Sunday, 29 January 2012

Christ in the temple

Candlemas/Week of prayer for Christian Unity

I know there are people here who dislike the word ‘ecumenical’ – and prefer the more descriptive ‘churches working together’. And as we gather to celebrate the week of prayer for Christian unity we are demonstrating ‘churches working together’ – we have chosen to worship together today, to sing together, pray together, open scripture together & celebrate communion together.

So it would have been easy, preparing this sermon, to focus on what more we can do together, how we can work together more closely and more effectively so that we can be a more effective witness, to the world, of the God we worship and serve together.

But then I read the Gospel reading more carefully – and it challenges me to say something rather different.

There is so much happening in the story of the presentation of Christ in the temple.
Mary & Joseph come with their offering to give thanks for the safe delivery of Mary’s child, and to bring Mary herself back into the worshipping community.
Simeon and Anna are waiting in God’s temple for the time of God’s salvation to come, and they give thanks when they see this tiny baby brought into the temple by his parents. They recognize and give thanks that God is at work in this baby.
Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna are just the witnesses of the real cause of celebration. They celebrate God at work, God revealed in this baby.

So this story teaches us to look for what God is doing in this world – God with us, alongside us, bringing in the kingdom almost by stealth, inviting people to follow Jesus and join his work to bring in justice, peace, freedom for all people.
We sometimes forget, in our concern to ‘run’ our churches, to keep the show on the road, and maybe, if we have the energy, to work with other churches, that these are not our churches at all, but they are parts of the body of Christ.

And Christ said ‘I will build my church’ not ‘I will build my churches’ – nowhere in what Jesus says do we find an intention to divide people, but everywhere Jesus declares unity, belonging, one-ness in Him.

As we celebrate the presentation of Christ in the temple together, we are challenged, like Simeon and Anna, to see what it is that God is doing among us. Simeon and Anna are both long in years and stalwarts in the temple. They have worshipped faithfully over many years and now they see the first signs of the light of Christ – a light that will grow and will challenge all the dark places of the world. But this is God’s initiative, not ours.
Jesus will grow to call others to follow him – and those who follow faithfully will continue to know God with them.
With the strength of the Spirit, we can follow Christ faithfully and discover the Christian Unity which is God’s will and God’s gift. And so I’m afraid we do use the word ‘ecumenism’ because it reminds us that we are part of God’s economy, part of God’s dealing with the world, we are all part of God’s activity. The word itself can be translated ‘the household of God’ – we are all part of one, much larger whole... in God.

But this isn’t an excuse to sit back and say ‘well, we’re one in Christ really, so as long as we get together from time to time, God can bring about our true unity when he’s ready’.
Simeon may have been a faithful worshipper in the temple, but he recognizes that when God acts there is a challenge to change which is so fundamental that some will see it as a threat.
So Simeon says to Mary ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too’. He make it clear that recognizing God with us is not a reason for complacency, but is a very real challenge. There will be pain in Christ’s journey, there will be hard work, and rejection and a journey through death itself.

All around us are signs that the church as we know it is changing and possibly even dying. We might long for a return to some glory days of the church – we might even wonder whether working together might reverse some of the decline – huddling together for warmth against the bleak winds of change.
But I think we are challenged to be bolder than this, as we seek the truth of God’s unity.
Ecumenism - seeking our unity – is not a pretty add-on to the ‘real work’ of keeping our churches going - but is a reaction to the disturbance that all is NOT as it should be. Jesus says that we are one – and if we do not show it, we damage our mission. I am not simply blaming denominationalism for the decline of the church in the West – it’s much more complex than that – but if the state of the church disturbs us, than maybe that is healthier than a false comfort.
Christ comes, God’s gift to the world, and the world will never be the same again. Christ’s presence is a gift to disturb and change and ultimately to heal the world. Christ’s presence is a gift to disturb and change and ultimately heal his body, the church.
If we seek to receive the gift God gives us, it can empower us to be one and as one to share the good news of God’s love for our world.

May it be so, according to God’s will. Amen.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Follow me!

Notes for Sunday's sermon on Mark 1: 14-20

There’s something fishy about this story of the call of the disciples – and I don’t mean Peter, Andrew, James & John themselves.

At first hearing we probably wonder how they did it. We imagine ourselves, going about our ordinary everyday business: just as the fishermen were.
Jesus walks along the shore and says, almost casually ‘follow me and I will make you fish for people’. And immediately they leave their nets, and James & John leave their father, and follow Jesus.

We might wonder what someone would have to say to us to get us to drop our whole lives like that, and follow. And John the Baptist has just been arrested – so maybe this isn’t a good time to be associating with his cousin Jesus, the one who John has called ‘the lamb of God’.
These fishermen – how brave, how daring, maybe how foolish. Could we be that brave? That daring? That foolish?

But the first fishy thing is that this story of Jesus, the one whom they will learn to call rabbi, teacher, is all the wrong way round. Rabbis didn’t go looking for followers: people who wanted to learn from a rabbi sought out a rabbi to follow. It’s as if Jesus doesn’t understand about the traditions of religious teaching of his day.

Here is the system – as Jesus knew all too well.
From the age of about 6 until about 10 every little Jewish boy would have gone to the local synagogue school, where they would have learnt the Torah – the Law – the first five books of Holy Scripture. They would learn the whole thing by heart, so that they could read and recite the Torah.
For some boys, education stopped then and they would leave formal learning and begin to learn their family trade: farming, fishing, carpentry. The brighter boys would carry on learning until they were 14 – they would learn all the rest of the scriptures – what we call the Old Testament – the books of history and poetry and prophecy. And they would learn to answer questions with other questions, not just to give answers by rote. Of course we are used to hearing Jesus answer questions with other questions as an adult – but we also have at least one example of him doing that as a 12 year old, when he gets lost and is found in the temple – deep in discussion with the teachers of the law – meeting questions with questions. It seems that Jesus progressed to this higher form of learning.

Then at 13 or 14 the boy who knew all the Scriptures would, if he wanted to progress, go and look for a rabbi from whom he could learn still more. A young man would find a rabbi he respected and say ‘rabbi, I wish to become your disciple’. The rabbi would test the boy with lots of questions to make sure that this was someone he could teach – someone with the right calibre of mind for the task. And if the young man performed well, and the rabbi agreed to accept him as a student, the rabbi would then say ‘Come, follow me’.
Those who are advanced, and bright, and keen, seek out the rabbi. If he thinks they are good enough he says ‘follow me’.
That’s the usual way that it worked in Jesus’ day.

Meanwhile, back on the beach – are four fishermen. We don’t know how old they are. We don’t know whether they had any schooling beyond the age of 10 – but we do know that they weren’t seemingly looking for a rabbi.
They weren’t the grade A students jostling for a place with the finest rabbi of that time. They were doing their very ordinary job – not a very glamorous job, either – hard work… outdoors work… smelly work, if we’re honest.
And something incredibly fishy happens. Out of the blue comes the strangest of rabbis, who cuts out all the interview stage and jumps straight to the ‘job offer’ – “follow me and I will make you fish for people”.

Very fishy. Very strange. And what makes these definitely NOT grade A students follow? Well, that’s the other fishy thing about the story. Mark tells it very simply - Jesus said "’Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
Strange, and yet a pattern Mark is going to use a lot.
Later in this very same chapter Jesus meets a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue. Jesus says “‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.”.
A little while later Jesus has a man with leprosy come up and beg him for help. Jesus says “‘Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.”.

Jesus says ‘follow me’ and they follow.

Maybe it’s not so fishy after all. Jesus is so much more than a rabbi – he is the one who speaks healing and it happens. When he speaks of the kingdom of God – it is here. When he says ‘follow’, even the second-rate and fishiest amongst us are given the strength to follow.

This is not, after all, a story about how four men find the courage the follow Jesus the rabbi.
This is the story of how in Jesus we see God acting in our world. He comes to us – he calls us – even the least likely of us. He accepts those whom the world might reject and his call gives us the power to follow him. This is the story that shows us what Jesus can do for us: take us, transform us, and make us an amazing part of his wonderful project – building the kingdom of God. Listen for his call – and receive his power – today.
Thanks be to God.

Friday, 13 January 2012

"Oh give me Samuel's ear!"

Readings for this week:
1 Samuel 3: 1-10 , John 1: 43-51

I blame Sunday school. That and the hymn ‘hushed was the evening hymn, the temple courts were dark’. But I have always read this story of God’s call in the temple as the call of Samuel.

The young boy is woken by God’s voice calling in the night. Samuel assumes that it is Eli who is calling him, and is taught by the old priest how to respond to God’s call & listen to what God has to say. You can see why it’s a favourite in Sunday schools: God speaks to a young child, so all young children better sit up and listen!

But when Samuel does listen to what God has to say, this is what God says:
‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken

concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.’

The message is for Eli. In the previous chapter, we have been told that Eli’s sons, Hophni & Phineas, priests by birth, have been using their position to steal food from worshippers. Eli knows this, but despite his rebuke it seems he can’t stop them from disrespecting people and God. Then a ‘man of God’ comes to Eli and warns him that God will punish his sons, since Eli won’t: both sons will die on the same day.
So although Samuel is understandably reticent to pass on God’s message to Eli, in fact he is not telling Eli anything he doesn’t already know. Eli knows his sons are rotten. He knows that God will punish them. He knows that his role of priest will no longer be continued after his death by his sons.
Samuel just confirms what he already knows.
In the darkness of the temple that night, it is to Eli that God is really calling – using Samuel to communicate to Eli what will happen.
Eli’s sons will die. Then who will be the faithful priest to the people in Eli’s place?
God’s message to Samuel does not say. But the fact that the message come through Samuel tells Eli that his successor will not be one of his sons but will be Samuel himself.

This story, that at first sounds like a sweet story for children, turns out to be part of a rather difficult history which shows God’s people how God is continually acting in new ways and through new people – and that those who are wise will listen for God’s word and be ready to join in the new thing with God.

We encounter this story during our celebration after Epiphany – we are remembering how God is revealed to us in the events of Christmas and in the baby of Bethlehem. But our Christmas story, too, cannot simply be read as a sweet children’s story – the magi turn up with the strange gift of myrrh, and force us to think about what will happen to the child, Jesus – how he will grow, what he will do and say, how God will be revealed in his whole life and death & resurrection.

Samuel will grow – he will continue to listen to the Lord God’s call and he will be considered a wise man of God – he will in fact be looked upon as a judge: a ruler for the people of Israel. But then, in a strange repetition of Eli’s story, just as Eli’s sons turn bad, so do Samuel’s sons – and again the line of succession shifts so that instead of Samuel’s sons becoming judges, Samuel is told by God to anoint Saul as the first king over the people of Israel.

You might wonder why we need this chunk of ancient history.
But whenever we hear of what God has done in the past we are forced to ask how God is acting now.

I think it is human nature to want to know what will happen in the future. The new year brings a flurry of predictions about who will be the stars of 2012, or what products will be big, or of astrologers trying to tell us what will happen to us. Like Eli, we might want to settle down into the idea that we will be succeeded by our children: even when all the signs point in an opposite direction. But if we listen to God, we find God has a plan – not our plan, not a set plan, not a nice quiet predictable plan. God will do a new thing, and will keep doing new things – God will call to young and old, and those who respond will be made part of God’s kingdom and rule in ever new ways.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, back in 2003, said in an address that Mission is “finding out what God is doing and joining in”. The story of Eli & Samuel shows us that we need to continue to be attentive to what God is doing and saying, because God’s plan is responsive to what people are doing or failing to do.
In the same address, Rowan Williams said “What makes a Church is the call of Jesus Christ, and our freedom and ability, helped by grace, to recognise that call in each other. The first reality is God's action in summoning us together as a people.”

So when in John’s gospel Jesus calls people, it isn’t a romantic story of small children, it deals with very ordinary, adult men, called into a fellowship of the followers and disciples of Jesus.

Andrew has seen Jesus baptized by John the Baptist, and tells Peter, his brother. Philip is from the same place as Peter & Andrew so maybe they’ve told him something about Jesus. But all Jesus says to Philip is ‘follow me’ – and not only does he decide to do it, he goes to fetch Nathanael as well.
Jesus tells Nathanael he saw him under the fig tree & that’s enough to convince Nathanael that Jesus is the King of Israel.
What they have seen & heard, what they have learnt about Jesus is enough to convince them to follow and learn more.

We cannot know what 2012 will hold. We cannot even be sure how God’s call will reach us in the year to come. But we know that God is faithful and loving and that God’s purposes are for all the world to hear of God’s love and mercy. We will need, this year, to be listening and attentive to what god is doing, as God finds ever new ways to communicate love to all people.

May we be helped to hear the call, and strengthened through this bread and wine to follow Jesus.
And may we be challenged even by the familiar words of the hymn 'hushed was the evening hymn' - since when we pray 'Oh give me Samuel's ear' we may not hear what we want to hear: but we will hear what God needs to tell us.
To God's praise & glory.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Epiphany notes

So finally the three kings make it to the Christmas party.
But perhaps not quite the three kings we were expecting.
There are the magi, of course – the visitors from the East who come with their gifts of Gold, Frankincense and myrrh. Sometimes we assume that as there were three gifts there were three of them – but Matthew doesn’t tell us. But whether they are kings or simply astronomers their gifts and the story of their journey tell us important things about kingship.
Their kingship is that of knowledge and wisdom and the willingness to enter into adventure in search of the truth.

Along their journey, the magi encounter a second king, Herod. His kingship is of a very different kind. He exercises power over his kingdom – he defends himself against the potential threat of another king. He is a king who is keen to show the authority tat comes with his position.

Of course journey’s end for the magi comes with the king they are actually seeking all along – the third king of the story - Jesus. Having failed to find him in a palace with Herod, they encounter him in an ordinary village

The magi present their symbolic gifts. The gold and frankincense are mentioned in the Isaiah reading. They are the gifts that symbolise the coming of people to praise the Lord God. The gold is often seen as a symbol of grandeur and power – like Herod’s kingship. The frankincense points to the kingship of mystery and wisdom – like that of the magi. But the magi also bring a third gift, which shows that Jesus’ kingship has a different dimension, in addition to the glory of Herod and the wisdom of the magi.
Myrrh symbolises death, self-sacrifice, the willingness to lay aside the glory and the wisdom of kingship for a greater purpose.
This third and greatest king, Jesus, will live and die and rise again to show people the true power he wields – the power to love and change the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012


After a wonderful church celebration of Christmas (many, many services, but I wouldn't have missed them for the world!) followed by a lovely family celebration of Christmas & then a great break away for the New Year, here I am back in harness.
Sunday we will be marking Epiphany: how Jesus Christ shows us God.
the readings are:
Isaiah 60.1-6
Matthew 2.1-12

I am struck by the three kings of the Matthew reading: not the three we assume came with the gold, frankincense & myrrh, but the kingship of Herod (which is about power & fear); of the Magi (which is about wisdom); and the kingship of Jesus (which is about sacrifice - the self-emptying to come to our world in order to touch and heal and save us.. ultimately expressed in death on the cross).
The three gifts of the magi point us to this - gold (power & riches), frankincense (wisdom & mystery) & myrrh (death & self-offering).

At some point I will post the notes which will form the 8am sermon on this: but I have also to come up with an all-age service which (as an experiment) will be held in the local primary school, not the church - God with us, where we are, not only where & how we expect him, offering us a new start for a new year.