Saturday, 12 December 2015

Advent 3 - John the Baptist's Advent vision

I am preaching at Tavistock URC, where we are also marking the retirement of their minister, Roger Cornish.


The prophet Zephaniah declares “Sing aloud, you daughters of Jerusalem! Shout & exult!”
Saint Paul says “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice!”
John the Baptist shouts “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”.

It sounds at first hearing as if John the Baptist wins the prize for ‘least Christmassy message of joy’ this morning.

But I want to suggest that it is John who has the message we need to hear.

I can’t be the only one who cringes at the relentless advertising showing us the perfect family Christmas, with permanently twinkling lights and roaring log fires and endless good cheer.

I cringe because I don’t want to ignore all the realities of this world and shut myself away from the truth by creating an alternative world of Christmas cheer where everything is merry and bright. If Christmas hope is real, it has to do more than just give us an escape for a few days – a holiday from our real lives – and offer us something which changes forever the way we see our world and everything in it.

Two weeks ago I went to an Advent Carol service in Winchester Cathedral. It was organized to celebrate the 70th birthday of Christian Aid, and we lit candles and thanked God for the hope Christian Aid has brought and still brings to the poorest of our world.
But we also marked the fact that it was the beginning of Advent, and Rowan Williams – former Archbishop of Canterbury, who is now the Chair of the Board of Trustees of Christian Aid – preached, brilliantly.

He described the way in which we need to look at Advent in two ways as being like having double vision. With the one ‘eye’ we see the real state of the world, with all its sadness, messiness, and pain; but with the other ‘eye’ we see the promise of God coming to us in Jesus Christ, to show us what life in all its fulness looks like. The problem with double vision is that it is disorientating, and the temptation is to shut one eye so that the double vision stops: but as Christians we need to hold together the two images, of reality and of hope. Learning to do that is what Advent is for.

Perhaps in the words of Zephaniah and St Paul we hear only one sort of vision – the vision of hope, held out to people who already had a pretty clear vision of how difficult reality is. And in the vision offered to us by our materialistic world we are too often encouraged to shut the eye which might see suffering and hardship. But we need to look at both hope and reality.
So let’s look with that sort of Advent ‘double vision’ at what John the Baptist is saying.

“The axe is lying at the root of the trees: every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire”.
Change is coming, and it will be real and drastic and hard. You cannot welcome God into your life in a half-hearted way, you have to turn right round and change and receive a new way of life from God.
The response from his listeners is ‘what, then should we do?’.
And John tells them to share with others, not to cheat and not to exhort from them.

God is coming and it will not be easy – the eye of Advent which looks at reality can see that the coming of Christ is not meant to be sweet, or traditional, or cozy – the coming of Christ will bring change and that change will be hard and drastic.
Yet the eye of Advent which looks at hope can see that there are things that people can do to be ready for Christ. They can repent, they can change, they can choose ways of life which are more loving, and less selfish.

John has double vision: and the people wonder if he is the Messiah. But John tells them he is not, there is another coming: Jesus is the one who will come to bring God’s hope to them. The passage we heard ends with that odd sentence “So.. he proclaimed the good news to the people.”.

On the face of it what John says does not sound very much like good news. But it is good news when someone is able to see both reality and hope and not shut their eye to either, and John points clearly to Jesus, in whom hope and reality are firmly brought together.

Jesus comes to show us how God completely inhabits reality – born in human form, in simplicity, in poverty, into a world of danger which will eventually send him to suffer and die. Jesus sees, knows, lives reality. But Jesus also comes to bring hope – healing for the broken, peace for the tortured soul, and the joy of life which is greater then death.

What does Advent double vision mean for us?
If you are worried about what will happen to this church with Roger’s retirement, then you need the Advent vision of hope and reality to see that change will come, but that God will be seen at work in and through that change, as surely as he has been at work her ein the last 15 years.

If, like me, you get a bit jaded by the blinding tinsel of a perfect Christmas, the Advent vision of hope and reality reminds us that joy can come to us in the reality of a less-than-perfect Christmas.
If you are frightened by the state of the world this Christmas, the Advent vision of hope and reality can tell us that God knows how awful life can be and yet God chooses to enter into it to be with us in Jesus.

So I pray that you will have Advent and Christmas double vision and know the reality of true hope and the hope of a changed reality – in the name of the one who comes to us – Emmanuel.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Healing of blind Bartimaeus

Mark 10: 46-52
Perhaps we hear this story from Mark’s gospel as yet another healing story: miraculous and wonderful for the man who regains his sight, but just another example of Jesus helping and healing someone who needed it.

But the story contains a most intriguing question:
‘What do you want me to do for you?’.

Jesus asks this question of blind Bartimaeus – a man who cannot work because he cannot see, and so who has to beg for a living. A man so low-down the social pecking order that when he first calls out to Jesus people around tell him to shut up, they don’t want him bothering Jesus, the great teacher & healer.
What does blind Bartimaeus want? He wants to see, he wants his life back, he wants the gracious power of Jesus to change him.
He wants to be healed.. and he is.

And at one level that’s all we need from this story – a story of Good News for Bartimaeus.

But this story can tell us so much more, if we’ll let it. It’s position here in Mark’s gospel is pivotal – this is the last conversation we have recorded between anyone and Jesus before the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and all the passion and pain and glory which follows on from it.

This encounter might remind us of others that have come (just) before:

Remember the rich young man, who came to Jesus and asked ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’.
He didn’t wait for Jesus to ask him what he wanted – he came right out with his request – ‘I want eternal life – how do I get it?’.. and ultimately he went away grieving because although he can keep the commandments, he can’t give away all his riches and follow Jesus:
he just hasn’t got the faith to trust Jesus instead of his riches.

But here’s Bartimaeus, ready to show us what faith really looks like.
Although he is physically blind, he sees Jesus for who he really is, and he throws himself on the mercy of Jesus
‘Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me’.
He refuses to be diverted by the stern voices around him, telling him to be quiet, and he throws off his cloak – he leaves what little security he has behind, and puts his whole trust in Jesus. And then when he has been healed, he follows Jesus on the way, without Jesus even asking that of him.

Or compare this conversation with the one that comes immediately before it: where James & John come to Jesus with their request – that they can sit one at the right hand and one at the left in his glory.
They don’t wait for Jesus to ask them what they want – they march straight up and almost demand
‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’.
You see how this is the almost exact opposite of what happens between Bartimaeus and Jesus.
James & John are demanding a right – Bartimaeus is receiving a gift.

And James and John – who have spent so many months or even years with Jesus – cannot see what ‘blind’ Bartimaeus can – they cannot see who Jesus is.

Jesus has told them plainly that he will suffer and die – and only then be raised to glory. But James & John don’t get it, they don’t ‘see’ it.
By contrast, when Bartimaues ‘sees’ who Jesus is, he knows he has to go to him, to ask for his mercy, to receive his grace.

In all three of these stories, Jesus does not turn anyone away, or reprimand them for the way they ask things from him. But it is in the Bartimaeus story that we see the grace of God in Jesus most clearly in action – drawing Bartimaeus to him in faith, meeting his deepest needs, and drawing from him a response of true discipleship.

Can we be more like Bartimaeus in our approach to Jesus?
more trusting, more persistent, more devoted… and ready to hear Jesus ask ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ and ready to be given grace and healing and a new start.

Just for a moment, imagine yourself sitting and hearing Jesus come close. Try to imagine getting up the courage to cry out for help.
Now hear the words of the crowd around you “Get up, take heart, he is calling you”
Now imagine that you are standing before Jesus & ask yourself what you would say if you heard Jesus ask “what do you want me to do for you?”.

What is it? What do you want? What do you need?

Jesus says to you “Go, your faith has healed you”.

Are you ready to believe that? Are you ready to follow Jesus? Because he is ready to answer your deepest need. You can be whole.

In Jesus’ name, son of David, giver of life.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Belonging together in one church

Closing worship for synod Oct 2015
2 Corinthians 5: 16-20 (REB)

Some of you will know that I had a sabbatical this summer, looking into Ecumenism.
I was inspired by a quote from the French writer,  Antoine de Saint ExupĂ©ry:
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach people to yearn for the vastness and immensity of the ocean.”

I wanted to find some sort of vision for ecumenism – when it can be such hard work, why is it still important for Christians to seek unity?

I had some great experiences of worship in other traditions – including preaching at one of the ordination services at Methodist Conference, and worshipping in the small Parish Church in Wales – Aberdaron – where the poet RS Thomas was once vicar.
I also did some reading and thinking and attempted to capture in words and images what it means for Christians to be united.

But it was only the week before last, at the Churches Together in England Forum, that some of my thinking came together when David Cornick, one of our own URC gifts to ecumenism, spoke about the search for unity as the search for the penultimate church.

Perfect unity and the perfect church, the perfect oikumene, the household of God, is God’s gift in God’s time and will only happen in the hereafter, not now and not by our efforts. But meanwhile the Holy Spirit can help us to form the penultimate church – the one before the perfect end – where there is a coming together of the broken people in the fractured churches in the imperfect world – a coming together that will form a whole, if imperfect, body of Christ. But that wholeness is not the same as perfection.

For me this is a message of realism – that only God will bring perfect unity -  but also a message of hope – that we can still work to become the penultimate church.

Returning to the passage we just read from the second letter to the Corinthians :

Our worldly standards count no longer
we are looking for God’s kingdom to be real in the church and in the world. We apply God’s standards to what we do – seeking justice peace & grace – life in all its fullness.

a new order has already begun.
God is building the ultimate church – but we are not there yet – it has begun, and it continues every time we follow Christ more closely and accept Christ in others. The new order has begun – but only God can bring it to completion.

God has entrusted us with the message of reconciliation.
Church unity is not just an internal, churchy matter, it is about the message of the gospel we share with the world. The gospel teaches us that division is sinful, that we only imperfectly grasp God’s truth as yet, and that we should listen to and care for the lowest and the least. Another speaker at the CTE Forum said "A broken world needs a united church" and I would add "with a gospel of reconciliation".

Be reconciled to God
Recognise that all that we do to build unity should be about moving closer to God, and closer to God’s will. 

I want to finish with another quote from David Cornick  - this time when he was addressing a Churches Together in Britain and Ireland gathering:
“Unity is not about growing more like each other but growing, together, more like Christ.”
So may Christ be our source and guide and goal. Amen.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Is it lawful…?

Genesis 2: 18-24, Mark 10: 2-16

Some reporters came to Jeremy Corbyn and said “Where does the Labour party now stand on Trident nuclear missiles?” and Jeremy sighed and thought “I wish they hadn’t asked me that question – there really isn’t a good answer that’s going to satisfy everyone” but he turned to them and said  “You’ll have to wait until we have a chance to discuss it fully”.

Perhaps you think that Jesus should have given an answer something like that to the Pharisees who ask “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”.

Jesus needs to think about the sanctity of marriage, the legality of divorce, the reality of human fraility and the feelings of the people who might hear what he says.

And those issues remain for anyone reading or preaching about the gospel passage we heard.
I don’t know where you all stand : your personal experience, your family situation, your hurts and your hopes. So it was very tempting to avoid the question altogether, pick another reading as our focus, or skip straight to the end of the gospel and the easier story of the blessing of the children. Yet we are left with this difficult question of divorce – and I think what Jesus says might help us with other difficult questions, too. But let me say right away that I know that for some of you I risk hurting you – perhaps we have all been affected by divorce – in our families and close friends, and many of us will have been through it and been hurt by it. It is not my intention to hurt you more.

So let’s look at what Jesus says when asked “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”.

Jesus asks another questions back to them ‘What did Moses command you?” in other words – what does it say in the law?
The answer is that a man can write a certificate of dismissal to his wife and divorce her. But Jesus says this is an allowance because of people’s ‘hardness of heart’ – he restates scripture 'God made them male and female' 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.'
God’s law states that people belong together for life and the law of divorce is an escape route for those who cannot manage to live like that.

What is Jesus saying about the law of God?
Psalm 19 states “the law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul”. Jesus wants the law to make life full and perfect and good for people, not to restrict or deny them. The Pharisees are trying to corner Jesus on a point of law, and he continually tries to open up the debate instead.

The law of God points people to the partnership of husband and wife because ‘it is not good for the human being to be alone’. I think Jesus is trying to help us to wrestle with the idea that the law is not there for us just to tick boxes of right and wrong behaviour, but to understand what is good for us, what is right in the sight of God.
And as it is not good to be alone, so it is not good to make a decision based only on what is right for you – I think Jesus wants his listeners to make all their decisions – not just the one about divorce – based on the good of the whole of the family not just the individual. Jesus points us to a sense of deep belonging to one another and this should be the basis of our moral decisions.

To hammer home the idea that what we do impacts deeply on everyone around us, Jesus uses a classic rabbinic teaching method, and no doubt shocks the disciples when he says
“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery".

In last week’s lectionary reading – from the chapter of Mark just before this one – Jesus is similarly shocking when he tells his followers to cut off a sinning hand or foot or cut out a sinning eye. This is not literal rabbinic advice, it is meant to shock – and to get us to think.
Sin cannot be taken lightly – cut it out!
And here, divorce cannot be taken lightly – you cannot just dismiss someone from your life and pretend that relationship never happened.

In every moral question we face, Jesus would have us look at what God requires of us – relationship and belonging not self-interest and cold calculation.

The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul – it is there to sustain us and keep us mindful of others.
Radio 4 have recently been broadcasting a short series ‘bringing up Britain’, hosted by Mariella Frostrup, which devoted one programme to giving advice to parents who are separating. It was refreshing to hear people talking about how to cause the least damage to their children and how to make sensible decisions together about the future, rather than how to extract the best financial deal for yourself in any divorce settlement.
The focus was on the whole family and the future of each family member, rather than only thinking about the self. I think in the same way Jesus’ teaching points to the importance of relationship and belonging, whilst acknowledging that not all marriages can last forever.

Then Mark tells us the story of people bringing children to Jesus to be blessed.
You might think this has nothing to do with the discussion of divorce – but perhaps it does.
His disciples want the children pushed away, but Jesus insists that they come to him for a blessing
‘for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs’. Children know that they cannot be entirely independent of others – at a very young age they simply wouldn’t survive.
The kingdom of God belongs to those who cannot pretend they don’t need others, who know they are interdependent, who understand that without relationship we die.

If we need any further help with understanding what it means to make a decision based on relationships and not on self interest, we have come to celebrate communion.

Here the death of Jesus is remembered.
In it Jesus offers himself for the world. He set aside the very human need for self-survival and allowed his body to be broken and blood poured out on the cross so that he can be shared for the world.
We also remember Jesus’ resurrection – and see that the life laid down for others becomes the resurrection life, transformed by the will of God the Father into life in all its fullness for all people and all time.

Just as the law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul, so the body of the Lord becomes the medicine which heals the soul.
Take and receive to your holy comfort.