Saturday, 25 May 2013

On crying at a gig


I was at a concert on Friday night at the O2 arena, as some of you know. I love music and a day will not go by where I have not listened to some. But I specially love hearing music played live with the lights and pyrotechnics that go with it - and as is so often the case - I found myself that night surrounded by thousands of strangers, yet somehow unified by our shared love of the strange music of the Canadian rock band Rush.

But something else happened. As guitarist Alex Lifeson burst into the solo in the song, ‘The Garden' (above), I found tears welling up. It took me back to another concert by the band Radiohead which I was at a few years ago, about which the writer and broadcaster Rhidian Brook spoke of on Thought for the Day. He said,

‘... Half way through a beautiful song... my friend, who as far as I know has no religious affiliations, turned to me with tears in his eyes and said that he was having a religious experience. He wasn't being glib. Something was happening in that moment; something powerful enough to make him cry, embrace me and for both of us raise our hands in a gesture of abandoned praise. We both knew, without saying so, that we weren't worshipping the band - great though they are - and that this 'something' was about more than just music...’

Now this overflow of emotion could be explained away by me becoming soppy in my older years, the sonic vibrations, the mass gathering of people, or the consumption of beer leading to a heightened sense of euphoria. But I’m not sure that we can just write the experience off as a ‘feeling.’ The experience, like stunning scenery or fine art, was a window through which we sometimes get  glimpse of something beyond ourselves that we cannot possess, that we perhaps can’t name, that comes to us as a gift, that cannot be rationalised with our eyes or minds.

Paul, the writer of today’s Epistle from Romans 5:1-5, had a glorious technicolour experience of that ‘something’ for himself on the Damascus road.  That encounter utterly transformed his life.  Here he writes of the unknowability of God, the Creator of all that is good, holy and beautiful, becoming fully known to us, broken and failing as we are, by the free gift of the grace of God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the assurance of his love shown by the gift and presence of the Holy Spirit.  We can receive this gift of grace only because we are justified by God - He makes us just, rights the wrongs we do to each other and Him. He makes us holy people - because of the faith He puts in us by sending His Son and the faith we place in Him as a result. Got it? No? let me put it another way:

A young lady one day was speeding through a small Georgia town. She was traveling 70 mph in a 55 mph speed zone. The police pulled her over and wrote her a ticket that would cost her $100. She didn't have the money to pay it and ended up having to go to court over the ticket. In the courtroom, the judge said, "You were found guilty of going 70 miles an hour in a 55-mile speed zone. You have to pay $100." The young lady said, "I'm guilty, but I can't pay it. I don't have $100." "Well, if you don't pay the ticket, we'll have to lock you up for the weekend." "I can't pay the ticket, but I don't want to go to jail. Can you please have mercy on me?" The judge matter-of-factly replied, "I can't change the law. The law says that you've got to pay $100, or you have to spend the weekend in jail." Starting to tear up she spoke in a small voice, "Isn't there something you can do? I can't pay but I don't want to go to jail. Have mercy on me." The judge looked down on her, pushed his chair back from the bench, zipped down his robe, and took it off. He went over to the side, picked up his jacket and put it on. He walked down and stood beside the girl, reached in his wallet, and brought out a hundred-dollar bill. He put the $100 bill on the bench, took off his jacket, then went over and picked up his robe. He zipped up his robe and got back behind his bench. "Young lady, you've been found guilty of going 70 miles an hour in a 55-mph speed zone. The law is the law. I can't change it; the law says you must pay $100 or spend the weekend in jail. Ah! But I see somebody else has already paid the price."

We cannot apprehend this holy God. We receive only glimpses of Him, as through a window, in things like the beauty of music. Those experiences can be overwhelming and they draw us in - longing for more. Yet because we are created and He is Creator - we are so utterly different in our being and our character is so far from His perfection - we cannot approach Him even though we long to, we want more of that sort of experience. So He approaches us. Despite all that divides us - His holy Godness and our failing Humanity - He crosses that divide by His goodness and love for us in the person of Jesus. He offers what we long for but cannot name, and makes us what we cannot be - and offers us a share in the glory of God Himself. When that glory seems very distant, because much of our experience of life is less than glorious, the Holy Spirit given to us helps us to take confidence in God’s constant love for us, waiting patiently and faithfully on Him, despite it all.

Friday night’s gig snatched a glimpse of something beyond that cannot be apprehend yet which is offered as a gift - thousands of people gathered, experiencing something that they don’t want to end, moved by something they cannot name and somehow caught up in it all and the experience transforming however we might feel about our individual lives for a time, into hope.  This sounds a lot like worship.

Friends, this Trinity Sunday we are caught up afresh into God the Father’s eternal love song over all that is created and we are invited to sing along; we are moved by that love for us shown and experienced in Jesus the Son still, which we are called to share; and even in the midst of the brokenness and failure that fills our lives from time to time we can be confident in lasting hope through the indwelling presence of God’s Holy Spirit, a hope and gift we are to live out and make known.

Monday, 20 May 2013

The Foreigner


I am sure many of us have been abroad perhaps on a foreign holiday. Maybe in preparation we have tried to learn a little of the language. As we go from tourist destination to tourist destination we clutch our phrasebook or dictionary in the hope hope that through some miracle of osmosis, we might suddenly be able to speak and be understood.

It’s interesting that we still talk about going on a foreign holiday - the word foreign implying something exotic, unusual, challenging, maybe comfort-zone removing, perhaps even threatening. We talk of doctors finding a foreign body as they perform surgery - something that just shouldn’t be there, something alien or invasive, something out of place.

Yet as we go abroad on holiday, we are the foreign body - out of place, challenged often linguistically, maybe out of our comfort zones. Learning some of the language is about us trying to blend in; but as we struggle with pronunciation, we become more and more conspicuous.

But we speak with much more than our words. We speak with our clothing, our political affiliations, our music choices, with our hands, the expressions on our faces - all communicate something very deep about who we are, what we believe and what we hold dear, but it is still what we say that states that most powerfully.

Jesus’ disciples lives spoke volumes at this point. They looked like every other good Jew living in Jerusalem. Their accent gave them away as Galileans but essentially they blended in with the countless others in the city to celebrate the festival of Pentecost.  There were many foreigners in the city due to the immanent celebrations, yet it’s clear that on that day that the disciples felt like foreigners - locked away, frightened, aware that their experience of God in Jesus was different. They must have felt out of place in their own city and in their own religion. And then something happens.

It’s clear that what Luke is doing at the beginning of this account is trying to use language to speak of the unspeakable, to describe the indescribable and even language reaches it’s limits. Don’t be too hung up on the descriptions themselves because whatever took place in that room on that day as the Holy Spirit moved among the disciples in a new way - foretold by the prophet Joel  and promised by Jesus himself - utterly transformed them as they were made anew by God.  In Genesis we hear of the Spirit breathing life into the dust and creating a human being. In Acts 2 the same Spirit breathes life into once cowardly disciples creating new men and women who have the gift of bold speech.

For Luke, the writer of the Acts of the Apostles, the gift of God’s Holy Spirit has one purpose - to inspire believers in Jesus to speak God’s message with new boldness. Even Jesus is clear that this is what the Holy Spirit will do. He calls Him Advocate - someone who will speak publicly on behalf of another often in court of law. Because the Spirit will abide with us and in us says Jesus - He will speak through believers like us.

Talk of the Holy Spirit for some of us might seem foreign implying something exotic, unusual, challenging, maybe comfort-zone removing, perhaps even threatening. Perhaps we have heard of manifestations of the Holy Spirit in other places in different sorts of churches, but because of what we hear taking place being unusual or challenging our expectations of life and faith -- we are swift to dismiss it as hysteria - people filled with new wine.

We talk of doctors finding a foreign body as they perform surgery - something that just shouldn’t be there, something alien or invasive, something out of place. We invoke the Holy Spirit in the Sacraments of the church to transform the faith and life of the believer - but talk of experiences of the Spirit outside these signs of grace - might seem alien or invasive to our experience of faith. Friends, don’t get too hung up on descriptions. The simple fact of the matter is - just in the same way that we are still inspired to lively faith following Jesus and we believe that God still speaks and answers prayer today - so I believe and have experienced that the Holy Spirit continues to move and inspire and make new the lives of Christian men and women today in similar ways to those first disciples - in lives lived that speak in new bold ways of Jesus Christ.

The gift of the Spirit, according to Jesus, is an inevitable gift for those who are faithful to Him. If we love Christ we will keep His commandments, and if we do, He will ask God to give us the One who will speak the Truth of the the things of God to dwell in each one of us.

In both the Acts reading and in the Gospel - there is no sense of the Spirit being a gift to some and not to others, somehow reserved only for a certain sort of believer or certain sorts of Evangelical church today. It is the Spirit, a gift of Christ to all faithful people - crossing boundaries of gender, age and social status according to the prophet Joel, that makes our lives and our churches evangelical - our lives transformed and made new, and fills men and women like us with a fresh boldness to make known in word and action the love that God has for the world in Jesus Christ. 

Pentecost was not a once only event like the Crucifixion of Jesus - once for all.  Nor is it just an anniversary to be celebrated with a birthday card and song.  Jesus is clear that His gift of the Holy Spirit is personal and to all the faithful always and should be received with love like a birthday gift each year, each month, each day.

I wonder how long the disciples would have waited in that room on that day before returning to their lives and homes and livelihoods if the Spirit hadn’t come?  The Spirit did come and made them new - gave them boldness to go public outside the safety and security of that room and to attract a crowd to hear good news of the love of God in Jesus Christ which spread far from Jerusalem as far as Mill End/West Hyde and Maple Cross.

The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to the church still, both within and outside the Sacraments. It is still the power of God Himself at work in all of our lives, if we wish it, that enables us the church to go public boldly, to attract a crowd in and amongst our wider community with news of God’s love in Jesus still worth hearing.

Monday, 6 May 2013

The Water of Grace

Cool crisp water. On a day like ones we’ve finally had this week, for many of us, all you want to do is slip into it for a swim. To relax, renew and recover.

Cool crisp water. Many millions around our world today desire it not luxuriate in or beside, but to drink.  To survive. To live.

Water divides - shore from shore, country from country, people from people, language from language.  It is an all encompassing essential and brings people together round a standpipe and yet it geographically seperates.

Water is a source of the holy.  In Phillipi, the river is a place of pilgrimage to worship the god Pan. It is a balm of spirituality in the bustle of a mutlicultural trade centre.  People gather on it’s banks to discuss, to debate, to discover. Lydia, with other women gathers here.

She is wealthy beyond our imagining through selling purple cloth to the superrich and royalty. As a non-Jew, she worships God, but along with others, she gathers at the water’s edge to discover more. Still looking for something unnamed to fulfill her life.

Water is a source of healing.  Outside Jerusalem, the pool at which the sick gather is known as ‘house of mercy’ or house of grace.’

It is a place where social and religious outcasts gather as a last resort, seeking wholeness, restoration and healing. It’s name could also mean ‘despised’ as only the lowest of the low would gather at what tradition says was a sheepdip.  It is a hopeless place for one man who has sat there unhealed for 38 desperate years, a lifetime, still hoping, still longing.

Water divides - rich from poor - those who can afford it by the bottle and those demand it any way. Water draws Lydia together with others and distances this sick man and others like him from his own community and family. And yet in all cases and always this water is a gift.

Paul is drawn over the water by God’s vision of a world where rich and poor, healthy and sick are restored to one another, to their family and their community. And on the banks of that life-giving river he encounters Lydia who can afford anything in life and yet still longs for it.  As Paul speaks, Lydia bubbles with excitement - what she hears him speak of is what she has been searching for - perhaps unknown or unnamed for a lifetime.

Jesus is drawn back to Jerusalem carrying God’s vision of a world where rich and poor, healthy and sick are restored to one another, to their family and their community.  By the pool he encounters that man, who has nothing and yet yearns for one thing. ‘Do you wish to be made well?’ asks Jesus, yet what is offered is more than restoration to what was there before.

Water is a source of renewal - through it plants, animals and indeed each of us are restored, kept alive. Yet at water, both Lydia and that man discover that what God offers is not restoring but completely renewing.

Water is a vehicle for the grace of God - that unmerited, undeserved, unearned, unpurchasable, love and mercy and favour of God Himself which both Lydia and that man desire.  And they are both drawn to the water and to the waters of grace - searching for it but they cannot find it for it is a gift to be received.

It is perhaps no accident that the grace of God was made present to that man on the Sabbath - the day to look and see mirrored in it the moment that God rested from His work of creating and delighted in it’s beauty. It is perhaps no accident that the grace of God was made present to that man on the Sabbath - the day to look and to see mirrored in it a time when all things will be made new and whole. Complete in God Himself.

We gather as a people, many of whom first came to church not really knowing why we came at all - it’s what we did, it’s what we were told to do, it seemed the right thing, to meet new people, to make friends.  But as we came, we too also have come to gradually experience the grace of God - which reminds we are loved even on our most messed up days; it reminds us we haven’t got it all sorted when we feel we do; and assures us that the best in life and love is still yet to come. That unnamed, unknown something that makes sense and offers renewed hope.

We gather today, not at pool or riverside, but a time in this Eucharist, when we remember blood and water flowing for us. We gather today, not at riverside or pool, but at a time, recalling the water of of our own baptism, reflecting the grace of God to us - renewing both rich and poor alike and reorienting our lives in the Way of the Kingdom of God - upsetting expectations and resetting hopes and dreams; where creation is renewed and where heaven is opened to us - unmerited, undeserved, unearned, unpurchasable - save through the love and mercy and favour of God Himself.

This water reminds us of God’s love for all that is created.  As we stand on the cusp of Ascension Day, remembering Jesus returning to be with God and taking our hopes and humanity with Him, securing a place for that in God presence forever, water points not to a restoring of what was there before - a looking back to something now tarnished, dying, missing or dirtied by time; water points us forward to life, to the grace of God, renewing each moment offering healing, wholeness and hope.