Sunday, 14 January 2018

Second Sunday of Epiphany 2018

In our house, we are fans of a good detective mystery. My wife and I enjoy Nordic Noir box-sets, but for family-viewing we take in Sherlock or Father Brown or Death in Paradise, depending on the mood. There are the tiny clues, so easily-overlooked. Once they are assembled, there is the tension of living with a lack of clarity, the truth of the matter hidden—until that moment of revelation, the sudden dawning of what had taken place, as blindingly obvious now as it had been opaque before. An epiphany.

All that said, let us turn to our reading from the Gospel.

I want to ask the question, what was Nathanael doing under the fig tree where Jesus saw him?

What was he doing there?

That, you see, is the question that has got under my skin. That is bugging me. And to answer that question, we must play the detective.

The first piece of evidence I want to consider is this: we meet Nathanael in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, and then he does not appear by name again until the last chapter, where we discover that he came from Cana (John 21:2).

The second piece of evidence I want to consider is this: to paraphrase the conversation between them, Jesus says to Nathanael, there is nothing deceitful about your character but nonetheless you will see what the deceitful Jacob saw in a dream when he ran away from home having greatly angered his brother (Genesis 28:10-22).

The third piece of evidence I want to consider is this: immediately following on from this encounter, John tells us that Jesus and his new disciples attended a wedding in Cana, at which Jesus performed the first of his signs—turning water into wine—thus revealing his glory (John 2:1-12).

Here, then, is my hunch:

that whatever Nathanael was doing under that fig tree (and whether he was already known to Philip, or simply caught-up in the slipstream of Jesus’ call and Philip’s response) he was there—as opposed to anywhere else—because he had run away from home;

that Jesus speaks into his fearful heart in such a way that connects where Nathanael finds himself in that moment with the big story of God’s faithfulness we read in Scripture;

that as a result, Nathanael was empowered to follow Jesus back to Cana and be reconciled with his family; and that in this context, the initial encounter between Nathanael and Jesus is ratified or finds a fulfilment.

That is my hunch. And yes, it is based on circumstantial evidence alone. There is nothing I can do to prove or disprove it. It would not stand up in court, and there is no reason to take it as gospel. Yet I find it compelling; a tantalising personal story hidden within the bigger picture. One that would be in keeping with the person of Jesus as encountered by countless men, women, and children since.

If I were to ask you what have been your ‘Aha!’ moments, when Jesus opened-up your life through opening-up Scripture, I wonder what you would say?

Do you have a favourite story from the Bible, one of which you can say, ‘This is where it began for me’ or ‘This is where the whole Jesus thing first made sense’ or ‘This is where that story became my story’? A story you return to over and over.

Or can you speak of a more recent example, where, reading or listening to a story from the Bible, your life took a new direction; you set off on the latest adventure of faith?

I know that this happens, because I have heard the stories of asylum-seekers who met Jesus reading the Gospels. I have heard the stories of people who became Christians attending a Confirmation service; or who heard a call to be ordained at an Ordination service. And I also know that this happens because of the times it has happened to me, such as the time that I heard, with Abraham, the call to set out from where we lived and go to the place God would show us.

What about you?

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Fourth Sunday of Advent 2017

How do we think about the first Christmas? We tend to imagine it as a flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants affair, with Joseph and Mary getting to Bethlehem at the last minute and scrabbling to find somewhere for her to give birth. But this idea could not be further from the truth. I put it to you that the birth of Jesus was the single most carefully planned event in human history.

The Gospels tell us that Mary was married to Joseph, and that Joseph was a descendant of king David. Now, king David’s descendants had long-since lost their throne. Jerusalem had been defeated by the Babylonians, the people taken into exile, and even after the return from exile the Davidic monarchy was not restored. By the time of Jesus’ birth, there was a new King of the Jews, Herod the Great, appointed by the Roman senate. Long-since displaced from Jerusalem, it would appear that at least some of those who claimed Davidic descent had ended up back in Bethlehem, the place David came from.

Joseph was a builder of houses by trade, and it appears that he was working in Nazareth, in Galilee, to the north. But, against a backdrop of Roman occupation, Joseph takes his bride to live in his hometown of Bethlehem, a town whose name means House of Bread. It was the cultural practice for a groom to add a room to his parents’ house and bring his bride there to start out their married life together; and so, it is the most likely expectation that Joseph and Mary were living with Joseph’s relatives at the time of Jesus’ birth.

Now, we have all heard that there was no room in the inn. There is a Greek word for a commercial inn, and Luke uses it in recounting Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. And then there is a Greek word that means the guest room of a family home. Luke uses that word to describe the room where Jesus ate the Last Supper; and to describe the room that had no room at Jesus’ birth. In other words, Joseph and Mary were living in a house, but the room in which they were staying did not have enough room for Mary to give birth. Jesus is born in the main room of the house, at one end of which animals were kept at night, and put to bed in the animals’ manger.

Now, I want you to hold that in your mind as we turn back to our reading from the Old Testament. King David is settled in his own house, in Jerusalem, and decides that it is not right for him to live in a house while God still must make do with a tent, the tabernacle that had travelled with the people on their journey through the wilderness. David decides to build God a house; but, through the prophet Nathan, God declares that he does not want David to build him a house. Instead, God declares, he will build David a house: that is, establish David’s dynasty.

Have you noticed all this word-play going on? House as building, and house as family line, and the town known as the House of Bread, and the descendant of David who is a builder of houses?

God allowed David’s son Solomon to build him a house, the temple in Jerusalem. That house had been destroyed twice, and rebuilt twice. Indeed, the third temple was being built, by Herod the Great, at the time of Jesus’ birth. But God is not overly-invested in the rebuilding of his house, which will be destroyed a third time in 70AD. God is rebuilding David’s house. The son that Mary will bear, born in the home of some of David’s descendants, will restore the throne of David, whom God called his son (see, for example, Psalm 2).

Why is God more concerned about (re)building David’s house than having a house of his own? Because, in Jesus, God comes to restore humanity as those through whom his reign of justice, mercy, and righteousness is exercised in the world; and to overthrow his enemies, all that is opposed to such a good and free and harmoniously-ordered creation.

No, Jesus’ birth was not an exercise in chaos-management, but carefully constructed according to well-drawn plans. This Christmas, as we once again crowd into that room in Bethlehem to see the new-born king, let us do so confident in God’s amazing faithfulness and great goodness towards his covenant people. And let us say, with David and with Mary, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Third Sunday of Advent 2017

This morning we will be taking part in our Nativity—but you will have to wait a little longer first. Waiting. That is the theme of Advent. We are waiting for Jesus to return. We are always waiting, but it is easy to forget that, caught up as we are in the cares and concerns of everyday life. And so, each year, we return once again to a season of attending to our waiting. An annual health-check.

When I was a child, when the bell went to indicate that playtime was over we had to line up in our classes and wait for a teacher to come and send us back inside, one class at a time. On cold days, the teachers did not necessarily want to move from their warm staff room. We would be left in the cold, no longer running around to keep warm; and inevitably the chorus would go up, ‘Why are we wait-ing? Teacher’s hi-ber-nat-ing!’ Perhaps that is how you feel about waiting for the Lord’s return?

Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica is all about waiting.

Thessalonica, in northern Greece, was the second place in Europe where Paul and his companions planted a church. They arrived from Philippi, where they had been beaten and imprisoned without trial; and after only a few weeks in Thessalonica they had to move on again, after a mob of ruffians set the city in an uproar against them. You can read about it in Acts chapters 16 and 17.

(The cause of the uproar was that they had arrived proclaiming ‘that there is another king named Jesus’. Like Herod and the people of Jerusalem when visited by the magi ‘the people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this’.)

Like Paul, the Thessalonians were waiting for Jesus’ return. Moreover, Paul was waiting for news from Thessalonica of the church: having received the gospel in the face of persecution, having grown in faith and love and hope under continuing persecution, how were they doing now? When he could bear it no longer, Paul sent his companion Timothy to Thessalonica to bring back a report. Now Timothy had just returned, bringing good news of their faith and love. Nonetheless, their hope had taken a knock, as while they were waiting for Jesus to return some of their number had died. What would happen to them? Jesus delayed in coming back: would they, having received him as king, miss out on his glorious kingdom?

Paul writes to reassure them, to enable them to grieve with hope, and not as others do who have no hope. He uses picture-language to convey those who have died and those who are living being caught up together in Jesus, who has died, is risen, and will come again. That is a hope we hold on to today, as we mourn Peter’s death and surround Minda with love.

Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica is all about waiting.

How ought we to wait, as those who wait for Jesus?

Paul begins his letter in this way:

‘We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ … And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.’ (1 Thessalonians 1:2, 3, 6, 7)

And Paul returns to the beginning at the end of the letter, with the closing exhortations including:

‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.’ (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

How do we wait? We wait, rejoicing always. Or, always celebrating. That is, celebrating the good news that Jesus is our king, who saves us. We are to celebrate that news when life is good, and we experience in the present a foretaste of God’s coming kingdom; and we are to celebrate it when life is painful, and we long for the breaking-in of God’s kingdom for which we wait. That is why we celebrate Jesus in taking part in the Eucharist Sunday by Sunday, whatever is going on in the world, whatever is going on in our lives. Come again today, rejoicing, and be renewed in our waiting.

How else do we wait? We wait, praying without ceasing. That is, in the power of the Holy Spirit and through the Son we bring before the Father all our joys and sorrows, all our work and struggles, all our longing—and we don’t give up. We encourage one another to keep going. Paul made a regular practice of praying with his companions, because that way you get to share the burden of prayer, making the burden lighter, and the joy of answered prayer, making the joy weightier. What are you praying about at present? Where do you long to see Jesus come as king, turning the world up-side-down? And who else knows the prayer of your heart? Who prays it with you?

Finally, how do we wait? We wait, giving thanks in all circumstances. Not for all circumstances—some circumstances are hell—but, nonetheless, in all circumstances. Again, we focus not on the circumstances themselves, but on king Jesus. Like Paul and Silas singing hymns in the innermost cell of the prison in Philippi, there are times when we need to keep our spirits up, not by wishful thinking but by wilful thanking. It is like going running. On cold, dark winter nights, it takes some effort to go out for a run; but the mental health benefit is enormous. It is easier to run in company, and it is easier to run when it is a regular habit. The same is true of the discipline of thanksgiving. We need to encourage one another to be thankful, perhaps taking small steps to begin with, little and often, building up our capacity for thankfulness. Waiting for Jesus is a team game, a communal activity; and Advent is our boot camp, our C25K (couch to 5-kilometre-run) for beginners or the lapsed.

As we learn to wait, may the people of Sunderland come to know that our hope is in king Jesus, who came to us long ago and who will come again to judge the living and the dead, and whose kingdom shall have no end.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Christ the King, 2017

Today is the Feast of Christ the King, the culmination of the Church year. Today we celebrate that God has raised Jesus from the dead, and set him over all rule and authority and power and dominion—and that God has done this for us, the Church.

But what does that mean? What sort of a king is this Christ, depicted on the throne of heaven in the stained-glass window behind me? How does he exercise his rule? And how does it benefit us, his people? Or what does it mean for those who are not part of the Church?

Ezekiel was a priest, but he did not serve in the temple in Jerusalem. He was one of the generation of his people who were carried off into exile in Babylon. There, they wept, and tried to make sense of what had happened to them. Why had God allowed this to happen? When would God restore their fortunes? How ought they to live in the meantime?

Ezekiel painted a picture for the people. In it, he asked them to imagine themselves as a flock of sheep, dispersed among several other flocks. In time, God himself will come to them as a shepherd, to seek out the scattered sheep, and vindicate the weak and the lean sheep.

Jesus draws on this imagery in his discourse on the sheep and the goats. The context is this: within days, he will be executed. Among his final teaching, Jesus seeks to prepare his disciples for what is to come. In Matthew 23 we see Jesus weeping over the city of Jerusalem, because in rejecting him and his message, the imminent destruction of the city—yet again—will not be averted. In Matthew 24, Jesus goes on to predict the destruction of the temple. While some will see this as the sign of an imminent end to history, Jesus declares that this is not the case: there will be wars and rumours of wars, the rising and falling of nations, the persecution of his followers. He is speaking of history, as we experience it in every generation. And into this history—not after it—Jesus introduces the power and authority of the Son of Man, or Mortal: the term—also borrowed from Ezekiel—by which Jesus referred to himself.

In the light of this, Jesus’ advice is to be watchful of unfolding events while investing our lives in the places where we find ourselves (Jesus uses several parables to convey this teaching, in Matthew 24 and 25). This block of collected teaching culminates with a discourse on the judging of the nations, by the Son of Man, that references the sheep and the goats.

Now, this is one of Jesus’ most misunderstood teachings. It is routinely told to convey the idea that the genuine nature of the faith of those who claim to follow Jesus will be determined based on how they have treated the poor. I have even known Christians who worry whether they will be welcomed by God, or rejected, because on occasion they have walked by a homeless person like the priest and the scribe walking by the man left for dead on the side of the road. But while it is clear throughout scripture that God has a heart for the poor and calls his people to reflect that, even allowing judgement to fall on the nation of Israel when they refuse to hear the cry of the poor, this is categorically not what Jesus is saying here.

Jesus is drawing on the imagery employed by the Old Testament prophets to convey the idea that God would use the Gentile nations to judge his people, but would also judge those empires based on how they treated God’s people. To give one example, Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar appointed Daniel, Hannaniah, Mishael, and Azariah (given new names, Belteshazzar, Shadrah, Meshach, and Abednego) to positions of responsibility in his court. To give another example, Haman, an official in the court of Persian king Ahasuerus, attempted to have all the Jews annihilated (his plot ultimately foiled by Mordecai and Esther).

Jesus takes this imagery of the fortunes of the gentile nations rising and falling based on how they have treated the people of Israel and makes two developments. First, the basis is now not how they have treated the nation of Israel, but the new Israel: Jesus’ disciples, his brothers or new family. Second, it is Jesus himself who will be the judge.

Like the Old Testament prophets, Jesus uses apocalyptic language to describe that judgement. For those of us who are British, because of our cultural heritage of European art, we tend to think of apocalyptic language as describing the judgement of individuals at the end of time; but in scripture it routinely describes the judgement of nations through the unfolding of history.

We read these passages on the Feast of Christ the King because they inform our understanding of what sort of king Jesus is, and how he rules. And in this Gospel passage we see that Jesus exercises his rule through the deployment of angels, or spiritual beings, with responsibility for different nations. Where nations welcome the Church, they enter-into a share in the blessing of the kingdom of heaven. This is very much our vision in Durham Diocese, where we see our purpose as the church as being to serve our communities for the blessing and transformation of us all. Jesus is king over all for the Church, but the blessings of the kingdom of heaven are not restricted to the Church. They will come as a surprise to some—not at some future time, but today, for children, women and men of goodwill, Friends of the Minster and of all our churches throughout the diocese and beyond.

On the other hand, where nations persecute the Church, imprisoning disciples, or denying them fundamental rights or opportunities enjoyed by everyone else, Jesus will instruct his angels to withdraw their protection, leaving that nation vulnerable to the tendency nations have demonstrated throughout history to destroy one another. Empire after empire lies utterly burned to the point of no return to the unfolding pages of history.

What, then, might this discourse have to say to us today? Well, a third of our congregation is Iranian: men and women who have fled here because the Church is persecuted in Iran. As we listen to Jesus’ words, and celebrate that God has raised this Jesus from the dead and seated him over all rule and authority and power and dominion, for the Church, can we imagine a future in which the regime that has oppressed the Church is removed from power, and a new structure of government emerge made up of those who have seen the hidden-but-growing Christian community as being good for the nation as a whole? Can we imagine religious freedom in Iran, and our brothers and sisters going home, and us visiting them there? Perhaps an official link between our diocese and a province in Iran?

That is the hope Jesus holds out in this passage. Yes, there will be persecution: you need to prepare for that. But there will also be vindication! Hold fast! I will be at work to do this for you.

And what might this passage have to say to us about our own nation? As a society, we have been less-than-welcoming to those Christians who have fled to us seeking refuge. Might England experience something of divine judgement in however our history unfolds, post-Brexit, over the next decade? Many are hoping for a rosy future; others for a least-worst-case-scenario. Whatever unfolds, Christ the King is at work to vindicate his beloved Church, for the blessing of the wider nation.

In uncertain times, may our hope in that—our hope in him—be renewed.


Sunday, 12 November 2017

Remembrance Sunday 2017

The record of the words of the prophet Amos begins with a list of divine judgement being declared against the nations surrounding Israel. Damascus. Gaza. Tyre. Edom. Ammon. Moab. Judah. It is quite a roll call. Denouncement follows denouncement, and with each one we might imagine the cheers of Amos’ audience getting louder and louder. Hah! Despite their impressive defences, the neighbouring peoples are about to get their comeuppance. That is, of course, deeply satisfying, because there is something in human nature that likes to nurse an ancient grudge against our neighbours. The English, for example, have fought both against and alongside every one of our neighbours, in continually-morphing alliances.

Amos builds the anticipation up to bursting-point, and then drops his bomb-shell. Israel will not be spared the judgement that will befall her neighbours. Indeed, God’s judgement on Israel will be even more damning, because they have known God in all God’s loving-kindness and enduring faithfulness, in his compassion and justice and forgiveness and mercy. And they have turned their back on God, exploiting the poor and revelling in obscene wealth, all the while imagining—indeed, regularly celebrating—that their history made them exceptional and that God was on their side.

Taking great pride in their identity, the people told one another stories of the day of the Lord, of how God would appear soon and pass judgement on the other nations. But for Amos, such sabre-rattling was a source of great sadness. ‘Why do you want the day of the Lord?’ he asks, ‘It is darkness, not light.’ In attempting to describe what God’s appearing would be like, he tries this: it will be like meeting a lion, and managing to outrun it…only to stop, exhausted, and be attacked by a bear. Terrifying. But no, that doesn’t quite manage to capture it. It will be more like running away from the lion and making it home, bolting the door behind you—elated—and leaning against the wall—take deep breaths now: in…out—only to step on a venomous snake and be bitten, your raised pulse pumping the poison around your body with heartless efficiency. The cruel irony!

God is not what they expected God to be like. Not because God is unpredictable, a monster who might at any moment turn on them like a lion or a bear or a snake. But, rather, because God is reliably predictable in his unwavering commitment to justice and righteousness—righteousness being what it looks like when we love God with all our heart and soul, and love our neighbour as ourselves—and they had simply chosen to forget. Perhaps God is not what we expect God to be like, either?

The earth was crying out for justice and righteousness like a dry land cries out for reliable water. It still does.

We need to hear Amos’ words on this Remembrance Day, because we remember wrongly. We remember all the grudges we bear against our neighbours, keeping the smouldering ashes of past conflicts from going out, the fire from going cold. We remember the cost to us, and we want them to pay reparations. We remember ourselves as heroes, to be forever held in high esteem; and the other side as villains, to be forever held, at best, in pity. And while we remember these things, we forget the God who is slow to get angry at our shortcomings, quick to forgive us our sin—and who expects us to extend the same forbearing and forgetting of past sins towards others. We forget that our lives are as fleeting as the flowers of the field—the poppies of the field—and that we are to lay the past to rest in peace and look forward to God’s future. Indeed, we are called to live as if that future were already here—acting justly, seeking to love our neighbour—even while recognising that the kingdom of God is both now and not yet, has come into the world and is delayed in its coming.

It was enormous good fortune to have been on the winning side of both World Wars; but it was also a great misfortune. It has made it hard for us to humble ourselves before God. In Germany, they do not commemorate Armistice Day, but on the Second Sunday before Advent they hold the People’s Day of Mourning. This year, that falls next Sunday, and it so happens that I shall be in Germany, along with a delegation from Durham Diocese taking part in a consultation on Confirmation practice. We shall be staying in host parishes over the weekend, ahead of a couple of days at a retreat centre, and we shall be taking part in their services and the acts of remembrance that follow them. I anticipate the tone will be very different from here, and that we have something to learn from them. In any case, I consider it a great privilege to be there, to mourn with those who mourn sin and cry out to God for healing.

Amos’ vision is uncompromising, but it is not a counsel of despair. Israel will be shaken in judgement for her refusal to build a just society in which all can share fully. But after the shaking comes the restoration: not restoring what was—a return to injustice—but restoring God’s vision for his people. Go and read Amos chapter 9, verses 11-15 to hear about that. You see, the day of the Lord comes on us, again and again, unexpectedly like a lion or a bear or a snake, leaving us mauled or poisoned, picture-language for talking of the consequences of our sin. But God promises to come to raise up and repair and rebuild; to heal and restore.

It seems to me that we might appropriately employ the language of violent shaking-up to describe what is going on in our own nation at this time. Austerity has proven to be deeply unjust towards to most vulnerable, and the rich continue to shore-up greater wealth while those who have the least find themselves with less and less. Against that backdrop, the electorate has thrown us out of the European Union, and into the deep and long-lasting uncertainty of Brexit. The House of Commons—all parties—appears to be in freefall, rocked by scandal and accusation. Our institutions are being shaken, from the Church to the BBC to social services to the police.

Might it be that we are being shaken? Might this be a time to lament, and repent, and look to restoration? I think we are in this time for the long haul, but might the outcome be—in God’s grace—a hopeful one? Each time we have passed through a long and dark night, eventually the bridegroom has arrived, and the time has come to celebrate.

Is it possible that Amos, who first spoke-out two-and-and-half millennia ago, might help us to respond to God in our day; and to be ready when Jesus, the bridegroom, comes to us in the night? I believe so, and encourage you to sit with his words, and the disturbing vision of God that he holds out to us, over the week ahead. Speak to us, Lord, through the words of your servant Amos. And come to us in due course, Lord Jesus.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

All Saints 2017

This morning at the Minster we celebrate All Saints. That is, we look back with thanksgiving for all those faithful men, women and children who have followed Jesus in this locality, and this region, and this nation, and this continent, and to the ends of the earth, and we find our place within that expansive and expanding story. We are the inheritors of their deposit of faith, to which we add our own for those who will come after us.

Sunderland folk have gathered to this hill above the River Wear, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, for over a thousand years. We are surrounded by the echoes of their stories, carved into stone, and wood, and metal plaques. The building is full of memorials: some bearing just a name, others containing a description of their character and deeds. We can see these as a monument to the past, and so-doing miss the point: or as testimonies to the partnership between God and God’s people, for the blessing of this city, across the generations.

This morning we have heard read out, again, the Beatitudes: Jesus’ proclamation of good news for certain kinds of people.

Those who are poor in their own resources: for whom the good news is that they have access to all the resources of the King of the Universe.

Those who live with the weight of bereavement: for whom the good news is the comforting that makes life bearable, one day at a time; even joyful, in time.

Those who remain teachable, when, overlooked, they get left behind or fall through the cracks in times of social upheaval: for whom the good news is a place of belonging and responsibility.

Those whose experience of injustice is such that can be fittingly described as an ache in their belly—who, indeed, may go hungry in a literal sense: for whom the good news is that their deep hunger will be satisfied.

Those who show mercy, in a world that bays for the blood of scapegoats: for whom the good news is a place where they themselves will be treated mercifully.

Those whose thoughts towards others are pure, in a world where powerful men exploit women and children, and make excuses when eventually called to account: for whom the good news is that they do not have to fear meeting God face-to-face.

Those who actively wage peace, non-violent protest and community-making in a world of racial and other expressions of violence: for whom the good news is that they will be recognised as being children of God.

Those who suffer because of their commitment to these things, who are rejected and mistreated by their own kin: for whom the good news is to be received with honour within a new community.

This proclamation of good news comes at the opening of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is holding out to his disciples the vision of a counter-cultural community, that exists to proclaim and enact good news specifically for these kinds of people.

Read some of the testimonies written around this building, and you will see that down through many years these kinds of people have heard good news proclaimed from this place.

Have glimpsed sight of it.

Have smelt its aroma.

Have tasted its bitter-sweetness.

Have touched it and felt its touch, at times a firm hold and at times a fleeting brush.

And the same is true in our day. Every day of the week, people who have been bereaved slip in and out of this place, finding it to be a place of refuge and sanctuary, of comfort, of encountering God. Sunday by Sunday, and several times throughout the week, our Iranian brothers and sisters do the same.

Four weeks from today is Advent Sunday, the start of the new Church year. Advent is a Season of looking forward, of making ready for Jesus’ return. He has promised that he will come again. We don’t know when, and so each year we return to a time of renewing our expectation. This year, Advent Sunday falls on 3rd December, and on that day we will hold a celebration of the life of the Minster community, this gathering of unlikely saints who come in the guise of children and the elderly and the stranger. We will honour the many ways in which people give of their time and their talents and their resources to be a blessing to others—especially the kind of people Jesus describes. In addition to our morning services, there will be a praise service in the evening.

On that day, we will take up a Gift Day offering, as an expression of our thankfulness to God for all that this place has meant, and continues to mean. We will be asking for a financial gift, in support of the life and work of the Minister, over-and-above our regular committed financial giving.

So, this is what I would encourage you to do: Go away and think about All the Saints who have stood here before us, and to imagine yourself as having inherited the deposit of faith they invested: because that is what you are. Then, I want you to think of all the things that go on here, or that flow out from this place, all the ways in which good news is proclaimed and acted-out for the city of Sunderland—and to start giving thanks to God for everything that comes to mind. Think of the ways in which you have participated in the life of this community, and how you have grown as a result, perhaps doing things you would never have imagined yourself doing in the past.

And then ask, what financial gift might I offer in thanks? Think of an amount, and pray about it—have a conversation with Jesus about it. Some of us might be able to give larger sums, and some of us will only be able to bring a small amount. The size of the gift doesn’t matter. What matters is that it is an expression of a thankful heart, not given grudgingly or out of habit, but after careful and prayerful consideration. We haven’t set ourselves a target: whatever is gathered in by the end of the day will be more than we had at the start, and will be invested in the next chapter of the lives of the Saints at Sunderland Minster in the Diocese of Durham. The chapter that will record our part within a much bigger story.

As we look backward with thanksgiving, and forward with expectancy, may we discover once again who we are: people John describes as children of God. Children of a wonderful, generous, Father God who has been revealed to us in his loving-kindness and enduring faithfulness. People growing into that likeness, not there yet, but knowing that one day we will be like him.

And may we take the next step of faith into that future, which is both longed-for and beyond all that we could possibly imagine. Amen.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Harvest Thanksgiving 2017

Today is our Harvest Thanksgiving. Today, we come bringing food for the foodbank, recognising that the good gifts God gives us are for the relief of those in need as well as our own well-being; and recognising the injustice that results when, as a society, we choose not to look beyond ourselves. As we come, I want to draw out some principles from our readings that might help us to go deeper.

Turn with me to our reading from Deuteronomy. Moses has led the people through the wilderness, but will not be the one to lead them into the land that God had promised to their ancestors. So, Moses gives them his final words of wisdom. The first thing I want to draw out is the idea that the land God is giving them has within it everything they need, either directly or through resources to trade. Of course, it will require effort—God will no longer drop manna and quail into their laps; they will need to sow and reap, mill and bake; they will need to mine and smelt and forge—but the land itself contains everything they need. And I wonder whether we believe that the same is true of the ‘land’ God has settled us in, Sunderland, in the north east of England? Are the resources we need, if we are to flourish in this place, to be found in this city, this region, this nation? What do you think? Is what being true then and there also true here and now? Is this a good land too, or a scorched earth?

The second thing I want to draw out relates to the experience of plenty and the experience of need. Moses goes on to tell the people that the resources of the land will multiply. If you have a male goat and a few female goats, you will get a flock of goats. In an agricultural society and a trade-based society, resources tend to multiply, at least in the long-term. And Moses understood that there was an inherent danger in that: the danger that when we have plenty, we attribute it to ourselves. We believe that we deserve it, that we have earned it through our effort. And because we attribute plenty to ourselves, we must equally attribute lack or need as earned or deserved. Moreover, we must believe that the earth is not fruitful as abundant gift, and so we must compete for resources: which in turn casts those in need as a threat to our plenty. Moses confronts such a tendency head-on: all we have is a gift from God. At times we might need to lose everything to rediscover that in our inability to meet our own needs, God provides: and, in his mercy, the times that humble and test us may turn out, in the end, to do us good. We may be invited by God to experience such times, and may discover them to do us good. We do not, however, get to discover that for anyone else: we do not get to decide that having to rely on a foodbank will do other people good.

Where, then, do we experience multiplication? And where do we experience the humbling of vulnerability and need? Perhaps we experience both in our Iranian brothers and sisters, a community that has grown from one person to many. Their faith has greatly encouraged many of us in our faith. But their lack of resources has also become our lack of resources, our shared need: and our shared opportunity to experience God’s provision.

Turn with me to our reading from 2 Corinthians. The context of this passage is this: the church in Jerusalem is experiencing the hardship of a local famine, and Paul is mobilising the churches he has planted in Greece to send financial support. They have been blessed—spiritually—by the church in Jerusalem; now they can bless them—materially, in this instance—in return. The church in Corinth had committed to give a certain amount, but were now struggling to raise it. Paul encourages them to give as they have made up their mind to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, but cheerfully and as a way of entering-into God’s abundant provision.

Each year, the Bishop of Durham writes to the parish churches of the Diocese asking them to prayerfully consider what they will contribute to the shared cost of providing ministry across our communities. The Parochial Church Council has agreed that we will give £30,000 this year, and the same amount next year. In fact, we would like to give more, but in considering our circumstances as a congregation, this is the amount that we believe is enough beyond our financial resources to require faith while not being beyond the faith we have at present.

This is, indeed, where we find ourselves. Financially, we are behind on our target; but we have faith that it is what God would have us give, and that God will provide. Indeed, I know that this is a congregation that knows God’s generosity and has been set free to be generous ourselves, because again and again I am blown away by the generosity of the Minster congregation. But we need to talk about our financial commitments and needs, because we have a turnover of committed givers who move on, or have died, and new people joining our community.

Even as we bring generous gifts to help those in need of food, this passage from 2 Corinthians gives us the opportunity to think about our committed financial giving. There are two things you can do. The first is, if you do not at present give a regular, committed donation—that is, giving that enables us to plan a budget—then please consider doing so, and talk to Sandra. If you already give, thank you. Please review your giving regularly. You may be able to increase it, cheerfully; you may need to reduce it, if you are to remain cheerful, in order that it doesn’t become burdensome: what matters is that it is an active decision you can act on.

The second thing is this. On Sunday 3rd December—Advent Sunday—we will be holding a Gift Day, on which we will celebrate the generosity of this place and this people, expressed in the giving of our time, our skills, our money. We will take up a collection towards our Parish Share, and I invite you to prayerfully consider what God might be asking you to contribute, over-and-above your regular, committed giving, and to bring your gift that day. More on that to come.

Finally, turn with me to our Gospel passage, from Luke. The famous parable of the rich fool, who hoarded his wealth for himself instead of blessing others; contrasted with God’s abundance on display in the goodness of the land. I am struck by God’s words to the man whose land produced abundantly: ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’

I think we assume that God says this because the man will die that night—and indeed, that is implied. But I wonder whether his demise is incidental, or, rather, simply becomes the point at which it is too late to change? I wonder whether the point of the story is this: that our life is demanded of us by God continually—not as slaves, but as covenant partners in creating a society marked by loving-kindness and steadfast fidelity and mercy and justice. And that, therefore, all the resources we have been given are always to be shared: so, we are to continually ask, who else will benefit, who will share in what we have? In this way—all that we are and all that we have freely given to God—we discover ourselves to be truly rich. And discovering this may we increasingly be known for ‘blessing our communities in the name of Jesus for the transformation of us all.’*

*this, from the Durham Diocese mission statement.