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.


Saturday, 18 November 2017

Sunday Sermon. Matthew 25.14-31: the parable of the talents

Matthew 25.14-30


For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

This is a really odd parable: did you notice that? Was there something in it that strikes an odd note - something perhaps that niggles at you whenever you hear it?

This is a parable that has several interpretations, although received wisdom tends to direct us to just one of them.

This parable is told as part of a long teaching sequence occurring near the end of Jesus' life and Matthew places it in the middle of a discourse about judgement which leads us to understand it in those terms and it’s usually interpreted in that way. A plot to silence him is already underway. The intensity and urgency of his teaching now seems to increase. It's almost as if Jesus is summing up. He alludes to his impending departure from this world and he cautions readiness in his followers. He advocates alertness and engagement in seeing that his work is carried out in his absence. He tells this parable. Jesus describes a Master who, as he is about to go away on a journey, summons his three servants, entrusting each with a portion of his assets. To one servant the Master gives five talents, to another he gives two talents, and to the third servant he gives just one talent.

Talents were considerable sums of money. A talent was equivalent to around fifteen years' worth of wages. I like to envision the first crowds gathered to hear Jesus teach - perhaps simple fishermen, herders, peasants - listening to this parable and imagining themselves taking responsibility for such vast sums.


As Jesus tells the parable, the servant given five talents invests and doubles his assets, as does the servant who receives two. Both took significant risks, both were aggressive. When the Master returned, both were praised, given even more responsibility, promoted, and invited to share the joy of the master.

But the third servant has a different story to tell. You see, he was a cautious, prudent man. He’s observed that the Master is a tough businessman and won’t be pleased if the principle is lost. So, he digs a hole and buries the money in the ground, which was, in fact, a perfectly reasonable thing to do if he didn’t wish to be liable for any loss. When the Master returns and this servant is called upon to give an account of himself, he says that he is able to return to the Master exactly what was entrusted to him. He can account for it down to the last penny.


Now, maybe he's expecting that the Master will be pleased that he neither squandered nor risked the Master's principle. True, no great gain was achieved, but no harm was done. The cautious servant must be assuming that the Master will invite him to join his fellow servants in entering into the joy of the Master.

But here comes the twist in the story that must have stunned Jesus' listeners. Jesus tells them that this prudent, judicious, sensible, practical, careful, cautious man was treated very harshly by the Master. Not only was his single talent taken from him and given to the other successful investors, but on top of that, instead of getting his invitation to the big party, he is unceremoniously banished. Who saw that coming?

The nobleman is usually taken to stand for God and his slaves become three models of discipleship: one good, one middling and one bad. The first two slaves are judged to have behaved sufficiently prudently in the way that they managed their master’s wealth and are rewarded appropriately. “Enter into the joy of your master” is generally accepted as I free pass to the Kingdom of Heaven while the third slave, seen as insolent and disobedient for having done nothing with his Master’s money, gets punished by being thrown into “outer darkness where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth”.

The unit of currency here is a talent and that may be the key to the way this parable is traditionally understood: a talent in New Testament financial terms was a huge sum of money but talent in English also means a skill or ability. Now, a conversation about how we use our God given talents is never a wasted conversation: we would do well from time to time to examine ourselves in terms of the skills and gifts we’ve been given by God to see whether we are using them in the service of one another and to bear fruit for the Kingdom: we are merely stewards for the gifts God has given us. We don’t need to think entirely in terms of practical skills either. Yes, gathered here today we have people with obvious skills and abilities: musicians, cooks, politicians, public speakers, administrators and so on, but we must also recognise personality traits too. The befriender, the good listener, the analytical thinker, the inspirer of others, and such abilities also count in our personal inventory of what God has equipped us with and let’s add in time because that’s a great gift too. So, without hopefully labouring the point, we should all be able to recognise in ourselves and in each other those things which build up this congregation and our wider community to the glory of God – and if we’re not entirely sure, let’s ask those who know us well here, “What talents do you think are my God-given gifts?” Why not? The more challenging supplementary question – and we may not want the answer here – is, “Am I using it properly?”

The problem with this interpretation of the parable, though, is the way the God-figure is described by his last slave, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” We’re invited to decide to what extent the slave’s characterisation of his master is accurate or a slanderous self-justification designed to divert attention from his own failings. Either way, it’s hard to read this parable without experiencing some discomfort about the behaviour and character of the master. What if the master in the parable truly is an exploitative capitalist with no conscience where money is concerned and that’s how he was intended to be understood?

That changes the nature of the parable somewhat doesn’t it?

So, if the central figure in the parable isn’t intended to stand for God, who or what’s being characterised here? Jesus seems to be criticising the sort of exploitative greed of the wealthy and powerful. The master chooses faithful servants: faithful in the sense that they reflect his values.  How do we think the wealthy in Jesus time made their money? Simply by their – or their agents – exploitation of others. The parable seen this way is a critique of the social and economic values of the day; one which, in the light of all that we’ve been hearing and reading about our government’s problems with universal credit, the dreadful suffering caused to many in the way that disability benefits are managed and assessed and the prospects of tax-cuts for the wealthy, might lead us – should lead us – to use our voices as disciples in a prophetic way to stand up for the poor and marginalised in our society.

There’s yet another way of understanding this parable. Who are the usual targets for Jesus’ stinging criticism in the Gospels? Enter stage right - The Scribes. Enter stage left - The Pharisees. Some commentators believe that Jesus’ audience would have identified the third slave with the Scribes who were entrusted with the Torah, the word of God, but hoarded their religious treasure rather than investing it for the profit of the people. Other commentators go further and see the third slave as being the kind of pious Jew who, through meticulous observance of the law, lived out a policy of exclusivity that left Israel as barren as the fig-tree Jesus cursed and defrauded God in the process.

There’s a deeply spiritual element to this understanding if we, however reluctantly, are encouraged to see ourselves as the third slave who represents that pious group whose exclusivity and inward looking attitude was damaging to God’s mission. Could we possibly see ourselves in that way? Now we’re being encouraged to do some soul-searching of our own in terms of our own practices and the interface between our spirituality and our discipleship. Are we following a set of customs and practices which are not inviting to others and through which God’s grace isn’t being made known to outsiders? How do newcomers who come to this church perceive us? Are we seen as an open and welcoming congregation? Is the Spirit of God alive and well and flourishing here? Are others coming to faith or have we fallen into maintenance only mode? What is the nature of our mission? What is our role here as a group of disciples in this community?

Difficult questions but they need to be asked – as they need to be asked by every congregation from time to time.

So, we have three possibilities in this little nugget of a parable: all, I’d argue, are valid ways of discerning what the Spirit is saying to the church and what she may be saying to you may not be what she’s saying to someone else here this morning.

Are you being challenged to do an audit of your gifts and talents in the service of God’s Kingdom? Are you being challenged about your response to economic and social inequality in modern British society? Or are you being challenged about the ongoing mission and ministry of this congregation?

That’s the nature of theology.

Fun isn’t it?

Saturday, 11 November 2017

A sermon for Remembrance Sunday: Matthew 25.1-13

Matthew 25.1-13

“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.

“Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’ “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.

When I was teaching, I had a poster on the inside of my office door: In it a somewhat nerdy-looking boy is trying to enter the Midvale School for the Gifted. He’s carrying a book under one arm and leaning with his other arm, with all his weight, against the door, straining, trying to push open the door. On the door there is a sign in great big letters that explains his problem. It reads, “PULL.” That’s us. We’re not too good at reading the signs. We anticipate one thing, whether we agree with it or not, and are surprised and/or confounded by the reality of the result. How many times have you heard recently from British or American friends, “That’s not what I thought I was voting for”?

Today’s Gospel passage is a well-known parable about the end times and it anticipates the return of Jesus with all its talk of preparedness or lack of it. The sort of language in today’s Gospel was never meant to foster speculation about when Jesus would return but Matthew is grappling here with the tradition of an imminent Second Coming. It is a warning not to attempt to read “the signs” because they mislead us. Every generation has done that to no avail but will we learn?

It was certainly the case that the people of Jesus’ time had an expectation of his quick return  but the key warning, of course, lies in the last verse of today’s passage, “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” As this expectation of an imminent return began to wane, the Gospel writers developed instead a growing sense that discipleship would be played out over the long course of history and, of course, that includes us today and we need to continue in our discipleship: to walk the Christian walk and talk the Christian talk and not to seek to second-guess signs of the end times. The warning, “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” is as much for us today as it was for Matthew’s audience.

In the Gospels the Spirit will guide the church during the time of Jesus’ absence but it is Jesus remembered and Jesus present by his Spirit, rather than Jesus expected, which began shape their communities as it should ours today.

What does it all mean for us today? How can we apply this passage? Can it speak to comfortable people like us today?

That assumes, of course, that we are still able to be totally comfortable when we look at the daily news – if we can get beyond our current governmental melt-down; ISIS and the ongoing fighting in Syria; another nasty little war in The Yemen; the festering ceasefire in Ukraine; Boko Harem in Nigeria; our continuing fear of home-grown terrorism and the rise in the West of Islamophobia not to mention thousands of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean and the ongoing refugee crisis; President Trump’s game of who’ll blink first with North Korea? Could events such as these be signs of the end times?

Every generation has had these thoughts: “Are we in the end times now?” people have wondered down the years as they confronted what they saw as the signs of their age. They were wrong.

We look back to such times this weekend in our acts of remembrance.

The services and ceremonies of this weekend draw human beings together in a way which is almost unique.  All over the country young and old gather to remember and reflect; each allowing some aspect of the reality of war to touch their soul. Some who gather will bring new or not so new memories of active service. Some will carry in their heart the memory of an especially loved one who made the ultimate sacrifice. Many will be stretching their imaginations to try to grasp what those people must be feeling. All will be praying that as time rolls forwards, human beings will find ways of resolving their differences which do not involve warfare.

I have no personal experience of armed conflict, nor were my parents old enough to serve in World War 2, although my father did serve as a Royal Marine in Malta, Cyprus and Egypt.  His father, my grandfather who I never knew, fought as a Sergeant-Major in the trenches in WW1 for the Yorks and Lancs Regiment, and I have his service medals including a Distinguished Conduct Medal: he died about fifteen years after the Armistice as a consequence of wounds he sustained during the fighting. He was shot from above in his right eye: the bullet exited through his left cheek, entered his shoulder and exited his rib-cage.

And Jesus said to them, When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately. I doubt my grandfather had those words ringing in his ears, but the men of his generation who served in the trenches, and the men a generation later who liberated the concentration camps or witnessed the aftermath of the nuclear attack on Japan must have wondered, however fleetingly, whether they had witnessed the worst of humanity and what that meant for the future of our civilization, or even whether their experiences were part of the end of civilization in a world that has such capacity for destruction.

My father came to occasions like Armistice ceremonies out of a strong sense of duty, out of a sense of solidarity because he had been a member of an elite group of servicemen and that linked him for all time to those others who had served in whatever capacity.

Every year we would watch together the Service of Remembrance from the Royal Albert Hall and even as a young child I could sense the deep symbolic importance of the rain of poppy petals at the close of the service which I would watch with a sense of awe and of desolation which I couldn’t then fully understand or explain and which the passing of the years has never diminished, somehow as one untouched by conflict, entering into this powerful sense of communal loss. It’s that sense that’s still evoked by the poppy and I think back to the hundreds of thousands who travelled from all over the country and further afield a year or so back to stand for a moment in silence at the Tower of London and to look at the cascade of poppies that had been set there as a reminder of the enormity of the sacrifice of those who fought and died.

But in all his remembering my Father said very little. In fact he was almost entirely silent on the subject of his own military experience - as I learnt his father had been before him. Silence was the only language that could somehow do justice to the feeling, the memory, and the imagination.

So silence is the true language of remembrance: a silence that is calm and mutual; a silence that is the recognition that what matters is so much more than we can ever say, so much so that it seems most appropriate to honour that fact through reflection and remembering.

The silence of Armistice Day and the silence of Remembrance Sunday is this sort of silence. It is the recognition that in order to do justice to what has happened, to do justice to the cost of war – its sacrifice and its shame - we don’t need to tell another story or sing another song. Rather we need to be silent together. We need to recognise that sometimes the most important thing we can do is hold our tongues. You may have noticed that with veterans the important thing is often not the war stories they tell but the war stories they don’t tell: the memories that are unspeakable, the experiences which can’t or shouldn’t be told.

And we must remember, too, those who survived but whose lives have been shaped by their experiences: the wounded in body, mind or spirit. Those of us who have not served can never fully appreciate the power of sound or smell to trigger dark and difficult memories. I have heard that some who served in the Falklands are transported back there in an instant simply through the cold smell of the sea and while many of us celebrate the fun of fireworks night, others who served in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan are left trembling and vulnerable because those noises evoke much less happy times. It must have seemed like the end times to them at that moment of their military experience. So we also remember today those who live with post-traumatic stress disorders which can be triggered by things that for the rest of us are simply a normal part of daily life.

Memory and silence, the senses of smell and hearing: we mustn’t forget these basic human experiences and the effect they have on each of us in different ways at this time: a time of fellowship, solidarity and empathy which makes us want not only peace and prosperity for ourselves, but makes us strive for the peace that passes all understanding for all the peoples of the earth, which is why we’re so deeply moved by the images that come to us from Aleppo and other Syrian and Yemeni cities. That’s a mark of our shared humanity and our understanding that in modern warfare, it is the innocent who are increasingly the victims.

But we know too that the power of remembrance is that while it connects us with sadness, it also inspires us in hope and it is a terrifyingly ambitious hope because we know that in our search for it there will be many more sadnesses and tragedies, many more sacrifices, many more broken hearts, bodies and minds, more fear that we are living in the end times.

We remember, not to allow the past to capture us in its worst moments, but to build us up for the future.  We remember not only to honour the fallen and the wounded, but to raise them in our hearts and to promise to live lives worthy of their sacrifice.

It is our duty today to ensure that those who, in the cause of peace, have given, and continue to give of their life, their health, their youth, are honoured and remembered. But in our remembering we must also vow to give of ourselves for the good of humanity, especially for the generations yet to come who will themselves one day stand in silent remembrance and live in hope for the future rather than in fear that the world is ending.

Our role is to continue to walk the walk and talk the talk of the Christian life through the good times and the dreadful times: to live out the Gospel in word and deed; to be, in the words of last week’s Gospel, the Peacemakers, who Jesus said were blessed and to pay no heed to what others see as the signs of the end times, remembering Jesus’ words in Matthew, “keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour”.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Sunday Sermon: Matthew 5.1-12. The Beatitudes.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

This section of the “Beatitudes” is one of the most loved portions of the Gospels. It forms the beginning of what’s become known as the “Sermon on the Mount”. This is the first and longest message of Jesus that we have in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus has been announcing that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, and he’s been calling for people to repent. Now, in what could be described as his manifesto, Jesus unveils the ethical guidelines for life as a disciple; the quality of righteousness that characterizes life in The Kingdom of God, now in part, but fully in the future. We can certainly count ourselves as the primary audience for this passage because we too are followers and seekers. This is as much about us now as it was to Jesus’ first audience.

Many years ago I remember going to see The Life of Brian and there was a lovely sequence where we saw Jesus in the distance delivering this sermon. Much humour was made of how the sermon was received and understood by those on the fringes of the crowd who were too far away to hear Jesus clearly.

“Cheesemakers? Did he say blessed are the cheesmakers?” I sometimes wonder whether in our own ways we don’t quite hear and understand Jesus’ message either.

The beatitudes give a picture of the character of the true people of God, those who are a part of his kingdom and have the full blessings of the kingdom to look forward to. Taken together they give a picture of the perfect disciple of Jesus. How exactly to become like this is the sort of detailed teaching that’s developed throughout the rest of the Gospel but we should be able to draw some simple applications.

Perhaps it would be helpful at the beginning to deal briefly with this word “blessed.” There is a tendency today to translate the word as “happy” but that doesn’t seem to capture all that is intended here. This term is an exclamation of the inner joy and peace that comes with being right with God. Happiness may be a part of it of course but it’s a happiness that transcends what happens in the world around us. It’s a happiness that comes to the soul from being favoured by God. That’s why it can call for rejoicing under intense persecution. In some ways Jesus’ declaration of “blessed” is his description of the spiritual attitude and state of people who are right with God and he’s praising them for their character and pledging divine rewards for it.

The opposite of Jesus’ “blessed” in Matthew would be the “woes” pronounced later against the scribes and Pharisees. Those woes pass judgment on the people who refuse to recognize and do the full will of God. The woes describe their character as well, but it is an evil and hypocritical character and the woes are a promise of judgment if those lives continue in their wickedness.

So, let’s take these “blessed” one at a time.

Firstly, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”: People who are “poor in spirit” are those who are humble before God. They realize that they have nothing in this life that they can contribute to receiving the kingdom of heaven. They’ve humbled themselves and repented with deep contrition; and they’ve come to God as helpless and hopeless sinners – a term we don’t much like these days. There is no arrogance in them, no self-righteousness, no self-sufficiency. They’re free from their own pretensions, and therefore they’re free for God. Everyone who wishes to enter the kingdom must be “spiritually poor,” because salvation is a gift from God and humility is required to enter the Kingdom of God.

The blessing Jesus announces is that “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It’s the poor in spirit, those who have humbled themselves and become dependent on God and who have come with a broken heart and a contrite spirit seeking God who inherit the Kingdom.

This is a call to repentance, for us as much as for them. We must humble ourselves before God and acknowledge that we bring nothing of our own power, possessions or merit and our lives must be lived in total dependence on God. Now, there’s a challenge.

Jesus then turns to “those who mourn”: those who mourn will be comforted.

Everyone experiences sad and tragic losses at some time or another in this life. Jesus came and announced the kingdom was at hand and he expected that the response of people would be tears of contrition. The Messiah would comfort those who mourn, but the comfort would come because he would save them from their sin, the cause of the mourning.

So this type of mourning is mourning not just for the suffering and sadness of life, but for the sinfulness that causes it. Those who mourn understand that their grieving is ultimately for a world that is lost and ruined, in which God and his will don’t prevail. But in their mourning the disciples of Jesus have opened their hearts to God knowing that their grieving isn’t without hope. They know that their weeping and grieving is for a time only because they know that death doesn’t have the final victory because the dead in Christ will be raised, and that hope brings them comfort.

So the application for us concerns the focus of the mourning, not the mourning itself. As we face the sadness of life, we can do so with hope if we’ve mourned over sin - a clear sign of faith.

“Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth” is next. In the Bible the meek are those who have a spirit of gentleness and self-control. They’re free from malice and a condescending spirit. The meek don’t exploit and oppress others. They aren’t given to vengeance and vendettas. They aren’t violent, and they don’t try to seize power for their own ends. In short, they’ve emulated the nature of Jesus in their lives and learned from him. This doesn’t mean that they’re weak or ineffective in life. They may be gentle and humble, but they can - and do - champion the needs of the weak and the oppressed.

The promise here is that they’ll possess the land. What land is meant? It signifies a sense of place, a security, an inheritance from God. Those promises which will be realized with the second coming of Jesus when there will be a new heaven and a new earth: a promise that will be fulfilled in a far more glorious way than anyone could imagine. The new creation won’t be possessed by the powerful despots, the ruthless tyrants, or the manipulative schemers. It’ll be possessed by the meek.

Meekness, gentleness and goodness are part of the fruit of the Spirit – they’re produced in the Christian by the Holy Spirit. So the direction we should follow to cultivate a spirit of meekness would be to listen to the Spirit, to be controlled by the Spirit of God so that the qualities of Jesus can be produced in us and through us. Is that something we seek daily?

Next up are “those who hunger and thirst after righteousness”. This beatitude is saying much more than most people think. It’s not simply describing those who are righteous, or who try to do good things. It’s describing their passion in life - they hunger and thirst for it. The word “righteousness” probably has two meanings. One would certainly be in our personal lives - the strong desire to be pleasing to God, to do what God wants, to live up to the will of God but out of this would grow the desire for a wider righteousness, for social justice in a world that is unrighteous and unjust. The desire for personal righteousness can’t be separated from the world around us and this righteousness will be fulfilled as we grow daily to be more like Jesus in our personal ethics and our social and political concerns.

Surely all Christians are for righteousness, but how does the desire become so intense? As we seek to apply this beatitude, we depend again on the Holy Spirit who leads the believer into righteousness and the closer we grow in discipleship, the more sensitive we become to the unrighteousness and injustice in the world. Is that us? Do we show that passion for justice?

We move on to consider “the merciful”. Those who understand mercy know their own inadequacies, dependence, weaknesses and incompleteness and because of that insight, know how to show mercy to others. Showing mercy includes both forgiveness of those who wrong us and compassion for the suffering and the needy. The merciful are called “blessed” because they place showing mercy above their own rights: they don’t take a hostile stand against people in need but try to show kindness to others and heal wounds. It’s not that they’re merciful by nature, but because they’ve been shown mercy and live in constant dependence on God.

And because they understand mercy and show mercy to others, the word from God is that they shall obtain mercy. Ultimately this looks forward to the coming of the king and the Day of Judgment when, by God’s mercy, they’ll be welcomed into the kingdom. They’ll receive mercy, not because they did enough good deeds, but because they understood how important mercy is in their own relationship with God and were eager to share it with others. They learned to forgive others because they were constantly being forgiven; they learned to show mercy to others because they were being shown God’s mercy every day.

So, what do we need to do? It’s important that we have a good understanding of the grace of God in our own lives and this comes from the experience of confession of sin and thanksgiving for forgiveness - two aspects of our discipleship that often get neglected. The reality of our own spiritual condition and God’s way of dealing with us must never be forgotten. Do we live in a constant awareness of God’s forgiveness which shapes our dealings with others?

“Blessed are the pure in heart” describes both an inner purity and a singlemindedness. The “heart” is used in the Bible for the will, the choices we make and so to be pure in heart relates to the decisions we make, the desires we have, so that our thoughts and intensions seek to be in line with those of God.

Elsewhere, the “heart” is used in the Bible very differently. At its worst it’s constantly acting selfishly and causing pain. Jesus said it was what came from the heart that defiled people: evil thoughts, impure desires, blasphemies and the like. Nothing short of a change will bring about a pure heart. Jesus doesn’t explain that here; but his language of being born again begins the process. The transformation from a heart influenced by the standards of the wider world to a pure heart will come by following Jesus, but it won’t be an easy or a swift change. Those who enter this kingdom of righteousness must have this new heart and then the promise is that such people will see God. We’ll see God in all the events and circumstances of life but the Bible promises much more. Here on earth the full vision of God is denied to us but one day he’ll be fully visible to our reborn eyes.

How do we gain pure hearts? Being given a “new heart,” begins when we commit to discipleship and it continues through spiritual growth as we follow Christ. Walking in the light, meaning learning to live by the word of God, will change the way we think so that our hearts will grow more and more pure -  but we must be constantly vigilant. Are we?

“Blessed are the peacemakers”. God is the God of peace; His whole plan of redemption is to provide peace with God for those who were formerly alienated from him, and ultimately bring peace to the whole world. This is the goal of Jesus’ mission.

In our world, though, there’s strife and conflict with little hope for peace and unity. We see this in our newspapers and on the TV daily. The peace that God brings is not necessarily a cessation of hostilities, tolerance, or the readiness to give way although they may be part of it. The true peace that the world needs calls for a complete change of nature and begins with reconciliation with God and extends to reconciliation with other people. True peacemakers are those who promote the kingdom of God. Their lives are given to reconciling adversaries, quenching hatred, uniting those who are divided, promoting true understanding and spiritual love. The quality described here is one that’s spiritual and not just a political seeking of peace.

And the promise is that the peacemakers shall be called the sons of God. In the New Testament sonship is a powerful expression of salvation. It means that believers have been born into the family of God, and have a personal relationship with the Father and as a consequence are joint heirs with Jesus. Their salvation is a birthright.

Finally, Jesus considers “those who are persecuted”.  That’s a hard one for us because here in the West this isn’t something that many of us experience beyond indifference or mild mocking but we know that life for Christians elsewhere can be fraught and dangerous. But the blessing stated here for those who suffer such persecution in this world is that their destiny will be a complete contrast to their present humiliation because theirs is the kingdom of heaven and that’s not a future reality only - we have it now.

We should be living for Christ in this world, living the way members of the kingdom should live, championing righteousness and justice, showing mercy, remaining meek and poor in spirit: all the things that the beatitudes praise. But we should know that genuine righteousness is offensive to many, and so we need be prepared for opposition – and it’s more of a shock to us when it comes for being so unexpected in our society.

So where does that all leave us? It leaves us with many challenges: the challenge of regular self-examination. Are we meek? Are we humble? Do we thirst after righteousness? Are we peacemakers? Are we merciful and pure in heart? Of course we aren’t but the challenge is to throw ourselves onto the resources of the Holy Spirit: to seek that guidance and strength in everyday life and to recognise that the road to the Kingdom of God takes us well away from the norms of our society.