Monday, 23 May 2022

God Lives in You

It’s rather marvellous that we’ve got a baptism today when one of our readings culminates with the baptism of Lydia and her whole household- a lovely coincidence, and then in our gospel reading we heard Jesus helping to prepare the disciples for his leaving them and the coming of the Holy Spirit. 

In tradition it was believed the Holy Spirit entered you at your baptism, so you needed a good soaking to give out a little gasp and that was how the Spirit got in! I think now we would recognise that each person is a beloved child of God, whether we realise it or not, and that each one of us has the Spirit within us. I think what makes the difference in our lives is our ability to recognise that.

It's something I often pray with people in my chaplaincy work- as I pray for the person I’m with I call them a “beloved child of God” because I think that it’s something we each need reminding of, particularly when God feels very distant. It’s easy for us to see how Edward is adored by God but do we also recognise that within ourselves? Do we remember that like a child who can lie in their parent’s arms for comfort, or when distressed, or when they just need to feel someone close, do we remember that we can be that vulnerable with God?

It’s difficult isn’t it as an adult? So much about life teaches us to toughen up, be more resilient, to push our feelings down but whatever is going on inside, however we try to mask, God knows our feelings, our thoughts, our joys and our heartaches, because as is clear from what Jesus tells his closest companions in the gospel, if we belong to God then God abides within us, lives in us, through the Spirit.
God came as a man, Jesus, to lives with us, alongside us, to be one of us, but in the Spirit God comes to live within us. Baptism I believe is our acknowledgement of that.

It’s a reminder that no matter where we are in our lives, however wonderful or however messy things are, God never waits for us to come to God, God always, always, comes to meet us where we are…and then just waits for us to realise it. God makes a dwelling-place within us until that time when we’re ready for the dwelling place prepared for us. It’s a life long journey of relationship and like most relationships there’s times when it’s easier to feel close and times it’s more difficult to feel connected to one another. It takes time, patience and love.

Now for Edward this doesn’t begin today, when he’s baptised, it began at birth, but this is the day that we acknowledge it, and give thanks for it. A sacrament, which baptism is, is the outward show of an internal grace, something of the mystery of God which isn’t necessarily tangible but can be celebrated, marked and blessed.

Today we recognise and give thanks that God lives in Edward. But my prayer for each one of us on such a joy filled day is for our ability to acknowledge ourselves, however we find ourselves, as, beloved children of God, as dwelling places for the Holy Spirit, and that through recognising this, the knowledge that we are loved exactly as we are by the creator of all that has been and all that will be, that through this we can find that beautiful, deep peace Jesus speaks of to his disciples. And that through finding this are able to help others to see that they too are loved, valued dwelling places of God. In order to, as the end of the baptism liturgy tells us- shine as a light in the world. Amen.

Sunday, 3 April 2022

Extravagant Embodied Love

I’m not sure I should admit this but when I come across this gospel reading I hear Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar; “Woman, your fine ointment, brand new and expensive, should have been saved for the poor! Why has it been wasted? We could have raised maybe three hundred silver pieces or more. People who are hungry, people who are starving matter more than your feet and hair!!”

The musical is staged a little differently from John’s writings…and it’s a different Mary…but what’s clear in both is the difference between Judas and Mary and how they each respond to Jesus in what will be the last week of his life.

Now I love Mary of Bethany- I’m quite fond of women who disrupt the norms. I love her passion, her vulnerability and her willingness to go against what society expects of her, and we also see her deep love for Jesus, who’s like another brother to her, Martha and Lazarus. When Jesus stayed with the family previously it was Mary who sat at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching, rather than attending to household tasks.

Jesus now returns to stay with the family at a time he needs to rest, to gather his thoughts and to prepare for what lies ahead, his entire journey from this moment is lading towards the cross, but it’s important to put this visit in the context of what has happened right before; Lazarus has just been raised from the dead.

This meal is a celebration, a thank you, and Mary processes the events of the previous days, those extreme emotions from the grief at her brother’s death to the joy at the miracle of his rising from the dead. She’s also processing the things she’s heard Jesus preach and teach, the things he’s said only to his most intimate circle, and she’s overcome by emotion and realisation. I don’t know how much of this is conscious thought and there’s certainly something of a prophet about Mary.

She grabs the expensive oil of nard- this would have cost an average person’s yearly wage so it’s possible it may have been intended as part of her dowry- but that doesn’t matter now. She falls at Jesus’ feet overwhelmed by love, gratitude and the realisation of who this man is and what lies ahead. She thanks him, blesses him and cries for him, anointing his feet as if for burial and in meeting her need to express these emotions she also sees a need in Jesus, the need of an exhausted man on the verge of something unspeakable, the need for his human body to be soothed and rested, in a place which for him offered rest and safety.

She rejects whatever’s appropriate, what’s expected, what’s proper, and expresses herself from a place of raw emotion, anointing Jesus’ feet with the oil, the spicy fragrance filling the whole room and afterwards prompting Judas’ sneering response. 

You may think Judas has a point, how often do we scrutinise the way our community spends money? How many times do we think our limited funds could be put to better use? This oil was an asset that if traded could have done a whole lot of good, but it was used in an extravagant, physical act of love. We can weigh the cost in silver pieces but what price do we place on acts of love and acts of healing? Is there a price in attempting to show love to God in the way that God shows love to us?

God’s love for us is so extraordinarily lavish, how could we ever show such extravagant love in return? As Judas is calculating the price of acts of faith in his head, Mary is showing extravagant love and faith with her entire body and it’s shocking to everyone except Jesus.

The way our faith has been received by us over the centuries means in many ways we’ve become a people who value the intellectual over the physical. We’ve developed such a complicated relationship with our bodies that we forget that our fleshiness matters. We know this because Jesus chose flesh. The divine eternal Christ chose incarnation in a human body. And yet we still think of bodies as being less than holy, we’re ashamed of our physicality functions of our body.

This is of course until are bodies are in need of healing. Despite this deep-rooted belief that our souls are good and our bodies are bad, our belief around health flips this around- bodily health is given more value than mental health or spiritual health.

Our church services centred around healing are almost always prefixed by the word “wholeness”; wholeness and healing. We may come to these services at a time when we or those we love are suffering from physical illness, but the shape and aim of our prayers is to facilitate (to quote clever theologians) 'the enabling of a person to function as a whole in accordance with God's will for them'. To allow us to more fully become who God intends us to be.

We often come like Mary, falling at Jesus’ feet and offering all we have because it’s the only thing we can think of to do. Praying for healing is not an act of faith we've intellectually calculated, it’s an extravagant act of love as we place all of our trust in God. We don’t come expecting miracles, we probably don’t know what we expect, but what we receive is something extraordinary. Healing means something different to each of us, but I believe at its very heart, healing is about the completeness of our relationship with God- and what could be more extraordinary than that?

The theology we've inherited has contributed to a disconnect between our minds and our bodies, the aim of healing is to reconnect us, body, mind and soul, both to ourselves and to our creator; to invite us deeper into the relationship of love and healing that exists within the Trinity. To deepen this relationship, strengthen us and allow each of us to see reflected back the person God knows us to be, wants us to be, and through that reconnection understand how we can love the Lord our God with all of our heart, with all of our soul, with all of our mind and with all strength, particularly at those times when strength is so hard to find. Amen.

Monday, 28 March 2022

Heavenly Mother

This sermon was written for yesterday, but never preached due to covid finally paying a visit to our household 

I’m always keenly aware that today isn’t a joyful day for everyone and always hope that I can find something to say which honours mothers, mother figures and our mother church, without disrespecting those for whom today is difficult. 

Whilst I was doing the reading I always do to prepare for a sermon, I came across a phrase I don’t think I’ve heard before- “fictive families”. A Fictive Family isn’t brought together by shared DNA or marriage but shared experience or community. Shared lives can cause individuals or groups to become emotionally bonded to each other and form pairings or groups which have many of the same characteristics or functions as kinship. 

We see an example of this in our Old Testament reading where Pharoah’s daughter chooses to make a Hebrew child a member of her family. We also see it throughout the New Testament as Jesus, though he has his blood family with him, also calls others to help him, and builds a community around himself so close that after his death his mother Mary and disciple John become their own family unit. 

We would probably see our church community as a fictive family; I think faith communities are about the only place we form meaningful inter-generational friendships outside of our families and many of us help each other in similar ways to that which families do. 

In our gospel reading Mary hears the words from Simeon which at first must have amazed her- to be reminded of how important her son was going to be, to be told by a complete stranger the significance Jesus’ future holds, but then comes the sting in the tail “and a sword will pierce your own soul too”. Was this the first inkling that Mary had that her sweet baby boy, although he had a great destiny ahead of him, might be destined to suffer and that seeing his pain would in turn lead to her own suffering? 

I’m often very relived that we can’t see into the future, I think knowing the difficult things that lie ahead would stop us from living our lives fully, as God intends us to, so it amazes me that Mary is able to let Jesus go ahead and do the things he needs to, knowing it will probably end with his suffering. 

What really struck me on studying this morning’s readings together is that our readings involve people, indeed mothers, who are either living in occupied lands or suffering under racial oppression, the Hebrew family Moses was born into lived as slaves under Pharaoh and Jesus’ family lived in an occupied Judea. Both Miriam and Mary have to make difficult decisions for the future of their children. Miriam knows she has to give up her son if he’s to survive and Mary knows Jesus must follow the path set before him even though it may be painful for them both. 

It brings me back to the stark reality of what the people of Ukraine are facing right now, how families and communities are torn apart, how parents are suffering seeing their children go to fight and are themselves caught up in the war. We’ve seen the emotive pictures of maternity hospitals and newborn babies caught up in the destruction. I cannot imagine the decisions parents of small children are having to make right now, both in Ukraine and other areas of occupation, war or oppression. 

Do they wish they had known what was to come and what is yet to come? Would it have been better or worse to know what lay ahead? I’m sure we all wish we could see how or when this might end. I also wonder with what communities are being formed through this horror, among those fighting together and those trying to survive together? We also see people in other countries reaching out to make Ukrainian refugees part of their own families and it reminds me that not everything feels hopeless right now. 

It could almost make it seem frivolous that today is a day of joyful celebration here in the UK, a pause from our Lenten fasting, and at a time when we so needed something to celebrate after two years of postponed-Mother’s Day activities. 

And yet maybe this sadness in our world and all the uncertainties are just the reason why we should be marking today; to respect and honour the maternal figures in our families and communities and as a reminder that the mother church herself should be a place of safety, nurture and teaching to all who need it, that at times like this the church needs to be a place of mothering to all. As a nurturing, loving community it’s our place to see how we can meet the needs we see in the world and come together as the fictive family we are to figure out together how can help. 

Mothering Sunday in the church calendar is always something much bigger than celebrating mums, but that is important too. We can have a nurturing spirit for our world and celebrate the maternal figures who have meant so much to us- our mums, grans, aunts, sister, friends and nieces, mums who are safe with God, mums who couldn’t fulfil what was asked of them, the men being both mum and dad, the amazing strong women who have taught, led, guided, hugged and healed us, those who let us down and those who chose us. We pray for each and every one of them. 

And it’s a reminder that as well as Heavenly Father God is our Heavenly Mother. In the words of Julian of Norwich: "As truly as God is our father, so just as truly is God our mother. In our father, God Almighty, we have our being; in our merciful mother we are re-made and restored. Our fragmented lives are knit together and made perfect. And by giving and yielding ourselves, through grace, to the Holy Spirit we are made whole." 


Sunday, 6 February 2022

Faithful Servant

Today marks the 70th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne. Later this year we’ll celebrate with a Platinum Jubilee- an event never seen before in this country- only 3 monarchs in world history have reigned longer.

At the beginning of June, around the anniversary of her coronation, we’ll celebrate with a 4 day bank holiday, but today we remember the actual day that, at the age of 26, a young mum of 2 and at the time far from home, she learned her father, the King, had died and she was now the monarch.

I can’t even imagine how that must have felt, the combination of the grief and the weight of her new role. Whilst she knew the day would one day come, and George VI had suffered with poor health, he’d seemed well when he’d waved her and Prince Philip off for their tour of Australia; they’d stopped off in Kenya which was where she heard the news.

Now I’m sure there’s a wide breadth of opinions within our congregation about the nature of monarchy and its place within our society but I’m not going to touch on that today, we are The Church of England, we choose to be a part of it, and as such supporting and praying for the Monarch is built into who we are. 

On the 60th Jubilee of the accession, the then Archbishop of Canterbury (Rowan Williams) has this to say about her role within the established church: 

Since the 16th century, every English monarch has been Supreme Governor of the Church of England, which doesn't mean that the Queen or the King is the head of the Church of England. It simply means they're the final court of appeal. They're the person who makes the final decision about what the Church can do and can't do in law. One of The Queen's other titles is Defender of the Faith…It's tied up with The Queen's role as the senior layperson of the Church of England. But I think that The Queen has made something quite fresh of it. She has, in effect, said that by being the guardian of the Christian faith as held by the Church of England, she establishes a real place for faith in public life...

This is such a unique position for a monarch to have compared to other nations and one which I believe our queen takes incredibly seriously. On her 21st birthday the then Princess Elizabeth said: ‘“There is a motto which has been borne by many of my ancestors – a noble motto, ‘I serve.’” She went on to say “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.’"

Jesus tells the disciples in our gospel reading “the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” And I truly believe that our queen has tried to embody her understanding of servant leadership and to live this out, throughout her life, and that this is fuelled by her own understanding of Christian faith. In her Christmas 2000 message she said “For me the teachings of Christ and personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life.” 

And if we return to her 21st birthday message, Elizabeth asked something of us; “I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution [to serve] alone unless you join in with me, as I now invite you to do: I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.”

What I guess I’m interested in exploring, whether you believe in our system of monarchy or not, is as a community of people who choose to worship in the Established church, with The Queen as the Supreme Governor, what is our role within this invitation? Our role in supporting a very public faith?

Now I love our country but I also believe that under God there are no nations, we all are one people who belong to God, that we were created for God’s own delight and that this love and delight in God’s creation of us is revealed in Jesus Christ, and Jesus was pretty clear that we have responsibilities to each other. 

As God’s creation we’re all equal, despite nationality or status, and those with power, authority or influence have the obligation to serve, and be a voice for, those who don’t.

In the Queen’s own service, which now extends to 2.4 billion commonwealth citizens of the most diverse backgrounds, she’s spoken up for tolerance, inclusiveness and mutual respect. In her 2001 Christmas message she declared we need to “overcome differences and misunderstandings by reducing prejudice, ignorance and fear. We all have something to learn from one another, whatever our faith–be it Christian or Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or Sikh–whatever our background…”

That was 21 years ago and after 2 years of living in the shadow of covid and before that having seen so many countries, including our own, divided by the rhetoric created by elected officials- what can we learn from one who though not elected feels called, as many of us do, by God to fulfil a role of service directed by our faith?

In the words of a sermon preached on the occasion of the Queen’s 90th birthday, "servant leadership is about influence, about shaping the discussion, touching the heart, stretching the mind, motivating action and compassion and engagement in public life. Servant leadership is about the ability to bring people together in common purpose and shared values and a hopeful future. Servant leadership is much like love: the more you give to others, the more flows back to you naturally. This is how to understand the servant leadership of our Queen: her power is in her influence, and this has more to do with service than status. She is a voice that harmonizes the cacophony of voices… a symbol of a common heritage that binds a multitude of nations and peoples into one communion, an authority figure without being authoritarian."

So for me, one way I understand her invitation to join and support her in her public service and public faith, is to ask ourselves: where do I have influence? In what areas of my life can I share the values that my faith and Christ’s teachings instil in me? Where can I show what a living faith in action can do?

Whether this is a wide public platform like this pulpit or a small circle of friends, we each have a place and a space within our lives to spread the values of love, tolerance, listening to each other, inviting conversation rather than division and looking to how, again whether large or small, we can serve those who don’t have any voice or influence or ability to be seen. 

I’m sure we can each agree that whilst on the surface we aren’t that different from each other, within this building today there’s going to be a huge variance in our political affiliations, sporting affiliations, theology and so much more, we’re different in so many ways, but love, respect, compassion and the shared values of our shared faith bind us together. And we choose to gather publicly to share in that.

The Queen has achieved something remarkable by the length of her reign; 70 years of service built upon faith. May we share in her resilience and her sense of duty to use our influence in the best way be can, to be leaders in serving our communities and to place Christ at the centre of all things.

Sunday, 2 January 2022

The Gift of Being Ordinary

Happy new year to you all! Does Christmas seem like a distant memory? Did you get some lovely gifts? Everything you wanted? As we’re celebrating Epiphany today it seems appropriate to think about our gifts- the ones we gave and the ones we received- and the thought behind them. 

I spend ages choosing presents but somehow I feel I’ve never quite got it right, whilst there’s always a lot of thought and care behind the gift I always worry about how it will be received.

We can see the meaning and symbolism behind the gifts the Magi bring to Jesus, but I wonder what Mary and Joseph actually thought when they opened them? I’m sure the gold would have come in handy, particularly when it came to organising their safe passage to Egypt, and I’m sure they appreciated the depth of symbolism in regard to the Frankincense and Myrrh, but I secretly imagine Mary in particular wishing they’d have turned up with something a bit more practical for the care of a new born, son of God or not.

I don’t want to lean towards gender stereotypes but I’m sure you’ve heard that if it had been three wise women that had turned up they’d have brought a casserole, cleaned up the stable and organised a nappy laundering service.

Now I’ve preached a lot on Epiphany, maybe more than any of the other festivals, and I’ve always looked for a different angle than talking about the gifts, I don’t know if I’ve ever even mentioned them on epiphany before so I made a conscious decision this year to reflect upon the gift aspect of this festival as it inspires our own gift giving, which if you were to take an objective look at Christmas, away from our lens of faith, it would seem to be one of the most central things about the season.

The predictability of a gift sermon is it ends up being about our own gifts and what we bring to the manger and therefore to the body of Christ, and this sermon was going to look very different to how it turned out, the themes were the same when I was planning it in my head but then….my family became obsessed with the new Disney film Encanto which came onto the Disney channel on Christmas Eve…I think we’ve watched it 7 or 8 times now.

So what is Encanto about? Well it’s about a very special family who each have, I’m sure you can guess…magical gifts…that is all except one. The central character, Mirabel has no gift. She’s completely ordinary and the whole town knows it. The family matriarch, their Abuela (the film is set in Columbia so there’s lots of Spanish names and references, Abuela is grandma), Abuela sees this lack of gift as a failure, something which will damage the family.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I’m a film nerd, and it’s these ordinary characters like Mirabel that I always find the most relatable and interesting. Not the special, magical or superhero characters. 

I think a huge part of that is because I myself have always felt completely ordinary- don’t worry it’s not a self esteem or self-worth thing, I know I’m fabulous, but very ordinary, which is perfectly ok, because most people are it’s what keeps the world turning. 

Imagine how exhausting it would be if our lives were full of extraordinary people! And yes, we are all special and unique and extraordinary and uniquely loved my god…but in an everyday kind of a way.

What I mean is that we’re not all destined to be a top concert pianist, Olympic swimmer, noble prize winner or Prime minister (although the bar for that one is quite low).

What we see in Encanto is the weight and burden of the gifts upon those who’re labelled as special. Luisa has super strength but feels the weight of the entire town upon her, she feels she would be worthless if she couldn’t fulfil everyone’s expectations, that her only worth is in service. 

Isabella is beautiful and can create flowers and plants out of nothing, she makes everything around her beautiful. She feels the need to be perfect in all things and all times- this includes nearly marrying a man she doesn’t love because it’s expected of her. She never makes anything for herself and when she does she’s surprised and amazed to see it’s a spikey little cactus.

And poor Bruno, he follows the fate of so many biblical characters. He’s the family prophet who sees the future and is rejected for telling people difficult stuff they don’t want to hear.

And who is it that saves the day, the family and the town – fingers in your ears if you don’t want spoilers – but it’s Mirabel, of course it is. Ordinary, gift-less and in no way special. Or is she?

Because I see our ordinariness as a gift. How many magi were wandering around Bethlehem? Not many. How many shepherds? Dozens, maybe even 100s dotted around the outskirts of the city. Beyond ordinary, the lowest rung on the social ladder, and whilst the magi’s visit rounds off our manger story, let’s not forget that the shepherds received a personal invite from God’s holy messengers. They knew they had nothing to bring, utterly gift-less, and yet they came.

Now this is part of a gift sermon when we’re asked to contemplate our own gifts and what we can bring to the manger to lay before the Christ child, and how we can use our gifts to contribute to the body of Christ, but I’m not going to ask you to do that.

We have amazing, gifted, glorious people in this room but what I want you to do is contemplate and celebrate your ordinariness, because God does. The special, the exalted, the lifted up…are these the people Jesus chooses to spend his life with when grown? Is that the family and community God incarnate chose to be born into? Nope. Ordinary. The most extraordinary being chose ordinary because ordinary matters. 

Ordinary is what keeps the world turning, keeps us going, feeds families, cares for the sick, runs towns and cities, operates valuable services, puts kids to bed…and continues the cycles of love and living that God put into the world when God chose to create earth and life and humankind. Our extraordinary ordinariness. 

And as we contemplate our beautiful, ordinary lives, remember that this is what God chose that first Christmas, yes Jesus was for from ordinary, but his choice of an ordinary life, to begin with, is all the proof we need of how much God values us and what we bring to the world. And go and watch Encanto, it’s got some banging tunes. Amen.

Sunday, 24 October 2021

Inspired, Nourished and Well Fed

Today is Bible Sunday, a day in our church calendar set aside to celebrate our scriptures and perhaps reflect a little upon their importance in our own lives. We’ve had two examples in our readings this morning of how and why this collection of writings is still important when so many say otherwise.

In Isaiah we have this wonderful invitation to the abundant life God has to offer us, an invitation which lets us know that everyone has a seat at the table, that God’s deepest wish is to feed and nourish us in such a way that we live the most fulfilling lives we can.

In the reading from John, Jesus reminds us that by reading and understanding scripture we know God by understanding God’s relationship with humanity and woven throughout them is the knowledge of who Jesus is, the living and breathing Word of God.

Rev. Janet Morely writes “There’s a well-known saying whose author I haven’t succeeded in tracking down. The internet claims it is by either Karl Barth or an anonymous African woman. ‘There are plenty of other books I can read – but the bible is the only book that reads me.’ …the bible can pose questions it is going to take a lifetime for me to answer, if I ever do. [the Isaiah reading asks of us] What exactly does nourish and satisfy my heart?”

What I find most remarkable about the bible is the sheer breadth of the writings it contains. I truly believe is reflects almost all of human experience: love, betrayal, politics, spirituality, poetry, sexuality, family life, nature, law, wisdom, myth, lament, correspondence…and all bridging about 1000 years of human history- that’s truly remarkable.

So I feel the worst, most disrespectful thing we can ever do is take these writings at face value. We say at the end of our readings “this is the word of the Lord” but that’s never sat well with me. We can’t ignore the human factor; scripture can be God inspired and Spirit breathed but was still written by men- almost exclusively male- at a particular point in time for a particular purpose. It’s the humanity of the bible that I believe makes it come to life.

It contradicts itself in places as we do, lets us know its ok to debate these things and that we can see things from many angles- why else include a gospel narrative from four perspectives? Or include lament psalms where the writer is raging at God’s perceived abandonment?

The bible shows us even chosen people are flawed and get it wrong- David, Solomon, Moses, the disciples…they all show us their worst, warts and all traits but God chooses and uses them anyway, again showing that we each have a place at the table.

Taking scripture at face value, as inerrant and literal truth is a very modern concept, born out of a backlash to enlightenment thinking in the 19th century and pushing this agenda has led to what I feel is the rejection of The Bible as a source of wisdom and nourishment. 

When something is peddled as literal truth it’s the agenda of those setting what those absolute truths are which get taught. The Isaiah reading reminds us that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and God’s ways are not our ways, but as humans we repeatedly fall into the trap of forgetting we’re the ones made in God’s image, not the other way round. If we are preaching the bible literally and have fixed an idea of God made in our own image we preach a narrow gospel and a narrow God.

And indeed the bible has inexcusably been used to control, punish and traumatise. And this still goes on today.

Whilst we aren’t innocent of this, the joy of our Anglican tradition is allowing scripture to live and breathe and take its place in relationship with our tradition and with our ever-changing world. 

Whilst training for ministry I spent several months on placement at St Peter’s House, the Manchester University chaplaincy and church. At the end of bible readings instead of “this is the word of the Lord” they posed the question “what does this mean for us today?”. This has become my own question whenever I’m preparing a sermon or trying to discern the value of any portion of scripture, and I guess it’s a question that today we might ask of the whole Bible; what does this mean for us today?

Is it something that will entice us to pull up a seat at the table, something that can nourish and satisfy us?

For me, as with so many matters of faith, it becomes about relationship. I see the Old Testament as the documentation of humanity’s relationship with God in all it’s up and downs, our repeated turning away from God and God’s constancy, never abandoning us no matter how many times we fail, mess up or turn away. God always loves us through whatever we throw God’s way.

The New Testament documents God living amongst us in the person of Jesus in order to help us better understand who God is; to enable us to deepen and continue that relationship of love. It’s a record of how we tried to interpret what we learned from that experience.

Through all of this collection of writings, I think the overall purpose or meaning or intention is to have a document which, in a messy and human way because the human factor makes it messy, because we’re messy, a document which is hoping to teach us how to love as God loves, that asks the big questions of us – reads us – in order to draw us to the invitation of abundant life and help us take our seat at the table.

Inspired, nourished and well fed.

Based upon:

Isaiah 55:1-11

An Invitation to Abundant Life

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
   come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
   come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
   without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
   and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
   and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
   listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
   my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
   a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
   and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
   for he has glorified you.

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
   call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
   and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
   and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
   nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
   so are my ways higher than your ways
   and my thoughts than your thoughts.

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

John 5.36b-end

But I have a testimony greater than John’s. The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his form, and you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent.

‘You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. I do not accept glory from human beings. But I know that you do not have the love of God in you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God? Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?’

Sunday, 19 September 2021

Childlike Vulnerability

How many of us have day-dreamed about being great? Imagined that at the end of our lives- or preferably during it- someone might say “that Fiona Jenkinson, she was great”. Greatness means different things to different people I guess, so what might that mean to you?

It might be lifting the FA cup as the captain of your beloved football team, taking the chequered flag at Silverstone and being crowned F1 world champion, could be winning an Olympic gold medal or a Nobel prize in your chosen field. It might mean being Prime Minister or Archbishop of Canterbury. It could be heading up a charity that’s able to support a huge number of people in need. 

This kind of greatness is all to do with achievement and it’s usually something you can see reflected through other people’s eyes, that external validation boosts our own ego and helps us to confirm to ourselves, yes I am pretty great. 

It’s probably the case that as Christians we believe greatness to be something very different from these achievement based factors, that it might be something closer to the teaching in the reading from James this morning, that to be truly great we might possess the wisdom of God, first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 

This makes me curious as to how the disciples were defining greatness in our gospel reading, and what led them to be having that discussion is the first place.
We find them with Jesus on the road, on a long and lonely journey. Jesus thinks this might be the right time to try and explain to them something that’s going to be really hard for them to hear- they’re soon going to be leaderless. He tries to explain to them that he’s going to die, that it has to happen, and that most importantly he’ll rise again. 

Sadly they’re not ready to hear it, they don’t understand and are scared by what Jesus is telling them, but rather than ask questions or ask for more explanation they stick their heads in the sand and fall into the kind of petty squabble we’ve seen them have before- who’s the best.

Maybe something of what Jesus has said has sunk in, maybe their banter about which of them is greatest is in part due to the fact that one of them will soon need to step into the leadership role that opens up when Jesus is arrested and killed.

I’m sure Jesus could hear what was going on behind him because when they reach Capernaum he gathers them together and asks “right lads, what was all that chat on the road about”. They fall silent, he’s talked to them about this kind of thing before and they probably know he’s got a few opinions to share.

He tells them what we’ve heard him say before- if you want to be lead, first you have to serve and serve everyone- be last of all and servant of all. Then he takes a child and tells them if you welcome a child like this you welcome him, and even more than that you welcome God.

Jesus completely flips the idea of greatness on it’s head and places the most vulnerable in society into the conversation.

But to truly understand this teaching I think it’s important to have an understanding of what children meant in this society because Jesus isn’t necessarily talking about welcoming the innocent and sinless, or children as we understand them now. The idea of children as angelic and innocent started in around the 18th century. Children weren’t revered as a symbol of innocence as they are now. 

When we’re talking about children in 1st century Palestine we’re talking about someone with no place and little value to the wider system. Infant mortality is estimated to have been around 30%, and although it’s difficult to know it’s thought that a further 30% died by the age of 9. If a child lived long enough to be useful the boys would be replacing the workforce and the girls married off to make more children to keep the cycle going.

Now we know children were loved by their families, of course they were, we see this in the story of Jairus’ daughter, but to society it was a different matter. How many children had Jairus and his wife already lost before the age of 9? Was that why their daughter was so precious? Yet with limited birth control how many families were welcoming children that were unwanted and seen as a burden until they were old enough to work or be married- if they lived that long.

There was no sentimentality about childhood. It was scary and it was messy. By telling the disciples the most important act of leadership is service, and the most important act of service is to welcome a child, Jesus is telling them that greatness is to be hospitable to a worthless, financially unviable human who has a high chance of dying on them. In short to serve those who can offer them nothing in return and might actually end up costing them something, financially and emotionally.

Now the easiest place to see ourselves in this gospel story is in the disciples, the community of Jesus followers trying to figure out how to serve, live and lead with Christ’s teachings, but something struck me after our church planning day last Saturday when Huw remined us of our need to be open with each other in our broken stories and vulnerabilities.

What if we’re the child? Hiding our broken stories and vulnerabilities is something we learn as we grow, we see the world’s response to them and the need to have an outward show of being OK, when we’re far from OK. What if our call as a community, our way to engender the gentleness born from the wisdom from above as James puts it, is to present ourselves childlike before each other, without those acquired ways of hiding our true selves. 

To be here, fully ourselves, vulnerable in whatever way we’re vulnerable, but knowing 100% that we’ll be fully loved, fully accepted and served by each other? Not scared of the cost of that service to our sisters and brothers? If we’re to serve the most vulnerable as if we’re serving Jesus himself surely it’s also part of our Christian calling when we’re the one who’s most vulnerable, to let our community care for us as if were letting Jesus himself care for us?

What if someone thought we were great because we were able to open ourselves up to them, present our truly authentic and vulnerable self, and by doing so gave them permission to do the same? And how might a community look who joined together without masks, without affectation, to be a place of welcome and service? Pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 

I feel this is the community we’re evolving into and from our planning day, having been apprehensive about the path ahead, I’m now excited about what might be possible and about what we can do as a people called to serve the world round them.