Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Antiphonal reading of Romans

So, to try to help people grasp the wrestling that Paul is doing in this reading, I thought I'd try reading it antiphonally - some bits all together, and then the other parts with half the congregation saying one part and the other responding with 'but...'

Like this:

Romans 7: 15-25
All: I do not understand my own actions.

For I do not do what I want,
but I do the very thing I hate.
Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good.
But in fact it is no longer I that do it,
but sin that dwells within me.

For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh.
I can will what is right,
but I cannot do it.
For I do not do the good I want,
but the evil I do not want is what I do.
Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it,
but sin that dwells within me.
All So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.

For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self,
but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

All: Wretch that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

July 3rd

So I think this week I'm going to focus on
Romans 7: 15-25
& Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

I feel I should tackle Romans - yet what I know I ought to do & what I do are two!

Struggling with not launching into a whole spiel about Paul's theology (zzzzz) but can't deny that he hits the nail on the head:
the law shows us what is right
our will is to do the right thing
but we fail!
- only Christ living in us can help us.
& can't help seeing a useful link between that and the gospel image of being 'yoked'.

Will keep thinking...

Friday, 24 June 2011

First after Trinity: June 26th

With apologies for no earlier posting: I have been at a festival of preaching this week with the incomparable Anna Carter Florence. I have come away with my head buzzing with ideas - but then had to knuckle down to the hard task of actually writing a sermon! Maybe the style is different as a result of all I've learnt - and maybe for once I won't wrap thing up too much at the end - but leave a hanging question...?


Abraham’s test (Genesis 22: 1-14)
“God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you." So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.”

What?! Can we just rewind a little here?

God said to Abraham… ‘take your son & offer him there as a burnt offering’ and Abraham said …?
Nothing. Not a word. No argument, no need for an explanation, no qualms. God said sacrifice your son & Abraham saddles the donkey, loads it with wood, and sets off with Isaac… to kill him. Because that’s what God has just told him to do.

I hope we haven’t heard this story so often that we’ve lost the sense of outrage we should feel.
I have an outraged question. Where is Sarah?
Did Abraham pop into the tent and say ‘I’m just off to make a sacrifice, dear’ and did she even ask ‘what are you sacrificing?’ so that he could say
‘Oh, you know – our son…our only son.. our beloved son… Isaac’. Where is Sarah? Why is there no account of her standing in front of the donkey with an even bigger knife than the one Abraham is carrying, saying ‘put the boy DOWN’.

We might feel we know what this story is about.. God tests Abraham. Abraham has to have faith – has to do what God says – and because we’ve just heard the end of the story we know there’s a ram in the bush & Isaac is perfectly safe all along because ‘God himself will provide’.

God tested Abraham – and Abraham passed because he trots off on his donkey with the intention of murdering his son because that’s a perfectly reasonable thing for God to ask, isn’t it?
Except – no, it isn’t. What sort of God asks a father to sacrifice his son like that? What kind of father silently acquiesces? Abraham has a kind of faith: we might call it blind faith, or total faith, or wild-eyed murderous extremism.

God tested Abraham.
God and Abraham have quite a few conversations in the book of Genesis.
The Lord comes to Abraham in Harran and says ‘leave your own country and go where I will show you’… and Abraham goes.
The Lord says, in Canaan, ‘I am giving this land to your descendants’ and Abraham builds an altar.
The Lord says to Abraham when he’s settled at the terebinths of Mamre ‘Do not be afraid. I am your shield. Your reward will be very great’ and Abraham says ‘But I’m childless’ and God say to Abraham ‘Look up at the sky & count the stars – so many your descendents will be’ & Abraham put his faith in the Lord.
God says ‘I will give you this land’ and Abraham says ‘how can I be sure?’ and God performs a ceremony to seal the deal.
Then, after Abraham has had a son, Ishmael, with Sarah’s slave girl, because Abraham & Sarah reckon they’re too old for their own children, the Lord says ‘Sarah will have a son’ and Abraham laughs and says ‘Can’t you bless me through Ishmael?’ but the Lord says ‘Sarah will bear you a son’. That son is eventually born – and named Isaac.
And just before the story we started with today the Lord tells Abraham that he is going to destroy the cities of Sodom & Gomorrah. And Abraham argues with God and says ‘what if there are 50 innocent people there? You can’t destroy them’ and God agrees: and Abraham says ‘what if there are 45 innocent people?’ and God agrees he won’t destroy the cities then.. and Abraham goes on and on, 40, 30, 20.. until he gets God to agree that even if there are just 10 innocent people, the cities won’t be destroyed. However the bad news for Sodom & Gomorrah is that they’re all a rotten bunch and God destroys the cities.

Looking at these stories, have you noticed that Abraham seem to be getting increasingly ‘lippy’ with God as time goes on? Maybe it’s that over time Abraham has a relationship with God, in which they talk together about things. So when the Lord tests Abraham & asks for Isaac’s life wouldn’t you expect a ding-dong battle at least as good as the one over Sodom & Gomorrah?
But what God gets is – silence and a saddled donkey.

God tested Abraham. But did Abraham pass the test , or fail it?
Was God looking for blind obedience from Abraham, or trying to start a conversation? You might think we don’t know the answer to that question – but I think there’s a clue in the story itself. When Abraham & Isaac reach the top of the mountain “Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy”.

It is not God who talks to Abraham, tells him to spare Isaac, and points out the ram who will be the sacrifice instead. It is God’s angel, God’s messenger. In fact if you look in the book of Genesis you’ll find that God never speaks to Abraham again. God tested Abraham. And perhaps Abraham failed the test & God decided he’d better not risk telling Abraham anything ever again, because Abraham had stopped asking questions & had begun to do what God said without stopping to think for himself at all.
God tested Abraham.
Was he prepared to accept God’s demands blindly? Or was he still prepared to test what God said against what seemed right and good and reasonable – and indeed to test it against what God had already said because God had promised all these descendents through Isaac and the boy was only 12 years old.

Was God calling Abraham to an extremist, fundamentalist faith? Or to a faith which seeks understanding, an on-going and growing relationship with God?
And what tests us? And how will we respond in faith?

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Trinity notes

Trinity

So here we are again on Trinity Sunday. We’ve celevrated the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ at Eastertide, and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost – and now we have this one week to try to tidy all our thoughts about God into the formula of the Trinity – Father, Son & Holy Spirit.

But why should we care about the Trinity? And especially, why should we care about the Trinity when there are 'real' problems in the world which demand our attention so much more urgently. Take suffering. To be specific, let's take the case of a little boy in one of our villages who is undergoing treatment for a tumour. He is suffering. His family is suffering. His friends are suffering. The whole school community is suffering. (all these to varying degrees, obviously). And in the face of all this not one person has yet asked me to explain to them the theory of the Trinity. Odd, that.


But one thing that people are wondering and quietly asking, is ‘what is happening when a young child is sick?’. And particularly, “where is God in this?’ and ‘what is God doing about this situation?’.

And so I believe we do need to think about the Trinity today, because how we handle the crises and suffering of life on the one hand and how we think about God on the other hand are intimately related.

If we think there is no God, then there is no anguished question 'why?' - stuff happens, people get ill, even little people, and there really is no reason.
But once we decide that we think there is a God, we are left with the question 'what sort of God is it that lets a little boy suffer?' or at least ‘what is God up to, right now?’.

So as we struggle to make sense of our world we are left with the question ‘what do we really think God is like?’.

Do we think God is Omnipotent? All-powerful? Then if God is the one who is in charge of everything, why can't he just stop all cancer from happening?

Do we see God as a loving Father? Do we think God actually cares about what happens to any of us? or has he created a world, wound it up & let it go, relatively unconcerned about this cosmic experiment? Is God, in fact, an absent father rather then a living loving reality.

Or have we got it all wrong & is God not much more than a comforting idea on a cold night?

You wouldn’t expect me to comprehensively answer all these questions in the space of one sermon, let alone unpack to your entire satisfaction the mystery of the Trinity!
But the idea that God is somehow three in one – and that all three ‘persons’ of the Trinity are about relationship and about relating to the world has something to offer us.

Whatever else the doctrine of the trinity says into this situation, it says that God is complex, not easily understood. It reminds us that we need to keep wondering, and asking, and searching, and remember that there will be no simple answers to our deepest questions. If God is truly God, then all our human ideas about God are bound to fall short of the reality that is God.

Yet even though we accept that our ideas will only offer us a partial glimpse of the truth about God, the idea of God as Trinity can be helpful. The idea of the Trinity points us to a God who is both dynamic & active and one who cares about the fate of humanity.
So the God who creates and cares in the Father cannot impassively watch his children suffer.
The God who comes to us and suffers alongside us in the Son will not simply leave us to our fate.
The God who moves among us in the Spirit has power to act, yet not a power which merely over-rides our human condition and our physical laws.
The God who is all three - and yet one - is a God of inter-relationship, complexity, love.

This is a God who is with us in our questioning, but who defies simple answers and straight-forward definitions.

When the ups and downs of life cause us to wonder what God is about, we need to have the courage to face the hard question of what we believe about God’s involvement with the world. In the end we are left with a deep mystery of a God who cares, and yet cannot protect us – or our children - from all suffering.
The Trinity teaches us that God is intimately involved with this world God has created. God who is Father & creator holds all things in being and sustains life; God the Son is the one who has lived a human life with all its pain and difficulty; God the Spirit is present in all and to all human lives.

When we wonder whether we understand the nature of God, the idea of the Trinity can remind us that the God whom we meet on our journey through life is complex and wonderful. Yet although we will never understand God, we are faced with the idea of a God who exists in community within Godself – and who reaches out to pull each of us into the dance of the Trinity.

So may we know ourselves held and loved, even in the hardest of life’s questions and the darkest of life’s episodes: held and loved by God – Father Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Trinity...!

This is absolutely an off-the-top-of-the-head ramble, just to get my mental cogs turning.
Why shoudl we care about the Trinity when there are 'real' problems in the world which demand our attention so much more urgently. Take suffering. To be specific, let's tek the case of a little boy in one of our villages who is undergoing treatment for a tumour. He is suffering. His family is suffering. His friends are suffering. The whole school community is suffering. (all these to varying degrees, obviously). And in the face of all this not one person has yet asked me to expound a theory of the Trinity. Odd, that.

But (and you were just waiting for that weren't you) I think that how we handle the crises and suffering of life and how we think about God are intimately related.
If we think there is no God, then there is no anguished question 'why?' - stuff happens, people get ill, even little people, and there really is no reason.
But if we think there is a God, we are left with the question 'what sort of God is it that let's a little boy suffer?'.
What do we really think God is like?
If God is the one who is in charge of everything, why can't he just stop all cancer from happening?
Does God actually care about what happens to any of us, or has he created a world, wound it up & let it go, relatively unconcerned about this cosmic experiment?
Or have we got it all wrong & is God not much more than a comforting idea on a cold night?

Whatever else the doctrine of the trinity says into this situation, it says that God is complex, not easily understood, but also both dynamic & active and caring of the fate of humanity.
The God who creates and cares in the Father cannot impassively watch his children suffer.
The God who comes to us and suffers alongside us in the Son will not simply leave us to our fate.
The God who moves among us in the Spirit has power to act, yet not a power which merely over-rides our human condition and our physical laws.
The God who is all three - and yet one - is a God of inter-relationship, complexity, love.
This is a God who is with us in our questioning, but who defies simple answers and straight-forward definition.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Pentecost

This year we have a joint service for 7 churches with communion and with a baptism: so the order of the day is 'a short sermon' (just as well as I also have 2 weddings today!). Here it is:

Pentecost
Without question the reading we heard from Acts is the worst Bible reading ever to be asked to do. On ‘Thought for the day’ on the radio last week, Richard Harries, the retired Bishop of Oxford, used part of this reading at 10 to 8 in the morning: you have to be a retired bishop to get away with that sort of thing!
After the Spirit comes, the people all around hear Jesus’ followers talking about God’s love and power:
“Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs”.

Never get on the wrong side of the person who arranges the readers’ rota in your church, or you will be given this reading on the day of Pentecost!

But what’s the point of this really difficult list of names?
The point is that these are people from all over the place – North, South, East & West – people who spoke dozens of different languages. God’s power comes in the Holy Spirit at Pentecost so that the whole world can hear the message of God’s love, which Jesus disciples saw in him.

The message is that God’s love is for everyone.
And that’s why we baptize children – even if they are too young to understand what we are doing. God’s love is there for you from the moment of your birth, wherever you’re from, wherever you go, whatever language you speak.
When we celebrate Pentecost and when we celebrate a baptism we celebrate the explosion of God’s love into the world for absolutely every single person.

But just before we got to the terrible list of names, we heard an amazing story of how God’s spirit comes to Jesus’ followers – with the rush of a violent wind, and tongues of flames spreading out to touch everyone. Pentecost is dangerous stuff – the coming of the Spirit is not just a nice gentle breeze which leaves people feeling soft and fuzzy, it’s a typhoon, which picks people up and throws them into a whole new life.

Opening yourself up to God’s Spirit can be dangerous and scary – it can change your life forever. Because once you have felt God’s presence, you can never again deny that God is with you, guiding you all your life, giving you power when you feel weak, filling you with new power and new love.

This Baptism will mark George and Milly forever as God’s children, touched by God’s spirit of love.
This Pentecost reminds us that the same Spirit is here to touch each one of us.
May we all be touched and changed and know God’s love and power, today and forever. Amen.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Easter 7

Jesus prays “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you”. I wonder how Jesus disciples felt when they heard this prayer. What did they think they had ‘signed up for’ in following Jesus? When they first decided to follow him, perhaps they thought it would be nice to have a rabbi, to sit around and listen to him, watch him perform miracles.. all very cosy.
Yet this prayer of Jesus - just before his crucifixion – warns them that it’s not that simple. The time is fast coming when they will have to do the work Jesus has begun.

And the ascension, which was celebrated on Thursday, just underlines this sense of responsibility. Jesus has died and has risen but is now gone back to the father – the last thing they glimpse are his feet. Then they have to get on their feet & really start to follow Jesus.
The disciples learn that following is not just tagging along after: it involves more commitment than that.
I’m sorry to be so unseasonal – but we find this kind of committed following in the carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’! You might remember that the King sees the peasant ‘gathering winter fuel’ and sets off into the snow to bring food & wine to the destitute peasant. The poor old page doesn’t really have a choice :
“In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted.
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed”.

Jesus’ resurrection body has left the earth forever, and so the disciples have to accept the challenge to live life as Jesus’ new body, the church.
But Jesus is not just passing the baton to the disciples & leaving them to it. After the ascension, they might well have remembered this prayer of Jesus to the Father that ‘they may they be one as we are one’ and Jesus request for God the Father to ‘protect them’.

The disciples must walk in Jesus’ footsteps, but always guided and upheld by what Jesus has left with them - the Spirit. Of which more next week, when we celebrate Pentecost!

But perhaps you’re left wondering what the Ascension of Jesus really means for us.

There was an article in ‘Reform’ magazine this month by John Pridmore, who writes that he struggles with Ascension if it is only a celebration of the victorious Christ finally being freed from the squalor of earth to return to the father. Pridmore rejects the idea of a Jesus ascended and untouched by our reality, but reminds us that as we see Jesus ascended he does not leave our humanity behind, but takes our humanity with him into the heart of the Godhead.
He sums this up in a wonderful phrase “All that we are – much of it so wretched – is what he is”.
The ascension is not a farewell appearance from Jesus, but is a cementing of the relationship between heaven and earth.

So at the ascension, Jesus’ mission passes to the disciples; it shows us Jesus taking our humanity into heaven; and it also releases the presence of Jesus into all space and time.

It is easy to treat the ascension as if Jesus becomes less present in the world – disappearing, head first, into a cloud.

But the ascension shows us Jesus’ resurrection body being received into heaven so that Jesus can be present in the here & now in a different way and can be equally and really present to all his followers, wherever and whenever they live.

Years ago when I was a science undergraduate, I heard Timothy Radcliffe, who went on to be Master of the Dominican order, talk about the resurrection. He said that we had to let go of the idea that Jesus became less bodily, less enfleshed, at the resurrection, and instead to understand that he becomes more bodily, more real, more truly present. If this doesn’t make complete sense to you, take heart in the fact that I have been thinking about it for 30 years and I still don’t fully understand it.
But I think Tim Radcliffe’s ideas have something to offer in our understanding of ascension, too.

Instead of thinking that the ascension makes Jesus go away from us, we need to realise that it makes Jesus even more present to us, even more real. Jesus becomes more bodily – he is here.

Jesus takes our humanity into the heart of God, he passes the task of mission to all his followers, but he never abandons us, but is present: in bread and wine – in our neighbours – in his body, the church.

Let’s celebrate Christ with us – and wait with eager expectation for the celebration of the coming of the spirit, next week at Pentecost.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

First thoughts about June 5th

Readings:
Acts 1: 6-14
John 17: 1-11

Following Jesus - what did the disciples think they had ‘signed up for’?
When they first decide to follow Jesus, perhaps they think it will be nice to have a rabbi, to sit around and listen to him, watch him perform miracles.. all very cosy.
Yet this prayer of Jesus - just before his crucifixion – warns them that it’s not that simple. The time is fast coming when they will have to do the work Jesus has begun.

And the ascension, which was celebrated on Thursday, just underlines this sense of responsibility. Jesus has died and has risen but is now gone back to the father – the last thing they glimpse are his feet. Then they have to get on their feet & really start to follow Jesus.

The disciples learn that following is not just tagging along after: it involves more commitment than that.
I’m sorry to be so unseasonal – but we find this kind of committed following in the carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’! You might remember that the King sees the peasant ‘gathering winter fuel’ and sets off into the snow to bring food & wine to the destitute peasant. The poor old page doesn’t really have a choice :
“In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted.
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed”.

Jesus’ resurrection body has left the earth forever, and so the disciples have to accept the challenge to live life as Jesus’ new body, the church.

But Jesus is not just passing the baton to the disciples & leaving them to it. After the ascension, they might well have remembered this prayer of Jesus to the Father that ‘they may they be one as we are one’ and Jesus request for God the Father to ‘protect them’.

The disciples must walk in Jesus’ footsteps, but always guided and upheld by what Jesus has left with them - The Spirit. Of which more next week!