Tuesday, 29 December 2009

A Year of Change

For me, this has been a year of immense change.
This is a reflection on the year that is now coming to its end.

The year began badly. In January 2009, my family and I were focussed completely on prayer for my 51-yr-old brother-in-law, who, on February 7, 2009, sadly lost his battle against heart failure. This was devastating for our family, especially my sister and her two children. I never thought that my brother-in-law's funeral would be the first funeral I would conduct. It was a priviledge to spend three weeks with my sister and her family at that time, but it is now even harder living 6000 miles away from her. And another family bereavement in April, the day before Easter, in fact - my dear stepfather passed away unexpectedly while taking a nap. Very peaceful, which is a blessing, but my sweet mother and all of us miss him so much. These two deaths have made an indelible mark on our lives. I thank God that both of these lovely men had developed trusting relationships with the Lord.

At the beginning of this year, I had a totally different job. I worked in a veterinary laboratory for a university, part-time. I have worked in science for 20 years, before my ordination in July of this year. So my job change has been a big change! To be honest, I was so ready to begin full-time ministry that I couldn't wait to leave my old job, even though I had enjoyed the work, and worked with good people. I feel a bit guilty that I haven't yet been back for a visit since I left. But, no regrets about leaving. I am so thankful that this vocational change is proving so fulfilling.

Also at the beginning of the year, I was still in training for ordination. My ordination training course was three years long, and in that time I made some lifelong friends and learned so much. But no theoretical training can prepare anyone for the realities of ordained ministry, I'm now finding out!

In July my mother came over from California for my ordination. What a wonderful day it was! I felt supported by family, friends and parishioners from my sending church and my new parish. Since then, it has felt a bit like a roller-coaster ride: anxiety, suspense, and fear, but also exhilaration, excitement and fun! I've noticed the fear has decreased a lot over the past 6 months, mostly replaced by an adrenaline edge that can be very energising, rather than a hindrance.

We were taught in 'vicar school' that one of the most important things affecting our curacy is our relationship with our training incumbent (the vicar in charge). And in this, I have been blessed, because my training incumbent and I have very similar theologies, and we get along very well. He has a good understanding of different personalities, including his own, and is gracious to people (including me) because of that. He's humble, and that is a big thing. He has allowed me to proceed in this curacy with as little or as much support and direction as I want or need. I know other curates whose training incumbents control virtually their every move, and I wouldn't like that.

In the midst of all the new experiences of meeting so many new people in the parish, taking different kinds of services, regular preaching, conducting funerals, and working together in a ministry team towards an exciting new future for the parish, I have found it challenging to keep up the home front. My husband and children have adapted very well to all the changes, but it isn't easy for any of us. I now work a lot at home, if I'm not out visiting people or at church. I do short bursts of housework in between doing ministry-related things. But even after everyone else gets home from school or from work, I continue to do both housework and ministry work. So it can feel a bit unfair, and like I'm working all the time. And that can be draining. I don't think I've learned yet how to take time out for myself that would refresh me. And I really could do with getting more exercise. I try hard to minimise the effects this new 'job' could have on my husband and children, but there isn't much time left for me. I have, however, managed to find time to re-connect with many of my old friends from high school through Facebook, which has been really satisfying and heart-warming. What great memories, and how wonderful to see people as they are now (they've aged, like I have! lol).

I'm excited about the coming year. Many new things are going to begin at church, offering new training experiences for me. And I'll continue trying to keep everything running smoothly at home. I'm looking forward to the summer when I will be ordained as a priest, and the additional changes that will bring to my ministry. And my lovely mother, sister, and niece and nephew are coming over to England this summer, too. I hope it is a brighter year, but whatever happens, I know that God is with me. I will sign off with one of my favourite Old Testament quotes: Joshua 1:9
Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified or discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us

John 1:1-14

I was really excited to see our gospel reading for this Christmas morning – it contains some of my favourite verses of scripture. The prologue of John’s gospel is so poetically written; it has been described as a Hymn to the Word, and it fires our imagination on a completely different level than the more commonly set Christmas accounts of the birth of Jesus.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Anyone reading this for the first time might find it a bit hard to get their head round it! Aren’t ‘words’ just neutral, inert things we use to communicate? What does a ‘word’ have to do with God???

In our Old Testament reading, the Lord spoke the good news to his people through his prophets: ‘Listen!’ Isaiah shouts. Jerusalem is redeemed! The Lord’s favour has returned to Zion, and a new day dawns for captive Israel. The action of God, communicated by the ‘spoken’ word.

In our New Testament reading, the written word called The Letter to the Hebrews, it is accepted that God speaks to us in various ways, and notably through the prophets, but the writer states, ‘in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son’. Note the writer didn’t write that God has spoken to us through his son, as he had spoken through the prophets, but that he has spoken to us ‘by’ his Son. By the very existence of his Son, God speaks to us.

And here in John’s gospel is the description of a Word that is neither printed nor verbal, but which is the Word… an embodied Word! ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us’ – and a new day has dawned. The action of God, communicated and embodied by the incarnation.

‘Word’ is our English translation of the ancient philosophical concept of Logos. Western culture today isn’t really too hot on philosophical concepts. Alas, for the time being, the love of wisdom and truth seems to have been sidelined by the love of consumerism and celebrities. But back in the 1st century AD, the concept of Logos would have been well known; and in the region of Ephesus, where John’s gospel is thought to have been written, it was fairly common for people to discuss philosophy, much like people today might discuss Coronation Street.

300 years before Christ, Aristotle defined logos as the quality of ‘reason’, and it’s from logos that we get the term ‘logic’. And 200 years before Aristotle, the Ephesian philosopher Heraclitus defined the term Logos as the fundamental source of the cosmos. He said that the Logos is eternal, and 'humans always prove unable to understand it...’ That sounds vaguely familiar: ‘The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it’…

So our gospel writer John makes good use of this well-known concept of his time by creatively developing it to express who Jesus is to his readers: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… [And] the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

Prompted by something I was reading on these verses, I wondered if we could come up with our own poetically imaginative ‘logos’ parallel for our context. The common experience shared by people living in our area has to do with living by the water. Water is essential for the creation of life. And water is fluid, having the properties of ‘continuity’ and the ability to ‘flow’; and even the distinction between solids and fluid is not entirely understood. So if you’ll bear with me in a little light-hearted frivolity this Christmas morning – here’s my attempt at an imaginative, poetic parallel for logos:

The beginning was fluid.
It was fluid with God; fluid was God.
The Fluid became solid flesh and flowed among us.

Ok, maybe not. Anyway, it’s probably not really possible to improve on John’s inspired gospel writing. And his writing was absolutely vital to the early Church in determining an orthodox view of who Christ is. The Church Fathers wanted to distance the Christian logos from that of Heraclitus because his writings were considered to be a source of heresy. The Church didn’t even want to attempt to address ancient philosophy until much later, even though many of the Church Fathers were converted philosophers.

There were other convictions also around at the time, and John’s prologue also answers these: to the rabbis who claimed that the Torah (the Law) existed before creation and was the source of light and life, John replied that these claims apply rather to the Logos. John's answer to the Gnostics who would deny a real incarnation was that "the Word became flesh." And to those who were still following John the Baptist, he made it clear that John was not the Light but only a witness to the Light.

So John our evangelist’s purpose was to clarify the divine identity of Jesus. Our reading from Hebrews also does the same, confirming Jesus as Creator, Revealer, Sustainer, Redeemer, and Exalted one, recognising both who he is and what he has done. Jesus was not merely a messenger; he is the active message, himself.

Here’s something you may or may not know - young people today actually use the term ‘word’ as an affirmation of truth! In other words, ‘Word’ in youth culture is a way of saying ‘yes’! And that fits so well with what the Incarnation means: Jesus is God’s ‘yes’ to us; Jesus is God’s Word to us. The Word made flesh affirms humanity itself and God’s love for humanity. And that’s a word we need to pass on to others!

Today, we celebrate the Word made flesh, who came to dwell among us. Emmanuel – God with us. And we will celebrate his presence with us when we gather round His Table. And though we hold dear the stories of his coming as a baby, lying helpless in a manger, it is good to know that his incarnation means so much more than that. Praise be to God for his Holy Word. Amen.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Christmas Eve Morning

Luke 1:67-79 - Zechariah's Song

In the late 1960’s, the anthem for the peace movement was John Lennon’s song, Give Peace a Chance. In our Gospel reading this morning, the peace anthem is Zechariah’s Song, telling us that peace is a realistic hope with the coming of the Lord, who will ‘guide our feet into the path of peace’.

The Song of Zechariah is a song of praise and prophecy, flowing out of sheer joy. Nine months prior to this, Zechariah had lost his voice for doubting the angel’s news about his wife Elisabeth bearing a child, never mind a son who would be given the task of preparing the way for the Lord. Zechariah’s tongue was released after he wrote down the instruction, in accordance with the angel’s command, that his son’s name would be ‘John’, and then he burst forth with this Spirit-filled song!

But as we approach the year 2010, at a time when the world is faced with intense global issues, and many of us struggle with desperate personal concerns, is it realistic to believe we’re on the path headed towards ‘peace’? For unless you’ve been hiding in a cave in a mountainous region somewhere, you will all know about the war we’re fighting with an enemy called ‘terror’, which is anything but peaceful. And we probably all know people; perhaps even ourselves, who are struggling right now with major personal problems - illness, bereavement or family conflict.

The bible tells us that our God is a God of peace, and that Jesus is the ‘Prince of Peace’. Yet for some reason, ‘peace’ seems to be in short supply. Yes, we can grasp from Zechariah’s Song that God 'made good' on his promises to David and to Abraham, and remembered his covenant with Israel, with the coming of the Lord. But if our daily experience doesn’t quite seem to match up with Zechariah’s claim about the peace that the Lord’s coming will bring, what shall we make of it? Where is this ‘path of peace’? Or is it all just lip service?

We say ‘peace be with you’ during our worship services. We wish each other 'peace' in our Christmas cards. ‘Peace on earth’ was announced by angels to the shepherds watching over their flocks by night. Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’. But the ‘peace which passes all understanding’ certainly does pass all understanding when we’re often confronted with the complications and conflicts of life.

Peace in the Church can also be strained and hard to come by, in spite of St. Paul’s advice to ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’, and to ‘let the peace of Christ rule in [our] hearts, since as members of one body [we] were called to peace’. Ideally, the church is the redeemed, unified community of Christ, literally living and sharing the gospel, which is a gospel of peace. But every church knows that the reality can sometimes be quite different.

How, then, can we find this ‘path of peace’? First, we need to know that peace isn’t just an absence of conflict. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus said that he didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword. The gospel is a radical message! But we know Jesus doesn’t advocate violence - he’s simply being honest about the truth: his teachings will cause opposition and ideological conflicts between families and between nations.

The gospel should challenge us to the core of our very being. And to experience the peace of Christ, most of us will need to let go of some things that we cling to – especially that inner critic, who makes it hard for us to accept God’s forgiveness for things in our past; and also that inner judge, who can make it hard for us to forgive other people’s wrongs against us. On the path of peace, we also need to let go if we cling to a legalistic view of faith, in which there are some who are ‘in’ and some who are most definitely ‘out’; in which we think we all must take the ‘correct’ doctrinal position; and in which we think we have to work hard at being ‘good enough’ to deserve God’s grace and favour.

The path of peace lies way beyond cultural opinions, doctrinal understandings and human judgment. God’s peace is only found in the person and work of Christ, and not in our debates or arguments about him! God’s peace can be found by doing what Paul asks in Romans 15:7 - ‘Accept one another… just as Christ has accepted you.

We won’t experience the peace of Christ if we expect that our faith will give us a life completely free from conflict. It would be easy to fulfil the Great Commission to make disciples if a profession of faith gave an instant and permanent result of peaceful life conditions! But faith isn’t like that. God isn’t pulling puppet strings. But the Spirit will guide our life into the path of peace… into the peace of Christ, when we have faith and trust in him.

We can gain a lovely sense of calm on a crisp winter’s day watching a robin hopping ‘round in the garden. We can have the occasional wonderful moment of tranquillity, and I pray that we will all enjoy at least some of these moments over Christmas. But we only arrive on the true path of peace through our relationship with Christ, and our relationship with the Father through Christ. Embracing this pathway means embracing that relationship.

That relationship brings the peace of knowing that God loves us as we are… and the peace of knowing God as Emmanuel – that God is with us, no matter what the circumstances. He knows about the messy complications of being human, and he’s with us as we walk the bumpy road of life. He even knows the tension between what we experience now
and what we (as Christians) believe is to come.

And His peace has the power to change us, including how we interact with one another. When we come to believe in Jesus, we are a new creation – but another change also happens: we become a community creation. Because the ‘path of peace’ isn’t intended to be a solitary experience; it’s a communal experience – with God and with each other. As we are guided into the path of peace, we are to share the struggles – share the journey. And this Christmas, may we truly know that God is with us, all the way. Amen.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Matthew 1:1-17

Who are you? Well, if your family background has any bearing on who you are, then you might answer this question by pointing to your family tree. It can be fun looking back at our family history – or it can be a source of shame or sorrow. In your ancestry there might be illustrious individuals of intrigue, or there could be infamous intimations of ill-repute! There might be privileged princes and princesses, or perhaps pitiable penniless paupers. You might not even know much about your family history – you may have been adopted, or perhaps the family history has never been researched, or has been lost in the mists of time.

But family histories can be a way of affirming our roots, giving us a sense of identity. My own family history contains a mixture of European ethnicities. Down one branch, there is a rumour of Irish nobility, as some on the family tree are noted as having lived in a castle. On another branch were Bohemians from Czechoslovakia. The tree also has several off-shoots where divorces and re-marriages have occurred, resulting in step-parents, step-siblings and half-siblings. As with many people’s histories, mine’s a bit complicated, but it’s unique to me and my family, and it has formed our identity.

Well, it’s obvious from this morning’s Gospel reading that Jesus’ family tree has not been lost – and there are a good few complications in his family history as well! So why did Matthew bother with recording all those names? Why is the genealogy of Jesus important, and what does it say about his identity?

In the context of Matthew’s writing, ‘the genealogy of Jesus’ was impressive and persuasive in identifying who Jesus is. There is much we could look at in this long list of names, but you’ll be happy to know that here we’re only going to focus on the first line!

Three claims are made in that first verse of Matthew, chapter 1: that Jesus is ‘the Christ’; that Jesus is ‘the son of David’, and that Jesus is ‘the son of Abraham’.

First, Jesus is the Christ: Matthew emphasises the title of Christ in describing Jesus. ‘Christ’ is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew title ‘Messiah’, which means ‘anointed’, in the sense of an anointed king. Jesus is presented first and foremost as the long-awaited Messiah, who was expected to be a descendant of King David – so one of the purposes of Matthew’s genealogy is to demonstrate that line of descent, in order to strengthen the claim that Jesus is the Messiah.

In addition to giving Jesus the title of ‘Christ’, Matthew continues in the same verse to proclaim Jesus as both the ‘son of David’ and ‘the son of Abraham’. The use of the relational term ‘son’ is the key here: this is about inheritance. Matthew is staking the claim for Jesus as the heir to the promises given by God to David and to Abraham. David is mentioned here before Abraham, even though Abraham lived long before David lived. I think this has to do with the ordering of God’s plan, but we'll get back to this idea in a minute.

But first, why is David so important in the genealogy of Jesus? And how is Jesus considered a descendent of David through Joseph’s line, since Joseph wasn’t Jesus’ biological father? But of course, Joseph was the father of Jesus by adoption, and so legally it was accepted that Jesus was Joseph’s son, and the heir to his lineage. This shows Jesus’ true royal bloodline.

David was the great king to whom God made the promise of a kingdom which would continue forever, as we read in 2 Samuel 7:

When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you… and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.

David’s kingdom would last forever through one of his descendants – one born into the royal family line. Hundreds of years after David’s, and hundreds of years before Jesus, the familiar words of the prophet Isaiah were recorded:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end! He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.

Everything God promised to David, and to Abraham before him, was secured by the coming of Jesus Christ. His coming confirms and fulfils all the covenants. Jesus is the ‘Yes’ to God’s promises! In Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians, chapter 1, he says, ‘… no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ’!

So let’s think about Abraham now. How is Jesus the ‘Son of Abraham’? God’s promise to Abraham included all nations, and as Paul states in his letter to the Galatians, Christ ‘redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles… The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed…who is Christ.’

Abraham is ‘the founding father’ of Israel, and the patriarch of Jews, Christians and Muslims; and as we read in Genesis chapter 12, God made an amazing covenant with Abraham, that he would be made into a great nation, and that all nations would be blessed through him.

So the Messiah, the eternal King of kings, comes from David’s bloodline, as promised to David – and he came to bless the whole world, as was promised to Abraham – ‘to the Jews first, then to the Gentiles’, as it says in 2 Corinthians.

So we can see, through the genealogy of Jesus Christ as presented by Matthew, that Jesus has the right credentials. Does this help us with our own sense of identity as Christians? We know that we are heirs of God in Jesus Christ, from Galatians 3 and 4: ‘You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus… If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise’.Because you are his children, he sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ So you are no longer slaves, but God’s children; and since you are his children, he has made you also heirs.’

We are children of God, we are brothers and sisters to each other in Christ, and we share in Christ’s inheritance. In the letter to the Hebrews, it says: ‘Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.’

After hearing God’s promise, David’s response was one of humility, worship and praise. Abraham’s response was one of faithful obedience to the covenant God made with him. Our response should be the same: humility, worship, praise, and faithful obedience to Jesus, the Christ.

Let us pray: Lord Jesus, You came to claim your inheritance of all creation as your kingdom. Who are we that you would share your inheritance with us? In the light of your love for us, help us to know deep down who we are. Though we know we are not perfect, you have made us holy – you have made us a people for your self. We thank you, and we praise you. Help us to worship you with our whole lives. Help us to be obedient in following you closely and in loving others as you love them. Even so, come Lord Jesus! Amen.