Tuesday, 19 June 2012

(Extra)Ordinary Time

We have entered what the Church of England calls Ordinary time, what in the recent past used to be known as the Sundays after Trinity or after Pentecost. Our churches are decked in glorious green for weeks and weeks and we hear again, as the Scriptures are read, some of the amazing teaching and healing ministry of Jesus.

The green symbolizes, growth, like grass on the hillsides; the living presence of God amongst us. As we explore Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry afresh we discover that this is far from ordinary time, for all time in the presence of God is extraordinary.

As July flows and then ebbs, our minds begin to turn to holidays, to rest and recreation whether at home or abroad. Being renewed as people and filled afresh with memories.

The word holiday, comes from the words ‘holy day’, a principal feast day in the life of the church. A day which, in worship, helps to recall and share in the life and love of God in and through Jesus Christ. This time of year, during (Extra)Ordinary time, we remember that any time with God makes that day a holy day, a holiday as, primarily through our worship, we find ourselves renewed in the love and life of God.

You will be well aware that back in January we began a process to prayerfully discern together, a new pattern of worship for the parish which meets our needs and that can be provided mostly by me, so that we can worship together and have time together as church.

After your suggestions were made, the PCC spent two meetings looking carefully and prayerfully at this and has now made a decision on a pattern which we will roll out as of September and trial for a period of 6 months.  The pattern looks like this:
This process has required the graciousness, compromise and trust of each other - including me. It will continue to need those things as we begin this new chapter in our worshipping life. It will also continue to need the gifts and skills of many including familiar faces who have supported and encouraged us in worship over the years.

At the end of the Eucharist at this time of year we pray:

Almighty God,
we thank you for feeding us
with the body and blood of your Son Jesus Christ.
Through him we offer you our souls and bodies
to be a living sacrifice.
Send us out
in the power of your Spirit
to live and work
to your praise and glory. Amen.

Our worship is extraordinary time set apart for us to be with each other and with God. It is the
time and place where we are resourced by Christ, and sent out by Him, to live for Him and to love for Him in the communities in which He sets us. It is time set aside in the week for us to be filled afresh with His presence, during which we are called, by His grace at work in us, to allow all our days to be holy, holidays as we are renewed by His presence amongst us and filled with His love.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Wild Mustard and the Leveson Enquiry

It has been fanscinating watching the Leveson enquiry unfold. Hearing politician and journalist alike forced to talked about the all too powerful relationship, sometimes unhealthy link between politicians and the media. It has been very sobering to hear former and current Prime Ministers and significant journalists admit that they flirted with one another and opened all sorts of unwritten rules and how the media would stop at nothing to get the story for us to rubberneck at.  Leveson has shown us what we hadn’t seen, or did not want to see about all these relationships.  The enquiry has, I hope, reminded us that the electorate still have the power. Despite the agricultural imagery, i was shocked to discover my friends, that these parables have more in common with political intregue than growing potatoes with my children in our garden.

Jesus is the master of using images from the world around him to make his point. In a post-industrial age, these parables can seem rather quaint and whimsical, but they used the language and images of a local and agricultural world. Jesus says that the Kingdom is like a man scattering seed. Now I don't know whether I am reading the passage wrongly, but in my mind at least there is definitely a difference between scattering and sowing. Sowing to me implies a careful, deliberate, placing of a seed or seeds in soil that has been prepared. It is about maximising the potential yield of an expensive commodity - the seed.

Jesus here though tells us that the man scatters the seed on the ground. He goes to bed and wakes up in the morning to find the seed sprouting. The man is clearly astonished. He does not understand the biology of what has gone on - he doesn't understand how these seeds have grown.

Then we seems to get a bit of a gardening textbook, '...The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come...’ The man scattering seed may not understand how the seed grows but he does know when to harvest - only when the grain is ripe and full.

What is Jesus trying to say? Jesus talks of God's Kingdom - God had been worshiped as king by Jews for millennia. Talk of a coming Kingdom would normally carry with it images of political and military power. Yet Jesus seems to say that God's kingdom comes with no pomp or power. Rather it appears, almost surprisingly, as if from nothing - something as insignificant as some seeds scattered randomly on the ground. The when the kingdom starts to grow - the outcome, the results are visible and tangible for all to see.

Jesus goes on... the kingdom is like a mustard seed - the smallest of seeds which grows into a bush big enough for the birds to nest in. Mustard seeds are not the smallest seed nor do they grow to be the biggest trees. Jesus isn’t being literal here, but he is trying to make a point, the question is what?

The parable is probably loaded with symbolic imagery - the birds nesting in the tree might symbolise a powerful nation gathering other people under it's sway - as in Daniel 4:10-12.  There will come a time, says Jesus, when the nations will gather under the wing of a renewed Israel.

Alternatively, there is the ‘traditional’ interpretation which says something like - Jesus' ministry doesn't seem to amount to much at this stage, but looking at his ministry with a God’s eye view of history, there will be a time when it will have a huge universal following.

Another alternative - Jesus could be referring to what we would call wild mustard. This is a persistent weed that is almost impossible to eradicate once it has infested a field. It is not a tree, but at it’s most dynamic, it is a small shrub. The parable takes on a new meaning because all of a sudden Jesus is talking about politics.

Fields were generally owned by the wealthy and the poor worked on them for the benefit of the wealthy. It was hot, hard, demanding and poorly paid. The workers did not benefit from the fruit of their labours. If wild mustard stated to grown in your field you would need to get rid of it as it is a persistent weed and will take over if left unchecked. It will threaten the livelihood of the wealthy landowner who only make their money from the poorly paid field hand.

The Kingdom of God is like persistent wild mustard. It is so persistent, so virulent that it will grown to become something that in reality it cannot be - a huge tree offering shelter.
The kingdom of God is powerfully coming, but almost as if from nothing and largely unseen until it has taken a hold. As it does so, it will turn on it's head the usual enconomy of power in the world. It will work against the wealthy and powerful to the benefit of the poor - it will do the seemingly impossible. It will begin small, but will ultimately draw all people in.

How does this impact us here, today? These parables have more in common with political intregue in the corridors of the Palace of Westminster as the Leveson enquiry unfolds than gardening. It's almost like, whatever we do, almost perhaps in spite of and our faith, God will bring His kingdom to fruition persistently, virulently where He wills it. As He does, he will actively work against those abusing power and liberate those oppressed by ‘the system.’ Or perhaps put another way, we in the church so often try to control God - we say things like ‘we don't do 'that' we're Anglican/traditonal/Broad church/ whatever...’ In the parables this morning, Jesus reminds us that God will quietly and powerfully work amongst us, growing the Kingdom by the power of His Spirit.

This morning Jesus reminds us that God will bring the kingdom and it will grow where we do not want it - like a weed - transforming lives outside the church community, challenge structures and authorities and power in society. Not very seemly at all... The question is, who are we in these stories? Are we the landowner with an infested field - dismayed to see God at work in ways and in places that He shouldn’t be, or are we the liberated farm hands waiting for the harvest, longing for freedom and change? Amen

The Gospel of Avril Grube

Avril Grube claimed that in 1982, when her son Gavin Paros was aged three, his father took him to Hungary for what should have been a weekend away. Her marriage had broken down and, after her son failed to return, she contacted the authorities and made repeated attempts to locate Gavin.

But her younger sister, Beryl Wilson, never gave up hope and continued to search for him. One day she searched for his name on Google and discovered his Facebook page on which he had written his mother's name. It transpired that he had been using the website to try and find his English family following the death of his father. He only replied to his aunt's Facebook message several weeks after she posted it, explaining he rarely checked the website.

This led to eleation for the family and eventually a reunion of mother and son. Avril Grube’s sister later said said, "It was the happiest day of her life when she met her son. She said there were no words to describe it...”

I can only begin to imagine the sheer, overwhelming, life-affirming joy of that mother and son. All of us know how precious relationships are whether friendships or blood ties as they get stretched by work or lack of it, time and distance, the pressure of modern living. People move around much more than they ever used to - it is quite unusual to find parents, grandparents, and other close family living in the same locality. Yet only a couple of generations ago, it was the norm. On the other hand, through media and the internet, we know more about what is happening every second of every day in the once unknown other side of the world. We have never been more close as global citizens, aware of each other’s activity, and yet we have never been further emotionally removed from each other, and craving understand of who we are, where we come from and what makes us the people we are.

This longing for rootedness, for identity, for self-discovery, feels like a very modern predicament in our all too fractured world. Yet St Augustine understood our longing to find our place in the world and within God’s grand scheme of things when he famously said, ‘...Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you...’ The ‘you’ to which he refers is of course God, and today - Trinity Sunday - reminds us the answers to our individual quests for meaning, lie in the duet sung between God and humanity.

At the heart of what we celebrate this Trinity Sunday is the idea that it is love that defines us and makes us what and who we are. Without the questing love of a mother, Avril Grube and Gavin Paros would not have been reunited as mother and son. WIthout the careful shaping love and encouragement of my parents and wider family I would not be the man I am today. Nicodemus recognised the love of God at work in Jesus and came to discover more for himself.

You cannot fully know the love of God, Jesus says to Nicodemus, without being born again, for experiencing God for yourself is like starting life all over again and being born anew. If you want to know your place with God, in life and in God’s presence and plan - in his kingdom, then this must be.

Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a religious teacher of his day, a learned man, splutters ‘How can this be?’ Nicodemus seems caught up on the biology of the image Jesus uses and on the idea that this is something that you might voluntarily choose. And yet the starting again in response to God’s love, that Jesus refers to, is as involuntary as the birth of a baby - we do not choose to be loved by God - he just loves us - unendingly, unconditionally, undeservedly, unreservedly.

At the heart of our world’s fractured relationships is a longing to be loved, to be understood, to be accepted for who we are, and to know that that is ok. At the heart of what we hear with Nicodemus today is that God loves in a sweeping, expansive way, He loves all things and all people - He always has and always will - but that sweeping and expansive love comes personally and intimately to me - and that love will transform my life so that I may be born of he spirit, be born anew and to find myself rooted, a life with an identity and purpose, as St Paul reminds us this morning, as a child of God himself, a brother or sister of Jesus, with God as our Abba, our daddy.

This weekend we have the privilege of celebrating the 60 year reign  of Her Majesty Queen ELizabeth II.  She has been an enduring presence on the national and international stage throughout my life and many if not all of yours. Her’s it the first Diamond Jubilee since Queen Victoria’s and the celebrations of it will probably live in collective memories of years to come.

In her Christmas message of 2000 she told us: For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life. I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example.  It’s clear, that over the years it has been faith in God that sustains and resources her. It is the example of Jesus, who came not to be served, but to be serve, which underpins the Queen’s continued commitment to the people of this country and the Commonwealth. 

Recently, Archbishop Rowan said of the Queen: “has a profound sense of vocation, not simply stepping into a role exercising function but actually becoming a certain kind of person, which is what vocation is about”.  A hallmark of the the  Queen’s reign has been about her loving service to country and commonwealth alike, part a sense of duty, but also in a sense her vocation as Monarch and as a Christian rises out of a response to the love God has for her.

 The love of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit that we recall this Trinity Sunday is not some sort of test tube love - tried out on Christians first to see if the formula is right and at the correct transforming strength. God’s love is a spontaneous reaction - not a planned campaign. God cannot help himself. It is a love that is utterly transforming, that births us anew by the power of the Holy Spirit, it is a love that defines us, that makes us the people that we and our Father long for us to be - not the glossy media bodies - although I could do with one of those please! - but the sort of people that they long to be in the revealing exclusives - at peace, forgiven, free from guilt and knowing that we are loved. Amen

Who's in and who's out?

We went up to London last weekend to watch the Royal Pageant on the Thames. I went in later than the rest of my family, but when I got near to where I knew they were, I was confronted by by barriers and people in hiviz vests telling me I couldn’t go where I wanted to go. I tried to explain but to no avail. I was shut out, stuck one side of a barrier.  I did eventually manage to meet up with them all but it got me thinking.

Things being cordoned off by a crash barrier or rope boundary and the welcoming space it defines in a queue addresses one of the most important challenges that we face in contemporary society. How are we to live with each other when we constantly define and redefine who is in or who who is out across a wide range of social, political, cultural and economic conditions - your skin colour, religion, income however real or perceived.  With those rope barriers one person places the rope to define a broad and generous space, another draws it in to become much narrower and exclusive. Boundaries are flexible; the wooden post can be pushed out or pulled in at will.

The ongoing global economic crisis demonstrates how brutally the boundaries of austerity are drawn by those with the power to define them. Within the global banking sector certain key players remain secure and protected together behind the rope of government policy everywhere, put in place through policies which ultimately benefit the wealthy 1%. Meanwhile the rest of us, the 99%, are excluded on the other side of the boundary, are suffering a recession due to decisions and risks we did not take. This 'Royal Box' view of privilege and preference sustains so many injustices and inequalities but ultimately makes us ask basic and fundamental questions about 'who's in, who's out?'

And on this key question our politicians consistently fail us. They crave our votes but dance to the tune of big money. Power seduces. Status corrupts. Wealth separates and entices. The Leveson Enquiry hows just how different life is behind the gilded rope of power and what people will do for the chance to step across it to join the exclusive VIP club, or keep 'undesirables' out and 'in their place'.

Whilst the Diamond Jubilee celebrations have been wonderful in my opinion, we can’t help but notice the contrast between the monarchy and the costs of the celebrations and the story this week about the unemployed who were bussed to London to man those barriers in hivis vests for little cash, sleeping under London Bridge.  And we are left wondering why the boundary rope never seems to be where it ought to be?

In such a divisive and unfair world as this where shall we turn for wisdom, solace and hope? Who will set the boundary rope in favour of the powerless, the marginalised and excluded ones who always and inevitably bear the cost of injustice in every age? Who will bring them in to a sheltered and hospitable place? And who dares to define a conceptual space which includes everyone within a visionary paradigm of parity of esteem and then sets out to make it a reality amongst us?

The Bible's answer to these questions is God.

We hear today Jesus challenging his own family and the teaching and traditions of his day as he explores the inevitable consequences of redrawing the 'whose in, whose out' boundaries.  As He does, Jesus is not disowning his family but moving the rope barrier which defines the basis upon which we should understand our commitment to love and be loved. In his hands no one is left standing outside the rope.

And so Jesus shows us again what a life living in and out His love looks like. For Jesus, it is the love of God alone that defines what it means to be human. Again and again He teaches and tells that God loves - the socially respectable and the prostitute, the tax collector and the poor man.  He reminds us today that no one is left out and no one is excluded from the Kingdom of God.

Are we Jesus’ mother or brothers?  It sounds so simple - we just need to do the will of God and we are welcomed.  But to do God’s will means to love God with all that we are, to love our neighbours as ourselves, to forgive our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, to give to those who ask of us and so on. It’s demanding and radical.

Those who welcome God's radical love find themselves changed and transformed by it. Jesus demonstrates again and again how such love is profoundly subversive and upsets of the status quo of human relationships - here today as we share this Eucharist we are remembering that the love of God welcomes and embraces all of us who seek to live His love, and He calls us family.

So potent is the vision in practice that God's presence will inevitably lead to a shake up within each one of us that dares to follow Jesus because one way or another we are all guilty of placing the boundary rope in the wrong place and of drawing it in too tightly.

The impoverished carpenter from Nazareth has other ideas and invites poor and rich alike to sit with him and us, to leave the questions of 'who's in, who's out' behind, and together remake the human family in ways that are just, loving and fair. Amen.

Living in the Power of the Spirit

So I've got a bit  behind posting here - here come a few...


There are many great stories that climax with the death or departure of the hero, but the last sections are often taken up with who will be the hero’s successor.  A good contemporary example for me, would be that of Obi Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars films.  Another good example is that of Bilbo in Tolkein’s The Hobbit and at the beginning of his Lord of the Rings Trilogy.  It is this ancient motif that is told again and again in the stories of history.  It’s there in Homer’s writings, it’s also there in the Hebrew scriptures.  It’s characterised by situations where the end of one story becomes the beginning of another.  Thus the hand over from Elijah to Elisha, may be the end of Elijah’s story but it is only the beginning of the 2nd book of Kings where Elisha picks up Elijah’s cloak from where it had fallen as his master was taken away into heaven.

Pentecost feels rather like this.  This is the climax of the whole of the story of the life of Christ, stretching back to where he left the Father’s side to dwell amongst us as a human being.  His birth and life, his arrest and death, his resurrection and his appearances have all led up to his ascension, taking our humanity to be in the presence of God the Father for all eternity.  From on high he pours out on his followers the farewell gift of his successor - the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  And so the tragic climax of the story of Jesus becomes the hope-filled story of the beginning of the church as the Holy Spirit guides his people to God.  Today is filled with a sense of climax and also of new beginnings.  Today we hear the risen and ascended Christ speak with us and he is with us, his disciples still today, by the Holy Spirit who will continue his work.

The Holy Spirit has featured as the active presence of God in the world since the very beginning.  The Spirit hovered over the waters at the moment of creation.  The spirit, the breath of life, was breathed into Adam by God.  And later it was the same Spirit that confirmed Jesus in his role as Messiah as he was baptized by John.  And of course perhaps most famously, here today the Spirit comes in power to the disciples in the Upper room  The Spirit is given many names or titles in the Scriptures.  He is the Paraclete - literally someone called in to come alongside people and help.  He is the Comforter, someone called in to reassure and provide new strength.  He is the Advocate, someone called in to speak for those on trial either in their defense or to intercede with the judge on their behalf.

I passionately believe that the coming of the Holy Spirit that we recall today is not just a historical event.  There is no doubt that the Holy Spirit came on those first disciples of Jesus empowering and equipping them to do extra-ordinary things some of which are recorded for us in the book of Acts.  Pentecost is not just a historic memorial in the same way that Jesus’ charge to generations of disciples ‘to do this in remembrance of me’ has made the Last Supper such a crucial and intimate part of meeting Christ for ourselves today.  So this major day in our calendar reminds us of the times when we each intimately meet the power behind creation itself, and the change that he brings into our lives.

Post-Pentecost, in may senses the church has tried to restrain and sanitize the Holy Spirit, shoe-horning him into rites of passage liturgies like baptisms. confirmations and ordinations, telling the assembled that his presence has transformed lives.  The Celtic Christians didn’t try to push the Spirit liturgically around.  They had enormous respect for him.  They saw the holy spirit, not as the peaceful gentle dove that so often comes to our minds, rather they imagined the Spirit more like the wild goose - dangerous and beautiful, flying only where it wants, not to be restrained or captured.

For many Christians, maybe some of us, the Holy Spirit is at worst just a mention in the liturgy, and at best the transforming power of God but somehow in the past.   Today, I am reminded that he is a living and transforming reality, calling and drawing the world to God.

The coming of the spirit on those first disciples of Jesus transformed their lives and revolutionized their faith.  From a group of followers came a group of leaders of the church by the Spirit.  From a group of listeners and learners came speakers and evangelists and teachers by the Spirit.  The Holy Spirit has transformed lives here is similar but maybe not as dramatic ways and you will have your own stories to tell.  I have spoken to a few people in recent weeks who attend very infrequently and they talked openly about how welcome they felt as they came here and of something intangible and indefinable but noticeable amongst us.

The Holy Spirit did not run out on that first Pentecost.  Jesus promised that the spirit would witness to Him, testifying to him and all that he had done said and taught, but the Spirit as Comforter would also stir the disciples to testify to what they themselves have seen and heard.  As Paraclete, he will do for the disciples all that Jesus has done, not condemning the world but offering it salvation through them, calling people to examine their actions and lives and have them judged and transformed according to God’s standards.  The Holy Spirit does not just transform bread and wine into the body and blood of christ at the Eucharist - he changes lives today.

So where does it leave us as churches this Pentecost?  It seems to me that we have a simple choice to make - either we are still excited enough by what God the Holy Spirit did amongst us and is still doing amongst us to allow ourselves to be like the first disciples, empowered by the Spirit, or we’re not.  I believe that God has made that choice for us.  As a church we are equipped and empowered by the Spirit with renewed vision, purpose and faith.  We are ready to write a new page of the history of God’s church here in the communities of West Hyde and Maple Cross, Heronsgate and Mill End.  God’s new mission for the disciples’ began outside the door of the upper room.  So does ours.  Amen.