Sunday, 11 April 2021

That's the Point

If, like me you’re someone who potentially spends more time on social media than is probably good for you, you might be aware of a bit of a Twitter Storm over the Easter Weekend. 

Professor Alice Roberts, an anthropologist and President of Humanists UK, and someone who I have a lot of time and respect for, caused a bit of upset by tweeting on Good Friday, “Just a little reminder today. Dead people don’t come back to life”. This understandably caused a bit of a backlash, writing it as she did on one of our most holy days. 

Now the 280 characters which Twitter allows doesn’t give much scope for nuanced argument but the general gist, from both believers and non-believers, was it was a bit mean-spirited to put a statement out there that was clearly only meant to disrupt on Good Friday, and that a militant atheist is as unpleasant a thing to encounter as a militant Christian- a belief that I share, because absolute certainty is something I find utterly scary, whichever side of an argument the certainty is on.

We have some magnificent, stirring hymns don’t we? I wish we could sing them I'm church at the moment! “Blessed assurance! Jesus is mine”, “no more we doubt thee! Glorious Prince of life” and in the moment when we’re belting out those words we believe it completely. But when I encounter a fellow Christian who spouts such rhetoric and certainty outside of our singing I feel quite uncomfortable, because I don't quite trust it.

It may be they believe utterly in what they’re saying, in which case they're perhaps being a bit dishonest with themselves because faith and doubt aren’t opposites, they’re siblings. They live side by side and one informs the other, they’re forever entwined within us and to deny one is deny a part of ourselves- whether we’re denying the possibility we might have doubts or denying the possibility that the world contains a spark of divinity.

This is why I like the fact that St Thomas, forever labelled as the doubter, has such a prominent place in our little church. 

Some of our historians will know the background of the who commissioned the windows here at St Michael’s but I’d be interested in hearing if we know the reasons behind some of the less obvious choices of who they depict. The illustrations of episodes from Jesus’ life make sense, and probably the St George window too, but then we have saints Oswald and Aidan, the Celtic saints, hidden behind the organ loft.

And then, in the central focus of the building, above the altar and alongside our patron saint and our Lord we have St Thomas. 

Why does he have such a place of prominence? Did those who commissioned him share my belief that faith and doubt must live together, is it sending a message that even before our own time St Michael’s has been a safe space to have questions and doubts?

There’s a reason why this was the community that brought me back to my childhood faith. If I’d walked into this community and been met with a series of certainties and immovable facts, such as the rejection of the science I believe is all part of God’s creation, or a condemnation of the LGBT people in my life who are all beautiful spirit-filled children of God, well I would have turned on my heel and been right out of that door again, but this community is what I long for in every faith community-  a place that respects ideas, encourages debate and allows questions  and indeed doubt.

The only certainty I was met with here was the certainty of God’s love, but not necessarily an explanation of what that ultimately means or any boast of having the key or knowledge to accessing anything those on the outside of the community couldn’t.

I find the centrality of Thomas reassuring and a comfort. It’s a sign of the values that have underpinned this community for generations.

But what of Thomas himself? We know so little of him; we know he’s a twin, it’s Thomas who says to Jesus “we don’t know where you’re going” leading to one of the passages most commonly read at funerals. It’s Thomas who travels with Jesus on learning Lazarus has died and in tradition it’s Thomas who took Christianity to India and we have a strong Marthoma community here in Manchester, part of those South Indian traditions.

But in the passage we hear today John is using Thomas in a very deliberate way. His declaration of “my lord and my god”, his testimony to the living, breathing, bodily Jesus, is absolutely to do with his witness and declaration of faith; “these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

The encounter with Thomas is incredibly visceral, his declaration is sparked by physical contact, the proof that this is the same Jesus who died on the cross, not a representation but the same body with the same wounds. 

At Christmas the emphasis is on the incarnation and bodily presence of God amongst us, but we sometimes forget this is central to the whole of Jesus’ life and never more so than in the Easter and Resurrection narrative. 

John’s is definitely the gospel to remind us of this and should be a reminder of our embodied faith, and should shred the long-held belief that our bodies and their functions are shameful in any way; God created our bodies and chose to be incarnate, chose a body just like yours. John’s is the gospel of body and blood; where the Holy Spirit is physically breathed into the apostles.

This passage shows us the body tortured and killed on a cross is the same body Thomas touches and who he then realises is both man and God. That’s why this is special, that’s why this matters. 

To return to Professor Robert’s controversial tweet- Dead people don’t come back to life. That’s the point. That’s the marvellous, miraculous, central point of the entire story. This doesn’t happen, except here, and in all our faith and our doubt we choose to believe in the miracle. We choose to have faith.

Some days there may be more doubt wrapped up in that faith than others, but we still choose to come back to our faith, because there’s just something, something about this story, something about this man that’s leads us too to declare “my Lord and my God”

So yes, we will have doubts, yes we will have questions, but it doesn’t take away from our faith. It holds our faith to account, it helps it grow and change and evolve. It ensures we that like creation itself we never stand still or stagnate but keep growing and maturing, it helps our faith to become bigger and our relationship with God to become more whole.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Epiphany of Love

I think it was Johnny Lee who sang “Looking for Love in all the Wrong Places” I’m a little bit young to remember that song but it sort of describes where the Magi are at in the beginning of our Gospel story. Not that they that know they’re looking for love! They have an idea of what or who they’re seeking but by the end of their tale what they’ve sought and what they’ve found are not entirely the same.

In Huw’s sermon a few weeks ago he talked about how through this very strange and unsettling year we’ve had, many people have either been searching for something- whether it be meaning, purpose or hope in the wrong places, or that when we have found something which has meant something to us or given us joy or hope amid the hopelessness it’s been something and somewhere unexpected. 

Our Magi are searching for a king, an important king; they know there’s going to be something very special about this king, worth them embarking on what would have been a very long and not very easy journey. Scholars have tried to pinpoint over the years where these men may have journeyed from and the best guess is part of the Persian empire, estimating a 400-700 mile journey.

This would not have been an easy or safe trip so they must have placed a great deal of importance on what they were doing. And they did the really obvious thing, after losing sight of the star which had led them to Israel they headed to the capital city of Jerusalem, headed to the palace and asked the guy in charge if he knew where the new king was being born!
This was a pretty foolish error on the part of our travellers, they couldn’t have had an understanding of the political situation, that news of a powerful leader being born would cause a man like Herod to take cruel and divisive action. The actions of the Magi, looking in the wrong place, directly leads to the massacre of innocent children.

But they knew a powerful king was being born and so they go to where they think the seat of power is- in the palace. 

The news that the Messiah was going to be born should have delighted the people of Jerusalem and the priests but they, like Herod, are greatly disturbed. They know their leader has power because he’s in the pocket of their Roman occupiers and is ruthless enough to hang onto this power by any means. Herod is so feared that the news of the birth of the leader predicted to liberate the Jewish people is not recognised. 

In defence of the Magi, when the star which has led them disappears they mustn’t have felt they had any other option. They haven’t come all that way to fail and by going to the palace they have access to Herod’s advisers and can pinpoint a town where the king is to be born. When they leave Jerusalem their guiding star reappears and they’re able to fulfil their objective of finding what they had come so for to seek…or had they?

Because what they thought they were going to find and what awaited them as I’ve already said were not entirely the same. 

They come looking for the one who would be the king of the Jews, the prophesised Messiah, long predicted to be a great military leader to liberate the Jewish people with military power. To empower the nation to take control back as the Jewish people had done generations earlier when they’d marched into this land and took occupation from those that lived there before them. 

But that’s not the leader Jesus was destined to be. I wonder what the Magi thought when on arriving in this unremarkable town the star led them to the outhouse used for the animals? When they discovered the king’s parents to be so…ordinary, when measured against the human makers of power and greatness? 

Whatever and whoever they expected to find at the end of their journey what awaited them was both ordinary and extraordinary.

They found a family, ordinary by appearances. They found God’s love made physical and embodied in a human child and in the love he generated in his parents. 

They had thought, as did the people of Jerusalem, that power resided in the palace with Herod, but God’s statement by choosing to have his son born to these people in these circumstances is to declare that the greatest power lies in the lives of the most seemingly ordinary people.

Throughout this last, most extraordinary, twelve months we’ve seen the power of ordinary individuals. As governments and those in authority in many countries have struggled in their response to the global pandemic we’ve seen how the actions of single people can effect so many. 

We’ve realised the measures a single person can make in their daily lives to help contain the virus and seen reports of how a lack of personal responsibility has had dire consequences for many.

We’ve also seen the people who have gone above and beyond in their personal actions to make things better for others, we know of the heroes of the pandemic such as Sir Tom Moore, and those with high profiles such as Joe Wicks and Marcus Rashford but then there’s the likes of my friend Camilla, supposed to be traveling the world at the start of 2020 but she returned to her home-town in Italy when their hospitals were at their fullest to work nursing patients with covid.

There’s the NHS staff who’ve returned from retirement or other careers to support the frontline, shop workers ensuring our essential and non-essential needs are met, teachers negotiating moving from in person to online teaching and back again. And then there’s the teams of individuals the world over who’ve poured all their time and resources into developing vaccines to ensure we eventually return to the lives we love and miss.

So many unnamed and unknown to us, have individually and collectively been extraordinary. As we’ve looked to those we believe hold the power to control and help our current situation it’s people like ourselves, our neighbours and members of our communities who’ve had the power to help, uplift and inspire us; through love, through duty, through a sense and needing to do what was right or just trying to do their jobs in whatever way they could. 

Regarding Epiphany I read this week that only in darkness can we see the stars, and in our recent darkness many stars have revealed themselves.

The message of Epiphany is that of the revealing of Christ to the Gentiles, the realisation that kingship means something very different to God than to humankind and that a tiny child can hold all the power in the world. This is the great revelation; the greatest power on earth is love and God is the source of that love.

In every act of love God is revealed over and over again and my greatest source of hope through all this has been the constant revelation of people’s goodness and kindness, as goalposts have moved and the hope of the things I usually have to look forward to have diminished, my own epiphany is that my hope doesn’t live in a wish to return to our lives as they were, although I dearly do wish for it; my hope, as it always should be, is in the continual revealing of God in the goodness of the ordinary and in the simplicity of love.
Matthew 2.1-12
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Saturday, 19 December 2020

Chaplaincy Nativity and Carol Service

I'm, sure many of us are missing out on a traditional nativity and carol service this year so we'd like to welcome everyone to our Chaplaincy carol service which you can enjoy from your desk! This will unashamedly mirror the sort of family crib service Andrew and myself might have in our parishes, or maybe the Nativity plays your children or grandchildren have taken part in.

We're going to sing some much loved Christmas carols and hear what happened all those years ago on that first Christmas. We begin with O Little Town of Bethlehem

Let's set the scene for how our story begins.

Luke 2:1-5: In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to register. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.

So the journey has begun, a perfect opportunity to sing Little Donkey.

Our little donkey has taken Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem and Mary is very close to giving birth. Let's see what happens next in the story.

Luke 2:6-7 :While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Now Jesus has been born, not as you’d expect a king to be born in a palace or castle but in the place where the animals sleep. To reflect on that we sing Away in a Manger.

Let's hear about some other unexpected characters who join in the story of that first Christmas.

Luke 2:8-16: In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then 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; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another: ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

As the shepherds have come to worship Jesus we’ll sing our next carol, See Him Lying on a Bed of Straw

Now anyone familiar with the Christmas story knows there are some more guests yet to arrive in Bethlehem. 

Matthew 2:1-2 and Matthew 2:10-12: In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking: ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Of course we now need a carol about the wise men, it has to be We Three Kings

And so that was the first Christmas. Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born and visited by some unlikely guests. But it’s not the end of the story, not by a long way, in fact it's just the beginning. Jesus is going to do amazing things, and Christians believe he still does amazing things in our lives and through our lives. To prepare for some prayer time we sing Silent Night.

Let us pray

Jesus Christ, born in a stable,

Be with the poor and homeless this Christmas time.

As we pray, live and give;

shine your everlasting light.

 

Jesus Christ, born of Mary,

Be with young mothers across the world this Christmas time.

As we pray, live and give;

shine your everlasting light.

 

Jesus Christ, visited by Shepherds,

Be with all who have to work this Christmas, and those who long to work.

As we pray, live and give;

shine your everlasting light.

 

Jesus Christ,

who became a refugee,

Be with those who fear for their lives, and those who have left homes and families this Christmas.

As we pray, live and give;

shine your everlasting light.

Amen.

 

This is the story of our first Christmas. We wish you all a joyful, peaceful Christmas filled with love. As we go back to our work we go with joy in our hearts, singing Joy to the World.

Go in peace,

We go in peace

Go in joy

We go in joy

Go in love

We go in love

Amen.

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

The Four Stages of Love

Based upon Matthew 22:34-46

I’m sure that Jesus’ reply to the rather sneaky line of questioning in today’s gospel is familiar to many of us as it’s something we hear repeated at the beginning of most communion services throughout the year. He begins with the Shema, the command from Deuteronomy 6, also repeated daily in Jewish morning and evening prayer:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind

But Jesus adds to this from Leviticus 19:
You shall love your neighbour as yourself

I think we could agree that Jesus does nothing by accident and therefore it’s the relationship between the two verses he uses that’s the important thing. If we stripped our entire faith down to it’s barest of bones what Jesus says here is the core of our belief.

Putting these two commands together, not having just one or the other, matters. If we just have the Shema we run the risk of our journey with God becoming about an isolated relationship between the two of us, just us and God. If our faith develops in that bubble we can become oblivious to everything and everyone outside of it. 

God exists within the relationship of the Trinity, giving us a clear example for our own lives. And so Jesus adds a third party to our relationship with God. Our Faith journey is not just us and God, it’s us, God and neighbour. 

Whilst doing some background reading for today’s sermon I came across the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux. He was a monk writing in the early 12th century and examined what it means to love God with our entire being, and love or neighbour as ourself, in what he called The Four Degrees of Love. I’m going to share some of his thoughts with you in the hope that he can help us pick this apart a little bit.

The first degree of love is the love of self for self’s sake, putting our-self first because it benefits us. This is where most of us start out. We have our own needs and wants and this is what we’re mainly interested in taking care of. It’s in our human nature, but if left unchecked we can go too far, we can hurt others by the pursuit of our own desires and happiness. Our love of neighbour should hopefully keep our love of ourself in check.

The second degree is the love of God for self’s sake, loving God because we may benefit from it. We may be in the middle of  a crisis and turn to God, we may be asking the big existential questions about creation and existence or we may have come from a background where we think if we don’t love God we’ll be punished, or that loving God will put us in the holy good books and God will treat us more favourably than others.

This is the kind of faith which tends to crumble when we meet real adversity and perceive that our prayers haven’t been answered. We’re a good person, a good Christian- why has this happened to us? When we’re able to open our hearts to the suffering of others, suffering outside of our own immediate situation, knowing lots of bad things happen to lots of good people, we begin to move past this.

The third degree is loving God for God’s sake. This is when we keep loving God, even when bad things happen and our own needs aren’t being met because when we continually do our best to love God, and keep loving God, we learn to know God’s goodness and as or relationship develops we love because we sense we are loved. We care for others because we come to the realisation that Jesus cares for us.

This is a mature faith, where most of us probably find ourselves.

Bernard describes one final degree of love: love of self for God’s sake. This is much more difficult to understand because so few of us experience it. It’s a moment of transcendence, rare and fleeting, when we will be of one mind with God, and our wills in one accord with God. The prayer, “Thy will be done,” will be our prayer and our delight.

This is the perfect love of God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength. I think some people spend their entire lives trying to find this, it’s like a glimpse of heaven. Unity and oneness with God. We see ourselves and others as God sees them.

Bernard writings remind us of the centrality of love in all things- those which come from God and those of our own making. He writes “Love is the fountain of life, and the soul which does not drink from it cannot be called alive.” In Jesus’ answer to a man trying to catch him out he places love at the centre of everything- our entire faith. 

Here and now, we continue to experience varying degrees of isolation, particularly with an increase in the restrictions we face but our experiences this year have helped us examine how we live alongside each other and what our communal responsibilities are. So many of the choices we have to make are driven by a love of neighbour as we choose ways of being and living that may inconvenience us in the hope that we’re doing the right things for the community as a whole.

Even when living in a more isolated way than we ever have, we can find new ways to love our neighbour and through this love to see our own place in a much bigger picture. As we, as Jesus instructs us, strive to love God perfectly, by loving each other better, we may be moving a little closer to a taste of that perfect oneness with God that Bernard tells us is achievable by each of us, if only even for a moment.

Amen.

Sunday, 23 August 2020

Where do we fit in?

Preached this morning both in church and on Zoom- until the Internet booted me off before I'd finished! Based on Matthew 16.13-20  and Romans 12.1-8

If you’ve been listening to my sermons for a while now you may remember that I have a lot of affection for Simon Peter. We see him today given his nickname, Peter, The Rock, “Rocky”, which I think rather suits his temperament; he’s hot headed and punchy, not really given to thinking before he speaks or acts.

Yet it’s by not thinking too hard and going by his gut instinct that leads Peter to be the one disciple who’s able to answer Jesus’ question correctly.

“and who do you say that I am?”
“you are the Messiah, the son of the living God”

No deep contemplation, he just blurts out what comes into his head; and he’s right!

Jesus then names Peter first amongst equals, and he becomes a defining figure in the early church. He was the first to be called, the first we usually see named in lists of apostles and the one from whom Paul seeks approval from as he sets out on his own mission, even though they have disagreements.

For all his paradoxes and contradictions Peter becomes a unifying figure, at the centre of the vision of a community of faith, central to Paul’s vision of the one body, the perfect example of how it takes people of every kind to build that community.

The body image is the illustration of the perfect inclusive church where no one is excluded, we all fit in somewhere. Both the person of Peter and the vision of Paul serve to give us hope that no matter what our faults or differences, God has a place for us.

And yet we continually see a society which normalises exclusion, whether consciously or unconsciously, and faith communities which mirror this. No matter where we go, which communities we move in, there’s some sense of what’s acceptable and what’s unacceptable, what helps you to “fit” and what draws attention to the ways in which you don’t fit in. Body size, disability, sexuality, gender, age, race; not being neurotypical, level of education, marital status, financial status. These are all elements of ourselves which may have made us feel included or excluded.

My vision is that we’re working on building a community here where each and every one of us feels safe, valued and accepted, particularly if that’s not something we’re used to experiencing in the wider world. Paul’s vision reminds us that God is so big as to be able to accommodate each and every one of us.

To truly build up a fully inclusive community we have to look at ourselves as an institution, and face that there were times, and may still be, when the church has been on the wrong side of history, has colluded with worldly powers and has rejected and excluded in the name of the one who welcomes all and excludes no-one.

But, like Peter’s, ours is a redemption story – remember this is the man who after these events goes on to deny Jesus and then be forgiven. 

There’s a reason why our services have an act of confession built into them- we only grow by acknowledging our mistakes and failings. To love as God loves we need to see ourselves as God sees us, that includes knowing we each are loved AND being honest about the times we ourselves have not been loving, whether individually or collectively. 

Peter’s life, as the first, unifying head of the church, is a good metaphor for the history of the church and of Christianity. We’ve got things wrong, we’ve rejected Christ for our own interests; we’ve got things right and recognised the activity of God when we’ve seen it. The church has at times been unstable, tactless and impetuous, at times been faithful and filled with love and life-giving.

Peter’s life also gives me hope for the church- and for myself. It took many years and many mistakes for him to become who he became. We share his faults and failings, so we can also share in his successes and ability to see Jesus for exactly who he is. And Jesus never rejects Peter, even when he himself is rejected. That’s my ideal of how we live and respond to the world around us, always trying our best to love and welcome the world even when it doesn’t seem to love or welcome us.


My vision of a loving and inclusive community does reject something- it rejects our inability to disagree courteously and reduce each argument or disagreement to binaries- wrong or right, black or white. This vision of inclusion embraces nuance and debate and discussion. It’s a place where minds and hearts as well as its doors are open.
Showing the love of Christ and modelling what it can look like to truly live out the love which pours from God hopefully means we open up the hearts and minds of others to what’s possible when we stop trying to divide, separate and exclude. 

I want this to be a place where there’s no rules about who does or doesn’t fit in, because we all do. I get a daily email with a reflection from The Society of St John the Evangelist. On Thursday Br. Curtis wrote: we’re all different from one another: different gifts and needs, which is what God uses to knit us together. Our distinctive gifts and distinctive needs are intended to complement one another, not intended for either competition or conflict.

And on Friday Br. Nicholas wrote we all belong to Christ. If we fully surrender to God’s love and mercy, then how can we judge and despise each other? When we love one another with open hearts, without judging, without creating separation where none need exist, that’s when were letting Christ’s light shine as God lives through us. 

Amen.

Sunday, 2 August 2020

More Than Enough

Both of our readings this morning (Isaiah 55.1-5 & Matthew 14.13-21)- focus on active displays of God’s overwhelming abundance and generosity, and in particular what God does with very little, the abundance God creates, as we see a few fish and loaves transformed into a meal which feeds thousands, with enough leftovers to feed many more. 

I want to give a bit of context to the gospel passage because it helps set the scene a little and also acts as a contrast to how we see God work in the reading.

Jesus is seeking solitude as he’s just learned about the death of John the Baptist and needs some space to process that. John is killed after the events at Herod’s birthday celebration, an event which acts as a contrast to Jesus’s actions here. Herod’s party is hollow, shallow and elitist. It results in life being taken. Compare this to how Jesus cares and nurtures and feeds; no one is turned away, he sustains and nourishes in a way which lasts.

As the huge crowd of people try to follow Jesus as he retreats in his grief we see something I talked about recently in an online service- splagthnizomai: bowels of mercy. A physical, visceral response. Jesus is physically moved in the very core of his being to feel compassion for the crowd. 

This is Jesus who is trying to process his own grief and loss and yet still has it within himself to act with the utmost compassion and care towards those who have sought him out, who want or need something from him. And he gives it.

He talks and he teaches, he heals. He gives them what they need. By this point it’s really late and the disciples are thinking “job done, time to send them away”. But Jesus says no. you feed them. It’s like the worse case scenario of someone popping round for tea and having nothing in.

You can only imagine what the disciples must have thought, looking out over that crowd, and if you think, the 5000 was only the men, not counting women and children, there must have been upwards of 10,000 people there with a conservative estimate.

How do you feed 10,000 plus people? What on earth must the disciples have thought of Jesus? But Jesus knew they could do it, because more than anyone Jesus knows and demonstrates the character of God; he knows God is generous and compassionate and that is what is revealed by what followed

Jesus takes what can be found, he looks to heaven and then he blesses, breaks and shares what’s before him. That eucharistic imagery is not a coincidence, these are the actions Jesus will repeat at the Last Supper, the actions I will perform this morning. These actions have, until recently, punctuated our lives as members of a church community where communion is central to our worship- for some of us that has been through our entire life, and to have that denied to us through lockdown has been very painful indeed. 

It’s an example of our God and our faith as physical and practical. We have an incarnate God and an embodied faith. This gospel story of meeting need with abundance is an example of what Angus Ritchie means when he wrote “Eucharistic worship must lead on to truly eucharistic lives. Such lives will exhibit that “freedom from self-concern” which enables us to see our neighbour as a gift and not an interruption”

The disciples probably saw the crowd as an interruption, but Jesus, even in the midst of his own pain, saw them as a gift, and a gift through which he chose to reveal even more of God’s character.

So now we’ve reached a day where it’s possible to once more share in God’s abundance and for some of us to be able to share communion once more, but it’s important to remember that’s still not the case for everyone. We have many vulnerable members of this community for whom returning to the church building isn’t the right thing yet. I think it must be incredibly difficult for those of you who aren’t able to share in that act.

I hope we can be fortified in knowing that even if we can’t share in the elements, our worship, this worship we share today, is still eucharistic, and as Rosalind Brown reminds us the Eucharist is about God’s care for the world. We pray for the world though our eucharistic prayer and we pray that this directs our own actions:

"Lord of all life, help us to work together for that day when your Kingdom comes, and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth." 

"Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory;" 

"May we who share Christ's body live his risen life, we who drink his cup bring life to others, we whom the Spirit lights give light to the world."

Like the bread and fish Jesus gathers up, we too are taken by Jesus, blessed, broken and shared for the world. No matter how little we think we are or how little we feel we have to give, the words of our prayers and nature of our worship are shaped to remind us that our little, through God, is enough, is more than enough. We’re what God uses to sustain others, even if we feel very small and inadequate. 

Even if we can’t share in the fullness of a communion service as we once knew it we can share our fully eucharistic lives, knowing that whatever we offer to God will be multiplied and used to magnify and glorify God’s love in our world. 

And through our prayers for the world God directs us towards those people who surround us, who are a gift to us, and God continues to show his abundant and excessive love, where all are filled and there’s always enough to share and there’s always more than enough left over. Amen.

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Simul Justus et Peccator


Today’s gospel in an incredibly difficult passage and not one I’ve relished having to unpick. We hear Jesus share a parable of weeds and wheat, growing together and then being sorted at the harvest, the weeds being burned up. Jesus even gives us a handy explanation which seems to tie everything together neatly.

And yet the parables are never that neat or easy to interpret, even when an explanation seems to have been offered. We have a knack of entirely removing the context and relating it to ourselves, often missing its meaning entirely. 

My difficulty with this passage is how it’s been used over the centuries- as a means to control through fear, as a way of perpetuating a view of the afterlife which I don’t believe in and doesn’t match the loving God I do believe in. it’s also been used as a means of virtue signalling; we are the wheat and you are the weeds. We are good and you are bad.

I don’t know if it’s necessarily a useful analogy for us here and now. It may have given reassurance to Matthew’s audience, and it’s interesting to note it only appears in Matthew, written for a people who were victims of oppression, violence and war, wanting the evil that caused their pain eradicated. Wanting to know there would eventually be justice. 

I have a rule when trying to decipher the bible. Does what I’m reading about who God is and how God is resonate with Jesus’ primary teachings? If not their must be something else going on.

The image of weeds and wheat is so inflexible- wheat can’t become a weed and weeds can’t become wheat. This doesn’t fit with the image of an all-loving God who loves each of us and knows we each have the ability to grow and change and become the people God knows we can be. No one is all good or all bad, we’re each a complicated, nuanced mixture. 

If there’s any absolute truth it’s that each of us is simultaneously weeds and wheat. Martin Luther had this absolutely correct when he said that we’re simul justus et peccator: we are at the same time, sinner and saint.

Our task is to recognise that within ourselves, to know what our weeds are, be realistic about them, name them and work on them. We run into trouble by imagining we’re weed free, that we’re only magnificent, flawless and faultless wheat. 

If we think about how God loves us it might be worth thinking about someone we love, how we love them; a child, spouse, parent or friend. We love them despite their imperfections, why would God be any different? 

The thing being in lockdown has forced us to confront is ourselves, and those we live with. Having no option but to be either alone with ourselves or those in our household for several months may have highlighted for each of us the things which irk us about those we love or those things within ourselves we’re not so happy about. 

I’m sure, for the most part, we still love those we live with despite the things which have annoyed us. Hopefully we can say the same thing about the person we see in the mirror. Can we accept our own weeds and love ourselves in spite of them?

There’s so much mystery in how God has created us and our world, and within that good and evil, saint and sinner, are held together in a constant tension, as the weeds and wheat grow alongside each other, the removal of one would damage the other. Our flaws contribute to the person we are.

Maybe one way we can interpret this passage is to know that eventually, when at the end we’re drawn into the eternal mystery of God’s love and become one with that love, all things are made good and pure and whole. 

The fire of God’s love transforms everything, even our deepest flaws and wildest weeds. Until then we live the paradox of being both wheat and weed, saint and sinner, and knowing that is actually how God intends it to be. Amen.