Sunday, 19 June 2016

Choose wisely, choose love

St Nicholas Church - Sunday June 19th 2016 - 9.30am

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

I know I’m supposed to start a sermon off with a joke.  But I just don’t have one.  Just the fact that Dennis in his wisdom asked me to preach my first sermon at a 9.30 service, on the Sunday before the European Referendum is frankly, hilarious enough.   

And then, just when I thought the focus of this morning was going to be the EU referendum, the shootings in Orlando happened last weekend.  

And then, just as I thought I had a plan for this morning…...the MP Jo Cox was shot and killed.  

So I hope you’ll forgive me for the lack of jokes.  I’m just not finding things very funny right now.

My original focus was going to be Europe.  So let’s start there.  I’m not going to tell you how to vote and will try my hardest to remain impartial.  If you are seeking theological argument and opinion on how to vote you can find it elsewhere, but as a helpful guide, the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey says Leave…..the present Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby says Remain.  As does our own Bishop here in St Albans.  And while I don’t intend on telling you how I think you should vote, what I can talk about this morning is what I believe our reading from Galatians might be saying to us.  But I will come to that later.  

So while we are probably all becoming quite weary of the In/Out debate….while economics, law and sovereignty are being bandied about as reasons to vote one way or the other, and while the issue of immigration was merrily being thrown around for our benefit, a man went into a nightclub in Orlando last weekend and shot people because of who they are.  Not because of what they believe or any opinions they hold, not because of any life decision they had made, but because of who they fall in love with, and the person they were created as.

Many have spoken out in solidarity with the lesbian, gay, bi and transgender community.  Myself included.  Many also raised concerns about the gun laws in America.  Over there.  In America.  

But then on Thursday one of our own MP’s was shot.  We don’t really know all the facts, but it seems that the man who killed Jo Cox disagreed with her opinions.  Opinions which supported each person, regardless of who they are or where they are from.  

Suddenly, shootings are not just “over there”.  They are here.  The stretch of water between us makes no difference.  They have guns.  We have guns.  People on both sides of the Atlantic are being shot simply for who they are. Let’s be honest, we know these things don’t just happen in Britain and the United States.  It’s just that those are the incidents we hear about.  People are being killed and victimised for who they are and loving people for who they are.  Different countries.  Different continents.  Same planet.  Same space.   It isn’t them and us.  It is us.  

Who are we to decide who owns which bits of land anyway?  It’s all one world.  Is that too simplistic?  Too idealistic?  To just suggest that we are one world, regardless of our differences?  No, I don’t think it is.  I don’t think that it can be.

Many of you will know that I spent some time in Palestine after Easter this year with the Amos Trust.  I visited many of the holy sites, ran a half marathon in Bethlehem - as you do - that may be the closest you do get to a joke this morning….but I also visited refugee camps and spoke to Palestinian Christians and Muslims about how they were developing what they describe as Beautiful Resistance.  A way to peacefully protest at the occupation of their land.  This is not the time or the place to discuss the Israeli Occupation, but one of the phrases which stuck with me was during a meeting with Zoughbi Zoughbi of the Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Reconciliation Centre.  He simply said....  

“God is not racist”.  

There are many complex arguments about the Occupied Territories - Palestine - but this one sentence really stuck, and cuts through all the politics.  God is not racist.  

Wi’am is situated by one of the main checkpoints in Bethlehem, under the shadow of the wall, accompanied by a couple of Banksy murals outside.  When I say in the shadow - that’s exactly what I mean.  They wanted a place children could go and play, a place with a garden.  And they put it by the checkpoint as a point of peaceful resistance…..just like the motivation of the communion services - like ours today’s - in the fields of the Cremison Valley.  Peaceful resistance.  The centre gets tear-gassed.  The garden furniture is burnt out.  The children’s play stuff damaged.  The garden is decorated with empty tear gas canisters which have been thrown over from the other side of the wall.  

Zoughbi says this, “dwelling in victimhood is suicidal, enhancing the guilt will paralyse others, blaming is a collective responsibility is the most important thing…..and the challenge is how to transform the garbage of anger, the garbage of hate, and to flower in the tree of compassion.”   “We are committed to the non-violent struggle, against the occupation through the popular struggle, because we would like to deprive the Israeli government from an enemy”  

I have so much more I could tell you about how the people I met strive peacefully towards the goal of peace for all.  But now is not the time.  Just remember their statement - God is not racist.

Which brings me so neatly to this morning’s reading from Galatians.  In a week where the world seems - in my opinion and that of many others I know - to be a dark and scary place….Paul reminds us in our lectionary reading today that God sees no division.  However we see others, however we vote, whatever our differences are… God they are invisible.  There is no East nor West, no Jew nor Greek, no man no woman….and in the light of the shootings in Orlando - no gay nor straight.  We are all the same.

This building we worship in is old.  It has a great history, lovely stained glass, and a beautiful font.  And yet it divides us.  It separates us out into those with small children in the back corner.  Children who attend Sunday Club at the front.  The choir in their stalls, the clergy and assistants at the front, with everyone else occupying their usual seat everywhere else.  We are divided.  Some can see, other are stuck behind a pillar.  We are in our place.  If I had the courage this morning I would ask you all to stand up and swap seats.  For the choir to sit down the side, the toddlers to move to the front, the children can come and sit here and the rest of you find a different view.  Mix.  Be as one.  Don’t separate.

When writing this, the words of a song by U2 were stuck in my head.  The song is called Walk On and was written for Aung San Suu Kyi while she was under house arrest in Burma.  
And love is not the easy thing
The only baggage you can bring
Is all that you can't leave behind

Bono, U2’s singer, said it was based on a passage from Corinthians about a house which suffers a fire.  Like us on judgement day, what will be left after all the material things are removed?  If we take away law, money and sovereignty?  What is left?  The only thing you cannot leave behind.  Love.

So however we chose to vote this week, think on today’s reading.  We have a choice to make on Thursday, but we also have daily choices to make.  We can choose anger and hate and aggression.  Or we can choose and grab hold of love.  We can choose love as a peaceful resistance to the problems in our lives.

The only thing which is left at the end of the day is love….love for each other and God’s love.  
Jo Cox MP said "We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us."
St Paul in his letter to the Galatians said,
“But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

We are all the same.  To quote Bono again.  We are one.  Choose wisely, choose love.  

Monday, 14 March 2016

St Paul's Spiritual Fitness Programm (Phil 3:7-14)

     Being overweight and usually wishing I wasn’t, I occasionally take note of exercise programmes that guarantee weight loss and trim figures.  I must admit, I was intrigued but never really fooled by those exercise methods which promised firm muscles and instant fat loss without any sweat or physical exertion.  You've seen it advertised I'm sure.  Where you lay on some comfortable bed and these rollers and levers bend and stimulate your muscles without you having to do anything.  Or where you lay on some comfortable bed and very mild electric current shock various muscles making them contract and supposedly exercise.  These methods are not entirely painless, from what I hear, I have never tried them. But they are as it were, effort free.  Don't you just wish it was true?

          Sometimes we view our spirituality this way.  Why can’t being spiritual be a natural outcome of daily life?  It shouldn't be something we have to work at.  We should just be who we are; just be ourselves, and we will grow into spiritual maturity.  It is a myth of effortless spirituality.  Just lie back on the comfortable bed of life and God will make you spiritual.

          Well this passage from Philippians blows-up that whole idea.  It uses words like: loss, gain, know, share, attain, press on, straining.  These actions words are complimented with pictures of throwing things away, grasping, running a race, straining toward the finish line.  All things which you and I are supposed to be doing as we eagerly await a Saviour from heaven who is coming to finish our spiritual fitness programme.

          Let's look at St. Paul's three-step programme to spiritual fitness.  Unfortunately, I the workout video is not available, so we will have to concentrate on the biblical text.

          STEP ONE: SET A GOAL.  You know the expression, 'aim at nothing and you are sure to hit it'.  To achieve spiritual maturity you have to have a vision of the goal, a vision of what is meant to be at the end of the process.  Paul states the goal in rather stark terms: the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord; that I may gain Christ; I want to know Christ, the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead.  To sum it up, the goal is to know Christ, and to know him fully. 

          One of the great themes of Paul's theology is that through faith, through our baptism, and through the Spirit, we are 'in Christ'.  For Paul, the Christian life is a process of becoming more and more identified with Christ, of being transformed into the image of Christ.  Knowledge or to know as it is used in this context means to have a living understanding and experience of.  So when Paul speaks of knowing Christ he is talking about growing into a deeper personal relationship with Christ.  It is experiential knowledge, not just head knowledge.

          Let me illustrate.  I have lived with my wife Helen for thirty-six years.  After all these years of marriage, I know almost everything there is to know about her.  My knowledge of her comes through hours upon hours of talking and sharing our thoughts and feelings, our shared experiences, and our daily lives.  But after 30 some years there is still more to know and to learn to love.  When Paul speaks of knowing Christ, he means a knowledge that is deeper and more personal than my knowledge of my wife.

          The first step in spiritual fitness is to set a goal.  For St. Paul that goal is to be so identified with Christ, to be so in Christ, that we become Christ like.  Paul's spiritual fitness programme challenges us to evaluate all our spiritual goals into that one goal of KNOWING CHRIST.


          I watched this programme about building the Shard, the tallest building in Europe.  They had to organize a way to have all that steel and glass on site ready to use as the building got underway.  We can dream all the dreams we want about what we would like to do, but those dreams have to be balanced by the resources available.  It is the same for our spiritual fitness programme.  We have to realize the resources that we have at our disposal so we can realize the goal of knowing Christ.  One of the resources St. Paul says we have received is righteousness (read v9).  But we usually object, don’t we, if anyone implies that we are righteous.  After all we know ourselves only too well to know that we are hardly righteous.  We know that we are not morally and ethically pure.  But that's just the problem; our understanding of righteousness is too limited.  We envisage it only in moral and ethical terms.  PAUL sees righteousness something more.  This kind of righteousness is nothing we can attain.  Righteousness is what we have received through our faith in Christ.  Righteousness is how God sees us on account of the love of Christ for us and on account of the saving passion and atonement of Christ on our behalf.  Righteousness is our standing before God based on Christ's work.  It is how God sees us on account of Christ.

          OK so how is this righteousness a resource in our spiritual fitness programme?  It sounds a bit too abstract.  What it means is that we have direct access to God.  Righteousness must be understood in relational terms.  To be righteous means we have permission to enter God's presence freely.  God dwells in pure light and holiness.  Because we are seen as righteous, you and I have a pass-card which allows us directly inside the courts of heaven, the inner sanctuary where God dwells. 

          Direct access to God comes in several ways.  Prayer is the most obvious.  In prayer we tap into spiritual power and forces to help us in facing temptation, for healing and wholeness, for discovering we are loved by God, for discerning God’s will and ways.  Prayer is not just asking, it is also sitting quietly in God’s presence and letting his blessed presence transform me.  We also come into God's presence through worship.  God also comes to us as we read and study his word.  God comes to us in our conversations and encounters with others.  We have the resources we need through the gift of righteousness.  We have God’s presence opened up to us in all of our life—unlimited, unfettered access to the holy, awesome God.

          STEP THREE: RUN THE RACE.  In St. Paul's words, 'straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me'.  Spiritual fitness is not an easy programme.  It is not lying on a comfortable bed and letting it happen to you.  It requires some effort on our part. 

          In running the race, we need to reorient our value system.  Our new value system means we look at life differently.  Paul says, 'Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ'.  Paul looks at his credentials, human credentials, and says, in the big scheme of things what are these things worth.  It is important that WE take stock.  What is it that we put in our assets column?  At the end of the day the royal family and the president of the USA will have to stand before God and be judged on the same criteria as you and I.  At the end of the day, graduates from Cambridge and Oxford will have to stand before God and be asked the same questions as the man or woman or child who never set a day inside a school room.   

          In order to run the race we have to weigh up carefully the opportunities which come our way in life.  There is nothing wrong with working hard to earn a promotion and better pay.  But if that goal gets in the way of my knowing Christ, is it worth it? 

          In order to run the race, we not only need a Christ-like value system, we have to bring our spirituality under discipline.  Paul gives us these images:  I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me; This one thing I do, forgetting what is behind, I strain towards what is ahead; I press on toward the goal.  Richard Foster in his book, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, lists the great spiritual disciplines as these: meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity of life, solitude, submission to authority, service, confession, worship, guidance and celebration.  Read that list again.  Some of these disciplines are private inner practices which no one will ever see.  Some are outward disciplines which are evident in the way we live our daily lives, some are corporate disciplines which we do as part of the body of Christ. 

          These disciplines do not just happen.  It takes an act of our will to make them happen.  The image of pushing ourselves, of straining, provokes us to realize we have to do our best to become spiritually fit, to know Christ.  But spiritual discipline is like a diet.  Sometimes we blow it, but then we get back to eating right.  The great saints of the past learned and passed on to us disciplines we can practice.  We have to make the effort to make them work in our lives.

          In conclusion, for now, we live in the present.  The reading from Philippians calls us all to follow St. Paul's steps to spiritual fitness.  First, our goal is to come to know Christ fully.  Second, we need to realize the resource of having free access to God through the righteousness Christ has clothed us with.  Third, we must try to run the race, to reorient our personal values under the goal of knowing Christ and to discipline our spiritual life into the right patterns which produce authentic spiritual growth.  This spiritual fitness programme is harder than any weight loss and exercise routine one might try.  But the rewards are much greater.  Let us join with St Paul and commit ourselves to these words: I WANT TO KNOW CHRIST.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Loving the Alien: A Sermon on the Conversion of St Paul (Acts 22:3-16)

I was talking to a friend of mine about this sermon.  In the past he has jokingly suggested words I should try to fit into my sermons or pieces I have written.  Nothing naughty, just a challenge. The last one was “outrageous grace”.  Easy on that occasion.  When I explained what my subject for this evening is - The Conversion of Paul - he made the following suggestions:

Hypocrite.  Mysoginist.  Destructive.  Misleading.

How serious he was is anyone’s guess, but these words represent sentiments which many hold about Paul, his life and his words.  Indeed I may have had sympathy with some of those ideas before I had actually studied Paul and the texts attributed to him and his followers.   Like most things, I believe interpretation and context to be the major players here.  They can change opinions.

This evening we mark the Conversion of Paul.  A quite remarkable moment when someone who was so absolutely sure of their opinions, faith and utter righteousness, did a complete about turn and became a key individual in the way Christianity was spread and understood.  Before his conversion, the very people he was to go on and minister to would have kept a very wide berth, while Paul would have felt himself so removed from the gentiles that any thought of what was to come would have horrified him.

The people he worked and associated with would have found Paul’s conversion thoroughly offensive.  Paul switched sides and showed that change within a person is possible….that an individual is not set in stone, with one particular belief system and a single way of life.

I think it might be fair to say that if Richard Dawkins turned up at church and started evangelising or telling us how to run church, we would be surprised.  It would be absolutely fascinating - don’t get me wrong - but I think we would be sceptical, uncomfortable and perhaps reluctant about his words?

We make our minds up about people and often it is hard for them or us to change that opinion or view of them.  We do exactly the same thing to ourselves.

Now before I continue I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not suggesting that anybody - myself, rock stars, or Anglican Primates are equivalent to Paul…..but I am going to use them as examples for us to think about how significant Paul’s conversion was, and what it means for us today, as an individual event.

Let’s talk about me first.  Three months ago I was a confirmed couch potato.  A happy sitter downer who might exercise occasionally, usually when summer is looming large.  If you heard or read my last sermon you might know where this is going.  Three months ago, after a chance conversation with someone in August at Greenbelt, I took up running, having surprisingly committed to running the Palestine Marathon - albeit the half - on April 1st - this year, in Bethlehem.  I hadn’t ever run before (apart from at school), but the fact I didn’t run was the only (quite major) thing stopping me from doing it.  
So I did.  I changed.  I started running.  

I know that part of my motivation is crucial here.  Without it I would still be on the sofa.  My hope is to support the amazing work the Amos Trust does in the Holy Land with people from all areas to try to bring about peace and reconciliation in and around the Bethlehem area.  The hope is that one day people of all faiths will live peaceably  alongside each other, sharing the land.  To many of those people right now, that seems about as impossible to love their neighbour, as for Saul to be converted and transform into Paul.  But then, Paul wouldn’t have expected it, anymore than I would think I could run 21k. Well actually it’s only 9.7k right now but I’ve 60 something days to go.

I’m sure for all those who hold strong opinions about Paul - many of you, or your parents, will have held strong opinions - one way or the other - about David Bowie and his life, music and art.  I was a fan.  I am a fan.  An enormous fan.  I do not doubt that some of you in this congregation would have disapproved of him.  I think he would understand that, but in the weeks which have followed his death I have read and listened to many of his interviews and have often been struck about the responses he got from people, and what he had to say about change.

David Bowie is often described as being something of a chameleon.  Someone who had the ability to change and adapt to their surroundings and environment.  Someone who was open to new forms of art, music and culture.  Someone who was always searching for new ways of doing things, to expand his experience of music and the arts, as well as our own.  Sometimes his ways of trying new things didn’t sit well with many in society… later years he too may have questioned some of what he did.  But he had this amazing ability to try things, push boundaries while at the same time being what Jarvis Cocker described as like an umbrella for people who felt a bit different“

Just think about that. An Umbrella for people who felt a bit different.  That is quite a tribute to someone who at times will have polarised opinion on his way of doing things.

I wonder if Paul was happy at polarising opinion?  I’m sure St Paul didn’t want to be an umbrella for the gentiles before his conversion, and yet, that really is exactly what the church - what Christians are intended to create.  A place where no matter who you are, what you wear, what you look like, where you came from, and who you want to spend you time with, you are welcome.  
Under the umbrella.

But that involves us accepting everyone.  Even those we really don’t understand or agree with.  That might even mean we have to change to make this happen.  Just like Paul.  We know from the reading we heard that Paul was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord”. He planned to bring those in the synagogues following “the way” back to Jerusalem.  If necessary bound up.  He was so sure he already knew the right way that he was willing to condemn anyone who differs…..a concept still too grimly familiar today.   But then he suddenly encounters God.  Not only that, but he somehow finds it in himself to be open minded enough to change his mind entirely and start encouraging and preaching to Gentiles, rather than opposing them.  That’s an enormous thing to do.  To be so aware and honest, that you can forget any sense of pride, and change your mind to do what you think is right - even if it is the exact opposite of your previous point of view.  

I was listening to a David Bowie interview where he was asked whether his own ability to change persona might influence others to do the same.  He replied saying
“if I’ve been at all responsible for people finding more characters in themselves than they originally thought they had, then that’s something I feel very strongly about, that one isn’t totally what one is conditioned to think one is.”

David Bowie’s death was announced on the same day the Anglican Primates were beginning their meeting in Canterbury.  Their plan was to discuss many things, but at the top of the media news agenda was how they would manage the tension surrounding lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual relationships, with particular reference to marriage.  Ironically their big moment got knocked down the news running order, as much of the world stopped to mourn Bowie.  David Bowie - a man who pushed boundaries, sought change, and who himself may have raised a number of problems for the Anglican Primates when it boiled down to sexual orientation.    The Archbishop of Canterbury was one of the first on the news to pay tribute to Bowie.

Much has been said about whether he discovered faith in those final moments, including a report stating that the final account David Bowie followed on Twitter before he died…..was God.   That is not for me to say, though people are often surprised to discover some of his music reflected his questions about faith.  Station to Station turns out to be about the Stations of the Cross, and while many have speculated about some of the meaning in Loving the Alien… a concept it surely has a lot to say to us.  “Believing the strangest things…..loving the Alien”

So while many mourned, the Primates met, prayed and talked.  They needed to find a way to keep everyone under the umbrella.  Or get separate ones.  Their conclusion and treatment of the Episcopal Church has certainly not pleased everyone, but their Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry had this to say,
            “Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.  While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: ‘All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for we are all one in Christ’”

So in conclusion, I think the conversion of Paul suggests we need an awareness of ourselves and an open minded attitude which might see us changing to be all that we can be, and into things we never dreamt we might be, and accepting ways of being which we just don’t understand.  

In the passage we heard from Numbers (9:15-end) we learnt how the Israelites had to be aware of God’s command in order to stay safe on their journey as they travelled under the protection of the cloud.  The description we are given of these movements is quite detailed and would have required the Israelites to remain sensitive to the signs and nudges God was giving them for guidance on their journey.  Almost a constant awareness would have been required to respond to God’s call and move on at any time.  Am I that aware of God’s presence telling me to change suddenly?  Do I want to be?  I doubt Paul was, or indeed that he wanted to change.  But he did.

It would be easy to wonder why we should commemorate the conversion of Paul.  Why not anyone else?  But his conversion was so startling - he found that person inside him he was absolutely not conditioned to be.  He went on to recognise that, and in all of his teachings the one I quoted from Galatians is the one which so often comes back.  Paul was a man who knew the extremes of faith - how different the Jews and the Gentiles saw each other.  But his revelation was such that he could see that they were the same in God’s eyes.  As are we all.  No matter how we differ.  We all sit under God’s umbrella…..and perhaps it is up to us to recognise that and make room for everyone.  Even if that means we have to examine ourselves and find something which helps this to happen.  It might not mean changing your opinion or your faith, it might just mean allowing someone who has a different opinion, to sit alongside you and share the umbrella.

It might simply mean “Believing the strangest things…..Loving the Alien”.

Rachel Wakefield

Monday, 4 January 2016

What are you searching for? Epiphany reflections

What are you searching for?  The wise men were searching for the King of the Jews.  Why?  They had everything, wealth, status, wisdom.  They had no apparent reason to go looking for something more.  From our perspective, they had it all.  Was it mere curiosity because of the star?  I think it was more.
Most people want to know the meaning of life in some sense.  Most young people as they transition from puberty to adulthood are full of ideals and try to find a reason to be and a distinct personal identity that fits that reason.  For many young people that search ends in a kind of emptiness.  The world offers this glittery image of success as wealth and status, a form of celebrity.  Reality TV only reinforces that, when everyone seems to be able to have their 15 minutes of fame or an instant rise to stardom.  People start to think they have the right to deserve it all.
For others, the dream job never happens.  The employment and the responsibility rut with bills to pay, duties at work, duties at home, etc. guts them of any sense of meaning. So life becomes a treadmill of making do.  Excitement or any sense of momentary pleasure comes from transitory highs like alcohol, drugs, sex, clubbing, the pub, etc.
For some, life comes down to relationships and feeling loved.  And being loved and loving is truly one of life’s golden treasures and a worthy pursuit.  But few of us truly know how to love and to be loved.  Many today do not know how to have a long term meaningful relationship.  As soon as a relationship stops being exciting, as soon as it starts being hard work, many people bail on the relationship and start a new one.  The relationship cycle goes on, round and around.
          What are you searching for?  The wise men wanted something more.  They looked up to the heavens for signs and portents that signalled something extraordinary, something transcendent.  They wanted more from life than their immediate tangible earthly success.  In fact, they wanted it so much they were willing to go on a journey to find it.  This was no easy journey.  Oh yes their wealth probably made it as comfortable as possible for them.  They no doubt had slaves and servants to wait on them and guards to protect them from attack.  They had resources to replace the worn out camel and pay for whatever they needed.  Still it was a long and dangerous trip.  And they did not know exactly where it would take them.  They embarked in faith.
          Sometimes to find what we want in life, it takes a bit of faith, a bit of commitment, a bit of investment of our resources be it time, money or effort.  The stupid myth that we deserve it, that it should all come to us easy and without any pain or exertion is absurd.  Another myth that we often live with is that I can have the maximum return with a minimum of effort.  It is true that sometimes life feels too complicated and takes too much effort.  Sometimes we look at life thinking that it should not be so hard.  Like the wise men, however, sometimes to find what we are looking for means we have to invest some real effort and to step out in faith.
          Finding real meaning can be dangerous and counter cultural.  It certainly was for the wise men.  Herod was not too happy to hear of this other king.  And in the end he tried to kill the child they were searching for.  The wise men on finding the child knelt in homage, in worship.  Imagine three very wealthy, sophisticated, well dressed old men, on their knees in front of a baby in the house of a poor carpenter.  The scene is too bizarre to imagine.  Sometimes the search has to be flexible, open ended, open to new possibilities, open to guidance and the wisdom of others. Sometimes what we are searching for is not found in the place we expect.  Sometimes what we are really looking for is not what we think or imagine.   
          What are you searching for?  
           But now I want to tell you something incredible.  Life is not primarily about your search.  Epiphany is about the truth that God has come searching for you and me.  There he is in that little baby, God incarnate, God enfleshed for you and me to see.  Epiphany is God appearing; God revealed to you and me and to the world.  God in human form so God can be with us, touch us, speak to us, and show love for us.  Epiphany is the revelation that God is searching for us, reaching out to us, coming to find us.  It is a mission of love and grace and truth.  Our challenge is to not turn away, to not go our own way, to not go on some endless search that takes us away from God.  Our challenge is to kneel in worship and to offer him our gift, the gift of ourselves, the gift of our life.  This Epiphany find life in the Christ child who comes to bring us life, abundant and eternal life.  This Epiphany, stop searching and let God find you.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Advent: Alert and Waiting (Luke 21:25-36; 1Thess 3:9-13)

Can you think of a time when you were waiting, desperately waiting for someone or something to arrive?  I have vivid memories of waiting for my Grandparents to arrive.  Standing in front of the window in the living room looking out and watching every car go by to see if it was them.
          Another memory of being alert and waiting is my son Michael who was a goal keeper for a football club.  I can still see him when the other team came near the goal.  He would bend down, hands apart, watching the ball intently, waiting for the goal kick to come so he could stop it.  Alert and waiting.
          Today is the first Sunday of Advent.  Advent is taken from the Latin word, adventus, which means ‘coming’.  A modern dictionary defines advent as, ‘the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event’.  In advent we spend four weeks, four Sundays anticipating, expecting, longing for, hoping for the coming of Christ.  We look for his second coming which we believe might happen at any time.  We celebrate his first coming by anticipating and expecting the glory and light of Christmas morning.  Are you waiting?  Are you alert and waiting?
          This morning our scripture readings remind us that God can come and break into our world at any time.  (Jeremiah speaks of the Lord coming to fulfil God’s promises to establish justice and righteousness in all the world.)  In Luke’s gospel we read: "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap…Be alert at all times."  In Paul’s letter he tells them as they wait: And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
          Are you waiting?  Are you alert and waiting? This morning I want to explore two ways we wait and are alert.
First, Jesus tells us as we wait for him to come again, we need to avoid becoming preoccupied with the pleasures and worries of this world.  That line from the song or hymn is apt, ‘this world is not our home, we are just passing through’.  As we wait we keep our eyes upward to the things of God.  Now this does not mean we become so heavenly minded we are no earthly good.  Nor does it mean we cannot be fully human embracing and enjoying this life that God has given us.  But God is in us, drawing us into his ways.  We are children of the kingdom of God so our values and priorities are not of this world or selfishly focused on ourselves.
          St Paul says, ‘strengthen your heart in holiness that you may be blameless’.  What does holiness mean to you?  To be holy means to be set apart for God.  A holy life is a life where we seek to honour God in who we are, what we do and what we say, in private, in our homes, at work, at play, at school, wherever.  The path to holiness is a long and winding road, with ups and downs, barriers to climb over and go through.  But placing our lives within a life of faith, hope and love gives us direction and perseverance.  In Christ we are becoming.  We wait by being his, by a deepening commitment to live God’s love and to reveal the grace that has touched us.
          In Advent take a little extra time to draw near to God.  Are you in an Advent study group?  Go along to a mid-week service and say a prayer or two.  Read a spiritually eye opening book.  Add a little extra time to your prayer time.  Take a few extra moments for devotions.  Contemplate the mystery, the glory, the truth that was revealed in the manger and all that will be revealed when he will come again.  In faith, hope and love, we wait.
          Are you waiting?  Are you alert and waiting?  A second way Paul suggests we wait is to increase and abound in love for one another and for all. Relationships are hard and challenging.  I read a saying this week that I liked:  A perfect marriage is just two imperfect people who refuse to give up on each other.  That is love.  Love does not mean everyone is your best friend and that you even like everyone.  Love means respecting everyone and striving for the best for all you love.  Many churches could use a bit more love.  We show our love by how we talk about others and how we speak to each other.  It is good to share our opinions, but diplomacy is the loving way.  We can even argue in a loving way.  Love is how we conduct and how we end the discussion or argument. 
          And again, learning to love is another long and winding road with its ups and downs, and barriers to cross and go through.  But it is what we seek to be, loving, for love has touched us.  God is love.  If we live in God, we will grow in love.  As you wait, contemplate the ways of love and let it permeate who you are, what you do and what you say.
          Are you waiting? Are you waiting and alert?

In conclusion, we wait by living a life of faith and hope and love. We walk a path in and towards holiness.  We also walk a winding road in and towards love.  When he came the first time he revealed what it means to be holy and what love really is.  He will come again and may he find us a holy people with hearts full of love.
                       Revd Dennis Stamps

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Paris - A Sermon Considering our Christian Response

St Nicholas Church Harpenden,
15 November 2015
2nd before Advent                                                       
Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25; Mark 13:1-8

The events in Paris have rightly stopped us all in our tracks.  Sadly, we are becoming used to acts of terrorism but the level of atrocity Friday night shocks us.  Partly because it is so close to home.  Partly because so many were killed and injured.  Given these events, what are we to think?  What can we say?

          Reactions to such events vary.  Every immediate reaction is valid as it is our humanity and our personality responding.  But as Christians we have to be thoughtful and prayerful in how we respond in the long term.  We must be thoughtful and prayerful in the theology we use to interpret these events to ourselves and to others.

          Of course an immediate response is to ask why?  There is no easy answer to this and we must avoid any attempt to give a quick, facile answer.  God has given to his creation a measure of freedom.  Human beings use that freedom to do evil as well as good.  God does not ‘stop’ things.  He is not a puppet master controlling all the strings.  Thus, he shares in our pain and sorrow when evil acts.  He has promised that because of Christ’s passion and resurrection, one day, evil will be judged and banished in the new creation.  As Christians we have the confidence that evil will not prevail.

          Another reaction is shock and sadness which is often accompanied by a feeling of helplessness and vulnerability.  It is in some ways a compassionate reaction which identifies with those who were the victims.  But we can not rest in that place.  There is something we can do.  We can turn our sadness and helplessness into loving action, to become a force for good and kindness in the world.

          Another reaction is anger.  Again, this is a valid and understandable response.  But we cannot rest in that anger, for if we nurture that anger we will eventually want and need to direct that anger against something or someone.  In too many cases, anger leads eventually to blaming others and to revenge.  There is in these criminal events a rightful justice which must follow.  We hope and pray that the police and authorities will bring to justice some or all of those involved in committing these atrocities.  But we must not allow ourselves to become agents of anger who become hardened in some way to other humans or groups of humans.  It is common and a very primitive response to seek to protect our communities by becoming tribal.  So often after an event like this, people begin to persecute others.  No doubt many Muslims and even the refugees who themselves fled the ones who have claimed responsibility will face abuse by those whose anger leads to inappropriate revenge or prejudice.

Let me share with you reflections which the former Bishop of St Albans, Christopher Herbert, wrote after the London bombings in 2005.

He said: "We cannot avoid considering the nature of evil in attacks such as these. I will not use the word “sick”, of the perpetrators, because that is not strong enough and in any case is based on the notion that the person is unable to choose what causes the sickness, but to plant a bomb is to make a deliberate and wilful choice – a choice which flies in the face of all normal understandings of what it means to be human. It is to decide to destroy, rather than build up, to fragment rather than to reconcile, to maim rather than heal. Evil and chaos are horribly intertwined.

The question we have to ask is how to defeat evil – and the answer lies not only in the physical sphere in which we have to decide how we shall physically resist it; it also resides in the legal sphere, in which in a democratic society, law has to take its proper and un-corrupt course. It lies in the mental sphere in which we have always to search for and uphold truth with tenacity and humility. It lies in the moral sphere in which we have to commit ourselves to try to live righteously, whilst recognising that we are also very flawed and need to seek God’s mercy and forgiveness when we get things wrong.  It lies in the spiritual sphere when we have to commit ourselves daily to goodness and light, offering ourselves, our souls and bodies to God in Christ, that we may be part of his atoning and healing love for our world.

Evil, ultimately, is overcome by goodness; darkness, ultimately, is overcome by light – but the cost can be, and frequently is, very high. The crucifixion of Christ was the place where all that was evil took chaos to its final destiny, death – but was then transformed by the power and glory of Christ’s resurrection.

We need, as Christian people, to seek God’s strength that we may be courageous; to seek his mercy as we recognise within ourselves our own propensity for sin and evil; to seek his wisdom that we may know how to help change the hearts of all those, terrorists included, who want, out of malice, to cause suffering and despair.

In the end, the only way is the way of Christ and the way to Christ. It is to that way we need during events such as these to commit ourselves afresh – because to do so is in itself a way of combating evil and chaos". End of quote.

          This leads me back to our readings this morning.  The violence of Jesus’ words in Mark 13 is there.  The Romans would one day destroy that which the Jewish people cherished and even held sacred: the temple.  That destruction would not only destroy the temple; it would involve the bloodshed of many.  It would be a ruthless violent imposition of power.  But Jesus does not call the disciples to arms.  He simply warns that change will come; that evil will have its day.  He puts it into perspective this violence; this change is but the birth pangs of a new age.  A new age will be the triumph of good over evil, of light over darkness, of life over death. 

Jesus’ prediction of the second temple’s destruction is just before the greatest in-breaking of God into our history, the cross and resurrection.  The cross and empty tomb changed it all.  For centuries Jews knew how to relate to God by keeping the Law and making sacrifices in the Temple.  But Jesus was the final sacrifice whose pure love and innocent blood brought redemption for all people for all time.  He made the temple redundant because his righteousness becomes our righteousness through faith.  Because of Jesus we can call God, Our Father.  The cross and empty tomb began a new age. 

This morning we stand in the shadow of darkness and violence.  We cannot be complacent and simply carry on as is if nothing has happened, as if nothing is different.  We must ensure that we are not part of the problem, but part of the solution…as God would have us be.  We must, however, avoid the solutions which are driven by purely primitive emotions and reactions.

          Each day we must recognise that we have God’s presence and power in us, transforming us and leading us.  Yes, as humans we will stumble in his leading.  Sometimes we will do things in our own strength.  But God is there with us and in us.  As we follow the way of the cross in the power of the resurrection we can be instruments of peace and life.  In so doing, we can overcome the tendency toward bitterness and revenge.  We can overcome the darkness and the evil around us.  As we heard from the letter to the Hebrews: Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.  And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the end of days approaching.

Revd Canon Dennis Stamps

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Remembering: the lion will lie down with the calf

Evensong - St Nicholas Harpenden, November 8th 2015
Isaiah 10 v 33 - 11 v 9 & John 14 23-29

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Remembering.  Today, and into next week we will spend time remembering all those who have lost their lives or been affected by war.  It is an important act of remembrance, and sadly the process of doing it, doesn’t seem to alter the levels of violence around the world.  The usual aim of remembering something is so that you achieve something, or at least perhaps have the ingredients for dinner.  The act of remembering those who have died though is more mixed.  It can bring happy memories of that person, or perhaps sadness or anger at how they died.  

This evening’s readings seem to me to be focussing on peace, reconciliation and remembering.  Often if we have a loved one who has died from an illness we will focus our emotion on perhaps raising money or awareness of whatever affected them.  For others it might mean raising awareness of personal safety issues, traffic problems, addictions, or bullying.  I am sure you can think of others.

But that act of remembering brings about some emotional response and perhaps a desire to see a change, in order to prevent the same thing happening to someone else.  We remember, often, in order to make things better.

However the act of remembering those who have died during war and conflict, also requires us to recognise our differences, and those things which cause us to begin arguments in the first place.  Those differences which can cause us so much pain, are elements which our Old Testament reading tells us need not be a barrier to peace.

I think there is much hope in this evening’s readings.  They link together some key themes for today, of peace, reconciliation and remembering.  

The passage from Isaiah almost seems like a dream which might be too good to be true.  An ideal in so many ways.  It speaks of a king with all the elements one would wish for in the perfect leader.  Superhuman wisdom, with the natural flair for creating justice in society, bringing about good and preventing evil, while also ensuring his or her own personal integrity.  Not matter what your opinion is of any given world leader or head of state, this is an enormously tall order.  But nevertheless the ideal, the hope, is written there... that this person, who is consumed by - and able to bring about righteousness, is coming.

What follows is the incredible image of absolute opposites living very comfortably side by side with each other.  The wolf shall dwell with the lamb.  The leopard shall lie down with the kid.  The calf, the lion and the fatling together.  And even more remarkably they will be led, shepherded, by a little child.  The state of peace which this brings up is a thing of such beauty, and yet as one commentator wrote, it is really not what our most hopeful personal image is likely to be.  

George Kilpatrick suggested that our ideas about this perfect existence are more likely to revolve around material things.  We don’t expect to deal with wild animals by care and negotiations, but by using weapons.  I read one of his commentaries which was published in 1956.  Even then, nearly 60 years ago, he can see our priorities as being very different to those in Isaiah…
            “The ideal he (man) has set before himself is almost wholly a matter of physical condition, a higher standard of living, social security, old-age pensions, state medicine, unemployment insurance etc.  He has heard, but he does not believe, that to seek “first the kingdom of God” (Matt 6 v33), the kingdom of right relationships, will result in these blessings.  He proposes to seek economic and social reform first, confident that improvement in material circumstances will induce a change of heart and a new spirit among men”

Kilpatrick tops this off by writing, “In all of history there is not a shred of evidence to support that view.  It is in flat contradiction to the wisdom of Jesus Christ.”

Well, that’s us told.  Who hasn’t succumbed to retail therapy to make themselves feel more hopeful and better about life?  And for that short amount of time, it works.  But it doesn’t last.  Kilpatrick pulls no punches pointing out that what we should be striving for is much more based on relationships and living alongside each other peacefully, despite our very clear differences.

I suppose deep down we know this.  It’s just easier to go and buy a pair of shoes.  Shoes don’t argue with us or present us with ideas which question our belief system, moral compass or way of life.  Agreeing to disagree and love someone despite them seeming to be the polar opposite of you is a huge undertaking, and yet wouldn’t the world be more peaceful if we did?  
But for now, I would look great in those shoes so I will start there and worry about peace later.

Today - Remembrance Sunday - should be a time for considering just this.  Of course, wars are started for all sorts of reasons, and on a more domestic level we fall out with people over sometimes the silliest of things, but perhaps if we could all respect each other’s differences, there is a chance this image from Isaiah might actually become something we can see in our own lives.

Eastbourne Pier has recently been bought by a man called Sheikh Abid Gulzar.  Having completed the deal last week, and held meetings with locals to get their ideas about how the pier should be developed, he now plans to have it blessed.  He said,
            I think a blessing of Eastbourne pier before Christmas would be very apt and relevant for the town and indeed the wider community.  I am a Muslim, my operations manager Manas is a Sikh, and other members of staff are Christians - I want to emphasise the importance of diversity and accepting each other’s culture.  We must all respect each other and we should all have the freedom to follow whatever religion one may wish to.  But that doesn’t mean we cannot all come to together as one and join together.  I would like the pier to be blessed with a clear message - to live together and act together. And that is what I would like to do in the next couple of weeks.”  

What struck me about his statement wasn’t that he was supporting one faith over any other, but that he wants everyone to come together and act together, regardless of their background and faith.  

I guess that’s fairly straightforward though, in encouraging people to live alongside each other.  But what happens if you have really deep seated fundamental problems with someone who has wronged you or your loved ones in some way?  How on earth is it possible to try to live with them peaceably?  Buying shoes is so much simpler.

Terry Waite - the envoy for the Archbishop of Canterbury was kidnapped in 1987 and held for five years in Beirut by Islamists, chained to a radiator.  He had gone there to negotiate the release of hostages.  Twenty Five years later he returned to meet with Hezbollah, the terrorist organisation which held him.  He talked before the meeting about how he had no hard feelings.  That “people” focus on individuals like him, the westerners, without thinking about the many Lebanese who had been killed.

The entire exchange is documented on the Telegraph’s website, but essentially Waite suggests they leave the past behind them, and says “I believe that reconciliation between larger groups, political groups, has to begin here with our own personal reconciliation”, adding “ The only way to reconciliation is to grow and not to look back but look to the future.”

He then went on to suggest that Hezbollah could help refugees in the country over the Christmas period as a specific act towards the Christians during the festive Christian period.  Waite was told he was welcome back at any time.

Is this a scenario in which the lion lies down with the calf?  They seem unlikely bedfellows.  Perhaps even more amazingly, Waite was interviewed earlier this year and said he would risk kidnap again to go and talk to ISIS.  We are not all peace negotiators, and perhaps our personal reconciliation is not as dramatic as that of Terry Waite and the officials of Hezbollah, but we all have little steps we can take.

I’ve just started reading a book called The Forgiveness Project by the journalist Marina Cantacuzino.  It’s a remarkable book detailing many people’s true stories about their struggles around forgiveness.  I heard her speak at Greenbelt, and was amazed at people’s capacity to seek reconciliation and attempts to find forgiveness and to forgive.

There stories from all over the world, England, Ireland, Chechnya, US, South Africa, Australia, and Lebanon to name just a few, but I want to tell you the story of Bassam Aramin from Palestine.  He explains about how, while growing up, their homes were invaded and local children killed.  Having watched another boy shot and killed at the age of 12 Bassam, not surprisingly developed deep need for revenge at a very young age.  He considered himself a freedom fighter, but to everyone else he was a terrorist.  Bassam ended up in jail, after throwing a grenade he found, which exploded.  Nobody was injured.  I won’t go into detail here, but his seven years in jail were brutal.  One of the Israeli guards asked him one day how he had become a terrorist, as he seemed so quiet.  An unlikely person to end up in jail.  

Bassam explained he was a freedom fighter, and eventually persuaded the guard that it was the Israelis who were settling on Palestinian land.  Not the other way around.  They became friends….the guard even smuggling some coca cola in for them one day.

Bassam said, “Seeing how this transformation happened through dialogue and without force made me realize that the only way to peace was through non-violence.  Our dialogue enabled us both to see each other’s purity of heart and good intent.”

Bassam was released around the time of the Oslo Accords when there was hope of a two state solution.  This didn’t happen, but instead of letting his resentment grow, he and others who believed in a non violent way forward, began meeting in secret with former Israeli soldiers.  The soldiers were refusing to fight, simply on moral grounds.  They didn’t want their society suffering further.  Bassam says,
            “It was only later that we both came to feel a responsibility for each other’s people”

We’ve heard three stories of people who can recognise, but see beyond their differences, and are trying to live alongside people with other views or opinions….. creating an environment where our differences need not lead to violence.  It sounds idealistic, but they are finding ways to pursue this ideal.

And there are tons more stories like these out there.  I think it might just be possible to learn to live peaceably, and to avoid conflict.  But it needs to be our goal, our ambition, the thing which motivates us more than new shoes to make us feel better.  

If you’re in need of extra inspiration, I can recommend you watch last night’s episode of Doctor Who.  I wish I had seen it before writing this.  A truly thought provoking story about words versus conflict.

Our gospel reading from John has some beautiful words in it.  
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
I do not give to you as the world gives.
Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

But just before that we are told that we must remember.  This instruction is to the disciples to recall the significance of Jesus’ actions after the resurrection.  To remember the importance and relevance of his teachings and actions, while remaining unafraid in the times ahead.  

Today, as we remember all those who have fought in wars, both those who died and the survivors, let us honour their memory by pledging to seek for peace and reconciliation wherever we can.  Let us remember the deeds and words of Jesus, and strive to focus on building a world where we recognise and respect differences and learn to live with each other, peacefully.  Where the lion might lie down with the calf.

Rachel Wakefield