Sunday, November 22, 2015

Christ the King: What does Christ's "kingship" mean in an upside-down world?

(Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37)

I can’t recall who it was or when it was, but I clearly remember somebody once saying to me - in a somewhat aggrieved tone of voice - “The world is going to hell in a handcart.” I can’t even remember what sequence of world events it was that prompted his outburst. But I’m pretty sure that they didn’t match the horrors that have hit the headlines over the  past few months.

Of course, in one sense people of my generation and later have had it easy. Anyone who can remember the World Wars of the 20th century has lived through horrors on a larger scale than anything that has beset Europe in the 70 years since the fall of Nazi Germany. Four years ago I had the painful privilege of visiting Auschwitz, and that brief exposure to the pitch darkness at the heart of modern European history has left a permanent mark on me.

Even so, compared with anything experienced since then, and beginning with the horror of the World Trade Centre, events in the news have been so dreadful as to shake some people’s confidence in world order as we know it. How can world peace be maintained, people are asking. In the global village that we all inhabit nowadays? How can the peaceful nations of the world avoid getting sucked into the orbit of regions where there seemingly no hope of peace? How can governments - not least our own government - be expected to steer a wise course between the interests of their own citizens and the harsh realities of the international situation?

There is hope, however. There was a glimpse of hope just in the eruption of sympathy and resolve that followed the recent atrocity in Paris. But above all, there is hope in the interwoven patterns of divine promise and the human history that we find in Scripture. Indeed, much of the Bible was written in response to times in which it seemed even then the world was going to hell in that proverbial handcart. And as always in Scripture, that offer of hope comes bundled with a challenge to each one of to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Our two readings from Scripture this morning encapsulate both the promise and the challenge extremely well.

Our first reading came from the book of Revelation, the series of dramatic visions that constitutes the Bible’s grand finale. It’s a difficult book to decode, full of complex symbolism and cataclysmic pictures of the world’s end that there isn’t the time to unravel here. But the author himself was a political prisoner, a victim of persecution. He was writing to giving his readers assurance in a world that seemed to be going to hell in a handcart. And the statements and promises in this passage bear directly on our fears about the present time:

Firstly, in wishing his readers the grace and peace of God, the author refers to Jesus Christ as the ruler of the kings of the earth. And in the context of the times, the message is clear: However crushingly powerful earthly rulers may appear - and however indecisive, corrupt, even downright evil - they (like us) have a king whose name is Jesus. They will ultimately be accountable to him. And in an age when it’s so unfashionable to believe in a God who intervenes in human affairs, the passage gives us a much needed boost. Indeed, the coming season of Advent isn’t just about remembering the first Christmas; it’s just as much about the Second Coming of Jesus - the time when he will establish his kingdom fully here on earth.

Every eye will see him, the author promises. All peoples on earth, even those who have been in denial of his authority, will submit to him. For as the passage reminds us, God is the Alpha and Omega of the universe. Or as we would say, the A to Z. The beginning and the end and everything in the middle. There is nothing that escapes him, and it’s through the ups and downs, the trials and tribulations of human history, that God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year.

The message of Christ’s kingship was driven home further in our Gospel reading, where we hear the words of Jesus himself. He is on trial for his life before Pontius Pilate. “Are you the King of the Jews?” asks his inquisitor. And what a rich question it is - it’s a double edged question. On the one hand, Pilate is asking if the Jews owe Jesus their loyalty - and if so, why are they so keen to bring about his death. And on the other hand the question deals with Jesus’ relationship with the Roman authorities whom Pilate himself represents - is this man an enemy of Rome, to be dealt with as a threat to law and order?

Jesus’ reply speaks volumes about what is happening in the world, both then and today. And it can be summed up in just seven brief words: “My kingdom is not of this world,” he says (repeat). And in case we miss the depth and richness of Jesus’ responses to Pilate’s interrogation, let me paraphrase them: “You have to see things in their proper perspective, Mr. Pilate. No, I cannot rely on the loyalty and submission I deserve, even from my own people. And neither am I trying to whip up a rebellion against the Empire. Because I am working on a completely different level. Ultimately, you will see that all power and sovereignty is vested in me. But for now, caught as I am in the power vacuum between your people and mine, I am a powerless thing in your hands.” So much depth of meaning in such a simple statement. And that explains a lot. It explains why earthly powers manifest at the best weakness and self-interest, and at worst monstrous barbarity. It explains why all that is allowed to go unchecked. Because we are in a transitional period. Like the people of Middle Earth in the classic Lord of the Rings saga, which was firmly based on a Christian understanding of history, we are living in a time of weak, untrustworthy stewards. We are still waiting for the Return of the King. For a while human weakness and even outright evil have free reign. But the King is coming back. He will appear without warning. And all mankind will see him, in the words of Revelation, even those who pierced him.

All that is embedded in today’s place in the church calendar - the feast of Christ the King. In another week we’ll reach Advent, a season of repentance and hope when we remember the Lord’s first coming as a powerless servant and look forward with fear and excitement to his return as conquering king. But for now, in this, the last Sunday before Advent - which is also the last Sunday of the church year - we think of Christ as the king who has not yet been fully unveiled in the sight of all the world. But let there be no mistake on the part of his faithful people or on the part of those who deny his lordship. The kingship of Christ will be revealed and established in the sight of all the world. To those of us who are appalled at the ways of the world, it is a comfort but also a challenge. Are we going to be part of the problem, or will we be part of the solution?

As Pope Pius XI declared at the establishment of this feast around 90 years ago (abbreviated):  
The faithful, by meditating upon these truths, will gain much strength and courage… If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth…and if this power embraces all men, (then) it’s clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds…He must reign in our wills… He must reign in our hearts… He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments…of justice unto God.”Let us pray….

Sunday, May 17, 2015


 (Acts 1: 15-17, 21-26;   John 17: 6-19)
Yesterday, between 30 and 40 of us from across the three parishes came together for an open strategy day here in church. The main item up for discussion was the future of the Church of England and our own benefice in particular.

I wonder what you think, particularly those who couldn’t be here yesterday. How do you imagine our benefice and the wider church will look in 5 or 10 or 20 years’ time? How many members will we have? How will we be organised? Will we survive at all in our present form?

These are big questions, and there’s little agreement on the answers. But our local and national leaders are all too aware that the average age of regular churchgoers is rising steadily. In their minds (and the logic is difficult to argue with) if our church doesn’t learn to recruit and retain younger people and families, it could disappear within a generation.

Put in those terms it’s a rather dispiriting picture. But I believe that history and our Bible readings tell a more encouraging story – a story not just of survival but of renewed growth. I want to make three points this morning:
  1. To express confidence that in God’s good time the Church will return to growth;
  2. Based on today’s Gospel reading, to explain and justify that confidence.
  3. And finally, I want to report on an exciting new initiative to promote growth in our church, in our time.

1.    I'm confident that the Church will return to growth.
The Christian movement started out pitifully small. Once Jesus had ascended into heaven and the remaining disciples had had a chance to take stock, our reading from Acts tells us that they numbered about 120. On one level, that’s impressive growth – a tenfold increase on the original 12 disciples.

But think of the odds stacked against them: Just 120 people in an isolated backwater of the vast Roman empire, harassed by the Jewish community from which they’d come, and about to be brutally persecuted by the Roman authorities. Yet we know that just a few days later on the Day of Pentecost, the number rose by 3,000. We know that within a generation there were pockets of Christian belief and worship throughout the Roman Empire. And in less than three hundred years, Christianity had become its official religion; so robust that when the Empire finally collapsed the Roman church was left standing – and it’s still there fifteen centuries later. Christianity is the biggest mass movement in human history, with total numbers estimated at close to 3bn - getting on for half the population of the world.

What of more recent times? In the industrialised west, numbers regularly attending church are at their lowest ebb in history. But it is church attendance that is ailing, and enormous numbers still see themselves as Christian. And in other parts of the world, the picture is much more positive. In Africa, the church has grown colossally, to the point where churches are sending out missionaries to Europe and America. In China, Christianity was almost extinguished during the Cultural Revolution, but recently it’s been growing faster than anywhere in the world.

In short, growth is deeply embedded in Christianity’s DNA. And one thing that we can be sure about - sure from history, and sure from God’s promises in Scripture - is that his Church will keep growing. Not necessarily in out time, of course, and not necessarily in our neck of the woods; but then again, perhaps sooner and closer to home than we dare to hope or expect. We live in a time of searching: searching for faith, for hope, for meaning. The church has been slow to adapt to the changing needs of the society in which we live, but as I’ll tell you shortly, there are signs of change.

2.    Why am I so confident that the Church will return to growth?
Why should this ancient, sprawling, error-prone organisation, actively disliked as it is by some people, have been able to cheat extinction with such regularity? We see hints of an answer in our reading from John’s gospel, where Jesus prays for the church

I’m sure you didn’t find the passage easy to follow – I certainly didn’t. But it makes one thing very clear: As the church, we are something unique, something different from anything else that has ever been. Jesus prayerfully tells his Father, “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world.” In other words, although we may be fallible human beings and the Church has made some dreadful mistakes, the reality is that God has actually taken us out of the world and given us to Christ. And twice more in this passage, Jesus declares explicitly of us, “They are not of the world any more than I am of this world”.

Going a stage further into Jesus’ prayer, he makes it clear over and over again that his followers have a unique relationship with God:
  • ”You gave them to me and they have obeyed your word.”
  • Again, “I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them.”
  • “They knew that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.”
  • And last but not least. “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.”
 That final statement is key. In short, we are here for a purpose. We are no longer OF the world, but we have been sent back into it as an integral part of God’s mission to the world in Jesus Christ. And whatever ups and downs we may go through, as individuals or collectively, growth is in our DNA.

3. How can we encourage Church growth here and now
The Bible and history give us every reason to hope that the Church will continue to grow. And we’ve spent some time reflecting on why that should be the case. But we know that the church can experience setbacks. We‘ve seen it happening violently in Syria and Lebanon; it has been going on quietly in this country over several decades, to the point where some have questioned whether a large, broad institution like the Church of England can survive for much longer. Is there anything we can do to turn the tide, to restore our church to growth?

The Church of England has been developing a strategy to address precisely that question. Just a few days ago, Bishop M. launched a new diocesan initiative designed to promote church growth, to secure our future in a changing world. And a presentation by Revd P.  on that initiative was at the heart of yesterday’s discussions. There isn’t the time right now to discuss the contents in detail, and in any event they will be launched formally in a week’s time at Pentecost. But I can say this much: the new strategic vision will challenge us, it will challenge every parish in the diocese, but it will give us the resources, to do several important things:
  • To take stock of all the things we’re good at;
  • To use the resources we have more effectively;
  • To reflect on how we come across to the wider community; and
  • To develop fresh ways of reaching out to them.
The outlook is challenging but exciting. Far from threatening us with unwanted change, the new strategy offers us the tools to do what we already do more effectively, to be more truly ourselves, and to attract new blood. Growth is embedded in the church’s DNA. We are at last taking coordinated steps to reverse the decades-long decline with which we’re all too familiar. Over the coming months, we hope to see that growth potential converted into reality.

Let us pray: Father, as we prepare to embark on this new journey of discovery…

Saturday, April 18, 2015

VOTING WITH OUR FAITH (Easter 3: Luke 16.19-end)

I’ve been following the general election campaign very closely, and simultaneously I’ve been watching developments in the USA as would-be presidential candidates throw their hats into the ring.

There are many similarities politically between the UK and the USA, but these are eclipsed by enormous differences in both style and substance. And the biggest difference in my eyes is the role played by religion. In the USA, the religious right wing constitutes a solid political bloc. Christian leaders exert immense public pressure on elected officials and voters. And politicians in turn ignore religious concerns at their peril.

I think our system is safer. With rare exceptions, our politicians are very coy about their personal beliefs; they know that they have more to lose than to gain by taking any sort of theological stance; that any advantage they might gain with one segment of the population by invoking the name of God, they are likely to lose more ground with another segment. So how should Christians approach voting in an election? Does one party more fairly represent Christian ethical concerns than another?

I think that our reading from Luke’s Gospel gives us a clue. It’s a disturbing story: one that culminates in a poor man going to heaven and a rich man going to hell. And it’s been widely misunderstood. Jesus certainly wasn’t saying that the amount of money we have will determine our eternal destiny.

But what this story does do is stress that the Christian message has an ethical dimension. It doesn’t just illustrate the social values that Jesus set out in the Sermon on the Mount; it goes further. It makes clear that our attitude to the poor and needy, both as individuals and collectively as a society, is a central aspect of our relationship with God. 

Does that truth imply a responsibility on the part of Christians to vote for a specific political agenda? Definitely not, and we should not trust anyone who tells us the contrary. The House of Bishops of the Church of England recently issued a pastoral letter offering detailed guidance in the run-up to the election. Even they don’t presume to tell us how to vote, but they make clear what as Christians we must expect our national leaders to do.  The letter poses a number of crucial questions: not just about individual issues but about the kind of country and the kind of world we want our children and grandchildren to grow up in. To sum up their arguments, they quote this brief passage from the Letter to the Philippians: 

‘Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about hese things.’ (Philippians 4:8)

What can we glean from this guidance for our own decision in the coming election. My conclusion is that our Christian faith rules out three approaches that I’m afraid are very prevalent in our society:
  1. Our faith doesn’t allow us to be apathetic: to take the view that our vote is meaningless or that all politicians are interchangeable. And our faith certainly doesn’t require us to put ourselves above political debate.
  2. Our faith doesn’t make a virtue of voting tribally, as though we owe a particular party our loyalty through thick and thin, regardless of their policies or their historical actions.
  3. Our faith certainly doesn’t grant us the luxury of voting for the party that will do most for folks just like us. We have a duty to vote knowledgeably and for the common good.
 In short, our Christian faith cannot tell us which modern political theory or economic model will ultimately result in the fairest society. But it does demands that we vote for those we honestly think will do most for the sake of the common good. And it demands that we call our leaders to account for their performance in delivering social justice.

Let’s bow our heads, and I will say the prayer from the Bishops’ pastoral letter

Lord, we give thanks for the privileges and responsibilities of living in a democratic society. Give us wisdom to play our part at election time, that, through the exercise of each vote, your Kingdom may come closer. Protect us from the sins of despair and cynicism, guard us against the idols of false utopias and strengthen us to make politics a noble calling that serves the common good of all. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015


When four-and-a-half years ago I shared the above link ("What Would Jesus Do If Invited To A Gay Wedding") on my Facebook page, there were two swift responses.

The more dramatic and consequential response was that I was presented by church leadership with an ultimatum that resulted in my withdrawal from preaching and music ministry. Normal service would be resumed in a another town and a more inclusive church a year or so later, but my rejection of the conservative evangelical hermeneutic is now more or less complete.

The more immediate and less disagreeable response was a gracious and intelligent attempt by a respected Facebook friend to challenge the underlying article. Ultimately I had to reject his conclusions, but he pointed out a rather simplistic aspect of the author's Christology: The Huffington Post article states that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. However, if Jesus is God and if God authored the Scriptures (both assertions that many Christians accept) then by a simple syllogism Jesus authored the scriptural passages that appear to condemn homosexuality along with all other sin. I have to say that I found this argument itself rather simplistic; it disregards the wide diversity and the integrity of the many individual biblical voices. But my friend's next point was harder to dismiss.

My friend went on to point out that Jesus certainly gathered together with sinners, but also dealt with their sin. So, in response to the question whether we should accept an invitation to a homosexual wedding, he responded that we should do so, as long as our goal is to love people and share the mystery of the gospel with them. This is a very sound and reasonable principle, but his practical application was quite disturbing: "Telling people about their lostness is really the most loving thing we could do." This was intended, of course, as a loving application of sound doctrine, and to some extent it tackles the stereotypical view of an Evengelicalism more concerned with slavish adherence to rules than with sharing the love of Jesus.

However, in my view there would be nothing loving about going to someone's wedding and using it as a means to an end - to preach to them about the sinfulness of what they are doing - which is what my friend's hermeneutics ultimately came down to. And it is not just pastorally insensitive but in my view theologically erroneous.Muslims regard the Qur'an in Arabic as the perfect word-for-word recitation of God's word to humanity, to the extent that even the best translation into another language distorts its intended meaning. In the late 19th century, initially in the USA, some Evangelicals over-reacted to the twin-pronged assault on their faith of socialism and liberal theology and developed a quasi-Islamic insistence on the literal truth of every jot and tittle of the Bible.

This was not the view of the early Church Fathers or the original Evangelical Reformers. Luther believed that parts of the Bible (especially the wonderful Letter of James, which he dubbed 'a right strawy epistle') were the result of errors by the early Councils that selected the canonical books. Saint Augustine of Hippo (the original source of the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith and the Calvinist doctrines of predestination and perseverance) believed that passages of scripture can have up to five levels of figurative, symbolic and allegorical meaning. I actually think Augustine's approach is excessively influenced by Greek philosophy, but it helps us reflect on what Scripture is and what it isn't. To the writers of the New Testament, there is only one Living Word of God, i.e. Jesus. We have to regard the whole Bible the way they regarded the Hebrew Scriptures, i.e. as a divinely inspired but brutally honest, mistakes-and-all record of how the People of God heard and responded to the presence of God in their midst in various times and cultural settings. It is precisely in that light that the N.T. most clearly represents continuity with the O.T.

As far as biblical morality is concerned, most modern Evangelicals accept that there are both permanent and culturally contingent laws in the Bible, including both the Torah and the N.T. (for example, few Evangelicals today would support stoning adulterers to death, although in some parts of the Middle East this is still the cultural norm). Clearly, the crucial question is how you differentiate the permanent from the cultural. And there are two common approaches that in my opinion are equally flawed: 
  • One common approach is to say (as some liberals do, even in quite serious pamphlets) that since we no longer have a taboo on eating pork or shellfish, we can no longer support a taboo on homosexuality. This is simply puerile: it patronises LGBT relationships and cultural identity in putting them on a par with dietary restrictions and discredits the strong theological cause that it claims to support. 
  • The other approach is to create an arbitrary distinction between moral laws (universally binding) and religious ritual laws (only binding on a particular community, e.g. food taboos).  I believe this is patronising to the coherence and integrity of the Mosaic Dispensation, and dangerously conducive to eisegesis (i.e. reading one's own beliefs and prejudices back into one's interpretation and application of the text).

Some kind of ordering of the various laws and moral teachings of the Bible is essential if we are to use it as a moral guide. But any such ordering has to do justice to a number of different claims: the philosophical unity of the Hebrew revelation; the related but distinctive integrity of the Christian revelation; not least the overarching message of the Bible as a whole, and the amazing oneness it builds out of seemingly conflicting themes (e.g. holiness/liberation, unity/diversity, tribalism/universalism, love/anger, justice/mercy).

We each have to make an informed and prayerful judgement on this, but I believe that one possible starting point is the oft-quoted and widely misunderstood Galatians 3:26-29.
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
The crucial question is, which of the actions condemned as an abomination in Leviticus are actually sins, and which are simply social conventions (albeit useful ones in their original context)? Some are clearly based on moral or spiritual repugnance (killing, marital infidelity, blasphemy) while others (e.g. frequent  washing, with a taboo on potentially unsafe foods like pork and shellfish, and a prohibition on non-generative sexual lifestyles) are based on the needs of the early Yahwistic  community in its historic context. A tiny community of freed slaves in a hostile environment needs massive social cohesion, a high birthrate and a healthy populace. In other words, although I bridle at equating shellfish with Gay love for the reasons set out above, I do not accept that either is a sin but fully understand how they could have been seen as a threat to growth, prosperity, security or social harmony in post-Egyptian Israel.

In conclusion, while accepting that adultery and promiscuity are intrinsically sinful regardless of gender (involving as they do betrayal of trust and the use of other people as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves),  I believe that intolerance of stable, socially integrated LGBT relationships needs to be consigned to history along with many other (not just ritual) evils tolerated or even commanded at various points in salvation history, including slavery, genocide, blood feud, polygamy, the treatment of women as mere chattels, and the ban on commensality.

Finally, while proudly upholding the truth that Jesus is God, we must remember that the Holy Spirit is also God, and I am personally convinced (although each person has to make his or her own prayerful judgement on this) that the prevailing attitude of acceptance regarding Gay Christians is His doing. We tend to think of the individual as the basic building block of society. The Jewish and Christian communities of the Bible saw not the individual but the family as that basic building block, and would have seen the breakdown of family life today as the cause rather than just a symptom of the wider social collapse. We have to ask ourselves, are same-sex family units part of the collapse of family life, or a powerful restatement of family values at just the time when they are most needed? I think the latter, and I would gladly accept the invitation to a Gay wedding, not just to share the Gospel but also to receive it and to join in their rejoicing along with the Trinitarian God in whom all joy and peace and fellowship have their source.

Sunday, March 15, 2015


Exodus 2: 1-10       Luke 2: 33-35

It took me a long time to realize that not everyone finds Mothering Sunday an easy or uplifting time. As a child I used to enjoy making my mum a card in class, and taking home a little bunch of daffodils from Sunday school. And as a parent with a young family I loved seeing our own children do the same for their Mum.

I didn’t begin to see the challenging side of this celebration until I became a form tutor at a secondary school. For a small rural community college we had a surprising number of children whom “Mothers’ Day” left feeling marginalized or excluded – not just those whose mothers were deceased or absent, but less obviously the unhappy few whose relationship with their mother was a source not of warmth and comfort, but of grief and insecurity. And it worked both ways, because at almost every parents’ evening I would get a least one mum pouring out her anguish over her child’s approach to life and agonizing that she must have done something wrong.

So working with children was an eye-opener. But it wasn’t until three years ago, when my own mother passed away, that I experienced the poignant aspect of Mothering Sunday at first hand. I still love it when our granddaughter goes forward to collect flowers for her mum, and I very much appreciate the opportunity to remember my own mother prayerfully and with gratitude. But it has become a poignant time, and I can no longer forget the many others for whom today is accompanied by feelings of loss or grief or even anger.

And so Mothering Sunday isn’t just one of the hardest of days on which to go to church; it’s also one of the hardest days on which to stand here in the pulpit and find a message to deliver that will offer something for everyone: a word of healing for those whose family relationships or memories are clouded, but above all a word of affirmation and thanksgiving for mothers, motherhood and parenting in general.

Our Bible readings this morning offer us two possible starting points, rooted in the stories of Moses and Jesus and their respective mothers.

Imagine the horror for Moses’ mother as a slave woman: giving birth to a son at a time when Egyptian guards were under orders to throw any Jewish boy-babies into the Nile. She manages to keep him hidden for three months, but she knows that she can’t keep him safe for much longer. And so, desperately entrusting his future to God, she lets him go. Fashioning a tiny floating basket, she hides him in the reeds at the water’s edge. There he is found and rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, who unwittingly employs the baby’s own mother as a royal nanny to raise him to adulthood.

How painful it must have been for the natural mother, when the boy was older, to take him to the princess to be formally adopted as her son. But by letting go and trusting God she had seen him grow up into a young adult. And none of those involved can have foreseen the consequences: how a mother’s trust and a princess’s kindness would produce such a powerful leader: one who would be God’s agent in securing the release of his people from slavery; indeed, a leader who would lay the foundations not just for Israel’s future, but for the future of the world.

Our short second reading tells us what happened when Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to the Temple for his dedication. It’s nothing like as dramatic as the story of Moses’ childhood, but the day doesn’t seem to go quite as expected. It was the equivalent of a modern christening – it ought to have been a pleasant family event that they would look back on with affection and pride for years to come.

But in the event, something unexpected happens. They get accosted by a couple of elderly prayer warriors – the kind you sometimes find loitering in cathedrals today. These old people immediately discern that Jesus is someone of unique importance. One of them begins prophesying about the tribulations that lie ahead for the little one. And finally he turns to Mary and says, “And a sword will pierce your own heart also”.

As I read that last sentence, I thought it wouldn’t make a bad title for this sermon. “A Sword Will Pierce Your Heart”. For many, perhaps most of us, parenthood will have proved a joy and a blessing – for mums, for dads, and especially for the children. But for everyone who ever tries to start a family – whether or not they succeed in their efforts - there’s a health warning on the side of the package that says, “A Sword Will Pierce Your Heart”.

Mary herself experienced the agony of watching as an actual spear entered Jesus’ side, and it must have felt as if her own heart was being pierced. When we start a family, we can’t predict what form that spear might take for us, whether it will involve loss, sickness, alienation, or simply the cumulative impact of a thousand lesser anxieties over health, schooling, family relationships, career choices, and all the other ups and downs of life parents and children go through together. And however good our intentions, all parents make mistakes, some of which will haunt them for years. We can only put our trust in God, and hope for the best.

For others the pain may come when their efforts to start a family are unsuccessful, or when they realize that they have missed the opportunity to try. In a perfect world, Mothering Sunday would be a day on which every single person present is able to join together in giving thanks. But real life is more complicated than that, and it’s probable that for some people here today this is difficult territory.

If that describes you, then it’s our prayer that today will be a day of healing – a day when you feel able to do what Moses’ mother did, when she handed over to God the things that she could not accomplish by herself. And any feelings we may be carrying of hurt, of regret, of failure, of unforgiveness, may God take those things into himself and grant us peace. May you leave here this morning relieved of some of that burden.

In contrast, for many people here, today will be a day of joy, an opportunity to count our blessings, to give thanks for those who have loved and nurtured us, for those who have given us hope and a sense of belonging. In most cases, those will be our natural parents, especially our mothers. But I’ve known a number of people who owe their sense of wellbeing to someone else: a grandparent, or an unrelated person who has been there for them in the long term, supporting and guiding them through the ups and downs of life. For such people as these, this is also an opportunity to give thanks.

And that’s the cue for a final challenge to all of us. Remember, Pharaoh’s daughter became a mother to Moses, and shared all the joy and grief of his tumultuous coming of age, through nothing more than the kindness of her heart and the mixed blessing of having been in the right place at the right time. Similarly, when Jesus was dying on the Cross, he saw his mother Mary and the Apostle John standing there together, and he encouraged them to act as a mother and son to one another. Similarly, part of the wonder of this extended church family is the opportunity we have to act like family to one another: like parents, like grandparents, like children or like siblings; to accept our differences and support one another through life’s ups and downs.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

From the Desert to the Mountain: Transfiguration and Lent

Have you ever had a moment in your life when all the things going round in your head have just fallen into place? When you’ve seen your life in a fresh light, and all your old ambitions and expectations for the future have been turned on their head?

I experienced something like that many years ago. I had to deliver a long and complex business presentation to senior executives of the company I worked for. I’d never done anything remotely like that, and I was expecting it to be a disaster. But as I stood in front of that intimidating wall of charcoal pin-striped suits, in a way I can’t adequately describe or explain, everything came together. And while they didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm for the business plan, it turned out that my stand-up presentation was one of the most effective they’d seen.

Nobody was more surprised than I was. And this relatively undramatic event turned my life plans on their head. Because I couldn’t escape the conclusion that God had unlocked this hidden skill for it to be used in his service. And that realisation was the first step on a journey that led to a major career change and to the ministry it’s my privilege to have now. The journey is ongoing, and only God knows where it will lead in the future. But whatever happens, it’s radically different from anything I had ever imagined before one pivotal day in 1993.

Mark’s Gospel recounts a much more dramatic moment in the lives of Peter, James and John that similarly changed their life priorities. Jesus takes them on a hike up a mountain, where something happens that they can’t adequately describe or explain. The way they tell it later, Jesus is transfigured. His appearance changes. For a moment his physical presence seems to be eclipsed by the dazzling, divine radiance from within. And that’s not the end of the strangeness. They’re joined by Moses and Elijah, two of the key figures from the OT. Predictably enough, Peter does what he often seems to do at important moments – he talks nonsense. And he’s rebuked by nothing less than a voice from Heaven.

What can we say about this magnificent and mysterious experience? Theologians have been grappling with it for all the centuries since, with little agreement on exactly what it means. But the first question people today is whether things can  really have happened quite the way the Bible describes them. Or whether there’s a more natural, human explanation for the story that’s come down to us. And it’s a good question – a legitimate use of the rational, scientific brains that God gave us. And the sort of question that religious leaders refused to contemplate for much too long,

In fact there’s compelling evidence that something truly unique and mysterious did happen up there. But it’s possible for us to look past the supernatural elements of the story. And far from losing the wonder of the moment, it helps us see all the more clearly what’s going on in the minds of Jesus’ companions.

Remember, these are men who’ve been following Jesus for months. They’ve come to love and respect him. They’re in awe of his wisdom and goodness. And in the case of Peter, he’s already accepted Jesus as the Messiah – the godly king whose coming was foretold in the Old Testament. But there’s no clear evidence that James and John are as advanced as Peter in their thinking. And even Peter himself has yet to grasp fully who and what Jesus is.

All that’s about to change. Because up there on the remote mountain top, they have one of those life experiences that I described at the beginning – a psychological moment that turns their life and everything they’ve ever stood for on its head. And what happens in essence is that, for the first time, they see Jesus in proper context. So far, they’ve seen him as a spiritual master, a freedom fighter, and perhaps a national leader in waiting – that much is clear from the Gospel accounts. And they’ve taken pride, not always of the best sort, in their own status as his inner circle of trusted lieutenants.

But now something happens to make those blinkers of cliquish pride and self-interest fall from their eyes. And in that moment of blinding vision, they understand that Jesus is nothing less than the culmination of Israel’s history: that God is now present in a way that the Law of Moses could only hint at; present in a way that the great prophets like Elijah always looked forward to. And in that same moment, they perceive the revised life plan to which God is calling them: no longer just minions of a regional cult figure, but Apostles who will carry this astonishing and universal truth out into the world.

So, if we could look back in time, what would we see happening? A true miracle visible to anyone in the vicinity? Or three men lost in the throes of a mystical vision? Or was it simply a psychological quantum leap recounted in religious language? Opinions differ. But whichever view we take, supernatural or mystical or scientific, the Transfiguration has a vital relevance to the weeks ahead of us.

This coming Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent – the weeks of spiritual preparation leading up to Easter. For many people it will involve making some kind of sacrifice. This has traditionally taken the form of fasting, but I know people whose Lenten devotion involves giving up alcohol or smoking or television or the use of their mobile phone or even social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. The point is that for a few weeks we give up something that makes us feel satisfied, something we have come to depend on for our comfort and relaxation.  And we do our best to replace that familiar source of comfort with something more reflective and life-enhancing.

In fact it’s not what we give up that matters, but what we take on in its place. It might involve coming to the Lent course that we’ll be running once again. Or it may be prayer, or some spiritual reading, or just a few minutes each day to be ourselves, to look for the face of Christ and listen for his voice in our own lives. But whatever we choose to do in Lent, we symbolically follow Jesus out into the desert to share his struggle against the incessant self-serving demands of our human nature. It can be uncomfortable at first, as we become more aware of our weaknesses and failings. But for countless people, Lent has changed the whole way they see the world and their place within it for the better.

And in a real sense, the desert of temptation and the mountain of transfiguration go together. We spend so much of our lives on autopilot, getting on with business as usual, that we become blind to Christ’s transforming presence in our lives. But as our reading from 2 Corinthians reminds us, God is always ready to give us “the light of the knowledge of his glory displayed in the face of Christ”. And it’s in making the space to reflect and pray that we open ourselves up to a fresh vision of Christ and new possibilities for our own future. This may take the form of a dramatic spiritual experience. More often it involves some very natural event such as I experienced two decades ago – something that takes us off autopilot for just long enough to hear see and hear things that we’ve been failing to notice.

And one of the most glorious aspects of this story is that we too are being slowly transfigured – the divine spark that lives in each of us will become ever more clearly visible as we follow in his footsteps. And it’s my prayer that this year, Lent will help many of us find the space to discover meet with Jesus in a fresh and life-enhancing way.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Music Review: Stacy Grubb's "From the Barroom to the Steeple"

It is 5 years almost to the day since I reviewed Stacy Grubb's debut album, 'Hurricane'. "Behind her pert image and vivacious personality," I wrote, "lurks a deep Christian thinker, a gifted song-writer, and an outstanding singer who is already able to command studio support from ace musicians and backing vocalists. The end result is a perfectly balanced album: thoroughly informed by bluegrass without being a slave to it. By turns haunting and exuberant, it is sonically beautiful from start to finish."

Five years of intense commitment to family life later, Stacy has released a new album: 'From the Barroom to the Steeple'. The arrangements and production are deliberately more stripped down but still gorgeous, the songwriting more assured but still deeply personal, and the style a little closer to pure bluegrass but still pleasantly inclusive.

Above all, time has addressed the few flaws in tone and phrasing that were audible on the debut album, and personal experience of adversity has helped to develop a deeper spirituality in Stacy's lyrics as well as a more searching and adventurous melodic scheme.  

Stacy's music is not corporate 'product' with vast marketing muscle behind it, but it's available from iTunes and other online retailers and deserves a wider audience.

Thoroughly recommended.