Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Love feast

In this great sign of the feeding of the 5000 the physical and spiritual collide in an explosion of meaning.
It is a parable of God’s love and trust in that love.
And it is not an abstract idea of love but love made concrete in satisfying the physical needs of the people gathered.
Not only are the physical and spiritual needs satisfied of the people gathered there but there are twelve basketfuls left over – a highly significant detail -  A super abundance of practical love for anyone and everyone that feels hungry and is looking for sustenance.
The inference is that God’s love itself which God has tried to communicate down the centuries to the Jewish people has  now become real and physical and embodied in the example of the man Jesus and in the practical application of love in feeding such an enormous amount of people.
For us nowadays, it is the spiritual dimension that is directly relevant to us in the Eucharist. A spiritual reality made real and acted out in the physical reality of eating bread and drinking wine.
That same spiritual reality that we give living form to in the sharing of bread and wine also demands to be made flesh in the way we love ourselves and our neighbours as a natural overflow of our love and communion with God. When the spiritual and physical become one we have a sacramental reality – true of the Eucharist but also made just as true in the helping hand you offer someone less fortunate than yourself, made real when you speak up for justice when no-one else will.
A sacramental reality made real and true in the encouragement you give to the brow beaten and fearful, the helping hand you give to the person who is down on their luck. These few examples are every bit as much a sign of the sacramental presence of God as is the blessing, breaking and sharing of bread is in church this morning. In fact the two cannot and must not be separated
One cannot exist without the other. To go from this place and not love your neighbour as yourself is to make this Eucharist a fraud. “There is no other commandments greater than these” as we say.
In a well known commentary on the excesses of the Charismatic movement a Bishop apparently said “I don’t care if they fall over. It’s what they do when they get up again that concerns me”.
The same burden of authenticity applies to all quieter versions of Christianity also. That same Bishop might also say “I don’t care that they get on their knees and share bread. It’s what they do when they get up that concerns me. “   
Is the sense of communion, love and fellowship that we model in the Eucharist in church carried into the rest of our life or not? That’s the true test of the validity of this Eucharist.
In the current debate in the CoE on making women Bishops certain Anglo catholics are concerned with what they call the validity of the Eucharist. I have given this some thought and in my opinion  the validity of any Eucharist does not depend on whether I or anyone else have been properly ordained or not, or whether we are displaying the right colours or not, or whether we are in communion with Rome or not, or whether I am a man or woman, or straight or gay, or whether I’m wearing the right liturgical gear or not.
The only true test of the validity of the Eucharist is the intention and the result.  “By their fruits you hall know them.”  It is how far any of us truly commune with God, how far we apprehend the peace and wisdom and strength and unity through that communion  - and how much that gradually transforms our character. Those tests will tell you of the validity of any Eucharist.
Are we fed and satisfied and do we have enough left over to feed others? That’s the true test of the Eucharist using the example of that great sign of the feeding of the 5000. Does the bread of our lives get blessed and transformed and will it then be used to feed others? 

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Buried Treasure

Sermon for Trinity 5.
In reply to the question; “What sort of people are required for the Kingdom of God?”, a dozen or so parables supply the answer dotted amongst the gospels. Among them we have two here this morning that have been lumped together with some others to illuminate us.
There is the parable of the treasure stumbled upon in a field, which after being found by a man, he goes and sells everything he has in order to buy that field and immediately afterwards we have the parable of the merchant in search of fine pearls who finds this wonderful pearl of great value and does likewise – sells everything he has to buy that one pearl.
Both of them challenge us listeners to make a decision for total commitment. In both parables the Kingdom of God is likened to wealth that surpasses all other wealth and possessions. He seems to say “If you have the kingdom – nothing else much matters and indeed you don’t really need anything else!”
That’s quite a challenge if taken seriously.
Are we really ready to part with everything we have in order to gain it? Willing to part with family, possessions, ditch one set of values to gain a new set of values, commit ourselves to an uncertain future with (certainly in Jesus’ time) the possibility of execution at the end of it?
Well are we or aren’t we? That’s the challenge that Jesus lays before us in these parables. Do we want that treasure that much. Is that pearl really worth it? I always remember Alex tell me that she’d given up her lovely house by the sea, money, stability and in her case even gave up living in her own country. She didn’t like it but she did it. Would you?  
Or are we wedded to money, security, position, comfort and we’ll do anything, absolutely anything to gain the kingdom – except something that upsets our comfort and stability – which ultimately is then proved much more important to us in reality. Contemplating these two parables seriously will sort out in our minds where our true priorities lie.
You see, there’s nothing light and fluffy about these parables. They offer a real challenge if you are wanting to take them seriously, as they were intended.  
These two parables are alike in that each one of them portrays the kingdom as treasure beyond measure if you have it. But they differ in how the person comes upon the kingdom.
The treasure in the field is just stumbled upon by a person who wasn’t even looking for it. That is a pretty good description of how I found God.  Working in a warehouse in my mid thirties, on the night shift in the early hours of the morning suddenly coming to a belief and knowledge of God in my life. I’ve been trying to reconcile the God I found with the church I found later ever since.
In the other one though the merchant had been diligently and studiously looking – actively seeking God –  perhaps for years or decades until eventually he found him. Or perhaps we are a mixture of the two, once catching a glimpse of God and then spending years trying to find him again?
So in two similar parables Jesus appears to acknowledge different routes to enlightenment. You can look and look for years or you can just stumble upon it – and no-one really understands the hows and the whys.
And not knowing the hows and whys brings me neatly to the parable of the yeast . The kingdom is like yeast. It is alive and at work and bubbling away but is within and always out of sight just below the surface.  It is hidden.  As it says in another place, the Spirit is like the wind – you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going..........
It can also be like a mustard seed - insignificant. To the casual observer the original disciples must have seemed like a pretty poor and unremarkable bunch. Rather insignificant. People may well say the same about us. Yet within them and within us, lays the germ of an idea, a way, treasure, a great pearl – perhaps obscured and hidden, covered in mud but here nonetheless  and carrying such enormous potential that could change lives.
That germ of an idea is that we are both “children of man” and “children of God” simultaneously and when we discover the divine within us – when we find God, that treasure, that pearl of great price we become a conscious and willing agent of the kingdom of God.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Love's the greatest thing

Yesterday I conducted a wedding in Gainford – the first one this year – and was reminded quite sharply of something so simple and fundamental to our belief system but which we can forget so easily. The primacy of love.
If I had my way we would ditch the creed and recite 1 Corinthians 13 every Sunday just to remind ourselves of those fundamental truths that underpins our faith but can get lost in the fog of competing theologies and churchmanships and rival interpretations and the minutae of religious systems.
We need to remind ourselves often that it is Love that provides the key to life and God. That, it seems to me is what makes us Christian. The belief that God is love. The belief that anything that acts in accordance with love is of God.  It is the practice of love is what makes us Christian.
The way of love is that which Jesus was willing to die for, willing to sacrifice himself for, rather than deny the whole point and course of his life.
As Paul writes so movingly, yes, faith may be important, hope may be important but actually far greater than both of those things is love and if we don’t have it, we have nothing – we are nothing. We certainly don’t have God.
My test for how Christian anything is? How does it measure up against the yardstick of love.
I think some people were a little taken aback by my harsh criticism of what Matthew wrote and which we heard today. The reason for the sharpness is that I truly believe that, for me, it fails the test of love.  And if it fails the test of love then in my view it has no place. There is no room in my Christian belief for a God who consigns people to burn in hell. 
Sometimes it takes a wedding to just bring these fundamentals back into sharp focus. Weddings can be dismissed as being light – or derided as being just a piece of paper – but for me they speak of the fundamental nature of God as love and this is made concrete in the physical love of two people for each other willing to risk committing themselves to each other for life, as a reflection of God’s unfailing love to us.
If you want to leave here with an image in your minds of your place in the universe, please don’t go with the impression that you could be wheat or a tare and that God could quite happily cut you down.
Go instead from this place knowing that you are a child of God – a child of love. You always have been and always will be. We all of us need to discover what was already true about each one of us. If as John affirms it is true that “God is love”, and I believe it is, then we are children of Love. 

Monday, 11 July 2011

Deep speaks to deep

The sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Trinity;

When I mentioned this parable of the sower at the end of last week’s sermon I really had no idea it was going to appear the very next week.  I’m not that organised – ask any church warden.......
But it bears repeating. Not everyone is going to respond to faith. In fact perhaps only a few will. Jesus in his very memorable way even gives us “types” of people.
Sometimes the words of faith don’t even make it into the minds of some people – the birds come and eat them up before they even get there. It’s like they have a brick wall in front of them.
There are people who are like rocky soil. They’ll respond quickly and with enthusiasm but it is shallow – it has no roots so the faith quickly dies at the first dose of real life.
There are people whose lives are full of thorns (like most of us) – experiencing pain. Loss, anxiety, or consumed with ambition and the lure of wealth. Life itself seems to choke the faith out of us and it gets lost along the way – crowded out by other concerns.
But there are a few people in whom the seed takes root and grows are those are people who hear and understand. They become spiritually alive.  It is the difference between being enlightened and unenlightened.
In Paul’s way of speaking which I tried to decipher for people in last week’s email it is the difference between “Living according to the Spirit” and “Living according to the flesh”. It is not about morality. You don’t have to be a Christian or hold any religious beliefs at all to be a perfectly good decent person.
Enlightenment, “Living in the Spirit” as Paul would put it, is a mindset.  A way of being and believing that eventually suffuses your entire life. It strengthens you, gives you wisdom, lets you see into the depth of things. It opens up life. It gives a certain inner peace. Contentment.
The content of living in the Spirit for me, would be like converting from Black and White to colour TV. Or more modern still, from 2D to 3D.  Startling.  A shift from disconnection to connectedmess, from existential loneliness to communion.
The specific  content differs from person to person but for me it starts by seeing all life as one – that God is in all things and exceeds all things – that all life is connected as I wrote in this month’s parish magazine..
So the birds, trees, rivers, seas, and the whole of humanity are all intimately connected. For Paul in Romans it meant having a huge burden of guilt removed from him because he now knew that he wasn’t subject to religious laws any more.  And that didn’t just mean all the finicky laws in Deuteronomy and Leviticus – but the Ten Commandments themselves have no jurisdiction over someone “in the Spirit”. Having this burden removed from his shoulders was a huge relief for him, but we are all different so this is not a template for conversion. Because what was felt so deeply by Paul doesn’t have much resonance with people now.
I think I can speak for a lot of people – OK I speak for me -  when I say that I, who never had any religious upbringing at all, well I never felt guilty about anything – never even considered that I might be under any condemnation from God in the first place so having it removed means nothing to people like me.  We never knew the possibility of condemnation even existed. So when Paul famously writes “Now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”, this would have meant a lot to Pharisee Jews in the first century (like Paul) but means next to nothing now – for most people. Times and contexts change.
Going back to the gospel - What Jesus is saying is that there is truth and peace and contentment out there, but for various reasons we are not all going to get it.
But those of us who want it – who feel drawn into it – those who want to know the truth because as John said “When you know the truth – the truth will set you free” we need to “practice the presence of God” in our lives. You “practice the presence of God” in your life by simple techniques like contemplation and prayer, consciously drawing God from your depth to the surface of your life and seeing yourself as working in tandem with God – being “led by the Spirit” as we might say  or “going with the flow of the universe” as my Buddhist  friend Paul would say. It is the same thing.
That is why our service here on Sundays is important. At its best, it has the potential to draw back the veil covering life and lays everything bare revealing the deeper truth that underlies reality. It should shine a bright light onto life. The light is God, and that light is both within and without..
Our spiritual goal is to cultivate that light so that we shine – we shine with the light of God in our lives.  

Monday, 4 July 2011

Let Go. Let God

The sermon for Trinity 2: Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30

One of the things that perplexes so many Christians is why so many people seem so totally unresponsive to faith. I’m sure we all know people, and have many friends who just don’t see the point or seem unable to get to first base. I’m sure we all lament the fact that there are not a whole lot more people in church today than there are. Sometimes we can get a bit despondent.  I get like that myself from time to time.
So I think it should be a kind of comfort to us that even a spiritual giant like Jesus encountered exactly the same situation in his day. Not many people seemed to be responding to him either and frankly it made Jesus a bit tetchy as well. 
He compares people to behaving like children in the playground unsure whether they wanted to play funerals – and lament their sins with John the Baptist or play “weddings” with Jesus and rejoice over the dawning of the kingdom of God.
And people also dismissed not only the message but the messengers as well. They easily dismissed John the Baptist as a crazy ascetic wandering around the desert, but they also easily dismissed Jesus as a glutton and a drunkard and morally lax because he liked parties, a drop of wine and enjoyed the company of a rough crowd on the margins of society that included prostitutes and the hated tax collectors.
You see, nothing much changes – just the times and the characters. If an Archbishop makes a statement they might attack what he says – but they are also adept at character assassination as well.  Easier to dismiss something if Rowan Williams is being simultaneously stereotyped as a “hairy lefty”.
So we can worry about public opinion, fret and get anxious about the future, and try things like employ deanery missioners – ha ha!
Some of you may have read a poem I printed mid week by a friend of mine in Bulgaria – Karen. In it she talks about her lack of hopes and plans – about her lack of striving after things – a certain lack of control - something which scares her friends. The illusion of complete control is something we all need to shed.  Of course we do have a measure of control but we actually have much less control over what happens to us than we like to think. We can keep these illusions going for an indefinite time as well but these illusions come crashing down when we are plunged into crisis, usually by a major illness, or redundancy, or insolvency or a death or a natural disaster.
There is a lesson for us here I think as a congregation and a church. We have much less control over what happens than we would like to think.  What we do have a certain amount of control over is our own self understanding and perception of our role. An anxious church worried about its future is an unattractive church. What we need to concentrate on is our own spiritual development, both personally and corporately. Then, and I think, only then will we become the open and attractive community that has a good chance of attracting people to it. Joy attracts.
It might be a perverse thing for the deanery missioner to say – but actually traditional mission is I think pretty dead. To be fair, I never hid the fact that mission in my view started within the church communities themselves. Enlightenment – salvation – call it what you will - has to be seen and experienced and lived here in the churches first.  You cannot draw water from an empty well.
Perversely, I think if we just forgot about how big or small we are, how much or little influence we may still have, stopped being so anxious about attracting more people and entered a phase in the church’s history (which might need to last years!) of concentrated spiritual development of the people already within the churches, then paradoxically I think in forgetting about the problem the problem would eventually solve itself.  
I think Personal spiritual development is the way forward for the church. Giving people what they need – the spiritual knowledge that will enable them to live and grow and enjoy a much fuller life.   
If in the great scheme of things  relatively few people ever seem to get the message – well that is just one of those things. It was the same in Jesus’ time as well. Jesus told parables about it. Some falls on stony ground. Some falls in shallow soil. Some falls among thorns. But SOME, just SOME, falls in good soil and grows and flourishes. Many are called but few are chosen.
It would be lovely if many more people came to us – but history has shown us that this is never going to happen. Accepting that.  Becoming less anxious about it is important.  Of course we should always remain welcoming and rejoicing at the arrival of new people but at the same time accepting that  we may always be a small community and that is exactly as it should be and will be. There is a freedom there. Be free. Mission starts at home. Let Go and let God.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Jack's Baptism

Jack Heywood's baptism delayed from a couple of week's ago. I have now been shown how to do it - Hurrah!