The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me.

Holy Spirit, water

(Ep2. Yr C) (I Cor. 12, 1-11; Luke 4,14-21)

I wonder how you would feel if somebody gave you the same present every year on your birthday and Christmas – and you knew that they gave exactly the same thing to everyone else they knew. I don’t suppose it would make you feel very special. We all like to think that gifts are given after a lot of thought, and are chosen especially for us, to fit our needs and our interests.

In our reading from his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul is talking about the gifts that come to the believer from God through the Holy Spirit; and one thing he emphasises is that they are all different. Each one is specially chosen to fit the task given to the person who receives it. The Spirit who gives is the same Spirit – and is the Spirit of God and of Jesus.

Paul uses different names for the source of the gifts – God, Lord, Spirit – but the source is one and the same. The variety of gifts comes from a God who is known as the Trinity – so has variety and relationship within the Godhead; but the gifts are rooted in the nature of that God, who is a unity.

Paul is trying to teach the Corinthians – and us – that just because we all belong to the same Church, we don’t have to be the same. We won’t all learn in the same way, we don’t all worship in the same way, and we aren’t all meant to serve God and the Church in the same way. God needs different people to do different things to build the Kingdom on earth – and through the Spirit is equipping us with what we need in order to do what he asks of us.

This can be a problem for some of Christians. They seem to want everyone to be the same. Perhaps they only feel secure in the company of people who are exactly like themselves, who see things their way and do things as they want. But the Spirit of God is not like that, because God is not like that. The Spirit is the source of the wonderful variety of people and gifts in our world, and God appears to be happy to be served and worshipped in a variety of ways – so long as those who serve acknowledge that people who do things differently are also serving God. This variety is not a problem if we are truly listening to the Spirit – it is only a problem if we are actually only listening to ourselves and our needs.

We learn from Paul’s letter that the Corinthians had a big problem with unity, and with appreciating the gifts of others. Even when they acknowledged that all gifts came from God, they wanted to put them in an order of importance – with the showy gifts, like speaking in tongues at the top of the list, and less obviously spiritual gifts, like simply caring for people, lower down. Paul would have none of this. As he demonstrated by using the analogy of the human body for the Church, every gift, every part is important; and perhaps we need to take most notice of the less obviously ‘religious’ gifts if the Body of Christ is to be healthy and grow.

It is very much a lesson for today’s Church. Perhaps we need to listen very carefully to what the Spirit is saying to us through those whose voices have not previously been heard much in the Church – however hard it is for those who were previously ‘top of the pile’. It is should also alert us to the gifts of those who are on the margins of society, perhaps even those who have been rejected by our churches until recently. Perhaps in rejecting these marginal people, we have denied our churches gifts that could help them to grow and reach more people with Christ’s message.

It’s a lesson that all Christians need to hear in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. We pray for unity, but it does not mean we want uniformity. We each have our preferred way of worshipping God and organising our Christian communities, and that will mean we may think some gifts are more important than others; but it doesn’t mean that we should dismiss gifts that are not prized in our particular churches , and argue that they can’t come from God. Such arguments have been the source of much hurt and even evil in the past.

The Spirit, Paul says, gives a variety of gifts – but all the different gifts have some things in common. First the gifts of the Spirit bring faith and commitment. They inspire us to proclaim through our words and our lives that ‘Jesus is Lord’. That implies that God comes first in our lives, before all our other commitments.

Second, the gifts given to believers are not given for their private benefit or advancement, to get them a better job or to make their lives easier. They are given for the common good, to build up the Body of Christ. They only remain ‘gifts of the Spirit’ when they are used in that way.

In the passage we heard from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus quotes from the Book of Isaiah, to claim that the Spirit of God is with him. This scene is like the setting out of Jesus’ manifesto, outlining what his ministry will be all about. In some way, this proclamation at Nazareth is Luke’s Epiphany, the time when Jesus is revealed to the world as the Spirit-filled Messiah.

In Luke’s view, the ministry of Jesus is about serving the lowly, the outcast, those on the margins of polite society, and the poor. It is Liberation Theology, proclaiming freedom for captives and liberty for the oppressed. It is about healing society and educating people so that they see things with God’s eyes. It is about challenging the powers that be, and announcing that the year of the Lord’s favour has arrived – the Jubilee year, when all debts were cancelled and land returned to it’s original owners.

Luke’s is very much a social Gospel. It is about politics and economics, not just private spirituality. Beginning with the shepherds, the outsiders who are the first to worship the Messiah, and through the canticles like the Benedictus and the Magnificat, Luke tells us that the Good News of the Gospel has a particular significance for the poor, the sick and the outsider. Luke does emphasise the need for prayer, and openness to the Spirit, but these are necessary to equip the followers of Jesus for action. Like Paul, Luke sees the Spirit as providing the inspiration and the impetus to take action to change the world.

Since Bishop Alan Smith became the Bishop of St Albans, he has been challenging Anglicans in this diocese to ‘Live God’s Love, and to make three aspects of Christian life their priorities. First, to go deeper into God – to be open to the Spirit, to read the Scriptures and to pray; second, to make new disciples – to teach and to nurture those of any age who are new to the faith. But the third priority is to transform the communities in which we live. That is what Paul was talking about in his letter to the Church in Corinth; that is what Jesus was proclaiming he came to do in Luke’s account of the beginning of his ministry in Galilee.

I think those are useful challenges for all Christians, not just Anglicans. How equipped are you in this church to respond to the third of those challenges? Do you ever ask yourselves what it is that this church does which makes any difference to the community around you? Are you transforming your community? Would it actually make any difference to the community if this church was not here? And if not, why not?

Do you ever ask yourselves: “How are we showing this community that, for us, Jesus is Lord, that the Gospel comes first in our lives? How are we being Good News for the poor. Who are we setting free? What blindness are we helping to remove? How are we liberating the oppressed? How are we using the gifts of the Spirit to try to transform this place?”

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus proclaimed “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”. At the beginning of this year, can we all ask ourselves: “Is the Spirit of the Lord upon me?” and “How will people know?”

 

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Invitation to the Wedding

wedding rings

Many years ago, when I ministered at St Mary’s, one important part of my ministry was leading the Marriage Preparation Sessions. We invited all the couples who were getting married in the next few months at the church to meet on four successive Sunday evenings, to talk through various aspects of the marriage relationship and to look through the marriage ceremony.

It was a very fulfilling ministry, where I learnt a lot about changing contemporary attitudes to marriage; and it was also a joyful experience, particularly when I was able to take part, singing in the choir, in the marriage ceremonies of the couples I had helped to prepare.

We were a shared Anglican/Methodist Church, and that brought its own particular questions, especially with regard to couples where one or both partners had been divorced. Our Anglican priest wouldn’t remarry divorced people, though he’d do a blessing after civil marriage; the Methodist minister would perform a marriage (though he disapproved strongly of couples living together before the ceremony and told them so!) Between the two traditions, we were able to bring joy to a great many couples on their special day as they started married life together.

But my experience of leading Marriage Preparation courses in a shared church also highlighted the many similarities between a couple getting married and different churches entering ecumenical partnerships.

There are similar tensions over what might seem, on the surface, to be very minor differences of family or church customs, but which nevertheless seem to carry enormous emotional weight, and lead to difficulties out of all proportion to their apparent importance. What family customs and religious practices have in common is that they are often deeply rooted in our early experiences, in the things that provide us with part of our sense of identity and security. As a result, they are extremely difficult to discuss in a rational and unemotional way.

Our Gospel reading today describes a wedding feast – and in the Bible a wedding feast is always a symbol for the great Messianic Banquet at the end of time, celebrating the triumph of God’s Kingdom and the covenant between God and his people. In the Old Testament, the ‘bride’ of God was the people of Israel. In the New Testament it is the Church. The marriage feast metaphor speaks of the love God has for his people, and the joy that they have in being united with God. So, it is a very appropriate image to have before us as we begin the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, when we celebrate the covenant relationship that God established with all Christians through Jesus, and pray it may become a visible reality in the world.

It’s easy to get depressed by the difficulties of ecumenical co-operation. But we should not forget the enormous advances made in ecumenism since the week began in 1908. I remember in my childhood how members of different churches regarded each other with suspicion; and I was saddened in the 1970s by hearing from Cardinal Hume, when he addressed a Churches Together Lent Lecture, that, as a trainee Catholic priest, he was not allowed to attend his own father’s funeral, because it took place in an Anglican Church.

How things have changed! As an Anglican woman, I have twice preached from the pulpit of a Roman Catholic Church – not something that I could ever have imagined happening as a child – and I know I can take communion in the churches of most denominations without any questions being asked.

Local Ecumenical Partnerships, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and the Women’s World Day of Prayer have enormously expanded lay people’s experience of worshipping with those of different church backgrounds. But progress towards full visible unity, sharing not only buildings, but ministry and church organisation has been achieved only in  a few instances. It seems to have been easier to achieve in places where Christianity is not the dominant religion – there have been united churches of several Protestant denominations in India and Pakistan since 1970.

And recently, while movements for closer covenant relationships between churches have failed, or been relegated to the background, disputes within churches, especially over issues such as sexuality and gender roles, seem to be leading to greater disunity, and more obstructions in the road to visible unity. It is very sad, like contemplating the prospect of marriage breakup in your own family, or in the families of other people you love.

It is particularly sad this weekend, as we hear the statements released at the end of the meeting of Primates (archbishops who lead provinces) in the world-wide Anglican Communion, who have been meeting in Canterbury this last week. At the end of that meeting the Episcopal Church in the USA (TEC) was made the scapegoat for the disagreement between the churches of the Communion over whether faithful partnerships between people of the same gender could be approved by Christians or not. Because the TEC was the only church that has approved a same-sex marriage liturgy for use in church, it has been barred by a vote of the majority of the Primates from representing the Anglican Communion on Ecumenical Committees, and from voting on decisions on theology and policy within the Communion for the next three years.

Churches in other parts of the world which support the arrest and imprisonment of gay people, and which have broken Anglican discipline by starting new Anglican churches in other bishops’ provinces have not been disciplined. It seems that both gay Anglicans, who have suffered so badly in the past at the hands of their fellow Christians, along with the churches who support the full inclusion of LGBT people in church and family life, have been sacrificed for the sake of an appearance of family unity.

As in any family, as with any married couple, in a church community there will be things on which members think differently. In a strong family and a strong married couple, the love  between the members will be stronger than any difference, and people will be valued for their individuality, rather than rejected. The Christian family, based as it should be on the love of God shown to us through Jesus Christ, should be most open of all to appreciate different ways of interpreting the Gospel message in different circumstances, and most determined of all not to make them into occasions to divide our communities.

As St Paul explains the passage from Corinthians we heard, God has given different gifts to different people in the Church, but they are all given to be used for the common good. I believe God has given different gifts to different parts of the Anglican Communion; but only if we live together as a united family, so we make them available to each other, can we appreciate those gifts. If we cast people who have certain gifts out of the family, because we are not yet ready to appreciate their gifts in our own context, we are missing out on God’s gifts.

There’s a book I read some time ago called ‘Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road’. It’s about how Christians should treat people of other world faiths, but it has relevance, I think, for Christians who disagree on fundamental issues of belief and behaviour.

It takes it’s name from a variation of the ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ joke. The author, Brian McLaren, asks “How do you think Jesus would treat them (the founders of the world faiths) if they took a walk across the road together. Would Jesus push Moses aside and demand to cross first…would he trade insults with Mohammed…Would Jesus demand the Buddha kneel at his feet? Or would he walk with them and, once on the other side, welcome them to the table of fellowship,…. maybe even taking the role of a servant…making sure each felt welcome, safe and at home?”

McLaren continues: “I have no doubt that Jesus would actually practise the neighbourliness he preached rather than following our example of religious supremacy, hostility, fear, isolation, misinformation, exclusion or demonisation. It seems ridiculous to imagine that he would be insecure among them, considering them his rivals, or that he would find it necessary to extract from them explicit agreement on fundamental doctrines before condescending to cross a road with them.”

I think the leaders of the Anglican Communion need to hear that message this weekend.

And as Jesus does, so must we do, as we are called to be Christ’s Body in the world. True church unity is not about reaching agreement on the minutiae of theology, or the exact details of church order, or who may preach or be ordained or married in our churches. That may differ from place to place. It is about working together with the common purpose of bringing in the Kingdom of God through serving our neighbour and transforming the world.

Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed – and the Methodists and Baptists and Presbyterians and Roman Catholics – and GAFCON and the TEC and middle of the road Anglicans – cross the road?

To take their different gifts to the heavenly marriage feast, where the water of our ordinary human relationships is turned into the wine of new life, and all are welcomed to celebrate the glory of God and the joy of the covenant God makes with all who live in Christ and serve the Kingdom of Heaven.

Let us pray:

A prayer by Ruth Gee, Chair of the Darlington District, from The Methodist Prayer Handbook 2013. Day 13.

 

God with us, Emmanuel;

you cross the chasm of time and space,

you break down the walls of fear and prejudice,

you span the waters of chaos,

you come to us in love.

 

Sending God;

help us to cross the chasm of hurt and painful memory,

help us to break down the barriers that divide,

help us to bear your peace in a troubled world.

Send us in love,

go with us.

Amen

 

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Transformation Scene!

 

IMG_0091Sam & grandma (1)

 

Sermon for Christmas 1. Yr. C

(Colossians 3,12-17. Luke 2, 41-52.)

 

I expect many of you, like me have looked at your children or grandchildren, or other young people you’ve known for the whole of their lives, and said to yourself, ”Gosh, it seems only yesterday that they were born!”

 

The lectionary does that to us this year. Two days ago, on 25th December, we heard about the birth of Jesus: today, 27th December, we are reading about the adolescent Jesus visiting the Temple. The story has echoes of another ‘wondrous child’, the prophet Samuel, who was dedicated to God in the sanctuary by his mother (just like Jesus) and grew up to anoint David as king. Now Jesus, the Son of David, is shown travelling into the Temple, which he identifies as ‘his Father’s house’.

 

After the nativity story, with angelic announcements, virgin birth in a strange, symbolic birthplace, and visits from shepherds, here we are seemingly back in the real world, with a stroppy adolescent doing his own thing, apparently with no regard for the feelings and real anxieties of his parents.

 

But, as always with the stories of the birth of Jesus, this is not  history. All of Luke and Matthew’s stories about the birth and childhood are actually looking forward to, and reflecting the adult life and ministry of Jesus. This story, of the visit to the Temple for the annual Passover festival, shows him already radically committed to the task he will be called to do , replying to his parents’ natural questions with the reply which could mean either ‘Did you not know I must be in my Father’s House’ or ‘about my Father’s business’. It is more important for him to be in the Temple, listening to the teachers there, discussing theology with them, than to be with his parents and return to his home in the North. As in his later ministry, the ties of blood and family come a poor second to the demands of the Kingdom of God.

 

Our Christian hymns and carols talk about the child Jesus being a ‘pattern for our childhood’; but they present rather an idealised picture of him: I am sure I am not the only mother to have snorted in disbelief as I sang “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”!

 

This story from Luke gives a rather different picture; most of us would find it as difficult and puzzling as Mary and Joseph did to parent a child so self-contained, so apparently oblivious to their natural parental concerns as Jesus is shown doing in this story; and his reply to Mary’s natural enquiry seems to be rather impertinent to a parent, even if he is the special first-born child, destined for great things.

 

But it does show a much more human Jesus than the rest of the birth stories. He is not perfect; he doesn’t yet know everything; he gets things wrong; and so this makes it much more possible for us to believe we could be like him – not just in our childhood, but in our adult lives as well. Stories like this mean we can’t say “Oh, he was the Son of God, and everybody knew it from his birth. He was omniscient, like God. I can’t possibly be expected to reach the same standards as he did”.

 

Being held to the same standards as Jesus is what the Colossians passage is about. The previous section of the letter talks about discarding our old life like a suit of old clothes; throwing away the old life of evil passions, lust, greed, anger, insulting and obscene language, dishonesty in word and deed, and making distinctions between people based on race, religion and money, and putting on a new life in Christ, so we are like Christ.

This new life in Christ is the gift we are given through his birth, life and death, the gift that we are celebrating at this Christmas season.

 

Some of us may go to watch a pantomime at this season. One of the stock features of pantomimes is the transformation scene, when the hero or heroine is magically transformed from poverty and obscurity to riches and prestige.

This passage from Colossians reads like a Christian transformation scene.

wpid-Photo-20150831000124656

But this transformation doesn’t come about by magic. It comes about by taking upon ourselves the characteristics and virtues of Christ as described in the Gospel accounts of his ministry. We are to be clothed with compassion, kindness , humility, meekness and patience. We are to be tolerant of one another, and forgive wrongs immediately. We are to be guided by love and live in peace with one another, and be thankful for what we have, however much or however little.

 

This transformation is effected  by the influence of the Word of God on our lives and in our hearts. We are to read it, share it, discuss it, even argue about it and meditate on its meaning. We are to sing it and pray it, so that it becomes part of our very being and moulds our character. We are to be transformed by our worship, and live our lives in the name (that is, in the character) of the Christ.

 

Most importantly, this is not just to be an abstract hope. All these Christian virtues can only be demonstrated when we live in community with others. They are to help us to transform the world.

 

The human Jesus that we see in the Gospels teaches us to value this life for itself, not just to see it as a sort of ‘entrance exam’ for the life to come. Jesus was born into human life to show us how to live in this world, valuing people as they are, valuing our similarities and our differences, valuing the earth.

 

Like Jesus, we are to be concerned not just for the spiritual wellbeing of our fellow human beings, but also for their health and freedom, for justice and equality, and for human flourishing. Clothing ourselves with Christ should make a difference to how we live our lives, moulding us in such a way that we bring life to our fellow human beings, near and far, like us and different.

 

We are getting very close now to the end of 2015 and the beginning of a new year – the time for New Year’s resolutions!

A commitment to live our lives according to the pattern set out for us in Colossians, to make Christ not just our childhood pattern, but that of our adult lives, would make a very good New Year’s Resolution.

 

Happy Christmas! Happy New Year!

2-janknegt-jesus-in-temple

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Which Jesus?

Nativity tableau ( sort of!)

Sermon for Christmas Morning 2015

Children’s nativity plays are often a source of memorable and humorous moments.

I treasure the tale of a small boy picked to play first innkeeper, who was so annoyed at not being given a star part like Joseph or the Angel Gabriel that he resolved to sabotage the whole thing; when Mary and Joseph knocked at the door of the inn, instead of saying ‘No room!’ he said ‘Come in. I’ve plenty of room!’. Luckily the boy playing Joseph was resourceful enough to say ‘No thank you. I wouldn’t bring my wife into an inn like yours!’ and the play continued as normal.

Sometimes there is an unexpected theological moment. A small child playing Mary at the nursery in my previous church, pushed Joseph away when he tried to take the Baby Jesus. ‘Go away’ she said. ‘He’s nothing to do with you!’ She had obviously absorbed the doctrine of the Virgin Birth at a very young age!

I am told that, at the nativity in my granddaughter’s church toddler’s group, the child playing Mary took the ‘Baby Jesus’ out of the manger, and substituted her own favourite doll instead. She wanted her own version of Jesus, not someone else’s.

And that got me thinking. How often do we do that – create our own Black motherversion of Jesus, and refuse to allow anyone or anything to change our set ideas? It is not surprising if we do, because people have been doing the same thing since the first Christmas Day.

In the Bible, we have three different version of the birth of Jesus.

In the Gospel of John, as we heard this morning, we have a Greek hymn to the Logos or Wisdom ( personified in the Old Testament as a companion of God since the beginning of time) adapted by the Evangelist to provide an explanation of how the Word of God became a human being in the person of Jesus; born through the will of God to bring Light and Truth and the opportunity to become ‘children of God’ to all who believe.

The writer of the gospel of Matthew took themes from the lives of Old Testament leaders such as Moses, Samson, Samuel and David, and from the writings of prophets like Hosea and Isaiah to create the tale of the birth of Jewish Messiah. Born in a house in Bethlehem (like David) he will become a saviour, like Moses; a judge and a Nazarene, like Samson; coming from the dynasty of David, he will be King of the Jews. As the prophets and psalms predict, the wise and powerful of the pagan world will come from afar to pay homage to him. They will be drawn to his light in the form of a rising star and will offer him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Matthew’s Jesus is the fulfilment of all these Old Testament traditions. Like the Jews of old he has to flee from troubles in his IMG_0713homeland into Egypt, and then returns to live in his homeland, but not in Judaea, but in Nazareth of Galilee.

We get a very different story of the birth in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus’ parents come from a provincial town, from a region despised as semi-pagan by the religious leaders. They are humble folk, pushed around by the Roman authorities, forced to leave home to register for a census when Mary was heavily pregnant. They were not important or wealthy enough to be given a guest chamber, so her baby was born in the lower part of the house, where the animals were brought in from the cold, and her baby was placed in a manger. The news of the birth is given first to more outcasts – shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks on the hills outside Bethlehem (as King David was doing when Samuel summoned him to be anointed as the next king of Israel). They are the ones who recognise him as King and Messiah, as do other poor and despised people like Elizabeth and Zechariah, Simeon and Anna. In Luke’s tale, the birth goes unnoticed by img007 (1)the rich and powerful – there are no wise men, no star, no slaughter of babies in his story. After the purification, the family goes peacefully back to Nazareth, and Mary ponders all that has happened in her heart, as Luke means us to do.

There are some themes in common to all three stories; they hint at a virginal conception to make the point that the birth marks a new spiritual beginning for the whole human race; and they tell us that the people who accepted this child as the Messiah were those outside the religious mainstream: people from the provinces, the poor, shepherds and pagan astrologers.

Over the years, many more have elaborated the story. New Testament writers, theologians, composers of hymns and carols, artists, authors of mediaeval mystery plays and folk stories, all have added their own Wartburginterpretations, some of which have become part of the main story for us. Even saints have done their bit, like St Francis, who gave us the crib scene, with the stable, the ox and the donkey, none of which are mentioned in the Gospels. The birth of Jesus has been set in every place and time, until we come to the rich tapestry of the Christmas story we enjoy today. There’s a lovely version going viral online, from the under-5’s group at a Berkshire Church, where all the characters are dressed as superheroes!

None of this matters. God gave us his son to be born into obscurity, in a time when no official documents, like birth certificates or passports, and no technology like cameras or videos existed to record the exact details for future generations. It was as if God was saying to us: “Here is my gift to you. Take it and make of it what you want. Tell his story in the way that is most meaningful to you and your people.”

The only proviso is – don’t think (like the child in my granddaughter’s nativity) that your baby Jesus is the only proper one. Read and listen to all the accounts of the birth of Jesus, don’t muddle them up, and try to hear what God is saying to you through the elements of each different story.

Bishop Nick Baines got into big trouble with some sections of the media when his book ‘Why wish you a Merry Christmas’, was published. (That seems to be an occupational hazard of being a C of E bishop these days!) He was accused of saying that we shouldn’t sing traditional carols or have infants doing nativity plays. If you read his book (which many who commented hadn’t!) you will find he is not saying that at all. What he did write is: sing carols, enjoy them, but don’t stop there! Some of them are good theology, but some of them are nonsense – especially those that imply that the baby Jesus never cried, or that the birth was beautiful and easy and Mary and Joseph had no problems. Enjoy your children and grandchildren performing the nativity story, but don’t stop there. Don’t leave the birth story as a tale for children, like Tinkerbell or Father Christmas, to be rejected when you grow up.

Go back to the Bible and read the accounts in the gospels and think about the characters as real people with real problems. Think how difficult it must have been for Mary and Joseph to accept this child, how their lives were disrupted by his birth, how the religious people missed the point, how the news was given to outcasts and strangers, and that it was not the faithful, but the faithless who came to adore him – and meditate on what that says to us about how God chooses to be present with us in the problems and uncertainties, the disasters and messiness of real life.

Then think about what that says to us as Christians about where we are meant to be and how we are meant to live, so that we bring light and truth and love to others as Jesus did; and how we can demonstrate what it means to know that, because of this child and the man he became, we have the chance to become children of God – and so does everyone else.

That is amazing and life transforming stuff – and a very good reason to celebrate and wish everyone a very happy Christmas.

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The Gentle Revolution.

Windsock-Visitation.McGrath

(Micah 5, 2-5a; Luke 1 39 – 55) (Advent 4 Year C)

 

Today on the last Sunday of Advent, as we light the fourth of the Advent candles, our thoughts turn to Mary, the mother of Jesus; and this year, our readings remind us also of the role of another mother, Elizabeth, in preparing the Way for the coming of God’s Kingdom.

Both of them were mothers of prophets who preached about the coming Kingdom of God, and urged people to respond to that coming by changing the way they lived. Both of them must have had a significant influence on the thinking and actions of the children they raised. Both of them are heralds of the Kingdom. Elizabeth, we are told, had her child in her old age, Mary had hers as a young woman.

I wonder how you picture Mary?

Most of the pictures and statues of her Wartburgshow her as very young, very pretty, dressed in blue or white, with her eyes either cast down to the ground, or raised to heaven, sitting or praying, cradling her baby or her dead son. She is portrayed as a passive participant in the drama of salvation. That’s the way she has been portrayed in a lot of Christian literature too, starting with the gospel of John, which shows her as the perfect disciple, following her son without question.

In complete contrast is the statue of her by Dame Elizabeth Frink, known as the Walking Madonna. This is the description of it by Elspeth Moncrieff: This is no conventional, modest Madonna lurking in the security of a Cathedral alcove. She strides with singleness of purpose oblivious to the distractions of those around her. There is an integrity in her gaze, a sense of purpose and iron strength in her gaunt frame. Most importantly, she has turned her back on the sanctuary and security of the Cathedral; choosing instead to stride out into the town to meet the world full on and grapple with the fundamental condition of mankind.walking_madonna_picture_3g

This is a mature Mary, who has been touched and changed by the experiences of motherhood and the Crucifixion. This is an active Mary. This is the Mary that Luke presents us with, who questions the angel who announces she is to bear the Saviour and challenges Jesus about his disappearance in the Temple; she is the one who ponders the events of his life in her heart, and is included by Jesus among those who hear the word of God and do it (Luke 8.21) This is the Mary who speaks the words of the Magnificat, proclaiming the coming of her son as the fulfilment of the Old Testament hopes and prophecies, the inaugurator and executor of God’s decisive intervention to transform the world. This is Mary, the gentle revolutionary.

It is sometimes difficult for us to hear the radical message of the Magnificat, especially when it is so often set to beautiful music, and frequently sung by a small choirboy. Perhaps we might appreciate its revolutionary message better if we sang it in the modern version by Fred Kaan, especially when one of the tunes you can sing it to is “O Tannenbaum’ also known as “The Red Flag”

 

Sing we a song of high revolt;
Make great the Lord, his name exalt:
Sing we the song that Mary sang
Of God at war with human wrong.
Sing we of him who deeply cares
And still with us our burden bears;
He, who with strength the proud disowns,
Brings down the mighty from their thrones.

By him the poor are lifted up:
He satisfies with bread and cup
The hungry folk of many lands;
The rich are left with empty hands.
He calls us to revolt and fight
With him for what is just and right
To sing and live Magnificat
In crowded street and council flat

This is the call to change our ways represented by the Mary who turns her back on the safety of traditional religion and strides out into the messiness of the world, just as her son did, and just as Elizabeth’s son did.

The Magnificat proclaims a religious revolution: that God has chosen a woman to be the vehicle which inaugurates his decisive revelation to the world, and a young, unmarried mother at that. As the prophets have proclaimed, but reality has rarely echoed, God’s favour is shown not to those who hold high positions in the religious hierarchy, nor to members of a Chosen People, nor to those who keep themselves pure and untouched by the world but to those who hear and obey his commands, whatever their background and circumstances.

It proclaims a social revolution: that the proud, those who think themselves better than other people, will be brought down, and the humble, the despised and the outcast will be seen as the true recipients of God’s favour.

It proclaims a political revolution: that the powerful will be defeated and the oppressed will be freed and given fullness of life. It proclaims an economic revolution, that the hungry will be fed, and those who are rich now will feel what it is like to go short.

All this, Mary proclaims, is the fulfilment of everything that God promised, through the prophets of the Old Testament, to those who love and obey him.

Why do we not often hear this revolutionary message?

Perhaps because the Church through the ages has tended to turn this into the proclamation of a spiritual revolution, the exaltation of the spiritually poor, and humble; but it has not lived even that revolution. Once the Christian faith became the state religion of the Roman Empire, and the dominant faith in Europe and Northern Asia, and the lands they colonised, most people in the church reverted to the previous status quo, serving and associating with the rich, the powerful, the wealthy, and reversing the values of the Kingdom. Most used the weapons of the old order to support secular rulers, and to enforce conformity with one interpretation of the faith. The institutional church sidelined the quiet revolution, and forsook the teachings of the gentle revolutionaries who proclaim the values of the Kingdom of Heaven.

I don’t believe the Magnificat and the Gospel of Luke are just speaking about a spiritual revolution; nor that the reversal of the old order is just something that will come after death, or at the end of time. I believe it is speaking about a change that Jesus urged his followers to work for in the 1st century; that he and John the Baptist urged the people who came to hear him to put into practice, challenging the rich, the powerful, the soldiers and the tax collectors to repent and change their ways, working for change through peaceful means. I believe it was a revolution that Jesus lived, as he touched the unclean, women, lepers and the sick, as he associated with those outside genteel society, and as he allowed himself to be abused and killed, rather than physically resisting violence.

I believe the Magnificat is speaking about a gentle revolution that the Church should be proclaiming and living today, and that the yearly observation of Advent reminds us about.

It is a reminder that our Christmas is not like the world’s Christmas. It is not an escape from the world of poverty and violence and conflict, it is a commitment to do something about it, in Jesus’s name. It is not about tradition or about buying and getting, it is about change, and giving away possessions and privilege. It is not about getting away from struggle, it is about struggling in the right way to change the way people see the world, about leading people to ‘repent’ in the proper Biblical meaning of the word, and about seeing the world through God’s eyes.

Today Christians often complain, especially in the USA, that there’s a ‘War on Christmas’. But I give you the words of a minister who recently wrote that he would sign up to support the War on Christmas because: I’d make the argument that the dominant face of Christianity, as it is seen on television and promoted through news programming, is itself far from what Christianity is supposed to be. It is a sort-of white-washed, sanitized version of Christianity that every year presents an increasingly cleaned up version of the Christmas story to the viewing public.

You see, the baby we remember this time of year was not part of the dominant culture the way the religion he started now is. The religious stories that were told in those days were told under the shadow of the dominant culture. They were stories of oppression and hardships, stories of overcoming unthinkable odds, stories of hope for a people living in times and cultural positions that, quite frankly felt hopeless.

But today, our stories are told from places and positions of power. Today, Christianity is the dominant culture. So, instead of story of a olive skinned middle-eastern, unwed, pregnant mother, who was seen as little more than property, giving birth to what the world would surely see as an illegitimate child who was wrapped in what rags they could find and placed in a smelly, flea-infested feeding trough in the midst of a dark musky smelling animal stall, we end up with a clean, white-skinned European woman giving birth to a glowing baby wrapped in impossibly white swaddling clothes and laid to rest in a manger that looks more like a crib than a trough, in the midst of a barn that is more kept and clean than many of our houses.

So, “War on Christmas?” Sure, sign me up. I’m pretty sure I’d prefer the elimination of what our modern “celebration” has become to the increasingly white-washed version we hear every year.

The Christmas story has been hijacked by a dominant culture. Places of power and positions of prestige have warped the comeuppance sensibilities of the original Christmas story.

God’s vision of liberating the oppressed, the downtrodden, has been slowly replaced year after year with a story that no longer brings fear to the Powers that Be, but rather supports the big business agendas of profit and mass consumerism.

Perhaps many of you would not go as far as Pastor Mark Sandlin; and the celebration of the traditional Christmas does give a lot of joy to families, and promote a good deal of charitable giving. But if the coming of Christ into the world is supposed to be a life changing experience, and if what we are celebrating is not just that Christ has come 2000 years ago, but also that Christ is coming now to change the world, we ought to open our ears and minds to hear the challenge of the words of the Magnificat anew, and ask ourselves how we can join Mary and Elizabeth and their sons to become God’s gentle revolutionaries to bring in his Kingdom afresh this Christmas.

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Majesty and Meekness

 

Christ in gory

( Daniel 7, 9-10 & 13-14; Revelation 1, 4b-8; John 18, 33-37)

Religious jokes usually circulate in a number of different versions. Here’s a version of one I’m particularly fond of.

There was once a tornado in the Southern United States so strong that it blew down an angel from Heaven. The folk who found the angel immediately began asking questions. “Tell me,” said one” you have seen God. What is he like?” The angel looked at them and smiled. “SHE is BLACK”, it replied.

If you have read ‘The Shack’ by William Paul Young, you will find it partly reflects the thrust of that joke in its portrayal of God. ‘The Shack’ is a novel, but also a work of theology. It concerns a man called Mack, whose youngest daughter was abducted during a family holiday in the Oregon wilderness. She is never found, but there is evidence in the shack of the title, that she was murdered. Mack’s grief at this destroys his faith in God. Then, one day he slips on an icy driveway when he is going to collect the mail. When he opens the mailbox, there is only one item – a note from God (who the family call Papa) inviting him to go back to the shack. When he gets there, he encounters God the Trinity in the form of three people, and Papa (God the Father) is female and black!

I won’t spoil the book for you if you haven’t read it. But do read it, if you can; it’s one of those life-changing books, that everyone should know.

Black motherWe are told in many places in the Scriptures, and in the tradition, that God is not a being like us. If you want to talk properly about God, you have to use abstract philosophical concepts, because the use of any human categories limits God in ways that are unacceptable. But human beings are not very good at imagining things in the abstract, and are even worse at relating to abstract concepts, in the way our faith expects us to relate to God. So all of us fall back on creating pictures in our minds to help us to try to grasp what God is like.

Genesis 1 tells us that human beings were created in the image of God. Human beings in turn tend to ‘create’ or imagine a God made in their image, a God who is like them or like some category of human being they know.

Today, the last Sunday before Advent, is known in some churches as ‘Christ the King’. The readings direct our thoughts to one human category through which we express what we think God is like, that of a human monarch.

Daniel imagines God holding court in a throne room of a monarch of one the the many empires that conquered the Hebrew kingdom, surrounded by thousands of servants, and acting as both judge and jury, dispensing justice. Before him comes ‘one like a son of man’ a human being who is given power and authority over a major part of the monarch’s dominions.

The book of Revelation also portrays God as an earthly monarch, holding court in great glory and sending out his commanders to fight and defeat his enemies. Jesus is God’s lieutenant, whose enemies shake in fear as he approaches in power through the clouds. In the reading from John, we have a passage which talks about the monarchs of this world, but which contrasts those with the kingdoms of God and Jesus.

When the community who composed the Gospel of John reflected on their experience of the life, death and teaching of Jesus, they realised that the picture of an all-conquering earthly ruler was not the right one to convey the reality of the Kingdom of God. So, when they imagined the confrontation between Pilate, who held earthly power, and Jesus, who embodied the Kingdom of God, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world”.

That’s not a thought that has had a great deal of influence on the Christian tradition. Most have continued to imagine God the Father, and Christ the Son like secular monarchs, and the coming of God’s Kingdom as an event that will violently destroy all human power systems, punish God’s enemies and install the faithful in positions of earthly power.

We tend to ignore the hints in the Scriptures that the reign of God is something quite different. Daniel says that God’s ruler will be one like ‘a son of man’, that is with the limitations of human beings, not overwhelming power.

Revelation says that Jesus Christ brought us into the Kingdom as priests (all of us, not just the ordained!) through his faithfulness, and through the shedding of his blood. Jesus in John rejects secular definitions of power and authority, and stands by Truth, even when it means his own death.

Jesus came to show us the truth about a different kind of God and a different way of being a monarch.

The way we think about God and Christ and the nature of their kingdom is not just theory. It affects the way we think it is right to act, in everything from the nature of our ministry, what sin is and how we escape its consequences, to the way we conduct our civic relationships and settle our differences.

Another book which I found life changing is one by the American theologian, Marcus J Borg, called “The God We Never Knew”. It is all about how he moved from the image of God he was taught in his childhood, which became increasingly unsatisfactory as he grew up and studied, to a way of thinking about God and living with God that he never knew as a child, a way that was consistent with the Bible and the tradition, but which made sense to a 21st century mind.

The concept of God with which Borg (and perhaps many of us) grew up was of a supernatural being ‘out there’ far away, who created the world a long time ago. The best metaphors for this being are King or Judge, or an authoritarian patriarchal father, totally different and separate from us, all knowing and all powerful. Sometimes, he (this being was always thought of as masculine) intervened in the world, in the sort of events described in the Bible. But essentially this God was not here, but somewhere else. If we were good enough, and believed strongly enough, and abased ourselves enough about the sins we committed, we might be allowed to be with this being after death.

Borg calls this way of thinking about God ‘supernatural theism’ or ‘the monarchical model’. Because human beings need something concrete to speak to, when Borg worshipped or prayed, his picture of God was based on the Lutheran pastor who led the services in his church each Sunday – a big man, with grey hair and a black robe, who always shook his finger as he preached. So Borg saw God as the big eye-in-the-sky, always watching, always disapproving, always judging.

But as he grew older, studied theology and read the works of theologians such as John Robinson and Paul Tillich, he came to a different understanding of God, panentheism. This thinks of God as all around us, within us, but also more than everything. What is more, we are within God. God is constantly creating, constantly nurturing, constantly present in the world, but is infinitely more than the world.

In this model, the best metaphors for God are Abba/Daddy, lover, mother, Wisdom, companion on the journey. Borg calls this way of thinking about God ‘The Spirit model’. The concrete image which sums up this picture of God for him is of his wife, a priest, bending down to give a small child who is kneeling at the altar rail the consecrated bread. He says: “I was struck by the difference: an image of God as a male authority figure, shaking his 357431_1.jpgfinger at us versus the image of God as a beautiful loving woman bending down to feed us”.( p.71)

Borg emphasises that both the monarchical model of God and the Spirit model are true to the Bible and to the tradition, and have nurtured Christian belief and worship through the ages; but he argues that supernatural theism is becoming more and more difficult to maintain alongside a modern world view. Throughout history, the male, distant, King and Judge model has been the dominant one, at times the only one that was allowed. This has had consequences for our church organisation, particularly the insistence that you had to be a human male in order to speak for and represent this ‘male’ God.

But the loving, nurturing, female model is there, in the Scriptures and the tradition too, if you look for it. One of the names used for God in the Old Testament, El Shaddai, can be translated as the all sufficient one, the providing one, God as a mother who feeds us from her own substance – an image taken up again in the 1st Epistle of Peter and the writings of Julian of Norwich.

In different places in the Bible God is spoken of as a mother bear, a mother eagle, a mother hen, and as a caring parent, leading her toddlers with reins to keep them safe.

When you come to think of Christ the King according to this model, you get a very different picture from the rather triumphalist image of the commander of armies of angels who will come in power to defeat and punish the wicked. You get a picture of a servant ruler, who sustains and nurtures and comforts her people, who works to repair relationships and reconcile the divided parts of her realm. You get the Scandinavian welfare monarchy rather than Henry V.

And if that’s the image you carry in your mind of our divine monarch, then you will have a very different picture of what living under God’s sovereign rule is all about. If Christ is our authority, then Christ’s agenda takes priority – striving for peace and justice for all, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, sacrificing your good for the good of others, even your enemies.

If we are living in Christ’s Kingdom, it’s not about conquest or power, it’s not about saying one group of people are better or holier or better able to represent God than another; it’s about sacrifice and service; it’s about rejecting systems that oppress and reject people; it’s about a completely different reality that works within human secular systems to subvert them and transform them into systems of justice, peace and love.

What we celebrate as we think of Christ the King is the foolishness of God, who redeems through sacrifice and servanthood, who lifts our humanity to the divine, who leads us with infinite tenderness to fulness of life: the monarch whose majesty is shown through meekness.

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Waiting for the End Times

cranach_lucas_luther_bible_revelation(Advent -2. Year B. Hebrews 10, 11-25; Mark 13, 1-8)

Do you like watching disaster movies?

One of our children was devoted to the film ‘The Towering Inferno’. I lost count of how many times we saw all those different people escaping from that sky scraper! There are other lots of other films about these smaller disasters, caused by ships sinking or aircraft crashing. Then some of the most popular science fiction films, like The Day of the Triffids, and Independence Day and Judgement Day  predict the end of the world coming as a result of something arriving from outer space. There seems to be something in human beings that enjoys being scared silly by contemplating the awful things that might happen to them unexpectedly.

A look into the Bible and other ancient writings will show that such ‘disaster stories’ are nothing new. In Jewish extra Biblical writings we have passages in Ezra and Enoch, in the Old Testament we find them in the Book of Daniel, and in the New in the book of Revelation, and some parts of the epistles attributed to Paul. Today’s Gospel reading, and the rest of chapter 13, and the parallel passages in Matthew and Luke, like those writings, speak about the awful trials which will come at some time in the future, in The Last Days, or The End Times or The Day of the Lord, as it is variously known, when the world as we know it will be destroyed. Similar stories are found in Muslim writings, in the Koran and the Hadith, with descriptions of the troubles that will announce the Day of Judgement, and the great final battle. Some commentators think these writings are what drives Islamic State.

Prophecies about the End Time are part of a theme that runs through the Scriptures, a theme  which pictures the world being created in perfection, then being spoilt by the Fall; then a long period of moving towards redemption, with the coming of Christ at the centre; and, finally, a period of great trials and testing before the faithful are saved, creation is transformed, and God makes a new heaven and a new earth.

The technical term for these disaster scenarios is ‘apocalyptic’, which means revelation or unveiling. The apocalypse reveals to the faithful what is to come, in order to strengthen them to endure the tribulation, in the sure hope that right will eventually prevail, the righteous will emerge triumphant, the evil people will get their just deserts and the good will be rewarded.

Biblical scholars are divided about whether Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, who actually spoke these passages, or whether they reflect the views of the early believers, who saw Jesus’ death and resurrection as ushering in the End Times and the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God on earth.

Whether they were spoken by Jesus or not, they were not meant to be crystal ball predictions, or a timetable to help us spot when the end of the world was coming. Unfortunately, some Christians have tended to treat them this way; Many of us will have heard several announcements that the end of the world is going to happen at a date in the near future. These have become so common recently, that someone on Facebook suggested those of us who have survived all these ‘apocalypses’ should be entitled to some sort of badge or loyalty reward!

What these passages actually describe is not the future, but the present reality for the persecuted community, be it the Jews of Daniel’s or Ezra’s time, or the Christians of the post-resurrection community. The purpose of apocalyptic is not to allow believers to predict the exact time of the coming of God’s Kingdom, but to strengthen them to remain faithful no matter what happens.

apocalypse

Mark’s description of war, famine, rebellion, killing, the destruction of holy sites, and the preaching of false prophets reflected what was happening in his community’s time. But they are things which happen in every age, including our own. Think of Syria and Iraq and the Lebanon. Think of Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, Nigeria and Kenya. Think of Paris. The message of New Testament apocalyptic passages is not just meant for the believers of the post-Resurrection community, they are meant for us too. What do they tell us?

Hebrews assures its readers that the destiny of those who are faithful to God is already decided. Rather than using the metaphor of battle that we find Mark, it uses the imagery of the sacrificial system, which was used in the Jerusalem Temple to put the people right with God. It compares the daily sacrifices made on behalf of the people by the human High Priests, with the one, perfect sacrifice made by Jesus through his death, which gains access to God’s presence, not only for himself, but also for all who follow him. Again, the image of warfare comes in, when Jesus is envisaged as a favoured companion of God, waiting in glory with him until the last enemies have been destroyed. Because of Jesus, Hebrews tells us, we can all look forward with hope, no matter how bad things are now, since he is already in the place where we are destined to be.

Mark 13 also uses the Jerusalem Temple as a symbol, but not a symbol of the place of encounter with God. Rather it symbolises  a system where religion is allied with wealth and power. He tells his disciples that before the End Times arrive, and the Kingdom of God is fully established, that alliance of religion and power must be destroyed. That is a significant message for us to hear today.

When religion gets mixed up with secular power systems, there is a tendency for them to adopt the secular ways of persuading people to conform, including physical force and persecution. Jesus demonstrated in his life and death that this was not God’s way.

The Bible passages we heard show us that what people of faith should be relying on to counter evil is not war and violence but Jesus’ path of self-sacrifice, non-retaliation, forgiveness and loving to the utmost. The way of the cross is to abandon power, absorb pain and violence and to engage in the work of reconciliation, rather than retaliation. Non-violent peacemaking is the only way of life that brings us into the right relationship with God that Jesus enjoyed and demonstrated. It provides a sharp contrast to the power plays of the world, but it is something which has been all too rarely demonstrated by the Church.

These apocalyptic passages urge us to take the long view and preserve confidence in the way of the Kingdom which Jesus taught, rather than taking a short cut by using the worldly solutions of force and violence. This is a lesson the Christian church has to learn again and again. It is particularly relevant as we face terrorism and violence from individuals and groups rather than attacks by foreign nations. It is also something to keep in mind as we commemorate the damage done by warfare at this Remembrance season.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, wears as his epsicopal cross a Coventry Cross, formed from 3 nails. This stands both for the nails of the cross of Christ, and also for the nails retrieved from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, and formed into crosses which were sent by the Cathedral to the cities of Kiel, Dresden and Berlin as symbols of forgiveness, reconciliation and hope while World War 2 was still being fought.

Justin Welby was once part of Coventry’s ministry of reconciliation, which continued from its war time beginnings to become a network of partners all over the world, committed to working for peace and reconciliation in some of the world’s most difficult and longstanding areas of conflict.

The Centre for Reconciliation is also committed to resourcing the church in the practical outworking of reconciliation as an integral part of Christian worship, witness and discipleship. We may not be in a position to do very much except pray about reconciliation in the large political conflicts of these ‘End Times’, but all localities and human institutions have their conflicts and power-plays, and, as followers of Christ, we are called to walk the Way of the Cross to bring reconciliation there too.

This will mean accepting that the old situation in which the church had an established and respected place in the community, both physically and traditionally, is no more. Our fine constructions of stone, like the Jerusalem Temple, are being broken down, and we have to find a different way of engaging with the people who need to learn about Christ’s way of peace, love and reconciliation. We can no longer expect them to come to us, nor to learn about our beliefs through the public education system.

We are being challenged, many believe, to try new ways of living the way of the Kingdom without the security of buildings and support of the state and traditional culture. That will mean not just exploring new ways of teaching and worshipping, like Messy Church, but also thinking again about what is the real core of the Christian message, and how that can be expressed in the language and concepts, and through the media in which the majority of people nowadays are at home. We cannot speak peace to our communities unless we are part of our communities, both physically and theologically, and in order to do that, we will almost certainly find ourselves having to let go of things that we value, or at least see them gradually take up fewer resources than those things which speak to those who need our ministry. There may need to be changes not only in the way we do things, but also in the way we express our beliefs, in the concepts we use and the way we interpret scripture, if our faith is to be of use in this post-modern world.

The people for whom the authors of Hebrews and Mark wrote were waiting eagerly for the End Times, expecting God to intervene in history in some dramatic way, with legions of angels, and geological and planetary disruption.

I don’t think many people expect that sort of End Time any more. We know now that we are always living in the End Times, and that if the conditions of the End Times –violence, killing, deceit, famine and so on – are ever going to cease, it will only be when we live as Jesus showed us how to live – generously, lovingly, sacrificially, so that we and everyone else can experience that life in all its fullness which is the life of the Kingdom over which Christ the King reigns.

Christ the King

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