Author Archives: pgrimwood

Will the meek really inherit the earth? ( a sermon preached at Falcon Lodge)

How paradoxical it all seems! To be blessed by one’s sufferings and persecutions, to be blessed because one is poor as Luke’s version puts it and to be blessed because one is hungry for righteousness- and more!! Truly here is a world turned upside down.

I invite you to focus on just one of these beatitudes-blessed attitudes as some have called them. It’s this.

Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.

Now we know that’s not true in our world. What do the meek inherit-an eviction notice-a promise of social housing in 40 years’ time-a mould ridded poorly maintained flat at an exorbitant rent-a tent in the underpass. Those who inherit the earth are those who inherit family wealth or have appropriate connections. Not the meek-they are the losers. Meek are you! You’re fired.

Jesus ‘message to you and I is that we should seek after a loving God and follow his way of meekness and majesty- a different kingdom to that of the Kingdoms of this world.

What then of the poor, the marginalised and those who have conspicuously failed to inherit the earth. Now there are those who will answer in these ways. Let us in kindness give the opponents of the gospel the first word.

All is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds.

Capitalism is not a perfect system but it is the one in which the bad can do the least harm.

The kingdom of God belongs to the time of the not yet. We must await the age to come.

Indeed as Jesus said –the poor you have always with you. Charity is wasteful and social justice is a mirage. The best to help the progress of society is to get all we can and promote economic growth.

References supplied on request.

And so secondly beware! Before you adopt any of these points of view remember the fullness of Jesus’ teaching and practice. Jesus called upon his hearers to repent for the kingdom of God is not to be indefinitely postponed. It is at hand-imminent-breaking through now! That’s from Matthew’s gospel last week’s gospel reading. We are poised between the already and the not yet.

And remember also what Jesus does. He reaches out to the poor, the underprivileged, the marginalised and the hungry and feeds them. The time of the Kingdom of God does not follow the time of the Kingdom of this world. The two are juxtaposed. What is the Church but a sign of God’s new world order. That’s why this a community of love-God’s Kingdom and why profit, power and worldly status have no place among us. This is also why Christians often find themselves persecuted. Every time when I come here I pass a place where a Christian minister was put to death because his Christian teaching didn’t correspond with establishment teaching. It helps to concentrate my mind on my Sunday duty!

A very useful phrase to sum up our Christian situation is this one. We live between the times. The time of Christ’s first coming and that of his final coming. But we don’t just wait passively. We pray for the coming of the kingdom and we create here and now signs of his Kingdom’s coming.

And so thirdly I have spoken so far of our inheritance of the promise of the kingdom. But what of the meekness that is the key to this inheritance. Yes Jesus and his people are revolutionaries but not in the usual way. Jesus is not Che Guevara with a halo. When his disciples point to the weapons they are carrying his response is utterly straightforward. That’s enough of that!

What then is meekness? Perhaps a better word would be humility. And we can see in the life and ministry of Jesus and those who have followed him most closely that humility is always the keynote of their lives. Ultimately it is humility that disarms the powerful and opens the way to the creative love of God. If this sounds like foolishness remember our epistle reading and Paul’s famous words. The foolishness of God is wiser than men and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

In this act of worship and fellowship around the Lord’s Table we receive him in the signs that he has given us. We become his body in the world and remember the words of Mother Theresa that Christ has no body now on earth but ours. We become as St Augustine put it, what we eat. And so you see we receive a calling to continue his work in the world-in love, mercy and humble service for the coming Kingdom in all its fullness. This can seem daunting but there are many who have walked this way before us and have become an inspiration for us. What’s more we have John Wesley’s final words and testimony to serve as a benediction. The best of all is that God is with us. 

Wake up and smell the coffee!

Today is Advent Sunday. Advent is the season in which we affirm all that is real in our lives-for good or ill –and all that is real in the providence of a loving God. Get real we sometimes say to one another in an argument and that use of the phrase has overtones of judgement. Truly it is an Advent saying. So let’s get real but remember how the poet T S Eliot penned his famous line. “Human kind cannot bear very much reality”. Too true! Alas. When I was in another circuit I penned an article entitled CAMRA-Campaign for a Real Advent. That campaign continues somewhat against the odds.

Sadly we know that most people prefer sentimentality and nostalgia for a vanished age that never really existed. Have yourself a merry little Christmas just like the ones you used to know. Get out that Advent calendar with a different luxury chocolate for every day.

Courage sisters and brothers – get real-embrace the reality of our situation and the reality of God’s love. Remember that you and I are Methodists and what is a Methodist but a Christian in earnest.

The times are dark. Of course it is always dark at this time of year-the days short and getting shorter. We withdraw into our own worlds and binge on old films and TV repeats. Netflix and I player plus comfort reading-chick lit- the novels of Barbara Pym. We go to bed early. I speak of my own experience of course.

Another poet now: W H Auden in his opening sequence for his “Christmas Oratorio”:

Huge crowds mumble-Alas our angers do not increase,

Love is not what she used to be

Portly Caesar yawns; “I know, I know”.

Who can speak against the darkness? Surely the shepherds abiding in the fields who keep watch over their flocks by night rather than dwelling safe in their episcopal palaces.

St Paul however says to us; Wake up cast off the works of darkness-put on the armour of light! Smell the coffee.

But the times are especially dark this year. War in Europe, in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. The environmental crisis grows steadily more alarming and the response from governments increasingly feeble. Then there is the cost of living crisis and the threatened disruption occasioned by strikes. The Churches too are experiencing difficult times: financial crises, abuse scandals, and declining membership rolls. By schisms rent asunder by heresies distressed to quote a favourite hymn. From the same hymn my wife who is an Anglican churchwarden often quotes the line about the tumult of her war and her longing for peace for evermore.

Our leaders both in Church and state seem distracted by peripheral issues and unable to offer us a vision for the future. Small wonder then that we draw the curtains, sit by the fire and turn our attention to a media landscape of escapeism.

But St Paul says: wake up, smell the coffee. Put on the armour of light!

The armour of light. What might that mean for you and I?

The Christian life is a journey-a journey of small steps. Every step we take in this world is a step towards either darkness or light. Every harsh word, every act of resignation in the face of challenge every act of submission to hopelessness, every mean and lazy decision is part of the works of darkness. Every act of forgiveness, every act of love however small, every temptation resisted is a step towards the light. We must put on the armour of light and not submit ourselves to the clothes of darkness.

You and I can’t reform the world but we can at least be pointing in the right direction clad in the armour of light. Look towards the east O Jerusalem and see the salvation that is coming from God.

Paul insists that salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. How can he say this? How can he say this to the Roman Christians who he’s never met? Sometimes scholars say that Paull was simply wrong and that to expect a second coming is simply a mistake.

I think however that what Paul wrote is profoundly true in two senses –that God’s promises are to be trusted, that his promises will be fulfilled and that our call is to put on the armour of light and work together for the coming of the one who will bring in the fullness of God’s love. In so far as we are doing this we are sharing in God’s work of salvation and meeting the coming Christ in the one who needs our help. Salvation is nearer then when we live this way than when we first believed.

That’s one sense.

The other is to insist that that the Christian life is a journey from darkness to light-a series of spirals upwards towards the fullness of revelation when we come to understand that God is all in all. Today is the first day in the Christian year-a new turn in the spiral and each turn brings new truth, new insights, and new revelation.

The poet who expressed this most beautifully was the Italian: Dante-who in his Divine Comedy describes the downward spiral into hell and the upward spiral to the summit of the heavenly mountain. Flicking over the pages of the National Geographic magazine in Waitrose recently I came across a beautifully illustrated article about him-one of those pictures is on the screen now. You see even the magazine rack in Waitrose can be a vehicle for Divine truth.

Forward then together into another turn upwards of the spiral staircase-speaking out against the darkness and putting on the light of Christ and rejoicing as we by words and deeds light Advent candles in the darkness to signify the hope that is rekindled within us.

You know we Christians are always looking forwards in hope which is why the last words of the New Testament are the words of Jesus.

Surely I am coming soon.

And our response:

Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

Being an Attention Seeker-a sermon preached at Kingsbury

Jesus told them a parable to this effect. They ought always to pray and not lose heart. Persist don’t give up. Continue to wrestle with the situation and with God. That is the message of both scriptural passages today.

It’s unusual for the gospel writer to give the meaning of the parable at the outset but perhaps he felt that his readers needed a little help in coming to an understanding of Jesus’ message. Perhaps in our irreligious age we ought to step back and ask a more fundamental question> namely what is prayer. How should we understand it?

In the end prayer is about waiting on God-giving him our full attention.  The orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God-that is prayer. God we believe is infinitely loving and cares for each one of us so we need to pay attention to him and put ourselves in his way.

The French philosopher and writer Simone Weil who was also a High School teacher believed that the study of mathematics or difficult foreign languages like Greek developed the power of attention in students. Consequently such studies were not only helpful to students in their academic and intellectual development but also in their prayer life. This seems odd at first but I’m sure she was on to something. These days’ people find it hard to pay attention to anything for any length of time and they crave instant amusement and complain constantly that they are bored. Perhaps you are bored with me now.

If prayer is to be understood as giving our attention to God we might also consider what prayer is not.

Prayer is not magic or the casting of spells. It’s not about uttering words or phrases to ensure particular outcomes at critical moments. Of course familiar words or phrases uttered at critical moments of crisis can be a comfort to us and have their value but at best they are only a key or a pin number to open up the heart so that it gives its full attention to God.

A famous story told by a French religious figure-obviously it’s their day today-concerns the famous priest known to history as the Cure d’Ars. Walking through his church one day he saw a man kneeling in silence before figure of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Time passed and he became used to seeing the man kneeling day after day before the cross. So he asked him about how he was and what he was doing. He replied; I looks at him and he looks at me and we are happy together. That’s as good an account of prayer as you will find.

Prayer then is giving attention to God. Getting in God’s way and letting God get in our way.

That’s my first point perhaps the key point. The second thing to say is that prayer has a number of aspects:-

Praise: We need always to be praising God for who he is and what he is doing.

Confession: Giving attention to God also means attending to our sins and shortcomings which prevent us from making a full engagement with him.

Thanksgiving-we should always be giving thanks to God for his love and care and his ongoing engagement with us.

Intercession-in which we ask for things. But what things?

You will note, I hope, that when I come here I try and make space in the order of worship for each of these elements. The choice of hymns should also follow this pattern.

All these elements of prayer are needed if we are to have a serious engagement with God who loves us. If some elements are missing we are just left wish wishing and hoping which leaves us feeling disappointed when our wishes don’t come to pass. Always we need to get real-real about ourselves and real about God.

Coming to Church Sunday by Sunday we follow this pattern and this provides us with a template for our own private devotions.

What then thirdly is the use of praying?-to quote the title of a famous book by a Methodist author.

Prayer is good for us because it is the gateway to a holier life and a holy life is a happy life. Holiness and happiness are linked. Prayer is a means to happiness. That’s useful!

Prayer changes things. Not that prayer changes God rather it changes us. Because it changes us it opens up new spaces for God to act in the world – a world so often gripped in a kind of unholy necessity. Prayer changes the world because it changes what is possible for God and for God’s people who act in his name.

When people say, especially in committees: oh but we must be realistic I feel as perhaps you do too the grip of a kind of iron law of necessity. Realistic – well yes- but whose realism are we talking about-our reality or God’s reality. God leads us in prayer to enlarge our ideas about what is realistic in his name.

That’s very useful.

Faced with injustice in the world and with suffering and anguish close to home we must not give up. The cynicism that disguises itself as realism is too easy. Today my diary tells me that it is Freedom Sunday and next week is One World Week. It would be easy to feel cynical and detached in the face of increasing discrimination violence and oppression among the peoples of the world. What can we do? We can call upon God and place ourselves at his disposal. Above all we must persist in prayer as the gospel tells us to do. Be assured says Jesus God will vindicate us speedily.

The key theme in both our Bible readings this morning is struggle. Persistence in prayer as Jesus commends it in his parable and Jacob wrestling with the mysterious “man”. Who is this man? Could it be God? Charles Wesley seemed to think so.

Art thou the man who died for me

The secret of they love unfold

Wrestling I will not let thee go

Till I thy name and nature know.

The struggle you see. To know God and to know his purpose for us through prayer.

But in this struggle we have two great allies:

The Bible in which we learn who God is and how he acts and the Church Christ’s body here on earth present with us in his people and in the signs he gives us most notably the Holy Communion which we are about to celebrate with him, for him and for the world.

You know we did a good thing coming here today. Congratulations to us all for coming together to know God, to seek his will and to enjoy him forever.

Be assured he will vindicate us speedily.

Bigger Barns or Riches before God

Luke 12:13-21 and Colossians 3: 1-11

Sometimes I find myself reading the Bible and I reflect as I read it that I couldn’t possibly say this in Church. The message seems so contrary to conventional thinking or the wisdom of the west that it might pose a difficulty for the congregation so that it might be better to drop it or change the subject. And then I do a double take and I realize that I am reading it in church. Gosh! I say to myself. Today’s gospel from Luke 12 is just like that-a shock. Conventional ways of thinking are being turned upside down. But a lot of Jesus teaching is like this-paradoxical, strange and profoundly counter-cultural. And yet you know the Christianity does indeed proclaim an alternative society-we call it the kingdom of God.

The parable is concerned to teach about property, money and economic growth. Jesus has a lot to say about these things. Money can scarcely be spoken of in Christian contexts without embarrassment and yet Jesus has far more to say about money than about prayer which was the topic for discussion last week. After all Jesus will say in next week’s gospel where your treasure is there will your heart be also. And where is our treasure; in the bank, in the pension pot, in the equity growth plan or in stocks, shares, units or bonds. So when Jesus speaks it’s not always easy to understand him or rather we’d rather not understand him.

Reading this parable compels one to ask oneself some killer questions. Where do I find myself in all of this? Does this story hold up a mirror to our society and indeed myself? And what are these riches before God of which Jesus speaks? What in short does it show us?

The character at the heart of the parable is described as a fool. Wherein lies his folly? At one level he sounds quite sensible building bigger barns, accumulating reserves and making provision for the future. Folly! It sounds quite wise and prudent at least initially.

Folly takes two forms here.

First: The man.  Listen to his voice. He’s wholly wrapped up in himself. He’s talking to himself. The other day I was browsing the Amazon web site and I saw this advert for notebooks each one with a humorous cover. One in particular caught my attention. It read: “Of course I talk to myself. Sometimes I need expert advice.

The way of Jesus is not the way of self. We are called, to reject hedonistic individualism and look outwards in the name of love and mercy. The way of Jesus is the call to love others and find fulfiment that way. It’s not a manifesto commitment establishing our entitlement to be loved ourselves.

The fool in the parable is looking inwards and his self-love is fuelled by greed and avarice. Covetousness- explicitly denounced in the letter to the Colossians. No mention of his employees who will actually do the work of building the barns. It’s all about him.

Folly it may be but we should not underestimate the popularity of this man’s folly to the modern mind. Listen to the politicians who want your votes. Bigger barns they promise you, lower taxes and more economic growth. That’s how they think they can get votes including yours.

So first the folly of the man and now secondly the folly of misreading the reality of the situation as he understands it and Jesus re-interprets it. For Jesus suggests a re-interpretation of reality. Get real you might die in the night! What then will be the status of your ambitious plans?

We might add some additional considerations. Inflation could destroy your pension pot, civil unrest could upset your business plan, climate change could and probably will destroy everyone’s plans, and fraud is an ever present reality. Bigger barns may no longer be needed in an age of just in time inventories and containerisation etc., etc. No doubt you can think of other considerations. Get real is a good message. But reality is stranger than it used to be but be of good cheer Jesus is the new reality.

Then thirdly –those riches before God. What are they? God is the ultimate giver. He gave us life and everything that enables life. So to have riches before God is an invitation to draw close to him and share his life of giving. To give and not to get. To live selflessly rejecting superfluous stuff of which the greedy can never have enough.

Here is a story from Russian Orthodoxy – a famous one. They could do with some good publicity at the moment.

Once upon a time there was a woman and she was wicked as can be and she died. The devils took one look at her and threw her into a lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood by thinking: What good deed of hers can I remember to tell God.

Then the angel remembered and said to God. Once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman.

And God answered: “Now take that same onion and hold it out to her  in the lake, et her take hold of it and pull and if you can pull her out of the lake she can go to paradise, but if the onion breaks then she can stay where she is.

The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. Here, woman the angel said, take hold of it and I’ll pull.

And the angel began pulling carefully and had almost pulled her all the way out when others in the lake saw her being pulled out and they all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was as wicked as wicked can be and she began to kick them with her feet. It’s me who is being pulled out. It’s my onion not yours.

No sooner had she said it than the onion broke and the woman fell back into the lake and was lost.

And the angel wept and went away.

Riches from God are what you can give not what you’ve got.

What then must we do? We must remember. After all that’s why we come to Church, to remember, to get our bearings and to chart the way forward.

All things come from God not from our skills still less from our sense of entitlements. The ultimate source, measure and guarantor of our good life is not our wealth but God’s goodness. Tuning into this will help us address the environmental crisis because the roots of that crisis lie in our refusal to see nothing and no one above our own desires.

But be of good cheer God is with us and he delights to welcome us home and restore us to our right mind. Congratulations to each and every one of us for coming today to help us all to remember this. Such active remembrance constitutes in large measure what it is to be a Christian and a Methodist is a Christian in earnest.

Facing Disaster!

This week I have been denied an opportunity to preach in person because I have tested positive. Be warned sisters and brothers! It’s still out there.

So instead here is my offering for Sunday based on Luke 13:1-9.

Sometimes when we read a familiar passage in the Bible it can reveal something quite new to us. At other times though the lectionary points us to a passage that we’d never read before so that we find in the old book something entirely new to us-something quite amazing!  One of those passages they don’t mention in Sunday School.

Today’s passage in Luke is to my mind rather like that. It’s concerned with our responses to disaster.  We are told that some people questioned Jesus about the deaths of apparently innocent people who had been caught up in a civil disturbance. Were their deaths a judgement upon them-a form of divine punishment? What is our response to be to events like this? Jesus’ answer is quite clear. He says, No their deaths were not a judgment upon them. No ifs or buts, no hesitation just a simple short word. No. I find that rather refreshing.

Jesus goes on to speak about the deaths of eighteen people killed when a tower in a Jerusalem suburb collapsed. Were they worse sinners than all the others in the city? Again Jesus says no, quite emphatically. It might be convenient for you to blame the victims of these things and sometimes the victims like to blame themselves. Perverse but true. The truth is that we are all equally at risk and we need not fear that it is some judgment upon us if we caught up in a disaster. That is good news!

We usually associate the good news with the word “yes” but this time the good news is “no.”

But what else has Jesus to say to us.

The commentary on St Luke that I read in preparing this describes both episodes as tragedies. It was a tragedy that these innocent people were killed. It was a tragedy that the Tower in Siloam collapsed and eighteen people died.

Is this notion of tragedy correct? I don’t think so. Tragedy suggests to me the outcome of a hopeless struggle against blind fate. This isn’t a Christian response. For a Christian the struggle against evil and suffering is never hopeless even though those who struggle may suffer and fall. There is always a Christian response to evil-it begins with repentance- a turning around- an embrace of the good. To say something is a tragedy is too passive-it’s not to make a response at all.

When we listen to the readings on Good Friday we might say to ourselves-that’s a sad story and we’d be right. However to say it’s a tragedy is quite wrong. Good Friday is not a tragedy-it’s the account of a struggle but also the prelude to a victory. It’s not called Good for nothing.

My own view is that there’s too much use of the word tragedy in our world. Bad things happen, often in the area of personal relationships and family life. People say-it’s a tragedy for everyone involved. It’s often just a way of avoiding responsibility. The option for repentance is always there-Jesus says so.

So tragedy won’t do but what about bad luck- or as people say these days –just one of those things. On the question of luck I would refer you to the remark of Napoleon who said he would only have lucky Generals. In other words you make your own luck.

Just one of those things. Another popular remark that allows us to evade all responsibility. When some time ago I backed my car into the Circuit Stewards car and dented it I could have said, it was just one of those things. The truth is though that I was careless and should be more careful in future.

References to bad luck or just one of those things are not very helpful to us. It’s too deterministic, too fatalistic.

So bad luck won’t do either Some Christians with high views of the providence of God want to attribute everything that happens however trivial, however evil to God’s personal intervention. Those who questioned Jesus about these two incidents may well have been of that mind themselves. God purposes everything so if bad things happen to innocent people perhaps they weren’t so innocent after all. You can meet with this kind of opinion in the book of Job. Oddly enough you meet the same sort of thing in the Book of Common Prayer in the order for the visitation of the sick. The priest is supposed to say to the sick person and here I quote: Whatsoever your sickness is know you surely that it is God’s visitation. Thereafter the priest is to call the sick person to repent of their sins. I can confidently say that your own minister does not do this or at least not in quite that way.

Jesus won’t have it. He won’t let this kind of perverted logic turn God into a monster. Jesus admits that these incidents were accidents-that yes an element of chance was involved. Bad luck no but accident yes.

Accidents will continue to happen but after each accident we are reminded of our need of repentance otherwise as Jesus said we may be caught unawares and then we shall all perish with our sins unforgiven and with rancorous bitterness still in our hearts. That would be terrible for us and for those closest to us.  None of us would want to die unrepentant with hurts unhealed and grievances still fresh.

This is Jesus’ second word. His first word was “no” and that in this context is a good word but there is also a need for a response. That’s also a necessary response. One such response would be repentance and a call for repentance is peculiarly appropriate for Lent

In our time people have been much preoccupied with the problem of evil. How can evil be reconciled with a God of love. Why do bad things keep on happening? This is a stock question in house groups. These are questions that the New Testament isn’t really bothered about. Explanations are not offered, the problem is not discussed. It’s almost as if the writers of the gospels and the epistles want to say that the philosophers and the theologians might want to understand the world but our task as Christians is to change it. The question is always not why did God allow this evil to happen but how did God turn this evil to good. The first Christians sought to overcome evil rather than explain it. Prayer and action were the means to bring this about. Persecutions and trials were expected almost welcomed. The question is never: Why do these things happen but how are we going to respond to them as Christians.

In the Venerable Bede’s history of the Church in England the story is told of how the plague came to the monks and nuns of Barking Abbey. The men were affected first and the women were spared enabling them to care for and pray day and night for the sick and bereaved. The Abbess knew that the plague would get to the nuns eventually so she asked them where they wished to be buried. The nuns prayed for guidance. Their prayers were answered one night just before dawn. As usual they had gathered in the chapel to sing God’s praises. Then the Abbess asked them to follow her out to the cemetery where the monks were already buried. The Abbess led the prayers for the monk’s souls. As she did so the sun began to shine on the eastern horizon. The air was so clear that the sun shone even more brightly than it does at noon and its rays bathed the south side of the Church in a warm orange light. The nuns knew at once that this is where they wished to be buried. The following day the plague struck the women’s part of the Abbey and soon the south side of the Church was filled with the nun’s graves.

To the modern mind this is an odd story particularly as its set in Barking of all places. And yet as we wait for the next flu pandemic not such an odd one after all. And they know its coming- at Hong Kong airport there are screens that measure your body temperature. In Britain local authorities have emergency plans for coping with a greater number of deaths than is usual.  (This was first composed over ten years ago) We need to remember that as Christians we need not be overcome and that there is nothing to be afraid of. In the story from Bede the Nuns don’t ask why and they don’t have any physical resources to fight the disease. They can only respond with prayer and love and this they do. To my mind they are not overcome-they achieve victory of a kind. They knew they were going to die quite soon but in dying well they would achieve a kind of victory. Nobody would describe their deaths as a tragedy.

Once upon a time there was a TV programme in the God slot entitled the Question Why. Why suffering? Why war and famine? The attempt was always to find or seek for an explanation. To be honest though the New Testament never goes in for this kind of thing. It never asks why? The key question in the New Testament is always how. How are we to live in the face of evil? How does God bring good out of all the evil in the world? How do we respond to the good news of God’s love? This is the question the nuns asked and they came up with an answer. A response is always possible although it may not produce visible fruit very quickly. That surely is the message of the parable of the fig tree.

In the power of the Holy Spirit we can embrace God’s way of suffering love and look for the changes God wants for the world and by seeking the changes God wants for the world we shall be changed ourselves. Prayer leads to action and action strengthens our hope.

Thanks be to God, says St Paul, who gives us the victory through our lord Jesus Christ.

St Stephen’s day

To-day is St Stephen’s day. St Stephen is the first Christian martyr and he didn’t die of overeating. Instead he is stoned to death having enraged the pious and the orthodox by his works and his words. Why celebrate him to-day? Perhaps as a counter to the excess and good cheer of the day before. It is important to remember the dark side. Whenever we think of the stable we should also think of the cross. It’s possible to sentimentalise the stable but it’s quite impossible to sentimentalise the cross.

The background to Stephen’s story is trouble in the chapel. Stephen although a Jew is Greek speaking. He’s got a Greek name. He has friends and companions with Greek names. These Greeks had a more cosmopolitan outlook than the old guard. They felt they were treated as second class, pushed aside, their spiritual gifts ignored. Attempts to calm things down by giving them jobs didn’t succeed. Stephen’s fate is sealed when he is accused of challenging the central place that the Temple had among both the Jews and the first Christians. At this stage the Jews and the Christians had not separated into two separate and antagonistic communities.

Stephen is framed and brought before the Council on a capital charge. His death is preceded by a long sermon. In this sermon he describes Israel’s history in considerable detail. He lists Israel’s various acts of faithlessness in the past and he accuses his hearers of failing to respond to God’s saving acts in the present. “As your fathers did so do you”.

There is no invitation to believe the good news and be saved. He simply tells his hearers that they have betrayed and murdered the righteous one, he means Jesus of course. It’s almost as if he wants to invite the to murder him. They are not slow to take advantage of the invitation and proceed at once to his execution.

His death is the death of the righteous prophet. He is said to be full of the Holy Spirit-he gazes into heaven and sees the glory of God-and as he dies he forgives his murderers using words that recall Jesus’ own words. “Father forgive them for they not what they do” It is all rather splendid.

But is it wise? How appropriate is it to pray for the forgiveness of others when you provoked their sins in the first place. A sermon that provokes its hearers into murdering the preacher seems to me to be doubly ineffective-not only is the congregation left without hope its situation is gravely worsened. They now have blood on their hands.

This is what moralists call an occasion for sin. An occasion for sin is an invitation to sin-like leaving your car unlocked, or your back door open-or driving your relatives into a state of fury and exasperation by being difficult. For many people and in many ways Christmas is itself an invitation to sin. That’s why the government runs an anti-drink driving campaign at this time of year.

Stephen’s sermon seems to me to be an occasion for sin. Well that’s as may be but I am sure that such a point is very far from the author’s intention. The author of Acts presents the heroes of the faith as making a public profession of their beliefs regardless of the consequences. St Peter, St Paul and Stephen all make long speeches in Acts in defence of the faith and all suffer the consequences. There’s a sense of necessity about all this. In the same way Jesus’ own death was necessary. Stephen and Jesus before him die the death of martyrs in the same way as the prophets suffered for their fearless proclamation of God’s truth.

Stephen’s sermon lacks something in terms of pastoral sensitivity but then it is in a sense a speech from the dock and he would have known that his number was up. In any case he redeems himself in my eyes at least by his act of forgiveness. This echoes Jesus’own words of forgiveness from the cross. Stephen and Jesus before him die the death of martyrs in the same way as the prophets suffered for their fearless proclamation of God’s word.

The essence of God’s truth is that all should turn to him and be forgiven. God has compassion upon all but especially upon the poor, the outcast and the lost. Having accepted forgiveness for ourselves we should have compassion on others and work for their acceptance as well. So Jesus’ prays for those who crucify him and Stephen prays for those who stone him to death. But I expect that not all the first Christians would have admired Stephen’s

heroic death. They might not even have been entirely sorry. I can hear them now. He was a nice lad but he would go on so. You mustn’t upset people; whatever the cause. Don’t rock the boat.

And what has all this to do with Christmas. On the face of it not a great deal. Yet it is appropriate that Good King Wenceslas should have looked out on the Feast of Stephen and had compassion upon a poor man. The author of Luke/Acts would have been pleased. And it is also right to be reminded to-day of the cost of discipleship and of the necessity to bear witness no matter what.

That act of looking out is important. Christmas is far too much about looking in, shutting the door, excluding those who are not ours. Stephen wanted to look out beyond the cosy inward looking world of the synagogue. Wenceslas looked out from his cosy castle and had compassion on the poor. That’s what St Stephen’s day and Boxing Day should be about.

Looking out, bearing witness to the good news that is for all whether they are “ours” or not that is what this feast ought to be about. Facing up also to the cost of discipleship and of the necessity to walk the way of the cross whatever happens.

As Simeon said to Mary:

Behold this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that is spoken against. (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also) that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.

The “Real” Meaning of Christmas.

It was one of those moments in the Church Council. A service for children and their families was being discussed and it was said that it would provide a means to get across the real meaning of Christmas. And that to my mind raised the key question which I then proceeded to ask: “What is the real meaning of Christmas?” The first answer I received was this: It’s not about shopping or consumerism. It’s about the birth of a baby. Somebody then said: I thought it was about the birth of God. Another voice then whispered in my ear: “Incarnation”. Gosh I thought that’s a big word. All three answers have their merits and are an attempt to put into words what Christians have always believed about Jesus-that in him we see God come amongst us as one of us. So God became man in Palestine for our sakes and in this sense its true; the story of Jesus is indeed the story of the birth of God.

Luke has a story about this birth with which we are all familiar. Matthew mentions it and then tells other stories about Jesus early days and Mark and John don’t mention the subject at all. In their books Jesus enters the narrative at the moment when his ministry begins. So perhaps the story of the baby in the manger isn’t really doing the business and is misleading us as to the true significance of what God is doing in Jesus.

The Danish writer and philosopher Kierkegaard told a story to illustrate what God has done for us. It’s as good a story as any you’ll hear this season. Yes it does sound like a fairy tale but it’s actually deadly serious and very effective. Just suppose he said; once upon a time there was a girl who belonged to the poorest class and lived in the most deprived circumstances.

A powerful and noble-minded King fell in love with her. However he has a problem. How can he win her love? Would she be happy to live at his side? She would lack self-confidence. She would always remember that she was a humble girl and he a great King. How could the love between the King and the girl be a truly happy love without any delusion or deception creeping in? To overcome the girl with a display of glory and power might satisfy the girl for a moment but would not satisfy the King. To deceive the girl with a display of apparent humility would also fail to achieve a true union of love between them.

Kierkegaard applies this parable to God. How is God’s true love to win the hearts of human beings? How is God to reach out to us and win us? How is God to overcome the infinite difference between him and us? Union, Kierkegaard concludes must be attempted by descent. Love must alter itself.

God must become our equal and appear in the likeness of the humblest and in the form of a servant. And that likeness is no mere disguise as it would be if the King assumed a beggar’s cloak. God in Christ will be born in a stable, will suffer all things, endure all things and make experience of all things. He will be forsaken by his friends, condemned by the powers and put to death on a cross. This is how much God loves us. God has become, as we are that we might become as he is.

God out of love wants to be equal with the lowliest of the lowly. God the king plants himself in the frailty of a human being. He becomes a new person. How extraordinary, how painful and difficult, how much like death. Yet this is what God wants and does. To sit with us in love as an equal so that we the life of God shall know as God is manifest below.

Kierkegaard’s story is a parable-a very effective one. It’s won wide admiration and it shows that creative thinking about Jesus didn’t cease with the gospel writers. What Kierkegaard has done is that he has shown us in this way how Gods’ love works and that is the real message of Christmas.

Jesus -a Green??

This piece is dedicated to the Streetly Eco Festival and might have been a sermon but I thought it better for this medium.

Concerned as we are about the environmental crisis we Christians need to ask ourselves a question. What do we Christians bring to the table? How does our faith in Jesus empower our actions and direct our thoughts and prayers in this matter. After all Jesus of Nazareth lived in the first century AD and had no knowledge of climate change science. Nor did he have the benefit of being briefed by Greta Thunberg and Richard Attenborough. So is Jesus irrelevant in this matter and does Christianity really make no difference at all because our thinking should be driven solely by the science. My answer to that is, No! Jesus does make a decisive difference and in our concern for the environment he is with us.

I want to answer my own question in three ways: First let’s look at what Jesus read, said and did.

Secondly let’s remember what happened to him.

And thirdly let’s call to mind what his followers came to understand about him and his place in the story of the salvation of the world.

What Jesus read! Perhaps you don’t see Jesus as one who spent his time in Libraries and to be honest nor do I. What I mean is that Jesus received the Hebrew Scriptures, taught their meaning and quoted them and in his life he fulfilled them. These scriptures are rich in references to our topic teaching the goodness of God and the goodness of his creation. Here’s one to take to heart but there are many others. Speak to the earth and it will teach you. In the hand of the Lord is the life of every creature and the breath of all human kind.

And Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount says this: look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap and yet your heavenly father feeds them.

Jesus teaches his disciples that love is primary and is always looking to extend itself to outsiders, to heretics and foreigners-to Canaanite women, to Samaritans, even Romans and to the earth itself. Yes even the earth.

Jesus taught his disciples not to seek crowns and thrones but to embrace humility for the sake of love that is sacrificial in character. Christianity is not all about me or my individual rights it’s about the others, the family, society and creation itself-everything is connected. Jesus not only said these things he practised them as well. So when Jesus and his friends find themselves in the midst of a storm at sea the friends panic but Jesus calms the storm and chides his friends for their lack of faith. Who is this they say! That even the winds and waves obey him. Good question! Who indeed!

And so secondly we must ask ourselves; what happened to him.

Now remember if you embrace his teaching and follow his example you will encounter opposition not only in those days but also to-day. The opposition yesterday and today are the power hungry, the profiteers, the privileged, the followers of consumerism, those who use their position to exploit others for the sake of their imagined rights and those who believe there is no such thing as society. You know their modern names!

So these people went after Jesus as today they will go after you. Arrest, trial (of a sort) and execution was what Jesus faced. His disciples suggested armed rebellion as a response but Jesus said no. He breaks the cycle of oppression and revenge. Jesus foresaw his death but accepted it freely. In this way love wins the ultimate victory.

And so thirdly what did his first followers come to understand about Jesus. At first of course they were bewildered, frightened and confused. Some of them still are! But then they came to an understanding that Jesus had been raised up and that although the body they had known and touched had disappeared they could still experience his presence in all manner of ways not the least of which is the Eucharist.

Jesus, they realised, is the best image of God we have. God loves the world so much that he had sent Jesus for the sake of the world-that it might be saved. Yes things are in a terrible state-creation groans as Paul says but all is not lost for Jesus is at the heart of creation and in his rising we see the inauguration of a new creation.

So is or was Jesus a green. My answer is no. We should never seek to make our faith in Him an add on to our personal political inclinations. Nevertheless the person and work of Jesus provides a crucial (important word that!) insight into how we might address our environmental crisis. But we shouldn’t think of Jesus as simply my personal saviour-such individualism is at the heart of the crisis. Our faith is not just all about me, it’s about the others, you and I together and not just us but the whole created order as well.

Our problem in the Church is that we don’t always see what’s staring us in the face. So it is the Samaritans, proverbial outsiders who the godly despise who are shown getting the message. So in John’s gospel they declare together with one voice. This is indeed the saviour of the world.

Something for Sunday

This is a hard saying. Who can listen to it?

How are we to read our gospel passage? What is going on here? At one level Jesus is engaged in controversy seeking to show those who question him who he is and what he’s about. At another level scholars have suggested that John’s gospel was written to reflect controversy between those who understand the truth about Jesus and those who rejected it – some of whom may even have been Christians of a kind.

A somewhat grumpy tone is characteristic of this gospel. “He came to his own but his own received him not” Chapter 1. The light has come into the world but men preferred darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” Chapter 3. And now in Chapter 6 “after this some of his disciples drew back and did not go about with him” So there’s opposition and disquiet even amongst those who had called themselves disciples and had followed him.

So opposition is a theme here and indeed throughout the New Testament. Opposition to Jesus is a consistent theme uttered by many voices. And today we need to ask ourselves do we Christians have opponents and even enemies. To be honest-yes we do! Should we name them? Dare I name them! Well here are two candidates –those who deny Jesus’ mission to extend the love of God beyond the boundaries and those who ignore his call to leave self behind and prefer to focus on our rights and my privileges. Thinking of this week’s news I’m sure that if the parable of the Good Samaritan were to be told again the focus would be on the good member of the Taliban. And in the epistle passage from Ephesians the dominant theme is spiritual warfare and there’s no warfare without an enemy and the devil has many human agents. The whole point of the passage about spiritual warfare is to highlight the need to confront them.

One of my favourite recent quotations is this one from the Catholic literary scholar and author Terry Eagleton. “If you claim to be a follower of Jesus and you don’t end up dead you’ve got some explaining to do. I just love that! It applies not only to the first disciples who followed Jesus on the way of the cross but also to martyrs of more recent days. It has been said and truly said that the twentieth century generated more martyrdoms than any previous century. Remember Jesus own words. If anyone would come after me let him take up his cross and follow me.

As for Methodist martyrs that seems to be something of a blank page. A google search for Methodist martyrs produced only the Tolpudddle martyrs but they were something entirely different. And yet the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. Truly it’s a paradox that the way of self-giving love is the way in which God’s grace reaches us. Discipleship is costly but true grace is costly grace.

The idea that Christians do have enemies makes many of us feel uncomfortable. Christianity we were brought up to believe was another name for respectable and proper behaviour. But now as times have changed Christianity is sneered at and dismissed as backward, traditional, unhelpful, and too complacent about racism and abuse. Some of these criticisms are fair at least fair in the present climate of opinion. I once met a Minister who was being stationed to Glastonbury to confront as she put it the “alternative society”. But now Christianity is itself the alternative society.

As Christians we can be regarded with suspicion. Social occasion’s especially family occasions can be tricky. Should one speak up or keep silent. On the whole I prefer to smile and keep quiet always erring on the side of kindness and tolerance especially towards the intolerant. Being elderly doesn’t really help either as it’s easy to be dismissed as unprogressive, out of touch or whatever. Judging by his letters I don’t think St Paul would always approve of my behaviour.

In my offerings of these days I try to offer something about the environmental crisis. In the case of the environmental crisis the enemies of the faith are those people and agencies who foster greed, envy and waste-all those things that are detrimental to a thankful approach to God’s goodness in creation. What should our response be as a follower of Jesus? Some as you know favour civil disobedience and direct action in the name of Jesus. I have grave doubts about the wisdom and rightness of this approach. I fear it may be counter-productive. Remember the two disciples in Luke’s gospel who say to Jesus at a moment of crisis. Look Lord hear are two swords. And he says: that’s enough of that. No I think personal witness is the only way. But not everyone agrees.

And then at the end of Chapter 6 Jesus challenges his disciples. Do you also wish to go away? Some you will remember had drawn back and had put a distance between themselves and Jesus. Others perhaps had decided to follow Jesus but from a distance-preferably a safe distance. This then is a challenge to us. Are we following Jesus but only from a safe distance?

Challenged as to whether he will cease to follow Jesus Peter’s response is one we should take to heart. Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life and we have come to know that you are the holy one of God.

That’s a very authentic Christian confession. Just consider. You are the holy one of God. Or as we might say the best image of God we have.

This is Jesus-not a social reformer, or a distributor of free lunches, or a psychotherapeutic counsellor or a political radical but the holy one of God. He speaks the words that are the truth about real life as God has purposed it. He not only speaks the words but as this gospel is at pains to point out he is the living word. Words that lead to actions, actions of grace and love.

Everything that Jesus does signifies this and Peter has got the message-at least for the moment-which poses a question to you and I. Have we got the message? Are we living in grace and truth? What would it mean to live as if this were true?

Something for Sunday

This is one from my personal archive but I thought it could do with another airing.

John 20:19-31

Now Jesus did many other signs that are not written in this book but these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the messiah, the son of God and that through believing you may have life in his name.

This is perhaps the key verse in the whole of St John’s gospel. It’s a kind of preface or introduction even though it comes at the end. Here’s a book of stories, signs and scenes the author says each one written down to help you believe in Jesus and reveal something of the truth about him. By believing in him you will have life in his name. That’s the promise-the sales pitch if you like.

So in this story of the risen Jesus’ appearance to doubting Thomas what is being offered to us? How is this story a clue to the new life we might have in Jesus’ name? Where are we in all this? What I see in this is a warning and an encouragement.

But first a word about Thomas himself. Thomas comes across in the gospel as simple, devoted and straightforward. When Jesus sets out for Bethany putting his own life in danger Thomas says: Let us go that we may die with him! Later in the upper room it is Thomas who asks a clear and simple question: We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way? Like us he really wants to believe more strongly. This realism and simplicity has its down side though as we are about to see.

Thomas sounds very modern. Just like us. He wants to know the facts. He will only believe on the basis of the evidence. It’s got to be good evidence too. And what’s more he’s got to test it all personally. He won’t accept anything on the basis of someone else’s testimony still less on the authority of his community. The Bible can say what it likes and Ministers and Priests can say what they like but he’s got to know it for himself. A rational, evidential approach confirmed by personal experience.

Many people at this season begin their thinking about Easter by asking: What really happened? The belief that God raised a man from death seems improbable but if we could only collect some more facts we might get to a decision as to how improbable it might be. Facts that’s what we need, more and more of them, scientists, archaeologists, bible scholars, questers for the historical Jesus-they can all help-but only give us more facts and then we might believe.

I’m sorry Thomas. This isn’t going to work. The truth is that you and I make sense of our experience by applying to our experience our beliefs. Our ideas about the world determine what we see and experience within it. It is the mark of a successful politician or spiritual leader that they can persuade us to change our beliefs. Once our beliefs have changed the facts will soon fall into place.

Many casual readers of the New Testament assume that if only they had direct access to the experience that were vouchsafed to the first disciples they could believe as they did. A closer reading of the texts show that many of them were as sceptical as we are. Thomas we have already referred to, Matthew records that some doubted when the risen Jesus appeared before them. Mary Magdalen thought the risen Jesus was a park attendant, the travellers on the Emmaus road didn’t recognise the stranger and so on. The truth is that there never was a privileged moment when a favoured few saw face to face and believed while the rest of us have to make do with seeing through a glass darkly. All of us see in a glass darkly- all walk by faith and not by sight.

That’s the warning. Now for two words of encouragement.

Belief is formed within a community. It is the community that believes and so our creeds begin with the words: we believe. You can’t be a fully integrated member of any club or group unless you learn its language and share its values and assumptions. So the road to belief begins by simply being there and being together. This is what the risen Jesus tells his disciples to do. Wait together and be together.

But notice. Thomas was not there when Jesus made his first appearance to the disciples. Consequently he finds belief in the risen Jesus difficult. He cannot see or know as the others know because he was not there with them.

Clearly the message for us is be there. Be with other followers of Jesus, share their vision and receive Jesus’ peace. You came to-day on a Low Sunday. Congratulations. This is the place to be and you are in very good company.

Thomas recognises his Jesus and then makes a good confession and then Jesus addresses a question to him and a word of blessing and encouragement to us.

Have you believed because you have seen me? Thomas answer must surely be yes. But there’s a hint in Jesus question that this might not be the best way to come to belief. Then Jesus says to him and to us. Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet believe.

I used to love that verse because it encouraged me to think that belief without sight constituted some sort of achievement. How wise and spiritual I am and we are if we believe notwithstanding the absence of some special experience. But that may be a misunderstanding. You have not seen nor have you had a special experience but that is to your advantage –true faith is not based on an accumulation of knowledge, facts or special experiences. Such things can easily mislead you. How easy it is to have an experience and miss its meaning.

True faith tends not be based on research or the accumulation of data as Thomas mistakenly imagined. It isn’t ultimately a matter of knowing it’s a matter of unknowing-a matter of unlocking the capacity of the deep mind to receive and believe something new. My best ideas tend to come to me in the silence of the small hours-not when I’m sitting at the desk with half a dozen books around me. In a similar way it is at such moments that I remember the name that was on the tip of my tongue earlier in the day, the phone number or address I couldn’t remember. People who tell stories about their conversions often describe them in terms of a moment of surprise. True faith isn’t simply the fruit of study it’s a gift.

This gift of faith comes from God whose nature and name is love who made us out of love and dwells within us. He is closer to us than the very air we breathe as St Augustine says. Our discovery of faith is a discovery of our true selves-the spirit of a loving God active in our hearts and minds but we must learn to be open to that.

Where then do we go from here?

Not in a fruitless search for more and more facts. No amount of data can ever provide final satisfaction and true faith. To advance down that road is simply to end up in the hands of Richard Dawkins.

Rather the way to a true faith in the risen one lies in being with his disciples and being open to an acknowledgement that the risen Jesus dwells within our hearts. It is there that we must behold him and it is in our hearts that we must welcome him in.

The old chorus has a lot going for it I think. Remember it

He lives, he lives

Christ Jesus lives to-day

I know he lives today

You ask me how I know he lives

He lives within my heart.