Giving God a black eye!

This is a sermon I gave in October at Bushey & Oxhey Methodist Church. The set readings for that morning were Genesis 32:22-31 and Luke 18:1-8.

Both of our stories today can be understood as relating to that most mysterious of Christian activities, prayer. In both cases, arguably, the original context of the passages gave them a different reading but Christians have, for many centuries, used them as analogies or metaphors for prayer.

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Jacob wrestling with the angel (Rembrandt)

In Genesis, we heard part of a much longer narrative dealing with the, not always morally exemplary, activities of Jacob, son of Isaac. He was understandably nervous about meeting his estranged brother Esau, whom he had cheated out of his father’s final blessing. He camps alone at Peniel awaiting his brother’s wrath. In the night, he wrestles with a strange man – usually referred to as an angel but seemingly God incarnate, if you read the text carefully – and ultimately secures his blessing, albeit at the expense of a bruised hip. It is a strange and wonderful story that raises far more questions than it answers, not least of which is how this very sinful man could have successfully wrestled with the divine creator.

The second passage places us in much more familiar territory, with a parable told by Jesus. Like so many of Jesus’ parables, it concerns everyday people and situations – in this case an unnamed widow and judge in an anonymous city – but it gently subverts their roles. The judge is very far from being the upright, sober figure that we would expect of a person in that role. And the widow too is definitely not the meek and mild, helpless widow that we are used to from the standard depictions of such stories. As the Jewish commentator, Amy-Jill Levine, points out, our English translation really does not do justice to the force of the widow’s protests. Where we, in the NRSV translation, have the widow elegantly pleading, “Grant me justice against my opponent,” (Luke 18:3) Levine has the much more direct, “Avenge me”. And even more colourfully, where we have the judge fearing that the widow will, “wear me out by continually coming” (18:5), she notes that the language used is actually borrowed from sporting terminology and translates it: “I will avenge her, so that in the end she will not give me a black eye”! (Amy-Jill Levine. 2014. Short Stories by Jesus. New York: HarperOne. p221) The parable seeks to remind us how much more just and willing to hear is God than this uncaring judge. But it also a vital reminder that the parables of Jesus can never be tamed to say what we want them to, and should always challenge our preconceptions and assumptions.

For me, both stories reminded me of a story told by Philip Yancey in his excellent book on prayer:

‘I met a Jew at the wailing wall and asked him what he was praying for. “I pray for righteousness,” he said. “I pray for the health of my family. I pray for peace in the world.” “Are your prayers effective?” I asked. “It’s like talking to a wall.”’ (Philip Yancey. 2006. Prayer. London: Hodder. p106)

Our two passages echo this confusion and frustration at the act of praying. Of the almost insuperable challenge involved in communicating with a God who made both heaven and earth. The Welsh poet and priest R S Thomas described it thus:

Prayers like gravel
flung at the sky’s
window, hoping to attract
the loved one’s
attention. (‘Folk Tale’)

But with only the slightest hope of ever seeing a twitch in the curtains.

prayer-philip-yanceyFor me, the image of Jacob wrestling with God is probably the most accurate and evocative metaphor for prayer. Of wrestling through the night with an unseen and unknown stranger, with the result very much in doubt. You can be left bruised and battered by the process, and very uncertain as to whether or not you have actually achieved anything!

This analogy certainly matches my experience of prayer in one of the darkest times in my life: my ‘coming out’. For me, that experience – that is the public recognition of my own sexuality – had to begin with self-recognition. I had to understand who I was first. At that time, I lived in Hove by the sea and I would take long walks down to the beach, praying and arguing with God. And we wrestled. We reasoned it through, and after complaining bitterly to God about why he had so cruelly made me this way, I eventually cried out, “You have made me like this; you need to deal with the consequences.”. And never in my life, before or since, have I felt such an assurance of God’s love and calm in my life – it was the closest I may ever get to John Wesley’s feeling of having his heart strangely warmed.

There are so many issues about which we pray – individually and as a church – that feel like that one. That feel as though we are wrestling with a bear or a giant, almost – a force completely beyond our control; so vast that we can’t even reach to its edges and which seems to engulf us in its enormity..

On Thursday night in church we heard about just such a seemingly unstoppable force. We had an excellent meeting of the Oxfam group that has met on our premises for many years to talk about the refugee crisis. And as we heard about the massive scale of the problem that we are facing, the numbers of people involved and the extent of the human suffering that is entailed, it was very easy to become utterly overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. As a I look around the church today, I know that many of us here have faced, or are facing, similar challenges that seem to dwarf us and overwhelm us. Loss, illness, or pain, to name but three. It is so tempting to ask, ‘What is the point of wrestling with such an overwhelming force? Much better to give up and cease this futile activity.’

Our stories today remind us, though, that somehow we need to keep on wrestling. However, strong the mysterious man is, however unjust and powerful the judge seems, the fight is still worth it! Because how much worthier is God than that unjust judge? How much more does he love each one of us? What has he not been willing to sacrifice for our sakes? And how much bigger is God than any of our problems? He can take the odd black eye from an enraged widow. There is nothing that we cannot shout or scream at God that will make him wince or walk away from us. It doesn’t mean that we will always get the result we want or that we will not emerge from the unequal fight without bruises and many sleepless nights. But it does mean that the struggle is worth it.

prayer-duererThink of those who prayed for 50 long years for an end to the Cold War in Europe. Or those who prayed for peace in Northern Ireland. For women who prayed for their voices to be heard in the church. For the victims of abuse who cried out for justice. For gay and lesbians who desperately wanted to be free. For women and men across the globe who pleaded with their leaders to take seriously the threat of climate change.

In these cases and so many others, it seemed as though the struggle was futile and pointless. No one was listening; no one cared. But God listened, God cared, and God listens still. And whether we believe that prayer changes God, or changes us, it DOES change the world and the lives of individuals. Take another example from Philip Yancey’s book:

The musician Bono once asked Archbishop Desmond Tutu [in South Africa] how he managed to find time for prayer and meditation [as he presided over the lengthy and arduous process of the post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Committee]. Tutu replied, “What are you talking about? Do you think we’d be able to do this stuff if we didn’t?” (Yancey, Prayer, p115)

Maybe we will not understand how or why prayer works until we – as the apostle Paul puts it – see, not “through a mirror dimly,” but “face to face”. (1 Corinthians 13:12) But we do know that God neither wishes nor chooses to remain aloof from his creation. He wrestled with Jacob; he walked among us in the person of Jesus Christ; his Spirit remains working in his world this day and every day. So, I urge you: keep on wrestling. Keep on crying out for justice and mercy. Keep on threatening to give God a black eye until you are heard! And do not give up until you have your answer. Amen.

 

Notes: I would heartily recommend both Amy-Jill Levine‘s book and Philip Yancey‘s. Please follow the links to buy them. 

Images: ‘Jacob Wrestling with the Angel’ by Rembrandt van Rijn. Source: Wikimedia. ‘Praying Hands’ (Betende Hände) by Albrecht Dürer. Source: Wikimedia. Public domain.

On the move

A few weeks ago an e-mail came into my inbox that made me stop and pause for quite a long while. It was the list of Methodist circuits seeking ministers in 2017. I had been expecting it for a long while as I had known we would be moving for some time. Methodist ministers are ‘itinerant’ (i.e. we move about fairly regularly) and we we generally don’t stay in places for more than five or seven years. Even though I knew it was coming, though, when the letter finally came, it was still quite a shock. I realised that one of these places would be our new home from September next year, with a new house (or ‘manse’), new churches, new people and new communities. I had been talking about this process for so long that I thought I was quite blasé about it all. However, as we all know, it’s quite another matter when reality bites!

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On the road again

The list contains 154 locations, starting with the Welsh-speaking congregations of North-West Wales (not one for me, I think!) and ending with the churches of North Kent. Geographically, they are spread from Jersey in the south to Perthshire in the north; from the Isles of Scilly to East Anglia and the Fens. Some places are seeking ministers to be superintendents; others are looking for someone to take charge of three, four or more churches; while still others are looking for people to be part of brave new mission ventures and exciting building projects. It is a wonderful reminder of the breadth and depth of our truly national church, and a stern warning against narrow parochialism. ‘The Church’ is not just limited to ‘my church’!

The list has already caused a number of sleepless nights and no doubt will cause more even after we are finally matched. This will be the third time I have packed up my belongings to serve the church, leaving familiar things behind, but it remains a hard prospect – especially as we have been made very welcome in Watford. Compared to so many people, though, I know that we are very lucky in being part of such a well run and prayerful process. Friends in the armed forces, for example, have much harder transitions to manage.

As so often in my ministry, I am reminded of the Exodus story, which we read about in our Old Testament and which I believe remains one of the most important metaphors for our life with God. In the Sinai desert, the prophet Moses fears that God will not travel with his people when they finally enter the Promised Land of “milk and honey”. Moses cries out: “‘If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.” (Exodus 33:15) He would rather be left in the wilderness, or return to slavery in Egypt, than go on to freedom without God. It is a cry and a fear that we find repeatedly in the pages of our Bible and in the lives of God’s people: the fear that we shall travel into uncharted territory and find ourselves alone.

Our scriptures reassure us, though, that this is most definitely not the case. Wherever God’s people have travelled – physically, mentally or spiritually – they have found God already there waiting for them. Be it the Israelites in Canaan, the exiles in Babylon or the apostles in the Roman Empire. Even in the deep waters of death, we know we shall find Christ waiting for us to bring us safely home. This does not mean that such times of change will not bring about fear or confusion – or sleepless nights. Nor does it mean we will always be happy about where we are sent. It is the assurance, though, that ultimately gives me courage to face what is to come. Whatever God may have in store for us, I know I shall not travel alone or find that God is not there waiting for me.

Called to a ministry of reconciliation

This is a sermon I delivered at Bushey & Oxhey Methodist Church at the beginning of July. This was the first Sunday after the referendum on British membership of the European Union had been held. It was also the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. There were two readings, both from the New Testament: Matthew 5:21-24 and 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, 6:11-13. They both deal with the theme of reconciliation in different ways, the first coming from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and the second from Paul’s heart-felt appeal to the early Christians in Corinth to love one another.

This morning, I would like to talk a little about reconciliation. In doing so, I would like to take us to three different places in three different times.

The first is the ancient Greek city of Corinth in about the year 55 AD, and specifically to the hundred or so early Christians there, who were the recipients of the letter that we just heard read.

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Street in ancient Corinth

Christians know a lot about reconciliation and the New Testament, in particular, speaks about the subject fairly frequently. Unfortunately, this is largely because Christians have been very good at disagreeing and fighting each other! The last 2,000 years of church history has been pretty much one bust-up after the other over nearly every aspect of church life. The Methodist Church itself is effectively the product of such a disagreement, in fact. And although such things are unknown to us here (!), sadly too many Christian churches have been riven by factions and cliques over the years.

That was certainly the case in ancient Corinth. That was a congregation truly at war with itself, and with its nominal leader, Paul. Exactly why they were at war with each other remains a matter of great scholarly debate. In part, though, the differences seem to relate to theology, in part to personality, and at least in part to power. And sadly the latter two have continued to cause problems in our churches ever since!

In this most personal and heartfelt appeal to those first Christians to be reconciled with one another and with himself, I believe that Paul also speaks directly to us and his words remain deeply relevant.

First, he gives the Corinthian Christians, and us, a very specific job. He calls us to be “ambassadors for Christ” (6:20). And what is the most important job of such an ambassador? It is to make peace with the party or country to whom she or he has been sent. It is to end tensions and distrust, bring conflict to an end. It is to engage in what the apostle so rightly calls the “ministry of reconciliation” (6:18). A word that we may translate as meaning something like ‘start talking again’ or ‘sit down and engage with one another once more’. It is the state to which all Christians should aspire.

Paul does not stop there, though; he goes on to give the Corinthian Christians, and again us, a model for this reconciliation. That example to follow, is of course the person of Jesus Christ: God made flesh. Now I know that in a very clichéd way Jesus is always the answer but in so many ways Christ provides the perfect model for those seeking true reconciliation.

How? Well, to begin with, as Paul says, the very incarnation of God in the person of Jesus was an act of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19). It was God reaching out to his creation. Not waiting for us to make the first move but crucially exposing himself to hatred and rejection by opening his arms in love to each one of us. When he appeared among us, again as Paul says, he did not count our wrongs against us but started a new page: gave each of us a fresh start. This was not the begrudging, ill-tempered reconciliation that so many of us were forced to make as children by our parents but a genuine ‘forgive and forget’ generosity. In all he did and said, Christ sought to break down the barriers that his creation had so effectively erected between themselves: barriers of class, race, gender, age. Barriers that sadly we humans seem desperately keen to cling onto.

Most importantly, his offer of reconciliation was not a quick, ‘take it or leave it’ moment. It was – and is – an offer that kept on being made. Whatever the world threw at him – whatever hatred and bile – Jesus kept turning the other cheek, and kept on offering the free love and forgiveness of God to all who would listen. Even on the cross, he cried out in pain to reach out to those who crucified him, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”. Not even the cross and death could end his ministry of reconciliation.

Now, whether or not the Corinthian Christians heeded Paul’s message is unsure. What we definitely know, though, is that sadly, God’s creation has repeatedly fail to heed the call to true reconciliation, with disastrous effects – both in the church and in the wider world.

somme

Battle of the Somme, 1916

That failure of reconciliation was perhaps nowhere seen better than in our second time and place: the Battle of the Somme, June 1916.

Many of you will have seen or heard some of the events that were held across the country on Thursday and Friday to mark the centenary of the start of that dreadful battle. I will not rehearse all the details again but some of the statistics are absolutely horrendous. Over 19,000 British soldiers killed on the first day – the bloodiest day in the history of the British army. At the end of hostilities, five months later, the British had advanced just seven miles and had completely failed to break the German defences. In total, those seven miles of muddy quagmire would cost more than a million dead and wounded on all sides, including 420,000 British, about 200,000 French and around 465,000 German. A complete and utter waste of precious human life, to add to the other such centenaries we have been celebrating of late: the Battle of Jutland, the Battle of Verdun, and so on.

We could spend a lot of time reading the accounts of the Battle of the Somme, of the horror and the stupidity of it all. The written memories, the poetry and the eyewitness testimony that has been left to us, serve – just like the enormous memorial at Thiepval – as terrible warnings of the futility of war. Two of the names on our own war memorial met their ends in that terrible conflict. A chilling reminder of how close the horrors of the Somme came to the quiet streets of Bushey and Oxhey.

I have talked about the events of World War One here before, not least during the exhibition at Bushey Academy in 2014. What we always have to remember about the terrible events of that conflict is that it didn’t come ‘out of a clear blue sky’ as is sometimes thought. It came about because for years, Europe’s leaders and politicians had completely neglected the need for reconciliation. Christopher Clark’s excellent book, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914, describes in great detail how our continent descended in to the madness of war. Itspeaks about the simmering causes of the war over decades: disputes over trade, borders, the treatment of minorities, colonies, spheres of influence, national pride and prestige, fears about the future, fears about losing the upper hand, prejudice and basic racism. What he makes absolutely clear was how the war was not just about German aggression but how all the nations of Europe were involved in creating this pressure cooker atmosphere, including the United Kingdom. How leaders acted as though reconciliation was something for others to do, not themselves – reconciliation meant others recognising how stupid their claims were, and how valid their own were. He also makes clear how leaders and politicians were egged on to pursue war – by the media, by intellectuals, by populations, who all refused to recognise the need for reconciliation and wanted simplistic solutions to vastly complicated questions. For me, one of the most striking facts was that the book is almost 500 pages long yet there is practically no mention of the churches or Christianity at this time actively speaking out for reconciliation. Tragically, they too often acted as national cheerleaders. A role they would soon find themselves forced into when war actually broke out.

Despite this being allegedly the most Christian continent in the world, the leaders of Europe before 1914 failed utterly to heed the lessons of the church in Corinth. They failed completely to follow the example of Jesus Christ, as I set out earlier – opening themselves up to rejection by offering terms of peace, taking the hard road to reconciliation, as opposed to the easy one to cheap headlines, refusing to come back to the negotiating table after a minor setback, or even perhaps to go to the table at all. The Battle of the Somme, where so many innocent men died horribly, came about for exactly the same reasons that Christ died on Calvary: because too many fallen and sinful humans believed that hatred and violence was a much better and easier solution to problems than forgiveness and reconciliation. The men of the Somme died – not because they wanted to fight for King and Empire – they died because their politicians failed them, and failed them utterly. Because too many people away from the battlefield – in newspaper offices, in London clubs, in Britain’s churches even – valued their own prejudices and sense of national honour more than the lives of the men who would die on the fields of France and Belgium. And the greatest tragedy of all of the Somme, is that it would take another global war before Christ’s message and example of reconciliation would even begin to be heeded in Europe.

referendumThe third and final place I’d like to take us to today, is Britain in the summer of 2016. There is allegedly an old Chinese curse that states, ‘May you live in interesting times’. Well, we are certainly living in such times now, aren’t we?! I cannot really remember another time when day by day, we had news headlines and breaking stories that rival even the soap operas for their twists and turns.

Whatever the future holds for us, though, I fear that none of us can reflect with real pride on what has happened in this country during the referendum campaign. Commentators are already calling this one of the worst political campaigns they have ever seen – with many comparing it to the dreadful rhetoric of the Trump campaign in the USA. On both sides of the debate, the truth suffered and we were overwhelmed with lies, damned lies and statistics. In the heat of the battle, with so much seeming to be at stake, things were said that should not have been said. Language was used that has no place in a modern democracy and deep-seated tensions were laid bare. As a Christian, I was appalled by some of the wicked lies and simplistic solutions that were peddled – solutions that all relied on blaming ‘the other’ for our problems and taking no responsibility for ourselves.

This campaign and its associated debate opened up deep schisms in our society. It turned neighbours, friends and even families against each other. I know that the subject had to be banned in many pubs and family dinner tables to prevent fracas. There was even an article in the Evening Standard a month or so ago entitled, ‘How to survive Brexit disagreement in your marriage’. The divisions within our country were cruelly exposed by the vote and we now have to think how to bring ourselves back together: town versus country, Scotland and Northern Ireland versus England and Wales, London versus the rest.

Very worrying was the deep division by age in the results, with only 27% of those aged under 24 voting to Leave, compared to 60% of those aged over 65. One of the hymns that I often choose for the start of our services includes the lines “Join the hands of friend and stranger, join the hands of age and youth.” How are we to do that now?

Perhaps most disturbing of all, though, are the deep-seated racial and ethnic hatred that this campaign seems to have unleashed. Since the result of the referendum came in, police have reported a five-fold increase in hate crimes. Attacks on a Polish cultural centre in west London, the fire-bombing of a halal butcher’s shop in Walsall, the daubing of racist graffiti across the country. Perhaps most worrying have been the attacks directed at children and random strangers on the street. A Swedish mother with her two children told to ‘F*** off back to your own country’ on the streets of York. A British Sikh radiologist in the West Midlands asked by a patient, “We voted for you to go home; when are you leaving?”. Postcards with the slogan ‘No more Polish vermin’ left on doorsteps in Huntingdon.

Whatever our views on the referendum, we need to recognise that there are a lot of very frightened people in our country at present. People who have often lived and worked in this country for years, who have worked in our public services, paid their taxes and sought to contribute to British life and society. And suddenly they feel threatened and insecure. And as the months go on, and the reality of what we have done as a nation sinks in and tough economic decisions have to be made, I fear – along with many others – that these tensions will simply get worse. As we suffer at the hands of globalised, anonymous financial forces, I fear we will do what we always do in Europe: blame ‘the other’.

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The Thiepval Memorial to the fallen of the Somme

As Christians, now is the time for us to witness to the reconciling love, power and example of our Saviour Jesus Christ. We cannot go back in time and heal the Corinthian Church or stop the Battle of the Somme before it starts. But we can serve this age, and this country, and this situation. All of us have the power to reach out in love to our neighbours and to those with whom we brush shoulders every day, and witness to our belief in reconciliation and healing. We cannot solve our economic problems, most of us cannot even elect our new Prime Minister, but we can reach out in love in Christ’s name.

We have to remember that just as war starts as hatred and prejudice directed at individuals, so too does an end to war and the beginning of reconciliation. As Paul tried to tell the Corinthian Church: reconciliation began with God reaching out to a fallen humanity in the form of a single man, Jesus Christ. It didn’t start with grand gestures, and international peace conferences, it began with one human telling another human that they were forgiven, loved and free. It began with one human – divine, though he was – putting aside his bitterness and hurt. It began with one human saying that the barriers of class, gender, age, ethnicity, and all the rest of them didn’t matter.

And today, here in Bushey & Oxhey in 2016, if we truly desire reconciliation for our country, for a future free of the carnage of the Somme and the horrors of the 20th Century, then we have to recognise that reconciliation begins with us. Let us heed Paul’s heart-felt appeal. Let us each be an ambassador for Christ, bringing healing and reconciliation wherever we go. For the ministry is not just mine; it is a ministry to which we all belong, and to which Jesus Christ himself calls you today. As Paul urged those first Christians so long ago, “open wide your hearts also” (2 Cor. 6:13). Amen.

 

Images: Street in ancient Corinth. Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia. British Mark I male tank near Thiepval, 25 September 1916 – taken by Ernest Brooks. Imperial War Museums. Public Domain. Source; Wikimedia. EU Referendum. Source: publicdomainpictures.net.  Thiepval Anglo-French Cemetery – Wernervc. Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: Wikimedia.

Come, Holy Spirit!

This is an article I wrote for one of my church’s magazines shortly after Pentecost. This is the time of year Christians remember the work of God’s Holy Spirit. It begins with a quote from a hymn by Charles Wesley. To read the hymn in full, click here.

 “Come, Holy Ghost, our hearts inspire,
Let us thine influence prove”

pentecostWe are now in the season of Trinity when, after all the excitement of Christmas, Lent, Easter and Pentecost, we reflect as a church on the nature of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Whenever I go into schools or indeed preach, it is the third part of that Trinity that many people seem to struggle with most. Generally, we have some sort of image of God as Creator or Father, and we are very familiar with the stories of Jesus from the gospels. However, when we come to the work of the Holy Spirit, many of us become less confident. We use analogies and images (like a dove), and it can end up sounding as though this third person of the Trinity is nothing more substantial than a ghost story.

The words of Charles Wesley’s hymn quoted above give us a vital key to grasping the reality of the Holy Spirit. It is to be seen and experienced primarily not through tongues of fire or rushing wind (or even doves), but through the lives of ordinary women and men like us. Through Christian communities and individuals showing God’s love, grace and power in what they say and do. Through churches opening their doors to the needy; through Christians speaking out for justice and truth, even in the most difficult situations; through countless acts of charity and kindness.

The Holy Spirit is the assurance of Christ’s presence in our lives, this day and always. Our neighbours and our world need to see and feel its influence today, just as much as people did two thousand years ago at the first Pentecost in Jerusalem. This season, therefore, let us cast aside our fears and doubts, and open our hearts and minds to its blesséd influence. Come, Holy Spirit!

 

Image: An icon of the Christian Pentecost, in the Greek Orthodox tradition. This is the Icon of the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. At the bottom is an allegorical figure, called Kosmos, which symbolizes the world. Source: Wikimedia. Public domain. 

Now is the time!

This is a sermon I gave in May, 2016, a few days after Ascension Day. This is the day when Christians recalls Jesus’ return to heaven, forty days after his resurrection. The Bible readings that day were two Biblical accounts of the Ascension: Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11.

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Bluebells in bloom at Dockey Wood, Ashridge, near Berkhamsted

Today we heard two very interesting passages from the Bible, both written by the same author: Luke. They read slightly differently, not because of anything wrong with the historical accuracy of the record but because one comes at the end of the first volume of his ‘good news of Jesus Christ’ and the other at the beginning of his second. Much could, and has been said, about both passages.

We could note how the apostles – the people who had been closest to Jesus throughout his ministry – only fully understood who he was and what he was doing at the very end of his ministry. We read that Jesus then, “opened their minds to understand the scriptures,” (Luke 24:45), in a similar way as he had done on the road to Emmaus (24:25-27). This is something that is picked up in Acts too: “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” (Acts 1:6-7) It reminds me of the moment at the end of a book or film, when you suddenly cry out, “Ah, that’s what he meant!” and all the pieces of the plot finally fall into place. These verses are a clear warning against scriptural dogmatism and a reminder that we now see “only through a glass darkly” and perfect knowledge will only come at the end.

ascension-benvenuto-tisi-da-garofaloWe could also note how the apostles are effectively handed the baton by Jesus. In other words, ‘over to you’! “You are witnesses of these things,” (Luke 24:48) Jesus tells his friends, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The responsibility to tell the good news of what Jesus has done for the world is OURS – not just ministers or elders or church workers but all of ours.

Most importantly, we could note the promise that Jesus makes before the Ascension that he is going to prepare a place for each of us in his heavenly home and that he does not leave us alone and bereft. “See, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). And, “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5). Pentecost, which we celebrate next week, will fulfil the promise Jesus made earlier in ministry: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me” (John 14:18). This is a vital reminder that we continue to encounter the risen Christ through the work of the Spirit: we have not been deserted.

bluebells-1We could talk about all these very important things, but (typically) I want to talk about something else: bluebells! On Wednesday I had lots of other things to do but I decided that it was important to make time to visit Dockey Wood, in Ashridge, near Berkhamsted. If didn’t go then, I knew wouldn’t see the famous bluebells at all as I was busy this weekend. As I walked round with my partner, we saw not only a wonderful carpet of bluebells but also several beautiful trees just come into bloom. It caused me to half-remember a poem, and when I got back I looked it up. It is one by A.E. Houseman and comes from his series of poems, ‘A Shropshire Lad’:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Together, the bluebells and the blossom reminded me that the Ascension of Jesus is a crucial reminder to treasure ‘the now’ that God has given us.

The gospels tell us that Jesus frequently reminded those around him to treasure him whilst he was still with them. John the Baptist’s disciples asked Jesus why his disciples did not fast, as was the custom at that time. Jesus replied: “You cannot make wedding-guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” (Luke 5:34-6) The story of Martha and Mary has a similar moral (Luke 10:38-42). As does Jesus’ warning about worrying about tomorrow, and the birds of the air and flowers of the field – though he didn’t mention bluebells! (Luke 12:22-32)

It is a lesson that I need to heed myself. I am going on retreat shortly and I know that I will find it almost impossible not to fret about all the things that have to be done, instead of enjoying the time alone in the beauty of a rural retreat centre.

ascension-armenian-gospelsI was pointedly reminded of the lesson too this week, when I was in hospital with a man who died yesterday. He knew that his end wasn’t far away and he was being given excellent care by both the staff there and by his family, who were all around him. Each time one of them left, even to go to the toilet, he’d say, “I love you”. He wanted to use every moment that he still had to do and say the things that really mattered. I came away wondering if I used all my moments with such wisdom.

Now this does not mean that you should go home and stop paying the gas bill, stop doing the food shopping and start spending money like there’s no tomorrow! Nor does it mean that we should ever be reckless about how we use our resources or the world’s – giving no thought for those who come after us. It is about valuing THE NOW that God has given us: the bluebells, the gifts of nature, the people around us. It’s about taking time to look at the blossom; to sit and listen to someone patiently instead of dashing off to the next thing; of telling someone how important and valuable they are to you.

This is not blind optimism. This is not saying just live for today and stuff the rest. This is a call to value the now because we have the certainty of God’s love – that ends can be beginnings as well. Most importantly it is a call to remember that Jesus is present with us now, will always be present with us in our lives, if we care to let him in and that he will waiting to welcome us home, when our journey is ended. Amen.

 

Images: Author’s own photos of bluebell wood. ‘Ascension of Christ’ – Benvenuto Tisi (1481–1559). Web Gallery of Art. Public Domain. Via Wikimedia. ‘The Ascension’ – from Illuminated Armenian Gospels with Eusebian canons. Shelfmark MS. Arm. d.13.By Unknown – The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, CC BY 4.0. Via Wikimedia.

False gods

This piece was written for one of my church’s magazines in April, 2016, after a very happy visit to Bavaria in southern Germany.

“You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3)

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Richard Wagner

After Easter this year, I was lucky enough to visit Bavaria in southern Germany for a week’s holiday with some friends. We travelled round and saw lots of wonderful old towns, castles and even walked through snow in the Alps. One highlight for me was visiting Bayreuth, a relatively small town that has become famous because its most prestigious resident: the composer Richard Wagner. He built his home there and established an annual festival, where his music is performed each summer in a specially-constructed theatre. It is a real highlight of the German cultural and social calendar, and tickets for the performances are incredibly hard to obtain.

Visiting Bayreuth was special for me because, like many other people, I love Wagner’s music. However I am also only too aware of the ‘darker’ side of the history of the man and his music. Richard Wagner and his family were deeply anti-semitic, and his music and personal philosophy became inextricably linked with Hitler and the Nazi party in the 1930s. It was also clear to me wandering round the museum there that the composer’s wife, Cosima, had managed to create a semi-religious aura around Wagner after his death. He was only spoken of as ‘The Master’, his writings (several of which are vile anti-Jewish diatribes) were treated as having almost scriptural authority and his possessions were specially-guarded, holy relics. He and his music came to be regarded by many as holding the key to universal truths, and the source of national purification and salvation.

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The clothes of ‘the Master’ preserved at his home in Bayreuth.

However, when you read more and dig a little deeper, you soon realise that, though he was undoubtedly a musical genius, this all too human man did not deserve anything like the adulation he received. He was, in the words of the Bible, a “false idol” – a very imperfect object of adulation, whose image was largely created by himself and others, and who had only too obvious feet of clay.

It was a powerful reminder for me of the danger of putting anything at the centre of our worship other than God. For ultimately anything that we put in the place of the truly divine will prove to be as worthless as the clay or wood idols we read of in our Old Testament: money, status, possessions, education, even other people. It is only God who truly satisfies; only God who is the Creator and Lord of all; only God who has the words of eternal life that can give us the key to begin understanding the mysteries of the world. For me, Bayreuth was an important reminder of that fact and I urge you to reflect on what it is that you truly place at the centre of your life’s worship.

 

Images: author’s own photos.

Master, speak! Thy servant heareth.

This is a sermon that I delivered at one of my churches on Easter Sunday 2016. The Bible reading that morning was John’s account of the resurrection of Jesus: John 20:11-18. As a church we had been studying John’s gospel together throughout Lent.

Recognising voices can be hard. If we just hear someone’s voice alone, perhaps calling us from across the street or on the radio, we may struggle at first to identify who is speaking. We can perhaps understand, therefore, why Mary Magdalene initially struggled to recognise Jesus’ voice in our reading. She was overcome by grief and despair, deeply troubled and confused by what she saw at the empty tomb, and clearly not in a fit state to recognise anybody. Many of us have learned a great deal about John’s gospel over the last six weeks, and this passage has all the hallmarks of the author’s wonderful narrative skills: conjuring up so easily a detailed mental picture of that very first Easter morning.

noli-me-tangereThroughout the scriptures, God’s people have struggled to hear and discern his voice. The boy Samuel in the temple thought that it was his master, Eli, calling him, not God (1 Samuel 3). The prophet Elijah had to struggle to hear the “still small voice” of God speaking on the mountainside, after the raging of the storm and the earthquake (1 Kings 19). Even the apostle Peter had to fall asleep on the rooftop of Cornelius’ house before he could still the noise in his own mind and hear clearly the voice of God telling him to set aside the food laws of the old dispensation (Acts 10).

And there have been many others who heard the voice of God distinctly but did not wish to listen. The prophet Jonah clearly heard the word of the Lord telling him to go to Nineveh but immediately set off in the opposite direction (Jonah 1). At the beginning of John’s gospel, the stiff-necked Pharisees and Sadducees clearly heard the words of John the Baptist – a voice truly crying in the wilderness – but did not wish to hear his disturbing message (John 1). Paul had to be forcibly confronted by the voice and the blinding presence of God before he would heed God’s will and cease persecuting the followers of Christ (Acts 9).

Sadly, God’s people have been trying not to hear God ever since and today’s scripture reading provides us with one excellent example. In our passage, it is Mary – a woman – who first discovers the empty tomb; it is to Mary that the risen Christ first appears; and it is from Mary that the other male disciples first hear the words of jubilation: “I have seen the Lord.” (John 20:18). No wonder that Mary has often been called the ‘apostle to the apostles’ – that is the messenger to the messengers. Her role, though, and the vital leadership roles played by so many women in Christ’s ministry, was neatly forgotten by the male patriarchs of our church. They refused to recognise that the voice of God spoke through women as much as men because such a shocking revelation scared and disturbed them. Sadly it has taken 2,000 years or so for us to recognise this fault and hear the voices of Christ-inspired women once more in our church and world.

Exactly the same challenge faces us today. How do we hear the voice of our risen Lord? How do we discern the voice of God from the many hundreds of other voices that crowd into our consciousness each day? How do we recognise the voice of Jesus, and not mistake him for the gardener?

There is no easy answer to these questions and Christians have struggled to hear the words of Jesus ever since Mary in that garden so long ago. But let me offer you three (mercifully brief) pointers that I think are relevant to each one of us today.

First, you have to make space to hear the voice of God. Mary went to the garden whilst it mary-magdalenewas still dark to be alone at the tomb. The gospels tell us that Jesus frequently took time to be alone with his Father, to pray and listen – most notably of course during the 40 days that we commemorate in Lent. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, famously got up at 4:00 o’clock each morning to pray through his day and make time to listen to God. Where is there time in our lives for God to speak to us? If is a sin of which I certainly am guilty. Too often, we are so busy doing the work of God that we, forget to simply be attentive disciples, waiting for God to speak. Prayer is undoubtedly the most neglected and least understood of all Christian activities – and is certainly deeply undervalued in our modern world: there are no league tables for praying! If Christ the gardener came through our door today, would we have time to listen to him?

Second, if we do hear the voice of God, it will be a voice of challenge. Mary and all the disciples were deeply disturbed to hear the voice of the risen Christ: it made them re-think everything they knew about their world and their place in it. It was so shocking that one of Jesus’ best friends, Thomas, refused even to countenance what he was being told until he was forcibly confronted by the flesh and body of Christ. Peter was challenged on that rooftop to re-think what he knew about the way God wanted him to live his everyday life. Paul was deeply challenged on the road to Damascus to turn his entire life around. The true voice of God very rarely in Christian history has ever said, “You’re just fine. Carry on, carrying on.”!

In the gospels the words of Christ – the living Word of God – very rarely left lives untouched or people untroubled: tax collectors, beggars, politicians, the powerful and the powerless were all challenged to the very core of their being by the voice of God incarnate. And so it should be with us. If we are truly hearing the voice of God, it will challenge us. It may not challenge us to do more – I’m not going to presume that God is automatically telling you all to become a door steward – but it will certainly challenge us to be more. It will challenge our prejudices and stereotypes, our assumptions and our doctrines. It will seek to expand our horizons and our minds. It will call us to be better neighbours and better stewards of God’s creation. It will challenge us to go deeper into God, to study the scriptures, to open our mind in prayer and to enrich our worship. The voice of God, if we hear it clearly, will continually change us.

jesus-the-good-shepherdThird, and finally, the voice of God will never lead us astray or fail us. Earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus tells his followers: “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” (John 10:1-5) During our Lenten Bible study of John’s gospel, we looked at the painful subject of Christian anti-Semitism, and how John’s gospel in particular has been sadly misunderstood as a justification for the most horrendous acts of terror and violence against Jews for 2,000 years. Such sins stand alongside countless other acts of violence and hatred that daily shock and appal us – most recently of course the horrors of the terrorist attack in Brussels. Too often, such violence has been justified by claims that the perpetrators were carrying out the will of God: that they were simply carrying out the wishes of the voice of the divine – and on each occasion Christ is crucified once more.

The true voice of God never calls for violence or hatred, it never calls us to strike out, to enact revenge or to harm God’s creation. How I do know that? Because it is the same voice that said, ‘Turn the other cheek’, ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’ and ultimately ‘Father forgive them’ on the cross of Calvary. The voice of Christ that is faithfully recorded in the pages of our Bible is the same voice that Mary struggled to discern in the garden and the same one that we struggle to hear today, amidst the clamour of the world’s strife and greed. It is the voice of our one true shepherd and Lord, who calls out to those whom he came to save today and every day – who calls us to know in our hearts that we are forgiven, loved and free because of what he has done for us upon the cross – who calls us to life in all its fullness. And it is the same voice which will one day call us all home, as our one true shepherd and guide

This Easter Sunday, then, let us rejoice in all that God has done for us and all that he still has planned for each one of us. And let us like Mary, on that first Easter morning, proclaim loudly and boldly, “We have seen, and heard, our risen Lord.” Alleluia. Amen.

 

Images: ‘Noli me tangere’ – Titian. Source: Wikimedia. Public Domain. Mary in fine clothes, from a German group of the Entombment of Christ.By © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons), CC BY-SA 3.0. Jesus the Good Shepherd (Stained glass at St John the Baptist’s Anglican Church, Ashfield, New South Wales) – Alfred Handel, d. 1946. Photo: Toby Hudson – own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons).

He is risen indeed!

This was written for one of my church’s magazines in April, 2016, as we celebrated the festival of Easter.

There is a famous story told about an important communist official from 1930s Soviet Russia. Nikolai Bukharin had helped to lead the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and became not only the editor of the famous Soviet newspaper Pravda but also a member the governing Politburo. Around Easter one year, he travelled to Kiev in Ukraine, where he addressed a huge assembly on the subject of atheism. Addrresurrection-pieraessing the crowd, he derided Christianity, hurling insults, arguments and proof against this “opium of the people”. An hour later he was finished. He looked out at what seemed to be the pitiful remnants of his audience’s faith. “Are there any questions?” Bukharin demanded. Deafening silence filled the auditorium but then one man, an Orthodox priest, stood up and mounted the platform, standing near the communist leader. He surveyed the crowd, first to the left then to the right. Finally, he shouted the ancient greeting known well in the Russian Orthodox Church: “CHRIST IS RISEN!”. En masse the crowd arose as one and the response came crashing like the sound of thunder: “HE IS RISEN INDEED!”.

The story of Easter is the story of the triumph of truth over lies. Those who put Jesus on the cross thought that they could silence him forever. They thought that their grip on power, their lies and their wealth were invincible, and that they could swat this insignificant little man from Galilee like a fly. His ‘inconvenient truth’ would disappear forever. Years later, Bukharin and the Soviet authorities thought exactly the same: that they could destroy the truth of Christianity with propaganda, prisons and firing squads. Yet, the story above – and the resurgence of Christianity across the former communist world – teaches us that the Easter narrative is no myth. God’s truth, God’s love and God’s compassion will always triumph over evil and falsehood, even if it requires the ultimate sacrifice so to do.

As we struggle with the news on our televisions, with all the challenges of daily life, let us cling to that certainty of the eventual triumph of Christ and his Kingdom. The despair of Good Friday will always give way to the glory of Easter Sunday. God be praised!

 

Image: ‘The Resurrection of Jesus Christ’ – Piero della Francesca. Source: Wikimedia. Public domain.

 

Into the wilderness

This was written for one of my church’s magazines in March, 2016, as we prepared to enter the season of Lent. This is the period before Easter, when we remember the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness and when we recall the events that led up to his crucifixion and resurrection at Easter. It begins with a quotation from a hymn that we sing at this time of year.

Jesus, tempted in the desert,
lonely, hungry, filled with dread:
‘Use your power,’ the tempter tells him;
‘turn these barren rocks to bread!’

‘Not alone by bread,’ he answers,
‘can the human heart be filled.
Only by the Word that calls us
is our deepest hunger stilled!’

Although we are probably more familiar with the words of ‘40 days and 40 nights’, this relatively new hymn by the American writer Herman Stuempfle speaks eloquently of Christ’s experience in the Wilderness. It reminds us of how Jesus chose to separate himself from humanity and from all that distracted him, in order to draw closer to God. Most commentators see this as a crucial period in Jesus’ life, as he prepared himself physically and mentally for the ministry that would change his life, and the world, for ever.

jesus-tempted-in-the-wildernessAs we journey through Lent together, we recall those vital 40 days in the life of Jesus. It is a time when many Christians choose to pray more regularly, study scripture more deeply and perhaps reflect on what it is that holds them back from a closer encounter with God. What is it that tempts us away from true worship and faith? Fear, pride, an unwillingness to let ourselves be changed? It is very hard to go out into the wilderness places, to put aside all the comforting familiarity of everyday life and ask ourselves these deep questions. Much better to stay in the safe town, than risk the dangers of the desert. Yet if we are truly to follow in the footsteps of Christ, we must so do. We must make time and space to hear both the voices of temptation and of God, calling us on to learn more of him and his will for our lives. I pray that we may all open our hearts and minds to Jesus Christ this Lent.

 

Hymn: Herman G. Stuempfle, Jr. (1923–2007). Reproduced from Singing the Faith Electronic Words Edition, number 237. Words: © GIA Publications Inc., 7404 S. Mason Avenue, Chicago, IL 60638, USA. http://www.giamusic.com All rights reserved.

Image: ‘Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness’ (Jésus tenté dans le désert) – James Tissot. Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum. Source: Wikimedia. Public Domain.

Where is your hope?

This was written for one of my church’s magazines in January, 2016. The church is continuing to discern God’s will for its future but I hope the message is relevant to everyone.

‘Christians, where is your hope?’ (Hilary of Poitiers, 365 AD)

This question was written nearly 1,700 years ago by the fourth century bishop and theologian, Hilary of Poitiers, in his commentary on the book of Psalms. It remains extremely relevant to us all in the 21st Century and especially at this time. What are our hopes for the coming year? What do we hope the future will be like for our church?

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More importantly, however, the question challenges us all to reflect on where exactly our hope lies. Does it lie in buildings, in structures, in the past, in the future, in individuals, in money, in a win on the National Lottery? In a changing and challenging world, where hope often seems absent, the question is an extraordinarily pressing one. In the face of change, of terrorism and war, of illness and death, where can we find hope? The answer has to be the same one that Hilary of Poitiers gave all those years ago – Jesus Christ. Not because ‘Jesus’ is always the answer (!), but because in a world that never ceases to change, he alone remains unchanging and utterly reliable. His life, death and resurrection give Christians the hope that this world desperately needs: that God loves each one of us; that we are precious and unique in his sight; that there is nowhere we can go that Jesus will not walk with us; and that evil, suffering and even death will never have the final word.

As we explore our future together, let us never lose sight of that precious truth. Let us become known as a church marked by hope; a beacon of faith in a dark world, giving light and inspiration to others.

May the love of God, made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ his Son, fill your lives this year and always give you hope and joy.

 

Picture: ‘The Ordination of Saint Hilary’ from a 14th-century manuscript – Richard de Montbaston et collaborateurs. Source: Wikimedia. Public Domain.