God’s love to us.  The secret is to remember that, to go on living each day knowing that we are God’s beloved children, and then to let that love play out in how we live our lives.

So that’s what baptism means for me at this point.  What I invite you to do – as well as answering that question for yourselves, is to connect with the water of baptism.  You’ll notice there is water in the font today.   We are baptised into the name of Christ.  As you go out – after the dismissal in which we say to each other that we go in the name of Christ, to be Christ to the world around us – I invite you to put your hand in the water and then perhaps make the sign of the cross on your forehead and remember that you are God’s beloved child with whom God is well pleased; that God has called you to share in ministry, to make God’s love and justice known in the places you live and work.

The journey – there & back again

Epiphany          5 January 2014         Matthew 2:1-12   

‘In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’  This is the story of a journey, like so many great stories through the centuries.  From We’re going on a bear hunt to The Odyssey, not forgetting The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, journeys draw us in, get us involved.  We imagine being part of that journey, and we remember journeys of our own.  A journey asks something of us.  We are challenged, we face obstacles and have to overcome them, or see ourselves defeated.

The wise men were called away from their homes and embarked on a journey.  They were magi, scientists, astrologers, those who watched the stars and interpreted them.  They saw meaning in the sky.  Where do we see meaning?  They were sent all that way because they felt something calling to them, perhaps someone calling.  They travelled for weeks, maybe months, to go and look at a new-born king.  What would send you off on a journey like that?  What would cause you to set out into the unknown, travelling and searching?

For the Magi were searching as they travelled all that way.  They came to Jerusalem asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’  It’s one of the great ironies of this story that the Magi – gentile outsiders, from another religion and way of life entirely – would travel all that way in order to pay homage to Jesus when the religious insiders from Jerusalem and yes, perhaps also Wellington, stay at home.

Did they know what they would find, these Magi?  It certainly seems so: they were searching for a new-born king – they just didn’t know where he was.  So they did what sensible travellers do, and asked for directions.  That, of course, is where it gets tricky: in addition to the dangers of the road, the menacing figure of a frightened king enters the picture.  And again, conflict is an essential ingredient in any story.  When King Herod heard this, we are told, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.  We can probably guess why Herod was scared: seeing this new king as a threat to his own power-base, to his wealth and influence with the Romans, to the status quo – but why were the inhabitants of Jerusalem so fearful?  Did they simply fear change, any change – as so many of us also get scared when something  or someone different comes along?

The Magi ask their question, and Herod calls in the experts and sends them off to Bethlehem.  The star appears again, like a first century GPS, and guides them the last of the way to their destination.  And unlike most of the stories where the heroes have to overcome a key obstacle, fight a last battle or slay a dragon to reach their objective, the ending of the journey is peace itself.  ‘When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.  Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.’

This again is different from the traditional stories.  In most of them, the hero finishes the quest, finds treasure and takes it away with him.  The journey is to acquire, not to relinquish, to gain, not to give up.  When we encounter Jesus, what is it that we give up?  What is inside our treasure-chests – and how easy is it for us to open them, and offer him their contents?

The Magi reach their objective, and make their offering – except that this is not the end of their journey after all.  ‘And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.’  Like The Hobbit, this is a journey there and back again.  They head home, seeking out another route, avoiding the need to lie to Herod or be implicated in whatever he did next.  It’s worth noting that God guides these wise men by the star, by verses from the prophet Micah, and by their dreams.   How does God guide us?  Do we likewise find God speaking to us through the natural world, through Scripture, through our dreams? 

And what of that return journey, by another road?  I’m wondering if it took them as long as the outward trip, and what they talked about as they rode through the desert.  What was it like, when they arrived home?   Eliot’s poem about the Magi has one of them saying

‘We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.’[1] 

Their journey has changed them, unsettled them, made it impossible for them simply to take up their old life again as if nothing has happened.   Rather like Sam Gamgee returning to the Shire at the end of The Lord of the Rings, and finding himself unable to live there comfortably after being with elves.  And that is what it is like, when someone truly encounters Jesus.  We are changed.  We see things through new eyes.  Once we have met Jesus we go about our lives in a different way.  In what ways have we been changed, though our encounters with Jesus over the past year?  How is our life different?  What new treasures have appeared in our treasure-chests, gifts from the God to whom we pay homage? 

Journey stories speak to us all, for we all have travelled, and we all have known the path that asks something of us.  The faith-life itself is a journey, and the earliest Christians  were called ‘followers of the Way’.  Where are we in this story we have heard today?  Are we the nameless and frightened inhabitants of Jerusalem, afraid of something new, something not easily understood?  Are we Herod, feeling that this new king might demand something of us?  Or are we the Wise Men, the Magi – going on a long journey ‘there and back again’?

There is another account of what happens on the return home, and again, it comes from Eliot.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.[2] 

Maybe that’s how it was for the Magi, when they reached their own country by another road.  Maybe that’s how it is for us: to meet Jesus and then to discover that we understand where we are and what we are doing here better than before, that we know ourselves better than we did, that we know that we are known and held and loved by God, and called to make a difference in our time and our place.  May it be so for us all in the year ahead.


[1] The Journey of the Magi  T S Eliot
[2] T S Eliot ‘Little Gidding’ in Four Quartets.

Emmanuel in a real world

 29 December 2013                Matthew 2:13-23      

‘Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’  You know, this story reminds me of those early chapters of Genesis, of the creation of the ones whom we call Adam and Eve and the story of how they did wrong and were cast out of the garden.  It’s because the Adam and Eve story and the one about the escape to Egypt and the massacre of the infants are the same sort of thing.  Neither is an historically accurate account of events, full of useful, verifiable facts; both are more something that is included to open our eyes to the theology of it all.   It’s not news-reporting we are dealing with here.  There’s no report of a massacre like this in any of the ancient sources outside Matthew – not even in the historian Josephus, who was no fan of Herod’s and who goes into great detail about Herod’s misdeeds without once mentioning a purge of young baby boys.  But we hear these stories and we go on telling them, because they tell us some deep truths about what it is to be human and what it is to be divine.  Matthew’s stories tell us about who Jesus is, and why we need him.

Like many good plays, there are three scenes.  In the first, an angel appears in a dream to Joseph and tells him to flee to Egypt with his family because Herod wants to kill Jesus.  Then there’s the scene of the massacre itself, and thirdly Joseph is told (again in a dream) that it’s safe to go home again.  This Joseph is modelled on the Joseph of Genesis, the dreamer who got God’s people to safety in Egypt, saving them from the famine that threatened their lives.   Then there’s Moses the law-bringer, the one who was saved when all the other little boys were killed by a tyrant called Pharaoh.  As an adult, Moses angered Pharaoh and had to flee from him.  He stayed away until it was safe to return, until the ones who had been seeking his life were dead.  And it was Moses who got God’s people out of Egypt, away from the slavery and oppression that kept them only just alive to serve those with power.

Matthew is here showing us a Jesus who embodies the people of God: saved from death by going to Egypt, saved from slavery and death by being brought out of Egypt.  The line about Rachel weeping for her children echoes Israel’s other formative experience, the exile in Babylon.  Matthew gives us a Jesus who endures what the people of God endured, who knows what it is like to be threatened, homeless and at risk.  And Jesus is like Moses, Judaism’s most important figure, except that Jesus is a new and even greater leader than Moses.

Matthew is here telling his readers about who Jesus was and how he fits in to what they already know about what it is to be the people of God.   We read this story to find out the same thing: what sort of person is this Jesus and how should we treat him?  How does he fit into the bigger picture?  But there’s another, scarier, reason why we keep telling this story, and that’s because it shows us why we need Jesus.

Because this is a world in which children are killed.  This is a world in which those who should protect the least and the last – as kings back then and political leaders today are expected to do  – are often the ones who are agents of oppression.   This is a world where people leave their own lands with only what they can carry on their backs and flee to another country as refugees.  This is a world of family violence and playground bullying.  This is a world where suffering happens and where Rachel is weeping for her children.

And this is our world, and this is why we need Jesus.  Because it is all too easy to look for a way to escape.  Either we get sucked down into a pit of despondency, believing that there’s nothing we can do to make it better, and agonising about how bad the world is; or we take refuge in sentimentality.  We focus on the cute baby in the clean and tidy manger, conveniently forgetting the smell of birth-blood and animals packed into a small space.  This story throws out any prospect of rose-tinted sentimentality in favour of hard-nosed political reality.  We need Jesus to give us the courage and the hopefulness to face the truth about our world and what living in it entails.  For Jesus came into this world, in all its messiness, all its power-hungry craziness, and lived here with us, transforming the world with the power of his love.

And we need Jesus to help us face the truth about ourselves – because there is within each of us a mini-Herod.  Herod felt threatened, and lashed out against others.  Herod feared change, the loss of his power and his position, and he took any means to hang on to it.  And, in those scary moments when we are being entirely honest, we can see this sort of thing in ourselves.  Human beings have this tendency to think that the good things we have, whether it’s power or position, or possessions, are ours to cling onto at any cost, instead of something God invites us to hold in trust.  And inside each of us there is someone who wants to be at the centre of our own existence, the way Herod was at the centre of Jerusalem.  Trying to move away from this tendency to arrange our lives around ourselves rather than God is not a thing we can achieve on our own.  Ultimately it is why Jesus came to share our world, to do for us what we cannot do ourselves.

So today, just as we are tempted to snuggle down into the world of the Christmas cards and airbrush away the darker side of life and human struggling, Matthew won’t let us.  Because it is a messy world out here – so let’s admit that, and rejoice that this is the world that Jesus chose to enter.  This is the world where Emmanuel, God with us, is present, and this is the world which God will transform.  Thanks be to God.

 ‘Who’s there at Christmas?’

Christmas Day, 2013             

That story I reach to the children just now[1], how many of us, I wonder, connected with those in and around the stable?  For we’re just coming up to the time of year when people are going places – travelling on holiday or to get to family and friends – and my guess is several of us have at least once arrived somewhere in the evening and then had to look for a place to stay for the night.  I can remember one holiday in England, driving up and down looking for a bed & breakfast as it got darker and darker and harder to read the street signs.  It’s even worse with a lot of people in town all looking for accommodation, as anyone who’s travelled anywhere when there’s a Test on knows too well.  And that starry night many visitors were coming to Bethlehem.

Some of them found a welcome in the inn, others – a whole bunch of creatures – went to the stable.   They were looking, as we ourselves can look, for somewhere to sleep – but it’s a bit more than that.  The doves wanted shelter and a chance to rest, somewhere to settle down for the night; the mice were after warmth ‘a cosy corner to snuggle down into’; the lizards were hunting for a dark place to sleep, somewhere they would be safe and not trodden on by anything else.  And the goats?  Snuggling up to their mother, they knew they were loved and cared for.  Shelter, warmth, safety, love: it’s all pretty basic, isn’t it.  The story of the stable touches us at some fairly essential levels.

So all the creatures are happily settled down, and then Mary and Joseph rock on up, looking for somewhere, anywhere to stay because the baby is about to arrive and there are some things you really don’t want to do in the street.  We hear that and we realise the precariousness of it all.  And the surprise of the king of kings not only being a baby, but one that has to sleep in the feeding trough.   I wonder what the goats thought of that!  There’s something so small and defenceless about a new-born baby – it somehow seems to fit that amongst his companions that night were creatures who were also needing shelter, warmth, safety, love and protection.

The lambs arrive, with their shepherds, and they’re looking for the baby Jesus.  And again I wonder why they were looking for him.  Was it to worship, or simply out of curiosity?  They probably all had different motives, and maybe some basically tagged along because everyone else was going and they didn’t want to be left behind.   Much like the different reasons that have brought all of us here this morning.

And then there was baby Jesus, God in the flesh, lying in the manger – and every Christmas we too come to the stable along with the shepherds and everyone else and look at him.  We hear the story so often that we can forget how strange it all is!  God in the flesh, a God who knows what our lives can be like in all their chaos, a God who knows vulnerability from inside a dry and dusty feeding trough.  A baby king in amongst poor people in a borrowed sleeping place his parents found only at the last minute.  This is the God we worship, a God who is one of us and yet who is also utterly above us.

And baby Jesus, this God in the flesh, is the Saviour of the world.  He is the one born to save us from sin, from everything that would cut us off from God and from the life that God wants us to lead.  How Jesus did this is a bigger story than today, but part of it at least is an invitation to find through him the shelter and warmth and love that God provides.

Because those are the things that we all need, whoever we are.  ‘Who’s there at Christmas?’ the book asks, and the wonder of it is that we are here, and find ourselves pulled into the story and given a role in it.  Children love ‘lift the flap’ books because they get to peer behind the tab and discover something.  We too are invited to peer behind the doves, the goats, the other creatures and all the rest of the characters and encounter the King of kings.  We’re invited to get inside the story and join the shepherds as they listen to the angels singing ‘Glory to God in the highest, and peace to all people below’, to discover as they and we come to find the baby in the manger that he is the God who is, because of today, God with us, God who is one of us.

Xmas 13 book

[1] Knock, Knock!  Who’s There at Christmas? Vicki Howie & Moira Maclean (St Louis, MO: 2004, Concordia)

What is good news?

Christmas Eve, 2013             Luke 2: 1-20   

That night, there were shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks.  This night, we are here in the city – and yet we too are keeping watch.  The shepherds were keeping watch in case something bad happened – a wolf attacking the animals, a silly sheep wandering off on its own and falling down a bank.  They were hoping that nothing would occur to disturb the peace.  We, on the other hand, are watching just in case something does happen: something new or unexpected, something perhaps that we are hoping to see but dare not ask for.  We watch, and the shepherds watch.

Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.’  It always makes me smile, to recall that the first thing a visiting angel says is always ‘Do not be afraid’, that fear is always the immediate reaction to an angelic visitation.  But then, I have never seen an angel.

The shepherds try to hush their racing hearts and receive the message: good news of great joy for all the people.  What is good news?  If you ask me, I would say this: It is the job offer after countless rejections.  It is the first pay cheque.  It is discovering joy once more.   Good news of this kind is when we receive the thing that we have been hoping for for so long that we doubt it will ever come to us.

Like the shepherds we have grown accustomed to bad news.  Like them, we are well acquainted with faint hope, with waiting for so long that we give up waiting and go about our lives, a little embarrassed at having wasted so much time.  That was how things were, for the shepherds in the fields, for the doorkeepers in the palace in Jerusalem, for the shopkeepers around Bethlehem.  Waiting for the Messiah had taken up too much energy.  They were no longer expecting good news of great joy.

What is good news?  If you ask me, I would say this: It is when the house sells at last.  It is the message that says we have your lost cat.  It is finding faith again, when we thought we had lost it.  For all those who have come tonight in faith, for all those who are here in this city watching for the Christ-child to be born again, there are many others who have no faith.  There are those who have doubts, and who think somehow that doubts and faith do not belong together and that they must choose either one or the other, not realising that doubt and faith have been flatmates for many years and get along perfectly well in a common space.

So the angel comes to the shepherds, and startles them with the glory of the Lord, surprises them with an announcement that was so off their radar that they probably had to hear it several times before they could take it in: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  In a world where wolves steal away the sheep and faraway emperors register people in order to tax them, this was sudden, bewildering, good news.

What is good news?  If you ask me, I would say this: It is the unexpected recovery when you were planning a funeral.  It is the blue lines that say yes, there will be a baby.  It is beginning to hope again.   For the birth of a Saviour gives us reason to hope, for even when we do not imagine we need a saviour we know what it feels like to step in the messiness of life and to walk away leaving dirty footprints.  We realise something is broken in the world around us, and we do not know how to fix it but we wonder if someone, somewhere, might. With the visit of the angel to the shepherds, with the whispering of the carols in our ears, we register the possibility of a rescue attempt.  We start to believe this birth announcement and ponder the chance of a better world.  Not just a world in which wolves and emperors have stopped stealing things away but one in which we can be transformed into the selves we want to be, the people we sense a calling to become.  We begin to take in the good news as something that touches our lives. Once the shepherds start to cast off their terror the angel gives the next instalment: ‘This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger’.   The shepherds find their voices at last and say to one another ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’  This is when we too begin to say to each other, let us go as well, let us go and look at this child in the manger, let us see what good news looks like. What is good news?  If you ask me, I would say this: It is the knock at the door and the courier delivering a gift basket.  It is the long awaited phone call, from the one we thought had forgotten us.  It is finding our souls again.  It is, perhaps, realising that we do have souls, that when we sense God speaking to us with a voice that comes, not through the telephone but with a murmur deep in our hearts, we listen harder. And so we go with haste and we too find Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  We look down at God reaching out to us with the finger of a baby and we realise that this indeed is good news, that he is good news.  For we are not forgotten – God has remembered us through the ages and delivered to us the gift of this child, this Saviour.  In the voice of the angel and the footsteps of the shepherds, and in our own questions and our own responses, we recognise the best news of all.  For good news is discovering joy once more.  It is finding faith again.  It is beginning to hope again.  It is finding our souls again.  And so we join in and sing Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth, for that night, this night, good news is born and we have come home, rejoicing.

A baby called Save

Advent 4A, 22 December 2013         Matthew 1:18-25      

We’re coming up to Christmas, so – like all good stories – today we get part of the prequel.  Matthew tells us, ‘Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way’ and we get the story of the problem Joseph had and what he did about it.  It’s interesting to realise that problems have been part of the story from the very beginning.  Joseph was a good person, someone who tried to do the right thing, to keep the Jewish law and do what was expected of him.  At this point Joseph’s and Mary’s fathers have signed the marriage contract but Joseph hasn’t yet taken Mary into his house.  Only she is pregnant, and the baby isn’t his.  Under the law, Joseph could have brought charges against her, and she could have been stoned to death.  Even if he doesn’t denounce her publically, he should annul the marriage contract and send her away.  So this is what Joseph is planning to do – until he goes to sleep one night and an angel turns up in his dream.

 The angel calls Joseph by name and reminds him that one of his ancestors was David, Israel’s greatest king.  Then the angel tells Joseph not to be afraid, but to keep his pledge to marry in spite of everything.  For the child that Mary carries is a special child, a child from the Holy Spirit.  Of course we have no idea how that bit works, but we can realise that something new and extraordinary is happening, and this newness is the result of God’s Spirit at work.  The angel tells Joseph that the baby will be a boy, and gives him two names for him, and both hint at this new thing which God is doing.  Because names in the Bible are significant – they have meanings and often hint at something that the person will do.

 First, the angel says, ‘You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ The Hebrew name Jesus is the verb ‘save’: to rescue, to deliver.  So at Christmas – as we’ll see soon when we have our Pageant – we’ll have a baby, and that baby will be named ‘Save’. This isn’t a new name in the Bible.  Many babies are given it, and each of them helped save or rescue God’s people, and now Jesus will save.  Jesus will save from sin and guilt; from death and destruction; from despair and hopelessness; from poverty, injustice, sickness and hunger – from all the things that separate us from God and keep us from living the sort of life that God wants for us.

 The other name the angel gives for the baby is Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.  In Jesus God is truly with us, present in the world in a radically new way, which transforms everything.  And because of Jesus, God is always with us, no matter where we are and what is going on in our lives.  That’s something we want Wilbur to discover as he gets older, that God is always with him. And that’s something that we can keep on discovering, throughout our lives – that God is with us.  God is with us when we pull weeds in the garden and sit by the fire on a winter’s night, God is with us in the hospital corridor, in the job interview, in the exam room, in joyful times and in the times we weep.  God is with us in the midst of a busy gathering and when we think there is just us there.  Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, and because of his birth all the world is transformed.

 Today, as we hear the story of Joseph and the angel we are invited to let the angel’s message make a difference in our lives.  We’re invited to embrace the transformation that happens because of that baby, to let our actions show that something truly new is happening in us.  Sometimes, it will be strange and confusing – as Joseph’s situation and the angel’s message was strange and confusing – but we need not fear because we know that God is with us.

 Today as we hear the story of Joseph and the angel, we hear about who Jesus is, and then we baptise Wilbur, and after that we watch our Christmas Pageant, which shows us another episode in the Jesus story.  As Wilbur gets older, you’ll be able to tell him about today, about who else was here, and about the flock of angels at his baptism.  But actually, I suspect that everyone has angels looking on as they are baptised, for what we do today with Wilbur has eternal significance.  Today we link Wilbur into the Jesus story.  We join him to this baby called Save, this child called God is with us.  Today something new and extraordinary is happening in Wilbur, and this newness is the result of God’s Spirit at work.

New life & peace

Advent 2 8 December 2013   Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

What has died around you lately?  No, I don’t mean who has died – but what?  What projects have failed to thrive, what hopes have faded away, what dreams have disappeared on you?  We know what all that feels like, don’t we – that sense of disappointment sometimes bordering on despair, and we know what it can do: it can stop us planning and working for the next project, the next dream.   It can rob us of the future.

All that reminds us of the situation we find in our first reading.  God’s people were in a bad way.  The northern kingdom, Israel, had been destroyed, and the southern kingdom of Judah, where the prophet Isaiah was living, was weak and under threat.  Life was pretty bleak.  And then a message from God:  ‘A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.’  Where before there was a barren stump,  the deadness of a tree cut down a few inches before the ground, now a shoot will poke upwards.  Where there was a wasteland, there will be signs of new life.

Isaiah links those signs with the Messiah, with the coming of a new king from the royal line of David, the son of Jesse.  We link them further with the birth of Jesus, with the new life that is possible in him and through him.  That new life offers us what everyone except dictators and arms dealers longs for: an end to the old conflicts, peace for the world and all its inhabitants.  We hear the word-pictures, the mythical images, and we start to catch a glimpse of what they are trying to show us: wolves and lambs, calves and lions together, children playing safely near snakes.  Pictures like this put into words the hope of peace we all share.  Paul’s words to the Christians in Rome make it less mythical, more concrete.  He talks about actual people, Jews and Gentiles welcoming one another, living in harmony and glorifying God together.

Relationships between Jews and Gentiles had a bit of a rocky start in the early church, as they argued with each other about what to do about the food laws and the circumcision requirements.  Paul sets out a vision of these two groups living and worshipping together, and he’s clear that the basis for the mutual welcoming is Christ.  That’s what makes it possible for people with such different views to come together.  That’s what makes true peace possible – now as well as back then, inside the Church of today just as much as in Paul’s time.  Christ offers the possibility of peace and a new start.  Where is peace needed today?  With whom do we need to make peace?

And then we get to one of the least peaceful people in the Gospels: we get to John the Baptiser.  He is a second Elijah, an Old Testament-type prophet, and like all the prophets he speaks God’s words of welcome and of warning.  He holds out the possibility of a new life – but to get it, you have to prepare by coming to God in repentance.  His message to the people of Jerusalem and all Judea and, yes, to us as well, is about turning away from the old life and making a new start.  It’s like clearing out the fridge, throwing away the little containers of left-overs that have been there for goodness knows how long, so we have room for the new and delicious treats of this time of year.  If we’re cluttered up with a lot of old junk it’s going to impact our relationships with God and with others.  And we’ll have no room for all the blessings we could be experiencing.

But not everyone was keen to do that turning away (which is what repentance means).  Like Jesus after him, John is critical of the Pharisees and Sadducees, because somehow they seemed to be trading on the reputation of their ancestors.  You know the sort of line they could spin: we’ve always come from a good family, father Abraham got all that sorted for us, we’re OK.  John’s message involves acknowledging that they can’t rely on their religious heritage to make them right with God.  And, you know, sometimes I think we need to realise the same thing, especially those of us who grew up in and around church.  We can’t rely on our background, our actions or even the things we think we do for God.  We need to recognise that we can’t do this ourselves, that we need God.  And it can be tough to admit that, because we rather like to be independent and to sort things ourselves.  And we rather like to stick to what we know, whereas in baptising and calling for repentance John was challenging people into a new way of responding.

So we too are challenged to respond in a new way, and we too are offered a new beginning.  Today’s readings hold out the offer of a fresh start for all who need it.  They entice us with the prospect of peace – the ending of old conflicts and the restoration of relationships.  They invite us to notice the green shoots poking up from old, dead stumps.  They tell of a future that will transform the present.

Remember that message from God:  ‘A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.’  Those of us who live on Farm Road know what a barren stump looks like.  We have seen the deadness of a tree cut down a few inches before the ground – because that’s what happened last year to one of the cabbage trees outside number 6.  Someone came along in the night and cut it down – a senseless action which caused only pain to those who lived around there.

Only then something happened.  By early February a shoot – several shoots in fact – came out of the stump.   We could see that something was going on, something about to burst forth.  Gradually more shoots continued to sprout and they got bigger.  By this week there were leaves, green and flourishing, where once there was a sad, abbreviated stump.  Walk along Farm Road and have a look at it.

I started by wondering what we have seen die, what projects or dreams have disappeared?  Now, in the light of Isaiah’s message and its embodiment in the cabbage tree, I have some different questions.  What new shoots have we seen amongst us?  What new things have just started, and what ones are now beginning to flourish?  Where are the signs of new life and newly made peace?  Where is mutual welcoming happening?  Where are lives being changed – and are some of those lives our lives?  Today we are invited to take up the challenge of a new way of being, and to prepare ourselves for welcoming Jesus, the author of that new life.

Let’s pray again the collect on the pewsheet:

Loving God,
you send prophets to warn, disturb and revive your people.
Help us listen to those who prepare us for your kingdom.
Give us courage to remove the chaff from our lives
so that we may be ready to meet the Lord.
We ask this through him whose coming draws near,
our Lord Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen

Living in Hope

Advent Sunday 1 December 2013  Matthew 24:36-44; Romans 13:11-14     

What does hope mean to you?  It says something to us about the future, doesn’t it?  We hope for something that we don’t yet have.  And for most of us, there’s an element of uncertainty, perhaps even risk, to it.  If I say ‘I hope the weather will be fine tomorrow’ I mean ‘I’d really like it to be fine, but I’m not sure about the forecast; it could rain.’  If someone says they hope to come to our Friday Social this week it means they’d like to come, but they can’t be certain that they’ll get there.   But Christian hope is different.

Christian hope – the sort of hope that Paul articulates, the sort of hope that Jesus invites us to have – is much more about security and certainty.  It’s not a form of wishful thinking.  And that’s because it’s grounded on God and rooted in the reliability of God’s promises.  The hope we are invited to share is tied to who God is.  Over and over in Scripture we are reminded of God’s record of promise-keeping.   Over and over we are invited to experience this God in our own lives.

And that’s why Jesus’ words to his disciples (and he’s talking to us as well as to those gathered around him on the Mount of Olives) are ultimately a positive thing – because what lies behind them are the promises of God and God’s character as one who keeps promises.  But the trouble with apocalyptic passages like this is that some Christians get frightened by them, and others try to treat them like I treat celery in a salad.  I’m not that fond of celery, so if I meet it, I push it to one side of the plate and leave it there.  And that’s what some of us do with apocalyptic words like Jesus’ ones here – we leave them aside as something that we don’t really have to bother about.  But the message of Christ’s return isn’t supposed to be scary or boring – it’s to give us hope and to shape our lives.

In Jesus’ little parable of the thief coming by night he observes that if the owner of the house had known when the thief was going to turn up he’d have been awake and ready.  The problem for many of us is that we don’t really think that someone will want to break into our house, and so we fall asleep.  But I invite us to imagine, just for a moment, that Jesus is coming back this week.  Forget about planning our summer holidays, forget even about Christmas shopping – let’s think it’s all going to happen within the next few days.  Now here’s a question for us: what, if anything, would we do differently?

I have a feeling that (just as we tidy the living room and vacuum the carpet when we’re expecting visitors) we might want to get our spiritual houses in order – and what that means will probably be different for each of us.  We might have some less-than-tentative conversations about God with our friends or neighbours.  We might perhaps take a bit more care that our words and thoughts and actions are the sort that honour God, and encourage others.   All of which leads, of course, to a second question – so why aren’t we doing all that already?

For the coming again of Christ, whenever it happens, isn’t intended to be like one of those nightmares where you suddenly realise you have a big exam, or a job interview, that you’ve somehow forgotten to prepare for.  (Anyone ever had one of those dreams?)  It’s good news, for Jesus – the Jesus we meet in the Gospels, the Jesus whose coming birth we anticipate, the Jesus whose resurrection we celebrate every Sunday – is the one who has promised to come and be with us always.

He has promised to come and gather his people to him, to come and gather us to him.  And we are invited to trust in the certainty of that promise, and to live into that hope.  To let that hope shape our lives.  This does not mean, of course, that we will be insulated from unexpected nasty surprises.  There will still be the smaller irritations of rain on our holidays or the greater tragedies like car accidents and typhoons, and some of them will happen to us.  Our futures contain much that we cannot plan for: we are regularly caught off guard, in spite of all we try to do to tie things down and remove all the risks.  Bad things will happen, as God’s people have always known.  But what God’s people also know, is that we will not face any of these challenges alone – for Jesus is with us, giving us courage, drawing us on into new life.  When we have Christ to look forward to, we find we can already experience him in the waiting.

And we are drawn onwards into new life together.  The hope that we have is not personal only, and it is not private, locked away inside each of us.  It is a communal hope.  We are part of a community of hope – that is what the Church is.  And as a community of hope we are called to reach out to individuals and to society around us, working for the good of our world, seeking the welfare of our city and of cities everywhere.  Christian hope is grounded on the character of God, and one thing we know for sure about God is God’s care for the world and all its peoples.  God is committed to humanity, and our trust in God’s promises leads us to be likewise committed.  Our hope for the future return of Christ, coming to reign in glory, leads us precisely to our work for a better future for our fellow human beings.

It is that hope that can stop us getting distracted by celebrity gossip, reality TV and office politics (which I suspect Paul would be warning us off if he were writing to us today instead of to the Romans in the first century).  It is that hope that can stop us sleepwalking through life – which is what Paul said to the Romans and still says to us.  For everything (as Martin Luther said) that is done in the world is done by hope.

Today, as the new year begins, and as we start our preparations for Christmas, for Christ to come as a baby in Bethlehem, we are pulled into action by the hope for the future which God has placed in our hearts.  For we are also waiting for Christ to come again at the end of time, to complete the kingdom of God that has begun amongst us.   And as we wait, we act for the good of the world around us, for that is what living in hope looks like.

Business as usual (while we wait)

17 November 2013  Luke 21:5-19; 2 Thessalonians 3: 3:6-13; Isaiah 65:17-25

Jesus said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’  And the disciples asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’  So, how many of you are sitting here this morning worrying about the end of the world?  No … me neither.  It’s not exactly on our radar, is it.  And neither is the situation in Thessalonians, where some people were apparently so sure that the world’s end and the coming of Jesus were just around the corner that they had given up work and were being disruptive.   Again, not on our radar.  So – do we just give up on all this, as having little to say to us here in Wellington in 2013?

But here’s the thing: these passages do have something to say to us, here, now, today.  And that’s not just because of the obvious point that there are places in the world where  Christians face persecution or arbitrary killing.  There are people who have to cope with arrests and persecutions, being handed over to religious and political authorities because of their relationship with Jesus – all the things in fact that he was talking about, and these are our sisters and brothers in Christ and so they are connected to us.  Because we are baptised, and one of the things that baptism means is that what happens to one Christian, one member of Christ’s family, happens to all of us.

But there’s another way that what’s being talked about in today’s readings touches our lives – and it’s different from how Luke’s original readers saw it.  You see, the people Luke was writing for had already seen some of this stuff happen.  By the time this Gospel was written the Temple had already been destroyed.  And some of Jesus’ followers – Stephen and James, as we know from the book of Acts – had already been put to death.  So the idea that they were known and held and loved by Jesus during all the bad things that were happening to them was a comfort, an encouragement, to them.

Jesus’ original disciples, looking at the architectural masterpiece that was the temple – the biggest building for miles, decorated with so many beautiful stones – would have thought its destruction would mean the end of their world.   Except, that here was Luke’s community, living on after that, realising the world had not in fact ended.  It’s a reminder to us, if we need one, not to see our lives bound up with bricks and mortar.  With all the anxiety over earthquake-prone structures, it is no bad thing to realise that we are more than our buildings, and that yes, parishes could indeed survive the destruction of the worship space, just as those early Christians  survived the tearing down of the temple by the Romans.

One of the things that Luke is saying is that believers weren’t to interpret the destruction of the temple as the end of the world.  Indeed it is impossible to know when the end will come, as Jesus warns his disciples several times over.  So all that business of wars, and earthquakes and famines and plagues aren’t some kind of TV plot guide as to what will happen in the next episode.  It’s much more about telling the disciples how to live, how to behave, while awaiting the end.

And that’s something that we can hear as well – and perhaps it’s even more important that we hear it.  We, for whom the end of the world is not, and possibly never has been, on our radar.  We, for whom the approaching season of Advent is more about waiting for the coming of the baby in Bethlehem than it is about the coming again of Christ at the end of time.  We, for whom the word eschatology (which is what we call all this stuff about the end of the world) is only jargon and impossible to spell, because we have forgotten that we are waiting for anything.  We, to whom bad things still happen, even if we do not associate them with waiting for anything.

Jesus here is pointing to the dark places, in which we all find ourselves at one time or another.  Jesus is reminding his friends that disciples are not exempt from suffering.  We know this already, don’t we, even if we would mostly rather forget it.  But in all of this, whenever the suffering comes and wherever we encounter the dark places, we are invited to trust.  To trust and to leave room for God.  To trust the God who assured Isaiah ‘before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.’  To trust the God who promises a new creation, who promises that in the end will come a time of blessing and peace.

And there’s something else that goes along with that – and that is to view the bad things that happen to us through the right lens.  We don’t assert that God is causing the misfortunes that assail us but we can proclaim that God is active in them.  When disaster strikes we can see God working to help us, to comfort us and to bring us home.  We can learn to look at the adversities we face as opportunities to discover how God is acting and to bear witness to it.

So that’s another way these passages touch our lives, yours and mine, today: in the invitation to trust God to be with us and help us in the dark times, and to learn to speak of God’s continuing presence and love.  But what of the times we inhabit most, the times that are not especially painful and scary, the times when it is business as usual?  This is where the instructions to the Thessalonian community come in – for they had to be reminded that it was ‘business as usual’.

They – unlike us – were excited at the prospect of the Day of the Lord, the return of Christ.  So excited in fact that some of them had given up work so they could watch for its appearing.  But this not working had led to them being busy in other ways, busybodies poking their noses into the affairs of others.  It’s less ‘idleness’ and more ‘disorder’ and ‘disruption’ in the Greek.  The instruction to them was to keep on working – and that applies to us as well, because it says something really important about where work fits in to living as people of God.

Sometimes we find ourselves dividing life into compartments: sacred and secular, Sunday and the rest of the week, prayer and worship on the one hand and regular work on the other.  But it’s not like that!   Scripture encourages us to see that the whole of our lives is sacred: the work and the leisure activities that we do Monday to Saturday is just as much what we do for God as is anything that happens in the context of worship on a Sunday.   When we understand this it reminds us that our work has value in itself, that we are forever working for God and alongside God, whether it’s in an office, or a classroom, or looking after children or grandchildren or digging the garden.  Business as usual is what the people of God do, being a Christian presence wherever we find ourselves, loving those around us – colleagues and clients and family, being salt and light in classrooms and living rooms, gardens and offices.   While we are waiting for Christ to return, even and especially while we have forgotten that we are waiting, we live and work and trust and hope, together as the body of Christ.

Chosen to be saints

3 November 2013  All Saints Sunday   Sirach 44:1-15; Ephesians 1:11-23   

Today we gather here to celebrate all of God’s saints – the well-known ones, the ones we find in the church calendar and who have churches dedicated to them, and the lesser known ones.  As our Old Testament reading reminds us: ‘some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise, but of others there is no memory; …  But these also were godly people, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten’.  Today – in one of the oldest Christian traditions – we celebrate all of them.   We honour all of those who have borne witness to their faith, to ‘the hope to which they were called’ as the letter to the Ephesians puts it.

We give thanks for all of the ‘official saints’, those the Church has specially acknowledged:  they’re an incredibly diverse bunch of men, women and children, but they do have one thing in common: they are all dead.  When we celebrate them today we remind ourselves that the dead as well as the living are part of the Christian community.

Today we give thanks also for the saints we have personally known, those who have helped us on our journey, who have spoken God into our lives.  And the other thing we do on All Saints’ Day is get back to our roots: to the idea of saints as living people.  Back when the New Testament letters were being written, the ‘saints’ were simply the church: the word is literally ‘the holy ones’ – and that meant everyone who was within the various Christian communities.  That’s why the Ephesians were commended for their ‘love toward all the saints’ – for the ways they cared for their fellow believers, both in their own community and in other regions.

And there’s something else the Ephesian community was told which is also a message to us.  ‘In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.  In him you also .. were marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit.’  That was the apostles, and the Ephesians, and that is us: we are all chosen according to God’s purpose to live for Christ’s glory.  We are all chosen to be saints.

And as saints, we are called to be holy.  Now I’m guessing here that I’m not the only one of us who thinks that ‘being holy’ is quite a big ask, and maybe we could start at the learners’ end of the sainthood pool, with something like remembering to pray every day, donating a little bit of money to overseas missions and being nice occasionally to that annoying guy on the bus.  But, as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner says, ‘holiness is being aware that you are in the presence of God’.  And that’s a good way to live – to learn to feel God’s presence everywhere, to see God in all things.  If you take a random bunch of saints they’re all very different, but maybe that’s one of the things they have in common – that they lived with this awareness that God was there, where they were, where we are.

Those who are chosen to be saints, to live for Christ’s glory, are not called to be something other than they are.  God has made each of us uniquely ourselves, and God wants us to be ‘us’.  We are called to discover and to be ourselves – our true selves, the person we are before God – and to live our own lives, not someone else’s.  It’s all very well to read an article about Mother Teresa and feel inspired by her work in Calcutta, but it’s not OK to say to yourself wistfully ‘Oh dear, I’ll never be like her’.  That’s not the point – we’re not called to be Mother Teresa, we’re called to be us.   Pope John XXIII (who himself is shortly to be canonised as one of the ‘official saints’) was thinking about this very thing, and came to the conclusion that we should incorporate the substance, not the little details, of saints lives into our own.  ‘I am not St. Aloysius, nor must I seek holiness in his particular way, but according to the requirements of my own nature, my own character and the different conditions of my life.  If St. Aloysius had been as I am, he would have become holy in a different way’[1], he wrote.

So the call to be holy, to live for Christ’s glory, is a call to become and to be ourselves.  It’s an invitation to live our own lives, and to live them in the presence of God.  Whether we work in an office, or a classroom, whether we spend our days weeding the garden, caring for children or grand-children, or listening to a friend pour out their troubles, we can respond to this invitation to holiness.  Because when we live in the presence of God, we can know that what we do matters.

Something I read during my retreat last month gave me an example of this.  There’s a guy called Charles Bynum, a hospital cleaner, and he polishes the floor of the lobby every day at Memorial Health Care System in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  One day, he overheard a hospital visitor telling her husband that the lobby floors “have a shine where you can see yourself. I can see the bottom of my feet as I walk across them, and it reminds me of Christ walking on water.”  Just by shining floors, Charles Bynum managed to free someone, at least for a moment, from worry over her own illness or that of a loved one.  The woman later told Bynum’s boss, who passed the compliment back to him – and then Bynum said, ‘I’m grateful to have a ministry that touches lives as I shine floors.’ [2]  Never doubt that what we do matters.  Never doubt that what we do can be ministry.  And imagine what might happen if we all lived our lives in ways that made our friends, our family, our colleagues, and all the random people we meet, feel as if they were walking on water.

And while we’re at it, think what might happen if we lived with the attitude that surrounded the blind man healed by Jesus in John’s Gospel, something the catechumenate group looked at this week: ‘he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him’.  Imagine if we could see everything that happens to us as an opportunity for God’s works to be revealed.  Imagine what might happen if you and me and all of us lived every day for Christ’s glory.  Just like the Ephesians, and all of the others we celebrate today, all those who – like us – are chosen to be saints.


[1] John XXIII, Journal of a Soul, 16 January 1903.
[2] See Chris Lowney, Heroic Living: Discover your purpose and change the world (2009), 77.

A different sort of justice – Penal reform 2

20 October 2013  Luke 18:1-8; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Jeremiah 31:27-34 

This week, we’ve been thinking about justice.  We’ve been asking questions about how our justice system here in Aotearoa New Zealand works – or how it sometimes doesn’t  work too well.  And part of the reason why it doesn’t work as well as we’d like it to is because some of the issues that cause crime – things like poverty, violence, drug and alcohol problems – can’t be solved through the criminal justice system alone.  We have to work at them in other ways, and we have to work together as a community.  Because government policies can only take us so far: there are things that ordinary people, ordinary Christians, can do to make a difference.  And some of those things come out of our readings today.

The story of the persistent widow is introduced as a parable about prayer and not losing heart, then moves into a story about justice, and ends with a question about faith.   Luke often talks about widows.   In the Bible, widows were sad examples of powerlessness, of vulnerability.  They were often the victims of injustice.  And that’s still true today – that those who are vulnerable, those who lack power, are often the ones who have to struggle to get justice.  New Zealand prisons are full of the poor and disadvantaged, those at the bottom of the social and economic heap; full of brown faces too – that’s what I remember from my time working inside Mt Eden prison.  Those who are marginalised or disadvantaged or discriminated against in social and economic ways tend to be over-represented in the prison system.  We need to remind ourselves that the causes of crime are as much to do with social circumstances as with individual wickedness.  Maybe we need to remind ourselves too of the Bible’s emphasis on communal responsibility for sin and wrongdoing, the way Israel resisted individual scapegoating.  Maybe we’d find some better ways to face these issues if we faced them better as a community.

So the parable begins with a judge who neither fears God nor respects people, and the feisty widow who refuses to accept her lack of power.  She keeps on seeking the justice denied her – and there’s nothing timid about the way she does it.  Eventually, her persistence so bothers the judge that she ends up getting the justice she demands.  And then the reminder that the un-feared God will, in the end, get the better of the judge – because God is a God of justice, who takes a particular interest in the weak and the vulnerable.  It’s like the reminder in the letter to Timothy, that Christ will return as judge of the living and the dead.

We usually see this parable as a ‘how much more’ story: if the unjust judge finally gives in to the persistent widow, how much more will God listen ‘to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night’.  God will hear and quickly respond to disciples who are living in the difficult time when they wait for the final coming of Christ’s kingdom.  The way to live in such a situation is with constant prayer, staying in relationship with the God of love and justice.

But here’s another way of looking at this parable.  What if the widow is God and we’re the judge – having little respect for people and no awe of God?  God continues to pester us, to get our attention.  It’s God who’s the persistent one, continually calling us, continually asking something from us, continually asking for justice.

And what do we mean by justice anyway?  If what we mean is the criminal justice system, with its emphasis on punishment, then we need to admit that punishment doesn’t really work.   It doesn’t stop people committing crime and it doesn’t stop reoffending.  It sees justice as retributive, a punitive balancing of the scales: justice happens when the offender is punished by the state, and victims and the wider community are only secondary to the process.

But there’s another way of understanding justice, a way which honours relationships, which leads us into community.   It’s a way which remembers that God’s righteousness, God’s justice, is God’s covenant faithfulness.   It comes across in our reading from Jeremiah this morning, where God promises to restore God’s people, and to make a new covenant, written on their hearts.  God reaches out in reconciliation, wanting to restore the relationship with Israel.

So another way, a better way, maybe a more biblical type of justice, is restorative justice.  That’s when the offender owns up to the crime and takes action to repair the situation.  Restorative justice is relational – it wants to benefit the victim, the offender and the whole community.  It wants to heal the relationships that the offending has broken.  It says punishment and seeking revenge are not good responses – and we know they are not the responses that God would have us choose.

We get a clue about what might happen if we choose the path of relationship in yesterday’s celebration of  Tarore of Waharoa.  Tarore was an innocent victim of violence.  She was the daughter of Ngakuku, the Ngati Haua chief, and attended the mission station at Matamata where she learned to read.  At the age of twelve, on 19 October 1836, she was killed during a raid.  Her death immediately created a desire for utu, but at her funeral the next day, Ngakuku preached against revenge.  ‘There’s been too much bloodshed already’, he said, ‘people should trust in the justice of God’.  Her death wasn’t the end of her story.  Tarore’s copy of the Gospel of Luke was taken by one of the raiding party, and he was later converted to Christianity and made peace with Ngakuku.  Later the book was taken to Otaki, where its message led to the conversion of Tamihana Te Rauparaha, who became a missionary to the South Island.

Tarore’s death and her father’s choosing reconciliation over revenge brought peace and closer relationships.  Her story speaks to us as we reflect on the plight of both victims and offenders and their families, as we nurture efforts at reconciliation, restoration and restitution, rather than recrimination and retribution.  It speaks to us also as we search for better ways to handle the re–integration of offenders back into the community.

We can’t leave all this up to the government: there are things we can do, questions we can ask, ways we can act differently.   Here’s another story: a young black man asked his minister why their people had to suffer so much poverty, hardship, and oppression. ‘Why doesn’t God do something?’ he wailed. ‘He has,’ said his pastor. ‘He has created you.’  And so Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop of South Africa, became the answer to his own question.  That’s something we can remember.  While we are waiting (like the disciples who were the parable’s first hearers) for the final coming of Christ’s kingdom, we are God’s answer to the lack of justice in our world.  We can become the answer to our own questions.  We can accept the possibility that God will answer our prayers – for prisoners and their families and their victims – through us.  There are things we can do.

Penal Reform: following Jesus to the margins

13 October 2013   Jeremiah 29:1,4-7; Luke 17:11-19 

This week, Anglicans all over the country will be reflecting on New Zealand’s current criminal justice system and the need for penal reform, for a better way of working through all those issues about crime and punishment which the media puts up in front of us and we mostly try to ignore.  We’re asked to spend some time this week thinking and praying about these things, and there’s some resources to help us do this.  But I guess the first question that comes to us is: why should we be doing this?  Well, Jeremiah has part of the answer.

Over the last few weeks we’ve heard Jeremiah trying and failing to wake his people up to the disaster that was coming upon Jerusalem.  But the city fell, and its leading citizens were carried off into exile in two waves.  Jeremiah stayed on in the ruins, and wrote a letter.

Thus says the LORD of hosts, … to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (29:4-7)

This is a hopeful message, though it probably wasn’t what the exiles wanted to hear.  They were to put down roots in Babylon, instead of living like refugees; they were to continue their normal lives in family and society.  They weren’t to cut themselves off from the people they were living alongside.  Instead, they were even to pray for them, to pray for the foreign empire God had sent them to live in.  The exiles had left behind a city and a land which were supposed to be God’s – but which, because of their corruption and idolatry had become increasingly secular.  They now found themselves in the middle of an overt and pagan secularity – and they had to learn to live and to pray there.  They had to discover new ways to be God’s people, for God was still with them.

It strikes me that Jeremiah is saying to his people, ‘get out of the bubble!’  Get away from the holy huddle, and make a difference amongst these people you are living with, for your fate, your life, is tied up with theirs.  ‘Seek the welfare of the city, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.’  And that is what we are called to do as Christians today: to make a difference to the lives of the people around us.  Jeremiah’s words are a call to a public theology, a public living out of the hopes and the values that our faith gives to us, a public involvement in what is going on around us.

Elizabeth Fry understood this.   Each year on 12 October the Church honours her life and ministry, because she got involved in her society.  She was born in Norwich in 1780, a member of the Society of Friends (the Quakers), and it was her deep faith that led to her lifelong commitment to prison reform.  Every day she visited women prisoners in Newgate gaol and saw for herself the degradation they suffered.  And so she began a campaign for reform, which led to change.  Some of the things she did seem surprisingly modern: the establishment of a “Nightly Shelter for the Homeless”, and a society for the care and rehabilitation of former offenders.

Elizabeth Fry got involved with people, engaging with prisoners and their families, remembering that they too are created in God’s image, they too need human compassion and relationship, especially when their experiences have been ones of abuse and rejection, being sent to the margins of society.  And she got involved with policies, realising that when injustice gets institutionalised something has to change, and that includes public opinion.

Christians  today are called to the same sort of actions.  We’re called to ask questions, about the way political parties use ‘law and order’ as electoral bargaining chips, competing to see who can be toughest on crime, and about the way the media plays on people’s fears despite dropping crime rates.  We can ask questions too about the comparatively high imprisonment rates in this country and the way other places seem to find better ways to rehabilitate prisoners and get them back into society.

And at the very least, we are called to follow Jesus in reaching out to those at the margins of society, caring for them without getting sucked in by all the stereotypes which judge people based on the labels they’ve been given.  We see this all over the Gospels, and we see this in today’s reading.  Here is Jesus, walking towards Jerusalem, and as he enters a village, ten people call out to him.  There’s something slightly odd in the way Luke tells it: they ‘approached’ Jesus, but still were ‘keeping their distance’ from him – and that’s because they were lepers.  Back then, people who had any kind of skin disease were isolated from everyone else, because it meant they were unclean, and could infect anyone they came near – not just physically, but also at the spiritual level.  If you had leprosy you were kept away from any contact with all other people until you were cured or you died.

Jesus sees them, and doesn’t shun them.  He hears their pleas for mercy, and tells them to go show themselves to the priests; in other words, to obey the law of Moses, under which only a priest could pronounce them healed.  And so the ten lepers do as they’re told and head off to Jerusalem and the appropriate priest.   And as they went, they were made clean.

The story gets me wondering: who are the lepers in our land?  Who are those we judge, and try to stay away from?  One of the unfortunate things about human social behaviour is our apparent ‘need’ to create a class of untouchables, people we look down on, people we exclude.  And prisoners and ex-prisoners fall right into categories like that.

So what happened next in Luke’s story?  The ten lepers go off to Jerusalem to find a priest.  And then one of them suddenly becomes aware of the changes on his skin.  He sees the ugly rash disappearing, he feels his hands regaining their wholeness, he feels clean again.  Overflowing with gratitude he turns back.  He praises God.  He runs back to find Jesus.  Without even waiting to see the priests and get the official declaration of wholeness he rushes back to say thank-you.

Almost as an afterthought, Luke adds, ‘And he was a Samaritan’.  He was a double outcast – not only a leper but a member of a marginalised, an excluded group.  Think about it.  He, of all people, had the grace and the gratitude to return and thank Jesus!   For most of the other people in Luke’s Gospel such behaviour by a Samaritan was shocking, because it cuts right across all the stereotypes.  Not someone like us, people whom we expect to behave well, but one of those outcasts, the Samaritans.

There’s something we can understand here about the people who live on the margins of our communities, who are treated as invisible or unlovely because of how they look or who they are or where they come from.  Whether they’ve committed a crime, whether they’ve been inside a prison cell.  Jesus doesn’t buy into these stereotypes.  He clearly notices and loves them and calls us to do the same.   He calls us to follow him to the margins, to care for those we find there, and to bring them back into the community.  Plenty to think about this week.

Pet Service  

 6 October 2013     Genesis 1:20-25, Matthew 6:25-33                      

Joe Bennett thinks his dog may be Jesus.  His reasons for thinking this are that his dog owns nothing, covets nothing and loves people indiscriminately.  Whether it’s saint or sinner that comes and rings the doorbell, whether it’s ‘black, white, gay, straight, evangelist, sane person, bomber, bombee, the dog loves them all with equal zest’, he says.  Well, Joe may have a point, although he does go on to say that the love his dog shows for everyone can’t be said of most of the organisations that have claimed to be following Christ over the centuries.   He may have a point there too, but that is another sermon.

But the way that animals – and dogs in particular – remind us of God is worth thinking about.  They love us unconditionally – we don’t have to earn a dog’s love, just as nothing we do or don’t do can make God love us more than God already does.   The wonderful thing about dogs is the way they love and accept us as we are – and not as we feel we somehow should be.  And God is like that too.  God accepts us as we are, with all our fears and failings.  We don’t have to pretend with God, we don’t have to put on a happy face, we don’t have to be someone we’re not.  We can just be ourselves, and God loves us like that.  And the interesting and amazing thing about all this is, is that when we know that God loves us as we are, we are better able to accept and love ourselves as we are.

Something I read a couple of weeks ago, however, makes sense: ‘It is fairly easy to believe in God’s love in general but it is very difficult to believe in God’s love for me personally.’  And I think the guy who said that is probably right – we do tend to think like that.  But here again, dogs can help us – for while dogs can love ‘in general’, like Joe Bennett’s dog loving all those who come and ring the doorbell, dogs particularly love the person they belong to.  And maybe remembering that about our canine friends can help us better grasp the love that God has for each of us personally and particularly.

And if you’ve ever had a dog as a pet you’ll know the way they love being with you.  To go for walks along the beach, or to go hunting or play catch – but often, just to hang out with you.  And God is like that. God longs for our company.  Not always to do anything special, certainly not anything ‘religious’ – God just wants to spend time with us, enjoying one another’s presence.  Perhaps we can ask ourselves: how would it change our relationship with God if we forgot about ‘doing’ stuff and simply hung out with God from time to time?

But God doesn’t love humanity in general and each one of us in particular: God also loves the rest of creation.  The Bible has lots of stories about how God made all the animals, and how God cares for them, starting from our reading from Genesis this morning.  That reminds us that God created animals as well as humans.  They are on this earth to bring us pleasure, to teach us about love and about looking after something other than ourselves, but they also exist because they are loved by God for themselves and can praise God in their own way.  As our pets join us in worship today, may we become more aware of the times when they are already worshipping the God who made all of us.

God’s care for animals is one of the constant themes of the Bible.  The book of Job (Job 38:41) tells us how God provides food for the raven, and also for other animals.  Sparrows nest near God in the temple, and Jesus affirms that God takes care of them, noticing when they fall over.  “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?’, he says, ‘Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father.’  In our Gospel passage this morning Jesus invites us to see how the glory of God is reflected by nature and how the birds and other creatures can remind us of God’s love and concern for us.  It’s one of those places where he uses animals to teach us, and at the same time affirms the place of birds and animals in God’s world.

And that’s why we’ve come here with our pets this morning, to acknowledge that they too are created and loved by God, to celebrate what they bring to our homes, and to remind us of all that they can teach us about God.  This week, when we see a dog wagging its tail may we enjoy the exuberant love of God; when we notice a cat quietly meditating by itself may we catch something of the mystery and the transcendence, the Otherness of God.  And when we think of fish swimming around in a tank or a stream, may we know, in the depths of our being, that as fish live surrounded by water, we live surrounded by God’s love.

Lost & not-lost

15 September 2013  Luke 15:1-10; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Jeremiah 4:11-12,22-28   

The lost sheep … the lost coin.  We’ve heard these parables a dozen times before – so often, perhaps, that we miss the strangeness of what is going on.  And the context only adds to the strangeness: the annoyance of the scribes and the Pharisees at Jesus’ associating with tax collectors and sinners.  We have two different groups of people here: tax collectors and other notorious sinners – those people whose behaviour was so bad that everyone knew about it – and the good people: the religious folk who are admired for their theology and their active commitment to trying to live up to all that the law asked of them.   If we ask ourselves that traditional question ‘where am I in this?’ I’m guessing that most of us would place ourselves in the second group: those who are really trying to do the right thing, to do the good thing, to live a life pleasing to God.  I’m picking that none of us would be describing ourselves as ‘the foremost of sinners’ like the writer to Timothy.   And that’s OK – it’s an honest assessment of where we might be in this group of stories – only, that risks leaving these parables little to say to us.

Except – that these stories don’t rely on the contrast between the righteous and the sinners, between good people and frankly fairly low-life.  The point of them is a contrast between being lost and not lost.  And while the lost sheep may have got itself lost, by wandering off somewhere when no-one was looking, the same can’t be said of the lost coin.  Coins (like biros, car keys and the TV remote) don’t wander off and lose themselves: they stay where they were put.  So the point doesn’t seem to be about how the lost became lost, but about the actions of the seeker.

So where are we in this?  Are we the lost or the not-lost?  Traditionally the focus has been on the one lost sheep and we’ve tended to read it from that side.  But here’s some more of the strangeness: because the not-lost sheep, the 99 sensible ones who didn’t wander off, are the ones who are left out there in the wilderness.  The shepherd was willing to abandon the faithful 99 sheep in the desert while he went off in search of the one that strayed.  If the 99 were us, how would we feel about that?  Wouldn’t we be annoyed, or frustrated, or think that all our careful actions in sticking close to the shepherd and not wandering around had got us nowhere?  Wouldn’t we feel we didn’t matter?

Where are we in these stories?  And the problem with a question like that is that it seems to imply an either-or approach.  Are we the one or the 99, the lost or the non-lost?  Are we the bad people or the good ones?  There’s a story about a teacher who asked the kids one day, ‘If all the bad children were painted red and all the good children were painted green, which colour would you be?’  Interesting question – but it comes out of the same sort of either-or thinking.  And then one really bright kid answered ‘striped’.

And perhaps that is us.  Striped.  Lost and not-lost.  Trying to live a life pleasing to God and missing the mark.  Righteous and sinners.  It’s a both-and sort of life.  Because it’s too easy, too simplistic, to divide everything into either-or categories.   It reminds me of the last time I was trying to drive back from the Hutt Valley late at night.  I wasn’t lost: I knew precisely where I was.  Unfortunately what I didn’t know was how to get back home, and so I floundered around for a while looking for the right bridge until several turns later I was on the way.  I think that’s how we are a lot of the time: lost and not-lost.  Knowing where we are in life, but not quite knowing what to do and where to go to have the sort of existence we really want.  Knowing that we’re aiming for a life lived for God and doing our best to find our way there, but being unsure of the journey.  Does this resonate with anyone?

The good news, for lost and not-lost, is that God comes to find us.  God comes searching, over and over.  Not just through prophets like Jeremiah, describing his own anguish – and God’s anguish – when a bunch of God’s people seem to have wandered off and got themselves lost, but in the person of Jesus.  God came in Jesus to find St Paul on the road to Damascus, when Paul was busy putting himself in the non-lost category.  And God comes to find us even when we think we know where we are.  God will seek us out and find us, and then rejoice extravagantly over us.

Because that’s the other strange thing about these parables.  The behaviour of the seeker, and the hugeness of the celebration.  ‘Which one of you’ Jesus asks would search out the lost sheep, carry it home and summon all the neighbours for a party?  ‘What woman’ would keep on sweeping the house to find the lost coin, then call all her friends and neighbours to celebrate – spending perhaps even more on the party than the money she had originally lost?  And the answer is that no ordinary person would do all this – and yet God does.  God goes to strange and wonderful lengths to seek us out and then launches a strange and wonderful and totally over the top celebration when we are found.

So what these stories can do for us is put into words something of the amazing love of God, who will go to such effort to come looking for us whether or not we think we are lost, and who will then carry us home to the place we are trying to get to, whether or not we think we know the way.  A God who lights a lamp and keeps on sweeping, and then throws a party to celebrate, a God who becomes human to come look for us, and gets killed, and then rises again: this is the overflowing grace of God, in whom we can all rejoice.  And it’s in connecting with this God that we can find our place in these parables, for we are lost and not-lost, all at the same time.

Are we up for the challenge?

8 September 2013     Luke 14: 25-33; Jeremiah 18:1-11    

These days, we try to make things easy on people.  We’re really aware of how busy people are, how limited their time, and money and energy, how many other things are competing for their attention – for our attention.  So we try to make things easy – and then we are faced with a passage like today’s Gospel reading and we come hard up against the reality that Jesus didn’t do easy and he didn’t do user-friendly.  Jesus asks his disciples – both then and now – to sacrifice. Well, actually, he doesn’t just ask for sacrifice – he insists on it.  He tells us that he expects, even demands, undivided loyalty.

Jesus says ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple’ and when we hear that, we disconnect.  Partly that’s because Jesus is actually talking a foreign language.  ‘To hate’ is a Semitic expression meaning to turn away from, to detach oneself from, to abandon or leave aside – the way a sailor abandons a sinking ship or a general puts aside distractions in order to win a battle.  ‘Hate’ isn’t primarily a feeling word in Aramaic, it’s primarily a priority word.  We are still called to love, to care for, to cherish those close to us.  But Jesus is saying that what is demanded of disciples is that, in the network of all the many loyalties each of us lives amongst, the claim of Christ, of working for the kingdom of God, must come first.  It’s about priorities.

The thing about priorities, though, is that it’s hard to do them on autopilot.  Unless we consciously choose how we spend our time, our energy, our money, it is easy to drift down to our default settings – which for me often involve things like drinking coffee, doing jig-saw puzzles on the Ipad and watching the History Channel on TV.  You’ve probably got your own default settings.  What Jesus is doing is telling us to put him first in our lives in a way that isn’t always going to be comfortable or easy.  To be a follower of Christ is a serious business.

And so we’re asked to count the cost.  The Christian life is expensive.  It asks things of us.  It demands our commitment in terms of our time, and our attention and our money.  Martin Luther said, about the Christian life, ‘There are three conversions necessary: the conversion of the heart, the mind and the purse.  Of these three, it may well be that we moderns find the conversion of the purse the most difficult.’   Now I like hearing Luther, who died in 1546, referring to ‘we moderns’, because I think it’s still true of us today.   It’s too easy to reduce Christianity to things we believe, or think we should believe, or wish we believed, when what Jesus is talking about is more how we act.  How we spend our money.  How we use our time.  What we put our energy into.  And Jesus asks things of us that are not user-friendly.

Jesus is talking to the crowd, to the large bunch of people that was following him around.  And in what he says he’s talking about the difference between simply ticking a box that says ‘I’m interested, I might do that one day – if there’s nothing better to do’ and actually being committed enough to sign up for something that will cost us in terms of our time and our money, realising that saying Yes to Jesus means saying No to other things in our lives.

We were talking about this passage in the Catechumenal group during the week, and someone asked the young people there what the cost of following Jesus looks like in practice for people in their late teens and early twenties.  One person pointed to the loss of autonomy, to not being in charge of your own life.   And then I thought of Jeremiah, and his visit to the potter’s house.

Jeremiah sees the potter working at his wheel, and the vessel he was making out of clay was spoiled, and so he reworks it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.  And then Jeremiah hears God saying to him, ‘Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?  Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.’  Israel is not autonomous or independent: God can do to Israel whatever God chooses.  And that’s us, if we’ve said Yes to God’s call on our lives.  We are clay in God’s hands, and God can make us or unmake us as God wishes.  These are not comforting words – they’re at least as challenging, and as scary, as what Jesus is saying in the Gospel.  There is a lack of autonomy.  There is a cost.

What does the cost of following Jesus look like for you?  What have you given up, to make God a priority in your life?   I suspect the answer will look different for each of us – but I am also certain that everyone who takes God’s call seriously does pay a price.  What has yours been?

These are hard questions to ask, and to answer, and they fly right in the face of our tendency to try to make things easy on people.  Because it’s true: we are really busy these days.  We do have limited time, limited money and limited energy.  But what it comes down to is priorities, what matters in our lives.  And we already give things up for what matters to us, and we already shape our lives around our priorities.  Anyone who’s trained for a running race, or who’s needed to be fit to get a particular job, anyone who wants to be a good spouse or a good parent knows about shaping their life around their priorities;  anyone who forgoes paid employment in favour of study or volunteering or being an at-home parent knows about this.

We’re asked, in the choices we make about our time, and money and energy, to mirror Christ’s commitment to us with our commitment to Christ.  Jesus’ words and all our reflecting on them this morning aren’t meant to make us feel guilty.   Guilt is not a good motivator, is it.  But Jesus’ words are an invitation to rise to a great challenge.  Sure it’s not easy – but then anything really worth doing isn’t easy.  Each of us individually and all of us together are invited to work together with Christ in creating a new life for us and for others.  We’re invited to be part of ushering in the reign of God in our world, in our communities, in our own lives.  So – who else is up for this challenge?  And what will our week ahead look like when we say yes?

Where is the Lord?

1 September 2013  Jeremiah 2: 4-13;Hebrews 13: 1-8,15-16;Luke 14: 1, 7-14

So what’s Jeremiah saying to us this morning?  Last week, we heard his call as a prophet, appointed to speak to the people of Israel, to bring them back to God.  Today, as Jeremiah begins to prophesy, God wants to know what went so wrong.  ‘What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?’  And then God answers the question, and it’s an indictment of the people and of their leaders:  ‘They did not say, “Where is the LORD who brought us up from the land of Egypt?”’

What had gone wrong was that the people had disregarded the memory that shaped them.  God’s story was no longer on their lips – they had stopped telling it to each other, they had stopped reminding their children of all the things God had done for them in the past, they had forgotten to look out for what God was doing with them and in them in the present, and they had given up eagerly waiting for God’s word to them for the future.  The people and their leaders were no longer looking for God in their daily lives – they and God had become distant from one another.

I think Jeremiah’s onto something here.  If it feels like God is distant, a good way to counteract that, to bring back the closeness between us and God, is to ask ‘Where is the Lord?’  If we’re in the middle of a difficult situation, to ask ‘where is God in this?’  To ask ourselves, at the end of each week, or the end of each day, where is the Lord?  Where have I experienced God today?  Where have I seen signs of God acting this week?  And to ask each other: where have you meet God this week?  Where is the Lord, when you are at work, or at home; what has God been doing lately?  So let’s do some of that this morning, and let’s see what clues we can find in our other readings.

The writer to the Hebrews talks about worship – ‘through him [ie Christ] let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name’ – and at first we think that’s an obvious answer to the question ‘where is the Lord?’: we encounter God when we worship.  Well yes, so we do – but we also (reminds the writer) encounter God in others, and that too is part of worship, part of our connecting with God:  ‘Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.’

That gives us another clue to where God is: when we share what we have with others, God is there.  And part of our offertory, part of what we offer to God when we gather for worship, along with the bread and the wine, along with our money and the groceries for the foodbank, are the things we do for others, the things that we have which we share with others.  Perhaps even the parts of ourselves that we share with those around us are a part of what we offer to God at that moment in our worship service.  Maybe we can remember that, in about 10 minutes time.

When the writer to the Hebrews lists all the marks of Christian identity the first one that comes up is hospitality.  Hospitality is as basic to being a Christian as is gathering for worship and prayer.  What’s amazing is that this was written to a group of people who had suffered for their faith, to a community whose possessions had been plundered – and still they are asked to open themselves up to share what they have with strangers.  And when they do – God is there.  ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.  That’s partly a reference to the story of Abraham, entertaining the angelic visitors beside the oaks of Mamre, but it’s also a reminder to us that we can see God in the strangers we come across every day.  It’s an invitation to treat everyone as if they were Christ.  If we truly did that, what would change about how we interacted with people?  If we truly did that, how would our answers to the question ‘Where is the Lord?’ be different?

And then today’s Gospel reading gives us some extra clues about where we can find God.  Luke’s Jesus was, as some wise person has said, either at a meal, on his way to a meal, or coming back from a meal.  So Jesus is there, God is there, whenever people gather to share food and drink together, whenever they gather in celebration, in mourning, or simply at the end of a day.  And in a society like ours where so many people live alone, or (even if they share a house) they eat alone so often, this makes it even more important that we open our homes and our tables to others.  It makes our Friday Socials and our Sunday morning teas occasions where we share the presence of God with one another.  Maybe we can remember that, in about 20 minutes time.

And when Jesus talks about banquet invitations, we get another picture of where God might be.  Because back then it was really easy to tell who was part of the in group and who was not by who got invited to the meals.  I guess it’s still like that today: think back to the last time you realised a group of people you knew had got together for a meal and you weren’t there – think back to how excluded you felt.  And Jesus is telling people, when you have a fancy meal, don’t invite the people you know, the people close to you, the people who can invite you back; instead, invite those who can’t repay you with their own hospitality: the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.  Because those people are special to God, those people are part of God’s family.  Where those people are, that’s where God is.

Where is the Lord?  The Lord is there when we are sharing food with people who aren’t going to reciprocate.  God is there when we’re giving away sausages and soup on Free Food Fridays, when we are bringing along quiche and fresh bread and more soup for Thursday Munch, and sitting and talking with people and making them welcome.   God is there when we remind ourselves and our children of the things God has done in the past, when we tell the stories about how we got all the funding to rebuild the hall, the story about when this building didn’t burn down in the fire, the stories about the early beginnings of this parish.  And God is there when we look for God in our ordinary daily lives,  for remember how the Hebrews were reminded ‘he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you”’.  So let’s make a commitment NOT to do what Jeremiah’s people did, not to forget, as they did, to say, “Where is the LORD?”.  Let’s make a commitment this week to keep on asking ‘Where is God?’, to  keep on looking for signs of God’s presence – for when we do that, we will find God, over and over.

Freedom and rules

25 August 2013   Luke 13:10-17                      

It’s the Sabbath, and Jesus was teaching in the synagogue.  And then, amongst the people coming to join the congregation was a woman who had been crippled for 18 years.  ‘She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.’   Imagine what it would feel like to be unable to stand up for that long!  For 18 years she’d been unable to look anyone in the eye, unable to be part of life on the same level as anyone else.  Work, worship, even walking along the road would have been more difficult for her: she was trapped by what her body couldn’t do.  Until she comes to the synagogue on the Sabbath and Jesus was teaching there – and then everything changes for this woman, in an instant.

We don’t know her name, but Jesus names her as a daughter of Abraham, as one of the community.  We don’t know what her modern medical diagnosis might be, but Jesus heals her.  She doesn’t ask him to do anything: this isn’t a story about faith, but a tale of compassion and surprising grace.  Jesus sees her and heals her and sets her free.   And her response is to praise God, immediately, standing straight and tall for the first time in years.  She rejoiced, the crowd rejoiced – but not everyone was so pleased.

We miss the point of what’s happening if we write the leader of the synagogue off as the bad guy.  He has something to say to us, and we can learn from him.   Sure, Jesus speaks sharply to him – but Jesus also rebuked Peter, and Martha, and his own mother: if Jesus rebukes someone it doesn’t necessarily make them a villain.  The leader of the synagogue was annoyed because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, and the fact is, he was right.

The Fourth Commandment (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15) prohibits work on the Sabbath.  And because the whole idea of actually stopping work in order to rest is apparently a strange one for human beings the Torah gives two reasons why we should do this.  The first is the example of God, who rested on the seventh day, and requires that the day be kept holy.  And the second is that the Jews were once slaves in Egypt: they  once had to work years without a break, so they should not do this to anyone else.  Not only are they prohibited from working on the Sabbath, but they are also prohibited from working their servants or animals.

What constitutes ‘work’ was an ongoing discussion among rabbis, and they figured out rules for proper observation of the Sabbath: what could still be done on that day.  It’s those debates that Jesus draws on when he uses the example of untying an ox or a donkey to lead it to water and then argues that he should indeed heal this woman on the Sabbath: ‘ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?’

But the leader of the synagogue – who’s probably been part of lots of those discussions – is worried.  He’s not keen on wiggle room.  Once you start making exceptions for one reason or another, then pretty soon everything might become an exception, and it can end up that no-one is really keeping the Sabbath and then it’s lost its point altogether.  And it’s not just the Sabbath. The whole law is like that – if you keep making exceptions, keep on creating more wiggle room,  then it’s not really a law anymore; it’s just a suggestion.

And … don’t we do this!  These debates about which rules are laws that must be strictly kept and which ones we can make exceptions over, discussions about when and how much wiggle room we should be allowed, these are ones we have too.  Most of us have rules that we think are really important, and others that we’re quite relaxed about.  For some people, eating organic or buying fairtrade chocolate is a hard and fast rule, for others it’s something they’ll buy only when it’s on special, and others couldn’t care about that at all, but are really strict on their kids not watching too much TV and going to bed at a certain time.  For everyone who sticks exactly to the 100kph speed limit there are plenty who allow a 10 k tolerance, for everyone who argues that the rules on who can marry whom should never be changed there are plenty who are in favour of marriage equality.

So the questions that concerned Jesus, the leader of the synagogue, and the crowd that Sabbath day also concern us.  What is the place of laws and rules and regulations?   Must they be applied in every case?  Can they ever be set aside?  Because let’s not forget: Jesus didn’t reject the law.  And his answer made sense in terms of the accepted practices for dealing with what could be done on the Sabbath.  When he saw the bent-over woman  Jesus simply suspended the individual rules, in a moment of  compassion and surprising grace.

Laws and rules and regulations are there to help us order our lives.  They set boundaries which create a space in which we can live together in community.  They can give freedom – as indeed the Sabbath rules set people free from the tyranny of overwork.  Maybe that’s something we can learn from the commitment the leader of the synagogue had to Sabbath rest: that we are not machines which run constantly without a break, that the world will not come to an end if we simply stopped, that life is better if we set aside a day a week for worship and rest and time with family and friends.

And what we can learn from Jesus is that however important the individual laws and rules and regulations are, what is even more important is what lies behind them: the commandment to love God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.  And that sometimes that larger commandment means that we are called to suspend the individual rules so that someone can be set free from whatever is hurting them, that we are free to reach out with compassion and grace to help others.  And that a moment when someone stands up straight and begins to praise God is something we can all rejoice in.

Jesus was stressed

18 August 2013         Luke 12:49-56; Isaiah 5:1-7   

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, making his way to the place where everything will come to a head, where his mission will face its final test, and all the conflicts he has been experiencing will end up in a plot to kill him.  He knows this.  It’s like the fire has been laid and it only takes someone to raise a spark and the whole lot will go up in flames.  Jesus is feeling the pressure.  ‘What stress I am under until it is completed!’ he says.  You know, I find this comforting: to know that Jesus felt stressed.

Because we – all of us – feel stressed at times.  Those times when it feels like there is so much to do, and so little time in which to do it, those times when what life is asking of us seems really tough and we suspect we’ve gone to live in the too-hard basket.  So the first piece of good news – at least I think it’s good news for us – is that Jesus felt stressed, Jesus felt all those pressures, and so Jesus knows what it feels like for us.  This is the mysterious good news of the incarnation, that God became flesh and came to live as one of us, able to experience and to understand what our lives actually feel like.  So when each of us gets to that place where we feel swamped and fearful of what is up ahead: Jesus has been there too.  And that can help us, and give us courage.

And there’s something else it’s good to remind ourselves about.  Stress is common and inevitable: it’s part of life and not necessarily a sign that we (or someone else) is doing something wrong.  It can even be good for us.  Some sorts of stress are the mental and emotional equivalent of weight-bearing exercise on our bodies.  After all, we’re often reminded that our bones become stronger when a certain amount of extra strain is placed on them: weight-bearing exercise is one of the things that helps to prevent osteoporosis.

So while some stress is a negative experience, it’s clear that some stress is good for us.  It can help us develop resilience, make us stronger and more able to give of ourselves.  One of the questions Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel raises for me is what sort of stress are we mostly experiencing?  Is it the stress that Jesus felt as he approached Jerusalem, the stress that comes with pursuing the life of the kingdom of God – or it is the stresses that distract us and hold us back from that?  What fears and pressures are diverting us from the mission to which Jesus is calling us?  What are we afraid of?  What are we resisting?

The disciples may have thought that in following Jesus they were signing on for a life of peace and security, where they would be honoured alongside their famous rabbi.  What they discovered is that when they chose to embrace the kingdom life they were opting for the sort of stress, the sort of weight-bearing exercise, that goes with carrying a cross.  How many of us have discovered the same thing?

Jesus was building a new sort of community, a community that was not based – as all of Israel was based – on the biological family.  That’s part of what lies behind his words about division within households, for following him means making choices and when we live out of those choices we are bound to end up poles apart from those who have chosen differently.   Jesus says in the Gospels that those who hear God’s word and carry it out are his true family, rather than his biological siblings.

This new community that Jesus announces – and we see this over and over in Luke – is what he called the kingdom of God.  This is a kingdom, a community, where all the ordinary ways are turned upside down.  Where people seek forgiveness rather than revenge, where people share what they have with others and the poor and the weak and the lonely are honoured.  To live like this means making choices, and saying yes to one thing means saying no to something else.  That’s part of what Jesus meant when he talked of divisions.  What sort of choices do we tend to make?  And where does that lead us?

These are questions for us, and they are the questions that lie behind Isaiah’s words.  For what Isaiah had to tell his people was that they had fallen into a pattern of wrong choices, and those choices had consequences.  God’s words through Isaiah are modelled on a love song, but it’s a lament, a song for a love that had gone all wrong.

God is the vinedresser, who plants a vineyard.  Tender care and hard work and all the vinedresser’s best efforts go nowhere, because in spite of all this the vineyard yields only wild grapes, bitter and useless.  It’s achingly sad.  God is lamenting the choices that Israel and the people of Judah have made.  The puns in the Hebrew add to the pathos:  the grapes should have produced the sweet wine of justice – mishpat – but the people produced bloodshed – mishpach; God wanted righteousness – tsedeqah – but instead heard a cry – tse’aqah.  The words are so close, but desperately far apart in the end.  Bad choices bring grief, for the people and also and even more for God.  The Gospel presents us with a Jesus under stress, Isaiah gives us a God who weeps.

What sort of choices are we making?  Are we choosing to forgive others as we are forgiven; to love our neighbours as ourselves, and strive for peace and justice.  Are we choosing to accept the cost of following Jesus Christ in our daily life and work?  And are we choosing, with the whole Church, to proclaim by word and action the Good News of God in Christ?  And if those questions sound familiar, they are the ones the bishop puts to candidates for confirmation, and the ones that I put to each of us on Easter Eve when we renew our baptismal promises.  And they are questions we can all ask ourselves and all answer.

As I’ve thought about this over the week, the challenge today’s readings have for me, perhaps for all of us, is what sort of stress are we experiencing?  Since stress is part of life – a sign, in fact, that we are alive – then let it be the stress that Jesus was under, the stress of ushering in the kingdom of God.  Let it be the stress that comes with making choices to follow Jesus, to seek after justice and righteousness, and so yield the fruit which will gladden the heart of God the vinedresser.

  

Live fearlessly, find treasure

11 August 2013         Luke 12:32-40; Isaiah 1:1,10-20        

So here’s Jesus, talking to his disciples, giving them some useful advice on how to live the God life.   And I guess most of us home in on the stuff about selling our possessions, giving alms, seeking treasure, and rapidly tune out, thinking that this doesn’t, can’t and shouldn’t apply to us.  And of course, that’s just what we would think, if we start there, because we’ll have started in the wrong place.  Instead, let’s start where Jesus does, with us being afraid.

Everyone is afraid of something – it’s just that some of us manage to mask it more than others.  Some of us are afraid of getting things wrong, looking stupid, failing at things.  Some of us are afraid of not having enough – enough success, or enough wisdom, or enough of the good things in life.  And some are afraid of not having enough of the basic things, like food and drink and clothes – and I wonder if you saw the newspaper report a week or so ago that many teenagers are worried that their parents won’t be able to afford food.

So Jesus’ words today start with our fears.  He’s just told his disciples not to worry about food and clothing, but to strive for the kingdom of God ‘and these things will be given to you as well’.  That sounds like a talk about priorities, one that follows from Barry’s words last week about what really matters.  But listen again to what Jesus says: ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’  Jesus knows we are prey to all sorts of fears and insecurities, some of them rational, some not.  He doesn’t try to reassure us that ‘it’s not going to be as bad as you think’ – instead he assures us of God’s favour.  God isn’t just vaguely hoping we will do all right.  God doesn’t sit there counting up how many loyalty points we’ve earned so we can be rewarded like Fly Buys.  God really wants to give us the kingdom of heaven!

And it’s that promise, that certainty of God’s favour, that can help us to live a life free from fear.  Because the life that God wants for us is the sort of abundant life that is filled with authentic community, with relationships characterised by joy and peace, by patience and kindness and all the other fruit of the Spirit.  A life that is filled abundantly with God’s love, for love is incompatible with fear.

And once we’ve got rid of the fear, we can start to think authentically about the treasure.  Because if we’re still fearful, then we’re likely to find our treasure in things that speak to those fears – things like acquiring new assets, comforting ourselves with more possessions or hanging tenaciously on to those we’ve got, ticking off more achievements to assuage our fears of not having or not being enough.  Once we’ve got rid of the fear, ‘sell your possessions and give alms’ starts to make sense, for it speaks of a life where we’re concerned more about others than about ourselves.  Once we’ve found our security in the favour and the amazing generosity of God, we are able to be generous ourselves.  Once we’ve experienced the love of God, and known God’s pleasure in giving us the kingdom, we are able to share that love and that kingdom with others.

Which brings me, of course, to Sodom and Gomorrah.  And no, this isn’t a lead-in to discussions we will be having soon about particular issues facing the Church.  This is about what Isaiah, and others of the prophets, see as the sins and failings of the people of Sodom, Gomorrah, and the people that Isaiah and Ezekiel and the rest were writing to.   The problem was an abundance of sacrifices and a scarcity of love and justice for the poor.

This is our old acquaintance, the silo mentality.   People keeping their lives divided into silos – one marked religion and one marked business.  They are scrupulous at keeping all the religious festivals, the new moons and Sabbaths, almost excessive in their sacrifices and their offerings of incense, but they oppress the poor, the orphans and widows and all the others who were lower down in society.  There’s no carry-over between worship and the rest of their lives in business and community, and God is not impressed.  God tells them that unless they seek justice their prayers will not be listened to.

You know, I’m beginning to wonder if at the root of injustice and economic oppression lies fear.  If we’re scared of not having enough – whether that’s money, or power, or the good things of life, or the freedom to do what we want alongside people like us – then we’re more likely to resist policies that would give more money or power or possessions or freedom to those who currently don’t have them, in case we lose what we have.  But if we know ourselves secure in God’s love, if we remember that it’s our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom, then we are more able to reach out in love and generosity and to share what we have.  Then we’ll be more able to work for God’s kingdom to come in our communities and our world.

And that, I think, is what Jesus means being ready for his return.  Being ready, being prepared is not about waiting around for instructions.  After all, in the little pictures that Jesus gives, the slaves and the householder aren’t sitting there in screensaver mode waiting for something to happen.  They’re busy with their preparations, keeping their lamps well-tended, the house ready to receive the returning bridegroom, or to drive away the approaching thief.   Being ready is less about trying to predict the actual time and place (and worrying that we’ll miss it) and much more about noticing Jesus’ activity in the world here and now, even in places where we might not be expecting it.  It’s about being ready to receive Jesus when he comes to us in our brother or sister.

Living without fear, knowing the love and the favour of God who really wants to give us the kingdom of heaven, reminds us of where our real treasure is.  We won’t find it by acquiring and hanging onto more and more possessions, but in reaching out in love and generosity and justice to others.  This is what can make it possible for us to be prepared for God’s kingdom and to participate in it.  And this is the means by which God helps us to live more fully and abundantly and yes, fearlessly, today and this week, and for ever.

We shall go out

 St Anne’s Day 2013   Luke 10:1-10, James 1:16-25. Zephaniah 3:14-20   

‘The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.’  That is us.  Those seventy were sent out by Jesus as we are sent out into our communities – to go on our way, taking with us the good news of God’s love and grace.  And Jesus told them as they left to ‘carry no purse, no bag, no sandals’.  That’s not an invitation to embrace the bare-footed look, but it is a challenge to ‘go light’, to leave behind all the things we think are essential for our security.  I wonder what it is we are challenged to leave behind?  Perhaps it’s any preconceptions we might have about the ‘right’ way to be a Christian, the ‘right’ way to be Church – as in years past people have left behind ideas about wearing hats, singing to certain types of music, children having to be seen but not heard during worship.  It’s about not letting stuff get in the way or conflict with our ministry, our sharing of the gospel.  And sometimes, it’s about leaving behind a building, not identifying ourselves with bricks and mortar but growing into our calling as a pilgrim people on the move.

We leave behind our props, and we go out into the community, to take our chances.  Relying totally on the hospitality and generosity of others. ‘Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house.”  … Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide.’  We are not used to being dependent on others.  We don’t like it.  We want the freedom to pick and choose where we go and what we eat.  We want to be able to trade up, if something better comes along.  We want to offer hospitality instead of receiving it.  But Jesus says not to do that.  Instead we go out into precariousness of the community, to join in what is happening there, on the community’s terms and not our own.  A little like when we decided to hold the Christmas carol service in the Community Centre and not in this building.

It’s a strange mixture, this, of vulnerability and confidence, of humility and self-assurance.  We are vulnerable because we don’t always know what we will find and who will take us in.  But we are confident, because we know we have something to share, something worth offering to people.  We are humble because we’re not making any assumptions that we have all the answers, and we are self-assured precisely because we know that we live in Christ and Christ lives in us.  As Zephaniah reminded his people, the Lord our God is in our midst.

And there’s something else Jesus tells us to do, when we go out to be the church at the heart of the community.  Go with a friend.  He sent them out in pairs, because we can help each other.  When one of us is tired and ready to give up, the other can encourage.  When one of us loses the way, the other can ask for directions.  When one of us is discouraged, the other can hold onto faith and hope for both of us, can remind us not to fear, not to let our hands grow weak, for the Lord our God is in our midst.  That’s what friends do: we keep each other company, we pray for each other – as members of Vestry pray for one another – and we inspire each other as we go out into the community.  Who here has encouraged you lately?  Whom have you prayed for, whom have you kept company?

Jesus is talking about how to be the church at the heart of the community.  He’s telling us what to do, and expecting us to be – as the letter of James puts it – ‘doers of the word and not merely hearers’.  He’s expecting us to put this into action – to help each other put this into action.  And there’s something else here:  Jesus only talks about what to do – he doesn’t say anything about measuring their success. There’s no ‘key performance indicators here’.  If people don’t want to listen, shake their dust off your feet and move on; don’t stay there and agonise over it, and don’t get defensive.  As we look ahead to Synod there’s a tendency to focus on figures – attendance, budgets, annual reports – and to measure success by those.  But Jesus doesn’t do that, and neither do the New Testament writers.  Anything good that happens, any miracle, any growth, any healing, comes by the grace of God.   It’s not something we do.  Our task is to concentrate on being faithful, and on helping each other to be faithful, and to leave the outcome up to God, to the Lord our God who is in our midst.

As we go out, with our friends, to be the church at the heart of the community, we are given a challenge and a promise.  The challenge is to speak, to listen, to live, so that people who meet us, people who host us and offer to help us, can say ‘the kingdom of God has come near to us.’  That’s quite a challenge, isn’t it!  Are we up for it?  Can we count on each other?  Are we all set for another year of being at the heart of our community?

And the promise is of a God who will rejoice over us, who will renew us in love, who will exult over us with loud singing, as on a day of festival.  This is a God who doesn’t just smile at us but who rejoices, sings and dances around us!  And remember – this is the God who knows us – who knows we aren’t perfect, that we fail to get it right, not just once or twice but quite often actually.  And this God loves us so much that when God looks at us, God rejoices over us with gladness.  Now isn’t this a God worth sharing with the community around us?

So let’s never stop reminding each other that the Lord our God is in our midst.  Because then we can join up with a friend and we can go out with hope of resurrection.  We can go out into the community and tell our stories boldly, telling our tales of a love that will not, ever, let us go.

Bible Sunday

21 July 2013  Amos 8:1-12; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42    

So it’s Bible Sunday – a day when we can give thanks for our Scriptures and remind ourselves of why we read them.  And one of the main reasons we read the Bible is that it tells us something about God and about God’s relationship with humanity.  In it we see how people throughout history related to God – from the Old Testament tribes, and prophets and teachers, to the New Testament apostles and the new Christian communities.  We can eavesdrop on their prayers, look on as they worship, see their struggles, their mistakes, the times when things are going well and the other times when everything turns to custard.  Some of the things they faced we also encounter, and we can ask ourselves what we might have done in their place.  At other times the issues the ancient Israelites and the early Christians were grappling with are very different from the ones we have – and yet I think we can still learn something from them.

I’ll give you an example.  We see the early church trying to work out whether new Christians who were Gentile by origin should follow the requirements of the Jewish law – whether men should be circumcised, whether anyone could eat non-kosher food.  We don’t face those issues, but we do face others where parts of the Church have differing but deeply-held views over what Christians should rightly do and rightly believe.  Paul’s words to the Romans and the Corinthians can help us through the minefield of debates over same-sex relationships, gambling, environmental protection policies, or whatever our hot-button issues are.

So we read the Bible to discover what it is to be the people of God in a particular place, how to live in a godly community, how to treat each other and those around us who are not, or not yet, part of our community.  And we read it to find out about God – what God is like, what God values.   And we quickly work out that some themes, some characteristics of God, keep coming up.  In the Old Testament we see how God loves God’s people, and has a special relationship with them.  And that relationship meant not just a unique connection to God, but also significant responsibilities, and punishment for not upholding them.  Because God is a god of justice, who cares for those at the bottom of the social pecking order, and so God’s people should line up along with God’s values.

Today’s reading from the 8th century prophet Amos opens with a vision in which God shows Amos a basket of summer fruit, fruit that’s over-ripe, and teetering on the edge of going bad.  God says this vision shows that ‘The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by.  The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day.’ And the reason for this?  The people and their leaders have been trampling on the needy, and bringing to ruin the poor of the land.   When we read this we reminded of God’s care for the poor and needy, and we are reminded of our duty to care for them also.  And there’s something else: the business people Amos is addressing have divided their lives into silos – one marked religion and one marked business.  They are scrupulous at closing down for the holy days, the new moons and Sabbaths, but during the rest of the week they are busy buying and selling and cheating.  There’s no carry-over between their worship and their business ethics, and God is not impressed.  So when we read this we can absorb some guidance for our own lives, and how we can link the Sunday stuff with what happens Monday to Saturday.

Now, what do I mean about this?  How do we let the Bible guide us today, when all of the biblical books were written a long time ago?  Is it about following a whole bunch of rules?  The short answer to that is clearly no – otherwise we’d all be still eating kosher food.  But here’s a useful way to look at it.  If we’re travelling somewhere, we’ve historically had two tools to guide us – a map and a compass.  They’re both useful, but they’re very different.   A map is a stylised picture of how things look and how to get from A to B.  The more recent the map the more use it is.  I once spent two frustrating hours trying to find my way to the Youth Hostel in Skopje in what was then Yugoslavia.  We had a map – that was good.  But since the map was printed they had built a couple of new bridges and moved the main railway station.  Not good.  Even a couple of weeks ago, I was driving back home through Wilton, navigating by using the GPS on my phone – great, until I got to Warwick street and discovered it was closed because of a fallen tree and so I had to turn back and find another route.

So that’s maps for you.  They’re useful but it doesn’t pay to memorise the route, or to memorialise it, because sooner or later the map will get redrawn.  Then there’s the compass.  That gives us a sense of direction, but not the specifics.  It give us due north, but not which twists and turns to take to get there.  A compass points us in the right direction, and keeps us heading there, but we decide on the actual steps.

I think the Bible is more like a compass than a map.  It shows us where God is, and helps us know God, and points us in the direction we should be heading to get to God and to live a God-sort of life.  But the actual route, the steps we need to take to get there, is what we work out – and over the centuries the actual steps have changed.

For Christians, knowing God means knowing a person, not a set of abstract ideas or theological propositions, and one way to know more about God is to learn about Jesus.  Because one of the reasons why God became human was to show us more clearly what God is like: anything we can say about Jesus we can say about God, because Jesus is the image of the invisible God.  And in today’s readings we get to find out some things about Jesus.  We find out about the cosmic Jesus, the Christ who is supreme in creation and in the church, and who embodies the work that God did to heal us and bring us back to a right relationship with God.

And we find out what Jesus was like when he has a meal at his friends’ house.  And this is where it gets interesting, because we can have very different reactions to the interaction between Jesus and Martha and Mary of Bethany.  We tend to read it with some people going ‘Mary has chosen the better part’ while Martha was just a fuss-pot, and others siding with Martha and wishing they had sent out for pizza and maybe Mary and Jesus could have helped with the dishes.  Or (and this is where often find myself) we try to find a way of being both Martha and Mary, offering hospitality and doing stuff to serve others AND spending time with Jesus in prayer and study.

This is one of those times when the map has changed.  Back when Luke’s Gospel was being written, the shocking thing was Jesus’ praise of Mary.  In sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to what he was saying, Mary was being a disciple – and women just didn’t do that.  Women occupied themselves with household tasks and didn’t study theology.  Now it’s different.

So what can this story say to us?  How can we use this as a compass, to point us in the right direction?  Perhaps it’s about attitude as much as priorities.  Martha’s worry and distractions made her resent her sister and prevented her from being truly present with Jesus.  Maybe Jesus’ words to her aren’t a rebuke but rather an invitation, to know that she is valued for who she is as a child of God, instead of for all the things she does.  And that can speak to us, for in an age as busy as ours is, we can have a tendency to measure our worth ourselves by how full our diary is, by how many things we can tick off our to-do lists, or by how well we meet the expectations of those around us.  Maybe the one thing needed, for us as well as for Martha, is to receive Jesus’ presence with gratitude.  To sit at his feet long enough to let that joy and peace carry over into our serving – and for this to be a community where everyone is involved in active ministry, and learning, and prayer.  A community where we can gather together around the Bible, and give thanks for its place in our common life.

Who is my neighbour?

14 July 2013  Luke 10:25-37; Amos 7:7-17                            

A lawyer asks Jesus a question, ‘Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’  The lawyer is well aware of what the law requires – that is, after all, his job, his area of professional expertise.  He tells Jesus what the law says: love God and love your neighbour as yourself.’  So far, so good.  But he goes on to ask, ‘And who is my neighbour?’  The problem with this is that he’s asking the question not in order to understand it more fully, but ‘wanting to justify himself’.  He’s trying to postpone obedience by seeking further clarification.  And I suspect we’ve all done this at some time or another.  What God requires is clear, but the cost is also clear – so we keep asking questions, hunting around for some wiggle room.  Should we contribute financially to the church weekly or monthly?  Should we have a regular prayer time in the morning or the evening?  Should we help all poor people, or only those we actually know?  Or only the ‘deserving poor’?  And so we go on, just like the lawyer in the Gospel, asking questions and trying to find a loophole, a reason not to do what, deep down inside, we know God wants us to do.

So in reply, Jesus tells one of his quirky stories, the stories that are designed to make us think.  A story of someone who was mugged and left for dead, and of three people who happened onto the scene.  The first person to turn up was a priest.  He was someone who also knew about the law.  His area of professional expertise, if you want to put it that way, was how to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength and mind.  He passed by on the other side.  Because part of loving God was keeping God’s commandments, and if the unfortunate victim was already dead, and the priest touched him, he’d become contaminated by death – unclean – and unable to offer the religious sacrifices.  Unable to participate in worship.  So the priest avoided the contact, passed by on the other side.

And what about the Levite?  A Levite was a lay assistant to the Temple hierarchy – sort of like our liturgical assistants.  And he didn’t stop either.  He had important duties to perform, he didn’t want to make himself unclean either, and he was aware of the danger.  What if the robbers were still around, lying in wait for another victim?  So he too kept on going.

We miss the point of the story if we condemn the priest and the Levite too hard at this stage.  Their behaviour wasn’t admirable, but it could be explained.  They acted as they did because of needing to avoid contact with a dead body, making them unclean and unable to fulfil their religious duties – as well as a sensible fear for their own safety.  For them it was a choice between one duty and another duty, between one great commandment and another.  And they chose loving God over loving their neighbour.

And then a third man comes along – and he was a Samaritan.  He was an outsider, and not someone of whom the lawyer would have approved.  Samaritans were socially outcast, religiously heretic, despised and ridiculed by the Jews of Jesus’ time.  For this person to be the one to show the compassion avoided by the religious leaders was shocking, unbelievable and unacceptable.  In telling this story Jesus wasn’t playing safe any more.

And we miss the point of Jesus’ story if we aren’t shocked.  We so glibly call this parable ‘the Good Samaritan’ and forget how shocking, how appalling it would be for Jesus’ original audience to have the words ‘good’ and ‘Samaritan’ next to each other in the same sentence.  It’s like saying the good Al Qaeda terrorist, the good drug dealer, the good homophobic fundamentalist.

Who would be the Samaritan for us today?  Who’s most different from us?  Who do we see as social outcasts, as unclean in some way, as religiously inferior to us?  Who does all the wrong things?  Who would we least like to have to compare ourselves with?   Because that’s what’s going on here.  That’s who Jesus is making the hero of the story, the one who shows the compassion that we can’t.  The one who bears the cost of interrupting his journey, the cost of the medicines, the cost of the accommodation, and the riskiness of possibly being cheated by an unscrupulous innkeeper.  The one who risks so much, and all for someone who, quite possibly, would have flinched from being helped by such a one.

It’s a tough lesson we’re being invited to learn.  When Jesus told this story, and whenever we hear it again, something happens inside us.  And it’s like what God was doing with the prophet Amos – holding up a plumb line.  A way to check, to see if things measure up.  When we listen to this story it feels like, somewhere inside us, a plumb line is being held up.  Do we measure up?  Could we have done what the Samaritan did – reaching out to help someone who looked down on him?  Could we have done what the man in the ditch did – accept help from someone he despised?  Those are not comfortable questions.  They’re not meant to be.

Who is my neighbour? The lawyer’s question implies that there is someone who is not my neighbour, that there are limits to what we are being asked to do.  That we can put people into two columns: neighbours – whom we help, and who help us, and non-neighbours – whom we can safely ignore.  Who was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?  Jesus’ story says that there is no-one who is not my neighbour.  That a neighbour isn’t defined by blood ties, or nationality, or religious affiliation, or by being ‘someone like us’.  A neighbour isn’t defined by location or group, but by those who need help, and those who give it.  A neighbour is defined by the attitude we have towards others.  And sometimes our neighbour is the person we would least expect.

Who proved to be neighbour to the man who was beaten up?  Jesus’ reshaping of the question makes us realise that in human community everyone is a neighbour.   And isn’t that a bit scary?  Or am I the only one that feels afraid at this point?  Because having no limits to who is a neighbour means that there can be no limits to the help we may be asked to give, to the compassion we may be asked to show.  The lawyer was looking for wiggle room, trying to work out where the limits were – but there aren’t any.  And the priest and the Levite were concentrating on loving God – but what we find is that loving our neighbour is a way of loving God.

When we think of God as one whose very being is love and whose life is the pouring out of such love, then loving our neighbour is an invitation to participate in the life and being of God.  I learned a lesson in my final year of seminary when I was working in a prison, caring for the inmates there, some of whom had done things I really wished I didn’t know about.  And the lesson was this: care for the person in front of you, and when you need it the compassion will be there.  And it always was – because there are no limits to the compassion and the love of God, and it is there for us to draw on.  So let our prayer this week be that we can see with God’s eyes those who need our help, and that we can love them with God’s heart, and reach out to them with God’s hands, for they are our neighbours, and we are theirs.

How new people live in community           

 7 July 2013    Galatians 6:1-16                         

What does life in community look like when we live in the freedom Christ gives us, and we use that freedom to serve one another?  That’s what Paul is exploring when he writes to the Galatians, and maybe he’s got some things to say to us this morning.  What does our life together look like?  What could it look like?  Paul’s sensible enough to realise that talking just in theory isn’t so useful: it helps to give an illustration of what he’s on about.  So he offers the example of dealing with a member of the community who’s been caught out doing something wrong.  What should happen next isn’t about punishment or retribution: it’s about helping them, healing them, restoring them gently back into the community.   Anyone who’s read the papers over the past couple of weeks will know that the new dean of our cathedral, who’ll be taking up his appointment in January, has some things to teach us about what that process feels like when you’re on the receiving end of it.  He’s described it as falling into grace, and I’m wondering if he means, not only the grace of God, but the grace of a godly community.

What Paul is talking about is a completely new way of doing life together, and it’s a way which runs counter to how the rest of the world, the world outside the Church, does it.  It’s a way which rules out points-scoring about who is doing things right and who’s getting it wrong.  Those who are baptised, those who have become God’s people, are to fulfil the law of Christ by bearing one another’s burdens.  And in the context that Paul’s writing, in his example of what to do when a member of the community does something wrong, this isn’t about doing somebody else’s work for them – which is what I used to think it meant – but about bearing the burdens of their wrong-doing and their guilt.  It’s a radical way of understanding the responsibility faith-people have for one another.  They’re to share all burdens, even the burdens of guilt and shame when one of them goes astray.  And that’s not limited to examples of major wrong-doing (you know, the sort of stuff that gets in the newspapers), but it includes all the little wrongs and irritations that can beset a community – what the paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer describes as ‘the hurts we absorb from one another’.

This is a whole new way of being community.  Help one another – but don’t judge them.  Judge only yourself, because that way we’ll avoid the self-deception of forgetting that we too are every bit as vulnerable to temptation, every bit as likely to fail at living the life Jesus calls us to, every bit as dependent on God’s grace.  Rather than comparing ourselves to others, we can examine our own lives, or as Paul says, ‘test our own work’  And when we do that, we can find that, like everyone else, we too are guilty of some things, and have other things for which to give thanks.

One way in which I do this is by the ancient practice of examen, reviewing my day in the presence of God.  It gives me a chance to reflect on where God is in my every day life, because examen is a way of inviting God to show us where God was present with us, and how we responded to this.  It starts, as so much of prayer starts, with gratitude, with giving thanks for blessings received, and then I ask God for the grace to see and understand where God has been.  And then I go back over the events of the day, like playing a video over again: waking up, getting ready in the morning, and right through the day: work, family, cooking dinner, paying attention to my experience and looking for God in it.  Someone’s described this as like rummaging around in a drawer, looking for the important things amidst all the keys, papers, bits of string that’s in there – looking for the places where we find God’s presence and God’s love.  And then there’s the stage of facing up to failures and shortcomings and asking for help to grow in love.  I guess Paul would call that learning to carry my own loads.  And then at the end, to look toward the next day: where do I need God’s help?

For Paul, living as part of a community is about the paradox of bearing one another’s burdens and learning to carry our own loads.  I used to think those two things were contradictory, but they’re not: they go together.  Realistic self-examination stops us getting complacent, helps us get a handle on the sorts of shortcomings that happen with us more than once.  It also gives us something to offer, a chance to help with the burdens of others because we know what carrying a burden of our own feels like; we know that just as others aren’t perfect, neither are we.

So we’re called to help one another and evaluate only ourselves – because, of course, we can waste a lot of time and energy judging others.    And we’re called to do what is given us to do on behalf of our neighbours – as Christ, on behalf of God’s people, did what was needed to be done for them.   So whenever we have an opportunity, Paul’s advice to us is to work for the good of all, and especially for those who are part of the family God has given us in Christ.

This is a new way of living – or as Paul might say, it’s the way that people live when they know themselves to be new people: loved, forgiven and accepted by God.   That was what Paul said of himself, and it’s that which led him to say ‘may I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and me to the world. … A new creation is everything!’   May we – you and I – know ourselves to be new creations, new people, and may we live the sort of community life where we bear one another’s burdens, carry our own loads, and together reach out to those around us.

Following Jesus

30 June 2013         Luke 9:51-62; Galatians 5:1,13-25                                               

‘When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.’  This is the hinge upon which the whole Gospel of Luke turns.  Before this was all beginning – after this, things draw towards the end.  Jerusalem is where Luke’s Gospel begins and ends, and Jesus is heading there.  Half of Luke’s Gospel – from this point on till Jesus enters the city riding a colt – is structured around what’s called the Travel Narrative.  Luke does journeys, you see – for Jesus and for us.  He wants us to understand that we are all on a journey, that we are heading somewhere as followers of Jesus.  We read this and remember that the original nickname for people like us, before the word ‘Christians’ came along, was ‘people of the Way’.

So Jesus begins his journey towards Jerusalem – and we all know what happened there.  Right at the beginning of the journey there’s tension, and there’s a rejection.  They passed through a Samaritan village – but the Samaritans wouldn’t receive them, because they were on their way towards Jerusalem.  Jesus had got caught up in the old ethnic tensions, the ones between Samaritans and Jews.

And how many of us does that resonate with, I wonder?  We think we’re starting out on something new – taking a bold new step – and find ourselves getting caught up in tensions that have been around for years.  We may be ready to move on – but the past hangs around us.  And James and John, as so often happens in the Gospel stories, coming across like the same frustrated, frustrating human beings as we are – wanting to respond with a sledgehammer – or in this case, with fire from heaven.  Thinking that a good way to resolve tensions, ethnic or otherwise, is with more aggression.  And Jesus rebukes them, tries to make them see that the answer is not to retaliate, that you don’t have to pick a fight every time.

And then they go on to another village.  Luke moves us from the inhospitable town, the vengeful disciples, the determined Jesus, to three would-be followers.  And here is an honest Jesus.  A Jesus who puts in all the small print so would-be recruits can read it before they sign up.  This is a Jesus for the Fair Trading Act.  A Jesus who points out to each of these three would-be followers the costs of discipleship.

And so Jesus tells the first person that while animals and birds have places they can go, his followers don’t.  Jesus admits that not only is he dependent on the hospitality of others, but that hospitality is not always forthcoming.  Unlike the animals he has no place to hide.  He could well have gone on to ask the potential disciple: are you willing to live with that kind of insecurity?  I think sometimes he’s asking us the same question.  Are we willing to live with insecurity?  To give up control over a lot of things in our lives?  To take risks?  On a good day, or even a medium sort of day, I’m up for it.  But there are days – and you’ve probably had them too – when going to ground, being warm and safe and unadventurous, can seem like a pretty desirable option.

And the second potential disciple?  He utters that wonderful phrase ‘I will follow you, but’ and he makes a request: first let go and bury my father.  Now this is where knowing a bit about burial customs in Jesus’ time really helps.  Back then, when someone died they were normally buried right away, in the family burial cave.  Immediately after that, the family would stay at home and mourn for seven days, sitting shiva, not going out – certainly not walking along a road and meeting anyone like Jesus.  That initial week was followed by a less intense period of mourning for another 30 days, and then they took up their lives again.  And about a year later, when the flesh of the body in the burial cave had decomposed, the bones were collected and placed in chests, in an act of ‘secondary burial’.  So the potential disciple’s request here is about wanting time to finish the rite of secondary burial.  And Jesus is telling him that he cannot wait for the rest of the year to pass: the kingdom of God is at hand, and following the Messiah takes priority.  But it’s still tough, isn’t it, to hear that the old duties, the old obligations, have been taken over by the urgency of following Jesus.  And there’s a lot of ‘I will follow you, but’ that I can relate to.  How about you?

And the third potential disciple?  He’s another one who says, ‘I will follow you, but’.  He wants to go back and say farewell to his family and friends, to his old life.  It’s a not unreasonable request.  And there was a precedent for this one: when Elisha became Elijah’s disciple, he was allowed to go home and say farewell to his parents, and to his community before following the prophet.  Elisha got to go back and give his people a meal from the sacrificed oxen – a symbolic breaking with his old way of life.  And then having made an ending, he could then make a beginning: he followed Elijah and became a prophet – a fairly risky undertaking.

So what’s going on here?  Jesus is making it clear to his would-be disciples that the demands of following him take precedence over the best – not the worst – of human priorities.  Over the need for security, over filial obligations, over the ties of family and friends.  It’s all a bit scary, isn’t it, this stuff about the costs of following Jesus.  A bit precarious.  The good news – at least I think it’s good news – is that Jesus didn’t underestimate the costs and burdens of his own calling.  After all, when he got to Jerusalem, he was the one praying in the garden of Gethsemane ‘if there’s another way…can we please try that instead?’

Jesus doesn’t underestimate the costs of discipleship.  But discipleship is a journey we’re on – and it’s a journey that we’re not on alone.  Jesus didn’t ask the disciples to go places where he hadn’t gone before.  So in this journey, at least we are accompanied – by Jesus and by each other.   We do this journey as part of a community.

Which brings us, doesn’t it, to Paul writing to the Galatians.  Paul knew a lot about living as a community, and he presents the Galatians with a couple of lists: vices and virtues.  And I guess most of us, hearing stuff like impurity, licentiousness and sorcery, would have switched off, thinking they don’t apply to us.  Which means that we might have missed the references to anger, quarrels, dissensions and envy.  Oops.  Is there anyone who hasn’t had a simple quarrel in the last month?  Who’s never got angry?  Who hasn’t envied – and that’s not just envying wage packets or beautiful possessions, but includes envying someone’s energy, work/life balance, cooking skills or singing voice? – and, quite honestly, I plead guilty to all of those.  So if we’re really truthful, we can find ourselves in the first list.  And as for the second – we’re trying hard on these.   Sometimes I think if I work really hard on patience I might achieve it by the end of this year, and then I can concentrate on joy, knowing that some of you have got kindness down to a fine art and are looking at peace.  Except that Paul’s not talking about ‘working at it’.  These are ‘fruit’.  A tree doesn’t work at producing fruit – it just happens.  So maybe we can be asking ourselves, are these things growing in my life, day after day?

I have a hunch: that if we concentrate on following Jesus, on sticking close to him, no matter what the cost, then these good fruit will grow in our lives.  If we can lay aside our ‘I will follow you, but’ and keeping walking, with each other, on this journey with Jesus then we will I think start to notice these fruit growing more and more in our lives and the lives of our community.   So – are we up for this?  Shall we journey together, with Jesus?

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