Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Refreshing days

Today has been unusual weather wise in Dunedin.
I know that that is akin to saying "it's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon" - however it is the first day when the cloud has hung low and yet the temperature has climbed high. Unpleasantly Muggy would be my way of describing it. Most Unrefreshing!

In the thick of this various appointments took me down and then back up the hill into the city and did cause me to muse on conversations shared and in particular a surprising pleasantness encountered. Not just today but generally. Folk are nice here. Back in 'the ol' country' things are once more turning unpleasantly sour with bishops falling out publicly over economics. Nick Baines (formerly and briefly my bishop) picks up on this debate here.

I only mention this because the language in which some of the debate has been couched is only too wearingly familiar. That of making sure that 'The Undeserving' (and of course we all know who They are . . .) must not be helped.

This language was So prevalent that I MUST record my surprise, indeed astonishment at  the lack of suspicion of people in need (at least so far - and I have avoided reading the press here). That I have  several times beenin situations where folk have had need and when it has come to light, there has not been a moments 'can you trust them?' - 'do you know who they are?' - 'Don't get taken in!' Rather, there is a lack of suspicion and all supermarkets have baskets where shoppers can deposit food for the various food banks in operation around the city.

I was wondering about this and perhaps it is because NZ is a less divided society economically than the UK. That those who have, do not live lives so very different from those who have not. I remember the first time I was shown 'a poorer area' and thinking that what was striking was that it wasn't strikingly different from the more wealthy suburbs.  I saw no boarded up houses, horses walking in the road, burnt out cars  - nor was I warned to watch out for drug needles on the pavements.

Time and time again less economically divided societies have been shown to be more pleasant to live in. (For solid statistical evidence of this, you might like to read The Spirit Level. ) Certainly there is no part of this city in which I have any sense of threat as I walk through it - it's all very nice - most refreshing. (and this being Dunedin, I'm sure the weather will be, tomorrow :) )

Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Anglican Communion

A Wonderful perspective from +Nick Baines in Virginia

Not only the 'media' that misses this point of view . . .

Evening service talk on Vulnerability

Text Genesis 2:25-3:10

Sermon for Candlemas

Candlemas 2012

Malachi 3.1-5
Ps 24.1-10
Heb 2.14-18
Luke 2.22-40

Worship at the heart

One of the aspects of living in New Zealand I’m taking a bit of time to get used to is the distance from everywhere. Not particularly the distance from everywhere Else, but from everywhere in NZ. Although it is a small country relatively speaking it is well spread out, certainly in comparison with England.

One of the things I am adjusting to is not being able to pop on a train and nip to a conference, and be back in a day. Over the years I would go somewhere 3 or four times a year, making the most of my talent for decoding the Labyrinthine workings of the British Railways ticketing system to get myself cheap tickets to travel around the country and often be home in time for tea.

Now on the day I have in mind I went to a conference for in London. There were three speakers – speaking from different theological perspectives. And One got right up my nose. He was the Vicar of a Very large church in Oxford and declaimed about doctrinal purity and how his HUGE church which was getting bigger and bigger (he was very happy to say how huge it was) had decided that it wasn’t going to play its part in Diocesan affairs because it didn’t like its bishop (with whom it disagreed) and so would give its money where it thought fit, it would call the shots.
            Well I have to say I almost lost it with him over coffee – I am a mild mannered man J and Rarely get angry but having struggled for a good number of years in two small hugely under resourced parishes trying to preach the good news and bring some life, his pontificating about how his large and extremely wealthy parish wasn’t going to support the likes of mine, poor and struggling because they knew better . . . excuse me whilst I recover my emotional stability! I told him in no uncertain terms that if he was really so keen on Mission as he said – he should tell his Huge and Well heeled congreagation they should get off their elegantly attired behinds (or some such words) and leave his church and go support the mission where it was struggling. I don’t want your money – I want people to come and help!!! Labourers for the harvest field.

I was Very Cross!! J

Anyway all that is by way of a carefully crafted preamble. Most if not all preachers complain from time to time, ‘Oh if only folk would respond to my preaching!’ but secretly I think they actually are hoping no-one will, for heavens, if folk Really heard and Really Got the Message well . . .
I’d like this morning to spend a little time saying a few words about our friends in Brockville Community Church.

Just Friday I went on behalf of Bishop Kelvin to consider with our Presbyterian and Methodist friends the future of this church in our parish. Put very briefly – they are at once facing Great Joy and Great Peril. About three years ago the Presbyterian church paid for a minister there, Andrew Scott – he has done a great work and the church has a Vibrant mission to its community which as you know better than me is by NZ standards impoverished – they have a Huge monthly community meal for the parish and two vibrant youth groups – BUT the church itself is small in number and struggling financially and the Presbyterian church may no longer be able to pay for Andrew’s ministry which for better or worse is key.

Well I was wondering – as you know Vestry has already decisded to give a tithe of the fair money and we have launched our Coffee and pastry appeal – Donate $5 a week and get rid of the excess Christmas flab J - and I had several ‘Wonderings’ as my mind Wandered – but then my mind wandered back to that Conference . . . to my brother in Christ who so successfully got up my nose and his large and successful church and my call for him to send labourers . . . and Christ’s call last week to leave our nets and follow him . . .
            Not long before Christmas we hosted Steve Maina and he spoke of many mission opportunities and how it might be possible to get agroup together and go out on mission, somehere like Samoa, or even as far afield as North Africa – and it would be Life enhancing – I think as a church we would benefit as folk inevitably come back form such trips fired up for mission – but as I shared this with Vestry  - the point was made that perhaps we ought to look more closely to mission on our doorstep – which brings us to Brockville, which of course ies within our parish. BUT one thing Steve said did stick in this regard also – for he spoke of visiting a large church wehre very regularly folk were commissioned to leave that church and go work in the mission field - and I wondered if as a congregation we might send some of our people to go and worship and work in that parish . . . I wondered if Christ might be calling some of us to go there?? I thik it is good when we can give money for mission, but giving People . . . well I think that that challenges us – but perhaps this is the challenge from Christ regarding Brockville . . .Well as I said, secretly most vicars don’t want people to respond so I’ll move swiftly on J

This week we celebrate Candlemas or to give it its more prosaic name, the Feast of the Presentation – Never fear I shall tie it all up , eventually J - We have thought about the beginning of Christ’s ministry at his baptism, his calling of the disciples and now with his ministry begun we think about the Lord coming to His temple – to quote Malachi. In John’s Gospel Christ’s first public act is to cleanse the Temple – John puts it there because this is KEY to the ministry of Christ. Luke who like the other evangelists places the cleansing of the temple at the beginning of Holy Week, still inserts this incident, the Lord coming to his temple – the one waited for by faithful Israel – Simeon has Seen the Salvation of the Lord in the Christ Child. He comes to the Temple, he is first recognized for who he is in the Temple – There Acknowledgement is made of the Presence of God’s Christ in the World. And these things happen everytime we gather together – Christ is recognized, worshipped here in the house of God.

            Worship is at the Very Centre of the human response to God – Christ in his Humanity Worships God in Obedience and self sacrifice. Right Worship is Essential – We are not truly human unless we come to worship, indeed if we don’t come together to publicly worship – but that Worship must be Right Worship – it must be true Worship. Christ comes to Purify the sons of Levi, the Priests, so that Right worship might be made. What is more Right Worship is the Very source of God’s life flowing into the world. We tend to think all to readily that it is what we do outside of church that lets God’s Life flow into the world, but the Reality is – and this has been proven down through the ages over and over aain that without the worship of the true and living god – all the Life dries up – for it is in Worship and the Eucharist –that Heaven and Earth are connected

Corporate Worship is the Very heart of Christian Life. To miss out on the Eucharistic feast is in a very real sense to miss out on heaven, however obscured at times this may be.

The Pastor and writer Eugene Peterson, who wrote the translation of the Bible some of you may know as the Message – tells a wonderful story to illustrate this. He had in his congregation a man who like in many congregations was a bit on the fringe – not least because his life was utterly chaotic – he was alcoholic and it was rumored he beat his wife. It wasn’t good. Anyway, over time the man got his life turned round – but he was still pretty much the roughest of diamonds when one day he totally surprise his Pastor by announcing he believed he was called to be ordained – well a more unlikely candidate you could hardly imagine – I can only begin to think what the folk responsible for advising thought of it, but . . . over a long period of time, the call was confirmed. The man struggled through all the academic stuff and was finally called to be pastor of a small struggling church in the back of beyond. To Peterson’s amazement, for he believed he’d done nothing to encourage the man’s ministry , he asked him to preach at his Installation and ordination as Pastor. Well alone he went to what was little more than a tin hut. A windy and cantankerous organ and a small shabbily dressed choir of a few ‘reedy old ladies’ Peterson recalled. Half way through the service there was an anthem – Peterson said – musically it was terrible, none of them could sing particularly well, but half way through the man being ordained poked him in the ribs to catch his attention. ‘Isn’t it beautiful!’ he murmured. Well Peterson all to aware of this man’s past thought he was being sarcastic, btu he looked round at the man and saw his face was just rapt with what was happening – he was caught up in the beauty of the worship that his sophisticated pastor had just failed to see . . . a telling tale in many ways. And most of us, most of the time have our eyes closed to this reality

Shared Worship is Always an opportunity for heaven to break into the world – it is in God’s eyes its purpose – and when it is all about Him it is. But the Worship of Israel had become all about them – an opportunity to make money – to delight in elegance rather than to delight in the Lord – so Christ comes to purify the sons of Levi, for Worship is the Heart – Worship is the Door of God’s Life into the World, Supremely in the Worship and Sacrifice of Christ.

This is something I believe we have largely lost sight of. Too many Christians nowadays believe they can get by worshiping alone – or on the hills – Shared public Worship is not of the essence for them. They are Very Mistaken. Christian Life Requires Christian Worship – together, Week by Week and more often if possible.

Which brings me back to Brockville, but also how we think about the relationship of Worship and Mission. As I recounted last week we have lived in an age where worship dwindled but folk said – it’s OK, there’s still mission there – the church has a presence in its social ministries – perhaps hospitals or schools or agencies feeding the hungry. Except the evidence shows that that presence dwindles, and either expires or loses touch with the Life that sustains it when there is no worshipping community – it is the Life of that community that sustains Mission – there is No Mission without a Worshipping community.
Sustaining the Mission in the end requires sustaining the worshipping community. We have lots of money, but perhaps it is our people they need??

I am of course thinking aloud – I hope that you will think and pray with me for this church, but also about our own hearts and approach to what we do here Sunday by Sunday – Because at the heart of our faith is humankind being offered to God in the person of Christ - an act of Right worship to God – We enter into His worship when we too live sacrificially – we receive blessing from God as Christ is blessed in Baptism – that blessing is for the world. Everything flows from this

Sunday, 22 January 2012

'Where are we going?'

Sermon for Sunday 22nd January
“The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.” MLK
Jonah 3:1-5,10 Repentance of Ninevah
Ps 62:5-12 ‘For God alone . . .’
1 Cor 7:29:31 ‘The present age is passing away . . .’
Mk 1:14-20 ‘The Kingdom of God is at hand . . . come follow me’

Where are we going?

The New Year is often a time for setting new priorities – we may make New Year resolutions. Hopes and fears for what lies ahead, known and unknown are ruminated on and sometimes shared amongst us. We wonder what the year will bring, or put another way, we wonder where are we going?

We may wonder about our personal lives or we may wonder about the World. As we see the global financial crisis continuing with little sign of things turning around – wars and rumours of wars – all set against a background of a rapidly growing population and what seem to be unstoppable and highly threatening changes to the Earth’s climate – as we see all this we may well be led into various forms of despair. The despair of the elderly who say ‘ I am glad I will not live to see it’ or the despair of the young which reveals itself in incoherent protest movements which seem to disappear as fast as they appear, or the quiet despair of those who find solace in the Entertainment Culture. Or indeed the despair of the religious that understands God as some kind of comfort blanket from the pain of Life, who may read todays Psalm and understand it as a retreat from the world ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence’ – or who buries there fear under a mask of shallow cheerfulness of the ‘Smile Jesus Loves You’ type. Fear of the unknown, fear of the future. Where are we going?

Of course particularly in the church we live in times of tremendous uncertainty. Much has been made and will continue to be made of churches in decline etc etc. Just this week I’m meeting to talk about the future of Brockville community church, in our parish – a wonderful mission enterprise but facing a huge dilemma as they can no longer afford to support their minister, Andrew Scott. And such stories are legion. I think of Bradford, the city of my Cathedral back in England and how in inner Bradford now the Methodist church has no presence at all except a Project worker, doing good and valuable work, but history suggests that eventually that will disappear – either the work will stop or be taken over by secular agencies. As has happened with many of the good things that churches have begun. The faith element if you like has become less and less significant. For many many years in Western culture Our Story about where we were going was one that held sway. Society, so it seemed was organized around a Christian understanding of reality and human history and that produced much that was good. Without the church we do not know we would have had hospitals or schools both of which had their roots in a gospel impulse. Yet that impulse has waned and faith has been sidelined in these institutions. Back in England certainly it is almost impossible to see the difference between a faith school and a secular school – where are we going?

Of course, whilst we may have thought that it was the Christian Story that held sway – this reading of history is of course very popular amongst Christianity’s detractors, thus wars etc can all be blamed on the religious impulse – the reality was that it didn’t. Rather, Christian faith had entered into partnership – in a sense you might say that it had abandoned the words of the Psalmist – ‘For God Alone, my soul waits – He Alone is my rock and Salvation’ and the story became God AND . . . If you like that there was much in Life that God couldn’t provide – A mindset that if you like suggested to us ‘Well Religion has its place’ Going to Church has its place – but there are lots of other things in life and having put religion in its place the world set about going its own sweet way with an air of religious respectibility

Now of course the whole church didn’t buy this – from the desert fathers, to the Celtic saints, from Saint Francis of Assissi to myriad ‘troublers of the Status Quo’ there have been many who have stood up and declared that the church had been taken captive and in so doing, in the words of the Risen Christ to the church in Ephesus, ‘had lost its first love’. One of those voices from our own century was The Rev Martin Luther King. We think of course of how he led the Civil rights movement in the United States but forget how complicit so many Christians were in preserving the status quo and how he had to recall many parts of the church to the authentic Christian Life. I had a sharp reminder of something similar when I was a young Christian – I remember a visit from a member of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, telling my church how Apartheid was God’s will.

Well this week the United States celebrated MLK day – it’s rather odd as like several folk here I have American friends and didn’t realize it was MLK day till it was flagged up on FB etc a day late for NZ so to speak J
One quote of his though caught my attention “The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.” MLK
Throughout the era of Christendom, that is to be frank throughout the whole era that has shaped the church as it is, and that means it is poor equipped to face life in a Secularised society. In Christendom being Christian was precisely about conforming – for despite the dissenting voices we largely thought ‘The World is Christian and so are we and all is therefore well with the world’ Christians it must be said are not very good at nonconformity, although our call is precisely to this. As St Paul says ‘Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds’. The reality of Christendom was not that the world was made Christian, but that Christianity was made worldly – and thus our whole way of thinking, even about faith itself is radically infected with ideas from our surroundings, and thus as we think about ourselves or the future of the world or indeed about the future of the church we are left thinking the same thoughts that everyone else is thinking. As painfully too many observers note, the life of an average Christian is not measurably different from anyone else’s.
Yes there are differences. Yes Christians are more generous than non Christians, yes Christians are significantly more likely to be involved in charitable work, BUT not in anyway that really makes anyone sit up and take notice – not least because even in those cases, these elements are such small parts of their lives in total that to all intents and purposes their lives are the same. Put another way, if our faith isn’t causing us problems in the work place, or in the shops, or indeed in our families its largely because our faith has been shaped to fit our world and frankly folks we have no business allowing that to happen


You and I, we together as bothers and sisters in Christ stand not only at the beginning of yet another New Year but in terms of Christian faith and the life of the church a particularly critical juncture – Yet although History flows on – Christ is An ever present and Constant reality, His word to us the same yesterday today and forever. St Paul says ‘the appointed time has grown short . . . for the present form of this world is passing away’  - undoubtedly as this is Eternally true it is also true in ways visible to those around us in these days. People are asking – ‘What is happening? Where are we going?’ Risen Christ addresses us as he addressed his first disciples with words of Challenging Hope, so he addresses us also – ‘The Kingdom of God is at Hand – Repent – Believe – leave your nets and follow me’

Last week we thought briefly about how God’s New Reality, Heaven if you like, was already present in the Risen Christ – the first fruits of the New Creation – A creation that reveals the life of God present in the World – a Creation that causes people to say ‘surely God was in this place and I did not know it!’ a Creation that lives entirely in response to God’s Voice as Jesus its author and perfector lived a life given over to God’s will. We call this The Kingdom of God and Jesus says, it’s right here, it’s at Hand – Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds – Repent and believe This Story – leave your nets and follow me – Let go of all that binds you - Give yourself totally into my hands

That Life my friends is God’s will for us – it is God’s Call through his son to we who are the church of St John’s Roslyn – it is a Life of Devotion to God through discipleship to Christ.

Devotion and Discipleship are Big words – and we have been trained by the world in which we live to see them as at best ‘for Saints’ and at worst as ‘for fanatics’ – Special people, Called people – not for the common or garden run of the mill Christian. But the truth is that there is no such thing as the common or garden run of the mill Christian – Devotion and Discipleship is not an optional extra for the keen Christian or the professional Christian. No it is the description of the authentic Christian Life. People whose lives are wholly given over to the will of God –that is precisely who we are, all of us, as a body. It is the meaning of our Baptism and we reveal it in our own response to the call of Jesus to leave everything behind and to follow Him.
            In our baptism we are baptized into his death – in other words we are longer good for anything from a worldly point of view – and we are raised to new life with Him – we enter the Kingdom – a whole new way of Living that offers to the world an utterly Beautiful, compelling and yet challenging answer to the question ‘Where are we going?’

I’d like to finish with a further brief reflection on those words of Martin Luther King, that change in the world comes from the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority’ – Creative maladjustment – Creative because it is coherent, it has a Vision of the future. When the Occupy movement briefly grew up one of the criticisms that it rightly faced was that it offered no solutions – With no coherent view of what an alternative might look like it offered no Direction. It invited us to join but could offer no answer to the question ‘Where are we going?’ – for the contemporary world has no Story. It wasn’t complacent conformity, but Its maladjustment to use MLK’s words was not Creative. Unlike a Garden carefully planned and created to produce Beauty and Life is was just a disparate group of seeds and whilst its life was at least in the eyes of some, cheerfully chaotic, it led nowhere.
            We are heirs of a much older story, The Story of Life a story of order and meaning and purpose. The Greeks had a glimpse of it and some of their philosophers called it the Logos – St John skillfully hijacked ‘Logos’ and put it to use in his prologue – In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. So Our maladjustment, the maladjustment of those who follow Christ is Creative and I Carefully say Our. MLK did not see a future where isolated individuals would make a difference rather it was a nonconforming minority – in other words a people. Not a large number, but a People all the same. It has always been a people, the people of Israel, the church. When we are called, we are individuals, but we are called to leave that behind to be formed into a people – into a Community of disciples – the truth is that it is in our Life Together that Discipleship and Devotion to God is worked out and revealed to the world.

At the beginning of the New Year we hear once more the Word of Christ, the people of Nineveh responded at the preaching of Jonah – we are called to respond to the preaching of the eternal Logos of God – Christ the Lord – He calls us in this New Year  to renewed Discipleship, to say ‘In Truth Our hope is in God alone!’ to leave our nets and follow him. We are going into the future, the future revealed to us in the Life of the eternal Logos, Christ the Lord.


Thursday, 19 January 2012

A rambling thought

I was just reflecting after a day of sermon writing, about how unhelpful labels are, especially 'Churchmanship'. I started out thinking about how useless such labels were as they didn't tell nearly half the story - I went on to think how they didn't translate to other cultures (even where the common language spoken is all that divides)  - I then went on to think rather sadly about how often the label is used to damn someone because of their associations.

I remembered a Man who got crucified for associating with with Prostitutes and Tax Collectors - and how now we his followers anathematize those who either label themselves as or associate with 'Liberals' 'Evangelicals' 'Catholics' (yes sadly, it still Does go on).

St Paul ( a bit of a hate figure himself amongst some of the crucified guys followers ) once said 'To the pure all things are pure' - I think that this means that The Pure One will associate with anyone.

I Remember a some years ago listening to a Powerful poem written about Easter - it may have come from the Iona Community or a fellow trainee vicar - I can't remember, but perhaps someone may put me right. The refrain went along the lines of 'How far will you go, Jesus'  as each verse moved him closer to Calvary. I think the question those who scorned him asked was 'How Low will you go?' - I guess that's the question he's asking us.

His invitation may well be

Want to be clean?  Come join me in the 'Dirt'

Monday, 16 January 2012

True Freedom

(Photo courtesy of Rose)

One of the truly wonderful things about living in this part of the world is the abundance of wildlife which is to be encountered, most especially on the edge of the sea. Even with the 'pressures of work', there is scarce a week goes by without a visit to one of the very many beaches hereabouts. These special places, often deserted, are places of encounter with penguins or the Northern Royal Albatross, that has its crib hereabouts, or any number of seals and sea lions. Such encounters are often times of gift which I am slowly learning to be more grateful for

To digress for a moment, when I was a youngster living on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales and Lake District I rarely if ever tramped the hills and I find there are a surprising number of folk who never seem to take the time for beaches and wildlife here, too. A Fresh Eye, as I discovered when I moved back to the North of England in later years is a Great Gift. 'Can anything Good come out of Nazareth? asks one who has 'seen it all'

Walking on the aptly named Long Beach this last week, on a day not suited for beaches and thus perfect for beaches, a day of rain and dense sea mist shrouding trees and cliffs on the shore line, of a heavy swell brooding with promise of more rain to come - I chanced upon a large fur seal. Stood some distance away as I was I don't think I disturbed him, they seem pretty imperturbable creatures, but he chose that moment to get up from his sandy repose and in that gloriously awkward yet graceful way of a creature only half formed for the land, made his way back into the waves. There is something full of wonder at such moments. Seals seem happy enough on shore, but for a few moments as they are in the shallows you behold their Joy as they come into their Home environment.

And I was very blessed in that moment, for I caught myself out of myself, rejoicing with the seal in its Joy. I saw myself taking pleasure purely in the pleasure of another. For a moment, freed from my usual posture of incurvatus se (turned in on myself). The seal was Happy and so was I. I was engaged in the joy of an other. It was Great Gift and led me to think of many such glimpses I have of the Heavenly life in others.
I was led to think of one dear friend amongst many who often faces circumstances which threaten to overwhelm  and yet who seems to have an infinite capacity to rejoice with others, to take sheer delight in another's delight. It is in them, truly a well of water springing up to eternal life. For me they have often exemplified the Excurvatus life - the turned out life, the life which is Other focussed.

It occurs to me that it is in this self letting go that we discover Life. Christ calls us frequently to let go of our life to discover Life. Often I have reflected on the thought that forgiveness is commanded as much if not more for the one who needs to forgive, than for the one who needs to be foregiveness - that it is in the radical letting go of all our own troubles that we step into something of Great Wonder.

Somewhat amusingly, given the source, I was further taken down this path of reflection by some words of the famous scientist Stephen Hawking who turned 70 this past week. Hawking although of a fairly atheist set of mind, does not waste his energies on the noisy proclamations of some of his fellows, although one might think he would have cause to, if that is he were turned in on himself. The gifted cosmologist has spent the vast majority of his 70 years profoundly disabled by Lou Gehrig's disease, a form of Motor Neurone Disease and yet he says 'The human race is so puny compared to the universe that being disabled is not of much cosmic significance'. Hawking takes great delight in something which is so incomprehensibly vast that he sees his own suffering in a totally different light. There is at the least an echo here of losing life and so finding it.

Over the past few months I have been reflecting over and again about the significance of the First Commandment and latterly of the Truth that Human life 'properly conceived' - i.e. born again, is pure response to the Word of God, such that it is the most profound of dances - a liberty and freedom. That it is only in loving God with all we have and all we are - with all of our resources so that there is nothing left for incurvatus self absorption, that we are set free to truly love others, to rejoice as they rejoice and indeed to mourn as they mourn. 

Learning from my friend and watching the seal helped me see this better - I Need to Get Out more

Sermon for Epiphany 2

 1 Sam 3:1-20
Ps 139
1 Cor 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

Heaven and Earth

I was visited a few days ago by an old friend traveling in New Zealand and for reasons to lengthy to go into now – we ended up talking about ghosts and the suchlike. Her husband, not a belieiver and being of an enquiring but skeptical frame of mind asked about what I thought of them.

Well this led to some interesting reflections, for my experience in the past led me to believe that perhaps we didn’t see such things because we had been trained not to. I remember back in my old parish a family I knew well who lived in an old 17th Century farmhouse – their 3 year old son regularly saw the ghost of a dog. He kept saying to his parents that he’d seen a dog and they wondered what he was talking about till an older farmer said that tales of a ghostly dog had been associated with the house for many years!  An elderly member of my congregation was woken one night to find a cowelled figure, perhaps a monk stood at the foot of her bed – she was most upset – not because of the presence of a ghost but because all her life she’d wanted to see one particular ghost, that of an old lady who had lived in the house and had been seen from time to time. So upset was she that it was the wrong ghost she didn’t give the monk the time of day, or night and turned over in a huff and went back to sleep.

Well that brings us to the boy Samuel who was ministering to the Lord at Shiloh under Eli the Priest. Now I have to make it clear at the outset that I don’t think Samuel has an encounter with a ghost – he hears the voice of the Lord and he learns to respond. As I said last week, we are to learn to grow in response to the Voice of God as Christ does so perfectly and as does Creation though less so. But there are some interesting parallels.
            Little Charlie Wear didn’t know he was seeing a ghost, he just thought he was seeing a dog. He had no other way to interpret what was happening – and so it was with the boy Samuel. He needed the counsel of Eli to interpret for him what this call in the night was – but even Eli took time to discern what was going on for ‘the word of the LORD was rare in those days and visions were not widespread’ Hearing the Voice of God takes training, we need to be helped to discern it.
            And secondly, Samuel was a child – my friend Myfanwy who was not in the least impressed with the ghostly monk had an incredible childlike quality to her which I think had been part and parcel of her entire life. ‘I didn’t want to see That ghost, I wanted to see The Old Lady!’ And that childlike quality can be expressed in the word Openness – an alertness to the reality of things that few adults possess – our lives become so filled with . . . well filled with ourselves, our thoughts, our activities our plans for our life – and that we become not simple but Sophisticated – like Nathaniel, not open to possibilities. Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

He has been tutored like the rest of us Not to see. Samuel is yet to young to hear a voice in the night and not respond – Nathaniel has been taught by experience not to pay attention – as perhaps has Eli. I think that in this story of Samuel it is perhaps Eli who best exemplifies us as Christians today. In our World, the Voice of the LORD is rare and visions are not widespread. Three times Samuel has to respond to the voice until Eli realizes what is happening – it is as though he has forgotten that the LORD will speak. For Eli, reality is that the voice of the LORD is rare and visions are not widespread – he has no expectation of hearing from the LORD. And I suggest that that is our situation also – how many of us think that the word of the LORD is common? How many of us understand Visions as part and parcel of our regular Christian experience? But that is Not Reality

It may well be that we believe that the LORD does speak – we may have no trouble at all believing that in principle, but in practise we do not expect it – and it is the practical set of our lives that reveals what we believe in our heart of hearts.

There may be special times – perhaps we face a special challenge and Need to hear the Voice of the LORD – we need to discern His Voice, but when those occasions of Need arise we struggle to attune our hearts. It is as if having moved into the digital age of Radio we are faced with an old fashioned valve radio and we are turning through the frequencies saying ‘I know the voice of God is somewhere here – I remember in the past people used to be able to hear clearly’. Thru Advent and on into the rest of the summer we have been trying to hear what the LORD has to say to us about His future for our church – but I guess that as much as for me, this has been difficult, out of the ordinary, unusual. And in an important sense that is not right, for we should moment by moment be living in accord with the Spirit, the Voice of the living God. Be attuned to the Life that is in us by virtue of our Baptism
As I sat writing this I was watching a tree outside of my window and how it moved in response to the wind – if you remember those dramatic verses from Psalm 29 last week, they exemplified a Creation in tune with and responding with as much grace to the Voice of the LORD as I saw each leaf and branch moving in the wind. Yet this is God’s desire for us, to be as alert to his presence and voice as the tree is alert to the motions of the wind. But we are called to move even beyond that.

The alert amongst you will have noted that there was one particular way in which the ghost stories diverted from the story of Samuel – the people Saw the ghosts, Samuel only Hears the voice of the LORD. As we move into the New Testament and specifically the gospel reading for today – the theme moves from hearing to Seeing. At Christmas midnight we heard these words – And the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us, and we have seen his Glory – John’s gospel has perhaps as its key related themes ‘Seeing’ (a whole chapter at the heart of the gospel is given over to the healing of a blind man – Nicodemus is told that only if he is born again can he See the kingdom of God)  - and Glory. We have Seen his glory – John the Baptist says ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!!’ Look!! Our NRSV completely loses this with the very bland, here is the Lamb of God – I came baptizing ‘that he might be revealed’ – ‘I saw the spirit descending’ – he who sent me said – ‘he on whom you See the spirit descend’ – I myelf have Seen and have testified – and so it goes on until we come to todays incident and the Rich imagery of the angels of God ascending and decending on the son of Man. Just listen to how the theme of Seeing is woven through this passage

Jesus finds a lost sheep, Philip – Philip finds Nathanael ‘We have found him about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth’ – ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Nathanael does not see – Philip says to him – Come and See  - then Jesus Saw Nathanael (I’ll come back to this at the end) -  Nathanael says – where did you get to know me? I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you – Nathanael sees! Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel – Jesus said ‘ you believed because I Saw you . . . you will see far greater things than these – Seeing who Jesus is opens the door to see something more – Very truly I tell you – literally Amen. Amen. I tell you – this is the most profound truth – You will See heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man

Now Immediately I hope we know to what Jesus is referring in this image, of the angels of God ascending and descending on the son of Man – what Old Testament incident does it refer to? Jacob’s ladder – you remember the story, Jacob is fleeing his brother Esau and ‘weary with travel’ he lies down with a stone for his pillow and ‘dreamed of a ladder upon the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending upon it’. In his dream the LORD speaks with Jacob and when Jacob awakes he says “Surely the LORD is in this place and I did not know it!” – and he was afraid and said “How Awesome is this place! This is non other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven”

‘You will See angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’ What Christ does is to renew once more the connection between heaven and Earth – that Earth is once more The dwelling place of God – the house of God, the gate of heaven.

Back at the beginning of the story, the Lord God walks in the garden in the cool of the day – the dwelling place of God is earth – heaven is on earth. Man broke the connection – God in Christ has restored this – but we have been trained out of seeing this. In a very real sense our understanding of who Christ is, is far far too weak and thus our Gospel lives are but a shadow of what they should be.

Imagine for just one moment that we are in heaven? How do we live in heaven? What do we do in heaven? What is present in heaven? What is absent in heaven? All the answers to those questions are found in Christ, Present amongst us. Risen and Living – How do we live in heaven? How does Christ Live? What do we do? What is Christ doing? What is present in heaven? What do we find in Christ but the very Life of God? What is absent in heaven? Anything that denies that Life?

Imagine if you would further for one moment what a group of people would look like who saw as it were heaven about them, or the Life of Christ and lived in accord with what they saw? Would not such a group of people live lives together of such radical difference that others might be drawn to them? Imagine such a group of people – Imagine the church – the body of Christ.

Finally I said I would come back to Nathanael and Jesus encounter with him – what transformed Nathanael – you see the church in its splendour is the community of people who have come to see, but like Nathanael they come to see one by one. What is it that as it were triggers that Seeing in Nathanael? What was it that turned this weary skeptic into one who would see heaven opened? It is the recognition that he is known by Christ
When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’

In our culture it is not unusual to say ‘how are you?’ and then go on to talk about anything and everything apart from how we are. Frankly not to want to be know or be known. In some less talkative cultures folk do not say this, they say ‘I see you’. Nathanael comes to See because Christ sees him – he is held in the childlike gaze of Christ.

Folk often say to me – well yes, but how?? How do we come to see? I suggest that this often puts things round the wrong way for it starts with us – rather we come to See because like with Nathanael - God in Christ first sees us and that profound revelation opens our own eyes. He sees us and the knowledge of that opns our eyes too. We are seen and so learn to see

Our Psalm today, 139 is a wonderful meditation upon this and to take time to Hear these words, at once the words of a human being but at the same time the words of God, might open our eyes ‘Oh Lord, you see me and you know me – you know when I sit and when I rise – such knowledge is too wonderful for me – too lofty for me to attain – where can I go from your presence?’

You Oh Lord have brought the life of heaven to earth – you know us intimately, give us grace that we too may see heaven opened, that we might see Christ and that we might see and more perfectly reflect your glory, that our lives be more perfectly aligned with the Heavenly life he brings once more to Earth. Amen

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Sermon for the Baptism of Christ

The Baptism of Christ
Sermon for Sunday January 8th, 2011

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

So a new Vicar goes to a church and chooses for his first sermon the text, Jesus’ words from John chapter 3 vs 7 ‘Do not be amazed that I say to you – you must be born again’. Well at the end of church the wardens and vestry were all very happy – it was they thought a very fine sermon and there were lots of smiles at the door

The following week, the new Vicar chose the same text – You must be born again. Well Vestry were a bit perplexed, but again it was a very fine sermon which they really appreciated and there were lots of ‘nice sermon Vicar’ as folk left the church.

The following week the Vicar’s text was . . . John 3:7 ‘You must be born again’ – well this time the Vestry were more than a little perplexed and called the Vicar to see them afterwards. ‘We really appreciate your preaching but Why do you keep preaching this same text?’ The Vicar looked them in the eye and said, ‘Because You must be born again!’

Well that salutary tale illustrates a couple of things for us this morning at the beginning of a new year. Firstly I think it is a Very good illustration of how the point of sermons is missed. A sermon may well be very well crafted, theologically correct and impeccably delivered – and yet still not heard. The Gospel reading and the sermon that follow are God’s Word to us and we need to be alert and ready to respond. I think it worth reflecting on the question. How often do I respond to what we hear? This is a question for us however old or young we are in Christian faith, for as we shall see, the Christian life is a life lived in response to God’s Speech to us

Well, the Vicar in the story could see a Spiritual need, a Great Spiritual need in his new congregation – they appreciated fine sermons but actually they were spiritually dead – they needed to be born from above, born again. It is a reminder to all of us that like the church in Sardis which the risen Christ Addresses, we can have the name of being alive but actually be dead – that it is not what others think of us a church that counts – the only Judge is the Risen and ascended one. And I think that this is a Very big challenge for us as a church which is outwardly successful – Christ looks and speaks to the hidden reality of the Heart of a church, what John calls the angel of the church and we need always to be Listening. ‘Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church’ we hear at the end of every lesson.

But secondly the story illustrates something which I myself will do. Just as the Vicar kept saying ‘You must be born again’ – so I will repeatedly emphasise the significance of our Baptism. In a very real sense every sermon Must be a working out of the implications of our Baptism. So if from time to time you are thinking ‘Why does he keep going on about Baptism?’ then the answer is that it is fundamental to our faith as Christians. It is the beginning, the Source. Everything else flows from our Baptism  - for our Baptism is not the baptism of John, a baptism of repentance, of turning around to face and believe in the one who was coming after him. No, our baptism is a baptism into the name of the Lord, Jesus. Into his Very life.

Just before Christmas I was working with those folk who are getting confirmed or seeking to renew their baptism vows and in one session we explored Baptism and what it meant to be baptized in the name of Jesus. And one person said, and I think this a very sensible suggestion that because I was baptizing someone in the name of Jesus, I was doing it on behalf of Jesus. Because that is precisely how we understand those words, but this is not how our forebears in faith understood it. The Name of someone was understood to be synonymous with who they were – to mention the name of a person made them very truly present – One important reason amongst many why Gossip and the suchlike is frowned upon for to talk about someone was seen as being in someway making them present. I wonder if you’ve ever noticed how in Scripture plots about people and the like have a habit of being uncovered, as if the person was present – which of course they were for they had been named.

So to baptize in the name of Jesus is literally to be put into Jesus. St Paul puts this in Romans chapter 6 where he says we are baptized into the death of Christ – we have been buried with him by baptism into his death – so that just as Christ was raised from the dead . . . we to might walk in newness of life. It is the most succinct teaching on Baptism in the whole of Scripture and utterly breathtaking. Thus I might speak on it again and again for how can we ever get into the depths of the implication of this that in our baptism we have been included in the death of Jesus and thus also his resurrection and that that has present implications for us.

We always teach on the baptism of Christ at the beginning of the year – it is Christ’s Own beginning – he enters the work his father has for Him at his baptism – you are my Son, my beloved. He enters into something Very New. We might very well say that at His Baptism Jesus himself is Born from Above – The Holy Spirit Descends upon him – and he is the one who himself ‘will baptize with the Holy Spirit – He gives the Life that is in Him to those who are baptized in his name.

We read from the beginning of Genesis at this time not because it is the start of a new year, but to remind us of the original Creation, for the Resurrection of Jesus ushers in the New Creation and we are baptized into this new life.

It is I think a commonplace to understand Christian faith as being about second chances – about forgiveness – and a new start. And in a sense this is right. It is about a new start, new beginnings, but not merely having a go at the same old life we had before. Some folk say something along the lines of Christians aren’t any different to anyone else, we’re just forgiven! Well that really isn’t doing the reality of what is happening justice. Yes, there is great power humanly speaking in forgiveness – when we forgive we not merely set others free, we are ourselves set free – but anyone who has tried to genuinely forgive will know that it seems all but impossible. People stand amazed when say for example the family of someone who is murdered stands up and publicly forgives the murderer – there is something other worldly about it. ‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?’

In other words we need something outside of ourselves to truly live out this Christian life, because the Christian life is not first and foremost Our Life, it is His Life in us. And His life is a moment by moment response to the Voice of his Father in heaven

At His baptism Jesus receives the Holy Spirit – immediately we see him living in response to it as the Spirit drives him out into the wilderness to learn as it were the discipline of a life responding to god, that human beings do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

This is the profound meaning of our Baptism – a life lived in ever closer response to the Word of God
In the beginning God said – the Creation of which we are part knows this all to well – as St Paul says, all creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God – those who like the creation respond to His Word

I’ll finish with a few words about the Psalms – we don’t use them in our worship and I think that perhaps needs to be addressed – they are as many folk have pointed out both the words of people and the words of God – if you need to learn how to pray then the Psalms are great teachers - Our Psalm set today is Psalm 29

The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
   the God of glory thunders,
   the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
   the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
   the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
   and Sirion like a young wild ox.

The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
   the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
   and strips the forest bare;
   and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’
A beautiful vision of Creation living in response to the word of God – when I hear this I think of a dance – it is as if Creation is Dancing in Joy, ecstatic rapture in response to the Voice of God. In our Baptism – we are ushered onto that same dance floor – to be born again from above and to learn the Life that is the eternal Dance of God – a Dance of response to His Voice, to His Word, to His Life made present to us in Jesus, the one who baptizes us with the Holy Spirit.