Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Advent Sunday

Isaiah 2: 1-5, Matthew 24: 36-44
This Advent Sunday I am preaching at the closing service of a church, which had got down to its last two members. I am trying to preach hope in God's future...

Today is the start of Advent – though of course you don’t get to start opening your Advent calendar until December 1st. There are many kinds of Advent Calendars. When I was growing up we had a traditional card one with little windows, which we opened each morning. Because there were four of us in the family and only one calendar, we took it in turns to open a door. I’m the youngest so I got days 4,8,12,16,20 & 24 (Christmas Eve – the one with the baby in the crib behind it!). Over the years it became a very predictable advent calendar. These days you can get advent calendars with chocolates behind the doors – a sweet calendar; or ones linked to TV shows or celebrities – a starry, sparkly kind of calendar.

But if Advent is meant to get us ready for the coming of Christ at Christmas, especially as we also face the reality of the closure of this church, maybe we need something less predictable or sweet or sparkly – maybe we need something more visionary.

Rowan Williams, when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, had his fair share of difficult Advents, I’m sure – times of hard decisions, great grief, deep unhappiness. He wrote this poem, which he called “Advent calendar”

He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

Here is a vision of the ways God will come to us – not easily, not predictably, not sweetly, but in reality and with purpose. In the midst of our sadness about the end of the life of a fellowship in this building, we need to be looking for where God is at work.

Isaiah shared a vision of God at work in his world – when the mountain of the Lord would be above all, considered most holy and most high and when people would beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Then there would be no more war.

Perhaps we think it is an impossible vision – a ridiculous dream of a world that will never be.
How could God do that?
Yet the vision is important enough to be found carved into a wall opposite the United Nations building in New York. When the delegates inside have finished talking for the day about the most recent atrocities in Aleppo or in Mosul or in Gaza they go out & face those words “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares”: that is the vision of peace for which they are striving and working.
That is the vision God promises – the world towards which God’s will is bending, the vision of what will be.

But we’re not there yet. God hasn’t finished with his world yet – we are still only on the way to God’s perfect vision. And in the meantime we have to do our best to be part of God’s project of perfection: we have to treat everything we are doing now as provisional – just for now – just until God’s perfect kingdom comes.
So this church has been part of God’s work in Charmouth, but now this chapter is finished. This church and its people have touched and changed lives, brought peace and joy, proclaimed love and hope…as part of the move towards God’s perfect world.
But the vision is still before us, and though we are sad to see all this go, we know that God will continue to work in new ways until finally the kingdom comes.

Yet we are human, so we want to know when and how and through whom this vision will come to be. Jesus says “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father… the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Even Jesus does not know the detail of when the Father’s vision of peace will finally come to be, and he warns us not to bother speculating. But just because we do not know the details of how God’s will is to finally, perfectly, come to be in our world, that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen.

What Jesus says to his disciples may sound like a threat of terrible things to come – he likens the day of the Lord to the time of Noah and the coming of the flood and says how unexpected it will be. But what Jesus is doing is not threatening but promising – we do not when or how God’s will is to come to pass – but we know that it will happen. God will bring all things on earth to himself, he will come to visit us in his wholeness and there will be perfect peace.

And meanwhile – what are we to do?
Today we give thanks to God for all that this church has been, and prepare ourselves to live without it. I know this is only my third visit here and I can’t pretend to understand how hard it is to be here today.
But we also celebrate Advent Sunday – we remember that all human life and activity and time is in the hands of God and that God’s will is for perfection and peace for all.
And so we prepare ourselves to hear again the story of the coming of Christ into the world. We will not be here in this church, but we will hear the song of the angels somewhere, for Christ comes to all the world and there is nowhere where he is not present.

Wherever we celebrate Christmas, the message is the same “do not be afraid” “God is come to us” “the kingdom of God is near” “God is with us”.

I want to close with this Lutheran prayer for courage:
Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths untrodden, through perils unknown. 
Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Christ the King

Colossians 1: 11-20; Luke 23: 33-43

Christmas is coming,  there’s no doubt about it: next Sunday is the start of Advent for the church, you can start opening your advent calendar the following Thursday, even I have had to stop complaining that it’s too early for the Christmas adverts on TV.

So how are we meant to respond to the Bible readings we’ve heard today? As we stand on the threshold of Advent, the lectionary invites us to think about ‘Christ the King’.

The news of world politics often makes us think about wordly power, and that has been particularly true over the last few weeks – high court rulings about Brexit, Donald Trump elected president of the United States, predictions about the rise of the far right in France..
Who rules our world?

The celebration of Christ the King was originally proposed by Pope Pius 11th in 1925. In the time we now think of as ‘between the wars’, with economic instability and the rise of fascism, Pope Pius wanted to encourage people to realise that the earth is actually ruled by the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ.

The gospel reading reminds us that as King, Christ does not always rule as people expect. Just as we are getting ready for Advent and preparation for a celebration of the start of Jesus’ life, we are reminded of the end of it.

One of the thieves crucified with Jesus, hearing that he is referred to as ‘King of the Jews’ wants Jesus to prove his kingly status by rescuing himself. ‘If you are a king, get down from this cross’ and he might have added ‘& while you’re at it, rescue us too’.
But the second thief says only ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom’.
Somehow this wretched, dying thief sees a divine truth – that Jesus is a king – is The King – but not as people expect, his kingdom is not an earthly one.

Jesus has shown in his teaching that he is on earth, among people, in order to bring in the kingdom of God, but that his role is one of servant, not sovereign. Jesus is the promised good shepherd, the one for others, the one who lays down his life for the sheep.

For those who expected an earthly king to overthrow the Roman forces and anyone else who would resist God’s will, Jesus is the wrong sort of king. Christ the King is seen enthroned on a cross – not ruling in pomp, but dying in humble service, to teach us that the way of God is not the human road of power.

We have to be ready for Christ the King to overturn our expectations.

Yet our Bible readings also encourage us to think about what we know of Jesus Christ and what else this means for Christ’s Kingship. In the reading from Colossians we meet the image of the one who reigns supreme, who is like God and is sent by God to reconcile all things to God. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created”.

As the annual drama of Christmas approaches – both the church drama of the telling of the familiar story, and the domestic drama of cards, presents, food, plans and preparations – amid all that drama we do well to pause and let the amazing truth sink in yet again.

This child who is coming, this baby in the manger, this scrap of life and hope, this squalling bundle of humanity.. is the King of creation. If the phrase ‘God made flesh’ has failed to make our eyes pop, our jaws drop, and our hair stand on end with awe and amazement, then we’re not taking it in properly. Christ the King become the baby of Bethlehem – God made flesh to save us.
That is what our Advent and Christmas should point us towards and help us to realise.

Our expectations of kingship and our knowledge of Christ the king will colour all the celebration that is to come. That just leaves the question of the relationship between King and subjects – between Jesus Christ and each one of us.

How de we relate to Christ the King – are we prepared to let Christ really rule our lives?
What would this mean for each life here?

If we recognise Christ as King it means allowing our lives to be subject to his rule: putting the kingdom of God first in our decisions. What we do and say and think, the power we wield, the money we spend, the way we treat other people: maybe even our response to world news – the whole of our lives are not our own, but are part of the kingdom of God. We need to be living as those who wish to see God’s love, peace and joy for all.
If Christ is our King we are part of his rule – seeking his will, doing his work, being his body.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has described, in a recent interview, a conversation with a “very senior politician” about religious extremism. The politician was claiming that the definition of extremism should be anyone who says that their faith is more important than the rule of law.
Justin Welby said “Well, you’ve got a real problem here because for me personally my faith is more important than the rule of law so you’ve got an extremist sitting in here with you. We do not believe as Christians that the rule of law outweighs everything else, we believe that the kingdom of God outweighs everything else.”

Some parts of our world may think it extreme – but for us who follow Christ the King the state of the world, the laws of our land, the way we are treated – all this is outweighed by the kingdom of God: God’s rule is our ultimate goal.

So may we be ready, this Advent, to meet Christ the King in ever new and surprising ways and to live our lives more and more as his subjects and servants in this world.
And may God bless us with courage to build the kingdom of love, joy, justice and peace.
To the glory of God.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Remembering All Saints

Ephesians 1: 11-23, Luke 6: 20-31

It is the time of year to grow melancholy and reflective. The nights are drawing in and now that the clocks have changed many of us will be getting home in the dark. We are digging out scarves and hats and gloves and trying to re-activate the central heating.
Yesterday was Bonfire night – “remember, remember the fifth of November..”
Next Sunday will be Remembrance Sunday..
So today it is good to remember the saints of the church.

There are, though, some pitfalls to be avoided when we remember the saints.

The first is the tendency to look at the lives of special holy people, who lived special holy lives and think ‘we could never be like that’. 

The song we sang earlier tries to make the saints sound a bit more ordinary :
‘one was a doctor and one was a queen and one was a shepherdess on the green…one was a soldier, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast’ – but these are references to the most extraordinary lives – the author of the hymn said she had in mind St Luke, St Margaret of Scotland, Joan of Arc, St Martin of Tours, John Donne and St Ignatius of Antioch.
An amazing collection of people – who could easily fuel a sense that saints are God’s most extraordinary people.

But remember that wonderful quote from Frederick Buechner : “In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a handkerchief. Those handkerchief are called saints.”. Saints are there to attract the attention of the world. The extraordinary may get our attention, but isn’t it also the case that we have all known extremely ordinary people whose lives have nevertheless shone with God’s love, and stopped us in our tracks with a realisation that there is something holy about these people?

In addressing the church at Ephesus, Paul talks about the saints:
“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints…”

“Saints” is a term Paul uses a lot – and he uses it to talk about God’s gathered people – the church. Paul is praying that as the Christians of Ephesus gather they will come to know Jesus more fully and see the light of God’s love burning more strongly. We are saints – we are called to be saints to one another – we are the lights of God’s love for each other so that together we can see more clearly what God’s love is doing and together live out lives more full of that love. Some of us are brighter lights than others, it’s true – but the brighter lights are there to help all of us see more clearly that we are all God’s special saints.

Which leads us to the second pitfall in remembering the saints – a sense of inadequacy which leads us to want to try harder to be more saintly. 
At Taunton URC, where I worship when I’m not elsewhere in the Synod, we have on the wall two large written texts – one is the ten commandments; the other is the teaching of Jesus which we often all ‘the beatitudes’. I don’t know why those two texts were chosen – maybe they were thought to be the most helpful bits of the old and new testaments, maybe they were both lists, so lent themselves to being painted up on the wall, but what the presence of them side by side implies, if we’re not careful, is that the beatitudes represent Jesus’ new commandments to this followers.
In place of ‘do not steal, do not lie, do not murder” and the other commandments, Jesus is saying ‘be poor, be meek, be merciful’ and so on.

But that is not what Jesus is saying at all: he says ‘blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who are persecuted’. 
Jesus is not telling us what to do, he is telling us what we can expect – blessings, grace, outpoured love. All of this is  gift to those who most need it, says Jesus – open yourself up to the gift God wants to give.

So being a saint isn’t about effort, but openness to the gift of God. 
Rowan Willams, writing about the need to find time to pray in a way which is more than just a supreme act of our will, says this:
“Prayer is like sunbathing. You simply have to be there where the light can get at you.  On the beach, it is no use screwing up your eyes and concentrating: you wouldn’t get a better tan.”

And so it is with saints. We don’t get closer to being the people God made us to be by trying harder – we need to sunbathe in God’s love, open ourselves to God’s presence and God’s action and God’s blessing. That is the route to being more saintly.

Saints, large and small, ordinary and extraordinary, are those who help us to be aware of the love of God shining on us.

So we come to our final pitfall about remembering the saints – the possibility that we forget that the journey towards being a saint is never a solitary one. Saints exist in communion.  
I spoke just now about the beatitudes as something other than new commandments. But of course Jesus did give his followers a new commandment in John 13:34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians says “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers”. As saints we are called to share our faith together, and to love one another. It is for this unity, holiness and mission that we are called as churches and as a United Area.
Sisters and brothers – as saints in Christ let’s remember all the saints.
Let’s give thanks to God for all those saints who have shown us signs – handkerchiefs  - of God’s love.
Let us pray for the gift of God’s blessing and grace so that we may grow more saintly.
And let’s pray that together we grow in love and fellowship, for the sake of the world
And in the name of Jesus.