Saturday, 20 January 2018

Sunday Sermon: John 2.1-11 - The wedding at Cana in Galilee

John 2.1-11


On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.   Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.  When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”  And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”  His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.  Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.  He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it.  When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom  and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”  Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

The story of Jesus turning the water into wine has always been a little bit strange to me and it’s one that in the prison the men often banter with me about. “Father, can you turn water into wine?”

“No. I’m sorry. I was away that week but I can do it the other way round!”

Ha ha ha!

The dialogue between Jesus and Mary is strange and it seems odd that Jesus would turn water into wine, which really isn’t that impressive in comparison to his later miracles. Why would this be his first one recorded in John? Why does John even bother to tell us about it at all, and why are there so many details?

Jesus had already enlisted five disciples: Andrew, Peter, Philip, Nathanael, and John. Together, Jesus and these disciples had accepted an invitation to a wedding in Cana where members of Jesus family were also on the guest list. John makes a point of telling us that Jesus’ first miracle was done here in response to Mary’s request and she doesn’t take no for an answer: first she taps Jesus on the shoulder and says, “They have no wine” and, after a seeming rebuke, goes with perfect trust to the servants and tells them, “Do whatever he tells you.” and stands back in expectation.

But was it a rebuke?

Why would Jesus rebuke her? For her “faithlessness?” That makes no sense at all. She obviously expected Jesus to be able to do something about the wine and that’s clearly an act of faith in him as Messiah: after all there’s no reason, to think a poor carpenter would be able to do anything so spectacular, so she’s obviously expecting something supernatural here. Why would he rebuke her and then immediately give in and do it anyway?

Some preachers explain this event in the early ministry of Jesus as a picture of Mary as pushy stage mother and of Jesus as a sort of sullen young actor shoved—whining about his unreadiness—on to the stage of history. That interpretation plays to the stereotype of the domineering Jewish mother but is paired with the absurdity of an omnipotent divine Son too wimpy to stand up to her.

We’re not helped here by the inadequacies of language and translation either: the address “Woman” is perfectly polite and doesn’t have the cold ring in Jesus’ native language that it has in English, and “What have I to do with you” was a common conversational phrase. Again, it meant no disrespect. It becomes harder and harder to see this as some sort of telling off. Instead what we begin to see is a degree of affectionate banter between mother and son and it’s not at all clear from the text that Mary doesn’t quite understand what is going on, nor that that’s what Jesus thinks. Quite the opposite, Jesus’ response shows he thinks Mary knows perfectly well what is going on: he’s the Messiah and she wants him to show himself clearly to Israel.

What we’re seeing here is not Jesus the Teenage Messiah badgered by his bossy mother and her neurotic need to impress the ladies from her book group with “My son, the Miracle Worker”. What we’re seeing a piece of conversation between two people who are both acutely aware of who Jesus is and what he is called to do.

Mary is no fool. She knows her scripture. She knows the meaning of the mission of Israel. And most of all, she knows her Son. A quick read of the Magnificat in Luke’s Gospel shows that she’s spent a long time pondering how, in the coming of Jesus, God “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

Every word both Jesus and Mary speak is spoken in light of their shared awareness of that messianic mission and of the words of the prophets who taught Israel to await his coming. With all that as the backdrop of their conversation, Mary is revealed to be lovingly calling Jesus to get on with his mission, not to impress the neighbours with a special effect or a publicity stunt. Her point is not simply that the wedding guests have no wine. It’s that the whole nation has no wine. All Israel is waiting for the coming of the Messiah.

The whole conversation makes it clear that Mary believed it was time for Jesus to announce his identity as Messiah and usher in the Kingdom of God; it makes it clear that Jesus knew perfectly well this is what she meant and that she knew he knew it. Rather than some inane request for drinks all round followed by a meaningless “rebuke,” what we’re really looking at here is a profound conversation in which Jesus and Mary know and understand each other perfectly.

This is the first recorded miracle in John. It was the first mark of Jesus’ divinity, and it demonstrated his glory. The men who followed Jesus already had a sense that this man was marked out by God, even if, as the Gospels repeatedly tell us, it took some time for them to fully catch on, but now they begin to see his glory for themselves and the result is that they believed in Him. This action confirmed to them that although they didn’t yet have all the answers or a full understanding of Jesus as the long awaited Messiah, they had been right to heed John the Baptist when he said, “There is one who is more powerful than I coming after me.” We don’t have their excuse of unfolding events slowly making things clear: we have the benefit of hindsight and should know exactly what this and the other signs of Jesus meant about who he was.

The thing that impresses me most about this story is that the events took place in rather ordinary circumstances. Many of the great truths Jesus taught and the miracles he worked took place in response to the circumstances Jesus found himself in. This event wasn’t planned by the wedding party to be a stage for his activity. Jesus was simply engaged in the life of those around him and met a need.

Today, we believe that the Son of God is ever present. He meets with us on an impromptu basis all the time but perhaps - sadly - is most recognised when we’re in need. He’s with us at work or study, at home in family life, in the supermarket, during our hobbies, in the car or on the bus. When needs arise, he’s present – but not just when need arises. We don’t have to set up an appointment to see him. He makes his presence known if we’re open to seeing it.

This should be a source of great encouragement. To know that Jesus, by his Holy Spirit, walks with us in all aspects of our life should perhaps make us a bit bolder as disciples because in our own ways we are all ministers of the gospel and, as such, we too need to be ready to meet the needs of others which we may be confronted with at any time.

I think, too, there is often an impatience about us as disciples: why is there still hunger in the world? Why do despots seem to prosper while the innocent suffer? Confronted with a need, Mary went to Jesus and we should follow her example. When we have a need, we should come to Jesus, of course, but we must come knowing that all things are ultimately in his hands and he will determine the when, why, and how of its resolution. Certainly, we can express our desires and call on Jesus in faith, but we must in the end put all things in his hands. With Mary, we must be willing to accept his decisions and actions - but don’t misunderstand me: that’s not a call to passivity or inaction.

We must also follow the example of the servants in the story: Jesus told the servants, "Fill the jars with water." and they quickly obeyed. When Jesus meets our needs, when he answers our prayers, he often gives us something to do: in our services we’ve often used the words of St Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” If that’s not a call to action I don’t know what is! In a text-book I used to use I came upon this wonderful, but sadly anonymous quote, “Sometimes, I want to ask God why He allows poverty, famine, and injustice in the world when he could be doing something about it, but I'm afraid he might ask me the same question.”

Together those two quotes seem to sum up our awareness of God’s constant presence and our consequent responsibility as obedient disciples: discipleship is an active not a passive calling. It’s as if God is saying to us, “You see the needs of the world too. I’ve called you to bring the Kingdom closer. Off you go.”

In today’s Gospel passage John calls Jesus’ miracle a "sign" and this is the first of eight miracles that John records. John wrote His Gospel, he tells us, that people might believe in Christ as the Son of God. Clearly, miracles provide a witness for this.

Through this sign, Jesus did what Mary wanted him to do. When Jesus performed a miracle, his glory was there for all to see and this miracle strengthened the faith of the five disciples who were with Jesus, as it should strengthen ours.

Let’s look around us and see what Jesus is doing in our world. The church talks a lot about mission but we need to remember that mission is always God’s mission. Let’s follow the advice of St. Teresa and see where God is already at work and join in with him there to bring his Kingdom closer recognising that by his Spirit Jesus is always with us to sustain us and meet our needs, in the everyday as in the spectacular.





Saturday, 13 January 2018

Sunday Sermon: John 1.43-51. Jesus meets Nathaniel

John 1:43-51
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathaniel and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathaniel said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathaniel coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathaniel asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathaniel replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

As you know we’re in the season of the church year called Epiphany. This is the season when the spotlight is on Jesus, to show him more fully: to reveal, perhaps, aspects of who he is which we have not seen before, or which perhaps we have forgotten or not given due consideration.

In today’s Gospel this incident in the life of Jesus reveals one man's spiritual journey – Nathaniel’s: a man who went from a throw-away comment about Jesus being a nobody from nowhere to an encounter with that same Jesus that changed his life. The name Nathaniel, incidentally, means "given of God," yet Nathaniel didn't fully understand the implications of his name. His life had of course been given of God, but he had no idea how true that was until he met Jesus. And when he did meet Jesus, he also met the Nathaniel he could be. It is as though Nathaniel never saw himself and his potential to be a different person until he confronted Jesus and I’ve heard other people say similar things about how they have become truly themselves since their own meeting with Jesus.

There are people we know who somehow draw out the best in us. Just being present with them creates a desire within us to be the best we can be. Most of us can remember a teacher who inspired us. We would give our best because this teacher was someone we wanted to do our best for. I remember such teachers in my own youth and I hope that in years to come some of today’s young people might remember me in that same way.

As we take a walk through this story of Nathaniel's call we learn more about what being a disciple is all about.

On the surface, it would seem as though the life journey of a Jewish man who lived 2000 or so years ago in a world radically different from our own, would have very little relevance for our lives today. We are from different times, a different culture, different lifestyles, different problems and different ideas about religion, life and living.

Yet, the story of Nathaniel contains some powerful spiritual concepts that can bring new meaning and renewal to our own spiritual lives but we have to make that practical application or the story remains just that, a story. It must have the power to touch us and to inspire the desire to change within us – a change that the Holy Spirit accomplishes.

We live in a world that has little time for religion. That’s not to say that people aren’t religious but modern expressions of spirituality no longer encompass what many of us would recognise as a Christian faith. My former pupils were terribly cynical about religion. They argued that it’s not rational, that it can’t be proved; they dismissed what is certain, for instance the historicity of Jesus, as some age-old conspiracy. “They could have made it up.” they asserted although they were less sure who “they” are or why “they” would have done that. Science and technology, they would tell me, have all the answers. And yet some had a vibrant faith - of sorts, but it’s very much a-la-carte. “Yes I quite like Jesus but I also believe in reincarnation and karma.”

They don’t really work together. I’d tell them.

“I don’t care. It’s what I believe.

Life today is very individualistic and that’s true of religion too. I can reject it completely – usually, I have to say without really understanding or after having got completely the wrong end of the stick. Alternatively, if I don’t like any bits of Christianity – judgement, for instance - I can edit them out and replace them with something more palatable. “We’re all entitled to our own opinion” my students would tell me repeatedly.

I digress: there are three dimensions in the Nathaniel story that reach across the centuries and speak to us today of the true nature of discipleship rather than the mishmash of ideas that is so common today:

• We are Invited
• We are Known
• We are Promised.

We are Invited
Nathaniel wonders if any good can come from Nazareth because it is a place of no importance, perhaps a little like the portrayal of Bradford as a city that exists purely to make other cities feel good about themselves according to the American writer Bill Bryson in his book "Notes from a Small Island". In fact, historians tell us that the place is never ever mentioned outside of the New Testament until the third century. It was clearly a place of absolute obscurity. If Jesus was supposed to be the promised one, the one foretold in Scripture, it seemed to Nathaniel that the place of origin of the Messiah would be a more significant town, with more to commend itself, than a place like Nazareth.

But Philip didn't defend Jesus or his claims; he didn't throw up a lot of arguments. He didn't try to argue Nathaniel into his own confession that the Coming One had finally appeared and was walking among them. He simply said, "Come and see." He disarmed Nathaniel's defences and got his attention and Nathaniel's curiosity got the better of him and he let Philip lead him to this Jesus.

There is some wisdom here for our own attempts to bring people into the circle of Christian fellowship or to a faith in Jesus. We can’t compel, argue or shame people into a Christian faith. Remember these compelling words of Christ? "Come to me, all you that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matt. 11:28)

In Jesus the entire world is invited to share in the fatherhood of the God of Israel. Thus he says to Philip at the last supper, "He who has seen me has seen the Father." This is what Jesus means when he refers to himself as the "Son of Man." Jesus identifies himself with all of mankind and those whom the Spirit leads to faith he unites to God. So Jesus says, "Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die." (11:26)
In other words, we are all invited.

We are Known
At Nathaniel’s first meeting with Jesus he discovered that Jesus already knew him. "Where did you get to know me?" Nathaniel asked.
I’m quite bad at names. I always remember faces but names are more of a problem. When I was at theological college my particular friend Richard was from Sheffield Diocese and at some function or other I was introduced to the then Bishop of Doncaster, Bishop Cyril. Months later, at Richard’s ordination, in a crowded cathedral, Bishop Cyril tracked my wife and I down and greeted us both warmly by name. I felt really special and my wife was charmed. Somehow it is always more impressive when some well known person remembers your name.

As soon as they found Jesus, Jesus exclaimed, "Look, an Israelite without guile!" Here is a man who is without deceit, one who is straight forward, honest and sincere. Jesus saw him and looked directly at the core of his character. Jesus knew him before meeting him; he saw through him, if you like. And how did Jesus know him? He had already seen him "under the fig tree." It seems such a throw-away detail but it is really significant because under the trees was where great teachers in Israel gathered students to study scripture and the law to grow wise in the way of God and to learn how to walk in his ways. Such a man knew the scripture, knew the way of the Lord, sought diligently to be his man and to be bound by his word. Indeed it is often suggested that Nathaniel had been a follower of John the Baptist.  Nathaniel was without guile because he had come to Jesus. Jesus also called him an "Israelite." That is the name of the people of the covenant, those who sought to be God's faithful people. Nathaniel was without guile because he had left off the study of the Scriptures to come and see if their fulfilment had actually arrived.

Jesus knew that the Holy Spirit had led Nathaniel to come to him and that he would now recognize Jesus for whom he really is - is, not was - and make a bold confession of his faith. When Jesus explained that he knew Nathaniel from afar, Nathaniel was so amazed, he had an instant revelation. "You are the Son of God!" Nathaniel was overwhelmed by the power of Jesus' knowledge about him. He confessed that Jesus is – is, not was - the unique teacher of Israel the "Rabbi," that he is – is, not was - God's own Son, and Israel's promised king.

What a marvellous thing that we should be known by God! The Psalmist expressed it this way in Psalm 139, "…it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made."

This is the deeper meaning to Jesus' knowledge of Nathaniel and that Nathaniel now grasped: Jesus knows his own and those who will hear him, trust him and confess him. Jesus says later on in the Gospel,
"My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me."
Suddenly Nathaniel, sees the whole world, his life, his own self and all of the scripture he had studied so diligently in a new and different light. Suddenly he perceived that his life, his present and future, were bound up together in the life of Jesus - as are ours.

We are Promised
When Nathaniel expressed his amazement at Jesus’ knowledge of him, Jesus said in effect, "Nathaniel… you’ve seen nothing yet!" He would see much more as he joined the band of disciples who would follow Jesus for the next few years: Jesus turning water into wine (2:1-11), healing a man from afar (4:46-54), healing a lame man, (5:2-9) feeding five thousand people in the wilderness (6:1-14), walking on the stormy sea (6:16-21), healing a blind man (9:1-7), and raising Lazarus from the dead (11:38-44). There is an interesting word picture in Jesus' words to Nathaniel. " will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."

This picture would be absolutely clear to a Jew like Nathaniel who knew the ancient story of Jacob and how he had a dream one night. Genesis 28:12 describes the dream this way, "And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it." The ladder in the Old Testament is the symbol of the means by which heaven is reached and the angels are the welcoming, celebrating company of God.
Now Jesus reveals to Nathaniel that he, Jesus, is the way by which heaven is reached. The welcoming, celebrating angelic band now welcomes the one who responds to Christ in faith. Nathaniel will experience more in his life as a follower of Jesus Christ than he would ever have dared to imagine.

The next time we hear of Nathaniel, he is with a few other disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee once again. He is a party to the most incredible experience any human being had ever experienced. It is the Easter breakfast encounter with the Christ who had been crucified, but now appeared once again to his followers.

Like Nathaniel, you and I are invited to be a part of the company that follows Christ. We are known by the Lord more fully than we even know ourselves. And the greatest joy of all is that we are promised the eternal presence of God.

Let’s be like Philip and share it with those we know and love and let’s be like Nathaniel in the way we recognise and respond to Jesus ourselves.



Saturday, 6 January 2018

Sunday Sermon, Matthew 2.1-12: The Epiphany.

The Lectionary readings for today include a passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 3.1-12, and because I refer to it throughout this Epiphany homily, I’d like to read it to you:

This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given to me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.

It may, or may not come as a surprise to you that we’re in the Season of the Epiphany, and you may be a bit vague about what that represents. 

In many British churches the feast of the Epiphany itself is hardly celebrated at all.   In fact, Epiphany is perhaps the only part of the church calendar that is observed more in neglect than in celebration.   While the Feast of The Epiphany is an important holiday in many other countries, particularly those who follow the Eastern Orthodox tradition, but it has simply not really caught on in mainstream British culture because it’s been eclipsed by Christmas itself. It’s on Epiphany Sunday that many continental Christians open their gifts in memory of the gifts offered by the Magi. Personally, for that reason, I think that is the right time to open our presents but I have failed to convince my family of that. My late mother, for instance, would tear into her presents one second into Christmas day if we hadn’t already sedated her with sufficient gin and sent her to bed.

In this season of Epiphany we enter the realm of light which is symbolised by the star of Bethlehem which most here have put well behind us with the Christmas decorations we’ve already taken down. Our minds are now firmly on the New Year ahead and we’ve moved on from stars and cribs and shepherds - and indeed wise men because many of us tend to lump them all in together as part of Christmas.

In fact the Greek Orthodox Church has called this season “the season of lights.” It’s no coincidence that our Old Testament lesson begins: Arise, shine, for your light has come. In the Eastern Church, this season of light is celebrated as fully as the season of Christmas. We’re entering into another world where reality is more than what is seen, where light reveals more than the eye can take in. Epiphany: the light breaking through, the light shining upon, the revelation unfolding, what St. Paul describes to the Ephesians as an insight into the mystery of Christ.

Only Matthew among the four gospel writers tells the wondrous story of the magi. Tradition has three Wise Men or Kings but Matthew doesn’t specify the number. It doesn’t matter that literalists try to discover exactly what happened in the astronomical realm while others try to explain the story with talk of the importance of religious myth and symbol; the wonder of the story remains undiminished. How can we hear it without becoming children again, feeling ourselves drawn in again in the way we were when the story first entered our consciousness? Exotic locations, mysterious visitors, camels, a wicked king and a hint of the other-worldly. What’s not to like? You can imagine Matthew telling his first listeners: "You're not going to believe this, but let me tell you about the time when…" and then going on to tell them about the Eastern kings, dressed in many-coloured robes, the camels moving ponderously over long stretches of sand, the star so bright, with its long glowing tail leading them toward a humble hamlet called Bethlehem and the odd and seemingly inappropriate gifts - these remain in our consciousness.

There is, of course, a feminist commentary on the Epiphany story. It does the rounds on Facebook around this time of year. You may be familiar with it:

Do you know what would have happened if there had been three wise WOMEN instead of three wise MEN? The three wise women would have:

·      asked for directions,

·      therefore arrived on time,

·      helped deliver the baby,

·      cleaned the stable,

·      made a casserole,

·      and given practical gifts

Anyway, this unlikely group of foreign dignitaries with their retinue arrive, seemingly out of nowhere, looking for the one who is born King of the Jews, appearing only once, in the story of Jesus’ birth. For a few minutes, there is a strong hint of the kingdom of God which the grown Jesus would proclaim - peace on earth, mercy to the poor and good will to all people. (All people, as St. Paul reminds the Ephesians.)

Then the Magi disappear from Scripture as suddenly as they first appeared.   But the point of their journey remains forever important.   They are the first to understand what others could not yet see: that Jesus “has been born king of the Jews.”   For the ancient Church, this “epiphany” or acknowledgement of the Christ was worth celebrating.   It still is, but sadly we don’t really celebrate it here. It is, as St. Paul reminds the Ephesians, the eternal purpose which God, has realised in Christ Jesus, in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in him. But Paul takes it a stage further by reminding us that Jesus is not just King of the Jews, but of the Gentiles also – you and I, non-Jews. The Magi are, of course, Gentiles - they are described as coming from the East, but the symbolism and significance of this is often overlooked. Just picture in your mind for a moment your own image of the Magi; then look at our Magi. Some combination of Black, White, Asian or Oriental in the way they are represented? Certainly not Jewish, which is the point, and which ties in to our Epistle for today: the Magi reveal what St. Paul is stressing – the universality of Jesus, a baby born to die for Jew and Gentile alike. A BBC adaptation of the Nativity from a couple of years ago looked back at the Magi, seekers after truth and astronomers, and how they interpreted the signs, set off from their homes, met up at some point on their journey and were confirmed in their belief that there is a significant birth simply by meeting each other on the same pilgrimage.

But even as the Magi move on leaving Jesus to his mission on earth, we know that there is work to be done. There is a Gospel to be proclaimed.   Epiphany experienced becomes Gospel lived. St. Paul reminds the Ephesians of this when he tells them that they, and we, are to make all men see what is the plan of God’s mystery. We are called to seek and serve Christ in those we meet, loving our neighbours as ourselves in order to make the Lord clear and real and known in our world today.  

Christ dwells with us today, is still there to be seen and discovered by those who, like the Magi, are willing to journey far from the commonplace in their quest for understanding and knowledge.   What does that mean in practice? Every time I preach I know I say much the same thing at some point during the sermon: to stop this being just a lovely story we have to make it real for us today and look for the applications. Like the Wise Ones from the East, we must be willing to leave the comfort of the familiar, of our preconceptions and prejudices.   We must be willing to look for the Christ in places others refuse to enter, whether it be the asylum-seekers shelter, the soup-kitchen for the homeless, the drug and alcohol rehabilitation unit, the psychiatric ward, the prison wing …….or the stable. 

 The Magi brought gifts - gold for Kingship, frankincense for Jesus’ priestly divinity, and myrrh for suffering humanity: gifts in a juxtaposition of the Gift of God to humanity in the Christ-child and as with any gift this is not a gift that we have to accept. I can receive it, but I don’t have to accept it. I’m sure many of you here can picture the less than enthusiastic face of someone who didn’t welcome your Christmas gift to them and we know that there are people out there who are unenthusiastic about this gift from God. The Incarnation remains for many an unopened present or maybe a present put away for a future occasion which never comes. “Yes, I can see it needs further thought, but I’m too busy now.”

What are we to make of this Epiphany for ourselves today?   For one thing, it’s a sobering reminder that Jesus is more than simply our brother, more than a friend we can turn to when we are seeking a listening ear, more even than a prophet, helpful as those ways of relating to him are.   Christ is God made present in our day and age.  His divinity spills over into our earthly realm.   As we subsequently read on of Jesus’ journeys throughout Galilee and beyond, as we listen attentively to his stories and parables, we are from time to time reminded emphatically of where all this is coming from and where it leads.  

So what is our response to that precious gift? What do we bring in return? What is our gold, frankincense or myrrh? Well, perhaps we must principally bring the gift of ourselves as we encounter Christ alive and present in the elderly, children, the disabled, the homeless, the alcoholic, the drug abuser, the prisoner and all the vulnerable, defenceless or damaged people of our world – and the ones who have received the gift in their heads but have not received it in their hearts: them too. I’ll give you an example: I’m sure I’ve told you who my particular problem people are. I get on with most people but I struggle with aggressive beggars, and I challenge you to think who your problem people are. It’s the same message again here, isn’t it? As St. Paul tells the Ephesians I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of God’s power. The message of Paul is clear: we are servants of this gospel – we serve those we encounter whoever they are, not just the nice ones.

Christ is also manifest today in the bread and wine of Communion, which we struggle in faith to recognize as his body and blood.   Christ is there when we turn to him in confident prayer and in those times when we find ourselves without words and on the point of despair.   He is with us in the quiet of our hearts and in the noise of our daily lives.  But Christ is not ours to hold or keep.  Paradoxically, he allows us from time to time to experience his absence precisely so that we, as his disciples, might learn the importance of bringing his presence to others.   That’s the Epiphany challenge and the challenge St. Paul gave to the Ephesians as he reminded them of their mission to the Gentiles. We now become in our lives the epiphany to others of Christ’s presence in our world. 

We’ve been incorporated into the story: the Bible's story is our story too. Each of us is the Father's beloved daughter or son; he loves us and he has sent us out to love our enemies, to return good for evil, to bring wholeness to the sick, to stand up and speak out for those ignored and despised by others, the poor, the hungry, and the homeless. And at the end of our quests we will have such stories to tell. A bit like Matthew and Paul: "You're not going to believe this, but let me tell you about the time when…"

Epiphany: the light breaking through, the light shining upon, the revelation unfolding, what St. Paul describes to the Ephesians as an insight into the mystery of Christ. The divine has become clear and real in our midst.  Arise, shine for your light has come.







Saturday, 23 December 2017

Christmas sermon: Marlene's nativity - a modern reimagining.

Marlene's Nativity: a modern reimagining


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 'Snow White and the seven dwarves' pantomime is still talked about in hushed tones…… in Dewsbury.  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 - very Gomersal. Oh, and she had an agenda. “To bring this story alive it has to be brought into the present.  We must make it relevant! We need to make people realise that this story isn’t all sugary-sweet and was about real people in difficult circumstances. The story’s been sanitised out of all recognition and people need to be able to identify with the characters. What would it be like if it happened today? That’s what’ll bring it home to people. This is a story about a young woman at the late stages of her first pregnancy wading through insane government bureaucracy, facing a non-existent transport service, an accommodation crisis and the prospect of childbirth without access to proper health care; vilified by landlords and heartless gits in the pub who moan about scroungers, migrants and the undeserving poor. Sound familiar? It should do.” 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 Canterbury was not available. “Well frankly that’s ridiculous. What else has the man got to do at Christmas?” Similarly, Radio 4’s John Humphreys and Professor 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 muttered about people being full of their own self-importance.

“I’m surprised she didn’t ask the Pope” whispered Carolyn, the church Warden.

“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 party 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 beards – and that’s before the costumes are on.”

Marlene’s neighbour's daughter, Chardonnay, was cast as Mary, notwithstanding the fact that, even 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, just like a refugee, and that’s what the Holy family became: refugees in a foreign land.” and that was that. Marlene brooked no contradiction.

“Anyway,” she said, gesturing to an open copy of the Bible 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. “Anyway, these gifts are ridiculous. The wise men weren’t that wise were they? They’d clearly never had children. Gold, frankincense and myrrh! Really? I always knew men were hopeless shoppers. When I gave birth I’d have much preferred a lasagne for the freezer, some first-size baby grows and a year’s supply of disposable nappies.”

“Hold that thought Brenda! You may be on to something there.”

“And who needs strangers visiting anyway?” Brenda was on a roll now. “It was bad enough when my mother turned up in the maternity unit without warning wittering on about nipple-cream and potato salad. What it would have been like when three sheep-smelling, soil fingered total strangers with crooked sticks turning up uninvited wanting to know the local gossip when you’re still naked, in pain and dazed hardly bares thinking about.”

“Yes, well, delightful as this trip down memory lane has been Brenda, could we move on?”

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."

Chardonnay's boyfriend Cameron was drafted in as the innkeeper.  (Fortunately the ASBO he had been given for streaking through Tescos 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, while very popular, was swiftly rejected on the basis that the church was in a Conservative constituency and Marlene confidently expected Mrs. May to be in the audience and Marlene didn’t want to be seen to be criticising government health policy, not with her longstanding wish to receive an OBE for her services to The Arts.

“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? O.K.)”

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

“A promenade performance? As in outside? At this time of year? Have you lost your mind?”

“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? Anyway Syrian refugees are sleeping outside all over Northern Europe at this time of year so man up Justin! Do you not have a vest?”

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 Carolyn. 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."

"Chardonnay, Darling, no more piercings please - at least not before Christmas.  I'm sorry Cameron ... you've had what pierced?  Oh for goodness sake!"

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

“Trevor, what did I tell you about points of order and the 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? Postman-Gabriel - drop the line about 'Special Delivery', it's not working. By the way, we’re not using the doll anymore." Marlene had decided she wanted something more authentic and had found a family who were newly arrived in the area and had a newborn.

And so the evening arrived - and Marlene was proved right.  It was a triumph: dramatic, moving and powerful. The Landlord at The Star and Garter did a wonderful light show. He turned off the garter and left the area with the one blazing star. And yes, people wrapped up warm, loving the novelty of the occasion. There was some later discussion about why Mary experienced the Annunciation in the doorway of the post office but the audience seemed more than willing to suspend their disbelief as it became clearer that Terry was, in fact, the Angel Gabriel.

The stable became an old garage, 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.  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: “All that business about refugees - and using Mr. and Mrs. Mahmood’s baby as the infant Jesus! What was she thinking?”

So we're back to the traditional again: shepherds in tea towels carrying cuddly sheep, wise men in old curtains and angels with tinsel halos.  The relevant and the up-to date, it seems, have no place in the Christmas story.






Friday, 24 November 2017

Sunday Sermon: Matthew 25.31-46. The parable of the sheep and the goats. A sermon from prison.

Matthew 25.31-46


“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Today is the last Sunday of the Church's calendar. The end of November seems an odd time to finish a calendar doesn’t it? But next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, which starts the Christian year and we start afresh as we prepare for the coming of Jesus into the world at Christmas.

So, today’s Gospel passage, as it happens, is one of my particular favourites: it’s a sort of check-list for the disciple – and when I say disciple, I don’t just mean the original twelve. This passage talks to disciples down the ages, those who are trying to follow in the way of Jesus, so that means us to.

We call Jesus by many titles, Saviour, Brother, Lord and so on, but today’s emphasis is on Jesus as role model, the one who’s example we try to follow, and let’s face it, because we’re human, we’re pretty poor at getting it right in the way we follow the example of Jesus. I was talking to a friend on one of the wings last week and he described life on his wing as like living in an extended episode of The Jeremy Kyle show. Sound familiar?

When I talk to people on the outside about life here, one of the things I usually say is that the men who regularly come to chapel are aware, perhaps more than anyone else, of their own weaknesses and failings: this is a hard place to be and not to confront the things we’ve done wrong in life; the mistakes we’ve made and the hurt we’ve caused others and also the things we’ve failed to do. From my point of view, you guys are due the ultimate respect because, in coming here week by week, you’ve faced up to that in ways that many on the outside never do. Listen again to what St. Paul says in the first reading: “I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” Have you thought before that people give thanks to God for you? And for those of you who aren’t good at hearing praise because somehow you don’t think you’re good enough I say, “Tough! Hear this. It’s about you.”

I also tell people on the outside that this is a hard place to be a man of faith: living side by side 24/7 with people, many of whom we may not like, the attention-seekers, the bullies, the plastic gangsters, the scroungers; faced with what often seems like a system lacking kindness and compassion; faced with temptations hard for some of us to fight- the drugs culture, for instance, or the culture of casual violence; faced with the deep despair of others; driven in some cases to depression and dark thoughts of our own and in some cases living in fear of others. Being here strips us down to our very souls, but it can also build us up again once we’ve reached that point of our lowest ebb. You may not see it, but I do as I talk to men on the wings: I see men who are at various stages of becoming new men, different men, men who are developing a potential they thought they’d lost: a potential to be the men they were always intended to be with the help of God. St. Paul says this in one of his letters, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” A new creation: we are new creations. The past is behind us and we can move into a new future and it’s a privilege for me to see that in you.

That’s not to say the process is easy and I’ll tell you a little tale of a couple of past prisoners.

Let’s start with Terry, now back on the outside, and dong well. When I bumped into him one day on his wing, he told me he’d had a very rocky couple of weeks: he’d lost his job in the kitchens for stealing food, and therefore his major source of income; his partner had gone off with someone else: he’d started using drugs again and he’d lost his two front teeth in a fight. His take on things was very interesting. “I’ve hit rock bottom because I took my eyes off the Lord.” His main worry was not all the woes he faced but the fact that, in his own words, he had ceased to be a pillar for the Lord but had become, instead, a pillock for the Lord. He’d reached rock bottom but had stopped looking inwards and started looking outwards.

His troubles had driven him to some extreme behaviour but his main concern was for his compromised example to others as a man who identified himself as a Christian. His concern wasn’t what people thought of him but what people thought of the God he follows because, he feared, people judged God through his discipleship. “Call yourself a Christian?” Of course, that would have been another sort of worry for him – you’d think - but no, “I’ve given it all to the Lord. It’s my only option. I’m back on track and I’m going to use this as part of my testimony of what God can do in your life.” “I’ve given it all to The Lord. It’s my only option.”

Then there was Joe, now moved on to another prison: Joe murdered his wife. I’ve never met anyone as remorseful, and he had attempted suicide so was on a constant watch because he may have tried again: he saw that as his only solution. “However bad life is in prison she’s worse off”, he told me, and he couldn’t get beyond the fact that while he was fed, clothed and warm, she was lying in the cold ground. “There is no punishment good enough for me.”

He asked if I could take him to the chapel at the very time of her funeral and there’s a short service I use for those unable to attend a funeral. Distraught as he was, it was a moving experience for him and it shifted the way he saw things: he wanted to start coming to chapel regularly; he was starting to understand that God has forgiven him and that’s the first step to being able to forgive himself.

For both of them the way out of worry and anxiety and, indeed, self-loathing, has been to turn to God: either to turn back or to begin that journey. Out of the depth of their experiences, their pain, their guilt, the messed up lives – theirs and others - and their bad choices, is a sense that hope comes through faith in God. They’ve started looking outward rather than inwards. Although the details are different, I guess many of you here can identify with those stories because you’re men who come here seeking a new way, a way to be better than the person you were and with a deep desire to change and you’ve had some glimpse of the role of God’s Holy Spirit in enabling that to happen.

What’s that to do with our Gospel passage for today, then? It’s a wonderful picture story set at the end of time and we picture Jesus as judge of all mankind dividing people into two groups. He calls them the sheep and the goats.

He looks at the group he calls the sheep, many of whom seem a bit surprised to find themselves in that group and he calls them “righteous” and “blessed” and he welcomes them into the Kingdom of God.

“What, me?” And Jesus responds with, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

“Did I? Really? When?”

And the reply is, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

This is about discipleship, because when we are followers, whatever we do, we do in Jesus’ name. Have you ever thought about it in those terms? The way we treat others is a mark of our discipleship and it doesn’t go unnoticed or unrewarded. The key, though, is that that behaviour doesn’t come from the motivation of looking for reward or praise: it’s a discipleship that comes from knowing that we do the right thing and yes, like Terry, it may be a two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back sort of discipleship because we’re human and despite our best hopes and intentions we still get it wrong from time to time. In the book of Romans, St. Paul explains his experience, “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

Sound familiar?

It should do because it sums up our experience too, but we persevere because as disciples we know that there is no other option.

It’s those little acts of kindness that mark us out as Christians and it fits in perfectly with the Parable of the Good Samaritan: you know that story Jesus told? The one where a stranger happens upon a man who had been beaten and left for dead and, even though he was from an enemy tribe, he helped him anyway? And the moral of that story? Everyone is our neighbour regardless of who they are. Their need is balanced by our ability and willingness to help with no conditions.

We are uniquely positioned here to be that Samaritan, to be numbered as one of the sheep in today’s Gospel.


By giving time to someone in trouble; to be a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on; to stick up for the vulnerable wing-mate; to speak out for someone who’s struggling with the system; to offer kindness, support and friendship to someone we may find difficult because …. because they’re in need and we can help. In John’s Gospel we read, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Not just the ones who are easy to like, but also that bloke who we think’s a bit of a knob. He may be a bit of a knob but  he’s still struggling and needs a friendly face and a word of encouragement.

That’s the nature of discipleship and when we help someone else it’s as if we’re helping Jesus himself.

Let’s look at the flip side of the story too: let’s look at the goats. It’s the same pattern here, “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

“When, Lord? When didn’t we do these things for you?”

“Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” This second part of the passage makes it clear that’s it’s not only about the things we do as disciples but about the things we fail to do: the opportunities we miss.

Now, let’s be honest this is a high standard we’re being held to and perfection is not realistic. We’re human and we’ll continue to get things wrong. The key here is that we’re aware of what we need to do and we persevere: we press on through failure, dust ourselves off and get on with the job of being a disciple.

One little passage to finish with from the Old Testament book of Micah, “what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

If we stick with that as our motto, we won’t go far wrong.