Tuesday, December 25, 2007
My problem has to do with religion.
More precisely, it has to do with what religion has become in the last half dozen years or so.
More precisely still it has to do with the rise of fundamentalism in all religions but particularly in Islam and in Christianinty.
Something disturbs me about fundamentalism. Maybe its the rigidity of it, the narrow-mindedness of it, the uneasy feeling there’s too much hate and not enough love. Something about Fundamentalism disturbs me … frightens me. Maybe that’s the thing that’s where the problem lies.
‘One has to understand fundamentalism as a kind of fear,' Terry Eagleton was quoted as saying in an interview in the Observer. 'A theologian friend of mine maintains that the opposite of love is not hate, it is fear. The image of Jesus in the Gospels is of someone who is fearless. People clutching on to their religion or sect are very fearful of what lies beyond, and therefore very dangerous.'
Fundamentalism is driven by fear, it thrives on fear, it breeds fear. It’s not for nothing that it is linked with terrorism. Terror. Fear. That’s the atmosphere of the day.
Maybe the problem I have this Christmas is not so much with religion as with fear.
Fear - the Problem
It’s been a funny old year.
Things have happened that have raised my own ‘fear’ levels.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the use of the phrase talk of the war on terror leaves its toll – it raises those fear levels in me of ‘the other’. People I don’t know. The press vamps up crime stories and generates a fear as often as not a fear that is unfounded, and yet is still there. We have seen first hand in Gloucestershire the change in weather that’s linked to global warming … and there can be a real fear as the rains get heavier and we wonder … is it going to happen again? Northern Rock is in Newcastle but the holiday company that’s gone bust is based in Gloucestershire – financial fears on our own doorstep. What does the future hold. Bereavements, serious illnesses … have lurking somewhere beneath the surface vestiges of fear, intimations of mortality.
Heed the Christmas Story
Maybe I need to heed the Christmas story this year as much as ever.
After all, fear figures large in the Christmas story.
At the news of the coming of the Christ child Luke tells us that Mary was much perplexed by his words’ The angel said to her, Do not be afraid, Mary.
As the shepherds kept watch over their flock by night an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were terrified! But the angel said to them, Do not be afraid.
This is what we need to hear at Christmas.
I want to suggest a double antidote to fear this Christmas.
The First Antidote to Fear
There is a wonderful text in 1 John 4:18.
“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.”
Perfect love. That’s what Christmas is all about. The perfect love of God who sent his Son to live alongside us, die for us and rise again to give us life in all its glory. This is the love to set over against those fears.
Fear for myself, fear for someone else, fear of the economic situation, fear of global warming, fear of the rise of fundamentalism.
Whatever the fear that you are aware of … sense anew this Christmas Day the perfect love of Christ taking each of your fears and casting them out one by one.
That’s the first antidote to fear.
The Second Antidote to Fear
The second involves putting something in the place of fear. I want to go back to 1 John 4 verse 7 this time where it says, ‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.
The second antidote to fear is to put love into action … at a personal level in our concern for one another. Hope in our villages, towns and cities is something we are going to be hearing more of in 2008 as we seek to build up active love in our own community in our partnership with St Luke’s and St Michael’s … and in our own lives too.
In the face of the rise of fundamentalism I am resolved not to abandon religion but to make the Christianity I believe in work, by putting love into action.
I believe that involves extending the hand of friendship across the religious divide as an alternative to the confrontation of fundamentalisms. It was great to be invited as guests of Imran and his family at the Eurasia and for twenty five of us to enjoy a Christmas lunch. A small gesture … but a very real gesture of friendship.
Our Christmas Day collection is an expression of our love in action as we contribute to the Lilian Elizabeth Fund bringing better health care to the village of Sika in the Gambia.
Our Gift Sunday not only provided a lovely Christmas meal and Christmas presents for everyone at the Day Centre, staff and clients alike, but also raised enough to purchase solar heating panels for a clinic in Malawi.
And Christmas began early as we wrapped parcels for Operation Christmas Child.
So when fears are in danger of taking a hold and making Christmas problematic there are two things to do …
Perfect Love Casts Out Each Fear ... and leads to Love in Action
Heed the Christmas story and let the perfect love of Christ cast out each one of those fears.
And then put something in the place of future, not just anything, but the love that is at the heart of the Christian faith live a life of love in action -– love one another for love is of God and God is love.
Sunday, December 23, 2007
It seems so triumphant.
Words from 2 Corinthians 4 speak of the wonder of Christ's light shining in a world of darkness.
For we do not proclaim ourselves;
we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord
and ourselves as your slaves
for Jesus’ sake.
For it is the God who said,
‘Let light shine out of darkness’,
who has shone in our hearts
to give the light
of the knowledge
of the glory
in the face of Jesus Christ.
This is a wonderful echo of one of the great Christmas prophecies.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
When I look around, however, it’s not quite like that. There’s a lot of darkness in this world of ours. The darkness of loneliness, the darkness of sorrow, the darkness of deprivation, the darkness of war.
The irony of Christmas is that the darkness is too often accentuated.
The genius of Christmas is that it addresses precisely that issue.
A Vulnerable, Flickering Light
Read on in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and you find that this light that we treasure not least at Christmas, is a light that is contained in the most fragile of vessels. We have this treasure in clay jars.
It is not an all-triumphant light that shines into every nook and cranny and takes away the darkness for all time. It is a vulnerable, flickering light, that makes its presence felt in weakness, in frailty, in times of immense difficulty.
We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
It is an extraordinary power … but this extraordinary power belongs to God and is not dependent on everything going right for us. It is a power that is with us when things go wrong, when things are out of sorts, when we are all too conscious of the darkness.
We are afflicted in every way. That’s something that’s a given. That’s not going to go away, suggests Paul. But we are not crushed.
We are perplexed. Given the nature of the world we live in and the lives we lead that’s not going to go away … but, says Paul, we are not driven to despair.
Christmas does not give us the false reassurance that now the light has come there will no longer be darkness.
While we live, says Paul, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake.
Christmas Offers us an Assurance
It offers us the assurance that no matter how dark the darkness may be the light of God’s presence will still be there … it may at times be no more than a flicker, it may be in a very clay-y jar, but it will continue to glow. continue to shine, nothing will put it out.
Something wonderful comes with that commitment we make to believe.
We believe and so we speak … we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us up also with Jesus and will bring us into his presence.
What a wonderful thought.
However dim the light may seem … we do not lose heart. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.
With that sense of blessed assurance, however, goes something more.
Christmas sets us a task to do
We have a task to do. Our task at Christmas and at every other time is to make this light, the light of Christ’s presence, the light that shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ … to make this light visible.
How can we make this light visible? The clue lies in verse 5 and in verse 11.
We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves, your servants for Jesus’ sake.
That’s how we make the life of Jesus visible, that’s how we make the light visible of Christ’s presence visible, that’s how we let the light of Christ shine. While we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake. That’s not just a statement of the realities of the world. It is also a reminder that Christ calls us to take up our cross daily and be his servants. Our task is to serve Christ by serving one another and serving other people.
That’s the commitment we make through our communion collection for County Community Projects. That’s the commitment we make through our Christmas Day Collection for The Lilian Elizabeth Fund bringing health care to the village of Sika in the Gambia. More importantly that’s the commitment we make through our church’s care in the community and our own daily service of others.
While we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake. Taking our up our cross daily in a life of selfless service, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh, in what we do with our lives.
That’s it. In what we do – in our lives – in our mortal flesh – in our day to day living – this is what will make Jesus visible. This is what will enable the light of Christ’s presence to shine in a world of darkness.
Two things then.
Christmas Offers us Assurance and Sets us a Task
Assurance – no matter how dark the world, the light of Christ’s presence shines on, however vulnerable and weak the flickering flame may seem. Hold on to that … sure of an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.
Making the life of Jesus visible, the light of Christ’s presence visible, through the service of Christ, and through the life-time service of others in their need – this is the task we are called to at Christmas.
Here are the words that Paul shared with the Christians of Corinth.
2 Corinthians 4:7 - 5:1
But we have this treasure in clay jars,
so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God
and does not come from us.
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not forsaken;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying in the body the death of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.
For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake,
so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.
So death is at work in us, but life in you.
But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—
‘I believed, and so I spoke’—
we also believe, and so we speak,
because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus,
and will bring us with you into his presence.
Yes, everything is for your sake,
so that grace, as it extends to more and more people,
may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
So we do not lose heart.
Even though our outer nature is wasting away,
our inner nature is being renewed day by day.
For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us
for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure,
because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen;
for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed,
we have a building from God,
a house not made with hands,
eternal in the heavens.
Saturday, December 22, 2007
Imagine a conversation between people planning an act of worship such as ours this evening –
(and I did say “imagine” - because this did not actually happen!)
“We must include ‘Hark the herald angels sing’
and ‘Silent night’
and ‘Once in royal David’s City’
O yes - begin with ‘Christians awake’
but if we have ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ – do make sure it’s the right tune!
And, if we must get funky, we could include ‘Come and join the celebration’.”
But new songs? At Christmas? Forget it!
People expect to have the old carols.
That’s what they come for.
They want to feel comfortable,
as if we’ve been polishing the cross and baking mince pies since last Christmas,
so they can find everything just as it was before.
But what if, just for once, we had a change, and used some of those carols
about unmarried mothers
overbooked hotel rooms
shepherds so terrified they ran to Bethlehem
wise men so mistaken that babies and toddlers were slaughtered?
What if we even took it further
and sang songs about how God can take our pain and transform it.
How living in the church is hard because we do not agree, and don’t know how to differ.
How everyone’s secret fear of not being good enough,
or of having committed the sin for which there is no forgiveness,
can be taken, soothed, challenged, changed;
and how our lives can be changed –
re-charged, revitalized, re-inspired
simply by knowing that God is with us.
Maybe then we will go on to write the song of our lives
with re-newed hope in our hearts - so that others may sing in their turn.
Richard challenged the evening congregation here last Sunday “to be open to change” –
two thousand years ago John called on the people “to repent and change their ways.”
So, instead of finding everything as it was last year,
what if God’s Christmas guests found a renewed, open, accepting people
ready to change
ready to look within themselves and spot the areas that need to change
people ready to listen
ready to sing the terrifying song of the angels in a new chromatic key
instead of monochrome uniformity.
Change isn’t a bad thing – it’s a way of moving on, on our Christian journey -
so, may the light dawn for each of us,
may we accept the babe of Bethlehem into our lives –
may we move forward on our journey, through Christmas and into the New Year, with re-newed hope in our hearts - Emmanuel – God is with us.
After all, even ‘Silent night’ was a new song once.
Choir: “Change your ways, change your ways, cried the prophet John.
God’s own king is coming soon, so who’s side are you on?
Change your ways, change your ways, cried the prophet John.
God’s own king is coming soon, so who’s side are you on?”
"Sing to the Lord a New Song"
by Carole Elphick
from A Chair Pulled To The Place of Prayer,
the Prayer Handbook for 2008
© The United Reformed Church 2007
Saturday, December 8, 2007
We are invited to dream dreams that can never be achieved. We are tempted to live out fantasies that are not attainable. Whether that dream of a white Christmas is realised or not remains to be seen. One suspects that in all too many households the fantasy of the ideal family celebration will not be realised.
Will the people who walked in darkness really see a great light? Will there be endless peace? Will there be justice and righteousness from this time onward and forevermore? Will the wolf live with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid? Will a little child really lead them? Will they cease to hurt and destroy on my holy mountain? Will the earth really be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea?
Is all of this no more than a dream … an idle fantasy, lumped in with all the other trappings of Christmas and then to be quickly forgotten?
I believe that what’s going on inside these readings is something very different.
says the Lord.
If people are to dwell in houses they call their home, we cannot turn a blind eye to homelessness.
If people are to eat the fruits of the earth, we cannot turn a blind eye to those who are hungry … neither can we turn a blind eye to issues of unemployment if people are to enjoy the work of their hands.
We are called to be peacemakers and given a ministry of reconciliation because this is what it’s like when God’s rule takes a hold: the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, they shall not hurt or destroy.
The great Christmas readings are not the stuff of dreams or fantasy, they shape what we are to do here and now.
That is why this Christmas we have identified four things that we are supporting:
1. last week’s Gift Sunday focused on the people who come to our Day Centre,
It was after visiting the deprived village of Sika in The Gambia, that Jennifer Taylor (founder member of the charity) was inspired to build a medical centre in memory of her late sister Lilian Elizabeth.
Lilian had spent time in the Gambia before her unfortunate premature death and had always enthused about how friendly and warm the people were, despite their hardships.
Jennifer's inspiration came from experiencing this warmth & friendliness first hand and after witnessing the devastating effect that both malaria and the lack of medical treatment is having on the villagers.
Malaria is the biggest cause of death in the Gambia.
The village has no electricity and the living conditions are very basic. To date Jennifer has already improved their standard of living by funding the building of a well. In an attempt to reduce the incidents of malaria and with the aid of generous donations, she has also been able to supply 500 mosquito nets to the families in the village.
The cost of building the medical centre will be around £50k but to maintain it, we will need £5k per annum by way of donations and subscriptions.
The centre itself will be staffed predominantly by locals, as it is important to retain their cultures and beliefs. Occasionally volunteers from the UK will visit and help out in any way they can.
Jennifer also wishes to introduce a feeding programme, as during several months of the year they have little or no food.
Please note. All monies donated go straight to the charity as there are no overheads or wages taken by the volunteers.
For further details on how you can help, for updates on how the medical
centre is progressing and photographs of recent visits please visit the Lilian Elizbeth Fund website
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
The World was Waiting Expectantly
There was a sense that something was about to happen.
The Bible tells us little about the Wise Men who brought gifts to Jesus except that they came from The East. There is much speculation about their origins but the favourites tend to be Arabia, or Babylon or Persia. A few months ago we heard the story of Daniel in the lions den and that is only a small part of his story. He had been chosen for special training because of his intellectual and physical attributes. He was educated into the circle of “wise men” who were the scientists and intelligentsia of their society. We tend to think that magicians today are at best illusionists or at worst, charlatans but these Magi were experts in spiritual and supernatural matters. Daniel’s enemies sought his destruction because of the great influence he exerted. When the period of exile was over not all the Jews returned home. It does not seem unreasonable to me that his influence continued into further generations in Babylon.
Wherever they came from, the Wise Men knew that the star configuration they saw indicated that they should travel to Jerusalem. The children this morning helped Darryl to pack for a journey without knowing the destination. How long did the planning and packing for this journey take? Were the animals ready? Did the party set out even before Mary and Joseph left Nazareth? However well prepared the Wise Men were for their quest what they found was unexpected. Instead of a prince in a palace they found a baby in a stable. It would be fascinating to know how their lives were changed by this experience.
This baby was the longed for Messiah who constantly surprised people. He mixed with the wrong people – those who were socially unacceptable and outcast. Rejecting violence He taught love. Instead of leading an armed uprising he laid down his life. To me it is nonsense to celebrate Christmas if we don’t also remember what happened at Easter when Jesus not only died but also was raised from the dead. How should followers of such a Messiah live? Bernard Thorogood, writing in “Words for Today” says, “what Isaiah glimpses is the rule of God on earth through an obedient people. It is as we learn to live together as the family of God’s children that peace becomes more than a political slogan and in life a reconciling reality. Neither Jews nor Christians can boast that this has come true through their history. The great wars of the last century were fought by nations with a strong Christian heritage, and Israel today uses military force as its national security. Far from beating their swords into mattocks and their spears into pruning knives, Britain, the USA and Germany, with strong Christian churches, still boost the arms trade. Yet there was a cross standing in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. Peace begins in that kind of suffering, that burden-bearing, that self-giving. Peacemakers are the true children of God.”
Reading Two; Romans 13: 8 –14
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Guidance on how we should be living
“Advent” means “The coming, or second coming of Christ”. Are we prepared for a fresh encounter with Christ? The idea that end times are drawing near has been the foundation for many sects. I can remember my own father describing his fear, as a boy, that he might come home one day and find that his parents had been “taken up” whilst he was left behind. I am not interested in being drawn into examination of the Apocalyptic writings. I feel it is more useful to strive to live each day as is right, trying to avoid doing wrong and apologising when it happens.
As a church family we may feel comfortable that there was no drunkenness at our party last Sunday lunchtime. I’m sure there was no inappropriate behaviour at the Barn Dance. But how do we behave at Church Meeting. Do we treat each other with the love and respect that we should?
It sounds poetic to think of Wise Men coming from Arabia and Babylon And Persia but it’s less romantic to think of relations with Saudi Arabia and Iraq and Iran and Israel.
I’ve asked “Are you packed” because some people feel that they have to put everything in order before they are ready to meet with Christ, but life is not orderly. There are people who encounter Christ suddenly and others find that an interest has turned into a relationship. Either way this is a life changing experience. However well we may feel we have “packed” the likelihood is that something in our lives will change significantly. Are we packed for a journey into the unknown?
Christmas will be over in January. What difference will having been in contact with the Christ Child make to our lives? What difference will our desire to follow Christ make to the people we meet or to the wider world?
Friday, November 23, 2007
For me it is no coincidence that my ordination followed on a month after my marriage, and that we should follow the celebration of our 30th wedding anniversary with a celebration of the 30th anniversary of ordination, for Felicity and I have always worked as a partnership in the ministry we have shared.
That commitment to ministry was renewed as we moved to Pontesbury and Minsterley and again here to Highbury.
On each occasion a highlight of the Ordination and later Induction services for me, both in my preparation for the service and in the service itself was the moment when I was asked to give an account of my faith and the Faith at the heart of my ministry of teaching, preaching and pastoral care.
In our Congregational way of being the church we do not ask people or our ministers to subscribe to a creedal statement. We ask of ministers in just the same way as any one else to make a very simple statement of faith in God and in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.
But that is not to say that you or your Minister can believe whatever you want to believe. We do have a set of words that encapsulates our faith – those words are contained in a single book that itself is made up of many books – the Bible.
The Faith at the Heart of My Ministry
At my ordination in Harden, at my induction to the Congregational churches of Minsterley and Pontesbury and again here at Highbury I sought to put into my own words the faith at the heart of the ministry in a way that was true to the Word of God in the Bible.
I want to do that again today. What I am going to do is to take the passage which I had already chosen to preach on this morning and draw from that passage a statement of the faith I hold to in a preaching, teaching and pastoral ministry here at Highbury.
Mary’s song, the Magnificat does in so many ways ‘say it all’!
46 And Mary* said,‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 48for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
That’s where my faith begins. With a sense of the greatness of God, awesome, beyond our comprehension, wonderful, mysterious, the creator of the world.
This God of creation has made me as I am. As it happens he’s made me with a questioning mind. I want to know the whys and wherefores. They are important to me. And I have a fellow feeling with others for whom the whys and wherefores are also important, a fellow feeling with others who have a questioning mind.
I find myself more and more drawn to explore the wonders of God’s world. It was a delight to take the cubs into the garden 10 days ago and help them spot the comet that’s been on view since the end of October; it was a thrill to go up on to Cleeve Hill in the dark of Monday evening and join the scouts and with them to spot a momentary parting of the clouds – and say there it is can you see it!
Great to go up on to Cleeve Hill and hold a fossilised shell fish from tropical waters in my hand, and then to look out over what 10,000 years ago was a sea to what 700 million years ago was a line of volcanoes we now call the Malvern Hills. Fascinating to watch Planet Earth last Tuesday night and learn more of the way in which the very planet’s existence is tied up with the activity of those volcanoes and others just like them in other parts of the world.
The thrill is not just in the magnificence of this remarkable world, but in the wonder of this amazing creation. To try to get my mind round the planet and its wonders, the universe and its marvels does not for me undermine my faith in God … it deepens it and fills it with even more wonder.
However great and mind-blowing the scale of what I see, the God I believe in is greater still … The Lord, God, the Mighty One … holy is his name.
But wait a moment. Look again at the passage. And there is one description of this God that I have omitted from Mary’s Magnificat.
46 And Mary* said,‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 48for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
The Lord, God, the Mighty One … holy is his name is none other than my saviour.
God My Saviour
The God I believe in is no impersonal God, some being beyond all being, far out there, beyond my comprehension. The God I believe in is the God of creation who is as close as can be to each and to every part of his creation, including me!
This world can be a scary place – things that have happened in my life are pretty scary too. Bereavements I have experienced have not all been lovely in God’s time, just right – as some bereavements are. Some of the bereavements I have experienced have been untimely, not right, not of the goodness of God. That’s scary. Things I’ve seen from the cold war, to post 9/11 confront me with a world that’s scary. I like to organise things … but sometimes things defy any kind of organisation and threaten to get out of hand.
Such a world can be a scary place.
The God I believe in is the God who is ‘my saviour’. He is there to rescue the situation, to save things and put them right, to make things whole … in his time, in his way, in the fullness of his glory.
46 And Mary* said,‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 48for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
Can I really say that? Yes, I can. And I find myself wanting to say it more the older I get. I can see how the hand of God has been in my life, in things that have happened that at the time seemed so wrong, and yet God has brought some good out of them. There unexpectedly to build up and restore.
Can I really echo those words of Mary and make them my own?
Surely she is saying them because she is to give birth to the baby Jesus. Put it that way and it’s difficult to know how I can echo those words of Mary.
But I want to put it another way. Surely she is saying those words because she now knows that the Christ child is within her.
That’s the point for me as well. This God of Creation makes himself known to each and every part of his creation … but for us who bear the image of God and have that wonderful gift of a mind capable of seeking an understanding of the universe, God has made himself known in the most special of ways.
He has become as one of us. We can get to know this Jesus Christ, learn about his remarkable love for all and catch sight of the fact that this God of creation is actually the God of love. The teaching of Jesus is so demanding it can add to my feeling of inadequacy. But then I look to the cross of Chrsit and beyond to his resurrection and there I see the extent of God’s forgiving love in Christ, a forgiveness that reaches out to me and renews and restores me. For me it is not so much that Christ has died instead of me: rather the Christ who lived and died and rose again for me is the Christ whose life is within me. I am in Christ. And Christ is in me. That’s why I really can make these words of Mary my own.
I want to echo the words of Mary again.
50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
That’s it. That’s what counts. His mercy. This is the heart of the Christian faith for me. This is love. It is not that we love God – we can never do that enough. It is that he loved us and gave his son as the means by which our sins are forgiven.
God's Mercy at the Heart of It All
God’s mercy is at the heart of it all. A mercy that knows no bounds. A mercy that in gracious love always takes the initiative to reach out to each of us. And his mercy is for all who fear him. Turn away from all those inadequacies that weigh you down and give God the honour due his holy name, simply believe … and that releases within you the love that is already there in the gift of God’s grace.
This is wonderful. This is Good News. This is Salvation.
But don’t imagine that salvation is simply what gets you into heaven. I believe that salvation is what gets heaven into you, it’s what gets heaven, the kingdom of heaven and all its values into the here and now.
That’s why I want to move on in Mary’s song to something that is as much at the heart of the Christian faith that is important to me as the personal salvation I rejoice in and want to share.
51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
That’s powerful stuff.
The faith I believe in has implications for what you think and how you behave – the God I believe in is not just the God of personal salvation but he is the God who is involved with people at large. And as this God through Christ is deep within me, there is an imperative on me that I too be involved in this world.
There is something within all people that drags them down that pulls away from the goodness of God – you can see it in individuals, you see it even more when people get together in families and society at large. We get caught up in a web of destructive powers.
To come to faith in Christ for me involves a faith in the God who through Christ not only sets the individual right but seeks to set right things that are wrong in families, in communities, in nations, in society at large.
God takes sides!
He is with the humble and against the proud. He is with the lowly and against the powerful, with the hungry against the rich.
And that shows us where we should be too. That finds expression at the start of Advent in the gifts we shall share next week to buy presents for the Day Centre and then to give through Christian Aid – can we really fund solar panels for a clinic in Malawi or shall we settle for a little bit less. It’s in our hands! It finds expression in our Christmas Day collection for The Lilian Elizabeth Fund bringing better health care to the villagers of Sika in the Gambia.
More than that it finds expression in the commitment we make to serve others in our community and make a difference in our town. That’s why I have always considered it to be a part of my ministry to be involved in the wider community at the moment as Vice Chair of Governors at Pittville and through the Faiths Strategy Group working with the local authority.
And in all of this we are not alone.
The faith that is important to me is a faith that links me to other people in a church family that itself links me with other people in other parts of the world, and with other people down through the ages.
Mary catches that sense of continuity with the whole people of God in the last words of her song.
54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
I have a strong sense of solidarity with those who have gone before and with all who are part of God’s people today. The church is important to me. To belong to one church, for me now this one church is to belong to the whole church of God world-wide. Working with parrner churches in St Luke’s and St Michael’s and in the town is not an optional extra. It is part of what it means to be part of the church.
How is all of this possible? I want to take to heart the words of the angel to Mary as well … when the angel said in answer to Mary’s question, How can this be? “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”
My faith directs me to the God of creation who is made real for me in Jesus Christ as Christ is in me and I am in Christ. Salvation doesn’t so much get me to heaven, rather it gets heaven into me. My faith calls me to live out the values of the kingdom of heaven in solidarity with all God’s people. That I can do not in my own strength but in the strength of God, that unseen yet very real presence that he releases into the depths of my being, the Holy Spirit.
This is the faith I profess. This is the faith I teach. This is the faith at the heart of the pastoral ministry God has called me to for thirty years and now a little bit more!
Saturday, November 17, 2007
Maybe it’s because I grew up with the weekly classic serial on BBC, but I always quite like dramatisations of the great novels. Judi Dench and co will be joining forces this evening for the first of a five part serialisation of three of Mrs Gaskell’s novels. Miss an episode and you can always catch up with the story so far in the opening couple of minutes of the next instalment.
Something a little bit similar is going on at the beginning of Luke’s gospel.
Luke has a massive story to tell of the impact Jesus made on the lives of those who came to believe in him and of the impact Jesus continues to make on the lives of all who come to follow him. It is a massive story to tell all about Salvation.
But that story does not happen in a vacuum. It is located in a particular place, at a particular time among particular people. The coming of Jesus at this point in time is the culmination of a story that goes back much, much further.
And it’s all there in the opening couple of chapters of Luke …
The action opens in the Temple, the place where God’s presence touches earth, with a Priest who encounters God in the most special week of his life as he serves just outside the Holy of Holies in the Sanctuary of the Temple and meets with an Angel of God.
Something’s on the move. Something’s happening. The Salvation story that began so long ago is reaching its climax.
Stories of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna have the feel of those stories from the Books of the Law of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel. Elizabeth and Zechariah were both of them righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments of the Lord. We cannot help but think of the Law of the Old Testament.
The child who is to be born to them is unmistakably a new Elijah, with the spirit and power of Elijah upon him. We are in the company of the prophets of the Old Testament too.
And then there’s the writings. Here in Luke 1 and 2 we have three of the finest Old Testament Psalms. Not just songs of praise, they go to the heart of things.
It is as if Law, Prophets, and Writings are converging on this moment in history, and this moment in history is going to impact on the lives of all of us who read Luke’s wonderful Gospel. It is the moment of salvation.
You can read the whole story of the Old Testament as the story of Salvation. It thrusts forward to a moment in time when all is fulfilled.
Nowhere is that seen more clearly than in the remarkable words of Zechariah’s prophecy.
Verses 68-75 are a massive statement of the salvation that is now happening: as John is born and Jesus is expected.
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel
For he looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
They had been looking forward to that point at which the people would be set free from all that oppressed them and weighed them down. That moment of redemption is happening. And the hand of God is behind it all. This is what Salvation is all about. Redemption, setting people free.
He has raised up a mighty saviour for us
In the house of his Servant David,
As he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.
All the expectations of the prophets that a messiah would come were reaching their fulfilment in the events that were happening now. Salvation was at hand.
We would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Salvation – that’s what it’s all about.
This was the culmination not just of the prophets and all they stood for, it was the culmination of all that was in the Law as well …
Salvation is about the mercy of God reaching into our hearts … it is about a relationship with God that brings God into our hearts:
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
And has remembered his holy covenant,
The oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
This is the culmination of all that the Law and the Prophets of old stood for.
Salvation – redemption, a setting free, mercy, relationship with God.
How we need a gospel of salvation now.
Things weigh us down in our world – things we have done that are not worthy of God – we are at times all too conscious of our sinfulness, of our shortcomings and failings. We are all too conscious of the weight of sin in the world around us. It can be a pretty grim world.
We yearn for salvation.
And in the coming of Christ Jesus we find salvation.
But what is this salvation like?
Is it a salvation that gets us into heaven?
Is it a salvation that gets heaven into us?
kind of salvation do we yearn for?
The next verse, verse 74, gets to the heart of the matter.
That we, being rescued from our enemies,
Might serve him, without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
Salvation is not so much about getting us into heaven: instead it is about getting heaven and all that heaven stands for into us.
That we, being rescued from our enemies – that’s salvation
Might serve him – that’s what salvation is aimed at.
Set free from all the things that are so troubling in the world we are set free for service … fearless service.
Salvation involves us in three things:
Fearless service involves a commitment to service
Holiness is to be experienced in a life centred on God, sustained by prayer.
Righteousness involves putting God’s ways of justice right at the heart of all that we stand for.
This is the experience of salvation as heaven gets into you.
The three dimensions of Christian experience …
Salvation gives us a task to do of fearless service, a centre to our living in the prayer life that leads to holiness, and a set of values to stand by in justice and righteousness.
Leading People to Salvation
The second part of Zechariah’s prophecy homes in on John … it sets out what John is to do as he prepares the way for Jesus to come
But we can see in these words a programme for us to follow as well. We are called upon to follow in the footsteps of John the Baptist and bring people to the Salvation that Jesus offers to all.
You, child will be called the prophet of the Most High
For you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.
That’s what John did as he went on his preaching ministry in the wilderness. But that is in a very real way what we are called upon to do.
As we experience salvation in the selfless service of a life centred on the holiness of prayer and focused on justice and righteousness, we are to prepare the way for Jesus to come into people’s lives.
Just as John did, so we are challenged to
give knowledge of salvation to his people
By the forgiveness of their sins.
Conscious of the darkness of the world? Weighed down by that sense of inadequacy, by our failings, our sinfulness … through Christ receive the gift of that forgiveness … it is as if the night is over and the dawn has come.
And it is all down to the gift of God’s love, the tender mercy of his forgiveness …
By the tender mercy of our God,
The dawn from on high will break upon us,
To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.
Salvation … not so much getting us into heaven, rather getting heaven into us.
I love the way Zechariah’s song finishes … as the dawn breaks, the light of God’s forgiving love shines into our hearts, so our feet are guided into the way of peace.
The way of peace: this is the way we are called to follow.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
She worked five and a half full days in the Mill and then at lunch time on Saturday made the five mile walk across the moors to the war hospital in Keighley. She worked through until Sunday evening before walking home ready to start another week in the mill. The irony was that she was weaving the cloth in the woolen mill of Harden, just outside Bradford, that would be taken to Leeds to be made into uniforms for the very soldiers who arrived by train straight from the Western Front in that hospital in Bingley. 30 years ago when I met her she told me the story. But she would not describe what she saw in those wards. That memory was too troubling.
He lived opposite the creamery in Minsterley and to my shame I cannot recall his name.
Though not by name, I still want to remember him this Remembrance Sunday. He was a wonderful character: into his 90’s by the time I visited him he had a marvellous recall of his younger years and life in the village and the countryside around. But there was one subject I could not draw him on. He had fought in the trenches of the first world war. It was too painful to recall. He wouldn’t be drawn. But what he said I will always remember. ‘Never again!’ ‘We must not let it happen again’.
In conversation with Felicity’s sister earlier this week we were recalling their grandfather. Another whose company I enjoyed when I was young … but he wouldn’t be drawn on the way in which he had got the war wound in the First World War that had troubled him ever since. Angela was recalling him saying he would go to church the rest of the year … but not on Remembrance Sunday. The memories hurt too much.
This week the BBC have run a series of short clips in the 10-00 news of the very last few survivors of that first world war. This was shown on Friday night. [We watched an interview with Henry Allingham, at 111, Britain's oldest survivor of the First World War]
When asked what he thought about war today, he replied most movingly,
"I hope, trust and pray there will never be another war!"
How do we honour the memory of those who have lost their lives in the wars our country has been involved in over this last 100 years?
I want to offer three texts.
First, the words with which we began our service.
1) We honour the memory of those who hope, trust and pray there will never be another war by comforting and consoling those who are the victims of war
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. (2 Corinthians 1)
To bring comfort and consolation to those who experience suffering is at the heart of what we are called to do. The full care of those who are the victims of war should be the responsibility of the state and not left to the provision of charity. How right it is for the Royal British Legion to campaign for the proper care of those who are the victims of war now.
That poignant advertisement which depicts a recent war widow hand in hand with the shape of her husband depicted in poppies is a powerful and challenging reminder of the loss of life now. The very nature of the warfare in Afghanistan is reminiscent, we are told, of the warfare of the first world war. The injury, not just in the lost of bereavement, or physical injury but also psychological injury is immense among a new generation of those in the services.
Only last night on Radio 4 it was said that since the end of the Falklands War 300 of those servicemen who served in that conflict have committed suicide. Do we count those among the number we remember today? Of course, we should. And yet it is so easy to forget. What about the network of family, relatives and friends of those who have been bereaved: aren't they the ones we are remembering today?
To all of these we owe comfort, care and consolation. That comfort must be given properly and through formal channels, and not simply left to the whim of charitable giving.
At the same time we must recognise all victims caught up in war need care, concern and consolation wherever they are and whoever they are.
2) We honour the memory of those who hope, trust and pray there will never be another war as we actively seek reconciliation
The worst tragedy of war is that it breeds itself. It becomes self-perpetuating. And that is a tragedy we are in danger of seeing unfold in the wars we are engaged in now.
They speak of winning hearts and minds … war is a blunt weapon in the response to terrorism that has the danger of breeding itself, and breeding worse animosity than there has been before.
To honour the memory of those who still to this day ‘hope, trust and pray that there will be no more war’ we need to take seriously the task Paul goes on to define a little later in 2 Corinthians 5:18
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;
It starts with each of us – in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them,
When folk from church went to Franzi and Lukas’ wedding in Dresden a couple of years ago, the big church in the central square of Dresden was still being renovated. Destroyed in the firestorm that followed the bombing of Dresden it had lain in ruins for the whole history of Eastern Germany;. When we went to Dresden a month ago to celebrate Andrea and Thomas's wedding the church had been completed and on Sunday morning there were queues to get in to the morning service.
It was moving to see the charred remains of the cross that had been on the top of the building prior to the war, and to see the new cross in pride of place. And to know that it had been presented as a token of reconciliation between the people of this country and of Germany was somehow deeply moving.
To work for reconciliation in the wake of war is so vitally important … and has been so important throughout Europe in the last sixty and more years. Reconciliation is the task that has to be the priority of any who take seriously the call of Jesus Christ.
Working towards peace and reconciliation is important now in the middle of the conflicts that go on. Mary and I have applied to go on a course run by the Tantur Institute on the ouskirts of Behtlehem to see the work of reconciliation going on that is the inspiration of that ecumenical study centre standing between Jerusalemm and Bethlehem. Mark Evans in his church in Belvedere and Erith has links with Andrew White who has served in ministry in Baghdad – it is moving to hear of the work of reconciliation he has been engaged in with other church leaders, working with other faith communities too.
To honour those who hope, trust and pray that there is not another war, the commitment to reconciliation is paramount.
3) To honour the memory of those who hope, trust and pray there never will be another war we must LEARN peace
And the third passage comes from Micah chapter 4.
"they shall beat their swords into ploughshares
and their spears into pruning hooks."
I was prompted to turn to it by one of the comments Felicity made in a text home from Mozambique. There she and her team met the General Secretary of the Mozambique Christian Council of Churches. He told them of a project those churches had been involved in following the awfulness of the war in Mozambique.
People were invited to bring in weapons and they would be given tools in return.
It reminded me of a wonderful exhibition I had been to in the British Museum, at the heart of which in the Great Court of the British Museum was a wonderful sculpture – the Tree of Life. It had been created by a group of artists working in Mozambique using some of those weapons that had been exchanged for tools.
The vision of Micah is on the one hand a dream for God’s age – but it is the age of God that breaks in now. This is the kingdom of God that Micah envisages … but Jesus ushers in the kingdom of God. That means that these words shape what we do now as Christians.
The telling line, however, is not so much ‘they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, but the one that comes next: ‘nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war no more'.
Learn war no more. Peace making is as complex as war … and as has been discovered in Iraq maybe even more complex.
Maybe to honour the memory of those who hope, trust and pray that there is not another war, we should invest as much money ... No, we must invest more money in ‘learning peace-making’ than we do in the manufacture of weapons of war.
To honour the memory of those who hope, trust and pray that there never will be another war we must comfort and console all who are victims of war, must commit ourselves anew to the work of reconciliation and we must learn the art of peace making.
That's quite some challenge ... and yet is fundamental to the future peace we long for in the world of 2007.
We were joined by Dr Christina Monohar. Originally from the Church of South India, one of CWM's mission partners, Christina taught theology at the Union Biblical Seminary in Puna, India until four years ago. Then it was that she and her husband David came over here to do their doctorates at the University of Gloucestershire.
In 2005 Christina's Feminist Critie and Reconstruction was published by the Indian SPCK under its Women's Empowerment Programme. Her thesis explores the way in which a Pauline Spirit Christology can speak into the Indian context more effectively than a Greek influenced Logos Christology. She is looking forward to being involved in writing for the proposed South Asia Bible Commentary.
It was particularly appropriate for Christina to preach this morning in view of Felicity's involvement with the Team Visit to UCCSA.Christina took as her inspiration Proverbs chapter 8 with its description of 'Lady Wisdom' and invited us to look again at Jesus through the eyes of 'Lady Wisdom'. Her appeal to an inclusive Christianity that breaks down barriers of race, class and gender is timely.
Understanding Jesus Christ from the Perspective of Lady Wisdom
Wisdom's Eternal Presence with God
Wisdom is a fine lady who is by God’s side from everlasting before earth came into being. The book of Proverbs particularly the 8th chapter celebrates Wisdom’s eternal presence with God. Wisdom signifies divine presence and activity in female form. The lady Wisdom sits on the throne by the side of God. She is a master craftswoman who brings beauty and order out of chaos. She is the mother of all good things, fashions everything and orders everything.
Wisdom inhabits or in-dwells for that is the way of Wisdom.
Wisdom is beautiful and more precious than pearls. Wisdom cannot be sought after as if it were an object. One can only prepare a dwelling place for her. Wisdom inhabits or in dwells, for that is the way of Wisdom. It is a woman’s way. How does one prepare for Wisdom? It is not by preparation, but by simply being, that one gets ready for Wisdom. One’s readiness for Wisdom is an end in itself, not a means by which to acquire Wisdom. It is to allow oneself to be inhabited by Wisdom.
Wisdom found its abiding dwelling place in Jesus. Wisdom inhabits and indwells Jesus. Indwelling or being indwelt by the other is itself a feminine way of explaining the relationship between Jesus and Wisdom. Knowing Jesus who was indwelt by Wisdom requires a deeper understanding that goes beyond reason yet not negating reason. It is knowing from within.
Wisdom transcends reason yet does not negate reason
Pilate stood face to face before Jesus enquiring of Jesus ‘What is Truth’? trying to capture the truth by his reason, in a few palpable statements. But Pilate’s wife going beyond reason knowing who Jesus was deep within herself tried to intercede for Jesus and save Jesus’ life. Wisdom transcends reason yet does not negate reason. Wisdom relates both to an affective, sense-related, taste-related side and to an intellectual, cognitive, scientific side of life. It does not divide the world into religious and secular but provides a model for living a mysticism of everyday things.
Wisdom integrates knowledge and love, faith and work, theory and practice.
A woman stood before Jesus caught in adultery. According to the law she should be condemned to death cried all those who brought her to Jesus. Jesus was silent and in his silence he spoke a lot. This is divinity in action. The men who condemned her went away. The woman was left alone with Jesus. Jesus looked up and asked her ‘where are they?’ ‘They have gone Sir’ she replied. Neither do I condemn you. Sin no more. Not condemnation but amazing grace; not negation of life but affirmation of life; not merely knowledge of the law but knowledge and love. Not merely faith but faith and action; theory and practice.The road of Wisdom is open, democratic and inclusive.
Wisdom is a fine lady who brings all things together in harmony, establishes justice, peace and unity.
She prepares a table and invites the simple to dine with her.Jesus had an interesting conversation with a Samaritan woman. Jesus the Jew and this gentile female stranger became engaged in deep theological reflection. She was receptive to Jesus and accepted his message that God is Spirit and those who worship him must worship him in Spirit and Truth. Oftentimes the outsider is more receptive to Jesus’ message than his own people. Pilate’s wife pleaded for Jesus while the Jewish hierarchy, the high priests and elders pleaded for Barabbas. Very often Jesus was amazed by such great faith of the outsiders.Jesus transgresses all human made boundaries
and his table fellowship includes all
Jesus' table fellowship includes all
As the lady wisdom summons the simple to dine with her, Jesus’ table fellowship includes all. Jesus himself was a wandering charismatic, property-less proletariat one who declasses himself. Jesus transgresses all human made boundaries – boundaries between Jew and gentile, clean and unclean, sacred and secular, men and women, servant and master, rich and the poor. That is the way of Wisdom.Finally, Wisdom is sheer exuberant aliveness and inexhaustible source of new being that cannot be held in one form, one way and one pattern of thinking.Mary Magdalene in her search for Jesus in the dark and cold of early morning near the empty tomb understood that she could not hold the risen Lord. No one can hold the risen Jesus. This is the way of Wisdom. The risen Lord cannot be limited or held in certain preconceived expectations. Holding him in one form would make Easter story incomplete.
I conclude now with the prayer written by an Indian poet by name Rabindranath Tagore.
Rabindranath Tagore, by his efforts and achievements, is part of a global network of pioneering educators, such as Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel, Montessori and Dewey–and in the contemporary context, Malcolm Knowles–who have striven to create non-authoritarian learning systems appropriate to their respective surroundings. In a poem that expresses Tagore’s goals for international education, he writes:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.