Saturday, 31 December 2016

Sunday Sermon: Luke 2.15-21. The New Year, tradition, synergy and change.

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.


 I don’t know about you but when Christmas is over, that’s it for me and I have to keep reminding myself that the Christmas season carries on for several more weeks in the church’s calendar. That conflicts me – and it’s probably an indication of how much I’m influenced by the secular approach to Christmas which seems to go forever with decorations still up and now looking rather out of place to me  – but it’s a discipline for us all to distance ourselves from the now rather empty vestiges of the secular Christmas season and to concentrate more on the spiritual elements. Even so, my heart sank just a little when I first read today’s passage. “Really? Haven’t we already done this to death?” It seems now strangely out of synch to be looking at the story of The Shepherds    again    when it’s been a week since we celebrated the birth of Jesus. So why does the lectionary deliberately give us this passage? What’s new in it for us to consider that we’ve not already forensically examined and sung about over a week ago?

Well, I think the answer is probably found in v 21 which, at least in my edition of Luke, is a separate little section; a bit of a link between the Nativity and the passage about Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, belonging perhaps more to the latter than the former. After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Circumcision on the eighth day was a standard Jewish ritual and, easy as it is to overlook, it’s a reminder that Jesus was born and brought up in an observant Jewish household. Therefore it’s a useful reminder that the Jesus claimed by Christianity was a Jew, and an observant Jew at that, and the clues to support that are there to be found throughout the Gospels, sometimes to the surprise of many.

So, yes he was circumcised, but I suppose you could argue that this may have been a lip-service ceremony much as baptism has become for many today. But it didn’t stop there: Luke 2 talks about the twelve year old Jesus being taken to the Temple in Jerusalem. Why? Because this is about the age that Jewish boys go through the ritual of Bar Mitzvah, another significant rite of passage for observant Jews.

The Gospels are largely silent about Jesus’ early life but I think we can be sure from the other clues in the Gospels that he was brought up in a religious household: his Jewishness was part of his identity and shaped his spiritual and moral outlook.

Jesus was Jewish not only in a remote, abstract way, but he was Jewish in all the very concrete and particular ways of everyday life: He observed the Law; he went to the festivals; when he healed lepers, he sent them to the priests in accordance with the rules in the book of Leviticus; he paid the tax which supported the Temple in Jerusalem; he went to synagogue services regularly; he even taught people to do what the Pharisees said, although he was often critical of their interpretation of the law. He didn’t so much criticise their teaching as their application of religious law, which he thought was too literal and lacking in compassion. His criticism was that they were inclined in their worst moments to follow the letter rather than the spirit of the law but he held The Law of Moses in the highest regard. He taught that the Law of Moses would never pass away until heaven and earth passed away at the consummation of all things.

Even though the next generations of Christians gradually recognized that the Law of Moses was not binding on those who came to God through Jesus, they also knew that the Law was not bad, nor were those who obeyed it necessarily misguided.

So both in the life and teachings of Jesus and in the lives and teachings of the Disciples, the Evangelists and St. Paul, we find compelling examples of practicing one’s faith not only with good deeds, with moral behaviour, but at the same time through practicing the customs and expectations of their community.

How do we apply this today? Well, both Jesus and the apostles show us that as part of their Jewish experience, regularly taking part in the full range of Jewish ceremony, practice and ethics was a given, in the same way for us, part of the Christian life involves regularly taking part in the services and activities of our community, the church, based itself on the life and teaching of Jesus.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that theirs was always a joyful participation or that sometimes the motivation wasn’t simply out of a sense obligation, because, after all, they were human, but they stuck with it, and perhaps for us that’s the learning point as we embark on another new year.

It may seem silly to suggest that our attendance at church, our observance of special feast days, a disciplined prayer life, even our membership of the PCC or various other committees, make some kind of difference to our spiritual well-being, but there are good reasons for thinking that these practices are quite important. Not only do we have the example of Jesus and his immediate followers; we have the evidence of our own lives.

I think it may be a legacy of my days as a teacher, but I’ve always argued that the habit of working on a particular skill or activity day in and day out, inevitably makes us better at what we are doing, even if sometimes it’s a struggle. If that’s true of our navigating the sometimes scary landscape of computer competence, which many in our congregations never thought they’d manage because their generation grew up before the computer was even a gleam in someone’s eye, then the same is true of our getting to grips with the more scary idea of a regular time of prayer with God.

As an example our own Lois Toulson didn’t become an Olympic standard diver without a great deal of effort and personal discipline and sacrifice. I’d argue that same level of discipline and self-denial might well be involved in our questioning the values of our age and society and seeking the mind of Christ over a wide range of ethical issues. I know that the “What would Jesus do?” approach is a mantra that sometimes sounds trite, but it is valid nevertheless – and I would add to that, “What would Jesus think (about such and such an issue)?” and “What would Jesus say (in reply to such and such a statement)?”

Now, not only is churchy behaviour important as practice for worship; it’s also important as a way of training ourselves in discipleship, to the new identity we are developing in the lifelong pilgrimage of faith that we’ve embarked on.

So here we are at the start of a new year when we traditionally make new resolutions – which very often fall by the wayside. Have you made any this year? I’ve not because I think I’ve given up on giving things up: I know I should eat more sensibly and exercise more. I also know I won’t. But as I was thinking about this it occurred to me that “giving up” is one side of a coin with “taking on” the other side. Taking on: perhaps this is the ideal time to follow in the spirit of Jesus’ example and seek to be more disciplined about our religious life, even when sometimes it feels like a chore.

Now I can’t offer you advice on this because I don’t know any of you well enough to presume to know what you personally could take on, concentrate on or do better or more of to more fully engage in the life of faith either as an individual or as a member of a community, this community. I can only do that for myself in the same way that only you can do it for yourselves. Is it a more disciplined prayer life? It might be. Is a more in-depth study of the scriptures? It might be. Is it being more willing to share the faith we hold dear with others? Perhaps. Could it be taking that scary step of making yourself available to be on the reading or intercessions rota? It might be. Could it be volunteering to be a member of a working party that takes a deep and searching look at our worship practice? Who knows? The question each of us needs to be asking ourselves at this time is what do we feel God is calling us to in this new year which would enrich our own spirituality and, through that, to enrich the life of the church? This is an ideal time for a personal spiritual audit and that can feel very threatening because it implies change – and change is something which we aren’t always good at. What are the gifts God has given each one of us that we could better deploy in His service?

But if we believe we have a living faith - as Jesus did, it is something which needs to grow and develop or we risk the disheartening prospect of staleness. Has God been laying something on our hearts that we’ve been holding back on? Have we discussed that with anyone?

Look at the demographic of our three churches. Why aren’t we growing if what we believe is so important that we would want others to share it? That’s an uncomfortable question and one that goes to the heart of our recent diocesan initiative Leading Your Church Into Growth. Another challenging question is what is it that others see in us, the church, and in Christianity in general that doesn’t have them flocking through our doors? And as a supplement to that, what is it that we could be doing better both as individuals and as a community to bring people in? Once we sense we have the answers to that, or at least some of the answers, is it then good enough to weakly say, “Well, we’ve always done it this way. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”? Well, in my view it is broken and I don’t mean that in a personal way about us here because it’s a problem faced by the world wide church – or at least the church in the West. There is a general spiritual malaise that is dragging us down and belies our belief that what we have to offer is not just life-changing, life-affirming, but in a very real sense life-saving. “We’ve always done it this way. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” is the exact opposite of the way of Jesus as seen in the Gospels: his whole ministry was about radical change and challenge to the ways of being religious that characterised the staleness of the religion of his generation, both individually and corporately while staying faithful to the faith that underpinned that religion: rites, festivals, worship, prayer, a love of scripture, discipleship, ethics and so on. These changes didn’t undermine the faith. Quite the opposite, they enhanced it, turning something hidebound in tradition to something living and vibrant.

I remember having a conversation with my late mother about the environment and her reluctance to change to energy-saving light bulbs. A relatively trivial conversation in itself but her words stuck in my mind: “What difference can I make?” I think the technical answer to that is synergy: the interaction or cooperation of two or more agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects. We can’t change the world as individuals, but changing the world starts with small individual acts because none of us knows what little anonymous incremental steps others are taking which together contribute to real change - and that brings me back to my earlier question, what is God calling us to do better, to take on, to begin which would enrich our personal and communal spiritual lives and which could spread out into this deanery, this diocese and the wider church?

Think of the change we could unleash if every member of a Christian congregation made a resolution to take on something related to their spiritual growth and development in this new year.

Change begins with us.





Saturday, 17 December 2016

Sunday Sermon: Matthew 1.18-25. Seasonal music, bah humbug and Joseph's story

Matthew 1:18-25


Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:  ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’,

which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Walking around Leeds City Centre over the last few weeks in this final, and often frantic, run up to the main event I’ve been very conscious of seasonal music.

I don’t understand how people who work in retail cope with the endless loop of Slade shouting “Merry Christmas Everybody” at full volume, or various saccharine-sweet arrangements of Christmas carols. Last week I came upon a Mormon choir singing carols outside Harvey Nichols and I was approached by a personable young man who gave me a candy-twist, the sort you put on your Christmas tree. “Merry Christmas from the Mormons” he greeted me and I thought how petty it would be to point out that it’s still only Advent.

So I did.

Now, I don’t know if the Mormons do Advent but he gave me a very odd look.

I listen to Heart FM and there’s been an overwhelming emphasis on “Christmas Music” – and I put that in inverted commas. I’ve already mentioned Slade, then we have Wizard and their “I wish it could be Christmas Everyday”.

Well I don’t.

Then there’s the Pogues, “Fairy-tale in New York.”

Lovely song but who told that man he could sing?

And who could forget Sir Cliff’s “Mistletoe and Wine”?

Well, I’ve been trying.

How about Wham’s “Last Christmas I gave you my heart”?

I don’t know about you but that conjures up all sorts of medical images I could do without.

I’m sure Harry Belafonte’s on the verge of a UK come-back tour but if I hear “Mary’s Boy Child” one more time I may run screaming from Sainsburys.

We even had “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.”

Well, all I want for Christmas is sleep.

The Leeds Philharmonic Chorus performed Handel’s Messiah last Saturday in the Town Hall and then the Lord Mayor’s Carol Concert on Thursday and a shortened version of that in the prison this afternoon. All the old favourites, Silent Night, O Come All Ye Faithful, Hark The Herald Angels, The First Nowell and While Shepherds watched – do you know you can sing that to “On Ilkley Moor Bar Tat?”


I’ve concluded that I’m either a traditionalist or a musical snob.

When I taught at Whitcliffe I was constantly asked, “Can we watch a video. It’s Christmas.”

“Well, two points there Aaron…”

“It’s pronounced Arran”

“Firstly it’s November and secondly it’s Advent.”

“No Sir, its Christmas. My Mum’s bought sprouts.”

How can you argue with such logic?

It’s all about expectations isn’t it? The perfect family meal, beautifully cooked, served on time - and no rows. The opening of the presents: a candle that smells of mulled wine. Mmmmmm! Socks – again.

We live in a crescent of town houses and we all have a balcony. For ten and a half months of the year I think it looks quite a classy street. Now it’s like a cross between the Blackpool Illuminations and Las Vagas – but without the tastefulness. We’re into balcony lighting. Competative balcony lighting. Oh the levels of social disapprobation if yours don’t come up to scratch – and ours never do. “Well we’re doing Amish decorations this year.” Blank looks from the neghbours.

And don’t start me on Christmas round-robin letters: “Philippa passed her grade five oboe exam this year.” Look, this is me not caring.

How easy it is to become jaded.

There was a survey on the radio this week that said that an amazing 80% of those surveyed would rather there was no Christmas.

I know where they’re coming from.

Do I hear a Bah Humbug?

Is it just me?

I thought not.

It’s all about expectations isn’t it and expectations can be exhausting.

I think that's why the season of Advent, these weeks before Christmas, seems so full of counter-cultural potential. They imagine such a different way of preparing for the birth of Jesus - one that can't be rushed, one that can't be shoe-horned in between trips to The White Rose Centre.

The time comes when it comes, and it unfolds as it unfolds - and it's an invitation for each of us to stop rushing and for something within each of us to unfold slowly, too.

It is so foreign to our way of living - so foreign to so many of our expectations. So many of us demand a lot of Christmas and demand a lot of ourselves at Christmas, which is possibly why, for many of us, there is a sense of anti-climax when it’s all over.

And yet, as today's Scripture reminds us, the story of Christmas, the story of the birth of Jesus, is precisely about the arrival of something foreign to our expectations and foreign to our familiar way of life. It's a story about learning a whole new set of rules and about learning to see the world with new eyes.

Today’s Gospel story is about Joseph. We too often forget about Joseph. More often than not we tend to focus on the story of Mary. But this year the lectionary gives us Joseph’s story.

The traditional Old Testament reading that goes with today’s Gospel passage is taken from Isaiah chapter 7 and is one of the Christmas readings because it is seen as a prophecy of things to come relating to the long expected and hoped for Messiah, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.  In both the cultures of the Old and New Testaments chastity before marriage was highly valued and by the time of the Gospels the emphasis has shifted to virginity because that was surely implied in the writing of Isaiah. It was the expectation.

 Expectations again.

And we can see from the passage that the punishment for a lack of chastity was a formal, public renunciation of the woman - a ritual that would have shamed her and her family for life.

Now, we don't know much about Joseph. Many suspect that he had died by the time Jesus began his public ministry. Jesus is referred to as "the carpenter's son" on at least one occasion, so it seems as if Joseph's involvement did extend past his time in the Gospel stories. At least somebody remembered him along the way. Somebody looked at Jesus and saw something of Joseph.

But what?

It's hard to say.  Today's Scripture suggests just one thing about Joseph's personality which we can hear in the story and it’s a vitally important personality trait: when Mary is found to pregnant, the Gospel says, Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. He was just. To put it another way, he was a righteous man but righteousness in his religious culture would have expected him renounce his fiancĂ©e in public.

And so, what we need to see is that Joseph was a man who was committed to his faith and committed to following the Torah and its laws. And where those laws were explicit? Well, for a man like Joseph, the path of duty, the path of righteousness would have been explicit, too. But he chose another path because even before his dramatic dream, Joseph had resolved to bend those expectations and to act differently in the face of everything that his time and place and station in life had trained him to do. He resolved to stand aside quietly and to leave Mary and her family with their dignity intact. So he didn't do what would have been expected. He followed the pull of something else.

In being righteous and yet, even so, unwilling to put Mary to shame, Joseph heard the call of something deeply challenging for a man like him and what is so remarkable about him is that he had the wisdom and the courage to follow that call.

Joseph dreamed something wonderful. It must have been astounding, confronting and deeply challenging at both a religious and personal level. God would enter the world. God would be born to his wife, as hard as that was to understand. Joseph had some serious trusting in God to do, but Joseph had to trust someone else, too. Joseph had to trust Mary.

We know Mary was his betrothed, and surely Joseph must have loved her but, still, this took a lot of trust and this is why Joseph's dream is so important. Joseph’s dream was effectively a dream of the salvation of the world and for Joseph, the way of salvation meant trusting someone else and it is often the case that true salvation comes through someone else.

That’s the lesson for us, too. Like Joseph, sometimes, we are to trust God and then step back and let God take the lead. Scripture, then, carries an implicit message that God does appear over and over again, to various sorts of people. Matthew and Luke both have it right, but they are different stories. God continues to come into the world, but we have to trust other sources and God works through those relationships. God works through both Mary and Joseph. God needs both Luke's story of the annunciation and Matthew's story of Joseph's dream. God works through a young woman, and her fiancĂ© believes in her, allowing God to work through him too.

The story does not go on to tell about the role that Joseph played in the life of young Jesus.  We don't know if Joseph even lived long enough to teach Jesus much about carpentry, much less anything else.

But we do know that the love that Jesus talked about, the love he stood for, the love he died for, was just that kind of rule-changing, deep-seeing kind of love: just that kind of non-abandoning, instinctive, sheltering, protecting, guiding love, just that kind of patient, quiet, healing love. It was a love that was strong enough to grasp for something different undeterred by conventions and expectations and limitations - and that's the love of Jesus, and the love of his father, Joseph, and the love of God.

So, Advent invites us to let go of all the expectations I’ve already mentioned. Advent calls us to remember the love of Jesus and Joseph and the love of God. It calls us to let God's peace gradually warm our souls, freeing us for new expectations and the birth of something within us and for us: the arrival of Emmanuel, God with us. Advent calls us to wait for the arrival of hope and to see the shadowy outline of a new world that is just beginning to dawn.

For Joseph, to hear the call of God's love was the dawn of a distinctly new vision. And the Christmas that lives in the heart, too often hidden from many in the secular festival which Christmas has become, remains profoundly countercultural, too. At its core, Christmas is foreign to everything about the culture we live in.

In these final days before Christmas, I don't know what different kinds of music you'll encounter as you go about the work of preparing. But underneath it all, may our hearts hear the quiet song that is God's great love song to us all.

And may it strengthen us to follow love's call with joy and purpose, letting go of everything else.