"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas Eve Sermon

John 1:1-18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

Have you noticed that Advent has been contaminated by Christmas Creep? In the classroom I seem to have been cast into the role of the Advent Police for the last month.

“No, go on Sir show us a film. It’s Christmas.”

No, actually it’s Advent.

“No Sir, seriously, it’s Christmas.”

No. It’s Advent.

“What’s that then?”

It’s the period of preparation leading up to Christmas.

“No, it’s Christmas now. We’ve had Cards; my mum’s been buying mince pies for weeks; she’s bought sprouts too; there’s Christmas music all over the place and everyone’s arguing. Of course it’s Christmas.”

Who can argue with such logic? Well, we’re nearly there!

What would the average class of 16 yr. olds make of tonight’s Gospel extract? Or, perhaps, more to the point what does the average adult make of it? What do you make of John’s dramatic introduction? Where’s the star? The stable? The angels and the shepherds? John surely knew the traditional story, yet he chooses to pass over it. Why?

Most people know that – America apart, obviously – very few people understand the Bible as 100% literally true; but, equally, very few people understand that such literal interpretations are a fairly recent phenomenon.

 So I ask my pupils: What is the story of Nativity all about?

“What do you mean?”

What is the point of these stories? Reduce them to their bare minimum for me. What’s the central element of the stories?

“The birth of Jesus.”

Is that it?

“Well, Christians believe he was the son of God.”

So it’s a pretty dramatic point?

“Yeah, maybe.”

Maybe? God sending his son into the world. It’s about as dramatic as it gets, surely?

“I suppose.”

Are the bits about the angel and virginity – and for that matter the star, wise men and so on – central to these stories?

“Probably not.”

Then why are they there?

There is silence while they digest this.

They are signposts to the significance of the story. This is the most dramatic event in human history. To me it doesn’t matter either way which Gospel story we use because the key part of the story is that God becomes human in Jesus and that’s what the story is all about, so I think that was what John was trying to say. Listen again, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Do we need stars and angels and all that to put that idea across? John clearly didn't think so.

How many Nativity plays have we been to? How many Christmas Carols have we sung? How many times have we heard the Nativity Stories read? I have a theory that there is such a thing as “the Tinsel Factor” and at this time of year our understanding of our key gospel stories is subverted by it: over familiarity with the stories and a life time of watching primary school kids in tea-towels and tinsel can actually inoculate us from what the story is teaching us and it becomes about the event rather than the message. Unless we are on the ball, the story takes priority over its own teaching.

How many people, I wonder, have got hung up on the details of the story and because they can’t accept them as literally true, they can’t accept the key element of the story and so dismiss it in the same way? It’s not about angels or a virgin, or a star or wise men: it’s about God intruding into human history in the form of Jesus with an agenda of salvation.
I think this is the point John is concerned to communicate to those who were to read and hear his writings, just as we have tonight. That's why I so like John's Gospel. Listen again, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
To illustrate the idea and to make that point I tell people this little story. Are you sitting comfortably?

"Now, take my friend Marlene: she's a very artistic type.  You probably know the sort - dangly Trade Craft earrings, pencils and paint brushes pushed into her hair geisha - style: half-moon glasses precariously perched an the end of her nose and a pair of Doc Martens - one red and one green. ('I've another pair like this you know.')
She's a leading light in regional amateur dramatics with a name for her radical re-workings.  Her trans-gender 'Phantom of the Opera' is still talked about in hushed tones …… in Harrogate.  Marlene is also a bit of a committee junkie, an inveterate organiser and with a reputation for not tolerating fools: (i.e. most other people she knows).  So I wasn't particularly surprised when she agreed to the Church Councils' request to stage last year's Nativity, although some concern was expressed: Marlene’s the sort of person who has causes. We feared her analysis of Santa’s carbon footprint and her concern that the elves should have a living wage. “After all, someone who wears that much red should be in sympathy with workers’ rights.” She opined.

The committee gathered in her large kitchen, all shaker style furniture and IKEA fittings. Oh, and she had an agenda. “To bring this story alive it has to be brought into the present.  We must make it relevant!” And so she set about her task with relish - carrying the rest of us, I have to say, rather in the slipstream of her enthusiasm.

Marlene had a bit of a temper tantrum – she called it “creative dissonance” – over the casting of the Wise Men. The Archbishop of York was not available. “Well frankly that’s ridiculous. What else has the man got to do at Christmas?” Similarly, Stephen Fry and Stephen Hawking sent their apologies. Marlene was heard to mutter something about not being able to get the staff and, without any sense of irony or self-awareness, she was also heard to mutter about people being full of their own self-importance.

“I’m surprised she didn’t ask the Pope” Muttered Carolyn.

 “I’m told she couldn’t find his e-mail address.”

 Lowering her sights somewhat, Marlene used her contacts at the University to cast the Wise Men who turned out to be Justin (lecturer in Astronomy), Trevor (lecturer in Ancient Near Eastern Philosophy) ... and Brenda, (lecturer in Theology - and convener of the interfaculty working group on Women’s Studies) … and you probably remember that Marlene and Brenda have not been on civil terms since the unfortunate incident at the Turkish bath.

Well it won't matter' said Marlene, all hurt pride and a large gin.  “No one will notice the difference: all they'll see is three moustaches – and that’s before the costumes are on.

“Nobody’ll care”. Carolyn had not yet learned to keep her opinions in line with Marlene’s. “I mean no one will know who they are and so they won’t make the connection.”

In the end Trevor, Justin and Brenda decided to wear their academic robes for the performance.

Carolyn was not to be pacified. “People still won’t get it.”

I was told that in the pub afterwards Carolyn was cordially invited to step down from the committee. When I say “cordially invited” I mean that in the sense of being shouted at a lot.

“So, the gifts the wise men bring?” As one, everyone turned to look at Jan, the popular young barber, who was to play the third road-sweeper. (It had been decided that we would not have shepherds - not inner-city enough.)
“They’d have been pre-delivered by Amazon.”

“I like your thinking Jan!” (Marlene could never resist a tall good-looking young man.) “Brainstorm, brainstorm everyone!”

In the end they decided on a donation from the local food bank, “We’re talking extreme poverty here. This needs to be confronting not twee”; an i-pad to represent the importance of mass communication and a hoodie for when he was older so he would blend in with the underclass.
"They probably won't be wearing hoodies by then."
"It's symbolic Justin. The whole story is full of symbolism. Surely you see that?"

Marlene’s neighbour's daughter, Sigourney, was cast as Mary, notwithstanding the fact that at 14, she was pushing the boundaries of virginity somewhat.

“But she's ethnic.  Don't you see she's perfect for the part: so 21st century marginalized.” and that was that. Marlene brooked no contradiction.

 “Anyway,” she said, gesturing to an open book on the vicar’s desk, “If you knew your Hebrew you’d know that it doesn’t actually say Virgin.”

 “Oh she thinks she’s a theologian now does she?” muttered Brenda to Justin.

The rest of the casting fell into place: the local Imam graciously declined the role of the Angel Gabriel.  "Well you can take multiculturalism to the point of political correctness and then where would we all be?  Answer me that?" observed Brenda.  Terry, the local postman took his place in a stunning piece of symbolism that no one got, even when Marlene, to considerable consternation, insisted that he performed in his uniform.

“Philistines.” she said, as she explained with elaborate patience for the third time the symbolism of postman as messenger of God.

“Actually, Marlene, point of order.  The Philistines were a very cultured people”

“Actually, Trevor, any more points of order and you’ll be the back end of the donkey."

Sigourney's boyfriend Cameron was drafted in as the innkeeper.  (Fortunately the ASBO he had been given for streaking through the synagogue as a bet had just lapsed.) A night-club doorman by trade he had little difficulty with the lines- “You can't come in here, we're full' although he did tend to keep fooling around at rehearsals and ad-libbing: 'You can't come in mate, but you can, love, we're letting in girls for half price tonight”.

Joseph was to be played by Len, the church caretaker.

"But he's about 1000 years old Marlene."

"Joseph was older than Mary you know.” Brenda was on her soapbox.  “Anyway, it says a lot about the exploitation of women in a patriarchal society."

There was much animated discussion in Marlene’s kitchen about what the 21st century version of the stable would be.

A three wheeled trolley in an overcrowded corridor at A and E was swiftly rejected on the basis that the church was in a Conservative constituency and Marlene confidently expected the constituency M.P. to be in the audience.

“A squat?”

“A garden shed?”

“A condemned council flat?”

“A homeless shelter?”

“A one-star hostel. Did you see what I did there? One star……anybody….. no?”

“Did I mention this is going to be a promenade performance?” All eyes turned to Marlene. “A promenade performance, yes. You know, where the audience follow the characters from scene to scene.”

“A promenade performance? As in outside? At this time of year?”

“I’m led to believe that’s when Christmas generally is. Would you prefer we did it in July? I think it might lose a little in terms of atmosphere and topicality? Do you not have a vest Justin? Man-up.”

Rehearsals came and went.

"Marlene, I'm sorry to interrupt but I'm having trouble with my character in this scene. What's my motivation here?"

"Shut up Trevor. You’re a palm tree. Any more of that luvvy-talk and you’ll be both ends of the donkey.

"Len, please!  How often have I told you?  Don't smoke during the birth scene - the baby Jesus is inflammable."

"Marlene, if I hear another religious person say: 'and Wise Men seek him still . . .' I may run screaming from the building"

"Brenda, they're not religious, they're Church of England."

"Sigourney, Darling, no more piercings please - at least not before Christmas.  I'm sorry Cameron ... you've had what pierced?  I see."

“Point of order, Marlene, technically, it’s not Christmas, its Advent, which means….”

“Someone bring me that donkey suit!

“That would be a problem Marlene. None of the Gospel stories mention a donkey at all.”

“Are you trying to trample on people’s long held beliefs Trevor? I really don’t think this is the time or place for Atheism do you? Terry - drop the line about 'Special Delivery', it's not working."

And so the evening arrived. Cameron was a no-show: another ASBO - it was the Buddhist Temple this time, but nobody noticed, apparently as they were all deep in meditation, so Jan was upgraded from road-sweeper to inn-keeper ("Cover up that tattoo please Jan") --- and Marlene was proved right.  It was a triumph - dramatic, moving and powerful. And yes, people wrapped up warm, loving the novelty of the occasion. Mary experienced her visit from the Angel Gabriel in the doorway of the post office and Jan looked genuinely distraught to turn the Holy family away from the doorway of The Star and Garter.

The stable became an old garage in the pub car park, back-lit in moody tones, the manger: the boot of a jacked-up wreck.  Drug paraphernalia littered the floor. Three local characters shared a bottle around a brazier and stray dogs sniffed around the set. The real pub landlord closed down his award winning Christmas lights display - all but the eponymous star, everyone delivered their lines perfectly, and on cue it snowed. 

It's hard to believe that it was nearly a year ago now, and here we are again getting ready for this year.  It's going to be different this year though.  After Marlene's triumph the church council members met in emergency session.  Words like uncomfortable, inappropriate, trendy and travesty were bandied about.
So we're back to the traditional again- shepherds in tea towels carrying cuddly sheep and angels with tinsel halos.  The relevant and the up-to date, it seems, have no place in the Christmas story.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Sunday Sermon: Mattew 11.2-11. The doubts of John the Baptist

Matthew 11:2-11


When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

We say that the season of Advent is a season of waiting. We try to persuade ourselves that if we just say that often enough, it’ll become true. Advent is a season of waiting. Advent is a season of waiting.
But it's not. Advent is a season of impatience. Of course, there are other times throughout the year when we experience impatience. But this season, the time leading up to Christmas, this season is the climax of impatience, when all our anxiety and hurry and worry are concentrated into four short weeks.
We are busy preparing, each of us in our individual way, for something special to happen to us. Is this the right gift, or shall we seek another? Is this the right way for me to serve the poor, or shall I seek another? Is this the party I was waiting for, or will it be another one? Is this the moment with my family that I was waiting for, or was I waiting for something else?

The horrible possibility lies in the back of our mind that our expectation will go unfulfilled - that what we are waiting for will never happen - that we will forever sit waiting and lonely by the window like Eleanor Rigby. Or like John the Baptist, waiting in prison. Yes, John the Baptist. John the Baptist is back today, speaking differently to how he did last week.

In last week's gospel lesson, he burst on the scene with fire and vengeance, full of confidence and certainty. He announced the coming of Jesus with great hope and expectation. He gave us a fairly accurate model for Advent.

But, today, he represents Advent in another way, in a way that is just as authentic as last week's style. But he is tired. He is discouraged. He questions. John the Baptist is like us. He jumps to hope with power and aggressiveness. But, later, he has questions; he even has doubts.

Listen to John the Baptist later in his ministry. He thought he knew Jesus. After all, he baptized him in the River Jordan but, then, time went by. Things got harder for John. In today's Gospel passage, Jesus has begun his ministry, and John has been cast into prison by Herod the Great. He begins to have his doubts. Is Jesus really the one he was looking for?

What happened to the vivid forecasts of John the Baptist-that Jesus would chop down fruitless trees and throw chaff into the fire? Has Jesus spent his ministry throwing chaff into the fire? No, it seems not. And so John sends several of his own people, his own disciples, to ask the poignant question, "Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?" John has devoted his entire ministry, even gives his very life, to preparing the way for Jesus Christ, but now he worries that Jesus isn’t meeting the template of Messiah he has been expecting.

John the Baptist is a prophet because he shows us so clearly what happens to our narrow expectations. Jesus came, but on reflection, not in the way John expected.

At least he had sense enough to ask the right question: "Are you the one, or shall we look for another?"

Because that is the Advent question: "Are you the one I've been waiting for, or shall I wait for another?" Is this the present I've been waiting for? Is this the party, is this the family reunion, is this the date I've been waiting for? Is this the job I really wanted? Is this really the house we wanted so desperately two years ago? Is this really the person I loved four years ago? Is this really the person I love now?

Matthew's portrayal of John the Baptist's doubts about whether Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah is heartrendingly poignant. John, the fiery prophet who proclaimed Jesus' coming... John, the fearless messianic herald drawing crowds and rebuking religious leaders... John, the visionary scouring the banks of the Jordan with his call for repentance... that same John is now pacing a small cell and wondering if all his ministry has been for nothing. And so, desperate for some validation - of his ministry, of his suffering, of himself - he sends a messenger to ask a question as momentous as it is simple: Is it you? "Are you the one?"

There is great pathos in this passage of scripture. We don't really know what was in John's mind as he lay in prison, but it must have been hard for him to hold fast to the idea that God's eternal reign was about to be realized in the messiah. John was in prison. How is that a blessing of the coming kingdom? Of course, John had known of Jesus from a young age, but what specifically was Jesus' role? Was Jesus the messiah, or was he the promised Elijah whose role was to announce the coming messiah? Questions and doubts; faith under stress? There is much to learn from this great man.

It is normal for us to feel that doubts equate with little faith, so therefore, we tend to hide our doubts and fears - pretend that they don't exist. Yet, doubts are a normal part of the Christian life. The mystery will remain until we see through the glass clearly. Meanwhile, sticking with Jesus is what matters, doubts and all.

Refusing to give a straightforward "yes" or "no," Jesus instead recounts his credentials, the deeds he has been accomplishing: "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." I wonder how John took Jesus' answer. It's an impressive list, for sure, but it assumes that John didn't know Jesus was doing these things and we’re as sure as we can be that John did know. Or could it be that it was precisely that John did know what Jesus had been up to that was causing him doubts? Given what we already know about John, we might guess that he was looking for something a little more spectacular. Perhaps restoration of sight, health, and even life seem to John a little too ordinary, too mundane, to signify conclusively that God is at work in and through the one John had earlier heralded with such confidence.

If this is the case, then Jesus' answer probably sounds more like a rebuke, “Come on John: have you not been watching and listening? Do you really need to ask?” I suspect that Jesus is telling John that he should reconsider his sense of who and what the Messiah is. John's problem, judging from Jesus' response, is that he hasn't yet recognized Jesus' actions as messianic because he hasn't been trained to see these things as indicators of God's presence. John, according to Jesus, needs to stretch his imagination of what the presence and power of God look like.

And here's the rub: are we any different? Or, to put it another way, what limitations have been placed on our imagination and expectations? I wonder whether one of the reasons many of our traditions are withering is that we haven't been trained to see God at work in the ordinary arenas of our lives. Each week, that is, we come to church, hear the Scriptures read and preached, sing the hymns and say the prayers, and, if lucky, have a sense of God’s presence. But do we carry that experience with us out of church and into our everyday lives? Do we look for God in the ordinary arenas of home and work, economics and politics? Can we imagine that God is using us in our various roles as employee, parent, spouse, friend, citizen, and volunteer, to extend God's love, blessing, and steadfast care of all creation? Can we, in short, see God at work outside of the church?

Let me give you an analogy: a year or so ago the reactions of commuters at an underground station to the music of a busker playing the violin were taped. The overwhelming majority of the 1000+ commuters were too busy to stop. A few did, briefly, and some of those threw a couple of coins into his violin case. No big deal, just an ordinary day on the underground. Except it wasn't an ordinary day. The violinist wasn't just another busker; he was Joshua Bell, one of the world's finest concert violinists, playing his multi-million pound Stradivarius. Three days earlier he had filled Boston's Symphony Hall with people paying $100 a seat to hear him play similar pieces. The question many others since have asked is simple: have we been trained to recognize beauty outside the contexts we expect to encounter beauty? Or, to put it another way, can we recognize great music anywhere outside of a concert hall?

I'd ask us the same question: can we detect God only when God is surrounded by stained-glass windows and organ music? I'm afraid that often we can't.

So here's the question. If Sunday after Sunday the sermon has next to nothing to do with life Monday to Friday, and if week after week we fail to use the hour gathered for worship to train our people to see God alive and active in the other 167 hours of the week, how long can we expect people to keep giving us that hour when they could probably find numerous other ways to spend it that would strengthen them for the rest of their week, life, and world? The answer, I think, is given each week as one or more members of the worshipping community doesn't turn up to worship.

We won't know how John responded to Jesus' answer. But we do know that Jesus wasn't finished. After giving his response to John's messenger, he went on to say that John was the greatest of all the prophets. Why? Because at one point he had recognized and heralded Jesus as the messiah. And then Jesus goes even further, saying that the least in the kingdom of heaven - that is, every Christian disciple - is greater than John. Why? Because we have perceived in Jesus' "ordinary" actions of restoration the very hand of God at work to heal, redeem, and save.

John witnessed to the coming messiah, and we too, like John or even Elijah, are witnesses of the coming day. Jesus' answer is an interesting one.  John no doubt thought the sign would be much clearer when it finally came.  But Jesus, in his answer, points not to world transforming occurrences but instead to very small events.  Of course, some of them may be considered miraculous - but always on an individual level.  Jesus does not respond by saying what is happening at the level of nations or governments or populations or the cultural movements of the day, (although there is an implicit challenge to all of those).  He tells us to look closely and see what is happening in the lives of people.  He is at work on a very intimate level.  Someone who was blind can now see.  Someone else who was lame can now walk.  Yet another person who was deaf can now hear.  Someone who's had the good news brought to them and now feels hope.
Later on in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can say, "Move," to a mountain and it will move.  Though this is a powerful and well-known piece of scripture, I think we often misinterpret it.  I think the mistake is believing God's faithfulness is normally found in the moving of mountains, but it's not.  God's faithfulness is almost always seen in something that the world sees as inconsequential, like a mustard seed. We prepare ourselves this season of Advent for the arrival of the ultimate seed, the birth of a child in a manger in the middle of nowhere.
Do we really want the gift of Christ this year? No matter how young or old we are, whether we are waiting to receive that perfect gift, waiting to receive that special answer from our loved one, waiting for that special moment of reconciliation with our children or with our parents, we are also waiting ultimately for the Christ, the Saviour.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Well, I've no one to blame but myself I suppose: I did make a point of threatening (something akin to) violent death to anyone who wilfully insisted on failing to acknowledge Advent and now I have made a rod for my own back.

"Happy Christmas Sir!" Big Dave makes a point of this greeting every time he passes me on the corridor.  He has now taken to posting Christmas greetings daily on my Facebook page, but, as he's not called Big Dave for nothing, I have graciously and magnanimously decided to allow him to live for another year.

That's the spirit of Advent! I'm entirely sure that is what John the Baptist would have done.

Anyway it has been a mixed week at the knowledge College: on Friday as I was coming down the stairs from my classroom, I heard the sound of Maths Karl's door being unlocked. Approaching his door with a cheery "Good Morning Knob-Head", I was somewhat surprised when the dulcet tones of one of our Deputy Head teachers replied, "Good Morning Sir." from within.

No post-Advent card from that direction this year methinks.

My 11 year olds have come up trumps, though. We have been looking at religious festivals and the R.S. Department has been commandeering the display cabinets in the foyer to display our pupils' work. Poppy did a particularly good display on Eid and it was my turn to do both Hanukkah and Christmas. Now the problem is that there aren't as many weeks in the school year as there are in a calendar year so I've put these two festivals in the same display.

I suggested to my classes that each child produced a nativity in a shoebox. I had no confidence that they would actually do it - not in significant numbers anyway.

Boy was I wrong.

My classroom resembles a defunct shoe shop and the level of creativity is awesome. We have nativities where the star actually lights up, we have farmyard figure and mini holy family sets. There are wonderfully created Magi and an awful lot of straw. Some figures are made from clay, others from brightly coloured plasticine. There are wonderfully inventive mini Magi-gift-sets and lolly-stick stables. We have palm trees made from pipe-cleaners and some, frankly, quite scary angels. I have so many shoe boxes I have to change the display daily.

This has not been without it's problems though.

"Sir, I've lost Mary on the way to school. I think she's been run over."

"Sir, I'm missing a sheep. I think it may be loose in my bag."

The whole display is topped off by a large Hanukkah candelabra and some brightly word processed pages of commentary and explanation. What has been lovely has been the positive reaction to the displays from other students and staff. Well, apart from Maths Karl, obviously.

"It's just land-fill in the end."

On Thursday I had my bottom set 13 year olds. They really are a challenge but they respond very well to unmerited praise.

You know, what I really like about you lot is how well you listen. This to a group who have never knowingly been silent. They preen themselves.

We have been looking at religious attitudes to drug use and spent a good time discussing "legal" highs.

Why is the word legal in speech marks? I enquire.

"Er, that doesn't make sense because they're legal. Duh!

Actually, no. They are only "legal" in as much as the authorities haven't been able to analyse them and declare them illegal because of the volume of them on the market and the ever changing nature of the chemical cocktail. Any questions? Yes, Ryan?

"Sir, is it illegal to masturbate on a plane?"

Erm... now what was the word I was groping for here? I know ... ANYWAY! Moving on.


Thanks Ryan.

This is now the mantra of the day. You can hear "BOGIES" from various corners of the school/

"BOGIES!!!" (From somewhere beyond the I.T. suite.) Ah, Ryan'll be in Art.

"Can I clean the board Sir?"

That's kind but don't worry, I shan't be using it just now.

"But I hate all those half bits of words and phrases from where you've not cleaned it properly."

"That" announces Kayleigh "is because you're STD!"

"Sir, Is the Pope a Catholic?"

I look at Elise. She is a clever girl and I can see she is mentally backtracking.

"Ha!! You'll have to come and sit over here on the retards table."

Davina! I never said you were retards.

"Sorry Sir. Elise: you'll have to come and sit on this set of tables where Sir, in his cleverly crafted seating plan, has put those of us who are failing to get our target grades."

Davina is also a clever girl. (Even if she isn't getting her target grade in R.S.)

I have been looking at Religion and Medical Ethics with my Yr. 10 classes and we have been considering various attitudes to fertility treatment. This includes discussing both AID and AIH and I have found a poster from some Health Authority that pronounces, "Sperm donation. So much more fun than blood donation."

This goes completely over their heads.

"So is it like blood donation Sir. Do you give a pint?" Marcus is a student who annoys me beyond measure.

Yes Marcus. That's right.

Satisfied that I have emotionally traumatised Marcus, I go to lunch.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Sunday Sermon: The Feast of Christ the King

Today is the feast of Christ the King. My heart sank when I read the text: what is there left about Christ the King that’s not already been said and would bear repeating? Not for the first time do I feel that I’ve drawn the preacher’s short straw.

When I first began looking at this text we were approaching Remembrance Sunday, and along with many others I watched as Her Majesty exercised some of the responsibilities of her office: in the Royal Albert Hall on the Saturday night and on the Sunday morning at the Cenotaph. I don’t know about you, but, state occasions apart – and not always then - royalty doesn’t have much of an impact on my daily life.

Nevertheless that theme of royalty stuck in my mind for this morning. When we come upon "Christ the King" in the church calendar, what are we to make of it? What does the metaphor of Christ as King mean in an age when, constitutional monarchies notwithstanding, we probably know more of fairy-tale, pampered royalty along the lines of Disney and Hans Christian Anderson?

On the other hand, depending on your cultural experiences, perhaps you associate royalty with despotic, distant, and exploitative leadership.

Remote or not, valued national asset or not as the modern monarchy might be, and, as an idea, contaminated by third world despots, conspiracy theories about Diana’s death, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, the State Opening of Parliament and Hello Magazine’s full colour edition on the latest Royal wedding, baptism or divorce, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if, Monarchist or Republican, we might not be a bit schizophrenic about the exact nature of monarchy!

Yet we are faced this morning with a passage deliberately chosen for this feast because of its royal theme: Jesus is referred to three times as King: by the soldiers at the cross, on the inscription nailed to the cross, and by the criminal asking to be remembered when Jesus came into his kingdom. Unless we live in one of the world’s three absolute monarchies, kings don’t mean much to us.  Neither does calling Jesus our Prime Minister express what the Scriptures are talking about when they call Jesus a king.  They are saying that he is the absolutely most important person in our lives.

Now there’s a challenge if ever I’ve heard one: Jesus as the most important person in my life – or not. Wow.

So, let’s remind ourselves of the context again: the opposition to Jesus has been building. Irritated by how the people love him, Jesus' enemies display their resistance to God's reign by their absolute ferocity. We’ve already heard in Chapter 20 that after "the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people". In Chapter 22, as Passover approached, we also heard how "The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Jesus to death, for they were afraid of the people".

As Jesus now hangs dying, we, too, join the people who ironically hear the truth spoken in ignorant, sarcastic insults. "He saved others, let him save himself!" That, of course, is exactly the point of how Jesus is enacting God's reign of mercy, by not saving himself. But they are blind. Then they cite the heart of the Biblical story as accusations against Jesus: "If he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one."

The Romans were responsible for the inscription over Jesus' head: "This is the King of the Jews." and their soldiers mocked Jesus and all of Israel with this title. It was the title with which Pilate scorned Jesus and the title which King Herod Antipas desperately wanted for his own. The point of crucifixions was to humiliate "enemies of the Roman Order" in public displays of Roman clout, as if to say: "Look here, Judeans, this is the fate of all with pretensions to royal titles only Rome can award!" Ironically, the faithful know Jesus truly is the King of the Jews, but not because Rome said so. No, it is the title, "The Messiah of God" that carries the promise, because it is God who has chosen Jesus by anointing him with the Holy Spirit and with power. And God's "Messiah" or "King" exercises God's righteous reign of justice and mercy. So "the Messiah of God" is truly "the righteous one!"

Look ahead a few verses beyond this and notice in Luke's account how, when a Roman Centurion "saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, 'Certainly this man was innocent!'" Mark’s version has "Truly this man was God's Son". The Greek word that is translated "innocent" also means "righteous." Through the centuries, the Christian faithful have understood that the Centurion was not merely announcing they had executed an innocent person, but his words noted the ultimate defiance of God's reign, killing the righteous one, the Messiah of God.

Now this is a familiar story and, as we’ve seen, it is interwoven with royal references: king, Lord, reign, anointing and so on. But what are we to do with this passage now? I’m always reminded of the parable of the sower at this point in a sermon. How is each of us to respond to the passage, because it absolutely requires a response? Well, we’ve stood with the crowd as the events have unfolded but unlike the crowd we’ve the benefit of hindsight. We know what’s going to happen and we have some grasp of the theological implications of the sequence of events. Is the seed of this passage going to land on stony ground or is it going to land on the good ground and grow and flourish. At the end of that parable Jesus warned his listeners, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” That’s a constant challenge when we hear the gospel, however familiar the passage might be.

At the start I speculated whether such a familiar story would yield up new insights. It did for me and I’d like to share that with you.

My thought of the Kingship of Jesus focused on the royal quality of mercy, particularly as applied to the royal prerogative of the pardon. Let’s think for a moment of the two who were crucified with Jesus: one joins with the crowd and the religious authorities to insult and denigrate Jesus while the other asks for mercy, “Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”

What was it that the penitent saw at that moment? Hardly Jesus in his glory, orb and sceptre in hand as he sat on his throne. We need to remember that this man saw Jesus at his lowest and most wretched: his glory had been ebbing away in Gethsemane and again before Caiaphas, Herod, and Pilate; but it had now reached the utmost low-water mark. Stripped of his garments, and nailed to the cross, he was mocked by the local branch of rent-a-mob, and was dying in agony. Yet, while in that condition, emptied of all his glory, hung up as a spectacle of shame and on the verge of death, he achieved this marvellous deed of grace.

I don’t know about you but I’ve been desensitised to the utter awfulness of the crucifixion by its very familiarity. It wasn’t until I saw Mel Gibson’s excoriating film The Passion of the Christ that the true horror of it set in: it leaves nothing to the imagination in its graphic portrayal of Christ’s last hours. It was truly shocking and for me - despite the disgust - all the better for it. I needed to be reminded what Jesus went through.

However, for me, what makes this event memorable doesn’t just lie in the weakness of Christ at this moment of grace but that the criminal being crucified alongside him could perceive it. It is the fact that the dying man could see the Kingship of Jesus before his eyes. Put yourself in the place of the criminal who did not have the benefit of theological hindsight. Do you think at that point that you could perceive the Kingship of Jesus? Could you readily believe him to be the King of glory, who would soon come to his kingdom? I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have. It was a very impressive faith which, at such a moment, could believe in Jesus as Lord and King.

And this is, surely, all the more remarkable because the man was in great pain himself, and at the point of death. It is not easy to exercise confidence in someone else when he is in as bad a state as you are.

I’ve no doubt that there are many in this congregation who have experienced significant suffering – disappointment, illness, bereavement and so on - and one of the things you’ll no doubt be able to warn those here who have yet to go through it is that when we are the subjects of acute suffering it is not easy to exhibit that level of faith we believe we possess at other times. Even so, this man, suffering as he did, and seeing Jesus in the same state, still believed and gained eternal life: it’s worthwhile remembering that this man who was Jesus's last companion on earth was his first companion in the Kingdom of God.

We need to be more like that man!

One of the great temptations for many Christians is to prefer a sugar coated Christianity – Christianity-Lite if you like, to accept the gift of salvation the King offers certainly, while eliminating the implications of this great call to discipleship. Our greatest temptation is that the cares and routines of this life can become more important than the Kingship of Jesus. Remember today’s passage is telling us that Jesus should be the most important thing in our lives. And so the business of family, friends, jobs, homes and hobbies – our own personal familiar routines - get in the way of our discipleship and therefore of Jesus’ mission to bring his kingdom closer.

I was going to say: our challenge as disciples is to join Jesus in his mission to bring the Kingdom of God closer, but actually, to extend the idea of Kingship, perhaps it would be good for a while to consider ourselves not so much as disciples of Jesus but as Subjects of the King. So our challenge as subjects of that King is to join him in his mission to bring the kingdom of God closer. Nothing more, nothing less. We follow Jesus not just as Saviour and King, but also as Role Model. We do it because he did it. That’s the challenge but I’m not coming with answers. If only!  I have to face that same challenge and there’s a little passage from Philippians that exhorts us, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”. I have to do it and you have to do it and there aren’t any answers because each of us is different. The prophet Micah put it very succinctly, And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”. If we want generic guidelines to begin to work out our own salvation and bring God’s Kingdom closer, we could do a lot worse than to listen to Micah, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”. If we are acting justly and loving mercy it will inform our politics, our attitudes, our motivations. We need to be in the vanguard following our role model. What would Jesus do? What would Jesus say? What would Jesus think? How would Jesus respond? It’s not trite at all: it’s the challenge.

Where do you stand on the issue of the international aid budget? On poverty? On human sexuality? On race, immigration and asylum seekers? On crime and punishment and so on? Why do you think the way you do on those topics? Has that view been shaped the values of our society and the news media or by Jesus’ values?

The man dying beside Jesus could have gone along with the crowd. How easy that would have been. He was surrounded by scoffers: it’s easy to swim with the current and hard to go against the stream. This man heard the priests, in their ignorance and pride, ridicule Jesus and the crowd join in. The other criminal was caught up in this mood and he scorned Jesus too. How easy it would have been to have gone with the flow, but his faith was not affected by his surroundings. He is a model for our discipleship.

In Matthews Gospel Jesus tells the story of the sheep and the goats and he concludes: What you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me… and whatever you did not do for the least of these you did not do for me. That is Jesus’ Kingdom in practice. How are we measuring up?

It is the Kingship of Jesus that allows us to be his disciples and it is not a despotic Kingship but a benign Kingship that gives us the responsibility and the freedom to join him in bringing that Kingdom to others.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Year 10 again!

Year 10 again. O Joy!

“Roman Catholics?” Courtney is very animated for someone who appeared to be asleep only a few seconds ago.

“Roman Catholics? Do they still exist? What do they look like?” There is a note of incredulity in her voice – which is an improvement on the usual surly whine we’ve all grown to love and treasure.

There is that moment: you know? The briefest of moments when you could hear a pin drop?

And then the room erupts. Even by the very low standards of this most bottom of bottom sets, Courtney has set a new standard and the rest of them know it.

And fully intend to exploit it.

Not that Courtney is the slightest bit ruffled by the response and resorts to her time honoured default position: brazen it out.

I marvel at her willingness to brazen it out given
  1. The derision of everyone else in the group
  2. The untenability of her statement
“Well, how would I know? I live in the twentieth century!”

Loud guffaws from around the room.

Really? Anyway, Roman Catholics aren’t an extinct species.

There is the merest raising of an eyebrow as if to suggest perplexity. Given all the makeup she is wearing, I am amazed the eyebrow muscle has the ability to take the strain and I ponder the mental image of plaster flaking from a wall.

“They built all those roads.”

It’s my turn to look perplexed.

The redoubtable Mrs. Carol, Support Assistant Extraordinaire, chips in, “I think she’s talking about the Romans, aren’t you Pet?”

Now at this point I don’t think Courtney has any idea what she’s talking about, but that’s a position she’s quite used to.

The others by now have lost interest and are constructively filling their time by smearing each other with glue-stick residue or poking pencils in each other’s ears.

Please don’t do that. I’ll have to fill in forms!

They settle remarkably quickly and I notice Aaron (“It’s pronounced Arran” No it’s not.) has a significant amount of red in his hair. Fashion statement or problem with as board-marker? No time to ask.

Right! Have a look at the bottom of Page 7.

“Bottom! Hahahahahahaha!”

Thanks Alfie.

They work in something approximating an on-task fashion. When I say “approaching an on-task fashion”, given the nature of this group, what I really mean is an off-task fashion.

Put the hole-punch down now.

Now we need to keep abreast of current affairs, so …

“Breast! Hahahahahahaha!”

Cheers Alfie.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Sunday sermon: Jesus and the Ten Lepers from Luke 17:11-19

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.

 Some context: We are walking with Jesus in the final months of his life, toward Jerusalem. For many months he has crossed Israel preaching the gospel of the Kingdom, doing many miracles and healings, showing compassion and sympathy, tenderness and mercy but also speaking firmly about judgment, to awaken the people to the necessity of looking to Him as their Saviour, their Messiah.

We join him this morning passing between Samaria and Galilee and we witness a healing: a healing, unusually of a large group rather than individuals...ten people with leprosy.

Lepers were, of all the sick, the most to be avoided. That's why we’re told they stood at a distance. What must that’ve been like? Have you ever been isolated from family or other people? Such as being in prison? Or, being in the military and posted overseas, without your family? Or, moved to a different community where you knew no one? Or, went away to university for the first time and all was new and different? If so, you have the beginnings of a sense of the isolation leprosy brought.

In the ancient world they didn't know about bacteria, antibiotics, rates of infection, or any of that but what they did understand was that sometimes what starts out as a simple rash on the skin, can lead to disaster, and what starts with one person can end up affecting many more. So what did they do? They separated the lepers from other people, and didn't let them live with anyone or eat with anyone, or even talk with anyone, except for other lepers. It could cost you your family and friends and life as you know it is gone. Unclean -- outcast -- away you go, off with the other lepers. The people you needed most, the loving family and friends, you couldn't come near. You couldn't associate with other people in the synagogue or any social environment whatsoever. You were an alien from all of life.

And there were rules to make all this happen as set out in the Book of Leviticus: laws about how far away lepers had to stand from other people, about how they had to wear worn-out clothes and warn people in a loud voice whenever they were walking down the street, and people at Jesus' time believed that leprosy was the punishment for sin, something the leper had done to deserve this fate so they tended to be very unsympathetic. These were the most miserable of all people, believing that they had been cursed by man and cursed by God as well.

It is against this background that Jesus demonstrates compassion, sympathy, and power and in doing so, challenges and undoes what the people would have assumed was a divine curse. It is a powerful indication of the Kingdom at work: the old order is passing away and, for those willing to see it, there is a new future. It is an astounding and incredible healing from all perspectives. 

I don’t know whether that’s something we consider very much – well, I don’t, perhaps you do: our isolation from God is over and for most of us here it’s been over for a long time.

There are a number of directions we can take at this point in terms of a theological reflection and learning points – something practical we can take away from this morning. A lot of commentators concentrate on the ungrateful nature of the nine and there is clearly a huge area we could explore there in relation to our responses to God’s grace. Others concentrate on the fact that of the ten, the only one to come back is the Samaritan, the despised foreigner, and we could usefully have a discussion about the limits we and others like to put on God’s grace.

I think I’d like to look at the nine: not the ungrateful nine but the nine as they can stand for models of discipleship following the gift of God’s grace.

What happened to the nine is, of course, speculation. We don’t know what became of them but it is Jesus who invites us to speculate; it was he who asked, “Were not ten made clean? Where are the other nine?” Yes, where were they? What could have happened to them? Luke doesn’t give us an answer, so the question remains, hanging. It is up to the reader to wonder, to imagine, to speculate, to guess.

When we hear Jesus ask, “Where are the other nine?” I think we tend to hear a tone of judgment and criticism in his voice, as in, “Where are the other nine? They should be here!” But I can’t help wondering if it was more a deep sense of compassion that led Jesus to ask that question. “Where are the other nine? I wanted their healing to lead to a life of wholeness.” I find that interesting because the nine clearly had faith – they called out to Jesus to be healed and they were: it wasn’t faith that they lacked so what went wrong?

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to compare us to the lepers and their lives after their encounter with Jesus to ours. We’ve had an encounter with Jesus: at some stage in our lives he has touched us and changed us. How has it gone from there? Well, it strikes me that there might be some models of discipleship amongst the nine that might be a challenge to us.

Let’s speculate about the first possible group of lepers. Perhaps their first thoughts were of their families. After all, how long had it been since they had last seen them? For many years they had had no contact with them. Like all lepers and other unclean people, they had been forced to live outside society and keep their distance from all others.  What if the families weren’t open to receiving them back? The healing becomes a curse. Things won’t be as they once were.

Describing one’s self as a disciple isn’t always a universally welcome thing amongst friends and family and rejection is a reality for some people who take the path of Christian discipleship. When someone comes to the Christian faith from another faith group, that conversion can cause untold antagonism and uproar. Others face indifference, ridicule and cynicism from a secular environment. How lonely that discipleship becomes: it could lead one to give up on it.

And a possible second group: what if they tried so hard to be accepted but others couldn’t forget what they had once been and they were never truly welcomed back?

We are constantly told that the church is a family and I know that over the years many people have settled here because they’ve not been made welcome elsewhere or have felt uncomfortable with the teaching they have experienced elsewhere. They’ve had the encounter with Jesus and then spent a period in the wilderness of the institutional church: they’ve drifted from the church but that encounter with Jesus has brought them back, perhaps a number of times, but the church has shown no welcome. The church isn’t always good at practicing what it preaches. As many of you know, I had a period with another denomination and would now class myself as a returner to Anglicanism. I can’t pretend that I have been universally welcomed back and in some quarters I’ve been treated with a degree of suspicion bordering on hostility. It seems to be what I was that defines me in the eyes of others, not what I am now or could go on to be. Such disciples run the risk of being kept on the margins.

Consider a third group: having been lifted from the bottom of the social order, they forgot that experience and could find no compassion in themselves for others who were outcast and marginalised.

We’ve met those Christians before haven’t we? I remember the Lent group here where we were examining the series “Rev” and we came upon the actor Darren Boyd’s funny but rather scary cool-priest with his juice bar and life of black and white certainties and the disappointment he expressed in Adam Smallbone’s spirituality with its layered shades of grey. For those Christians there is only one pattern of discipleship – theirs, and for these disciples the touch of Jesus has led them to look down on others as a consequence.

And some in that third group: what if they’d noticed that one of the lepers had been a Samaritan –“someone not like us”?  What if they couldn’t reconcile the way God had treated someone else with their own set of values; a set of values which counted some people as more worthy than others? That way could lead to hurt, resentment and bitterness in the disciple.

Well, we know them too don’t we? This is the next stage up from scary cool-priest. This is the monstrosity who is Adam’s Archdeacon. The Gospel is about theological and doctrinal orthodoxy and about putting others down: they are scathing and dismissive of those who hold alternative views – not that there are alternative views of course. Their certainty brings them a sense of superiority and it shows in their dealings with others. These Christians are arrogant, lacking in humility and lacking in the warmth of human kindness. Other wings in the church are to be tolerated – but only in as much as they can also be undermined. Yes, the touch of Jesus that might lead to superiority as a model of discipleship.

What if the healing was perceived by others amongst the lepers in such a way as to make them believe Jesus had seen something special in them? If that were the case, then surely others would also see in them something special. Perhaps they now had expectations.

This is a hard one I think: there are many people who truly believe that God has touched them and have called them to some form of ministry and service and they struggle to find their place in the scheme of things. I think it’s difficult because we are all called – “the priesthood of all believers” – so how do we discern what that calling is and how open are we to hearing the perceptions of others in our search for that role? In this model of discipleship the touch of Jesus might lead to disappointment and recrimination.

And a sixth group: what if some of the lepers had been on the margins for so long they couldn’t make the transition to the new life? What if that led to self-doubt and a sense of unworthiness? Did they really belong in this new world after all? Maybe Jesus had made a mistake.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come.” 2 Corinthians tells us. That doesn’t always ring completely true for some people does it? For some the struggle of discipleship means a huge turn around in terms of what they are leaving behind and for some there are the expectations that the church and other Christians put on them which might not themselves be what Jesus would have asked in terms of discipleship. Here the healing touch might lead to our being oppressed by others in the church with their perceptions of what God requires of us.

What if the seventh potential group truly wanted to give thanks to God and perhaps give their lives to serving others – when they got themselves re-established and their lives sorted out. But life has a habit of getting in the way doesn’t it? There’s always something else that needs to be sorted before I can take that next step.

I’m sure this has applied to most of us at some stage in our pilgrimage of faith. What opportunities for service have we missed because life got in the way? “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions” may not be a Biblical text – although it is attributed in some form to St Bernard of Clairvaux – but it pretty well sums up how we consistently fail to take Jesus at his word and allow other stuff to get in the way. “As soon as I get this sorted …. I’ll probably find something else that needs my attention.” The touch of Jesus here could lead to a discipleship of unfulfilled potential.

So, where does all this leave us? Can we identify a default position? Possibly in others, but we may have missed the point if we can’t see something of ourselves in these styles of discipleship.

I don’t know the answer to this, but the question is worth each of us asking: in what ways have we responded to Jesus after our encounter with him? Can we see ourselves in any of the models of discipleship I’ve speculated on for the nine who got it wrong? Have you spotted another style in there I’ve not considered and is that, too, inadequate as a response to Jesus?

I was careful though to couch my analysis of these models of discipleship in terms of “might” and “could”. It doesn’t have to be that way.

So, if the answer to either of those questions is yes, then the supplementary question has to be: what are you – and I include me – in the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, going to do about it in order to be like the leper who Jesus perceived had got it right?