Sunday, 17 December 2017

Hope in the midst of despair

Again we hear the cry from Jordan's bank but we also hear within it the cry from further back in history, the prophet Isaiah with its classic vision of hope amidst ruin (Is 61.8-11).  Today, towards the end of a tumultuous year is perhaps the time to reflect on the hope that Christ brings.  It is perhaps to be expected that the majority of people would have a somewhat depressed view of the world and our society following the events of this year.  Threats of nuclear war, the cruelty of a government with respect to those seeking asylum from war and deprivation, the excesses of people in authority, the inability of people to accept responsibility for abuse, ... We could go on and on listing those things that were so unfavourable and unjust to the people of the world, God's people.  This is what the media play on through out the year, bad news sells, good news does not.

In such a depressive atmosphere how do we hope?  Such an elusive thing that cannot be described or held in words or thoughts but experienced in joy and love.  Yet hope for Isaiah comes in dreams and visions.  Something that we have perhaps let go of in our rational based society.  Hope cannot be captured in words or rationality it comes in springs that appear in the desert.  The desert of human empathy that occurs as a result of our manifest violence on the other.  Violence in terms of words, attitudes and actions both physical and psychological.  Violence that we bring upon ourselves or on the other either purposely or as a side product of our own ineptitude and non-empathetic way of living.  Our ineptitude at recognising the truth of God's kingdom here in this place, at this time results in our blindness to the violence we help create. We concentrate so much on the rationality of programmes that we forget that hope comes in the form of dreams and visions not in percentages and numbers.

Hope is dreaming of the future in the desert of despair

God's vision for us is to bring hope into the community.  A hope that we see in the incarnation of God.  Christ gives to us a hope of living in harmony and in love with all those who are other.  Christ shares with us through the Gospel story the idea and hope that all of humanity are made in God's image.  It is not just those that are part of this church or that denomination but all of humanity no matter who they are.  How they express their identity as part of God;s world is not for us to judge it is for God to condemn.  In reaching out to those who are so different from us we begin a conversation that draws us into the presence of God.  We exchange something from us for something from the stranger and we build that into our dreams, our visions for a world that is filled with hope.

Hope is elusive and hard to catch hold of that is because it cannot be encapsulated in numbers and rational statistics.  A recent article in the Spectator talks about the deniers and the panickers but in reality they are talking about the dreamers and the rationalists.  Christianity is formed in the heart of God and expressed in the visions of God's prophets.  It is not a science that we can control but a call that is weak and unassuming that plays on our hearts with visions and dreams.  WE have to be bold in the eyes of a rational society by proclaiming the dreams of God for the intangible realities of a stress free world.  A reality that is based on hope for better relationships, a dream of peace and a vision of non-violence in everything that we do.  In this manner we change the reality of the world and strive to change the rationality of our community.  We find love in despair, peace in war and conviviality in sorrow.  Hope strives for a future that is built on the clouds of dreams.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

God calls - The cry from Jordan's bank

I will always remember the opening of Godspell and John the Baptist's cry from below the balcony seats at Bournemouth theatre.  A magnificent tenor voice resounded through the auditorium as if coming from no particular place "Prepare ye the way of the Lord".  The soul wrenching sound came out of nowhere and extended an invitation that was hard to deny.  It is a call that echos throughout the world at this time of year a constant and repeated reminder of our call extending through life from the moment of baptism to our mortal final hours on this planet.  A call that is reiterated in every injustice and war that we initiate, participate or allow through our inaction in response to Gods call.  Mark repeats the call of Isaiah "prepare the way of the Lord; clear a straight path for him" (Mk. 1.3; Isaiah 40.3) and the question in our hearts must be "How are we to respond?".

At baptism for anyone young or old, we re-affirm our response to the call that God places on us.  Parents and Godparents do this for the child and as older adults we undertake the response for ourselves.  A response that places the other in front of our own wants and desires.  A response that brings to the forefront of our lives the elusive concepts of justice, peace and love.  We straighten the paths of our lives by living to the truest form of God's call.  We place behind us the concerns that beset our everyday lives to which we surrender on a daily basis. We place to the fore a concern for the person least likely to draw our attention in the work place and the social havens we inhabit.  The social outcast the one who is alone at the bar.  It is our barriers that the baptist's call breaks so that we can respond with compassion and understanding.

Can we answer God's baptismal call and walk in an other's shoes?

The breaking into our lives of the baptist call reminds us to try to grapple with the elusive concepts that we label justice, peace and love.  The call is an irritant on our lives that is expecting something from us but we are not sure what.  we strive for the elusiveness of the concepts when we see things that are abhorrent to what we find acceptable for our society.  The malfeasance of incarceration of those seeking peace and refuge.  The aberrant behaviour of a few in terms of their use of power over the innocent and how we are to grapple with the consequences.  It is at the time of failure that we see hear the insistent call of God but are unprepared to answer in truth.  We find it difficult not to dissemble and squirm our way out of blame.  The insistence of God's call from baptism onwards disarms are rational minds as everything we think of favours someone and disfavours another.  We want our lives to reflect the good but we want those who are less fortunate to obtain the privileges and rights of justice and peace.  Yet, we privilege ourselves in the battle for justice and not those who are different.

Baptism calls us to break the cycle of privilege and reiterate the call for justice.  A quiet insistent voice that calls us into acts of defiance to highlight the plight of the disadvantaged.  It is quaint to champion our own doubts and terrors but it is powerful when we fully engage in / with the plight of those caught in a cycle of deprivation and poverty. What is it in this community that calls to us from our baptism?  What is it in the world community that calls to us from our baptism?  As young people it should be the concerns expressed in the conversations of our parents and godparents turn us to address the reality of life and find an answer to God's call on us.  It is when the future breaks in upon the older generation through the love and wonder expressed by the younger that we begin to create that which God calls us to do.  It is not generated by the old for the young but by the young for the experience of the old to craft.  So let us listen to the young who are closer to God's call as they have not privileged themselves by their prejudices and fears. In doing so we respond to the future that comes to us in Christ, incarnated and as judge.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Advent - A new year begins

Yes, it is here, a new liturgical year for us to begin.  We know the signs of the times, decorations in the shops, Merry Christmas signs, trees and tinsel.  Christmas bargains, mince pies, Christmas puddings, etc.  Is this really what we need to be caught up in.  These are the signs of our times but are they the signs of our faith lives.  A repetitive round of festivities that culminate in Midnight Mass or some other Christian service to celebrate the birth of Christ.  Is this what the liturgical year is about a never ending show for the Christian that turns up at church?  A show that the critics can argue about throughout the year if it is not to their liking; it is not fulfilling my needs!!  However much we dress it up our faith journey must be more than this.  Isaiah says it "we are the clay, you the potter" not "you are the clay to be moulded to our wants" (Is. 64.8).

If we are to be moulded by God we need to respond to God's call as disciples under discipline and under instruction from God.  This is a sacrificial following of God / Christ as we leave our own lives behind, not just for an hour each Sunday for the satisfaction of proclaiming our religiosity (Bonhoeffer would say that this is cheap grace) but rather to understand what Christ is asking of us in sacrifice.  At the start of our year we ought to be looking to our future in faith.  We should be looking at the signs around us to help us discern the path of sacrifice that Christ is asking of us in this day and age.  Just like looking for signs of new growth in the plants around us (Mk 13.28) we need to be looking for and discerning the patterns of new service and sacrifice that God is calling us to.  It is easy for us to hark back to what has been done rather than to discern new life.  This repetition of thinking does not bring about newness of life but rather like a decaying orchard left to its own devices it soon produces bitter inedible fruit.

Do we think of ourselves as the pot or the potter?

Good stewardship and responsible discipleship tells us that we need to clear away the invasive weeds and choking growth that prevents our own following of Christ.  That may look like severe bleeding to us as plants are hacked away and damage appears to be done to the surroundings that have grown comfortable and comforting.  This is costly to us and often required in response to God's call.  We, of course, do not want to undertake the next bit of rejuvenation.  It means that we have to get down and dirty and dig the soil.  The roots of the tree need to be fed.  Even if we feed it concentrated manure we still have to dig it in and that takes effort.  Effort for ourselves as we attend to God's word and the food that is given to us.  We may think that the food being ladled out is not good for us or else we do not want to dig it in or else the offering appears to be extremely rich and rarefied.  Unfortunately neglect means that we have to make even greater efforts for ourselves and for those around us.  It is not helpful when soul food is offered and we just allow it to pile up to rot because we cannot make the effort.

Lastly, having started to understand the feeding and having cleared away the growth we still need to prune.  Dead branches and poor growth needs to be cut away so that new shoots can appear.  This means we have to allow new understanding in and not block it with old branches.  The Church finds it easy to repeat what has occurred but is not good at seeking pathways to new growth.  When we do we often allow the growth to be stifled by old branches that have not been pruned.  In our understanding, in our governance and in our outreach we allow old growth models to stifle new ways.  In looking for new growth we have to allow the potter to mould us into the pot that the potter requires or the orchardist to prune away old branches and allow light and nutrients to bring new shoots that are unencumbered by the old.  At the start of this year are we ready to allow the potter to mould us and the orhardist to prune us so that we can become as Christ to God's people?

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Goat and sheep - Have we got it wrong?

Christ as King.  Perhaps an archaic form of celebration that brings forth all sorts of images that reveal our obsession in our own worth.  If we look back through time we have images of a person who is willing and not so willing to die for "his" people.  Prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, even to death and no I am not speaking about the Christ bit of the statement.  Put together with Christ it takes on all sorts of other meanings as well.  However, if we think about the image it is Christ as the King in a formal authority of justice figure that we are actually attempting to celebrate.  It is the call of God to undertake righteous judgement for justice that is being examined, not the sacrifice.  In Matthew's gospel we find the reading about the judgement of the sheep and the goats (Mtt. 25.31-46).  A separation and judgement of each person's attitude rather than each person's actions.

This story is displayed in the Kellock window at All Saints, Kempsey.  This triptych displays a central Christ on a throne with two sets of people on either side.  It is the attitudes of the people in the two side windows that we need to focus on when we hear this story from the Gospel.  From the description in the Guidebook:

Do we belong on the right or the left?
the southern panel represents the sheep, those on the Son of Man’s right. The figures robes and colouring are suggestive of a more humble approach to the truth of the judgement and an ability to point to the truth of Christ’s presence in their lives. As pointed out in the descriptions above the figures in the northern panel appear to have an attitude of “Who me!” and disbelieve. The colours are also mirrored but are subtly darker in hue suggestive that these figures are ones that perhaps paid lip service to God’s word but did not live their lives in light of Christ.
When we think about attitudes in our lives we are often unable to accurately assess our own.  It requires an independent judge to see into our own hearts and minds.  In assessing our corporate attitudes it becomes increasingly difficult as we are attempting to judge not only ourselves but those around us.  We would all like to assess our attitudes as being on Christ's right.  A humble  ability not to point to ourselves but to point to Christ.  However, the moment we start making such a call we place ourselves on the left.  The corporate body of Christ's church have pointed to themselves as the path to righteousness.  At the end of our liturgical year it is perhaps a reasonable time to reflect on ourselves not as individuals but as the body of Christ, not only in our places of worship but also in our Dioceses and denominations as a whole.  Are we getting it wrong by expecting people to follow us when we are not demonstrating that ability to point to Christ in our midst and say "Who me?".

In our own conceit we think others should follow but we ourselves are in need of salvation and instead of saying how good we are we should be acknowledging our corporate faults and striving to do better in the coming year.  Advent next week reminds us that we need to prepare, not only for Christ's coming but for our judgement by Christ the King.  If we think that we are on the right hand we are probably wrong and need to place ourselves on the left not knowing and not anticipating what God has in store for us.  Only when we begin to humble ourselves as the body of Christ both institutionally and corporately will we begin the transformation Christ requires of us.  Only when we acknowledge that we do not know God's will and refuse to bow to our own wills do we begin to undertake the required penance.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Return on your gift

We have a number of challenges that face us in today's society.  In a fluid job market and an world were certainty is a word that can only be used with caution we often find ourselves in difficult positions as we grow older.  Difficulties are not only monetary but also emotional, psychological and spiritual.  If we have been wise over our life we may have been able to make a number of investments that will stand us in good stead as the inevitability of age eases into our lives. The question is do we make similar investments in the other areas of our lives in the same way we do with our money?

Christ's parable with regards the giving of bags of Gold to the servants (Matt. 25.14-30) refers to monetary investment but let's just change the perspective and think in terms of the gifts that are given to us by God.  We are all given gifts of one sort or another.  We may think of them as things that we ourselves have developed over time, something we seem to be extraordinarily good at, or just something that we are asked for each and every day.  Often we hide these things that we are good at and only allow a few people know.  Even if it is a simple thing it is a gift given to us from God.  Trouble is we do not see the investment potential in these things.  They are just abilities that we have nothing more.  More often then not we allow them to lie idle for months on end or even years.  All of a sudden somebody says something and Auntie Ada knows all about it.  We all turn around and say "AUNTIE ADA!!" with astonishment.  In the long run when we consider community and the way of life that a Christian needs to lead it is this hidden asset that is important and needs to be cultivated just like the monetary investment we make for our old age.

An extraordinary gift given in love rejected with scorn

Just as much our own gifts are not invested in, except poorly, our spiritual gifts are even less wisely invested.  We lack the time and the interest to invest any amount of improvement on our own spiritual well being.  As a result we are poorly prepared for any involvement in activities that are of a spiritual nature.  We turn aside from the pursuits that our parents and grandparents found so satisfying and involve ourselves in those things that at the end of the day bring no benefit to the soul.  We are much like the servant who buries the gift and gives back only what was given.  We are asked to surrender ourselves totally, instead we halfheartedly give to God what God has given to us.  We now approach Advent a time for preparation, a time that allows us to ensure that we are ready to meet God in the incarnation.  This is the time when we need to start to invest some thought and time into our spiritual and emotional investments.  If we cannot allow ourselves to do that then we are no longer walking the way that God wishes us to walk.  This means that we all have to bring our gifts to share with each other and with God.  As a recent post said "God did not call the Lone Ranger he called the twelve apostles".  This means that we are in this together as a community.  Our investment must be in our compassion, our justice and our willingness to be what God wants us to be.

Unlike the person given the least we must not be afraid of the consequences of investing.  There are risks as with any investment but the rewards are God's to give and ours to receive.  Yet in fear and trembling we hide away and do not offer our gifts to friends, family and community thinking only of the benefits for us.  The other reason we do this is because we are also so judgemental of others.  Deborah did not judge Barak (Judges 4.1-10) she just advised him of God's gift to others who would use the gift that he spurned.  Are we willing to spurn the gifts of God and judge those around us who use theirs.  How often I wonder have we sniggered over someones ability because it is not to our standard, perhaps it is to God's standard and that is all that matters.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Being prepared - Ups and downs

We are asked to be prepared for the coming of he Lord as we do not know either the time nor the place as is highlighted in the parable told in Matthews Gospel (Matt. 25.1-13).  The village situation that brings this to mind is the progression of a bridal party.  In a village wedding the whole community is involved and the bride and groom move in a progression through the village.  Some stops take longer than others, hence it is not known when the main participants, in particular the groom, will arrive at the final stop for the wedding feast.  The procession takes from early afternoon until late at night when the main meal begins.  Being prepared means that the unmarried girl guests need to be ready at any time of the night for the grooms arrival.

In preparing ourselves as a Church for the arrival of our Bridegroom, Christ, we need to be as prepared in all that we do.  Our preparation begins with baptism.  We attempt to instill in the parents and Godparents the understanding that they are charged with this preparation.  It is by no means an easy task.  The chances are that there will be ups and downs along the journey.  Like the Israelites in the acceptance of God and God's commandments (Joshua 24.14-25) the Godparents and parents accept a duty of following and teaching.  This does not automatically mean that everything will be alright.  Just as the Israelites failed in their journey so we will expect that, being human, children and others will fail on their journey.  Yet we must understand at the deepest core of our instruction to those beginning their faith journey is an instruction to parents and Godparents that is enduring, just as the instructions to the Israelites are enduring.  We acknowledge this failure and yet persevere on the the journey into new life.  It is not an easy task.

Are we protecting our source or squandering our resources?

The women with the lamps are probably childhood friends of the bridegroom looking to be amongst those who are taken in to enjoy the feast and joy of the marriage feast. They have journeyed through life to this point with the rest of the village.  Is it wrong that their irresponsibility should deny them the opportunity of the feast?  The light of their lamps are their passport into the safe haven of the feast.  Their identification and invitation.  Those that did not take care of that invitation are denied entry.  In the same way our responsibilities not only as Godparents but also as members of the body of Christ, are to take care of the life that has been given to us to guide.  It would be wrong for us to throw away the opportunity that God has given to us.  We do so when we become involved in our own lives and miss the opportunity to form a relationship.  The relationship that is given to us as is lifelong one which is often neglected for one reason or another. 

Yet in neglecting the ingredients of a life that is whole and has been given an invitation to become holy amounts to foolishness.  Yes, the Godparents role is often neglected but it is our way of daring those who are growing to consider the fuller aspects of life not just the mechanics.  In order for any person to become greater than themselves it is necessary to guide them into a new and fresh aspect of life that may not have been considered.  (W)holeness can become empty of meaning a hole that drains life. or filled with the holy as we take on the wisdom of our spiritual and faith journey.  It is up to our lifelong guides to bring the reality into being.  Yet as the story of the Israelites who accepted God's promises and covenant shows us this is a journey that has ups and downs.  Sometimes we are doing the things that make the community Holy and whole whilst at others we are thinking solely of our selves.  We constantly remind ourselves of our journey as we ourselves relate to God's presence.  The question to ask ourselves is are we foolish (neglecting our wholeness and identity) or are we wise (nourishing ourselves with the oil of gladness and keeping the flame of God's Spirit alive).

Sunday, 5 November 2017

For all the Saints

The many glorious saints of yore are celebrated each year at this time.  The many who we know of and celebrate throughout the year and the many who just are even if we have not heard of their deeds.  What precisely are we celebrating here and what is it that we are yearning for within ourselves as a result of this celebration?  We can point to a number of readings from scripture that highlight what we would expect of a saint and say that this is what we strive for.  Yet, each reading we point to can have an alternative view that destroys our thinking.  Take the reading from Matthew's gospel 5. 1-12 that is in the lectionary today.  This is the classic beatitudes passage.

I am sure that we can see these as a basis of what to strive for as we reach out and embrace the concept of sainthood.  The symbolism captured by Christ's opening to the sermon on the mount is perhaps something that is beyond the ability of mere mortals.  For some, especially when reading Luke's  version (6.20-26), it seems a cruel and biased charge that castigates the rich and happy whilst elevating lives that are spent in poverty and weeping.  Do we some how see a reversal of what we consider to be of value by placing the hell holes of poverty and misery as must see / live places in the world as opposed to the Beverley Hills and posh waterfront areas?  An individual recently asked, after hearing an exposition of Luke's version, does this mean that I cannot be a Christian if I am rich and happy?  The dissonances in such a reading of Christ's propositions and our celebration of the Saints should be obvious, yet, how many actually believe these interpretations thus negating any increase in faith or movement towards saintliness?

The walls we create to divide rich from poor, hungry from full....

Perhaps we need to approach these readings from a different perspective and see for ourselves a window of opportunity that takes us beyond the walls that are erected around the dichotomies of wealth vs poverty, happiness vs sadness, emptiness vs fullness, etc.  Instead of seeing the dichotomous nature of these things let's rather view them as a spectrum and suggest that all of God's people are somewhere on this spectrum.  It is not that the rich are more or less important or that those who are hungry are better than those who are full but a recognition that living in the world produces a spectrum as a result of circumstance and the individual's outlook on life.  The second thing, which I believe is as important or more so in light of a Gospel of love, is that we are relational in everything.  Our whole society as a collective humanity is based on relationships.  Relationships, however, are influenced by perceived and actual power, which is often based on the dichotomies that are the focus of this reading.

In bringing these two together we have the path and the circumstance that we celebrate today.  In recognising our relatedness we understand our responsibilities in how we use our situation in life to the improvement of those who are not as fortunate.It is not for us to preference either the poor or the rich it is for us to utilise our wealth (finance, happiness, food, etc) to bring about a change in tthe circumstances of those who are less fortunate then ourselves.  In doing so we bring forward the gospel of love into the hearts of those who are in need. We become saints when we entertain the idea of hospitality to those who are at the opposite end of the spectrum.  We bring our laughter, our love, our food, our financial wealth into the need of the world rather than concentrating on the dichotomy between rich and poor.  We tear down the walls of division and open everything up to the presence of God's Spirit.