"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

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

It's A Knock Out

The summer heat wave moves on apace here at the Knowledge College as the term draws to an end. My 16 year olds are long gone, having completed their exams and I find myself attached to a Year 10 form for the enrichment activities of the last week of term, their regular tutor being on maternity leave.

I arrive at registration to discover, to some surprise, that only ten of them have turned in but they seem keen and enthusiastic. Conscious of the health issues associated with being outside in such temperatures, I run through my air-stewardesque safety routine. I hold up my water bottle.

How many of you have water?

One hand goes up. Not a good start. I dig into the bag and hold up sunscreen. Two hands go up. This is not looking good. Hats and sunglasses elicit no responses at all and I note a lot of strappy tops: so much for the baggy T-shirt. It isn’t as if they’ve not been told – repeatedly.

“It’ll be alright.” They reassure me.

 I rue the fact that I am not young enough to know best.

We set off to the sports field and my lot leg it to the front leaving me, somewhat in the slipstream of their enthusiasm bringing up the rear of a column of some 250 sets of hormones. The halt, lame and lazy are at the back – I exclude myself, although it doesn’t take long for me to wish I hadn’t worn these old trainers: I can feel chaffing and suspect I may be developing blisters.


The slowest of the slow include two girls who could only care less and walk any slower with the aid of mogadon.

“I’m gonna be nice today” girl A says as she slaps girl B.

“That wasn’t nice.” (Slap).

“Well you run with scissors.” (Slap).

“Yeah? Well, you play with matches.” (Slap).

It’s going to be a long day.

As we arrive I am both intrigued and impressed by a vast array of brightly coloured, giant, inflatable obstacle-course type games. The day is being run by an organisation called We're A Knock Out,  based on a long running pan-European TV show from the 1970s. The basis of the game is team competition with lashings of humiliation. It was a bit like a rerun of World War Two with a more predictable outcome: Germany always won, France peaked early and Belgium always came last. We did the usual magnanimous-in-defeat British thing and pretended that it was the taking part that mattered.

The lead instructor, an Australian, divided each form group into two teams, A and B. Because my lot were so light on numbers they opted to be both A and B and do everything twice, which worried me slightly given the temperature and the lack of shade in the games area.

I particularly liked the heat where the kids were strapped into a huge table-football game, if only because a lot of the kids ended up facing the wrong way and their instructor wouldn’t let them change. They were still better than my lame attempts at table-football.

Wearying of watching after a while I sloped back to the waiting enclosure for a drink and a reapplication of sunscreen. Lucy is brought over to where I am sitting.

“AND DON’T MOVE!” her Form Tutor instructs. I assume he is talking to her. I look at her.

“I hate him.”

I raise an eyebrow.

“Joanne splashed me with water, (the cow) so I splashed her back (the bitch). Then she poured a bottle of water over me, so I poured a bottle of water over her. Then she poured her juice in my hair, so I hit her with my bottle. Then she said I had a big bum, so I told her that her shorts were up her arse-crack. Then Sir came along.”

Some of mine wandered by for a snack. They were giddy with excitement.

“You should have seen Kelley! She’s soaked to the skin and she just kept whacking the boys out of the way.” I picture Kelley, elbows and knees sharpened for the fray, as she throws herself under netting and through huge inflatable obstacles. I’m glad she’s on my team.

At some point I realise that my blister is both sore and inflamed. I take myself to the designated first-aider, whine a bit and am rewarded with a plaster.

At lunch I find myself sitting with a gaggle of my Asian colleagues.

Where’s Derrinder today?

“He’s away. He got sunburnt on sports day.”

Are you serious?

“He’s got sensitive skin. It’s a good job he’s not a girl.”

There are blank looks from the non-Asians and smiles and sage nods from the Asians.

“It’s the Indian Tiger.” Ishvinder confides.

More blank looks.

“I mean the Indian mother. The Jewish mother has nothing on the Indian mother.” She adopts a heavy cameo Indian accent “Get out of the sun! You’ll go dark and then who will marry you? Do you want to be twenty-two and single?”

“You don’t have long to find a doctor.” Zibya takes up the challenge. “And if you don’t find one, we’ll have to settle with a dentist. Oh, the shame. Your grandmother will spin in her grave. A teacher? A TEACHER? Don’t be ridiculous!”

Not to be outdone, Kajol joins in. “When your grandmother was your age in Delhi she had thirty four children. Did she complain? What’s the matter with your cousin? He drives an Aston Martin! He’s a good catch. So what if he’s got one leg longer than the other? No-one’s perfect! What other men have paid you attention? You can’t afford to be choosy. You’re not exactly a looker yourself!”

I look at my friends, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh as they vie to outdo each other with stories of Tiger Mothers, Mothers-in-law, grandmothers, Aunts and Step-mothers, each more outrageous than the last, while the rest of us hoot with laughter. It puts me in mind of Mrs. Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. What a joy.

All was going well until we hear the dulcet tones of one of our Senior Managers.

“Oh God, someone’s given her a microphone.”

We sit in horror as she announces that there will be a staff heat. I look around at my colleagues.

They have evaporated leaving me on my own.

Tumbleweed blows by.

I am doomed and before I can say Not Bloody Likely I am pressganged into a team. Sixteen members of staff who have so far managed to stay clean and dry and two hundred and fifty baying fans: the potential humiliation quota is through the roof.

Has there been a risk assessment? I enquire weakly. Some of us are over 40 and strangers to exercise.

No quarter is given and we are off, bouncing on space-hoppers, scrambling under a net, submerging in a pool of water looking for a ball of a specified colour, (You call that blue?) scrambling under more net and throwing the ball into a bucket.

I decide not to go first when all the attention is on the opening four. Opting to go last in my team, I rightly surmise that no one will notice me in the general scrum. This is good because I fail spectacularly on the space-hopper (I am too tall), get tangled in the net on both occasions “Go on Sir.” Manage to grab Mrs. Bakers dress in the pool, apologise profusely as she accuses me of cheating, nearly drown, retrieve a ball of indeterminate colour, discover my legs no longer work and fail to get the ball into the bucket. My legs seem to belong to someone else and I remember, as I stagger back to the start and my life flashes before my eyes, that I’m not actually 15.

(Mrs. Baker has been coy and skittish with me ever since.)

My next round pairs me against the Demon Headteacher: he is very competitive and leaves me standing. I wouldn’t have minded so much but he’s older than me.

At the end of the game not one of us has actually managed to get the ball (was about to say our balls, but decided against it) into the team bucket.

I feel I may have risked my life to no avail. Four teams have tied for last place.

“It’s like a swimming pool” one colleague complains. “There was a plaster at the shallow end.”

I look at my toe. Oops.

I officially smell like a pond. I have no spare clothes and will be leading Compline in the local church after school. Great!

Every child is throwing water at every other child. Lucy seems to be leading the charge, but it is good natured.

Rather surprisingly, my little lot won both A and B competitions. I am very proud, even though I’d largely forgotten about them as the day wore on, what with me having problems of my own. They had to be stretchered off, but they won!


Saturday, July 6, 2013

Jesus sends out the Seventy: Luke 10:1-11, 16-20, (and a Baptism.)

Jesus sends out the Seventy: Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this house!' And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.' But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 'Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.'  "Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me." The seventy returned with joy, saying, "Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!"  He said to them, "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.  See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord.

 Where I work we have a sponsored walk every year. Last year we awoke to lowering leaden skies which did not bode well. Sammi arrived in registration, limping.

"I thought I'd walk today instead of getting the bus."

(Who, in their right mind, walks to school in new trainers on the only day of the year when registration is followed by a compulsory ten mile walk?)

Picture this: the elite runners had set off: those who would run the distance in some silly time and the rest of the children, the second team, the walkers in their Gladiator sandals, Ugg boots and flip-flops, were assembled, shivering - this is the British summer after all - to be given a range of stirringly inspirational speeches by members of the teaching staff who, as soon as the kids departed into the drizzle, would slope off to the weatherproof and warm embrace of the staffroom for a restorative coffee.

The kids remained, strangely, unconvinced by these inspirational speeches “Great.” They thought, as they digested the prospect.

It was with that in mind that I looked at today’s Gospel and thought that Jesus might have benefitted from giving one of those stirringly inspirational speeches before sending the Disciples off into whatever was the first century evangelistic version of a wet British summer morning: even if, like my students, the Disciples remained unconvinced. What the Disciples got instead was the analogy of going out into a complex and hostile world as sheep into an environment of wolves.  “Great!” they must have been thinking as they digested the prospect.

As if that unappetising prospect wasn’t enough, these first Christian missionaries are commanded to go empty-handed, without even the most basic provisions necessary for the road. No purse, no bag, no sandals. They must leave all these sorts of basics at home. They are armed instead with only this message: the kingdom of God has come near. This is both their proclamation and their promise. They are to speak these words to those who offer them hospitality and to those who don’t. They are to be ambassadors for Christ; they are to live as role models for all to see. They are to practice peace, do justice, live out the faith. Sheep in the midst of wolves.

It’s worth noting too, that this Gospel version alone refers to the wider group of disciples: not just the elite runners, the 12, but the second team who we don’t generally hear that much about, the first century equivalent of the Ugg boots and flip-flop wearers. Seventy Disciples in total, we are told.

They are Jesus’ "advance team" for the mission he was on. They were to go into all the towns and cities he intended to one day visit and prepare the way.

No longer watching from the side-lines, these followers are now sent out, to share peace and fellowship, to cure the sick, to proclaim the kingdom of God. In short, they were called to live out and practice the faith that they had confessed. And it is in the doing that the seventy are transformed from bystanders to active participants in the work of God. And we’ve been transformed from bystanders to active participants in the work of God because the Kingdom of God has been brought near to us. My students were pushed well beyond their comfort zones by doing something radically different to their normal routines and so were the Disciples.

Surely this is a really appropriate Gospel reading for a baptism. Surely the Kingdom of God has come near today as Tommy is baptised? If we use the analogy of a long walk for the Christian life then much of what is said here applies to Baby Tommy, to Kelly and Rob and to Sally, Karl and Jenny and the special God-friends who are here to support him, as they guide him out into a complex and hostile world like a lamb amongst wolves. We are all at different stages of that long walk: today Theodore has begun his journey. Look around the room and look at the age-profile. Not chronological age, but spiritual age and yet regardless of where we are on that journey, the Kingdom of God has come closer to each of us at various times and in ways that each of us could probably share with the rest. How has it done that?

Well, let's look again at the instructions Jesus gives to the seventy missionaries: they are to enter a town, and where welcomed they are to stay - that's Christian hospitality. They are to eat what is given to them - that's fellowship. Then they are to cure the sick - that's compassion and care. Finally, they are to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near. Could it be that it is through the faithful and loving ministry of the disciples, then and now, that the kingdom of God in fact comes near? When we have experienced those things at the hands of others or been the means of sharing them with others we are bringing the Kingdom closer.

We need to recognise that the seventy were unlikely to be trained religious leaders.  Today, we are tempted to think of the clergy as the people who are sent into ministry.  The reality is that everyone is called to proclaim the "nearness of God's reign" no matter what we do to earn money.  The Epistle to the Hebrews talks about “The Priesthood of all Believers”. You and me, lay and ordained. The Vicar and Tommy .The seventy have real lives in addition to being followers of Jesus but what they do in those environments as followers of Jesus is to model, however inadequately the nature of God’s kingdom.  The sharing of God's peace, the bringing of justice, the curing of the sick are all signs of the breaking in of God's future reign into our present world and reality.  These things don’t, contrary to popular belief, require professional religious leaders.  All of us are called to this ministry, and we carry it out in any number of ways. Theo is called to that same ministry.

On the sponsored walk, despite all the moaning, blisters, cow dung and nettle-rash, there was a sense of achievement and accomplishment. At the end of the walk my kids were pleased with themselves.

And the seventy are wildly successful too.  They come back thrilled.  Jesus knows that they will do these things and more – much of which we read about in the book of Acts. 

So, an interesting piece of religious history: but it is more than that – the implications must be clear for all of us to see. You’ve heard me encouraging you to consider whether we are the implied audience for Jesus’ words in any given Gospel passage before. Well, if we call ourselves Disciples then it’s a no-brainer: this isn’t just a piece of religious history; it is an injunction to action to us too.

When we finish our journey will we have that same sense of accomplishment that my walkers and the seventy had? Have we already, at different stages in our lives, already caught a glimpse of this?

There is something about the Christian faith that simply has to be lived to be understood. There are some gospel truths that only make sense in the homeless shelter, or outside parliament, or at a hospital bed, or in any one of the great number of places in the world where people cry out for mercy, for food, for justice, for compassion.

I’m currently in the process of writing an essay on The Vocation of the Church of England. (Don’t ask.) And one of the things I’ve been looking at is the idea of mission. There are lots of examples of mission but, to cut a long story short, if, as modern disciples we are asking how we go about following Jesus’ instruction to minister to others and spread The Kingdom, one model of mission really stands out: see where God is already at work ….  and join him there.

See where God is already at work …. and join him there.

Well we can see God clearly at work in the lives of Rob and Kelly, and Sally, Jenny, Karl and all the other special friends here this morning have joined them there in bringing up Tommy and helping him to find the right path for that long walk.

The rest of us just need, every once in a while to see where God is already at work and join him there. Surely there will be plenty of opportunities on our own journeys to help bring the Kingdom closer.

Let us pray. Liberate us, O God, from all the burdens that we carry on this journey of faith, so that we might welcome your kingdom with open hearts and empty hands. Empower us, O Christ, to share the Good News that the kingdom has come near and to demonstrate its coming through communal acts of compassion, justice, and peace.


Names of the Baptismal Party have been changed.