Monday, 12 November 2012

Remembrance Sunday

In the city of Philippi Christians are urged by Paul not to be anxious about anything. If anyone had cause to be anxious, it was Paul, who wrote this letter while he was in prison.  Paul is surprisingly joyful in this letter, but at the same time he is concerned about the dangers facing the Philippians, and as he warns them in ch.3 of the ‘enemies of the cross of Christ’, Paul assures the Philippians here in ch.4 that by remaining firm in their faith in the Lord, ‘the peace of God will guard their hearts and minds.’  Today when we are anxious about the ‘enemies of the cross’, and they are many, this assurance for us, as well.

In the field of psychology, anxiety falls within the emotional category of ‘fear’. Anxiety is the result of threats that are perceived as uncontrollable or unavoidable.  When we’re faced with a threat, our human response generally goes in one of two ways – it’s either ‘fight’ or ‘flight’.  We could say that Paul’s advice to ‘stand firm’ in the Lord falls under the ‘fight’ response – it’s a spiritual battle, grounded in the real world. We may not be able to avoid ‘the enemies of the cross,’ and in fact, we are called to confront them.  But Paul urges us to have confidence in the cross of Christ, that ultimately God is in control, and the enemies of Christ will be conquered in the end.  And so Paul encourages us to focus our minds on that which is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy – and in so doing, our anxieties are smothered by the good things that are promised by our God.

For many people, today is a day of very mixed emotions.  Some may be veterans themselves, or have relatives who were affected by war.  Some may have loved ones serving currently in the Armed Forces.  Others have had relatively little involvement in the realities of armed conflict.  But in one way or another, we’re all affected, and most of us share in a deep sense of gratitude for those who put their lives on the line for the freedom of others.

It is important to remember so that we can avoid repeating the same mistakes of the past - but remembering can sometimes bring great anxiety.  There are times in this life when to be able to forget might seem the better option.  Combatants returning from frontline activity can experience ‘post-traumatic stress’ and find their return to ‘normality’ anything but normal.  Even the next generation can be affected if raised around a parent who has struggled in the aftermath of war.  

I read an article recently about an American woman named Christal Presley. Christal has written a book called "Thirty Days with My Father", which has been described as ‘a gritty memoir written by a woman haunted by what some psychologists describe as second-generation post-traumatic stress disorder.’ Christal’s father served in the Vietnam War.  Upon his return, at first things seemed ok – he married and had a daughter, but then this man’s flashbacks became so bad he became violent, reclusive and suicidal for many years.  And as his daughter Christal grew up, she began to have serious problems stemming from living in this kind of home environment. Through counselling, she came to realised she was facing the demons of her father’s war.

The term, ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ was officially defined after the Vietnam War.  It wasn’t a properly recognised or treated condition in the days of WWI or II – but the condition itself was certainly there as a result of those wars – it was called ‘shell shock’ in WW1 and ‘Combat Stress Reaction’ in WWII, and it had its effects on the generations subsequently born to those who battled in those wars. 

It’s important to remember, even when it isn’t easy.  Sometimes memories are anything but lovely, admirable, excellent or praise-worthy.  But remembrance is at the heart of healing and restoring, because it’s only when we spend that necessary time of remembering that we can then move on into a new beginning.  Helping his daughter write her book made it possible for Christal Presley’s father to return to the land of the living.  And this is the transforming power of remembrance; this is where new life can be found out of death.
Today we remember the many people who have fought to protect freedom and bring peace.  But in our remembering, let’s not forget the One who puts the vision of freedom and peace into our hearts. He is the One who comes to bring us ultimate freedom and peace. 

Peace is more than just the avoidance of war, because peace also includes reconciliation.  It’s about building relationships between people, between communities and between nations.  And we must start with ourselves, through our own reconciliation with God, and then we must continue in our families, in our parish and in our communities, to build relationships of peace and reconciliation. 

And for that we desperately need God’s help, to change and transform us; to shape us; to give us a passion for peace and for justice and a passion to keep on following Jesus, who is the path to peace.  Colossians 1:17 tells us that ‘in Christ, all things are held together.’  Christ holds us in remembrance. And we are called to live in remembrance of Him.

In the last days, God’s kingdom will be fully established on earth as it is in heaven; and then God’s people will be settled and content under the reign of the Lord.  There will be righteous judgment, peace and harmony; there will be no more war or fear of any kind.  We pray for that kingdom to come whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer.  And as we walk with Jesus on our journey of discipleship, we’re walking into that kingdom, which is being built even now within us and in His Church.   

There is a tension that we have to live with until the fullness of that kingdom comes.  Today we remember those who have fallen in conflict, in the service of this country.  World Wars I and II were immensely traumatic for this nation, and their legacies are still being explored today.  But we will remember those who fought in the hope that their service was not in vain – and that by remembering, ‘we that are left’ will be spurred on to work passionately for reconciliation, to the glory of God.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And may the peace of God guard our hearts and minds as we stand firm in the faith.  Amen.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Seeing sense

Last Sunday I led the monthly Church Parade service for the Uniformed Organisations (Rainbows, Beavers, Brownies, Cubs, Guides and Scouts).  I've never before posted any of my talks from the Parade services, so I thought I would do that now!  I hope it is of help to those needing ideas for children's talks!

The reading was Mark 10:46-52 -

46 Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  48 Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

49 Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”  So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” 50 Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.
51 “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.  The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”  52 “Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.
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Props for "multi-sensory" demonstration:  lemon slices, small teddy bear, ticking timepiece (I used a wind-up stopwatch),  mint candy, and cloth or a bandanna to make a blindfold.  Keep props hidden until later.

[Suggestions and comments are in brackets - I like to ask the children a lot of questions in my talks!]
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I wonder if some of you have been learning at school that we human beings have FIVE SENSES - 5 ways that we can perceive the world and sense our environment.   Can anyone tell me what these five senses are? [Give clues if necessary - my group were very clever and gave the right answers: smell, touch, hearing, taste and sight].

Did you know that if a person looses one of these senses, their other senses get heightened - their other senses work even better?  Someone who's blind will use their senses of smell, touch, hearing and taste to understand and make use of their environment.  We're going to have a little multi-sensory demonstration right now.  I need a volunteer, someone who doesn't mind putting on a blindfold... [procure a willing volunteer.  After volunteer is blindfolded, uncover the props for the others to see, but tell them not to say what it is they see!  Then, one-by-one, give the props to the volunteer to work out what the object is.  Lots of applause for right answers!]

To 'see' usually means to be able to see things with our eyes.  But how about when we're listening to someone describe something, and we say to them 'I see what you mean', or 'I hear what you're saying' - what we're really saying then is, 'I understand', or 'that makes sense'.  See what I mean?
Let's get into the bible reading then - all of this does relate to the reading, trust me!

Does anyone remember where the scene of the reading takes place?  It was mentioned at the very beginning of the reading, so you had to have been paying attention!  [Jericho]  And does anyone remember what happened long before this in Jericho?  Perhaps some of the grown-ups remember?  [Joshua, the walls came tumbling down, God delivered Jericho to the Israelites etc.  It became a place of honour for the Israelites]  Well, remember the main character of our bible reading?  [Bartimaeus]

The name 'Bartimaeus' means 'son of honour'.  But it seems at the beginning of the story that Bartimaeus didn't have much honour at all, because, what was he doing? [sitting at the side of the road begging] Why do you think he was begging?  [blind, no job, poor] So he was really 'down-and-out' - and when you're really down, it can be hard to have faith in anything or anyone.

But Bartimaeus was able to sense and understand who Jesus was, even though he didn't have all five senses.  As Jesus approached, Bartimaeus shouts out to him:  'Son of David, have mercy on me!'
All the other people around Jesus shouted back at Bartimaeus to be quiet!  Why do you think they did that?  They didn't think Bartimaeus had any right to speak to Jesus.  They felt ashamed of Bartimaeus.  Have any of you ever been told to 'be quiet'? [this question drew laughs from the parents!]  What do you do when you're told to 'be quiet'?  Well I'll tell you what, it made Bartimaeus shout even louder!  'Son of David, have mercy on me!'

And that's when Bartimaeus is given the greatest honour, as Jesus calls Bartimaeus to come to him, and asks him' what do you want me to do for you?'  Here's another question:  If Jesus asked you right now, 'What do you want me to do for you?', what would your answer be? [at this point one of the group leader's pointed out one of her Rainbows and said 'she has a good one' - I asked the little 6-year-old what it was, and she said 'For Jesus to come into my heart'!  - couldn't have had a better answer than that!]

What did Bartimaeus want from Jesus?  Bartimaeus wanted to see again.  He asked Jesus to help him.  Even though Bartimaeus was blind, he could still 'see' that Jesus was the Messiah.  He put his faith in Jesus, and Jesus gave him back his sight.  Then Jesus said 'Go.  Your faith has saved you'.

At the end of the story, Bartimaeus is no longer sitting in the dust begging.  Now, he is following Jesus on 'the way'.  The early Christians were called 'Followers of the Way'.  Bartimaeus, the 'son of Timaeus', the 'son of honour', began to follow Jesus 'the Son of David', the 'Son of God'.  Bartimaeus became a follower of the Lord, the Saviour of the world.  And that was the beginning of a whole new life for Bartimaeus.  And when we trust in Jesus with our whole heart, we will 'see' that it's the beginning of a new life for us, too.

Prayer at the end:  Jesus, we thank you for the story of Bartimaeus and how his faith saved him.  Thank you for his example of following you.  May our faith continue to grow so that we can always believe and trust in you, so that we can see and understand better the meaning and purpose that you have for our life.  Amen. 
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I received a lot of positive feedback after this talk, and it was especially encouraging when a Dad who doesn't usually attend said that it was really good, and that he noticed it held the children's attention from beginning to end.  I love working with children - especially some of the answers they give! 

Monday, 15 October 2012

A Revolution of Heart and Mind

Sermon for Choral Evensong: Matthew11:20-30
In this reading from Matthew’s gospel, we hear some of the strongest words of condemnation to come out of the mouth of Jesus, followed by one of his most soothing invitations.  So let’s put that into context, to see what this passage of scripture could mean for us today. 

Woe to you, Korazin, Bethsaida, and to you, Capernaum.  These towns had witnessed first-hand the miracles that Jesus had performed.  They had heard the prophecy of John the Baptist who said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt 3:2).  They knew the prophecies of old about the coming of a Messiah, who would be born of the house of David.  All of these were fulfilled in Jesus Christ, which should have firmly established his credentials as the Messiah. 

At the very beginning of Matthew’s gospel, the genealogy of Jesus through the house of David is laid out – fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ (Matt 1:1-17).  And in Matthew 4:23-25, we’re told that ‘Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.   News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralysed, and he healed them.  Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.’

Surely all of this was evidence enough to prove the credentials and identity of Jesus, but as we see by his condemnation of Korazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, they were not responding to his announcement of the kingdom of God.  In fact, their hearts were hardened against him. 

I have to admit, I have some sympathy towards these people, because sometimes it’s hard to see the wood for the trees.  They didn’t recognise Jesus as Messiah because they knew his parents and his trade in Nazareth.  They didn’t think God could raise a Messiah from there.  Not only that, but he wasn’t the sort of Messiah they were expecting.  Even John the Baptist had questions:  in Matthew 11, verse 2, it says ‘when John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”’

Somebody has worked out the odds for one person to fulfil all of the prophecies concerning the Messiah as 1 in 10157. To illustrate this chance, consider the humble electron.  The electron is about as small an object as we can imagine. If we had a cubic inch of electrons and if we could count them at 250 per minute, it would take 57,000 years to count them. Now mark just one of these electrons and stir it back into the rest of them. The chance for one person to fulfil all the prophecies about Christ is the same chance that a blindfolded person has of finding the marked electron – unless, of course, He is the Son of God.

The gospel is good news, and the good news that Jesus proclaimed was that the kingdom of God was entering into the reality of this broken world to transform it.  Sadly, many are cynical and find this news ‘too good to be true’. 

But if we’re honest, aren’t we all bent a bit towards cynicism when we hear of something that seems too good to be true?  I know that I can be.  And in our worst moments, when life’s events seem to be conspiring against us, aren’t we tempted as well to disregard God’s promises and the teachings of Jesus?  Though we know that Jesus bids us to come to him when we’re weary and burdened, and he promises rest for our souls, is he always the first to whom we turn?

Our society is restless, weary, looking for something, around them, possibly in them, but not knowing where to find the true source of peace and rest.  Many people don’t realise their true need for Christ.  It’s like the story of a man who has a fever... 

As he lies upon his bed, wherever he puts his head becomes hot and uncomfortable. And so he tosses and turns.  He rolls from side to side.  He constantly re-arranges his pillow, thinking that the fever is in the bed and in the sheets, and forgetting that the fever is in him.  No tossing, no turning, no thrashing about will help.  And the same thing is true of the restlessness of our age. We cannot find rest until we are changed within; we will not be relieved from our sense of restlessness and weariness until we realize that there’s no hope in looking anywhere else but to Jesus. 

The sin of Korazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum in our scripture was that they did not ‘repent’.  That is, they did not ‘turn’; they did not turn away from their sin and they did not turn towards Jesus.  And isn’t it typical of mankind?  To desire autonomy, self-sufficiency, ‘I’ll do it my way’?  It’s the doctrine of ‘the Fall’, and humanity’s tendency towards sin, in a nutshell. 

The cynicism of the unrepentant Israelites is often explained as resulting from their misunderstanding what the Messiah would be like, when he came.  And it’s true, they thought the Messiah would be a warrior figure, to take back their towns and villages and cities from Roman occupation.  To this day, Jewish people still pray for the coming of their Messiah, who will be victorious over Israel’s enemies, because that promise is included in the message of the prophets.   

In Jesus’ day, this vision of the Messiah would have required an overthrow of the Roman occupation – it would have required a revolution. It would have required swords, and violence – ‘a holy war against the unholy warriors.  Love your neighbour, [but] hate your enemy; if he slaps you on the cheek, or makes you walk a mile with him, stab him with his own dagger.  That’s the sort of kingdom-vision [the Israelites] had’ (says Tom Wright). What Jesus was offering was a completely different kingdom-vision. 

Interestingly, at the end of Matthew 10 (v32-42), Jesus says that he did not come to bring peace; he came to bring a sword! But we know he didn’t engage in actual physical battle – and so the conclusion is that the sword of Jesus is a ‘spiritual’ sword, and the defeat of Israel’s enemies is a spiritual defeat.  The Israelites hadn’t recognised who their true enemy was: their own hardness of heart.  And we must recognise that’s our real enemy, too – the hardness of heart that so readily provides us with excuses not to believe in the promises of God and of Jesus in our scriptures. 

Jeremiah prophesied (31:33) that the Lord would make a new covenant with Israel, that his law would be put in their minds and written on their hearts – the covenant of grace.  The conversion that must happen when we truly repent or turn away from our sin and towards Christ is a conversion of heart and mind.  It doesn’t matter how often we come to church to hear the gospel if we refuse to allow the gospel to convert us, to turn us, and to change us.  We need a revolution of heart and mind.  

As J. C. Ryle (the first Anglican bishop of Liverpool) said, “Let us settle in our minds that it will never do to be content with merely hearing and liking the gospelWe must go further than thatWe must actually repent and be converted.” Indifference to the gospel is no different from rejection as far as Jesus is concerned. As Ryle says, “We must actually lay hold on Christ, and become one with Him. Until then we are in dreadful danger. It will prove more tolerable to have lived in Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, than to have heard the Gospel in England, and at last died unconverted.”

And so, being mindful of Jesus’ warnings at the beginning of this evening’s passage, we can then rejoice for the gift of the promise at the end!  Jesus gives gentle encouragement to all that will hear: ‘Come; take; and learn.’  And the result of following this gracious invitation is that we will ‘find rest.’  Come to Jesus, take his yoke upon yourself, learn from him, and in doing so, you will find rest for your souls.  May we know this truth deeply in our hearts and draw from it the peace and security that Jesus so desires to bring to his people.  Amen. 

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Loving our enemies

Midweek sermon:  Luke 6:27-36
This reading is part of what’s sometimes called ‘the Sermon on the Level Place’, and it has both similarities and differences to Matthew’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’.  Luke’s version of the sermon is only ¼ the length of Matthew’s, and just prior to this sermon, in Luke 6:12-16, Jesus is on a mountain where the twelve disciples have been called from a larger group of disciples and given a new title by Jesus: they are now Apostles.  They then go down to a level place where Jesus delivers his sermon to the crowd. 

We see from verses 17-19, the crowd that makes up Jesus’ audience consists of three groups of people:  a very large crowd of disciples, his twelve newly ordained Apostles, and a great number of people from all over Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.  So the people listening to Jesus are a diverse group of Jews and Gentiles, many who were troubled with diseases and evil spirits, who came to hear him and be healed. 

The section of the sermon that we’ve heard this morning begins with Jesus saying, “Love your enemies”, and the same phrase is repeated at its close in verse 35.  This part of the sermon is made up of principles that Jesus requests his followers to live by:  do not reciprocate, retaliate, or sink down to the level of your enemy; do not re-act, but act according to the principles of love, forgiveness and generosity, for these are the principles of the Kingdom. 

The Golden Rule is in here, too, verse 31: “Do to others as you would have them do to you”.  The world seems to want to re-interpret that as “Do to others as you have been done by”.  Retaliation is the expected norm.  It’s as if we can’t fight against Newton’s laws of motion which apply to mechanics – Newton’s third law states “To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction...” 

So how can we fight against our worldly inclination to sink down to the level of our enemy?  At this point I have to say that I can’t think of anyone who I would call my personal enemy.  But I have known people who haven’t liked me, and there have been people who I haven’t liked, but I don’t think I would go so far as to call any of them my enemy. 

I have heard and read stories of people who have had serious enemies, though.  We have probably all heard stories of people who’ve been mistreated, abused or even killed.  The actions of enemies of this kind can be categorised as racism, genocide, child abuse, paedophilia, domestic violence, bullying, discrimination –I’m sure we could all think of other categories of wickedness and evil.  And we might say there are enemies of our country or of our religion, too. 

To love our enemies does NOT mean that justice need not be served.  In the case of a criminal offence, loving our enemy can mean ensuring that perpetrators are brought to justice, for the sake of the victim(s) and for the sake of the offender.  But our spiritual calling remains to love our enemy. 

This has to be one of the greatest challenges for the Christian.  When I was training at ‘vicar school’ we took a field trip to Thorn Cross Young Offender’s Institute where the Revd Shawn Verhey is chaplain.  They run the Sycamore Tree Restorative Justice programme there, where offenders explore the effects of their crimes on the victims, on themselves and on the community, and there’s an emphasis on taking responsibility for their personal actions.  While we were at Thorn Cross, we heard from a woman whose son was killed by one of the young men held there.  This young offender had taken part in the restorative justice programme and so this lady was invited to meet with her son’s murderer.  Eventually through the programme and a lot of soul work this Christian woman told us that she was able to forgive her son’s murderer, and not only to forgive him but she also was beginning to help this young man to change his life as he was preparing for his release from prison. 

Martin Luther King Jr said this:  “Darkness cannot drive out darkness:  only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate:  only love can do that.”  One of my favourite theologians, Miroslav Volf, says:  “The refusal of victims to let violence committed against them contaminate their souls must be one of the most difficult and most heroic acts of which a human being is capable”. 

Love your enemies.  Can you imagine what the world would be like if everyone lived like this?  But in our worldliness, we want there to be another way – a way in which we can ‘get our own back’ – a way in which our enemies are made to ‘pay their debt of pain’, as one sister-in-Christ puts it.  Then she remembers that she never had to pay her debt – we have been bought with the blood of Christ. 

Volf, again, says, “God’s love is broad enough to include evildoers, the worst of them.  We know this because Christ died for their salvation no less than for the salvation of the rest of us who are one and all by nature God’s enemies”.  God has shown mercy to all of us who are rebellious, wayward children.  To be able to love our enemies we must first be very clear about what God has done for us, who are also unworthy.  One commentator (Craddock) says, “Rather than a person hating in response to hatred and loving in response to love, Christian behaviour and relationships are prompted by the God we worship who does not react but acts in love and grace toward all... God behaves with favour toward persons whose life-style does not merit such favour; we are to relate to others with this same graciousness”. 

The kind of love Jesus is talking about in this passage is ‘agape’ love – which is akin to benevolence, compassion and goodwill.  I have trouble even loving those who aren’t my enemies with agape love.  But I do know that loving difficult people is much easier when you pray for them.  Jesus says, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you”.  If you can begin to pray for your enemy (or enemies), you will begin to see them in a different light.  It’s hard, but it’s not impossible – and Jesus says ‘your reward will be great’, because it is liberating. 

A woman who has suffered much at the hands of enemies, Ann Voskamp, has written a beautiful prayer, on which I have based this prayer:  Bless my enemies, O Lord.  Even I bless them and do not curse them. Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have. Enemies have loosed me from earth more than friends have... Enemies have made me a hunted animal, finding safer shelter than an unhunted animal does.  I found safest sanctuary in You... may too my enemies. I found greatest grace in You... may my enemies find Your generous grace alive and radical in me. I found fullest forgiveness in You... may my enemies find faith and freedom in You and Your forgiveness working surprising ways in me. The longer I walk with you, Lord, I find I have no enemies:  only the gift that you are moulding and shaping me deeply.  Bless my enemies, O Lord.  Even I bless them and do not curse them.