Sunday, 6 April 2014

Bones and bandages


“Son of man, can these bones live?”

Today’s readings are, of course, about resurrection.
About returning to life.
Ezekiel in the valley of the bones,
and Jesus with his friends in their distress.

Can you imagine a field of bones?
We’ve all seen skeletons on television, of course,
and some of us may have visited ossuaries on the continent,
which are usually memorials to soldiers who fell in the first world war,
and they put the bones of soldiers who have got separated from their identity into the ossuaries to honour them.
Robert and I might visit the one near Verdun at the end of our holiday next month – we've been there before, and it's very impressive.

And the older ones among us may remember seeing pictures of a huge pile of bones in Cambodia after the Pol Pot atrocities of the 1970s.

I think Ezekiel, in his vision, must have seen something like that.
A huge pile of skulls and bones….
“Son of man, can these bones live?”

And, at God’s command, Ezekiel prophesied to the bones,
and then he saw the skeletons fitting themselves together like a jigsaw puzzle,
and then internal organs and tendons and muscle and fat and skin growing on the bare skeletons.
I’m sure I’ve seen some kind of computer animation like that on television, haven’t you?
But for Ezekiel, it must have been totally weird,
unless he was in one of those dream-states where it’s all rational.

But once the skeletons had come together and grown bodies, things were still not right.

Do you ever watch those television programmes where they try to build up an image of the person from his or her skull? They are very clever about it – the most recent one I saw was a reconstruction of Richard III's head, but I think it owed more to a famous portrait of him.

The trouble is, of course, that it never looks much like a real live person, but more like those photo-fit reconstructions that the police build up from people’s descriptions of villains.

And I never think the dinosaurs that they show you that they have reconstructed from computer graphics look very alive, either.
They are very much better than they used to be, which wouldn't be difficult, and computer animation has come a long way in recent years.
The trouble is, though, that it is only a computer animation.
They are not films of real animals, and it does show, rather.
I was watching a children's programme with my grandson the other day, and I was impressed with how much these things have improved in recent years, but they are still not quite like real animals.

The difference, in both the head reconstructions and the dinosaur programmes is that there is no life.
No spirit, no personality looking out through the eyes.

And that’s what Ezekiel saw in his vision –
there were just so many plastic models lying there, no life, no spirit.
Ezekiel had to preach to them again, and they eventually came to life as a vast army.

And then Ezekiel was told the interpretation of his vision –
it was a prophecy of what God was going to do for Israel, which at the time seemed dead and buried.
God was going to bring Israel back to life, to breathe new life into the nation, and put His Spirit into them.

===oo0oo===

I’ll come back to Ezekiel in a minute, but for now, let’s go on to the wonderful story of Lazarus.

The family at Bethany has many links in the Bible.
Some people have identified Mary as the woman who poured ointment all over Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Leper –
and because he lived in Bethany,
some people have also said that he was married to Martha.
We don’t know.
The Bible isn't very clear about which Mary was which,
apart from Mary the Mother of God,
and it certainly doesn't say that Martha and Simon were married to each other, although both of them probably were married.
We do know that Martha and Mary were sisters,
and that they had a beloved brother, called Lazarus.
We do know that on one occasion Mary poured her expensive perfume all over the feet of the Lord –
whether this was the same Mary as in the other accounts or a different one isn't clear
But whatever, they seem to have been a family that Jesus knew well,
a home where he knew he was welcome,
and dear friends whose grief he shared when Lazarus died.

In some ways the story “works” better if the woman who poured ointment on Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Leper and this Mary are one and the same person,
as we know that the woman in Simon’s house was, or had been,
some kind of loose woman that a pious Jew wouldn’t normally associate with.
Now she has repented and been forgiven,
and simply adores Jesus,
who made that possible for her.
And she seems to have been taken back into her sister’s household,
possibly rather on sufferance.

But then she does nothing but sit at Jesus’ feet, listening to him.
Back then, this simply was Not Done.
Only men were thought to be able to learn,
women were supposed not to be capable.
Actually, I have a feeling that the Jews thought that only Jewish free men were able to learn.
They would thank God each morning that they had not been made a woman, a slave or a Gentile.
And even though St Paul had sufficient insight to be able to write that “In Christ, there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile”, thus at a stroke disposing of the prayer he’d been taught to make daily, it’s taken us all a very long time to work that out,
and some would say we haven’t succeeded, even now.

Anyway, the point is that Mary, by sitting at Jesus’ feet like that,
was behaving in rather an outrageous fashion.
Totally blatant, like throwing herself at him.
He might have felt extremely uncomfortable,
and it’s quite possible that his disciples did.
Martha certainly did, which was one of the reasons why she asked Jesus to send Mary through to help in the kitchen.
But Jesus replied:
“Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Mary, with all her history, was now thirsty for the Word of God.
Jesus was happy enough with bread and cheese, or the equivalent;
he didn’t want a huge and complicated meal.
He wanted to be able to give Mary what she needed,
the teaching that only he could provide.
He would have liked to have given it to Martha, too,
but Martha wasn’t ready.
Not then.

But now….. now it’s all different.
Lazarus, the beloved brother, has been taken ill and died.
It’s awful, isn’t it, when people die very suddenly?
I know we’d all rather go quickly rather than linger for years getting more and more helpless and senile,
but it’s a horrible shock for those left behind.
And, so it seems, Lazarus wasn’t ill for very long, only a couple of days.
And he dies.

It must have been awful for them.
Where was Jesus?
They had sent for him, begged him to come, but he wasn’t there.
He didn’t even come for the funeral –
which, in that culture and climate, had to happen at once,
ideally the same day.
The two women, and their families if they had them, were observing the Jewish custom of “sitting Shiva”,
sitting on low stools indoors while their friends and neighbours came to condole with them
and, I believe, bring them food and stuff so that the bereaved didn’t have to bother.

But Martha, hearing that Jesus is on his way, runs out to meet him.
This time it is she who abandons custom and propriety to get closer to Jesus.
And it is she who declares her faith in Him:
“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ,
the Son of God, who is come into this world!”

And Mary, too, asserts that if Jesus had been there,
Lazarus would not have died.
But it is Martha, practical Martha, who overcomes her doubts about removing the gravestone –
four days dead, that was going to smell rather, wasn’t it?
But she orders it removed, and Jesus calls Lazarus forth.

And he comes, still wrapped in the bandages they used for preparing a body for burial.
When Jesus is raised, some weeks or months later, the grave-clothes are left behind, but we are told that this didn’t happen to Lazarus.
The people watching had to help him out of the grave-clothes.

===oo0oo===

Of course, I think the point of these two stories –
and the point of linking them together in the lectionary –
is fairly obvious.
Life comes from God.
In Ezekiel’s vision, God had to breathe life into the fitted-together skeletons,
or they were no more than computer animations,
or dressmakers’ dummies.
And it was God who, through Jesus, raised Lazarus from the dead.
Without God, Ezekiel’s skeletons would have remained just random collections of bones.
I think that this was a dream or a vision, rather than something that actually happened, but it makes an important point, even still.
God said to Ezekiel that just as, in the dream, he had breathed life into the skeletons, so he would breathe new life into the people of Israel.

And the story of Lazarus, of course, foreshadows the even greater resurrection of Jesus himself,
a resurrection that left even the grave-clothes behind.
Lazarus, of course, will have eventually died permanently, as it were, when his time had come;
Jesus, as we know, remains alive today and lives within us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

So what have these stories to say to us, here in the 21st century?
We don’t find the idea of a fieldful of bones coming together and growing flesh particularly special –
computer animations have seen to that.
And we don’t expect to see the dead raised –
more’s the pity, in some ways;
maybe if we did, we would.
Then again, that doesn’t seem to be something God does very often in our world.

But I do think that there is something very important we can take away with us this morning, and that is that it’s all God’s idea.
Our relationship with God is all his idea –
we are free to say “No, thank you”, of course,
but in the final analysis, our relationship with God depends on God,
not on us.
I don’t know about you, but I find that really liberating –
I don’t have to struggle and strain and strive to stay “on track”.
When I fall into sin, I am not left all by myself,
but God comes after me and gently draws me back to himself.
I can just relax and be myself!

Our relationship with God is God’s idea.
It is God who breathes life into us.
It is God who brings us back when we go astray.
It is God who helps us to change and grow and become the people we were created to be, designed to be.
It is God who breathes life into the dry bones of our spirituality, who calls us out of the grave, who enables us to grow and change.
Amen, and thanks be to God!

Sunday, 16 March 2014

For God so loved the world

If you listen to the podcast, you'll see I added in a bit at the beginning! 


 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

They are such familiar words, aren't they. The absolute basis of our faith – they are pretty much the heart of what it means to be a Christian. But, of course, like all of these things, it's really hard to unpack what it originally meant. We all have our own interpretation, of course, and who's to say we're wrong?

But let's look at the whole passage, first of all, before trying to look more closely at our text, since it's a well-known fact that “a text without a context is a pretext!”


Nicodemus seems to have been an older man, prominent among the Jews, a Pharisee. Maybe the local equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury, or of Westminster. Certainly well-known in his community, and very much looked up to as a religious leader. But, for him, something was missing. He was beginning to realise, perhaps, that he was coming to the end of his life here on earth, and wondering what his religion had to say about this. And now there is this new young teacher going the rounds, doing miracles, really seems to be from God. Nicodemus begs a very private interview. He can't be seen to be too closely associated with Jesus, although he does, in fact, stand up for him in the Sanhedrin, and helps Joseph of Arimathea prepare his body for burial. But at this stage he doesn't want to be seen to be too interested in what might, after all, prove to be another cult.


But it wasn't. Jesus tells him that he doesn't just need to be physically alive, he needs to be spiritually alive, too. He must be born from above, born anew, born again – the word used translates as all those things. And Nicodemus doesn't understand. Perhaps he's not really used to thinking in spiritual terms, or perhaps it totally doesn't make sense to him. So he blanks it. “How can you enter your mother's womb a second time?” But Jesus explains that this second birth is of the Spirit. We need to be born spiritually, to recognise that we are more than just animals, to allow God's spirit to work in us.

And Nicodemus says, “Yes, well, how do you do this?” and the answer, of course, is through Jesus. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”


---oo0oo---

You note, of course, that this is all God's idea! It's not something we humans can do. We may or may not have our own interpretation of the phrase “Born again”, but I think we all agree that it's something that God does, not some­thing that we do. Had God not sent his only Son, Jesus, then it would not be an option for us. But Jesus came, we are told, out of God's love for us.

And our response must be one of believing. Again, people differ, sometimes, as to what degree of belief actually “counts”, whether it is a mild intellectual assent, or a total commitment to the exclusion of anything else, or somewhere in between.


For some of us, “being a Christian” is kind of like being pregnant – you either are or aren't, there's no two ways about it. Others see it as a journey, a process, starting, perhaps with a tiny step of faith, an intellectual assent to the fact that God could exist, that Jesus perhaps is God's son, and so on. And gradually growing more and more into our faith, going through various stages, and gradually, perhaps over many years, developing a mature and wonderful faith, and becoming the sort of Christian we all look up to and admire!

It's a bit of both, isn't it. Many of us will look back to a moment when we first said “Yes” to Jesus – perhaps we even remember the date and the time! For me, it was the tenth or the seventeenth of October, 1971, I can't remember exactly which. Sheesh, was it really that long ago – help! But loads of people don't have a datable conversion – it happened so gradually that they simply can't point to a date and say “before then I wasn't a Christian; after it I was.”


But even those of us who did have a definite date which they remember as their conversion, it didn't happen in a vacuum. It might have felt, at the time, like a total bolt from the blue, something totally unexpected, but when you look back, it probably wasn't.


Let’s take John Wesley as an example. We remember the date of his conversion, on 24 May. Remember what he wrote: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”


A not untypical conversion experience, perhaps. But Wesley was already a minister of the Church. He had been on missionary trips in the USA, and he had been searching and searching for the faith that he knew existed, but that he himself couldn’t find. One of his counsellors – I forget who, offhand – had told him to “preach faith until you have it, and then you will preach it because you can’t help it”. So for John Wesley, that experience on Aldersgate Street was very much a part of his Christian journey. Would anybody really say that before it he was not a Christian? I don’t think I would, and I’m not sure that Wesley himself did, either!


And another thing to notice is that although Wesley was searching and searching for the personal faith he knew was a reality for so many, it was, in the end, God who gave him that faith. Wesley didn’t manufacture it himself. He wasn’t working himself up at an emotional revival meeting. He was just sitting listening to a sermon on the Epistle to the Romans! And God acted.

I’ve seen that happen, too. I remember once, many years ago, a group of us were sitting in a cafĂ©, singing Christian songs, when quite suddenly the words we were singing became real to one of the group in a totally new and different way. I’ve long since lost touch with that person, and have no idea whether she still follows Jesus or not, but I will not forget how it suddenly became totally real to her. 
 

But that young woman had been coming to Church, and joining in our fellowship, for several weeks. I can’t remember whether she’d been a churchgoer at home, or university, or whatever – this was in Paris, and a great many young people came to the church to meet other English people.

I did, myself, for that matter! And for many years I assumed that I had not been a Christian before I went to that church, and heard someone preach on “Behold, I stand at the door and knock”.... but, when I looked back, I realised that in fact, I had experienced a call to preach some years earlier than that, when I was about fifteen! And I had been a regular attender at Church – usually because I had to, because it was required when I was at school, but also at the voluntary mid-week Communion services the school held occasionally, where I acted as a server. I know my Confirmation was very real and special to me, too. I reckon that what happened that October evening was a huge milepost on my Christian journey, but it was a milepost on the road, not the start of that journey!


---oo0oo---


Of course, the start of a journey to faith is just that, a start. Like Abraham and Sarah, from our first reading, we have to carry on. Jesus told Nicodemus that we need to be born from anew, but it’s always so sad when people have a baby who simply doesn’t develop and grow, but remains an infant throughout life. As Christians, we need to be open to allowing God to grow and change us, to become the people he created us to be, the people he designed us to be. Abraham was told to get up and move to the land God would show him, and God would bless him abundantly, in a way that perhaps would not have been possible had Abraham remained in Ur. And we know how Abraham believed God, and he and his brother Lot got up and travelled, leaving a very comfortable and civilised life in Ur to become nomads, travellers. And were blessed enormously by God, despite all sorts of trials and tribulations, times when they lacked faith, times when they sinned, all sorts of awfulnesses.


But there again, it was God’s idea. Abraham didn’t just suddenly decide that he’d abandon his settled life and go off into the desert in the hope that God would bless him for doing so. God told Abraham to go, and that if he went, he would be made great.


---oo0oo---

Sometimes, we who are Christians forget that it’s all God’s idea. We act as though our relationship with God depended totally on us. It doesn’t. It depends far more on God. “For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” God has far more invested in the relationship than we do, no matter how committed we are. God loves us far more than we love him! And God’s love is constant, unremitting, and never, ever grows cold. We can be very variable in our faith, but God never changes. There are times when we move away from God – and you can practically see the Good Shepherd donning Barbour and wellies to go off in search of us!

Of course, there are those people who say “No” to God. As C S Lewis once said, if people go on refusing to say “Thy will be done”, eventually God will, with great sadness, say “All right, have it your own way!” But that, I think, does not apply to any of us here. We have said “Yes” to Jesus, we have said, like Martha, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the son of God, who has come into this world.”

And we know, deep in our hearts, that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

In the beginning, God

I seem to have published this before I preached it, which isn't something I tend to do! Without checking the formatting first! Ah well.... Listen to the podcast, as I am not sure how closely I stuck to my script!


Our first reading today was that lovely poem that begins the Bible, that tells how God created order out of chaos. It's a lovely poem, one of my favourites.

You start with the absolute blankness, nothing. I don't think we can ever experience that sort of nothingness here on earth. Even if you all shut your eyes tightly, you can still hear and smell and taste and feel. Although some people have gone through what they call "sensory deprivation", which sounds as if it's very nasty indeed. Some people do it voluntarily, to prove a point, but for others it's quite literally torture. I suppose that might give us a glimpse of what it was like before the world was made. Although even sensory deprivation, unless you have it in space, doesn't turn off gravity!

 And then gradually, day by day, order forms out of chaos. First the light - not yet the light of the sun or moon, but an unspecified light. Then the sky, then the land, then vegetation, trees, plants, seeds, grasses. Then on the fourth day the sun, moon and stars, on the fifth day the birds and the fish. And on the sixth day, firstly the land animals and then the pinnacle of creation, human beings.

 "So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them". And on the seventh day, that great Sabbath rest that we have such trouble either understanding or implementing.

 The chorus of the poem, at the end of each stanza: "And God saw that it was good." "And there was evening and there was morning, the whatever day". It is a lovely poem, isn't it?

 Incidentally, nothing here about the man naming the animals, or the woman being created from his ribs, and them being placed in a garden – that is another story, I suspect a separate one, that comes in the next chapter. This poem is self-sufficient. And it is true. I don't mean literally true, of course – we know that the actual history of how this world came into being is told, firstly by astronomers and then by geologists and those who study tectonic plates and so on, and finally by naturalists and geneticists.

 But it is true in other ways.
 It shows how God is intimately involved in creation; it shows how pleased God is with that creation;
and it shows how we, in our creativity, are made in God's image.

The story shows how God is intimately involved in creation. Well, yes, that goes without saying. But I think it does bear repeating, because all too often, we act as though God created the world and then left it to get on with it. But those who wrote down this story – and I suspect they were writing down a tale that had been repeated and repeated and repeated for generations – those who wrote down this story did not, I think, believe that. For them, God was intimately involved in every detail of creation; why would He abandon it? No “God of the Gaps” theology for them.

 It's not always easy, when we know that we share much of our genetic material with earthworms and other animals; we know that it is the characteristics that enhance survival that are the ones apt to persist down the generations. Mind you, when it comes to some birds, the characteristics that their mates seem to prefer are more decorative than practical!

 But sometimes, I know, we wonder how much God has wound up his creation and left it to get on with it! But our Gospel reading reminds us that God is still involved in creation, providing food for the sparrows and clothing for the flowers; we are told that even the hairs on our heads are numbered. And we know that the poem shows God is still intimately involved in our lives today and that we are able to have a relationship with Him – or why are we here this morning?

 So yes, God is intimately involved in His creation, and God is pleased with that creation.

 Every stanza of the poem ends “And God saw that it was good”. God was pleased with what He had made. Sometimes we forget that, don't we?

 I know I used to, years ago – I got so used to the idea of myself as a sinner that I somehow forgot that, actually, God meant to make me – I, and the rest of humanity, wasn't some kind of dreadful mistake on God's part! It's all too easy, I find, to get into the mindset where God only tolerates humanity because of what Jesus did – rather than God loving his Creation so much that it was His idea to send Jesus to fix what had gone wrong. God doesn't hate his Creation because, through humanity's fault, it became flawed and broken – rather the reverse; God loves it so much that he fixed it!

 I sometimes wonder, don't you, what creation is like on other worlds, other planets. There has been endless speculation about this; we know now that Mars is mostly desert, but scientists are still looking for traces of life, although they don't think there was ever intelligent life there.

 But before we knew what Mars was like, people speculated, and some really good stories were written about potential Martians, and what they might be like. And, indeed, on what people from all sorts of other places might be like. But all too often, our authors have created them in our own image. They might be bug-eyed monsters, in fact, they frequently are – but it is the word “monster” that is significant here.

 It was, I think, C S Lewis, among others, who drew attention to the fact that other civilisations might not have fallen, as humankind did. In an essay from 1958 entitled Religion and Rocketry, he says that if animal life exists on other planets, and if any of those animals are self-aware, rational beings like us, and could be argued to have souls, as we do, then are any of them, or all of them, fallen as we are? And if so, what provision has God made, as He undoubtedly has, for their redemption.

He quotes a now-forgotten poem, Christ in the Universe, by Alice Meynell, which I rather like, so I'm going to read it to you:

With this ambiguous earth
His dealings have been told us.  These abide:
The signal to a maid, the human birth,
The lesson, and the young Man crucified.  

But not a star of all
The innumerable host of stars has heard
How He administered this terrestrial ball.
Our race have kept their Lord’s entrusted Word.  

Of His earth-visiting feet
None knows the secret, cherished, perilous,
The terrible, shamefast, frightened, whispered, sweet,
Heart-shattering secret of His way with us.  

No planet knows that this
Our wayside planet, carrying land and wave,
Love and life multiplied, and pain and bliss,
Bears, as chief treasure, one forsaken grave.  

Nor, in our little day,
May His devices with the heavens be guessed,
His pilgrimage to thread the Milky Way
Or His bestowals there be manifest.  

But in the eternities,
Doubtless we shall compare together, hear
A million alien Gospels, in what guise
He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear.  

O, be prepared, my soul!
To read the inconceivable, to scan
The myriad forms of God those stars unroll
When, in our turn, we show to them a Man.

 Lewis comments that it is just as well that the distances between stars is so vast that it is unlikely we shall ever meet beings from other planets. Given humanity's record of dealing with people from other places, he doesn't think we would be very good at dealing with them, whether or not they were the bug-eyed monsters of pulp fiction or a race of wonderful, unfallen people, of whatever shape, who are able to worship their Creator and to know Him in ways we cannot. Or whether they have been redeemed in some totally different way. We will never know.

But what we do know is that God reckons that His creation is very good. And where it is no longer good, He has redeemed it. God is pleased with His Creation.

So, then, God is involved in His creation;
God is pleased with His Creation;
and God created humankind in His own image.

 Earlier, we looked and thought about some of the things that we have made. Few other animals make things. Some do make tools – apes certainly do, and some species of bird. And some birds, the Australian bower-bird in particular, make beautifully-decorated bowers to attract their mates.

 But by and large animals are not creative in the way that we are – they don't bake cakes and decorate them, or knit themselves sweaters, or weave fabrics that last beyond a brief nesting season. It is, I think, in our creativity that we are made in God's image.

 God thought of the whole of this universe – or is it “these universes”? I am never quite sure. And in our turn we have thought of most extraordinary things – just look around you when you leave this place.

 Some years ago now I happened to be visiting my parents when someone who had been given permission to use a metal detector on some of my father's land came to call. He was showing us some of the things they had found in the field, ranging from a brooch that had been lost off a Roman cloak to a button that had come off a railway-worker's uniform. I held the brooch and could see how it was made – much more interesting than just seeing them laid out in display cases in a museum, when you really can't tell what they are supposed to be. Human beings had made all these things.

Some years ago we went to Bolzano, in Italy, and saw Oetzi, the so-called Ice Man, whose preserved body was found in a glacier about twenty years ago. The artifacts found with his body were wonderful, too – a copper axe, among other things, and shoes and other clothes. Even five thousand years ago, people were making things!

We have gone on making things down the ages, right down to the cup of tea we made this morning! Some of the things we've made we could wish we hadn't – guns and bombs and other tools for killing people with. Other things, we are very glad we did – respirators and iron lungs to keep people alive, for instance.

 But all our creativity, whether we have used it for good or for ill, harks back to that of our Creator. And like God, we need to look at what we make, and be sure that it is good. God is still involved in His Creation; God is pleased with what He has made, and God has gifted us with creativity in His image. We may well misuse that creativity, but it is still in God's image.

So, my sisters and brothers, let us praise our Creator in the words of hymn no 699: Lord of Creation, to Thee be all praise.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Choose Life

Only the podcast today; if you want to read the text, I re-preached this sermon from three years ago, more or less identical. Listen to the podcast if you want to know what changed!

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Salt and Light

I didn't record the Children's talk, the podcast only applies to the main sermon 

Edited to add, April 2014, that Buzzsprout only hosts one's podcasts free for 3 months, so older ones are being transferred to another hosting site. The podcast of this sermon may now be found here
 
Children's talk:

When it's really dark outside, what do we do? We turn on the lights, and we draw the curtains, and we are all snug and cosy indoors. Here in London, we don't often see it being really dark, unless there's a power-cut, because of the street lights and all the lighting up.

When I was a girl, the street lights in the town where I went to school were switched off around 11:00 pm or so, and last weekend Robert and I stayed in a village in France where that still happens. And it gets really, really dark. What if you were out then? You'd be glad of a torch or a lantern so you could see where you were going, wouldn't you? And you'd be glad if someone in the house you were going to would pull back the curtains so you could see the lights.

In our Bible reading today, Jesus says that we, his people, are the light of the world. He didn't have electric lights back then, it was all candles and lanterns. But even they are enough to dispel the darkness a bit. And when lots of them get together, the light is multiplied and magnified and gets very bright, so people who are lost in the dark can see it and come for help. Which is why, Jesus says, we mustn't hide our light. We don't have to do anything specific to be light, but we do have to be careful not to hide our light by doing things we know God's people don't do, or by not saying “Sorry” to God when we've been and gone and done them anyway!

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Main Sermon:

“You are the salt of the earth;” says Jesus, “but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”

Salt. These days it's often considered a bad thing, as too much is thought to be implicated in raised blood-pressure, and so on. But back in the days before refrigeration and so on, salt was vital to help preserve our foods. Even today, bacon and ham are preserved with salt, and some other foods are, too.

Salt is also useful in other ways. It's a disinfectant; if you rinse a small cut in salty water – stings like crazy, so don't unless you haven't anything better – it will stop it going nasty. And if you have something that has gone nasty, like a boil or an infected cut, soaking it in very hot, very salty water will draw out the infection and help it heal.

Salt makes a good emergency toothpaste, and if you have a sore mouth and have run out of mouthwash, again, rinse it out with salty water and it will help.

But above all, salt brings out the flavour of our food. Processed foods often contain far too much salt, but when we're cooking, we add a pinch or so to whatever it is to bring out the flavour. Even if you're making a cake, a pinch of salt, no more, can help bring out the flavour. And if you make your own bread, it is horrible if you don't add enough salt!

Imagine, then, if salt weren't salty. If it were just a white powder that sat there and did nothing. I don't know whether modern salt can lose its saltiness, but if it did, we'd throw it away and go and buy fresh, wouldn't we?

And Jesus tells us we are the salt of the world. Salt, and light.

But how does this work out in practice? I think, don't you, that we need to look at our Old Testament reading for today, from Isaiah.

In this passage, Isaiah was speaking God's word to people who were wondering why God was taking no notice of their fasting and other religious exercises. And he was pretty scathing: it's no good dressing in sackcloth and ashes, and fasting until you faint, if you then spend the day snapping at your servants and quarrelling with your family. That's not being God's person, and that sort of fast isn't going to do anybody any good.

Jesus said something similar, you may recall, in another part of this collection of his sayings that we call the Sermon on the Mount: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

It's what your heart is doing, not what you look as though you are doing that matters! Isaiah tells us what sort of fasting God wants: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

This is what God wants. It's not just the big picture, you see. Yes, maybe we are called to be working for the rights of Palestinians in Israel, or whichever tribe is oppressing whoever – sadly, it seems inevitable throughout history that whenever two tribes try to share a territory, there will always be friction, whether it is the Muslims and Hindus in India and Pakistan, or Greeks and Turks, Tutsi and Hutu, Loyalists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland, or Palestinians and Israelis. Throughout history it has been the same – and that it has not been very much worse has been down to the efforts of God's people, often unsung, often not thanked, often, even, persecuted and tormented for their efforts. But they have been there, and they have helped. And God knows their names and has rewarded them.

But it's not just about the big picture, is it? It's about the little things we do here at home, every day. We can't always take homeless people into our homes, although some do – but we can give to the food bank, either in cash or in kind. And maybe we should be asking our MP awkward questions about exactly why, in 2014, our food bank is so necessary! There's a man has opened a soup kitchen in Brixton – a secular one, as he reckoned people in need shouldn't have to sit through prayers that meant nothing to them in order to get a meal. That's terrific work, and we should support it – but again, why is it necessary in 2014?

That's part of what our being salt and light to our community is all about. Not just doing the giving, not just helping out where necessary – although that too. But asking the awkward questions, not settling for the status quo, making a nuisance of ourselves, if necessary, until we get some of the answers.

It's not always easy to see how one person can make a difference. Sometimes, I don't know about you, but when I watch those nature documentaries on TV and they go on about how a given species is on the brink of extinction and it's All Our Fault, I wonder what they expect me to do about it, and ditto when we get programmes about climate change and all the other frighteners the BBC likes to put on us. But it's like I said to the children – maybe one little candle doesn't make too much difference in the dark, except for being there and enabling us to see a little way ahead. But when lots of us get together, it blazes out and nothing can dim it. One person alone can't do very much – but if all of us recycled, and used our own shopping bags, and public transport when feasible, and limited our family sizes, then there would soon be a difference.

Obviously you don't have to be God's person to do such things. As I said, the Brixton soup kitchen is firmly secular, and I know nothing about the faith of the person who runs it, even if he has any. But we, God's people, should be in the forefront of doing such things, leading by example, showing others how to help this world. Historically, we always have been. But sometimes the temptation is to hide in our little ghettoes and shut ourselves away from the world. It's all too easy to say “Oh dear, this sinful world!” and to refuse to have anything to do with it – but if God had done that, if Jesus had done that, then where would we be?

We don't bring people to faith through our words, but through what we do. As St James says in his letter, it's all very well to say “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” to someone who hasn't enough clothes or food, but what good does that do? That person won't think much of Christianity, will they?

I heard, over the weekend, about someone who was left a widow with four very small children, and how the local church heard about her plight and gave her very practical help; they were there for her when her husband died, and helped her cope with all the practical details; now they keep an eye on her and do things like paying for a baby-sitter so she can go to church events without always having to be with her children. And so on. And it is through their steady love and support, rather than through any preaching they may or may not have done, that this woman has come to faith.

Ordinary Time, and we are in a brief bit of Ordinary Time before the countdown to Lent starts, is the time when what we say we believe comes up against what we really believe, and how we allow our faith to work out in practice. It's all too easy to listen to this sort of sermon and feel all hot and wriggly because you're aware that you don't do all you could to be salt and light in the community – and then to forget about it by the time you've had a cup of coffee. It's also all too easy to think it doesn't apply to you – but, my friends, the Bible says we are all salt and light, doesn't it? It doesn't say we must be, but that we are. It's what we do with it that matters! We don't want to be putting our light under a basket so it can't be seen. And if, as salt, we lose our saltiness – well, let's not go there, shall we?

Many of us, of course, are already very engaged in God's work in our community, in whatever way – youth work of various kinds, including our Girls' Brigade, our parent-and-toddler groups, the Pop-in club and so on. We might not even think of it as God's work, but that's what it is. We are being salt and light in the community.

The question is, what more, as a Church, could we or should we be doing? What should I, as an individual, be doing?

And that's where we have the huge advantage over people who do such work who are not yet consciously God's people – we pray. We can bring ourselves to God and ask whether there are places that need our gifts, whether there is something we could be doing to help, or what. Don't forget, too, that there are those whose main work is praying for those out there on the front line, as it were. And even if all we can do is put 50p a week aside for the food bank, and write to Chuka Umunna every few months and ask why we still need food banks in this day and age and what he, and the rest of Parliament, is doing about it – well, it all adds up.


Because I don't know about you, but I would rather not risk what might happen if we were to lose our saltiness. Amen.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh



I decided to try recording my sermon, to see if people were interested.  Unfortunately, it turns out that you can't upload straight sound files to Blogger, so next time I shall have to record it as video. As it is, I have been faffing around with it all evening.... And, I think, may have finally won.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Getting ready

So today is Advent Sunday.
It's the first Sunday in the Church's Year, and, of course, the first in the four-week cycle that brings us up to Christmas.
Christmas is definitely coming –
if you go by what the supermarkets do, it's been going on since September!

It seems strange then, doesn't it, that the readings for this Sunday are about as un-Christmassy as you can get!
This from the Gospel we've just heard:

“For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

It's all about the end of the world!
The time when Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, as we say in the Creed.
Now, there are frequently scares that the end of the world is about to happen –
some cult or other claims to have deciphered an ancient text that tells us that it might occur on any given date –
Last year, some people thought that an ancient Mayan calendar “proved” that the world was going to end on 21 December.
As you can see, it didn't!
And that was only one of a very long line of end-of-the-world stories which people have believed.
Sometimes they have even gone as far as to sell up all their possessions and to gather on a mountain-top,
and at least two groups committed mass suicide to make it easier for them to be found, or something.
I don't know exactly what....
And because some Christians believe that when it happens,
they will be snatched away with no notice whatsoever, leaving their supper to burn in the oven, or their car to crash in the middle of the motorway, a group of non-believers even set up an organisation called After the Rapture which you can sign up to, and if and when it happens, they will look after your pets for you!
They assume that, as they are not believers, they will be left behind.
The people behind the website, I mean, not the pets!
People who believe in what they call the Rapture take it from this very reading, where it says that two people will be in the field and one will be taken and the other not.... but we don't know how much notice we get, if any!
It sounds to me rather more like the sort of pogroms where the dictator's army swoops down and takes people, chosen at random or not, away to imprisonment.
God is not like that, of course, but such things have happened throughout history.

Actually, the second coming/the end of the world is a very difficult thing to think about
because it hasn’t happened yet!
The Bible shows us most clearly that the early church was convinced that it was something that would happen any minute now,
certainly in their lifetimes.
But here we are, two thousand years later,
and nothing has happened.
So most of us don’t really believe it will,
or if we do believe it, it isn’t a belief that’s in the forefront of our minds.
It doesn’t really affect the way we live.

But maybe it should.
Jesus said we don't know when it's going to happen.
Nobody knows.
He didn't know.
He assumed, I think, that it would be fairly soon after his death –
did anybody expect the Church to go on for another two thousand years after that?
Certainly his first followers expected His return any minute now.

What is clear from the Bible –
and from our own knowledge, too –
is that this world isn't designed to last forever;
it's not meant to be permanent.
Just ask the dinosaurs!
We don't know how it will end.
When I was a girl it was assumed it would end in the flames of a nuclear holocaust;
that particular fear has lessened since 1989,
although I don't think it's gone away completely.
These days we think more in terms of runaway global warming,
or global pandemics of some disease they can't find a cure for, or something, or a major asteroid strike.
But what is clear is that one day humanity will cease to exist on this planet.
We don't know how or when,
but we do know that God is in charge and will cope when it happens.

Whatever is going to happen, whenever it happens, we need to be ready.
Our readings today all reflect that.
Our Gospel reading sounds a bit disjointed, almost as though Matthew has collected odd bits of Jesus’ sayings.
But it still has a clear theme –
be ready, because you never know!

Some years ago there was an ad put out by the police, I think, saying that leaving your doors and windows open was absolutely inviting burglars to come in.
I don’t think Jesus could have seen that ad,
but the end of the gospel reading reminded me of it:
If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.
So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

Okay, so we need to be ready.
Fair enough, but how?
How do you get ready,
how do you stay ready,
and above all, how do you go on being ready when nothing seems to happen?

I think the answer is also in the parallel with the thief in the night.
We make it a habit, don’t we,
of checking that our doors and windows are locked before we go out,
even on a short trip to Lidl or Tesco.
If we have our car, it’s automatic to check that we haven’t left anything visible, and that it is locked, before we leave it.
And we have insurance to cover us in case the worst happens anyway,
no matter how careful we’ve been.

Well, it’s the same, I think, in our Christian lives.
We can build good habits of prayer, of reading the Bible,
of fellowship and of coming to the Sacrament regularly.
These are what John Wesley called “The means of grace”,
and they are the building blocks of our Christian life.
They are as essential to our Christian life as food and drink are to our physical life.
But they are also habits that one can acquire or break.
You’re in the habit of locking your front door whenever you leave the house –
are you in the habit of contacting God every day, too?
You make sure you’ve shut your windows –
are you sure you take the Sacrament?
And so it goes on.

Parallels only work so far, of course,
especially because it’s not all down to us.
I know we sometimes talk as though it is,
and, of course, we are always free to say “No” to God –
though I do very much hope we won’t choose to do that.
But God has far more invested in the relationship than we do –
either that, or God is so far above us that he’s totally uninterested in us as individuals.
And we know that’s not true!
So it must be true that God is numbering every hair on our head,
and being far more interested in maintaining a relationship with us than we are with him.
We don’t have to do all the hard work.

Nevertheless, good habits are good habits,
and we need to acquire them!
And with God’s help, we can.
We don’t have to do it alone, because God indwells us,
through the Holy Spirit,
and enables us to actually want to read the Bible and pray, and worship, and take Communion, and so on.

We don’t often think about the end of times and the Last Judgement,
and that’s probably as it should be.
If we thought about it too much, we’d never get on with our lives,
and we’d end up being so heavenly-minded we’d be of no earthly use.
But we do need this annual reminder,
because we don’t want to end up living as if this life were all there is, either.
Obviously we don’t absolutely know that when we die,
we’ll go on with Jesus somewhere else.
It might just be wishful thinking on our part.
But that’s what faith is all about!
We can’t know, not really, but we can choose to believe it,
and to live accordingly.
And to work together with God to become the best we can possibly be.

And then, if, or perhaps when the unthinkable happens,
then we’ll be ready.
Are you ready?

Oh, one loose end –
in my parallel with burglar-proofing our houses,
I mentioned insurance.
Do we have insurance?
As Christians, yes, we do.
We have Jesus’ promise in John’s gospel:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Those who believe in him are not condemned;
but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

Says it all, doesn’t it!