Friday, 2 April 2021

Palm Sunday in Lockdown - Luke 19:28-44

After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. As he approached Bethpage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’”

Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”
By Zambian painter, Emmanuel Nsama
They replied, “The Lord needs it.”

They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.

When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”


It is a great joy to be back here with you, after so long. It has been a hard three months since Christmas. Hardest, of course, for those who have lost loved ones in the last year; but hard, certainly, for us all.

I remember Palm Sunday when I was a kid. The church would be packed, and there would be a donkey and palm crosses and we would process up and down the village high street behind this donkey singing hymns and waving palms. It could seem a bit goofy at times, but, boy, do I miss it now. There's something profoundly joyful about getting out of your seat and out into the fresh air, to walk together and cheer and sing. And those emotions, those simple emotions, are incredibly important, because through them we open a window to experience the Kingdom of God. I hope we are never too old or wise to let ourselves go into Joy, into Love, into rejoicing, because those things transform the earth into heaven.

When our hearts swell at the beauty of the world, at the company of our family and friends, when we worship God, and remember and appreciate what he has done for us, then we open ourselves up to God. Being human means being trapped, to some degree: trapped by our own frailty, trapped by our own weakness, by the memory of grief, and at no time more than now. So our vision of heaven through our joy and love is always like looking into "a cloudy mirror", or a blurry photo, but it is a real glimpse of heave none the less, and that is something worth remembering. 

We should remember that on Palm Sunday especially. The crowd cannot help but break out into song as Jesus approaches Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, praising God for all the things, the miracles they have seen. And by just letting it out, letting the joy run out, they are doing something incredibly important. After thousands of years of waiting God has come to his own city in person, and they get to be the ones who declare it, who welcome him in. They are speaking the truth, a truth that will change the world forever; and not just the truth of facts, but also the truth of the heart, the truth of meaning.

Some people I know have seen angels, and some people have talked about times of worship when they felt so full of the presence of God that it was like Angels were worshipping alongside them. We see that in the Bible at moments of great joy, particularly at Christmas. The shepherds were amazed and terrified because Heaven could not contain the joy, and the skies split open with Angels praising and singing at Christ's birth. When Jesus rides into Jerusalem we can be certain for every person in the crowd there was an Angel too, repeating those same words with a sound we can barely imagine.

Jesus riding into Jerusalem is the one time he was welcomed as he should be welcomed, as the King. Those people stood there and sang for all of us. But it is just a reflection of the greater joy when Jesus rose from the dead and into Heaven, bringing with him all those he saved from Hell; and it's a reflection again of the Joy when Christ will come again, and ride into the New Jerusalem; when Heaven and Earth are united and shall  be one and the same forever.

Those people two thousand years ago may not have understood all this. They knew they were doing something serious, something important. They knew what the Messiah meant for their people, but I don't know if they realised, that above and beyond they were making the world turn and the angels sing. They were only people, but they sang the same song as the angels in Heaven. Maybe the angels make a more beautiful noise, but they sing the same song, and the joy of the crowd is taken up and repeated all the way to the throne of God.

So Joy is a serious business, and worship is a serious business, and letting ourselves feel the beauty of the world and of God is a very serious business. And, my friends, that joy and beauty is all around us. There is a very famous start to a poem, that I have always loved, by William Blake, the man who wrote Jerusalem.  It says "To see the World in a Grain of Sand, And Heaven in a Wild Flower, hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, And Eternity in an hour". I'll repeat that.

We have been trapped in a narrow place, these last few months: in many cases separated from friends and family. But the beauty of God's creation is still all around us. The Bible says "the heavens declare the glory of God, and the skies show his handiwork". Now we can interpret this to mean the world is a dead thing, like a book, in which we can deduce evidence of God's Glory, like a detective looking for clues. But I think the Bible is saying something much more. The Prophet Isaiah said "you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace; and the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands", which has been turned into a great song.

The world God made is alive, my friends, and its beauty shouts of the Glory and Beauty of God. Jesus reflects those words of Isaiah in our reading today. The Pharisee leaders demand Jesus rebuke his disciples, telling them to keep quiet. But Jesus says "if they keep quiet, the stones themselves will cry aloud". I think he was quite serious. This moment on Palm Sunday when Jesus rides into Jerusalem as its King, is too important. If men and women keep quiet, the angels and the stones themselves will cry out. This is a moment on which the world turns. And even in Lockdown the beauty of the world around us is still declaring the Glory of God, still giving us a window to see the beauty and joy that will be complete forever when we see God not "in a cloudy mirror, but face to face".

There is beauty all around us, in our historic church that we are gathering in again today; in the fields, and grass, and skies and animals. If you walk up Dyers Lane out into the fields, you will see the young lambs bleating and dancing. I strongly recommend it. Again and again in scripture Jesus is called the 'Lamb of God'; or a Shepherd, who cares for his sheep. As William Blake said, "Heaven in a wild flower", or in a lamb.

The events from Palm Sunday, leading up to Jesus's Crucifixion, death and Resurrection a week from today, on Easter Sunday: these are the most important events in History. As a Christian I believe that the whole Cosmos, the meaning of the Universe, was changed forever by those events. Through Christ's sacrifice we have forgiveness, grace and the hope of Eternal Life; and the Kingdom of God has been spreading, person by person, from that day to this. But even in purely secular terms they are also the most important events in history, because of 2 billion Christians in the world today, and for all the historical events that have followed on from those events, and been shaped by it.

But if you'd been there, if you'd seen it, it maybe wouldn't have looked like that much actually. If you've ever been to a professional or international football match, you've probably seen a larger, louder crowd than was there on Palm Sunday, two thousand years ago.  But you haven't seen a more important one. Mark Twain once said "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog". Don't judge events by their size, or noise; or people by their rank, or status, or bank balance. "Infinity in the palm of your hand, and Eternity in an hour". What we do and what we experience, each day, is more important than we realise. Maybe some of the people went out to that Palm Sunday crowd because they went with a friend, or because it was a bright day, but they made history forever.

Even in Lockdown, even with all the restrictions we operate under, we still have the chance to embrace beauty and joy, and to love one another, and so to look upon the face of God. You matter! We all matter! How we respond to each other, and the world around us, matters! The Bible points us in the direction we should go: through Faith, Hope and Love; along the narrow road of Truth; to do Justly, Love Mercy, and walk humbly with our God. By obeying Lockdown restrictions these last months we all have saved lives, at a cost to ourselves. And that is just as true for those who have sadly lost loved ones themselves. And it is something that we should all be proud of, amid the sadness about all that we have missed.

What we do matters, and how we respond matters, which brings me to the last part of our reading today. After the glorious welcome of the crowd Jesus stops, and weeps; and offers a terrible warning over the city of Jerusalem, where most of the people would not recognise his coming; and next Friday, many would cry for his crucifixion. What happened in Jerusalem was people could not recognise a King who came in peace, riding on a donkey. A King whose Kingdom is spiritual, that is "not of this world", and taught that they should "give unto Caesar what was Caesar's, and to God what is God's". 

In years to come anger against the Romans who occupied Jerusalem grew, until it broke out into War. But the Roman Empire was too strong, and eventually Jerusalem itself was surrounded and destroyed, just as Jesus had warned. If Jerusalem had embraced the route of peace, and spiritual transformation, the city could have survived, and transformed the Roman Empire from within.

But though Jerusalem was destroyed, nothing has destroyed the importance of what happened two thousand years ago between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. The community founded on Jesus Christ survived and grew, as it survived and grew through centuries of persecution under the Roman Empire, and it survives and grows around the world to this very day. 

When you hear about the ancient Christians surviving through years of persecution, and when you hear about Christians today in parts of the world that are very hostile to them: what stands out again and again, is the intense but simple faith, hope and love they have. Faith in Christ as King, Love for God and each other, Hope enduring, that God's Will will be done. It seems they are charged up by their experience of God's Beauty & Glory in every circumstance, even when they face hostility and hatred from human beings. Despite the ongoing challenges of our situation, may we all find that same joy in the good gifts around us.

"Peace in Heaven and Glory in the Highest!"

"Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord"

Amen

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Sermon on Luke 17:11-19 - Jesus Heals Ten Men with Leprosy

 Luke 17:11-19 - Jesus Heals Ten Men with Leprosy

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus travelled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him — and he was a Samaritan.

Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”


Something that always strikes me about the Gospels is that you have all these stories, and they're all drawn from ordinary life and the real people Jesus met: farmers, and housewives, and sowers, and merchants, and weddings guests, and shepherds, and travellers, and many more; and yet taken together, they describe the most profound reality about our lives, our world, and our society; the Good News about the Kingdom of God. Every single parable and episode is teaching the same truth, but with each story, each parable, you get a slightly different perspective, a different nuance, that builds up that rich, complex insight into God's Love and Purpose for our world.

The encounter we have heard today is a brief one on the page, but it tells us something about the Good News of the Kingdom of God. Certainly, in the middle of Lockdown, we can do with some Good News. In the reading, Jesus is crossing over the border from Galilee, where he grew up and did much of his teaching, into Samaria, the land of the Samaritans, so he can travel on to Jerusalem where he died and rose again. The Samaritans were the most closely related people to the Jews, but there was fierce hatred between the two groups. They say that fights within families can be the most bitter fights, and Civil Wars are the worst wars, and despite their close history and similar beliefs, this was true between Jews and Samaritans. We see this still in the world today, when we think of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, or in Northern Ireland between Unionists and Nationalists. These are all people who live basically as neighbours with each other, but are divided by fear and distrust.

As Jesus enters a village he's travelling through, he meets ten men with leprosy. Now, leprosy in the Bible refers anyone suffering from a disease that disfigures the skin and produce boils and sores that could be spread by infectious contact. People with these diseases were required to live away from all other people - even family or friends - to avoid spreading these infections. As such they were often reliant on generosity from other people to survive, and would shout and ring bells to warn other people of their coming, and hopefully attract charitable gifts.

Well, at least part of that will be suddenly familiar to all of us this year. Of course, we are mostly lucky that we are forced to keep away from each other, not because we have a disease, but to avoid getting one. But at least temporarily, we are all feeling the stress that comes from being separated from our family and friends, without the human contact that is what normally makes life worth living. We are so blessed we can still meet through the wonders of technology, and we look forward with hope to a vaccine that will allow us to resume ordinary life. But we are reminded by this great trial, just how reliant we are on each other, both for practical help and support, and the emotional nourishment we need to live happy and fulfilled lives. 

Again and again, the Bible talks about Jesus as a healer of the sick, he brings fullness of life not just to the body but also the mind and the spirit. The plague of Covid threatens our bodies, but the fear of Covid, and all the restrictions we now live under, threaten our mental wellbeing, and the isolation from our communities and the loss of our shared worship of God can sap our spirit.

As part of our church service we often give thanks to God for the gifts we have received with the words, "all things come from you, and of your own do we give to you". Now, this may seem like an odd time to count our blessings, but that means this is exactly the time we should be counting our blessings. Because that is the way we will maintain hope, and we will protect our hearts from being overwhelmed by this situation.

The Book of Job in the Old Testament of the Bible is a profound parable that grapples with the question of how bad things can happen to good people who believe in God. It's quite long, but there are two famous quotes that sum up how Job responds to the terrible things that have happened to him. He says, "The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord". Which means he recognises that all the Good things he enjoyed came from God, without God he would not have had life, or joy, or blessings; so how could he curse God when he does not have some of those blessings anymore.

Amid the chaos around us we must still reflect on the fact that God is the creator of every good thing in our bodies, our minds and our souls; both the ones we've had in the past, the ones we still have today, and those we hope for in the future. In our modern society we are justly proud of the wonders mankind has produced, but we should always be aware that both the Physical Material of the world that we manipulate into construction and technology; and the gifts of intelligence and insight that allow us to discover new Science and Knowledge, all those things come from God.

We don't know how long the ten men who met Jesus had been suffering from Leprosy: for some it may not have been long, for some it could have been many years. They were suffering, and they were isolated. But they had not lost hope, they had not lost the will to do what they could to change their situation; and in Jesus they saw someone who had the power to change their situation: "Jesus, Master, have pity on us". 

Job, too, in his own suffering was not just resigned that 'easy come and easy go', his faith in God was that in the future still to come, God would restore him and bring joy out of sadness, justice out of suffering, and new hope from loss. He said, "I know that my Saviour lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And even if my skin is destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him, with my own eyes". 

Because God is the Creator of all things, we should still be grateful for all the blessings we have had, and still have, even in Lockdown; but because Jesus Christ is our Saviour, we know we have hope that endures through and beyond everything we have lost this past year. That we will see life and joy again; even those people we have lost from this life; and we will be together again. 

With the ten lepers, as on so many occasions, Jesus, when faced with the someone reaching out in hope, did not wait to respond, but reacted immediately to send them to the priests, the people who could certify that they were no longer at risk of spreading infection. But they were not yet healed, they went, in faith and obedience to the instruction they had received, and it was in going, they were healed. Following that instruction took a remarkable trust in Jesus, after years of being trapped by their condition, and it was by taking action in faith, in the face of a seemingly impossible situation, that they changed their lives.

It is when we retain hope despite difficulty, when we step out in faith that we can change both our own lives, and the world around us. Every great achievement and journey begins because someone takes a step in faith, with a new idea, or a new invention, or to a new job, or a new place. The world is not changed any other way. And very often God prompts us, but he doesn't show us every step we have to take, it is by keeping hope, and having the courage to take the first step, that God equips us with the strength and gifts to take the next step, and the next.   

All ten of those men were healed through their faith, but one of them went further, he came back to Jesus, and shouting and singing out in praise of God. That must have taken great presence of mind, because although they had already been healed, the ten men could not return to their lives and their families until that had been officially confirmed by the priest. And that's where Jesus sent them. And as they went, they must have seen everything they had before them in their lives. But still, one man turned back to give thanks to God first. He stopped in the midst of the most important thing imaginable for him, to be grateful and to express that, to someone who had helped him, before he rushed on with his life. And that is an amazing thing. When we show our gratitude to someone, when we say thank you, we bless them and ourselves. A thankless burden is a heavier one, but a grateful word makes it easier to bear, and it's completely free. 

So, in this short reading we have hope and faith in the face of suffering. We have the love that Jesus showed, which transformed their lives, and we have the gratitude shown by one man in response.

And who was that man? He was a Samaritan, a foreigner, someone a Jew would not normally have trusted. But time and time again the New Testament emphasises the fact that it is not our background that determines what kind of people we are, but the hope, faith, love and gratitude that we display in response to the challenges we experience.

News of vaccines comes ever closer, but it will still be some months before our lives can really return to normal; and we don't even know what will happen with Christmas. It is an incredibly challenging time for everyone, but perhaps it may help to remember when Jesus met ten men with leprosy on the outskirts of a small village, and how hope, faith, love and gratitude can give us the strength to carry on.

Amen.

Saturday, 10 October 2020

Sermon on John the Baptist - Luke 3:1-16

"In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
 make straight paths for him.
 Every valley shall be filled in,
 every mountain and hill made low.
 The crooked roads shall become straight,
 the rough ways smooth.
 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” 
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, 
“Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."

Before I start talking about John the Baptist today, I want you to have two images in your head. Imagine a door fixed on a hinge, the whole door swings around that hinge, and imagine you can open it fully one way, and then swing it right round 180 degrees until it's open the other way. John the Baptist is like that hinge for the whole Bible, as you swing it right round from the Old Testament to the New. Or think of a running river with a bridge arching over it, joining the two banks together. John the Baptist is like that bridge.

John the Baptist is an almost unique figure in the Bible in that way, because more than anyone else he connects the world of the Old Testament and Covenant with the people of Israel, and the New Testament and Covenant with the whole world. John appears solely in the New Testament, in the Gospels, but he is an Old Testament prophet, last of a long line going back a thousand years. At the same time John the Baptist, was just a prophet, he was not the Saviour himself, but one who pointed to Christ.     

In the Old Testament God spoke to his people through a long-line of prophets, men and women filled with the Holy Spirit who spoke the truth to their people with God's own insight. These men and women taught, they warned, they begged and they raged, depending on what was needed in different times and places. They were particularly called to speak in defence of the poor, and the vulnerable, the widows and the orphans. They rang out in condemnation of unjust societies that allowed the poor to be exploited, and declared that even the most diligent religious rituals were worthless in the eyes of God unless there was justice and compassion, for the poor and the weak. They warned God's People not to turn away from the God who created the whole Universe and brought their people out of Egypt, warned them not to worship the false gods of the neighbouring peoples, whose worship included the human sacrifice of children, and women being forced to act as prostitutes in the temples. They called God's People to loving and faithful devotion to God and his Law, rather than seeking glory in power and military might.

Now at that time the people of Israel were a small people surrounded by these huge powerful Empires - Egypt, Babylonia, Persia - huge Empires, and they were like this little boat tossing and turning in a great political storm. But the prophets did not just talk about what was happening then, they looked far into the future, and saw at time when God would come in person to his people, and when he would reveal his salvation to all peoples, and begin the process of gathering all peoples in to worship him in peace and brotherhood. In the Old Testament you get snatches of this vision here and there, spread throughout the prophets, and then things go quiet.

The Old Testament ends with the words of the Prophet Malachi, who brings God's words promising that the "Surely the day is coming [...] for those who honour my name, when the Sun of Righteousness will rise will rise with healing in its wings", and very finally "See, I will send the Prophet Elijah to you before that great and terrible day of the Lord comes". And then silence. And for an awfully long time, for 400 years, there were no more prophets who came to the people of God with God's word, there were no more visions of the coming Messiah, God's Saviour.

But then John came.  And once again there was a prophet in Israel, speaking with the power of the Holy Spirit. Always the Holy Spirit had called the Prophets to challenge the people of their time, particularly those holding wealth and power. By John's time that meant the power of the Temple Priesthood, who held great authority in Israel working with the Roman Authorities; and the Pharisees, who were recognised as the experts in Jewish Law in the synagogues and communities. Just like the prophet Amos and others, we see John challenging the people not to trust merely in their blood descent as Jews, but warning them that it is faithfulness to God's message and will that is what makes them a chosen people, Abraham's children. This message is repeated many times in the Bible, in both the Old Testament and the teaching of our Lord Jesus. 

When he is asked about what this means John is equally clear, and echoing the line of Prophets before him, going back a thousand years: those with lots of possessions must make sure others have what they need as well, those in positions of legal and financial authority must not use it to exploit the people beneath them, and those with physical or military power must not take advantage of the weak. John lived out that message through his simple lifestyle, deliberately avoiding the temptations of wealth and power, and living out in the wilderness where he would be free to speak God's truth without having power over anyone.

And John also takes up the other great theme of the Prophets, the coming Messiah. The "one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie." But this is no longer a vision of the distant future, it is now 5 minutes to midnight and the Messiah is coming now! "I baptize you with water, [...] he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit!" In other words some of those same people who John baptised with water would be baptised with the Holy Spirit in their own lifetimes. And so it was.

Apart from the Lord Jesus himself, his life and death, and resurrection, only 2 other people and one event in the New Testament were prophecied in the Old Testament. That was the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, and the coming of John the Baptist. Because it was his important role to swing open the door, from the Old Testament into the New Testament. Because once he began his teaching the time was almost ready for Jesus Christ to appear. John the Baptist was honest, dedicated and brave. He abandoned all luxury and ordinary life, and physically left behind civilisation to go out into the Wilderness and call the people out to repent. He feared nobody, and he spoke the same to ordinary people, to leaders and authorities like the Pharisees and Priests, and to the King himself, even though speaking honestly to the King cost him his life. But he was not the Messiah.

Prophets were God's messengers, filled with his Holy Spirit, but they were just messengers, delivering God's words, they were never God himself, they could only point people to repent and turn to God. But at last John the Baptist is fulfilling the words of Scripture, "prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for our God [...] and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed". These words are clear, it is God himself who is coming, and it is Jesus Christ who came. He is not just a messenger, or a servant, a man who has been given the words of God, he is God himself, come as a Man among Men.

Now Jesus often sounds like a prophet, he fulfills all the functions that a Prophet fulfills, but he is also a High Priest, who represents us to God the Father, and he is the infinite Sacrifice himself, that covers over and washes away all our sins, and he is the Rabbi, the teacher who guides us in God's own ways. He is all this and more because he is the only Son of the Father, God himself. A prophet is someone who speaks the words God has given him and points to God outside himself, whereas Jesus Christ points to himself. Across the Gospels he forgives sins, and heals, and fulfills the prophecies of the coming of God, all in his own name. John the Baptist knows this, and he knows the difference.

John was a brave man, eventually his brave and honest speech got him arrested, and thrown in prison by King Herod. His preaching and teaching abruptly cut short, John must have been near despair. Was he wrong about his calling from God? Had God abandoned him? And he sends messengers to Jesus, asking him if he is the Messiah? Or has John made a terrible mistake? And Jesus answers them saying, "Go back and tell John what you have seen: The blind can see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is proclaimed to the poor. In other words, Jesus is also fulfilling prophecy, the greater prophecies of the Messiah, and through Jesus Christ the Kingdom of God is becoming a reality in the world wherever he goes.

And once that starts it does not stop. They killed Jesus to prevent the Good News he was spreading, but through his death and resurrection he brought the forgiveness of sins and the start of a glorious new life for all people. They could not stop him. And God's Holy Spirit and Kingdom continue to spread among all those who give their hearts to God in Jesus Christ, and today there are more than 2 billion Christians in the world. After John there were no more prophets like John or all the prophets who came before him, who pointed into the future, to the coming of God's Messiah. Because Jesus came, and that changes everything. Every time we have Communion, and particularly every Easter we say, Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again. Since Pentecost, recorded in the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is present with us. 

So we do still look to the future when God will be All-in-All, but we also look to the past when Jesus walked on earth, and we know in the present that God's Holy Spirit is among all of us. The prophets until John glimpsed into the distant future and "saw only like a reflection in a cloudy mirror", but through Jesus walking among us we have seen God "face to face". That is why Jesus said, "among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he". We are the Kingdom of God if we have faith in Jesus Christ, and so welcome the Holy Spirit into our hearts. Then we have the power to be greater than John the Baptist. How is that possible? 

Well, John was a prophet, and that means he called for justice. And Justice is always important, justice is one of the great themes of the Bible, and the cry for justice rightly continues today, here in this country and many countries across the world. But the wisdom of the Gospels is that Justice alone can be brittle and hard. If Justice just means one person demanding something from another, the wrong may be real, and the demand entirely correct and right, but if that is the only focus you can get trapped in a destructive cycle of grievances. You get societies like Northern Ireland or Israel-Palestine where both sides have lists of wrongs going back centuries, and people can never agree on how the wrongs can be righted. If we only call for justice, it will slip through our hands again and again. It is love and forgiveness and sacrifice for one another that creates the space to leave pain behind and heal wounds, and so create a true, living justice which lasts. That is why when the Messiah finally came, he did not come as a stern Judge, but as a loving Servant. 

But how can we love our neighbours, and our enemies, and everyone in-between, sometimes it can feel like that is just piling on a burden we cannot bear. The answer is we cannot do these things through our own power, but because God became Man, we as men and women can join in and draw on God's own infinite love and forgiveness for our neighbour, and our enemy and the whole world. Not through our own strength, but by his power, and that is a depth of love that cannot be exhausted.

Jesus is the Christ, the most Mighty One, and we know this because he made himself the least and most humble, even to death on a cross, but that did not defeat him. Jesus is unique among leaders because everything he taught, he did himself first, and that makes him worth following. John could teach about justice, but he could not bring justice. Jesus Christ taught about God's love, forgiveness and sacrifice, and he lived it, and he showed it. And because he is God, through his own death and resurrection he brings us the power to join in God's love and forgiveness and sacrifice; which is the meaning of God's Kingdom on Earth.    

John at the end of his life sent men to Jesus to ask, "‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?" That's a good question, but we know the answer. Yes, Jesus is the Christ, and we know this because he did not just point to the future Kingdom of God, he brings the Kingdom that is spreading to this day, and we can be a part of, because he is the King, now and forever. One we can all rely on.

Amen.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Sermon on Doubting Thomas - John 20:19-29

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.  Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Hello everyone, it's good to be here with you. I hope you're coping well with another unusual week. The reading we've had today contains one of the most famous passages in the Bible. Jesus passed through death on Good Friday, and now has risen to new life that will continue forever. Across this chapter of John's Gospel, the realisation that Jesus is risen ripples out through the disciples as they come to understand what has happened.

Mary Magdalene was first to the tomb in the garden, early in the morning, followed by Simon Peter and John. Then that evening Jesus appears to the gathered disciples, and shows them the wounds in his hand and side. But Thomas, alone of the twelve disciples, was not there. I can't imagine how Thomas felt when the rest of the disciples caught up with him, and all told him that Jesus is risen. Have you ever gone into a room and everyone was talking about a piece of news you hadn't heard? Have you ever been the last person to learn something? 

A friend recently asked me, "Why did Thomas not believe what his friends told him?". Perhaps in one sense he should have. After all, this was his entire community, everyone he trusted, all telling him they had experienced the same thing, something he wanted more than anything in the world to be true. But still he held back. We don't know exactly why. His famous name, Doubting Thomas, always suggests that he was more cautious than the rest. But I don't know if that is right. After all, he only asked for exactly the same proof the other disciples received.

I wonder if it was the shock of it all, you know. Thomas and the others had already been through a very challenging emotional journey. They had been with Jesus day and night, they believed in him, they followed him, they left everything for him, they saw him not only as a leader and teacher, but as God's promised Messiah, who would transform the world and turn everything on its head. And when Jesus rode into Jerusalem welcomed by a cheering crowd on Palm Sunday, it must have been the most exhilarating, hopeful experience of their lives. But then it all turned into darkness, Jesus was taken and killed, and the dream, the beautiful sparkling dream, collapsed into ash, and fear, and regret. Not just the loss of a friend or leader, but literally overnight, the loss of the whole focus of their lives. To process and accept that, in only a few days, would have been mentally and physically exhausting.

Hardly though, have they processed their tragedy and loss, than their world is turned on its head, yet again. And they are faced with the reality that Christ is indeed risen from death. Mary weeps brokenly by the tomb when she thinks Jesus' body has been taken away. But then she basically walks into Jesus, and knows the truth. We don't know what state the other disciples were in, but they are faced that same day by the physical presence of Jesus. Thomas must have been just as devastated as the rest of them, but there is a difference. He is the first person asked to accept Christ's resurrection without being immediately faced by Christ himself in the flesh. He is the first person we see hearing the news from someone else and needing to respond to it. I think having gone through an incredible emotional journey to accept the fact that Jesus had died, the news of his resurrection was just too much for Thomas. Because to accept that Jesus is risen, would be to change everything for him, emotionally, personally, and spiritually, and to accept the enormous consequences for his life, and for the world.  

Thomas knew what Christ's resurrection meant, that God had indeed turned the world upside down, not just for him, but for everyone; and in a manner far stranger and more profound than they had imagined; not through force and conquest and triumph, but through weakness, and love, and God allowing himself to suffer death as we suffer, and so to take on the grief and sin and suffering of humanity, and then through his Resurrection to give back the Grace and Freedom and Power of God. Because you can always use force to solve a problem, like smashing a bulldozer through a wall, but as it turns out with every politician and King, you just create more problems. But Christ laid down his own life, so that through him we all may live, filled with God's hope and love, and in turn be inspired to lay down our lives for others, in many different ways. For as the disciples knew, this truly transforms the world in a way that lasts.

Thomas knew what it meant if Jesus is risen, and after everything he could not accept it at first, good news though it may be. His words in response are echoed, at one time or another, in every one of us who was not there to see the risen Jesus in the flesh. Who has not ached to "see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side", and so to have the ultimate proof. Thomas asked for what the other disciples had already been given, he is not particularly skeptical or untrusting compared to the rest, but he is the first who has to hear the news of the Resurrection from another fallible human being, and respond to that. But Jesus did not leave him with less assurance. He came and showed them the wounds in his hands and side again, so Thomas knew this was the same Jesus who had hung on the cross, and Thomas responded powerfully with that ringing declaration of faith, "My Lord and My God".

But where does that leave us? We have not been blessed to see the physical Jesus after his resurrection, but Christ and the Apostles knew that billions of people would follow who had not been there in Jerusalem, two thousand years ago. Jesus' words at the end of the reading reflect that awareness. “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” It is one of the moments in the Bible that makes a shiver run down my spine, because it seems in the middle of a conversation to the disciples, Jesus turns and stares right out the page and addresses us directly. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed". That's you and me, and over two billion other Christians around the world today.

This saying of Jesus reminds me of the Beatitudes, where Jesus turns around various things often seen as signs of shame and defeat in the world's eyes. Blessed are the meek, the poor, the persecuted, and more. We are blessed by God, our faith is declared more valuable than the Apostles themselves, if despite not having the advantage of seeing Christ's risen body, we still believe. And knowing God values our faith that much is a wonderful thing. Our position is different to the first Apostles, and our role is different, but no less valuable. Those who saw Christ's risen body were driven by that experience to do incredible things. Thomas travelled along the trade routes of the Middle East to preach about Christ as far as India, where the community of St Thomas Christians named after him still exists. Simon Peter and the other disciples travelled to Rome and Egypt, and beyond, and many were killed for spreading the news of what they had seen and touched, but they founded the Church we are still part of today, along with people in every country in the world. 

We perhaps have the humbler tasks, of living with faith, courage and love in the ordinary lives we have, and though we have not seen, still believing. But we can and do meet Jesus, only in a different way. We cannot put our hands where the nails have been, and touch the scar on his side, but we can really meet with the Risen Jesus in spirit through one another, and through Christians all around the world. St Paul makes clear that it is the whole community of believers who are the Body of Christ on earth. If we are being the Church right, then his words are on our lips, his love is in our hearts, his generosity guides our actions, and he is with us when we meet together. And anyone, can meet with the Risen Jesus, through us, and the testimony of the generations of believers who came before us.  

And fundamentally that is what the Bible is. It is the words of the Apostles testifying that they saw the risen Jesus, and St Paul in his letters that he in turn heard the Good News from those who saw Jesus, and that message has been carried down from generation to generation until it meets us. The Gospels are clear that they are recording exactly who saw the risen Jesus, so we might know where the truth we have comes from. But for me the greatest assurance I have, is not a paper trail leading into the past, though as a historian that is important. No, the greatest assurance comes from reflecting on the wonder of God, who created all things, coming to be born as one of us, to choose to suffer betrayal, abandonment, pain and death, in order to make us all part of God's own Family; and to see the effect that can have on other people. 

"No greater love has a man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends", said Jesus. Well, no greater Love could God have than this, that he should lay down his life, for his children; and consider it no shame, no stain on his holiness, and greatness, and glory; and teach mankind to do the same. Once I grasped this, and have seen how it can change lives and whole civilisations, no other idea of God can match up. The disciples were nobodies before they knew Jesus: fisherman from unimportant villages, tax collectors who everyone hated, and women with no status outside the home. But these men and women changed the world forever, because they met the Risen Jesus. They had been fearful and confused, but they became courageous, tireless, unafraid. The Jewish leaders could not break them, the Roman Empire could not break them.

And down the years, and still today, people are changed by meeting Jesus, though his risen body ascended into Heaven and now sits at the right hand of the Father. Occasionally, this happens in dreams and visions, like St Paul on the road to Damascus, but overwhelmingly it is through the example carried by other Christians, people in whom the words and love of Jesus live.  

This week I opened an email from Barnabas Fund to hear of a 27 year old woman in Nigeria, called Rose, whose husband was murdered by Islamist terrorists, only recently, who found the courage and grace to say about those killers, "My prayer is that [they] will get to know this Jesus I know. I do forgive them and will pray that the Lord saves their souls". She has met Jesus, and she is showing Jesus to others. In Iran, another young woman, 21 years old, Mary Mohammadi, a convert to Christianity, has been convicted by a kangaroo court for peacefully protesting against the oppressive Iranian government. After being beaten and stripped in prison, she says, "I am proud of sympathizing with human beings in the real harsh environment of the streets. This is my conviction and the cost." She has met Jesus, and is showing him to others too.

And there are of course more examples around the world every week. Those two young women stand alongside the Apostles, and like I said, we may have more simple and ordinary tasks to fulfill. But still, I know I was changed by meeting Jesus in the love of other Christians in this country, and I am still being inspired and changed more and more. And I know that's true of many people.

In these difficult times we live in I hope we can ensure more people meet Jesus, through the support we give, and in the patience we show, and the hope we share with each other and the wider community around us. Because the beautiful thing is anyone who wants to can come and meet Jesus, and join the Christian community and share in this great mission, to spread the Kingdom of God's love to everyone, until in the wonderful vision of Revelations that ends the Bible, God has "wiped away every tear from their eyes", and "there will be no more mourning or crying or pain". That may seem daunting, but with people all round the world we've come a long way since that first day in Jerusalem, when Thomas could not quite believe the news. 

And I am certain with God's Grace, one day we shall succeed. 

Amen.

The Critic - A Certain Modesty for Numbers Men

In The Critic magazine again, this time writing about Expertise in Difficult Times.

The response to Brexit and Covid-19 both hinge in different ways on how we relate to experts and expertise.

When do we just have to trust the experts? And when should we use our own judgement?

There's a real difference between questions of hard, material sciences and the social and political responses to policy and leadership: Materials have the decency to follow consistent laws; People can be shaped, inspired and lead, or not.

As the modern world gets more complex more crises will hinge on expertise. We need to get better at realising what questions have black and white scientific answers, and which depend on assumptions, judgements and political leadership.

Article Below.
https://thecritic.co.uk/a-certain-modesty-for-numbers-men/

Saturday, 15 February 2020

The Critic - Towards a Social Neo-Conservatism

I have another article published online with The Critic Magazine, arguing that a Modern Social Neo-Conservatism is a coherent idea, and doesn't mean going back to the 1950s.
Relative political positions (Lib vs Con) change all the time. A modern Social Conservatism should mean policies that encourage and support commitment to families and communities, within the liberal freedoms that exist in law.

I'm hoping to get a number of further articles published exploring what a modern Socially Conservative platform would look like on issues ranging from Immigration, to Architecture, to Family Policy. So watch this space.

The current article is below:
https://thecritic.co.uk/our-ideology-in-the-north/

Saturday, 1 February 2020

The Critic - I think, therefore I speak very carefully.

A new conservative magazine, The Critic has kindly published an article of mine attempting to cast, more Light than Heat, on the concepts of sex and gender rapidly being integrated into our society.
In summary, my argument is that we owe Trans people respectful, compassionate and decent treatment that includes access to the medical treatment that will relieve their dysphoria, and ensures society grants them the same respect and opportunities everyone else receives.

But that shouldn't mean people have to accept strong claims about the definition of sex and gender that are both very historically recent, and also ultimately metaphysical in nature. Nor should the law be enforcing them. The whole argument can be found below.
https://thecritic.co.uk/i-think-therefore-i-speak-very-carefully/

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Why Should We Pray? - Philippians 4:4-7

Philippians 4:4-7 - "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be afraid about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

St Ignatius of Loyola once said "You should pray for half an hour every day, except for when you are very busy, when you are very busy you should pray for a whole hour every day." But why should we do that? Why should we Pray?

We all know that Prayer is an important part of the Christian life, but it's a subject that we all struggle with at times. It's a huge subject too. Let me tell you another short story. There was once an Egyptian monk, who had dedicated his whole adult life to living out in the desert, alone with God, to have nothing to distract him from his prayers. And as he came to the end of a long life, he lay dying, surrounded by his brothers, and he said, 'how can I go to my Lord yet, when I have only just begun to understand?' At times I think I have had that feeling.

But prayer is also the simplest of things. A little child can pray, and with more honesty and directness than most accomplished of priests or theologians. We can study prayer, but only really to clear away the confusions we have created for ourselves. For really there is nothing more simple than prayer. Prayer is something we can all do. It is a shared right of all mankind, an inheritance for all peoples, of every age, race and sex. Prayer is a journey that always has more steps to take. It is a library that never runs out of books, and we learn something new on every page. 

But why should we pray?

To answer that question, I think we have to remember Who we are and Who God is. Then we can understand the relationship between ourselves and God, and understand, why we should pray.

Who are we? We are the children of God. God created every particle in our bodies from nothing, as he did the entire Universe, from his sheer generosity and joy in creating. But we are unlike the other particles of creation. We are aware, we bear in our hearts and minds and souls the very image of God, we are stamped with the imprint of God, and so we are all his special children.

But even more than that, God has blessed our humanity and made it Holy, because God the Son was born as a human child, and grew, lived, breathed, taught, knew fear and pain, loved and died in our flesh. And now he is ascended once more into Heaven still in human flesh, to sit at the right hand of the Father, until he returns, or calls us home.  But we are even more than that, for God the Holy Spirit came down and dwells in our hearts if only we accept him, making us the Body of Christ himself. So God is in us, and God is One of Us, and God is the Father of all of us.

We cannot think of ourselves as separate from God, not if we are Christians. Some people might wonder, why would God want to hear from me?  Or me from God? But for Christians even here on earth we are carried up into God, because the Spirit is within us, and the Son is alongside us, and the Father cares for us.

Fundamentally, prayer is communication, the communication of a unique relationship. Not the relationship between one person and another, but the relationship between a creature and our Creator, between the God who holds the whole Universe in the palm of his hand, and myself. And yourself, and all of us. And that may seem like a daunting, near impossible thing, But this relationship, this communication, is not something we must do on our own.   

God was before the creation of the whole Universe, and he will be forever more. Before Time existed, there was the Father and the Son and the Spirit, and there was already the most profound and intimate of relationships between them. Love we can barely imagine, an extravagant, overflowing love shining between all three, in constant diversity and unity.

From this constantly overflowing Love the creation of the Universe came, and the creation of mankind, and we are not separate from it. When we open our hearts to God, and let down our defenses, we can step into this river of God's Love, and see the love of God for God, and for the world, and we can be washed over by that river which flows for eternity, holds the whole of mankind and creation within it.

The Lord Jesus commanded us to Love God with all our heart, and to Love our neighbour as ourselves. And this may seem like a difficult command. How can we make ourselves love? Well, fortunately, there is no need for such a thing. It is not that we must love God, by our own power, or Love the World, by our own power, but rather that we must let down our barriers, and join in the Love that God has for the World, and the love the Father has for the Son, and the Son for the Spirit, and the Spirit for the Father.

God is within us, and beside us, and beyond us. Just by being alive, we are a creature of God, and we are in a relationship with God, whatever we think. The question is will it be a good relationship or a bad one. And as Christians we are in a closer, more profound relationship still. If we do not pray, we are not getting out of that relationship with God, we are sitting in a room with God, and just never saying anything. And I don't think that is ever a good relationship.

When I think of my most close and important relationships then, of course, I do not talk all the time. Of course, there are times that we can just sit in silence in peace and security, but still in constant awareness and appreciation of each other. But still, these are also the relationships where do I have the greatest flow of communication. I talk about the big things, and the little things, and nothing, because it seems important just to communicate. How much more then is this true of our relationship with God?

So how can we join in with God's love, and align ourselves with God's purposes? How can we do that? By opening our hearts and our minds in prayer and worship. And not just here in church, but everywhere, and whatever our state may be. Prayer and worship are two sides of the same coin, the awareness that God is with us, and around us, and loves us at every time.

The world wants us to be constantly looking down, anxious and terrified, weighed down with a thousand worries, and fighting always for success and status. But prayer allows us to lift up our eyes. If you love nature then go out into nature, and realise God is there loving and appreciating his Creation, from the tiniest bug, the every view and sunset with you, before you got there, and while you're there, and after you leave, and open your heart and speak out to God and you will be praying. If you love trains, or music, or knitting, or playing football, then do those things, and open your heart to God, and know that God's love is shining down. Because he sees the Good in every good thing and loves it for all its worth, and speak out to God and you will be praying.

But prayer is not just for Good times and rejoicing. God is with us always, so there is no time or state of mind that is bad for prayer. We can open our hearts to God when we are heartbroken, and when we are raging, when we are frustrated and when we are tired. When we speak to God our words are always enough. The language does not matter, nor do the particular words. It is the honesty that matters. If we open up our hearts in honesty to God then we will offer a true and worthwhile prayer.

In St Paul's letter to the Thessalonians he famously tells us to "pray without ceasing". How could we do such a thing? If that meant speaking out loud all the time that would make it very hard to concentrate on anything else. No, but it does mean becoming increasingly aware of God's presence at all times, though if we manage that we will naturally end up speaking to God more and more. If we are to "pray without ceasing", that means we will be praying when we're grieving, and angry, and confused, and happy and joyful, because we are human, and we will experience all those emotions from time to time, and we shouldn't cease our prayers until those times are over. 

So in prayer we have a chance to be completely honest with ourselves, in our joy and our pain, because God already sees us to the marrow of our bones, and the depths of our heart. And that is a precious gift, and it is just as precious because it is open to all of us. In the economic world for something to be precious it has to be rare, if there's lots of it then it's not worth much. But God's gifts are nothing like that. Everyone can see a sunset, but it's just as beautiful. Love, indeed, is the gift that just grows in value with the sharing of it. Like light into a mirror it shines and reflects and shines back again.   

We can't hurt God by saying the wrong thing, or using the wrong words, or being too awkward. I think we can only hurt God by not speaking to him at all.

To pray is to take time out of the constant flow of tiny problems and annoyances, and chores and distractions the World throws at us. It can help keep our eyes raised on what is truly important, and what is eternal, and that can be a source of great peace and focus, making us better able to do the little things we must do in the world, but without being consumed by them.

You hear a lot these days about mindfulness, and meditation, and directing our thoughts. Let me put it this way, prayer is a form of Christian meditation and mindfulness, and directing our thoughts. Now, I know some types of prayer can be more meditative and calmer than others. And that's good, like I said, sometimes we need to rage at God. To express our frustration and pain. And don't be afraid, God can take it. But other times prayer can be a great time of meditation and peace, either for extended periods, or in moments of the busy day.

My wife and I have struggled these last months to get into the habit of saying Grace at our evening meals. I've never done it before recently, and if you don't do it I'd really recommend it. I appreciate it every time we do manage it, after a busy day at work, and then cooking dinner, and often with more chores later in the evening. It's a brief moment to be thankful, to remember those people we need to remember, to pause in our hearts. And, you know what? Because I pause every day, or most days, to say that grace, I remember things I should be thankful for, or people that I should remember, that I would otherwise forget. And I'm that little bit more joyful.

I really believe that the more we pray the more we will discover the riches of God, not in the wealth and power of this world, but that treasure in Heaven, "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding", which can endure through this world and its troubles. When St Paul speaks of this he knew that gift, he had been beaten, he was imprisoned, and still he spoke with the total confidence that comes from personal experience, of the reassurance that comes from prayer to our God. His wounds still hurt, his chains were still heavy, but his heart and soul were strengthened by having his sight beyond all those things, at what truly lasts forever.

Before I finish I want to address a couple more of questions, that I think people often have about prayer.

Firstly, doesn't God already know? Why should we speak to God, he already knows everything about us, he already knows what we want and need? Of course he does! God doesn't need to hear from us because he needs information from us, he wants to hear from us because he loves us. He wants us to be fellow-workers and allies alongside him in building the Kingdom of God, for the good of all mankind. If you have someone you love you want to spend time with them, you want to hear from them, to rejoice with them in their achievements and cry with them in their losses. God wants this with us, and I hope we want this with God. Pray then.

Yes, we should ask God for what we need. "Give us today our daily bread", our Lord taught us to pray. We should ask for ourselves, for our families, our friends, and the whole world. "In every situation", St Paul said, "by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God". We should always be happy to ask, knowing God is always happy to listen. Never worry you are asking too much, maybe just try ti ensure that the more you ask, the more you also give thanks, praise and the more you find some beautiful place, wherever that is for you, and just spend time being with God.

I talk about God wanting to hear from us, and I profoundly believe that is true. We should not start thinking, though, that God needs anything from us. We have nothing God needs, though in his love he loves to hear from us. But God has everything we need. He is the Creator, we are such small creatures. The things God encourages us to do, whether it is to pray or worship, are not for his benefit, but for our own. In prayer and worship we align ourselves with God's purposes, which are the foundations of everything that exists. We align ourselves with our own true and complete nature, where our hope and meaning, our shelter, our mental, emotional and spiritual fuel was always meant come from.

The second and final question I want to address is this: When you talk about prayer, when you talk about praying in response to a situation, then people say, Why pray, why not just act, just do something? Isn't action better than prayers and well-wishes? And, it is right that prayer should never be an alternative to action. In the Bible it never is. Prayer is not the alternative to action, prayer is the fuel and source and inspiration of action. How can you act without reflection? How can you act without hope, without a source of personal strength and conviction, how can you act without support? All these things can come through prayer.

Martin Luther King jr prayed constantly, and led the Black American community to victory over institutionalised discrimination in the South. William Wilberforce prayed and led the campaign that abolished the Atlantic Slave Trade, and went on to end legal slavery around the world. Isaac Newton prayed and discovered the fundamental laws of motion that govern our Universe, everything from kicking a football to the orbits of planets. 

St Paul prayed and travelled, it has been calculated, 10,000 miles by dirty roads and leaking ships, to spread the message of Christian Hope, around the whole Mediterranean.  And I could give a thousand other examples. In our own time and country Christians prayed and acted to found Christians Against Poverty, which helps thousands of people around the country in debt and fear. Christians prayed and founded the Trussel Trust, which supports and co-ordinates Food Banks all around the country. When I look at our parish and all the groups, and ministries, and volunteers, we have, for the old and the young, for the sick and the whole, I see prayer leading to action.

Our God is The Living God, his Will, his Work, and his Spirit are constantly in Action. Our prayer should never be an alternative to action, but an inspiration to action. Though also, I don't forget the importance of prayer when there is nothing you can do. There will be times in life when there's nothing you can do, for a certain situation. Then, I humbly suggest, when there's nothing you can do, you can always still pray. And I know, certainly in my life, there are times when that has been a source of enormous comfort.

Why should we pray? There are so many reasons, and I hope you manage to find yours.

Amen.
 

Monday, 5 August 2019

Sermon on Matthew 7:12 - The Golden Rule

“So everything you wish that others would do for you, do also for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets."
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Approaching this sermon, I felt very challenged in two completely different ways. Firstly, it's such a short reading, only 20 words long. How to find enough to speak about from so few words of Scripture? But then straightaway I had the opposite problem. This verse is famously known as the Golden Rule, because it beautifully sums up the attitude that should define our morality and our spirituality. But it can be applied in so many different situations, how do you explain it in any way in only ten minutes.So right at the start my hands are both too empty and too full. I'm struck with a degree of humility, and fear and trembling as I approach this task.

I take comfort though from the fact this reflects life itself. The sheer bewildering vastness of life and its choices is, I imagine, enough to make us all feel a touch of fear and trembling sometimes. Especially in this modern world there seem to be so many opportunities and choices, and maybe it's just me, but I sometimes feel with so many choices, I'm just that more terrified I'm going to make the wrong one.

I work for a major, well-known corporation that shall remain anonymous. It's a great company, there's lots of opportunities, and they have this real focus on personal development. This is good, we all want to develop, but at times it is exhausting. If you're not careful you can feel like you're never good enough, you're up on the side of a mountain and you have to step up, and up, and just as soon as you become vaguely comfortable with where you are, you've got to climb a bit higher again, and so you've always got this slight sense of vertigo, like you might just fall off if you put a foot in the wrong place.

And it's not just work, it's social occasions, it's dealing with family, and friends; it's politics, it's the constant never-ending messy confusion of being alive. And the choices are endless, and some of them don't matter at all, but a lot of them do, even if just in a small way, and you can feel like at any moment you could make the wrong choice and screw up, maybe embarrass yourself, maybe miss some opportunity, maybe hurt someone you don't mean to hurt. 

So, what do you do?

I think, fundamentally, there are two types of approach. You can have a list of rules. You can have a list of rules about what you do in each type of situation. So, maybe the rule is "Always say yes to an opportunity", or it's "Don't steal" or it's "Always be polite". But in the complexity of life there will be times when these rules should not apply because they don't take account of the context of the situation we're in. And this will be true however many rules you have, because there will always be some situation that doesn't fit into the rules we already know.

The Law of the Old Testament was a system of rules, designed to cover almost every situation. The Rabbis added up all the 'do's and 'do not's in the Law of Moses and found there were 613 in total. 613! And the Rabbis added many more rules to the list, to create what they called 'a fence around the Law' to prevent anyone breaking the core commandments. They didn't do this to be a pain in the backside, they did it to try to create a comprehensive guide to life, that would allow people to walk in the right path without tripping and falling down. Orthodox Jews today still guide their lives by this code, and Islamic 'Sharia' Law is meant to be a similar theological guide for Muslims and Islamic society.

Our modern secular world seems to be trying to go down the same path too. Anyone who runs a business or a charity, or a school, or who just deals with the Government or the Local council, will know that the rules and bureaucracy seem to be multiplying year after year, sometimes it feels like, before your very eyes. Online as well, in any social media, people are creating an increasing and bewildering number of rules about what you’re allowed to say, and what opinions you’re allowed to hold, to avoid being sternly condemned by well-meaning busybodies. Once again the idea seems to be that if we shape the rules precisely enough, just right, it will be possible to exactly and clearly define what righteousness is.  

But what Jesus taught us is what we inevitably see in life, that this approach never fully works. There are too many choices in life, and people are too unique, and different, for any list of rules to always tell us what is the answer. And that's before you get the issue of people deliberately trying to subvert and get around the rules. However well designed any system of governance is, if people are out to make mischief, they will find a way to get around it and subvert it. You just have to look at the actions going on in parliament at the moment to see people on both sides trying to game the rules to get their way. People really struggle to believe this though. They always seem to think that if they phrase the rules just right, then they will be fool-proof, and then everything is simple. Well, I can only say the history of mankind is the history of the fools winning that one.

What is the alternative though?

The alternative is Jesus's teaching here in the Gospels, the alternative to the Letter of the Laws, is the Spirit and Grace of God; the alternative to and never-ending list of rules is just one - The Golden Rule. “So everything you wish that others would do for you, do also for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets."

But why is this so different? Isn't that just another rule?

No, because it does not dictate the answer to a specific situation, it gives us the key so we can understand and decide any situation for ourselves. It helps guide our thinking, but it requires us to think. That was what Jesus did again and again. That's why he taught in parables: because he wanted us to consider and learn. Think of the story of the Good Samaritan - Jesus tells this parable after a rich, young man comes and asks him first, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life", and then "Who is my neighbour?". Clearly this man just wants Jesus to give him the answer, maybe in some form of list.

Instead Jesus gives him a parable that he has to take and consider and apply anew in every situation. Jesus knows that no set of rules can be a replacement for a kind and loving heart. Yes, it matters to have the right rules in a society, or a workplace, or in ethics. Jesus says he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. And that can only be done by those who judge and think for themselves, but not people who judge and think in any random way, but people whose hearts are guided by loving the Lord God with all their mind and strength, and guided by loving their neighbour as themselves. Only when we take decisions guided by the Spirit of God, who is love, mercy, generosity and peace, rather than by the letter of the law, only then will we judge rightly. 

For this sermon I kind of wish it wasn't popularly known as the Golden Rule, because it's not a rule in the manner I've talked about. It's so different, it's not a law to follow, but a principle that can guide our thinking and our hearts. “So everything you wish that others would do for you, do also for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets." 

What kind of principle is it?

The first thing to say, is to make sense of it we can't apply the Golden Rule in a manner that is too immediate and literal. Just because you like bananas doesn't mean the Golden Rule is telling you to give everyone a banana. And it's easy to think of ever sillier examples. We have to take a step back from that kind of narrowness, and think about it more at an emotional level, what is the way we would like other to approach us, and then let that guide us back into specific actions.  

And if we do that this Golden Principle opens up for us. It becomes one that leads us to think about ourselves and the weaknesses we feel and the challenges we face.  To think about ourselves and all the times and ways we wish we had a helping hand, wish we had someone to turn to. And then it guides us, not to dwell in that forever, but to take all our vulnerability and look to the person sitting next to us, or the person walking by us in the street, or the person opposite us on the bus, and to think about how they might be vulnerable and in need in the same way, and to devote ourselves to them.

Because it assumes that other people are like us. It tells me that I can know something about others, that I can know that they have complex, multiple needs, and motivations, and cares like me. And it tells me even more than this, it tells me I must act to do something about it. When Jesus was asked "Lord, who is my neighbour?" he told the story of the Good Samaritan, with the message that our neighbour is anyone in need, and we act like a neighbour when we step in and help them. And we know that we are in need, so we better believe our neighbour is also in need. And we better do something about it. This is the statement of our common humanity, not as a legal or theoretical assumption, but in the messy, practical reality of all the things and cares that make up our lives.

There is a related saying to the Golden Rule, it is sometimes called the Silver Rule - "Do not do anything to others, that you wouldn't want them to do to you". Did you catch the difference? - "Do not do anything to others, that you wouldn't want them to do to you". Now that is an important principle as well. I'd suggest we all keep it. But it is not as important as the Golden Rule. It is also more common. Many religious traditions have the Silver Rule, but Jesus takes the rare step of turning it into Gold. Silver means second place, and there’s nothing shameful about that, but Gold means first. Why? Gold has always been considered more precious, more beautiful. Gold is always valuable, Silver tarnishes, but Gold keeps its shine. 

"Do not do anything to others, that you wouldn't want them to do to you". The difference is this - You can keep that principle by doing nothing. And that is why it would never be enough. The Good News of Jesus Christ is that the work has begun and is ongoing of creating a New Heaven and a New Earth, the Kingdom of Heaven, and that means standing up and acting. Maybe in small ways, maybe in large ways, and with the Grace and Spirit of God.

Just before this verse in Matthew 7:7 we have another famous reading, Jesus says “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you". Ask! Seek! Knock! And today, Do!

If we think about it, we all know how we'd like to be treated. We all want to people to be considerate, to pay attention to us, and not leave us abandoned, to approach us as unique individuals, to extend a helping hand, to appreciate us for who we are, to stick by us despite our flaws and errors, we want people to never condemn us on the basis of some stereotype or assumption. In other words, we want to be approached as an individual person who needs understanding, rather than as an object to be fit into some rigid structure of laws or assumptions. By no coincidence these are all the ways God's Love see us, and the ways his forgiveness approaches us. And in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus makes it clear that, however many rules and laws we have, we will never have the good world we want to see until we approach everyone around us with that same Grace, that we would want for ourselves.     

Amen.

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

A Tribute to My Great Uncle George. 1920-2005.

This is a brief tribute to my Great-Uncle, George Knight, who died when I was 16. He was one of the male role-models of my childhood, and this is based on the address at his funeral, written up from memory shortly afterwards. I discovered it again recently and with help from my Dad tidied it up.  This is a testament to an extra-ordinary life, from the aftermath of the First World War to the dawn of smartphones, one of the remarkable generation who lived right through the heart of the 20th Century, and saw their world change more than we can imagine.

My Fathers Uncle, my Grandma Florence's brother, a good and cheerful man to everyone he met: George Knight was born on the 9th January 1920 in South London.  His father died when he was young, he had been scarred by injuries from the Great War and couldn’t work, couldn’t operate, and then, in the late 1920s, sadly passed away.  George was part of a large family who would struggle to look after him at home, and so through a scholarship he was sent away to a boarding school. The experience was hard like the discipline. He used to say, 'when a cane wore out I was sent to buy another one'. But it taught him respect for elders, hard work, obedience and discipline. It also gave him a deep trust in God, that would last him his whole life.

As a child, a small lost boy from a poor family, he developed three dreams. To get into Oxford University, to become an officer in the Royal Navy and to become a Vicar in the Church of England. At the age of 17, he gained entry into London University and then at 19, with the help of a scholarship, he was granted entry to Oxford. His first impossible dream fulfilled. He was there from 1939-1942 and while there became Chairman of the Oxford Conservative Association and Captain of his college's Boat team. This taught him the skills of operating as part of a team and swiftly giving orders to react to the situations that faced him. He did not ignore his studies either, gaining the best theology degree of his entire year.

After graduating from Oxford he joined the Royal Navy in 1942 as an Ordinary Seaman, the lowest rung on the ladder, and on his first day was put in charge of a work party of 40 men.  He was soon promoted to Able Seaman and then after completing training at the Britannia Royal Naval College commissioned as a sub-Lieutenant.  His second ambition achieved.  He was later promoted to full Lieutenant, and commanded one of the second wave of ships that landed troops on Sword Beach on D-Day. One of his favourite stories from the War was when he was sailing in the Adriatic in 1945 shortly before VE Day. He was in charge of the bridge on his ship and from nowhere several vessels came speeding into view towards him. They were German boats and they had white sheets hung on their towers. They were trying to surrender, and George suddenly had this vision of all these enemy ships personally surrendering to little old him and escorting them triumphantly back into harbour. Think of the glory! So, he called his Captain to the bridge as quick as possible and asked him whether he should escort the ships back to harbour. The Captain said no, let them go on their way, so they did, and George continued on to Yugoslavia, glory sadly missed.

After the war George resigned his commission and entered the seminary, from which he was ordained as an Anglican priest. His last great ambition, fulfilled. He returned to the Navy as the Chaplain for the Royal Naval College in Greenwich, at that time the 2nd most senior religious post in the Royal Navy. There one day in 1951 he met a pretty blonde Swedish tourist on holiday. 18 months later they were married, and it was the start of 54 years of happy marriage that only ended with his sad death on the 7th December 2005. He was happy in his job too and was very lucky one day after a service at the College, which as chaplain he was leading, to end up dancing with a certain Princess Elizabeth, now the Queen. He said, 'Who was I, to be cavorting with princesses?'

He later also met the late Queen Mother at a reception where as chaplain he was required to say Grace before the meal and, as was Naval custom, afterwards thank God for the good things he had provided. Later he was honoured to have a long private conversation with the Queen Mother, then still Queen Elizabeth. He was also honoured to be appointed chaplain on the Vanguard, Britain’s last ever battleship, when it carried King George VI and Princess Elizabeth on a state visit to South Africa in 1947.

George served in the Royal Navy for 30 years, and he was thoroughly involved with all sorts of Naval developments. On one occasion he was asked to join a Naval commission to improve the prestige of the Fleet Air Arm. After many hours of discussion and various proposals, George suggested that Fleet Air Arm officers be granted the right to wear bicorne, Nelsonian hats when coming aboard ships, as that would do the job of marking them out distinctly as well as anything else mentioned and for considerably less money.

He retired from the Navy in 1975 and became a parish priest, at which time he was also awarded an OBE for his services in the College. His life was unfortunately mired by a tragedy as well during this time, as his only son, Christopher, died of Cancer at a young age. In 1990 after over 40 years as a Church of England priest he resigned in protest over the decision that year to ordain women as priests, and after that in his old age joined the Philadelphia Church of God, a small, distinct Protestant church to which his wife already belonged. He continued his life happily though, always cheery, always active, and luckily healthy right up until he was struck down by a stroke three weeks before his death.  Indeed on the very morning on which his stroke occurred he was out in the garden planting tubers. He was a good man.