Tag Archives: faith

Risky Business

Risky Business

Sermon based on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and Matthew 25.14-30

How much of a risk are you willing to take on behalf of your faith? Have you ever considered that it’s necessary to take risks? Surely God doesn’t expect us to take risks! Or does he?

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

I wonder, what’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken? I could throw in a few example to make you think, ooh yes that’s a risky thing to have done; you might say I took a real risk when I did that; or maybe you don’t take risks because you always weigh up the chances of failure and success and stick with the greater odds of success.

After all taking risks is a risky business – it can involve an exposure to danger, the possibility of something unpleasant or unwelcome happening; the probability of financial loss or the chance of incurring unfortunate consequences by engaging in that particular action. The fact is behaviour psychologists have proved that as human beings we are generally adverse to anything that involves a risk – people will prefer not to take a risk even at the cost of letting valuable opportunities pass by.

In today’s gospel we have the example of three slaves or servants and their attitudes to risk. The first two felt able to take a risk, but then it wasn’t their money they were taking a risk with but the third one started to analyse what the risks were and decided to do nothing, not even the soft option of putting it into no-risk low interest bank account. He calculated the possibility, the probability and chance and decided they were too great for him, and it seemed he made the wrong choice.

Our lives are full of opportunities to take risks, especially where our faith is concerned. I cannot speak for all of you whether you have taken risks on your journeys of faith. Maybe you’re like I was just beginning to dare to put your foot through the door because you want to find out what it is that’s calling you to be here. Or maybe you’ve accepted the invitation and want to know what God might be asking you to do next.

For me one of the risks was stepping into the unknown, with no church background or experience, a painful sense of not wanting to step into an arena in which I could be scrutinised and found to be wanting and yet a deep desire to put myself forward despite all of this. You may have heard me say before, but it was reading John Ortberg’s book, ‘If You Want To Walk On Water You Have To Get Out Of The Boat’, which was the catalyst that made me take a risk to get where I am today; and I would suggest that every Christian’s life is marked by windows of opportunity that demand a radical step of faith in order to follow Christ and fulfil his agenda for their lives.

What makes that step radical is that it always involves significant risk.  We know there are times where God will offer an opportunity and it may be in our relationships; in our career; in regard to our finances, when he says, ‘In order to obey me, in order to follow me, in order to do exactly what I want you to do, this is what you need to do in this situation’. And everything within us is fearful, ‘Really God, you want me to do that?’

The reason it’s radical is because you say to yourself, ‘If this doesn’t work out, this relationship could fall apart.  If I do that, I could be changing my family dynamics, it may ruin my career possibilities in the future, or what if I can’t pay my bills?’ When we are facing a challenge and the possibility of failing, our mind rationalises our fears by coming up with hundreds of logical reasons not to do it. But, where there is no risk, there is no faith. Just like the third servant had no faith in the master.

Without faith there is no power and where there is no faith, there is no joy, no reward, no pleasing of God.  In fact, where there is no faith, what you do get is hollow religious activity, moralistic rules, and dead orthodoxy.  We all know of churches where despite the God talk and the many programmes and course that are run, over time it becomes religious activity and the focus is on, ‘Do this but don’t do that’ Lots of rules and the wrong sort of power. Where though is the presence of God?

We know that when we have great faith we are able to do great things. We only have to think about all the people throughout the history of the bible such Moses, Esther, David, Peter or Paul, God brought windows of opportunity and each one of them took a radical step of faith.  And that radical step of faith meant that if God didn’t show up then Peter was going to fall through the waves or Paul, when he returned after persecuting the Church, was going to die.

Every person’s life that is greatly used by God, that experiences God in powerful ways, takes great risks. When we have great faith we are able to do great things. We can think great thoughts; we can pray great prayers and dream great dreams. We’re not just talking about calculated risks, because let’s face it we all like opportunities that come with the word ‘guarantee’ attached to them. That way we feel safe and satisfied with our decisions. I can think back to the time when I told people I was going to go skydiving and people were worried about the risks, but it was a calculated risk, the equipment was checked, the experts had done it thousands of times before, the step I took to allow myself the liberating and exciting feeling of flying into the vast chasm of the sky had been carefully weighed.

Sky Diving View

Not a bad view from up here!

However, one thing that risk takers have in common is fear; fear of what might happen.  Those emotions that you feel and think, risk takers all have as well, they fear what might happen.  I can tell you, at least my own personal experience, the greatest steps of faith I’ve ever taken I was scared to death, and it’s okay to be afraid.  It’s not okay to allow your fear to paralyze you from taking the step of faith. But you have to have faith to step out in spite of your fear.

God tells us time and time again, ‘Do not fear, do not be afraid, I am with you’, and he equips us as we heard today; ‘put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us’.

The other day I came back from our study group quite buzzing. There had been a sense of excitement, a desire to engage with new ideas, of wanting to do something. We’ve been studying John Pritchard’s book, ‘Ten Reasons why Christianity makes Sense’ and we’ve talked about reasons why we should believe in God, the problems people have with faith, how to enliven our faith and the values we need for the church of today and tomorrow.  Above all the need to be communities where a holy fire and passion burns fiercely at its centre because this is what attracts people. We have to take risks, but as we’ve said risk looks very different in different people’s lives.  Often when we think of risk or faith, we always think it’s stepping out. Yes, sometimes we need to leave things behind and sometimes we need to remain and get stuck in to confront and change things, it’s still stepping out – of the security of our comfort zones.

Change is always a risk –  the risk of alienating people, driving them away, the risk of failure, not being able to deliver on the vision.  But not doing anything is like planting that talent into the ground. As Pritchard says, ‘Change is the way of institutions […], and we have to know when to let time-expired practices go. .. the human institutional life of this community has to be kept under constant review if it’s to be a travelling company of spiritual seekers rather than a secret society of defensive administrators.’

The good thing is sometimes even if you take a risk and fail, you end up winning anyway, because you learn valuable lessons in the process and stretch your abilities. There is a certain satisfaction in knowing that you dared and went for your dream against all odds, whether you succeeded or not. Regret of never trying is usually much harder to live with than failure.

Paul reminds us that we belong to the day – to things of light – We shouldn’t be afraid of sharing our faith, of talking about Jesus. After all ‘he was a man who inspired countless millions to change their lives and the lives of nations. His values were flawless; authority secure yet humble; judgement spot on. His teaching radical and enthralling; decisive, amusing, demanding and encouraging, filled with humanity yet left people aware they had spent time with God. Why wouldn’t we want to point people to this astonishing figure?’

And we need to continue to make links between Sunday and Monday. I could honestly say that 99.9% of the people who are part of this church, regularly make that link. But we’re going to need a robust, whole-life discipleship if we are to stand up to the secularizing pressures of the day. A Christian living his or her faith in an informed, open, clear-eyed way with wisdom and integrity is a hugely attractive witness to the King …  So let’s all take those risks and ‘encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing’

Amen

Peter takes a Risk

If you want to walk on water you have to get out of the boat – Peter takes a risk

Challenging Hatred and Prejudice

Crumbs blog

‘Even the dogs are grateful for the crumbs from under the Master’s table’

It’s funny when certain things start to press into your consciousness and suddenly you see and hear it all around you. Over the last few weeks there has bubbled up so many events that have displayed hatred and prejudice among different groups of people and all of this fed into my wanting to say something. This week’s gospel of Jesus and his meeting with the Canaanite woman seemed to offer an opportunity to do so.

Based on Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 and Matthew 15:21-28

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

I was once asked by a bishop to think of a story where Jesus had had his mind changed… by a woman. At first my senses bristled slightly as the nuance that it might have been a more unusual moment because a woman had done so… but actually what I think he was trying to explore was my attitude to feminist theology.

Feminist theology, in case you’re wondering (and according to Wikipedia), includes goals of ‘increasing the role of women among the clergy and religious authorities; reinterpreting male-dominated imagery and language about God, determining women’s place in relation to career and motherhood, and studying images of women in the religion’s sacred texts and matriarchal religion.’

Feminists and women’s rights campaigners were very much part of the social history that surrounded me in my formative years – people like Germaine Greer, the Greenham common women protesters, being encourage to ‘burn your bra’ to make a stand for women’s rights. This was of course another stage on from the Suffragette movement and ranged from extreme hatred of anything masculine to fighting for equal opportunities in the workplace.

Alongside this were the big news stories of racial segregation, race riots in America, the assassination of Martin Luther King and apartheid in South Africa. Images and words that soak into your consciousness – to be absorbed and considered often subconsciously, but tempered with the opinion of your family and friends.

Nearer to home, and yet still not directly affecting my everyday life were the tensions in Northern Ireland, the segregation along faith lines – of roman catholic and protestant, the IRA bombing campaigns and the tragedies of Enniskillen and the killing of Airey Neave. Although no doubt my views were coloured to some extent by fear and shamefully a sense of annoyance,  when early on in our marriage my husband David was not able to openly wear his naval uniform outside of ship or barracks and had to have the subframe of his car checked with mirrors on sticks – just in case

Hate and prejudice between men and women… black and white… Christian and Christian… and they were just the big prejudice issues.

And this last week or so, that ugly prejudice has reared its head again in Charlottesville, USA. Where groups of people believed they were justified in chanting racial slogans and inciting violence against those who disagree with their points of view and lifestyle, a humourless parody of neo-nazism and white supremacy – a belief in one group of people being ‘the chosen ones’.

Charlottesville Riots 2017

Charlottesville, USA – where hatred and prejudice flared up

The shame is that these are often views that have been formulated and passed on using specific scriptures and texts to validate their attitudes – a real reminder to us that we should not cherry-pick individual verses and hold them up in isolation – better to see the bigger picture from Alpha to Omega

It’s true though that in the bible we can find it difficult to get away from the motif of certain people being ‘the chosen ones’. In the Old Testament how often do we hear of the Israelites being God’s own people, chosen and special, to the disadvantage of all other peoples. This week alone in readings from the lectionary, Ezekiel spelt out God’s wish that ‘no foreigner, uncircumcised in heart and flesh, of all the foreigners who are among the people of Israel, shall enter my sanctuary’ and Jesus himself in Matthew’s gospel, talking about reproving another who sins, used the phrase, ‘if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.’

Even the verses that we don’t hear today in our New Testament reading, Paul talks to the Romans about the salvation of the gentiles only coming through the stumbling of God’s ‘own people’ and that although they have been ‘grafted in to the original branches and root’ they are not ‘to vaunt’ themselves over the branches’.

Subtle prejudice creeps in however hard we try and distance ourselves from it. I would count myself as very liberal-minded, open-hearted and very much against prejudice in all of its forms; willing to defend those views without compromising my faith, and yet I know that there are times when I can catch myself thinking of things I was taught and heard as a child, things that I spurn when I realise that it’s not appropriate or even Christian. The trouble is as a white, middle-class woman the only prejudice I have really suffered has been positive prejudice.

I can never feel what it must be like as a young black male driver being six times more likely to be pulled over by the police than my white contemporary; or a young male Muslim suffering discrimination because of the radicalisation of a small minority of my faith; or a young female Asian, subject to an arranged marriage, virtually imprisoned and sold as a chattel in twenty-first century Britain who doesn’t have a voice.

I could say ‘What do these things matter to me? They are not part of my life; these are not my experiences of prejudice’ – and yet it doesn’t stop me from empathising and feeling in my heart the injustice and wanting to speak out – to challenge those who hold these prejudicial viewpoints.

So what has that got to do with the gospel we heard this morning? Well, if you hadn’t already guessed this was the passage that the bishop wanted me to call to mind. A passage in which both the disciples and Jesus himself appear to display prejudice against both women and people of other races and faiths; and were challenged.

What of the Canaanite woman? The same story is told in Mark’s gospel, where she is called an Syrophoenician, and he very clearly identifies her as a Greek and a Gentile – a non-Jew. The place where she lived near Tyre and Sidon had traditionally been at the edge of the land of Canaan.  However, now this area was a prosperous Roman city port, but its people had already heard about the things that Jesus was doing and now he was coming to them. So when she comes running after him, she had already made up her mind that he was going to be the one who could help her.

A Gentile… a woman… begging insistently for him to help her, only for Jesus to turn around and tell her that he had only been sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel – the Jews. You could almost imagine his friends nodding and exchanging superior glances. Then he adds possibly a rhetorical question, ‘Would it be fair to take food from the mouths of God’s chosen children and give it to anybody gathered around the table?’ Those with him were no doubt thinking, ‘No of course not – come on let’s move on and not waste any more time here’. She was dismissed!

Yet, she wasn’t going to be brushed aside and it must have taken a lot of courage speak out and challenge Jesus, and perhaps this was what he was waiting to hear. ‘Everyone who gathers around the Master’s table will be grateful, even if, like dogs, they only get the crumbs.’

No doubt there was a sharp intake of breath from Jesus’ followers, but Jesus would have looked at her and seen just much faith she really had because she believed in him. Was the Syrophoenician woman a Christian? Did it matter what she looked like? Did it matter where she came from?

When we believe in Jesus, when we believe in God, when we believe in the Holy Spirit, we confirm our faith……and it’s when we truly believe, that we begin to understand the importance of being ready to challenge prejudice and to be challenged.

Paul will go on to confirm to the Galatians that ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. and last week, he confirmed that ‘the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ We can therefore be very clear that at the heart of the gospel message, salvation and acceptance is open to all. Let me just emphasis that – to ALL. There is no room for hatred or prejudice of any kind

How great then is our faith?

Amen

The Syrophoenician Woman blog

‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’

Sermon preached on Sunday 20th August 2017

 

 

Come and See…

 

come-and-see

Come and see – John 1:29-42

 

How do we share good news? Do we rejoice that we have heard something wonderful but forget that others too might like to hear it? Do we ever think to invite them to come and hear it for themselves?

Questions that we all need to ask ourselves from time to time, and the Gospel on the second Sunday of Epiphany helps us to consider the importance of issuing that invitation.

Based on the readings: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 and John 1:29-42

Last week I was asked give a talk to a Mothers’ Union group under the title ‘My Journey… So Far. it was actually a very useful exercise which enabled me to reflect on what had been turning points in my life; who had been part of those and what it was that brought me to where I am today.

I also liked the idea of ‘so far’, because it helped me to see that in spite of my advancing years there are times when I seem no closer to becoming a mature Christian than I was at the beginning. Also where was that beginning? At my birth? At my baptism? At my Confirmation, Ordination or Priesting? What I do know is that somewhere along that timeline I was invited to ‘come and see’. I wonder if you know the circumstance or people who said the same to you and what was it that we were being invited to see?

For me, despite a non-church background, it was the fact that when I wanted to arrange the baptism of my youngest daughter Ruth, the vicar who was preparing us – without a hint of contempt or disapproval – simply pointed out that neither parents nor godparents had been confirmed. It was a subtle nudge as if to say, you want to join this club, but you have no idea about its constitution, its purpose or its demands. Without using the exact words it was like he was saying why not ‘come and see’, perhaps then you’ll know what the attraction is.

So I did just that, I took myself off to church one Sunday, which was pretty scary when you’re on your own. I got to know the people there, both as fellow worshipper and through social events. They were friendly, helpful and I found their attitude to life, which reflected their faith, very attractive. I joined Lent groups; study groups; I read and discussed important life questions; I listened and learned. Not just from those up front, but talking to all different sorts of people, and not just those in the church but with friends who were not Christians. But then it wasn’t just about me.

He said to them, ‘Come and see.’
They came and saw where he was staying,
and they remained with him that day
John 1:39

One of the hardest points in my life was making a decision to talk openly about my faith with my work colleagues at the school I was working in. I can remember having to make a real conscious decision to do this. Not by telling them, ‘Jesus loves you and you need to believe in him to be saved’ – although technically that is true. Instead, I’d chat about what I’d been doing in church over the weekend, the church social events I’d attended and saying to them they’d have to come along next time as I’m sure they’d enjoy it. Amazingly, it was as if the floodgates had been opened and other Christians began to appear out of the woodwork so to speak, to join in the conversations. It became natural and easy-going, again an unspoken ‘come and see’; and John’s gospel reflects this process very clearly.

John’s gospel doesn’t give us Jesus’ baptism in real time, but a retrospective recount of this epiphany moment and an affirmation by John the Baptist that Jesus lives and moves in the power of God. No shrinking violet, John, he further witnesses to this fact by his exclamation to two of his disciples that this is the one they have been waiting for – the Messiah. He has whet their appetites and they are interested in finding out more. So they follow Jesus, who asks them what are they looking for. He doesn’t assume anything, he wants them to discover for themselves, so he invites them to come and spend some time with him, and we can only imagine the conversations and questions they must have had. What we also see is that Jesus is beginning to call a group of people together, to build a community that will be able to hold that knowledge for the world and share it. All through that simple response ‘come and see’.

Now, those two men could have just gone home and talked about an amazing afternoon they’d just spend, but at least one of them, Andrew, realised that what he had heard was ‘good news’, something to be shared and so he brought his brother, Simon, so that he could see for himself. I wonder when was the last time we invited one of our friends or neighbours to come and join us at church; when we invited them to come and see? We have to remember though, that come and see isn’t about saying come to church, sit through a service where everyone else seems to know exactly what they’re doing – standing up, sitting down, singing responses (and believe me that was exactly what it was like for me on my first visit to church). Where we’ll sign you up for a rota, get you on to a committee. It should be more about simply come… and see if the people are welcoming, see if what’s being talked about is being lived out, spend some time with us.

 

welcome_to_church

Extending a welcome to church

 

The trouble is, like me previously, we know that we have seen and heard something good, but for some reason we feel reluctant to share it. It’s great talking with your friends from church about your faith, but it takes a lot of courage to speak to other people. Maybe nowadays, when we are surrounded by so much that is secular and politically correct, we think people will somehow see us as strange, misguided fanatics; and we want to fit into our neighbourhoods.

Or maybe we pre-judge who we think might be interested; ‘they won’t want to come’, ‘I’ve never heard them talk about anything religious’. We need to realise that we are not looking for ‘perfect fit’ people, we are not the ones who decide whether or not a person is willing to hear or understand the message. After all when Andrew invites his brother Simon to come and see Jesus we could be forgiven, bearing in mind all we will come to discover about the latter’s character, that he might not be the sort of person that Jesus wants to be part of his community. Yet when Jesus looks at the volatile, unstable Simon he immediately renames him Cephas – which means Peter or ‘rock’, the very foundation of Christ’s followers – because Jesus sees the potential of the most unlikely people.

Christians are called to witness together, to learn from each other as well as from God. As Paul says in his letter to Corinthians, we are called to be saints – not some mystic holy supermen or women, not necessarily sophisticated or intellectual, but ordinary, just like everyone who calls on Jesus is equal. We just cant afford not to share our faith, not in these times of secular, self-determination. We can’t afford to keep quiet and hope that somehow our faith will be shared by some sort of telepathic osmosis. After all what Paul tell us in his letter to the Romans? ‘How can people have faith in the Lord and ask him to save them, if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear, unless someone tells them?’

How can they hear, unless someone tells them?
Romans 10:14

I don’t believe that I, personally, have ever brought anyone to Christ. That’s a job for God through the Holy Spirit to accomplish, but I have talked to people and invited people and encouraged people to come and discover for themselves why they might want to say yes to Jesus’ call, as I am sure we all have in different ways. As I said at the beginning, it’s worth reflecting on how Jesus reached out to us. It is isn’t always through a direct communication. Sometimes Jesus reaches out through other people, especially his followers. Sometimes it will be through us, his disciples in the world today, that others are able to learn about Jesus. Maybe it will be you who tells someone, ‘I have found the Messiah! Come with me and see for yourself!’

That then surely is our challenge, in the weeks, months, years ahead, that in order to offer the invitation to come and see we have to go and tell. To share our faith with others – what we’ve learned, what we know to be true, what we’ve experienced in our own life. To witness to him, not only with words, but in deeds of loving service; and as Paul reminded the Corinthians, we are enriched and strengthened  by God to be able to do this.

We have heard the good news, we have received the good news and if it’s good news for us then it’s good news for everyone – so let’s all extend that invitation to ‘Come and See!’

 

 

Annus Horribilis… Annus Mirabilis

life-and-death

I wonder, if like me, you found the reaction to what appeared to be a lot of ‘celebrity’ deaths in 2016 becoming a little bit wearisome. Don’t get me wrong – each person’s death was a cause for sorrow and the contributions that they made to our society as a whole was in many cases huge. No it wasn’t the deaths themselves, but the idea that somehow the year had become an annus horribilis because of them.

Our reaction to death is often based on the longevity of a person’s life. Maybe I noticed it more because as I become older there comes a time when many of the contemporaries that were so much a feature of my youth are reaching what could be considered ‘old-age’; although the biblical standard of three score years and ten has undoubtedly been superseded with the medical advances made over the last two or three millennia. In many cases, therefore, it was a case of mortality catching up.

The days of our life are seventy years,
    or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
Psalm 90:10

Our frail and feeble frame of a human body, despite being a sophisticated machine that is full of intricate engineering, like any machine will eventually wear out. However, I am also aware that death occurs for many reasons not just age related. For some it is a case of genetic disposition or lifestyle choices. For others it is under tragic circumstance at the hands of another; a life snatched away.

Still, should we call any particularly year more dreadful than another? It’s true that many talented well-known people who contributed a lot very publicly to society did die in 2016, but there were an awful lot more people who died,  who in their own ways did exactly the same, however less publicly, and on smaller scales. In fact according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2012 an estimated 56 million people died worldwide and that figure is similar to all other recent years.

Each of them were beloved mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, friends…… you fill in the blank… all of whom were equally important. They were people that we loved dearly; had built up strong relationship with, and who will be missed deeply as we realise that they are no longer part of our future.

Of course there are those that die, whose deaths we can find no apparent justification for and our faith is tested. Some people take the view that when God ‘calls’ it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are. However, death comes when it comes, and I am loath to believe in a God who would wish to do this ‘calling’ when it causes such pain and grief; instead thinking of it not as a ‘calling’ but as a ‘welcoming’ when death occurs.

As a Christian, I also believe that when we finally ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’ that the hope that we have through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ means that we will be welcomed into life eternal, in a place called heaven, wherever and whatever that might be. Because life is not just an earthly life, but the life that Jesus came to give us in abundance.

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
John 10:10

At that stage it will definitely not be an annus horribilis but indeed an annus mirabilis.

where-o-death-blog

 

 

The definition of annus horribilis means a disastrous or unfortunate year, and is complementary to annus mirabilis, which means a wonderful year

Called to Love

Brussels_Love One Another

Love One Another, As I Have Loved You

 On Maundy Thursday we are explicitly called to love one another. Sometimes though it’s not as easy as you think. This reflection was preached as a sermon at St James’ Church at the Maundy Thursday evening service and is shared with you now.

Readings: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 and John 13:1-17, 31b-35

‘That you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’

This week has for me been a week of great sorrow. In a week when we are following in the footsteps of Jesus to the cross, his words to his disciples have a great poignancy. A week in which we have once again witnessed the total disregard for the value of human life.

‘That you love one another’

On Monday we heard of the devastating effect that one person can have on one family, the Philip’s family, we heard of the anger and hatred that is justifiably felt as raw emotions are still very much on the surface.  Then on Tuesday, the indiscriminate attack on innocent victims in Brussels, as they went about their ordinary business; treated not as individual human beings but an in-distinguishable mass target.Still each of those who died or were wounded will be connected in a myriad of ways to others: wives, husbands, fathers, mothers , sons, daughters, friends. Connected to people who love them.

Brussels - Tintin

Herge’s Tintin weeps for Belgium

Far too frequently we think of ourselves as just individuals, separated from one another by race, culture and faith, yet we share a common humanity. Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, when having to deal with the aftermath of apartheid in South Africa, choose to walk the way of love rather than retaliation. Tutu explained that one of the sayings in his country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human, and that it speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.

Our common connection means that what we do as individuals affects the whole world. When we love each other and recognise that common humanity and things go well, it spreads out and shows what the power of love can do; but when we disregard it we act in fear, creating hatred and violence.

 ‘That you love one another’

 That you love one another. Just as I have loved you’

If we want to know what that love should look like then we only have to look at Jesus. Love is never straightforward but he managed to show us the different sorts of love that are needed to unite us rather than divide us.

Love can be tough – we only have to think of the rich young man who when told that he had to give up all that he owned went away grieved.. Yet Jesus didn’t give him a get out clause. He looked at him and he loved him even though he knew how hard that would be

Love enables forgiveness as well as  demanding a change of heart. Like the woman caught in adultery, who was judged and condemned by those who were blinded to their own sinful natures. ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. She was sent away with the instruction to sin no more, knowing that love enables us to forgive.

Love gives us a servant heart. What better demonstration of Jesus’ love for us that he stoops to wash our feet, not as master but as a servant and asks us to do the same. Amongst his disciple he was aware that one was going to hand him over, to be part of his inevitable death and yet he still washed his feet.

And that brings us to the greatest love of all, that he would offer up his own life in order to give us ours. A love that we celebrate each time we come to share at the communion table, and taste the bread and wine.  A sacrificial love that didn’t distinguish between the worthy and the unworthy but was poured out to encompass all of humanity.

Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’

You also should love one another’

There is one more love that he calls us to emulate – to love our enemies. Jesus tells us that if we only love those who love us back then love has no real value. But to try and love those who perpetrate violence, surely this is the hardest love of all.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t hate the crime and that punishment must follow according to the agreed judicial system, and let’s be clear that in the case of the ISIS attacks in Belgium this has nothing to do with the Muslim faith in general, but is caused by a perverted religion of hate.

Even so we are called to show mercy and offer grace. We are called to look at each individual and imagine what has happened in their lives to make them turn to such hatred, to make them so blind that they forget their common humanity with their victims, to espouse causes that deny the power of love, and despite this to love them­­­­­­. How hard that is.

‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples’

What has also been demonstrated, is that evil and hatred were not allowed to get the upper hand in Brussels, as Christian throughout the city offered practical help and prayers and the Belgian people rallied defiantly in the an open square to write chalk messages of love and hope.

The Archbishop of Brussels, Josef de Kesel, also announced that he had received messages from around the world, as signs of fraternity, and which he said, ‘let us feel how we are united in faith and humanity. He added that “We must stay faithful to our message of peace and go on promoting a discourse which appeals for acceptance, unity and coexistence’

So, as we continue to commemorate the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ this Holy Week, let us all remember that God is the source of love and life, and ask him to bring peace to our troubled world.

Amen

Servanthood image

© ‘Servanthood’ by Debbie Saenz.

How Far Can We Trust God?

Trust blog

How far can we trust God?

Our readings for Evensong on the second Sunday in Advent bring us the story of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and his encounter with Gabriel in the Temple sanctuary. It gives us Luke’s introduction of how God’s divine plan is about to unfold…

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11Luke 1:1-25

May I speak and may you hear in the name of God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This evening our gospel reading leads us further into our Advent preparations and on this second Sunday of Advent we are reminded of the work of the prophets, and in particular we remember John the Baptist who stands as a link between the Old and New Testament. However, this evening it is not directly about John, but his parents, especially his father’s pre-conceptual reaction to the news of his divinely ordained fatherhood.

It is with this story that Luke begins his gospel and being the historian he is he is at pains to include in his dedication the care he is taking to make sure that we have an orderly and accurate account. He doesn’t set out Jesus’ ancestral claims like Matthew does; or the symbolic prose of John, or even start with John, the adult baptiser, appearing in the wilderness to fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy as in Mark’s gospel. No, Luke wants to start with a story of how people reacted to God’s preparations for the gift of his Son to the world. So, what does it tell us and how might we learn about our reactions from it?

We are introduced to Zechariah and Elizabeth, chosen by God to play an important role in Jesus’ story. I think we can safely say that neither of them were lukewarm nominal believers. Their credentials meant that they were righteous in the sight of God. Zechariah serving as a priest in the order of Abijah, which can be translated as ‘my Father is Yahweh’, and Elizabeth claiming descendancy from Aaron, God’s original high priest at the time of the Exodus. They walked blamelessly and observed all the commandments. In other words, they were obedient servants of God. Yet, for Zechariah there was an area in his life that resulted in some trust issues.

We can imagine that for a long time they had tried hard to conceive a child and had prayed to God about it, but no doubt as they grew older they had given up hope that it was likely to happen. So it is fairly reasonable that when Zechariah, alone in the sanctuary and terrified at the sudden appearance of an angel, is told that not only is he going to be a father, but that his child will play a pivotal role in proclaiming the arrival of the Messiah, that his first response is, ‘Are you sure? What proof can you offer for this?’

‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’
Luke 1:18

He was confronted with a situation that required faith and trust. The faith bit he had in abundance but the trust was not so easy. Very often we too can face a lack of trust where God is concerned. It seems that we are happy to accept that love underpins our motivation to seek God and to follow his example but trust is harder to pin down. Often this difficulty has to do with our past experiences and our present situations. As humans our fall-back position is to initiate our self-reliance mode. It’s a primitive response to protect ourselves from perceived harm, thinking that we only have ourselves to rely on to get out of trouble

It can also be difficult to imagine stepping out of our comfort zones, but we have to remember that nothing is impossible with God, not even in areas where we have experienced nothing but failure, disappointments and frustration. We have to trust he is there to catch us when we fall and to uphold us as we move forward. It may be that we are holding back that trust because we are happy and comfortable to stay exactly where we are; but this can lead to stagnation; our faith never gets an opportunity to mature, or for our relationship with God to grow stronger as we grow closer to him.

God knows all things; he knows our hearts, our desire to be committed to him and sometimes our desire to be rebellious. But we have to be prepared to take the first necessary step to trust him in each area of our life. Take that step, then another and then the next one. This is the way to grow our faith in God, one step at a time… and how much easier is it as well to take those steps in the company of others, to be encouraged and to encourage each other. Because the more we hand over our lives to God and trust in him the more we can be freer to become the people that God is calling us to be.

With regard to Zechariah’s enforced silence following his lack of trust, I would not see this as a punishment for a lack of faith rather an opportunity for Zechariah to have space for reflection. If we fast forward to his son’s birth, we know that he had become reconciled to leaving things in God’s hands, for his first actions on having his speech restored to him was to speak in praise of God and to leave people amazed at just what his son was to become

We know he was to be ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ but we also know that we too can be responsible to make this happen in our own lives. From Proverbs 3 ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.’

So, this Advent let us all be prepared to step away from self-reliance and instead step forward in faith and trust.

Amen

zechariah window

Zechariah and Gabriel at the incense altar in the Temple

Hail To Christ, The King

Hail to Christ, the King

Hail to Christ, the King

On Sunday we came to the last Sunday of the church’s year. It goes out with a bang, celebrating Christ as King. The evening brought a quieter more reflective time when we could think about just what sort of king Jesus is.

Using some of the liturgy from Liturgies for High Days by Dorothy McRae-McMahon, we thought about a different kind of royalty, one bereft of privilege and wealth, whose power lies in truth, faithfulness and grace for all people. We also remembered Jesus’ faithfulness to his calling, entering into the pain of our lives and yet able to leap free of all its bondages.

The cross that frees us from bondage

The cross that frees us from bondage

Our reading for the evening was one of those ones that lends itself naturally into a meditative retelling. Here is my version of Luke 23:32-43:

The journey through the streets had been tortuous, the crowd pressing in on either side. The sounds of jeering and weeping had mingled together to form a cacophony that heralded their progress. Now they had left the city gate and slowly climbed the skull-shaped hill called Golgotha. Three condemned men, each bearing the burden of a death sentence, brought out to this seemingly god-forsaken place to be nailed to a cross and hoisted high so that all might see that justice had been done.

Few people had made the effort to ascend the incline; there was a perfectly good view from the shaded city walls, and they were even more grateful for that distance as the midday sun rose to its zenith, its heat intensifying the stench of decay that hung in the sultry air over the place.

Jesus’ thoughts, however, were not for his own physical discomfort but that God might show mercy to those who had condemned him, and he cried aloud, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not realise what they are doing’. Some of those who heard these words felt a pang of guilt sweep over them and turned away, ashamed.

Are there times when we too turn away in shame?…

But beneath the crosses the guards, who had seen it all before, bickered over who should have his redundant clothing before drawing straws; the winner triumphant that he had obtained such a seamless tunic so cheaply. Whilst the representatives of the Jewish leaders, perhaps sensing the remorseful sentiments of the woman who had gathered there, tried to add justification of their part in the proceedings by scoffing at Jesus, pointing out that this man who claimed to be the chosen Messiah of God seemed incapable of saving himself despite his claim to have saved others. Hearing this, the soldiers joined in, offering a toast to the ‘King of the Jews’ with a sponge soaked in sour wine. Even so, they could see no glorious death of a king in battle, no pomp and ceremony, and soon grew tired of mocking this inaptly titled monarch.

When might our desire for ritual and symbols blind us from the simple truth?…

One of the criminals, hearing these things, turned and spoke in derisory tones to the man who hung beside him in silent sufferance, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ His thoughts were, that if this was the hope of Israel then surely he could save not only himself from this punishment but them also, however unlikely that was… and it was a slim hope that he would not die today.

However, the other rebuked him harshly; pointing out that self-preservation was not necessarily the main reason to call on God in these circumstances, particularly when they were both there for being condemned justly for their actions. It was clear to him that Jesus was a victim of a miscarriage of justice; what’s more he had recognised the holiness of this innocent man. Perhaps, he told the other, they should fear God’s ultimate punishment more.

Where does it leave us if we only call on God in times of crisis?

Turning to Jesus, an honest and heartfelt plea came to his lips, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ As the figure at his side turned to look at him with a full gaze, he saw not a broken and bloodied man but a saviour in all his resplendent majesty who spoke immeasurable words of reassurance, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

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Back to the service then, as we sang ‘Jesus remember me, when you come into your kingdom’ as a prayerful chant and thought about our ‘king’ who calls us to have a more generous love for the world; to bravely dream of the future where we might be a new hope for better things to come and to remain steadfast in our faith in the possibility of Christ’s reign of love.

Hail to Christ, the King,
ruler who lays down the power to destroy,
leader who treads through the costly journey
and into the shadow places of life,
that we might find the rising of life before us:

Hail to Christ, the King,
born to be first witness to God’s truth,
whose might lies in mercy,
whose throne is placed in the midst of humble people.

Hail to Christ, the King

Some material has been reproduced from Liturgies for High Days, Dorothy McRae-McMahon ©SPCK. The meditation is my own.

The purple stole used in the service as a focal point was created by Deborah Ireland. See here for more information about her work