Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Tenth Sunday after Trinity 2017

I don’t usually publish my sermons until after I have preached them, but am making an exception on this occasion, to participate in communal sermon preparation.

Why does Jesus ignore the Canaanite woman?

Isn’t that just unkind? Certainly, rude? Not at all Christian?

Here’s my best guess, and then I’ll tell you why. Jesus was looking at his disciples, to see what they would do.

And what they do is urge him to send her away, to put an end to her disturbing them. It was a little annoying at first, then pushed its way through being frankly embarrassing, until at last they’ve had enough. Have mercy on us, Lord!

That’s what they did, but not what I think Jesus had hoped that they would do.

Let’s consider the context. Not long ago, they had fed a multitude with a small boy’s packed lunch. Jesus had taken what he had been given, and, having given thanks for it, told the disciples to give it away. And the more they gave it away, the further it went, until there was more than enough.

And then there followed that whole strange story about Jesus walking on the water, a disclosure-story where the gravity-defying penny that has been hanging over the disciples’ heads finally drops and they realise than in the person of Jesus, the God of their fathers is walking among them.

And that is followed by a confrontation with some Pharisees over what it means to keep the Law, where Jesus says, how is it that you have so fundamentally missed the point of your calling?

What calling? The call to live within the covenant that the Lord had made with Abram, saying, ‘I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ (Genesis 12:2, 3).

In other words, to be a people who take the blessing God has given them and to give it away in order that everyone else gets to share—to enter-into—the blessing.

But the Pharisees don’t even want to share that blessing with their own parents, let alone with people they saw as undeserving.

By the way, Yahweh is faithful to his character even when his people are not. He keeps blessing his people, in order that through them all the families of the earth shall be blessed, even when they keep the blessing to themselves. Even when they keep the blessing to themselves so long that they come to believe that they are more blessed because they are more deserving. Even when they come to believe that they are so more deserving than all the other families that they come to see those people as dogs. But that faithfulness includes humbling his people, and calling them back to him. Again and again.

So to recap: Jesus has had his disciples take part in a practical exercise of giving blessing away; has shown himself to be the embodiment—we use the term ‘incarnation’—of Yahweh; and has told a group of people who are trying to be in right relationship with God by keeping blessing to themselves that they have missed the point…

…and now the disciples are confronted with the perfect opportunity to join the dots together and jump at the chance to be used by God to bring blessing to this family.

I mean you couldn’t make it up. It is an open goal right in front of them, and all one of them needs to do is tap the ball home.

Send her away, Lord!

It is painfully clear that the disciples haven’t got it (yet). So Jesus presses his point: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ Note that he still isn’t answering the woman. This is his response to the disciples’ request that he send her away. ‘I wasn’t sent to send anyone away; I was sent to find the lost sheep of Israel.’ To restore a people who would be a blessing to others. I was sent to call you, disciples. And you are as wayward as any sheep.

They still don’t get it. And at this point, the woman speaks up again, saying simply, ‘Lord, help me.’ And the question is not one of whether Jesus is willing to help her, but one of how he wants to see her helped.

He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’

Now, bear in mind that this is a time long before Pedigree Chum, long before anyone thought to market food as dog food. This is a time when dogs would eat whatever was set aside for them from what the family members were eating. So why is it not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs?

Because if you do the children won’t have enough to eat? No.

It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs because if the adult does that, the children will never learn that the dog needs to have a share in the food.

And, of course, the dog itself will be fine, for as long as the adult is around. But if the adult dies and the children have not learnt to share their food with the dog, the dog—or its pups—will die too.

It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs because if the adult does that, the children will grow up so self-centred they think only of themselves. That isn’t fair on the children—and it isn’t fair on anyone else. It would be a parenting fail.

If Jesus shows mercy on this woman and the disciples have not learnt to show mercy on women like her, then that is great for as long as Jesus is around, but it doesn’t fulfil the call on the people of Israel that he was sent to restore.

‘Yes, Lord,’ the woman said. ‘But your disciples are painfully slow. And I need a miracle now. And even if the family forgets to feed their dog, it at least gets to lick up the crumbs that fall from the table. So I’m just going to lie down here at your feet and hope.’

And for that, Jesus changes his mind. (Why? Because Jesus is God, and we read in the Bible that God often changes his mind about what he intends to do, in conversation with people, in response to their response. It’s almost as if God were looking for partners to work with…) Jesus is prepared to risk the disciples not getting it, on this occasion, because to the woman’s need—to which they have failed to respond—is now added her insight—which they have failed to grasp for themselves.

Come on, boys!

And here’s the good news: they do get it, eventually. Later, after Jesus has died and been raised to life and ascended into heaven, Peter has a vision all about dietary laws, followed by an invitation to go to the house of a Roman centurion. And if he experienced déjà vu, that would be because of the debate over food and defilement that preceded meeting a Canaanite woman. Peter goes, and the Gentiles enter-into the blessing of being included within the people of God (Acts 10). And the rest, as they say, is history.

We don’t know what happens to the woman, how her story continues to unfold. We don’t know how fully she took up the invitation to join God’s people. But we can say that she is blessed and that her understanding of being blessed extends blessing to others—to the slow disciples; in time, to the Gentiles.

So, what about us? There are people living on my street, living on your street, who are hoping for a miracle. Lives waiting to be touched by blessing that undoes whatever curse they may find themselves under. The chances are, they are the neighbours you and I find most annoying, the ones we keep asking Jesus to remove. I think of my immediate next-door-neighbour, who pretty much keeps himself to himself, except for the time he swung a punch at me on my doorstep. I have no idea how to reach out to him with blessing, but I’m pretty sure it won’t happen until I want him to be blessed more than I want him to go away.

And so I find myself in exactly the same place as Jesus’ first disciples. Needing to be humbled, needing to repent. But also in the presence of God-with-us, the one whose character is compassion and mercy—towards me and those who I find difficult—who is faithful forever, who is slow to express anger at my hard-heartedness and quick to respond to my desire to be more like him, but to whom I will one day need to give account. And that is not always a comfortable place to be. But there is no better place, no better person to follow.

Allow me to end where I began. Why does Jesus ignore the Canaanite woman?

Next time you hear someone ask, Why does God ignore this affliction, that loss, in my life? why not ask Jesus, How might we bring blessing to this person, Lord?

You never know what might happen.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Ninth Sunday after Trinity

Well, it is good to be with you today, having been away for our summer holidays. We spent a week sightseeing in Amsterdam, an amazing city drawn out of the sea by channelling the waters, and filled with creativity; followed by a week with 15,000 other people attending week 2 of New Wine, which is one of the major Christian gatherings in the UK. In fact, this evening’s Songs of Praise was filmed at week 1, if you’d like a taste of what we were up to. And in that second week I’ve been listening to and reading a young American pastor called John Mark Comer, and reflecting on what the Bible tells us about work and rest.

In the beginning, God created, and then took the time to enjoy the fruit of his work. And God made humans to share in that pattern. To take the raw materials of the world and bring creation to its fulfilment. To cease from work at the culmination of each week, on a day God blessed—that is, gave the ability to create life. And we came up with tools and agriculture and architecture and music. But we failed to trust God, and so we also came up with murder and rape and war and slavery. The blessing of work was frustrated, cursed, to limit destruction and in the hope that it might bring us back to God. And every so often, God would intervene to re-set the world, as in the story of the great flood. But it never lasted.

Later, in the writings of the prophets such as Isaiah, we see glimpses of a day when God will act decisively, once-and-for-all, after which the people will experience work and celebratory rest from work as God intended, without frustration.

Elijah, exhausted from his work and finding nothing life-giving in his rest, is graciously given a foretaste of the future. The earth—or at least that bit of the earth on which he stood—is scoured clean by fire that consumes everything in its path; and then, after stillness and silence—after rest—God begins again, choosing new humans to exercise their rule over creation. But this is not yet the decisive, for-ever, new beginning. It is only a foretaste.

Jump forward with me to our Gospel reading. The disciples are in the boat surrounded by a stormy sea. The imagery resonates with that of the flood story: God saving a few people with whom to begin again. But the episode also contains a revelation of who Jesus truly is, the human faithfully ruling over creation for God.

Years later, in a letter to the church, Peter looks back to the flood event and forward to a future day when God will visit not with flood but fire, to consume all miss-rule—all exploitation of the earth’s resources, all injustice and oppression, all that is sorry and sad and scary in the world—and reveal the earth as it has not been seen for millennia, in all its beauty.

Then Jesus, who is the first fruits of the Resurrection, will return; and with him in the Resurrection all those who have died and rest in him. And we will rule with him, as kings and queens, working and resting, for eternity.

And no, I don’t believe that God needs a helping hand—or, his hand forced—a nuclear Armageddon.

But I do believe that the church is also meant to be a foretaste of this future. The church upon which fire fell at Pentecost. We are not yet brought to perfection, nor is the world. But we are called to live in the present in the light of the future.

It is easy to lose focus, like Elijah, like Peter on the water. But we are all called to live in such a way that glorifies God and serves our neighbour, by joining in the divine narrative, through our work and our rest, through our witness and our investing in others.

Writing to the church in Rome—the very centre of a civilisation built on military technology and endless cheap labour—Paul says we are not called to be demi-gods who ascend the seat of the gods or descend into the inner pit of hell reserved for monsters, to fetch or rescue Jesus. No, we are already kings and queens; and it is through Jesus that God not only rescues us but recommissions us.

What you do matters, not only now but, potentially, into eternity. Tomorrow I am conducting the funeral of a woman who was a seamstress. In the Age to Come, our imperishable resurrected bodies will need clothes, not made by children in sweatshops or women working in firetraps so that a man can be rich; but the skilful work of taking materials and making something beautiful. This is a story worth telling, a hope worth living into. Will you step into it? Will you go, to tell others?

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Fifth Sunday after Trinity 2017

On Monday night, I took my boys to the cinema to see Spider-Man: Homecoming. We had a good time. Spider-Man is an interesting character, because he is the secret identity of a fifteen-year-old high school student. And while most fifteen-year-olds haven’t been given superhuman strength and agility, Peter Parker’s story allows us to recognise and explore so much that is going on at that age. Here is a teenager, desperate to be part of something bigger, to be included with the grown-ups, to be mentored by someone he looks up to; while at the same time needing and guarding privacy to grow into his identity without everyone looking on; navigating friendship and a growing, vulnerable awareness of romantic attraction to girls—alongside a boyish unawareness of girls liking him. He swings between over-confidence and lack of self-belief, soaring high and crashing low. He makes poor decisions, with damaging consequences. And around him, his mentor Iron Man, his aunt May, his best friend Ned, and a host of other characters, consciously and unconsciously help shape his world and his finding his place within it.

It is likely that several of ‘the Twelve’—the symbolic group at the core of Jesus’ disciples—were teenagers. Though not superheroes, Peter Parker’s story resonates with theirs—and with ours as those who are trying to figure-out and grow-into our identity as followers of Jesus.

In our Gospel reading today we heard the parable of the sower. It will help to know something of the context. The lake, around which so many of the stories of Jesus are centred, is surrounded by hills. The population lived in small towns and villages, in an agricultural peasant economy. On the edge of a settlement would be a large field subdivided into strips belonging to each family, not dissimilar to allotments. Each family lived on what they grew, to eat or to trade, but would harvest communally. The fields had several common features the crowd listening to Jesus would be familiar with:

Firstly, there were paths between the plots, so that you could access your strip without walking over your neighbours’. Good paths make for good neighbours.

Secondly, because the land was not flat, it had to be terraced, in steps up the hillside. The best places to build a retaining wall were where there was bedrock close to the surface, providing a foundation.

Thirdly, the edges of the fields were planted with thorns, to prevent animals from getting in and eating the crop intended for humans.

If you were fortunate, you had a plot that was not so constrained by path or rock or thorns, maximising your good soil; but everybody had a shared investment in these things.

But what has any of this got to do with Spider-Man? And, more to the point, what has it to do with us? I want to suggest that the different areas of the field speak to us of different aspects of our lives, that shape our identity for good or ill.

First, the path. The path speaks to us of family, of connectedness within community. Peter Parker can’t talk to aunt May about his new identity, and for many of us it is hard to speak of Jesus or to follow Jesus when we are with those who know us best or longest. There are times when we let opportunities pass us by, because it is too hard. On the one hand, I think we need to acknowledge that; and on the other hand, I don’t think we need to beat ourselves up about it. Even if seeds don’t take root along the path, they do take root alongside the path. Eventually, aunt May will have to get her head around who her nephew is, and is involved with. Often with family members it is wise to let them ask their own questions in their own time.

The other thing to note about family and growing into our identity is the way in which Peter Parker looks to Tony Stark—Iron Man—as a mentor. If we want to grow into our new identity in Christ, we need mentors too. Who are you learning from? Who is mentoring you? Or, who are you mentoring? (Is that the heart of being a godparent?) A word of caution: if you are listening to too many mentors, or involved in too many communities—if you are over-involved relationally—you might multiply path upon path at the expense of good soil for growing.

Second, the rocky ground. The rocky ground speaks to us of foundations. Like family, the foundational things of our lives—where we grew up, our education, our experience of gender, to list a few examples—set parameters around our ability to receive the word God sows in our hearts. Foundational things are not determinative, but they are significant. They tend to be built slowly, and they tend to be moved slowly—though this is not always the case. I think of our Iranian brothers and sisters who knew that, in the long term, it would be very difficult for their faith in Jesus to flourish where they were, and who therefore took the costly decision to relocate their lives.

The other thing to note about foundations is their usefulness. Peter Parker wants to quit high school and go off saving the world. His mentor wants him to engage with his studies, and learn his trade: to be a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. Working on the basic disciplines is indirect effort, enabling something else. As those whose identity is in Christ, we cannot make ourselves fruitful: but we can attend to the foundational things such as reading and meditating on the Bible; and the daily conversation with God we call prayer; and seeking to put love and forgiveness into practice.

Third, the thorns. The thorns speak to us of fears, the things we try to protect ourselves from, the defensive stance. Everyone fears something. Peter Parker suffers from FOMO—Fear of Missing Out. It is one of the defining fears of our age (ironically, the others are fear of suffering and of dying, which we try hard to miss out on). The tragic irony is that our defences so often end up imprisoning us. Fear is natural: but God’s perfect love drives out fear—and does so in a way that expands our experience of life, rather than reducing it.

Fear is never productive. Sometimes Fear of Missing Out drives us to so much activity for God, or for the church, or for the community, that we burn out. I’ve seen that happen many times. For others, fear of change—fear of the unknown—causes us to hold on to the familiar long after it has served its good purpose. Sometimes we need to face our fears directly, and act in faith—whether that means taking a step forward, or taking a step back. And we won’t always get it right: but the same love that drives out fear also covers a multitude of sins, catches us when we fall short.

Fourth, and finally, the good soil. The good soil speaks to us of fruitfulness. The first thing to note in this parable, or story that reveals truth, is that we are the field, not the seed or the sower. We cannot make our lives fruitful; but our lives are designed by God to be fruitful, to be the context in which God’s good intention for the world is expressed. This is true of every human life. The second thing to note is that the seeds sown produce a harvest in varying amounts. Fruitful life is a gift, given to all, not a competition. Peter Parker is dealt a hand that enables him to be a superhero, to achieve great things; but his geeky overweight friend Ned and his slightly stressed-out aunt May and the owner of the corner bodega all have something unique and valuable to share with the world too.

You might be a hundred-fold person, or a sixty-fold person, or a thirty-fold person. You might offer the world back a hundred-fold return on a small area of good soil, or a sixty-fold return on a large field. The point is not a comparison game. The point is that you are, inevitably, a person of fruitfulness—and of paths and stones and thorny weeds.

Noting all of this as true, what is the word that Jesus has sown in you today? Perhaps it is a word that will set you in a new family, God’s family? Or a word that says, God is the rock on which you can stand, when everything else seems so uncertain? Perhaps it is a whispered word of love, so amazing that it overwhelms your fear? Or a word of fruitful purpose that makes your life a gift to others?

This is what the Lord says: ‘For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.’


Sunday, 9 July 2017

Fourth Sunday after Trinity 2017

On any term-time Tuesday morning in the Minster, you will find the Minstrels, our playgroup for pre-schoolers and their grown-ups. From an early age, the children play with dolls, with a kitchen, with cars and other vehicles. They play because they will grow up to be adults who have babies of their own, who must cook, who might drive. The play of infants—whether cubs or kittens or children—is a rehearsal for adulthood. It always has been.

It was no different in Jesus’ culture. He was clearly familiar with the games children played in the marketplaces—of course he was: as a child, he would have taken part in such games on many occasions.

In the culture in which Jesus grew up, the men of the community took the lead in orchestrating celebrations, such as weddings. A band of musicians would head the parade, with everyone else joining-in and following them from the bridegroom’s home to the home of the parents of the bride, and back again. Likewise, the women of the community took the lead in times of mourning, such as funerals. Their rising and falling ululation both honoured the dead and gave voice to the grief of the living. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus refers to the game in which the boys and the girls have taken turns, the boys drawing the girls into a wedding dance, the girls drawing the boys into a funeral march, the dance and the march flowing back and forth, perhaps for hours on end as the amused market-sellers look on with half an eye.

But something has gone wrong. The children aren’t playing together now. And it isn’t simply that they have grown tired, or bored of this game; that they are resting, or have gone on to something else. The boys and the girls sit in two groups, on opposite sides of the square, at an impasse. Each group is blaming the other for the breakdown of their play. We started up the wedding dance again, shout the boys, and you didn’t join in: why, then, should we join in with your funeral march?

We only refused to join in because you had first refused to join in with our funeral march, the girls retort! Each group blames the other: you wronged me before I wronged you!

The context of Jesus’ childish tale is this. John, the baptiser, had been put in prison. He would, eventually, be executed. But for now, he is imprisoned, and had sent messengers to Jesus in search of answers to doubts that troubled him. You see, Jesus was so different from John, as different as a wedding from a funeral. Had John got it all wrong? Or was it Jesus that had got it wrong: had John served God faithfully, only for Jesus to let it all fall away again? Jesus sends back his reply to John, and then turns to the crowd around him, asking them, what did they make of John’s ministry?

John and Jesus were so different from one another, at least on the surface. John was aesthetic, extreme. Many had been drawn to his call to repent. Others had found it all too much: this man was clearly under the influence of a demon; those drawn to his cult, themselves demonic. Jesus, on the other hand, was all about having a party, eating and drinking with sinners. Jesus was not religious enough for the Pharisees who passed judgement on those who had gone to John; and, ironically, not religious enough for those who had gone to John, who had repented of their sins.

Here’s the situation:

Those who had followed John were wailing repentance, and the good religious people wouldn’t join in: it was tawdry and excessive and beneath them.

The good religious people were proclaiming the wedding celebration of God and his people, but needed to keep the people—the bride—pure: sinners must be excluded.

Those who had followed John in the funeral march didn’t want to follow Jesus in the wedding dance, because it was too joyful.

And those who wanted a wedding dance didn’t want Jesus in it, because he brought sinners with him.

Things have reached an impasse: and Jesus starts to tell a story about children playing in the marketplace, a scenario everyone would recognise. They, too, have reached an impasse. But both groups bring something that the other needs. Lament, repentance, is not an end in and of itself: there is no point in repentance if it does not lead into participation in celebration [Confession and Absolution leads into the Gloria]. But there is no celebration, no inclusion, without repentance. You can’t have either one without the other!

Oh, and it doesn’t matter whether you joined the game when it was a wedding dance or when it was a funeral march. Neither one is better than the other. The point to the game is not to move from one to the other as you mature—journeying from celebration to mourning, or from lament to rejoicing. The point of the game is that we become increasingly attuned to what is needful in the given moment, and increasingly confident and competent in our participation.

Jesus says: John leads to me; his ministry flows into mine.

And Jesus continues: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Some of us have found our way here with an inclination—whether nature, or nurture, or both—to noticing what is wrong (as we perceive it) with the world, to judging people—including ourselves—quickly and harshly, to setting ourselves standards we can never live up to. And we find it quite disconcerting that there are other people here who frankly don’t seem that bothered about it all; who are all about love and acceptance and inclusivity and letting God sort the rest of it out.

And, if we are honest, we are weary from being good, and feeling bad; we are weighed down by the burden of it—and affronted that others won’t share the load.

And Jesus says to us: Let me come alongside you; allow yourself to be yoked to me, as a young ox is yoked to an experienced ox at the plough. Let me be the other ox, and let me train you in the art of celebration, of thankfulness, of enjoying God’s good gifts and sharing them with others.

On the other side of the marketplace, some of us have found our way here with an inclination—whether in our upbringing, or in rebellion against our upbringing—to self-justification, to believing that who we are—and who others are—is already the full realisation of God’s plan for us. We are already seated at the wedding banquet at the End of the Age, when God has wiped away every tear; but if we are honest we want to keep crying because of the other people here who keep calling us to repent, to change our outlook and direction, to become something other than what we are.

And we worry about the gap, between the banquet we proclaim and the joylessness displayed by some Christians: it makes us look like hypocrites—and who would be drawn to that anyway? We, too, are weary.

And Jesus says to us: Let me come alongside you. Let me be the other ox, and let me train you in the art of lament, of repentance; of dying to self, in order that you be transformed from the person God accepts as you are, into the person God hopes and dreams you might be.

Presumably the children find a way to move beyond their impasse, if only that they slope off home and reconvene again the next day, leaving yesterday’s quarrel to yesterday, where it belongs. I say presumably because Jesus holds them up as our model and invites us to learn from them. Today is a new day. If you are weary, come: come to Jesus, whatever your burden.

Come, together with the boys with their flutes and the girls who wail. Come and join in the game, that together we might learn, that together we might grow into maturity, the fullness of Christ. Amen.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Third Sunday after Trinity 2017

‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’

Matthew 10:40-42


To welcome means to receive gladly. To receive a person, gladly. To receive the news they bring, the gifts they offer, gladly. Welcome is more than a word of greeting: welcome is a shared experience two or more people actively participate in.

Last week I said that there are two great themes that run, entwined, through the Bible from beginning to end. One is the theme of covenant: of God coming to us, in search of a welcome, in hope of relationship. In the words of Jesus, ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’ And the other great theme is that of kingdom: of God sending us out, in search of welcome, finding outposts and potential-outposts of the reign of God in a fearful and hostile world. In the words of Jesus, ‘Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.’ Covenant and kingdom, coming together and being sent out, go hand-in-hand. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.

Whoever welcomes you welcomes your covenant-partner, Jesus. And whoever welcomes Jesus welcomes the one who has made him king.

Let us consider just a few examples of Jesus’ experience of welcome.

Consider his birth. Our English translations have not served us well here. You will recall that Joseph brought his wife to his hometown. The most natural interpretation of Luke’s account is that at the time of Jesus’ birth, they were staying with Joseph’s family, in an ordinary home. Immediately inside the door is the space where animals were kept at night; then, at a raised level with a hollow in the floor forming a manger, the one main room the family shared by day and night; and beyond that, furthest from the animals, a small guest room. The guest room Joseph and Mary are staying in is not big enough for Mary to give birth in—no room in the inn—attended as she would be by the village midwives and Joseph’ female relatives, including any young girls, in order that giving birth might not be a terrifying mystery to them; and so Mary gives birth to Jesus in the family room, at the heart of the home, displacing male relatives and animals alike.

Consider the flight to Egypt. Joseph—we are told by Matthew that he is a righteous man—fleeing with his wife and young son by night, turning up as refugees seeking asylum among the Jewish community that has dispersed and established itself perhaps in cosmopolitan Alexandria.

Consider the wedding at Cana. Jesus and his disciples have been invited, along with his mother. They have celebrated well, and now the wine has ran out. That would be the sign that it was time to go home, to return to normality, to get up in the morning nursing a hangover and drag your weary bones out of bed and off to work. But Jesus, prompted by his mother, turns the occasion into a different sign. Taking jars of water that symbolised being made clean, being accepted by God, he transformed the water into wine, symbolising the great banquet at the End of the Age, when, having healed the nations, God will sit down with humanity to celebrate without end—without a return to the old normal of Jesus the builder constructing homes for Roman colonials and Peter the fisherman catching fish to export them to dining tables in Rome, the heart of the Empire. In a hot land, even a cup of cold water could be enough to point to such hope.

Consider the disreputable sinners and tax-collectors who invited Jesus to eat at their tables—people who knew that they were sick, unable to cure themselves of their malady, hoping for a doctor.

Consider the Pharisees, worried that they might offend God even unintentionally, also inviting Jesus—so hungry and thirsty for righteousness that they forget to meet the conventions of welcoming him at all; and—ironically—find themselves participating in welcome, however poorly, more fully than ever before.

The more you think about it, the more welcome is the heart of the gospel—and its reward.

Some questions to ponder:

Where have you experienced welcome?

What did that look like?

How did it make you feel?

What grew—what flourished—in that space?

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Trinity Sunday, 2017

Sermon preached when visiting St Nicholas’ Bishopwearmouth, Trinity Sunday 2017.

In our reading from Isaiah, we heard that even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. And I wonder, what is the means by which the Lord does this, as we wait—as we choose to be receptive to our God?

Today is Trinity Sunday, and this morning I’d like us to spend a little while with some very familiar words, often referred to as ‘the Grace’. I don’t know what your practice is here at St Nicholas’, but at the Minster, where I am based, we say these words together often, as the conclusion of many of our meetings: ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.’ And it seems to me that these three great truths—these three beautiful insights—are the answer to the question I posed: how does God renew us? So let us consider each phrase in turn.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is, quite simply, his walking alongside us: it is the freely-offered gift of his presence. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30). It’s the image of an experienced ox training an inexperienced ox to plough; of being accompanied in life, even if at times we resist our circumstances, to the point of wearing ourselves out. We all have burdens, whether of duty or care or anxiety or pain or the arc of a lifespan. Some are lifelong, others are from time-to-time. Some we find easier to embrace than others. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is that we do not carry them alone.

We take a moment to become aware of his presence with us, to thank him, to receive his grace…

What, then, of the love of God? The love of God. The primary experience of God we are invited into is love. When your thoughts and feelings turn to God, is that what you find? Or do you suspect that God’s thoughts and feelings towards you are something other than love? Disapproval, perhaps? Or disappointment? Or even anger? No, writes Paul to the church at Corinth: God’s disposition towards you is love. Will you allow that truth to re-form you, to inform and transform you?

We take a moment to become aware of God’s love for us, to let go of the lies we have settled for, to unfurl in its warmth…

And finally, the communion—or fellowship—of the Holy Spirit. ‘Communion’ is a word of deep intimacy, a word that speaks of recognition, of truly recognising one another. The communion of the Holy Spirit refers to God’s Spirit recognising our spirit, to God recognising us—each one of us, and us as a community—as persons of immeasurable worth; and to the enabling of us to recognise God in the same way. Here’s the thing: we hardly recognise each other, we barely recognise ourselves; we settle for caricatures, and for being absent to one another rather than present to one another. Our neighbours are mediated to us through newspaper headlines. Our children are growing up so fast right under our noses, and we miss it, our gaze held captive by little digital screens. But the God who brought all creation into being sees and delights in you. More: the Bible describes us, human beings, as being the coming-together of dust and divine breath—heaven committing to earth, God animating us. This is partnership at its most intimate, most trusting, most creatively powerful.

We take a moment to become aware of our breath, and of the Holy Spirit, present within us and around us, stirring the air currents…

Grace, love, communion: three words to describe the Trinity at work in our lives. May this be our prayer for one another, and may we be drawn ever onward and upward into this boundless mystery. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Pentecost 2017

Today is Pentecost. And I would like to talk about the person of the Holy Spirit. There is so much that could be said, far more than any sermon can cover. The Holy Spirit is active in the world, and in the life of every person you meet, to bring hope out of despair and harmony out of chaos. Indeed, the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22, 23)—can be evidenced in the lives of those who are Christians and those who are not. But the Holy Spirit is also active in a distinctive way in the lives of the baptised—those who are the Church—and I want to focus on one aspect of this today.

In our reading from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, he writes about the gifts that the Holy Spirit distributes among the Church. Paul begins by making a connection between gifts, service, and activity. These are gifts from God to equip us for acts of service; and servant activity is our response to receiving the gifts. Moreover, Paul describes these gifts as manifestations of the Spirit: that is, making the invisible, visible. These gifts tell us something of the giver—what God is like—and they are the evidence that God exists and is actively involved in the world. When people say, ‘If God exists why doesn’t he reveal himself to us?’ this is (part of) God’s answer, ‘I do.’

Paul writes, ‘to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.’ ‘To each’ means that every member of the baptised is included—the many, not just the few. ‘For the common good’ indicates that they are given to the Church for the benefit of the wider community beyond the Church—the common good being ‘the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfilment’ (Gaudium et Spes, #26, 1965).

So let us consider the gifts Paul lists as examples; and as we do so, let us ask:
do we have, between us, experience of any of these?
and, are we in need of any of these gifts at this present time?

the utterance of wisdom: like all the gifts that follow, this is a supernatural gift; it goes beyond the acquired wisdom of age and experience. There are times when we are faced with complex situations, where we desire to do the right thing but where it is not necessarily apparent what the right thing to do is. Seeking the common good is not simple. We have recently appointed a new PCC. Though I hope we will conduct all our business prayerfully, there will be times when we get stuck and will need to stop and pray and ask the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom that gives clear direction—even if only a next step. That word might come through any one of us—not just the clergy—and be weighed by all of us. And whereas natural wisdom shows us that God is wise and loves to share wisdom, these moments remind us that God loves to set his people free when we find ourselves captive.

the utterance of knowledge: I wonder whether you’ve ever had a sudden and clear sense of the Holy Spirit telling you something about another person, something that you would have no other means of knowing? That’s a word of knowledge. We all carry secrets in our hearts: hopes, dreams, disappointments, fears we have not shared with anybody. But God knows the secrets of our hearts; and wants us to know that we are known and that we are loved. Sometimes the Holy Spirit prompts us to take a specific and very personal message to someone else, to reveal that care to them. It’s also a sign that God trusts us to care for one another.

faith: again, we’re talking about faith in a specific context, rather than the general sense. Jesus spoke of faith that throws mountains into the sea. In the Bible, mountains signify encounters with God, and the sea signifies chaos. To move a mountain into the sea is to transfer an experience of God’s presence in the past into a present experience that threatens to overwhelm us, giving us somewhere firm to stand. Like God calling dry land out of the waters in the beginning, the gift of faith is the ability to call out what will be from what is. If you have ever felt faith rising in the most challenging of circumstances, you’ll recognise this gift, that sees difficulties as opportunities for God to provide. Where have you known God’s faithfulness in the past? What do you have faith for, today?

gifts of healing: our experience of life includes wounding and falling apart, whether that be a broken part of our physical body or a hurt inflicted on our spirit by the actions of another, or ourselves. God loves to heal. All healing comes from God, including the limited but powerful ability of our bodies to self-heal, and the vocational work of doctors, nurses, and counsellors. But sometimes the Holy Spirit brings supernatural healing, as a sign that points to the day when all things will be healed. It is our present practice to set aside opportunity for prayer and anointing for healing on the second Sunday of every month—but the Holy Spirit is not confined to one day a month, or to certain individuals. Can I encourage you to be open to the possibility that the Holy Spirit might prompt you to pray for healing (perhaps through a word of knowledge) at any time? Be bold (if necessary, ask for the gift of faith).

the working of miracles: God is king of the universe. He has established laws by which creation is governable, laws that allow the possibility for life to not only exist but flourish. God is reliable, and good. But God is also free, and there are times when the Holy Spirit exercises that freedom, through the lives of God’s people, in ways we describe as miraculous. Some miracles have scientific explanations, and describe a sense of wonder and gratitude: the miracle of birth, for example. Other miracles defy our explanation. Just as much as observable laws, miracles point to a good God. And sometimes, we get to join in. My parents were missionaries in the Philippines. At one time, my mother was in a coma in the hospital, and the doctors told my dad (though, indeed, he was not yet a father) that he needed to prepare himself for being a widower. When my mother came out of the coma, she said that she knew she was going to recover, because the white doctor had come into her room, looked at her chart, and told her everything would be alright. But according to the medical staff, there were no white doctors working in the hospital. It must have been an angel. Not, directly, a member of the church: but, I am sure, God answering their prayers. Perhaps you have your own stories?

prophecy: refers to hearing and speaking-out words from God, words for a group or an individual, spoken for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation (see 1 Corinthians 14:3). In a world that is full of voices tearing people down, saying discouraging things, and inflicting loss, everyone is in want of being built up, encouraged, and consoled. This is a work of the Holy Spirit, through us, the Church. Let’s be known for it, among our neighbours, in our city.

the discernment of spirits: there are many voices in the world, calling to us. The book of Proverbs speaks of wisdom and folly both calling out in the marketplace, competing for our attention. There is the voice of the Good Shepherd, and the voice of the Satan—the Accuser. Human voices are influenced by both. Sometimes a message that originates from God seems foolish. Sometimes a message that seems wise originates from the Accuser. Do you remember, Peter declared that Jesus is the Messiah; and Jesus said that this was revealed to Peter by God. And then, almost immediately after, Peter rebuked Jesus; and Jesus responded, ‘Get behind me, Satan.’ Sometimes we need divine discernment to understand what is going on beneath the surface in our city or nation.

Finally, in this list, various kinds of tongues and the interpretation of tongues: again, let me tell you a story about my mother. Once, in her younger days, she was at a conference for Christian students, in Norway. She had been having a conversation with a Norwegian girl, and asked where the girl had learnt to speak English so well. The young woman didn’t speak any English, and wanted to know where my mother had learnt Norwegian. My mother didn’t know any Norwegian; and yet, each heard the other in their own tongue and were able to conduct a meaningful conversation. God is a god who communicates, who speaks and who listens. Beyond the God-given gift of natural ability to translate languages—which we are so blessed with in our multi-cultural church family—the Holy Spirit enables us to express what we cannot express—in heavenly tongues, and earthly ones—and to understand what we do not understand. In a divided world, that is freedom.

The things I have been talking about are distributed and activated by the Holy Spirit, not our own ability or training. Paul speaks of these gifts being exercised in a complex, interdependent system that can be described as a body—as the body of Christ—and which are to be exercised in love, honouring and delighting in one another. There is truth and beauty in our formal liturgy; and God-given gifting in our choir; and may be the Holy Spirit even speaks through the sermon. There are selfless acts of service in preparing the building for our worship, in serving refreshments, and washing the linen. These are good and faithful. But, what of the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit, made manifest in our midst, day by day? What stories do we have, that we can share? What gifts have you experienced? What gifts would you like to experience? How might our young men and women grow in confidence in exercising the gifts; and our old men and women remain active?

Today is Pentecost. Come, Holy Spirit. Come and be made manifest in your people, for the common good. Come and move among us, as you see fit.