Sunday, 29 April 2012

God is greater than our hearts

Jaime Cardinal Sin, the Catholic archbishop of Manila who played a key role in the People Power revolution there, liked to tell the story of a woman who attended his weekly audience to inform him she had a been having visions and conversations with the Virgin Mary. He brushed her off several times, but she kept coming back. Finally he said, ‘We Catholics have strict rules governing visions and message from God. I need to test your authenticity. I want you to go back and ask the Virgin Mother to ask her son Jesus about a particular sin I recently confessed in private. If you ask Our Lady and she tells you the answer, I’ll know your vision is genuine.’

“The next week she returned and he quizzed her, a bit nervously, ‘Well, did you ask Our Lady to as her Son about my sin?’ ‘I did’ she replied. ‘And did she answer?’ he asked.  ‘Yes’ she responded. ‘What did she say?’ ‘She said that Jesus said that he couldn’t remember.’

St John writes: ‘...We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything...’

If we step outside the the life of love God calls us to, the good news is that God loves us back. If your heart condemns you, God is greater than your heart. If something we said offends someone, God is greater than that offense. If something we did hurts someone, God is greater than that hurt. If we let someone down, God is greater that that let down.

This morning’s Gospel reading reminds us of the close relationship that the Good Shepherd has with His sheep.  God loves us each intimately.  The whole of the scripture is part of a love duet that God tries to sing with humanity over millennia. The words are very simple - God sings to us again and again, ‘I love you, I want to be with you, will you be with with me?’  If your heart condemns you, God is greater than your heart.  Such is God’s love for us that He does not hold sin against us, but forgives, forgets and renews relationships with His people.

Friends, you probably know that there are 3 sorts of love mentioned in New Testament - philio, love for fellow men and women, brotherly love if you will. It is love that builds community.  Eros, erotic love, sexual love. Love that builds families.  Agapé - self sacrifical love, love in action, love that goes thee extra mile. It is the love that takes off outer garments, wraps a towel around their waist and washes feet, even those of the one who betrays...

If your heart condemns you, God is greater than your heart.  It is this transforming love that flows from an uncondemned, a forgiven heart transformed by God’s love for us and presence in us.

There was someone I was at theological college with who had spent quite a bit to time learning with and from the Mennonites. She is called Rita. For those of you who haven’t come across the Mennonites, they have a particular renown for teaching and living lives of non-violence and love. Anyway, after some time at the Mennonite centre in london, Rita and a member of the community were making their way across London on the tube. As they came down one escalator, they saw a man being mugged. As quick as a flash, desperate to put into practice what she had been learning - as the attacked man lay on the floor - Rita loved the mugger hard by beating him with her handbag. Much to everyone’s surprise though, the Mennonite brother she was with, didn’t do that same, but lay down on top of the other man, protecting him and getting a good kicking in the process.

This is the love of Jesus the Good Shepherd in action in the heart and life of another.  The love of the Good Shepherd sticks with us through thick and thin.  It is with this love that He knows and loves each of us individually and intimately. It is this love we are called to love and live. But that’s not good news.

How often are we ready or willing to love like that? To put someone else’s needs before our own? To love the extra mile? I really want that sort of love in my life. I want stories like that to be about me. Don’t you?  When did you last love like that?  Hardly ever? Never??  The good news is that if your heart condemns you, God is greater than your heart.

We need heart transplants. When we cannot love others as we know we should; when we cannot love ourselves as He loves us. It is in those moments of utter failure and brokenness that we literally and metaphorically cry to The Christ the Good Shepherd whose heart is full of agapé, and it is He alone who can lead us from the barren landscape of our hearts into lush and living pasture of His love. Amen.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Come Alive with Jesus!

When Pepsi-Cola was launched in China, its marketing managers wondered why its famous slogan, 'Come alive with Pepsi ' was not achieving the impact that it had achieved elsewhere in the world. It was discovered that the translator had rendered it: 'Pepsi brings your relatives back from the dead.'

This is the shocking claim of this morning’s Gospel - that our brother, Jesus of Nazareth, has come back from the dead. All of us like a happy ending. The girl gets the guy. The guy gets the girl. The bad guys get got and everyone walks off into the sunset to live happily ever after. Yet the implications of the resurrection of Jesus are shocking...  For the man who was once dead now lives - he eats fish and understand the will and purposes of God! But the Easter message is not just one of resuscitation, of a dead man to life again, because then nothing would have changed - only the corpse.  Instead, this morning we hear and experience the power of the Resurrection - what God is up to in a world already changed by the Incarnation.

I have been priest in charge in the parish for some 285 days or so.  In that time I have have seen some very clear signs of what God is up to in this part of His world, already being changed by His presence here among us.

Over the last year there have been 28 baptisms, 10 weddings and 28 funerals, 8 of which were in the churches of the parish.  These are some of the most significant ways through which the Risen Christ is present in the lives of many within the wider community and I expect these numbers to rise as together we engage more with the wider community. We have already held a service of Thanksgiving for Marriage, which sits alongside the In Touch service and a soon to be launched Thanksgiving for Holy Baptism service, and these are crucial as ways to welcome back and to continue to support many within the parish.

These last months have been very much about me learning the lie of the land if you will, getting to know you and beginning to settle into a pattern of working and worshipping life together. You will remember that in the early days of my time in the parish I met around 90 of you in your homes in small groups. This was an opportunity for God to set the agenda of the next few years of ministry here. Out of those meetings three broad brush stroke themes - to renew and review our worship, to provide opportunities for study and spiritual growth, to communicate more effectively. In response to the desire to grow and learn we have run a Lent and Advent study course, both of which have been well attended and well received.  The communications work is a work in progress, but some of the fruit of that is a new parish website which for now is available here.  These 3 themes have become the basis of our Mission Action Plan - a version of which will be available to you in a few weeks - helping us to prioritize the work of God that we are doing together with Him.

These last months haven’t been about us standing still though either. Growing out of the God-given priorities you set in the parish profile, with others, I have been fostering our ecumenical links and have met the local Christian leaders. We worked together with MEB at their Light Party in October and they supported our very successful Good Friday Workshop.  I am hoping to be preaching at MEB later on in the Summer, and together we are working on the opening of a Community café and Food Bank based at the Community Centre here in Mill End.

Another key priority from the parish profile was to continue the growth of work with children, young people, their schools and organisations. We welcomed 4 Baptized Children to receive Holy Communion earlier this year.  I have been leading worship at Maple Cross and St Peter’s schools on a weekly basis for much of the last months, resourcing lessons at Maple X school and welcoming children to worship in our learn about the faith through visiting our church buildings. Behind the scenes my work continues as a governor and proving support and for especially the Heads of both schools.  I am now part of Diocesan team providing support to schools in this Archdeaconary working with schools that need help with bereavement and collective worship.  These school relationships matter as we seek to engage with the wider communities in which we are set.  And in Maple Cross especially those links are key as we begin talking with both the Church Urban Fund and the ASCEND Project based in South Oxhey about partnerships that will engage with the community in very practical ways and see St Thomas’ building used to the benefit of all.

Worship is the heart of what God’s church is called to. A little new liturgy has been introduced to help mark some of the seasons.  I am delighted that Richard Hickson has taken up responsibility as Organist and we are working closely together.  I am also delighted, as I am sure you are, at the growing skill and confidence of all who make music in the parish.  As you all know, we are in the process of discussing prayerfully our pattern of worship, following a parish-wide consultation. Some good progress has been made latterly and the PCC will discuss this again in May.  I was especially pleased that we took part in Back to Church Sunday this last year and will do so again. We have introduced a weekly Wednesday Eucharist at St Peter’s

The growing importance of pastoral care highlighted again this year and the church is indebted to ongoing and invaluable work of the In Touch group and the LMT especially in their ministry to the care and residential homes but also in supporting and caring for particular individuals.

These are only the headlines, for ahead of us with God lies so much more - growing churches, the setting up of a dedicated pastoral care team, new opportunities to deepen our faith through 2 specific things - This Is Our Faith and a Mission Weekend in the late Autumn, the opportunity to receive the ministry of healing for you and others, the launching of new church based toddler groups, a trainee Lay Reader, a new Curate. I could go on.  But, all of this is all only possible with your continued prayer and support and some of these things will only happen if we do them together - I need, the church needs, Christ needs you to give a little of your time and your talent.

The Risen Jesus appeared to those frightened disciples. They knew it was Him as he ate with them and as He opened the scriptures to them to reveal the plans and purposes of God finding fulfillment in Him.

Jesus calls us sometimes frightened disciples to continue bear witness to Him. We know that the Risen Jesus is with us as we see God’s plans and purposes unfolding around us and as we together meet to eat with Him at the Eucharist.  But to be a witness is not just to experience an event, to hear good things in church, but to willingly tell others about it.  Our call friends together is to continue to proclaim the Resurrection, to make known what God is up to in our communities, to help people within them to answer God’s call and to see their lives transformed by Him. Amen

Sunday, 8 April 2012

The Gospel According to Abigail Witchells

On 20th April 2005 Abigail Witchells was walking in the village of Little Bookham near her home, with her 2 year old son Joseph.  She was attacked from behind and stabbed in the neck, paralyzing her and leaving her son unhurt but traumatized.

A statement was released on her behalf which read, "The staff here are wonderful and I am making progress every day. I have sensation over most of my body and the pain is less now. I can move my head, but as yet I cannot move my arms and legs. I can breathe and speak on my own for short periods. Please pass on my thanks to everyone for their support and prayers. God is doing beautiful things."

Much has been made of the Witchalls' strong Christian faith, and that of the whole family.  her attacker was publicly forgiven by her, her mother and her husband.  Her mother said,   “Just being with her makes me feel better and I am immensely proud of her and her husband, Benoit, and of how much I have learned from them.  Abigail's life is a triumph of the Cross. Not the world's usual triumph of strength, but rather one of vulnerability and love.

It seems to me that Abigail Witchells, along with Gee Walker (mother of Anthony murdered in Huyton), Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Gordon Wilson (who’s daughter Marie died in the Enniskillen bombing) - all of whose stories (or parts at least) we have heard this week, have an Easter faith - a faith that trusts God to do, not just the improbable but the impossible.  Have we?
Easter to many people is about chocolate, hot cross buns, bunny rabbits and two long over due Bank holidays.  Easter is REALLY about Jesus Christ’s passion for a hurting world.  In recent days we have journeyed with Jesus into Jerusalem shouting our hosannas, to the Last Supper, to betrayal by kisses in Gethsemene, to trial and torture by Ciaphas and Pilate, and then standing watching the death of a traitor on a cross, dying the death of a failed man.  As a we stand close to the garden where the tomb is, where we have been waiting since last night, the sun gently pinking the early morning sky, some figures are seen making their way in the half light.

It’s Mary and the others.  These women, have been faithful to Jesus through it all - after desertion and betrayal - and here they are, after the Sabbath coming to the Garden Tomb to anoint his body as is the custom.  Although they are doing what they can to be faithful to Jesus, the women like the other disciples never really heard Jesus latterly, not really.  Here they are, despite talk of resurrection, coming to embalm a decomposing corpse.

They are chattering as they pass us, who will roll the stone away?  The women are clearly expecting to find what you would expect to find at a new grave.  The women are still live in a predictable world.  If you roll a stone in place on Friday it will still be there on Sunday.  These women demonstrate enormous courage and faithfulness coming ot the garden tomb, but they come expecting, despite what Jesus has said, that death still has the final word.

Throughout his ministry Jesus taught and revealed a new order that God was bringing in.  A new order where things are not always necessarily one of cause and effect but one where the topsy turvey values of the Kingdom of God break through.

As they near the corner of the garden, near the small outcrop of trees, where the tomb is located, this new order of things begins to break through.  As we follow them to the tomb, we all notice that the stone has been moved to one side.  Whilst there are many explanations for this, a sense of something just being wrong overcomes us all.

Out of concern?  Out of curiosity?  The women look, we look too - inside there is only a shroud in the tomb and no body.  What is going on?  ‘Do not be alarmed!’ says the young man sitting over to one side of the tomb.  Do not be alarmed?!  They were now terrified - was this the grave robber himself that they have disturbed?  ‘Do not be alarmed, you are looking for Jesus who was crucified - he has been raised, look here is the place where they laid him, ‘ he says as he points to the shroud.  ‘Go and tell the others he is going ahead of you to Galilee, and there you will meet him..’

If something as predictable and inevitable as death is not longer inevitable or predictable then the world has changed dramatically.  Frighteningly so.  The body has not been stolen but the grave clothes are lying there as if Jesus has just stepped out of them...  If stones can be rolled without help, if Jesus is really alive, what other certainties in life are now up for grabs.  Life is suddenly awe-inspiring and terrifying.  What else can and will God do in our lives?

One of the women with Mary said it later - that Jesus is now just loose in the world and coming to meet us, not on our terms, with our expectations, but on his.  We can no longer deal with Jesus compartmentalized as a dead body in a tomb, as a story told by Mary and the other women, but we meet him here as a living reality and there is absolutely no avoiding him in grief, sentimentality, in liturgy.  Business as usual in our day to day or Sunday lives is no longer safe because Jesus is here wherever we are, whatever we are doing calling us to be his disciples again and again and simply to come and follow him.

The women stand, as if suspended in treacle for a second that seems to last an hour, and then Salome screams.  She screams and screams and screams.  Immediately they are off in the directions of the four winds, running like they are being chased, running to who knows where, but not in the direction of Galilee.  Leaving us - at this strange and empty place.  They have seen with their own eyes and heard with their own ears the truth of all that Jesus taught - he has been raised.

This easter story does not have a happy end so that we can all heave a sigh of Lent-is-over-relief.  Jesus’ Easter story ends where it began, in Galilee - back in the ordinariness of the everyday routines.  Our Easter story ends where it began, in this community - back in the ordinariness of everyday.  But it is now the Risen Jesus meets us in the ordinary and everydayness of things - on his terms, whenever and wherever he wants to, calling us to follow him.

The disciples abandoned Jesus to death in the garden as he was arrested and then crucified, and these women abandoned him in as yet unseen new life.  There is only one group of people who can take the news that Jesus is risen, back into the ordinariness of every day life - us.  But will we?

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Forgiveness - The Palm Sunday Gospel

In 1992, Simon Wilson - a personal friend and one of Matthew’s Godfathers, was the victim of a hit and run car crash in rural Norfolk which left him chronically disabled. The driver was never caught but Simon’s experience led him to train for ordained ministry.

Recently he said, ‘For me forgiveness has been about making sense of what happened to me.  I was 25, living with my parents and doing temporary work when early one morning I was the victim of a hit and run accident.  The car came from nowhere, cut across me and forced me into the ditch.  The next thing that I knew was that I was in intensive care having undergone major emergency surgery.

I was in hospital for three months and in the following years had 12 more operations.  Then, four years ago, I was told that my condition was incurable and that the prognosis was not good.  In a way that was almost liberating because up until then I’d always thought I could fix it... [as the year’s passed] I became difficult to be around. But I knew I had to work though it - find some sort of forgiveness so that I could bring closure to the situation.

Forgiveness is something you have to do every day and it’s something that you have to keep doing because anything can trigger that anger again. I’m not angry that the driver wasn’t locked up, but sometimes I do feel angry that they just drove off without checking to see if I was alive or dead.

One thing I find difficult is that in church I’ve heard sermons about forgiveness and thought ‘who are you to tell me to forgive?’  It can sound so easy but it’s the hardest thing in the world.   Some people within the church believe you can’t forgive unless the other person repents but to me repentance isn’t a condition of forgiveness because ultimately forgiveness comes from within.  Only I know whether I forgive or not.

Some people think I’m being pious telling people to forgive but actually I don’t tell anyone to do anything, I simply tell people that the place I’ve reached is a better place than the place I was at before....’

Forgiveness provides the lifeblood to the whole of Jesus’ ministry, even during this, the bleakest and darkest few days of his life.  Yet, forgiveness is so often the antithesis of the way we react in any number of situations.  Take Simon’s situation for example - wouldn’t a more ‘normal’ response be anger, fear, revenge.  Forgiveness seems inappropriate even foolish.

How apt it is that April Fool’s Day - a celebration of ‘the fool’, the everyman who provides some light relief from the harshness of life -  falls today, on Palm Sunday, where Jesus offers everyman... and woman and child relief from the harshness of life through forgiveness, reconciliation and the offer of eternal life.  The cross itself epitmenises this paradox - on the one hand it is the instrument of torture and other the symbol of forgiveness and life - and it is a paradox- for through it God’s glory comes near.

Even here, facing death himself, Jesus offers someone forgiveness.  He is crucified with two thieves.  One is penitent.  About to die, he has no time left to put his house in order or to make any reparation to those he has injured. Yet, when he asks to be remembered, he is promised paradise. Heaven is promised to the undeserving. That promise is our only hope. Foolishness!  The other thief, too, turns to Jesus and, in his own bitter and sarcastic way, prays to him. I identify with him, for I, too, have said to Jesus: "If you are who you claim to be, then, for all our sake’s, do something!" Is there any hope for him? Is there any hope for others of us whose prayers are sometimes as angry?

If the penitent thief was promised paradise because he was penitent, then there’s no hope for the impenitent. You don’t need a degree in theology to work that out. But, if he is promised paradise, as Luke seems to believe, because God accepts the least deserving, then there’s a glimmer of hope for the impenitent thief, too — and for me. If God’s grace, displayed on Christ’s cross, is truly for the last ones you’d expect, if it is not conditional on the quality of my apology, then there is real hope.

It is far easier to discuss God’s forgiveness than to offer forgiveness ourselves. We still need to ponder what the Revd Julie Nicholson, a Church of England priest, said in the aftermath of the 7 July bombings in London in 2005, in which her daughter was killed.  Her vocation was to preach the foolishness of forgiveness and then in a split-second, discovered that that foolishness was too much to bear.

Forgiveness is a foolish act and is impossible for us to offer without God having offered it to us first  - through foolishly becoming one of us, through ridiculously standing against the religion of his day, through speaking and acting life in the face of death, through triumphantly entering the city as king on an ass, through hanging on a cross. 

Forgiveness is nothing short of holy madness, but God doesn’t offer it from a distance, aloofly, but from within, alongside us, from our side of the divide between us for it is from the heart of desolation and darkness on the cross flows liberating grace.

God has offers me, the impenitent thief, hope, even in the face of death.  God stumbles into the broken monotony of my life singing of destabilizing subversive grace and freeing me to become what Martin Luther King called ‘creatively maladjusted’ to the way the world works and how it expects me to react.  He calls me to hold fast to the foolishness of Christ - not to rationalize or understand it -  knowing that it is in his foolishness that our wholeness lies and that from him, and then even through me, that forgiveness flows.