Thursday, January 01, 2015

Talking 'bout a Resolution

January 1st. A day for making resolutions. This morning I got up, had a shower, shaved, brushed & flossed my teeth, and clipped my nails. It seems like the day to start things clean and well.

And, of course, I have some New Years resolutions. In no particular order, mine are:
To lose weight
To get fitter
To be more disciplined at my prayers
To write more.
And they've been the same for about the last 5 years (and probably longer). They remain my intentions no matter how hard I try each January.

The start of the new year seems like a day that offers the chance of a new start. That's why we make those dreaded resolutions.  But it is not a particularly significant day in the Christian calendar. The start of the Christian year is Advent Sunday. The major winter festival is Christmas, a week ago now. Today in the church's calendar is the Circumcision of Christ. Not a major feast, and one which I can't help feeling was invented to support a rather dubious relic in the Middle Ages.

But looking back at my resolutions, I notice they are all about who I am and who I would like to be. That makes them rich material for considering how they help me become who God made and calls me to be. That is to say that they are about vocation. My resolutions, once I cut through the vanity that is their surface, are all about who I am. Can I hear the call of God through them?  Can they point me towards who I am called to be? That would be a good piece of work for 2015.

And here the feast of the circumcision fits in well. There is a cost to vocation. Jesus' circumcision points to the cost he will pay later in his life. There is a cost to my resolutions (largely in chocolate, time, and energy), but this points to the deeper cost of my vocation. Heading into the new year thinking on that seems a good way to continue something begun long ago, but which is also fresh each day.

Happy New Year!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Justice and Remembrance

A sermon for Remembrance Sunday

Some words from our first reading this morning: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”. 

The prophet Amos has harsh words for those who gather for religious ceremony, but who do not allow their celebrations and rememberings to affect their daily lives.  God, says Amos, hates gatherings of people, especially religious gatherings, that neglect those who are in need.  God looks for justice and righteousness, in all our doings, so that they might form mighty waters, an ever-flowing stream.

As we gather on this Remembrance Sunday, we gather to recall with gratitude and sorrow those who have died in war.  We remember those who have served in the armed forces, and those who continue to do so, with gratitude for the spirit of service that they demonstrate.  We remember those who have died, and those who continue to die, in war, with sorrow that their deaths leave a hole that cannot be filled. 

This year we look back especially on the centenary of start of the First World War, and our sense of gratitude and sorrow is particularly focused by the suffering and the carnage of the trenches.  But we cannot, and should not, fail to remember those who have died in more recent conflicts, and those who are affected by war today in Iraq, in Syria, in Ukraine, and in many less well known conflicts around the world.  The flames of war continue to burn.

But there can be thanksgiving in our remembering as well.  On this day 25 years ago, the 9th November 1989, the Berlin wall came down and the scar across the face of Europe could begin to heal.  At the stroke of midnight on 9th November 1989, crowds gathering on both sides of the wall cheered and started to climb it, to go through check points unimpeded, where previously people had been shot for approaching the wall.  Some had brought hammers and chisels, and began to dismantle the barrier.  I remember the television pictures clearly, it was one of the most momentous moments of history during my life time.

In between these remembrances, of the First World War and the end of Berlin Wall, comes another anniversary on 9th November.  On the 9th November 1938, Synagogues across the Third Reich burned, Jewish publications and groups were banned and many Jews were beaten and worse.  Kristallnacht, as it became known, was the worst outbreak of anti-Semitic violence in Germany to that point, and the beginnings of an even more murderous phase in the persecution of Jews.

These three events: the first world war, Kristallnacht, and the fall of the Berlin wall give us a crash course in 20th Century European history.  The bloody conflict of the trenches, the horrors of the second world war and the Nazi tyranny, and the division of a continent between east and west.  All of this has a place in our remembering today.

And as we remember all of this, the history, the service of those men and women which inspires gratitude, and the many, many deaths which provokes our sorrow, as we remember this, we hear again the words of the prophet Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”.  Much of our history has failed to hear these words.  Having won the war in 1918, the peace treaty of Versailles in 1919 lost the peace and laid the foundations for the Nazi terror and the division of the continent that followed.  The wars that continue to blight our world are themselves part of the collective failure of human beings to act justly and to seek righteousness.

In all that we do, our acts both great and small, we need to hear the voice of the prophet urging us to act justly, and to live righteously.  As we stand in a few minutes in silence, we will remember with gratitude those who have served and we will remember with sorrow all who have died.  Let us also commit ourselves to work for justice and to seek the paths of righteousness.  In all our acts, great and small, let us do justice.  In all our decisions, complex and simple alike, let us look for the path of righteousness.  That is how we honour those who we remember today.  That is how we honour one another and those who will come after us.  That is how we honour the God who created us, who loves all his creatures, and who mourns every death of his beloved creatures.  This is the way that is set before us, let us choose to walk in it.  “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”.  Amen.

Given at St Oswald’s, Ashbourne 9.11.14.

Images are photographs of Derby Cathedral illuminated for Remembrance-tide 9-11.11.14

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Prayers for Evensong

On Wednesday, Radio 3's Choral Evensong came from Derby Cathedral.

You can find the service on iPlayer, or it will be repeated today at 3pm.

Here are the prayers I wrote for the service.  

The readings were Zechariah 7 and Mark 10.17-31

In peace, let us pray:

In the evening of the day,
we come to you, O God,
bringing those we have met, for your blessing,
our hurts for your healing,
our sins for your forgiveness,
our labours as our offering
and our lives as our worship;
we come to you through our Lord
and Saviour Jesus Christ,
who became like us,
that we might become like him. Amen.

We pray for the church throughout the world, for Justin our Archbishop, for Alastair, Bishop of Derby, for the church here in this place and wherever this service is heard.

Lord Jesus, you give us the gift of eternal life;
keep us from the love of riches
and all that diverts us from your service;
strengthen those who are persecuted
for their faith;
and bring us all into your kingdom,
where the first shall be last
and the last shall be first;
for it is in your name we pray. Amen.

We pray for the world in which we live, for those living amidst conflict in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan or Ukraine; for all who live in poverty, without the basic necessities of life; and we pray for the leaders of the world, and especially for our Queen, Prime Minister and government.

God of the nations,
We thank you for the world that you created;
give true judgements to our leaders,
and enlarge our hearts;
that we may comfort the widowed,
care for the orphaned,
shelter the aliens,
and feed those who are poor;
we ask this in the name of Jesus Christ,
whose compassion knows no boundaries.

We pray for those we know who are in need or trouble, for those who are sick and in hospital, and for all whose loved ones have died.

God of life,
with you all things are possible;
we bring before you all who have lost homes,
all who are parted from mothers, fathers,
brothers, sisters or children,
all who are sick, and all who grieve;
bring comfort to those
for whom it seems impossible,
bring healing to those who need your touch,
and bring all your servants
to the life of your eternal kingdom,
we ask this in the name of
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Follow Me

A sermon for the Feast of St Matthew.

“Follow me”, said the teacher to the tax collector sitting in the office.  And Matthew got up and followed.  Perhaps Matthew never know why Jesus called him.  Matthew ate with Jesus, laughed with Jesus, cried with Jesus.  Matthew became one of the Twelve.  He ran away when Jesus was arrested.  He hid when Jesus was executed.  He met Jesus when he rose again.  He was filled with the Spirit on Pentecost.  He wrote the Gospel that tells us of his call.  “Follow me”, said the teacher to the tax collector sitting in the office.  And Matthew got up and followed. 

About a third of the way through the Gospel that bears his name, Matthew records the day that Jesus called him.  He records it in the middle of stories of healing.  From the middle of Chapter 8 to the end of chapter 9, Matthew records all kinds of miraculous healings.  Two violent demoniacs in the Gentile country of the Gadarenes are healed and brought to peace; a paralysed man is forgiven and then walks; the daughter of the leader of the synagogue is raised from the dead; a woman suffering from haemorrhages is cured and restored to life in the community; two blind men are given their sight; and a demoniac mute is brought to gentle speech.  And Matthew is called.  Miracle among miracles, he tells us, Jesus called me to follow him.  Miracle among miracles, he tells us, I got up and followed.

Matthew’s call is carefully positioned amidst stories of healing.  It is as if Matthew is telling us that when he followed Jesus he was brought to peace, forgiven, given life, restored to the community, enabled to see, and given the power of speech.  “Follow me”, said the teacher to the tax collector sitting in the office.  And Matthew got up and followed.  All this is emphasised by the way in which Matthew got up, or more literally ‘arose’.  Matthew’s call to follow Jesus is Matthew’s resurrection.

Matthew’s call is something new.  All these stories, all these metaphors, all these healings, bring peace, forgiveness, life, community, sight and speech – all these, Matthew says, is what it was like when Jesus called me.  This is life in all its fullness; this is life for those who only now realise that they are alive.  Jesus’ life, the life that death cannot hold, the life of the one who made the universe, this life is given to Matthew.

But there is another feature common to all of the healings surrounding Matthew’s call.  All of them feature opposition to Jesus.  Jesus is begged to leave the country of the Gadarenes after healing the demoniacs; Jesus is accused of blasphemy when he forgives the sins of the paralytic; Jesus is laughed at when he tells the mourners that the girl is only sleeping; Jesus is accused of being in league with the ruler of demons when he gives speech to the mute.  Having called Matthew, Jesus is sneered at for eating with tax collectors and sinners.

The Pharisees are those who tried really hard to live according to the Law, according to the Bible.  They were good, upright people, trying to do what was right.  They would go to church each week, be kind to their neighbours, give to charity, say their prayers, pay their dues, and do a great deal of voluntary work.  They were good people.  But they had got it spectacularly wrong.  Somehow, they could only see all the good things that were happening as bad; they could not see these healings were good, could not see that the tax collectors and the sinners were people worthy of attention.  The Pharisees thought that they themselves were well and healthy; it turns out, says Jesus, that thinking this way was the nature of their illness. 

“Follow me”, said the teacher to the tax collector sitting in the office.  And Matthew got up and followed.  Like Matthew, Jesus calls us to follow him.  He doesn’t tell us where we are going, what we will need, or how we are going to get there.  He simply calls us to follow.  If we get up and follow, there is healing, forgiveness, life, community, sight and speech for us. 

But we will only follow if we know that these are things that we need.  Do we know that we need healing? Do we know that we need forgiveness?  Do we know that we need life?  It is the sick that need a doctor.  If we think that we are well, then we won’t go to see one.

There are many things that we can use to give us the illusion of being well.  One of them is religion.  I go to church, I say my prayers, I give to charity, I spend hours volunteering.  I must be well.  And so I don’t need the doctor. 

Where do our illusions of health come from?  Religion?  Money?  Status?  Jesus calls Matthew and he gets up and follows.  Matthew knows he is ill and needs the doctor.  Do I?  In a poem called ‘The Kingdom’, R.S. Thomas urges us to “present yourself with/ Your need only and the simple offering/ Of your faith, green as a leaf.”

If I were to set homework from the pulpit, it would be this.  Take time in the coming week to discover your need, and present it to God.  This is a matter of overcoming our illusions of health, and seeking to find the truth of our neediness.  It is only the sick that have need of the doctor.

This is what St Paul is talking about when he says “we have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning … but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God”.  What do I need to renounce? How am I practising cunning? What is the truth I need to be open to?  It is only the sick that have need of the doctor.

“Follow me”, said the teacher to the tax collector sitting in the office.  And Matthew got up and followed.  “Follow me,” says the doctor to you and to me.  “Follow me”.


First given at Derby Cathedral, 21.9.14.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Living together as sinners

A Sermon for Trinity 12.

Let me start with a little quiz.  It’s very easy, simply try and tell whether these statements are true or false. 
1.     Christianity is about following the teaching of Jesus.
2.     Christianity is based on God’s love for us, seen in Jesus, overflowing into how we treat other people.
3.     For the whole history of Christianity, Christians have never disagreed with one another.
I’m glad you laughed!

Christians do, in fact, disagree.  They have done since the very beginning of the Church.  The first major disagreement comes at the beginning of the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, although there are lies creeping already at the beginning of the fifth chapter.  And of course, there are many stories in the Gospels of the 12 disciples, the pillars of the church, disagreeing with one another (normally about who will get to sit in the best seats once the Kingdom of God comes!).

Our Gospel reading this morning takes it for granted that Christians will disagree, and even takes it for granted that Christians will hurt and sin against each other.  It has happened, it does happen and it will happen.  The Gospel is for sinners, it’s hardly a surprise when we sin.  But what happens next?  Jesus teaches us in the Gospel this morning that what happens next is what is really important.  We should not be surprised when we sin or are sinned against.  What is of Gospel importance is how we react to this.

And how do we react to this?  How are we to deal with our differences with our fellow Christians, and the hurts and sins that we inflict upon each other.  The first thing that Jesus tells us to do is to go and tell the person who hurt us that that is what they have done.  Talk face to face.  There is no rocket science in this.  We need to speak to one another.

That’s not as simple as it sounds, however.  It takes courage to face someone that has hurt you.  It takes honesty to admit that you have been hurt.  We have to admit to the way in which things aren’t perfect, to admit that we have differences, to admit that we hurt one another.  There’s no political spin on making the church look perfect.  Rather we deal with its imperfections.  And it is done in private, at least at first.  It is not something that we do by telling everyone what a brave and honest person we are; nor do we look for safety in numbers.  Rather quietly, and privately, we seek out the person who has hurt us and we tell them what they have done.

Can you imagine the difference it would make if Christians actually behaved like this?
There would be less of an attempt to make the church appear to be a place of uniformity and niceness.  Rather, the church would be a place where hard truths were confronted and dealt with; and where people could grow as people, and in respect for those with whom they differed.  The Gospel does not give us the recipe for an easy life.  Rather it gives us the path to take for a life that is real, truthful and life-giving.  It’s a hard path, but it is the way to life. 

The passage goes on and leads to listening, speaking in a larger group and finally, if the other refuses to stop sinning against you, to a form of excommunication.  It could sound like a legalistic path for entrenching Christian disagreement and hurt.  But this is not the path of legalistic enforcement of an arbitrary discipline.  But put yourself within this series of events.  You have been hurt, sinned against. You go to see the other and tell them what they have done.  That is not the end.  Because you have chosen to speak honestly and privately with them, they have the chance to apologise, to explain what they meant, and to tell you how you hurt them.  As the conversation goes on, there is the chance to involve others so that more of the Christian community can support and help you both.  The final sanction only comes with a refusal to listen to the whole church.  That kind of unanimity is rare, I suspect we all know.  But even if the whole community does agree to discipline the offender, Jesus tells is that we need to treat such a person as “a Gentile and a tax collector”.  And we don’t need to read too far into the Gospels to see Jesus healing Gentiles, eating with tax collectors and describing both as close to the kingdom of God!  Immediately prior to this passage comes the parable of the Lost Sheep. This is not about throwing people out, it is about how hard we work to keep them in!

This is not a new legal system for Christians.  It is a reminder that we are to be truthful, honest, brave and clear sighted in our dealings with one another.  It is when we gather together that Jesus is present amongst us.  That is so when we gather for worship.  It is also so as we meet in other ways, and perhaps especially when we have these difficult but honest and courageous conversations about how we hurt one another.  Our worship and the quality of life we have together are very closely linked.  In a few moments, we will share the peace together.  That whole part of our service comes from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his disciples that “when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister and then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5.23-24).  As we share the peace, the most important people to greet are not those who we like, our friends and the easy people.  If we are to be true to Jesus’ commands, we should most of all be greeting the people we find difficult, and the people who find us difficult.

The Christian life is not the path of least resistance.  But it is a difficult and hard path of honesty and truthfulness with one another.  And in there, we will find Jesus is with us. Those who devote their lives to living in Christian community as monks and nuns have much to teach us.  The earliest Christian teacher who lived as a monk was St Anthony the Great.  He said that, “Our life and our death is with our neighbour.  If we win our brother, we win God.  If we cause our brother to stumble, we have sinned against Christ”.  We win our brothers and sisters by keeping our neighbours before us, and by doing all we can to help them see God.  The Christian life is not one in which we seek to win, beating those around us, being proved right or in which we are shown to have been the victim.  The Christian life is one in which we travel with our brothers and sisters, with all the hurt and difficulties that brings.  We come to life only with our fellow travellers. We win them, by remaining with them in the presence of God.  We win them by not allowing them to carry with them what hurts us and is an occasion of sin.  They win us in precisely the same way – by showing us what we do that hurts others and is an occasion of our sin.

I want to end with a story from the desert monks of the 4th Century.  This is a story of Abba Moses (father Moses):  “There was a brother at Scetis who had committed a fault.  So they called a meeting and invited Abba Moses. He refused to go. The priest send someone to say to him, ‘They’re all waiting for you.’  So Moses got up and set off; he took a leaky jug and filled it with water and took it with him. The others came out to meet him and said, ‘What is this Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me and I cannot see them, yet here I cam coming to sit in judgment on the mistakes of someone else.’  When they heard this, they called off the meeting.”

We are a community of sinners.  We gather together this morning to worship God and to share together in the life of his son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  He is present as we gather, as we are honest about our own nature as sinners, as we seek to win one another for Christ, and as together we seek to walk the difficult way of living truthfully as brothers and sisters in Christ.  Amen.

Originally given at St Thomas A Becket, Chapel-en-le-Frith. 7.9.14.