Sunday, 1 July 2018

Fifth Sunday after Trinity 2018

I want this morning to focus on Lamentations, in part because it is a gem of a book and in part because it has become unfamiliar: a lost treasure. The Lamentations are a collection of five poems written in response to the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian empire in 587 BC. The Babylonians had besieged Jerusalem, on and off, for twenty years; culminating in a lengthy siege that prevented food from entering the city, until people were dying in the streets, pressed so hard that cannibalism was on the table at least as a serious option. After the fall, the ruling class were carried off into exile in Babylon to the east, while many others fled to Egypt to the south. It was the very undoing of the Great Story that began with the Call of Abraham (way out east) and pivoted on the Exodus out of the land of Egypt. It was a disaster we cannot imagine, not because there is nothing comparable going on in the world today, but because we have hardened our hearts to the images on our tv screens.

This took place almost 400 years after king David, who was known as a writer of psalms. And among his most famous psalms, then as now, was the one we know as the twenty-third. Here, David, who had looked after his father’s sheep as a young boy, took up the rhythms of the flock as a metaphor for human life. Just as the sheep were under the care of their shepherd, so were God’s people under God’s care. The shepherd sought out pasture for the sheep, leading them along the right paths in search of grass. When the low winter pasture wore thin, the high summer meadow beckoned, the flat table-top hills covered with wild flowers like a banquet table spread with the finest of fare.

The journey was steep, up narrow paths along the edge of the wadi or channel cut by flash floods in the spring rains. Moreover, hungry predators hid in the rocks — lions and bears. The sheep couldn’t see them; but could smell them. And yet they followed the shepherd on the path because he carried a crook, to press against their flank and steer them away from the drop; and a club for driving back predators.

At the end of the trail, the shepherd would run his hand over the sheep, parting the wool in search of cuts and sores picked up on the way, pouring on healing oil where needed, before sending the sheep out into the meadow. By day, the shepherd would keep a look-out for predators; and by night he would bring the sheep into the safety of the pen, sleeping in the entrance as a human gate in order to protect them.

That is the story of the twenty-third psalm. And, of course, it isn’t about sheep but about a people, and their long history of being led by God. How God had taken a people down to Egypt when there was famine in Canaan; had provided for them under Joseph (of technicolour dream coat fame); how the provision there had eventually worn thin under a new Pharaoh; and how the Lord had led them out and through the wilderness, watched over by the shepherd Moses; and brought them into a land flowing with milk and honey. How that land had been contested many times, and how God had raised up judges and later kings to lead the people through adversity into freedom when they cried out for a deliverer.

But the kings that came after David were bad shepherds, almost to a man. And eventually, God had had enough.

I tell you this because the third poem, the one at the very heart of Lamentations, contains a breath-taking inversion of the twenty-third psalm. The writer says of God, ‘I expected protection, but you have beaten me with your club. I expected to be brought through the dark valley, but you have taken me there to ambush me. I expected your healing hand over me, but you have broken my bones and made my flesh waste away. You have blocked my ways and made my paths crooked. Far from delivering me from the lion and the bear, you, o God, have become the bear and the lion, carrying me away and tearing me to pieces. Instead of a banquet table honouring me in front of my disgraced enemies, you have filled me with bitterness and made me the laughing stock of my enemies. Where I expected that you would restore my soul, my soul is bereft of peace; and where I proclaimed that I shall be in want of no good thing, all I had hoped for from you, Lord, is gone. In place of still waters, tears flowing without ceasing. In place of the sheep pen, the pit of death.’

The twenty-third psalm is in the Bible; but so is Lamentations chapter 3.

The twenty-third psalm speaks truthfully about our experience of life; as does Lamentations chapter 3. This is how it feels at times, and that needs expression.

And it is in this context that we hear the words that were read out this morning. It is in this context that the writer calls to mind the character of Yahweh, the Lord:

a God of never-ceasing, abundant steadfast love (verses 22, 32); of mercy (22); of faithfulness (23); of goodness (25); of compassion (32).

You see, there is a difference between our perception of God — however seriously we need to take that — and what God has revealed to us in word and action.

Life is very complex, and, at times, incredibly messy. And there are easy answers that fall short of that complexity, that sound wise but are in fact simplistic. This is equally true of the clichés of religious faith and the clichés of those who reject God. And then, on the other hand, there is the hard-won response of true simplicity, that lies on the far side of the complexity and mess. Simple does not mean easy: it takes effort to keep returning to the self-disclosure God has shared with us:

‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation.’ (Exodus 34:6, 7)

The unfaithfulness of the people had consequences not only for themselves but for their children and grandchildren. We recognise that in the complexity of our own society, and of the world we live in today. But the Lord does not abandon us for ever (indeed, the power of God’s love exceeds that of our folly as a thousand exceeds three and four). There is hope: that, if we consent, God will walk alongside us, will train us in the ways of righteousness as an experienced ox trains the young ox it is yoked with. Another agricultural image from this poem, from the part we heard read out.

Of course, we also heard two other passages read out today. How do they relate together? Might I suggest they do so in this way:

Jesus points us to the Lord in the miracles we saw in our Gospel reading, in the face of a complex world in which some people live with chronic illness and children die;

and Paul points us to the Lord in seeking to raise support for a community hit by famine.

For some, these contexts are reasons to turn our back and walk away. But as a community of faith we are called to look to God in the real world. And if we are going to do that, Lamentations is a resource within our faith tradition that will greatly help us, a treasure in our possession we might need to rediscover that we even have. You’ll find it more-or-less at the very middle of the Bible, and I commend it to you. And if my recommendation is not enough, might I add that of Jesus? When the Romans were threatening to destroy Jerusalem all over again (they finally did this in AD 70) Jesus turned to this very passage from Lamentations 3 and the image of bearing the yoke to proclaim that, yes, indeed, God has not forgotten us (see Matthew 11:25-30). And in a world that falls apart around us on a fairly regular basis, that might just be good news.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Birth of John the Baptist

Today, the Church remembers the birth of John the Baptist [which also means that it is six months till Christmas, cousin John being six months older than Jesus].

Zechariah and Elizabeth have a son, and name him John. What’s in a name? Well, in the Bible, quite a lot actually: names are important; they have meaning; and they often have significance to the life-story of the person with the name.

For example, ‘Zechariah’ means ‘Yahweh has remembered’. Specifically, Yahweh has remembered his people. And it carries a certain weight. ‘Yahweh has remembered’ is not ‘Yahweh had forgotten about us but now he has remembered us’. It is the timely reminder, when we have been waiting ages for God to move, ‘Despite appearances to the contrary, God has not forgotten or abandoned us’.

Zechariah is married to Elizabeth. ‘Elizabeth’ means ‘God’s oath’. That is, God’s covenant promise. The promises God made, for example, to Abraham or to David. God stands by his oath. But that oath is contractual: it invites Abraham and his descendants, and David and his descendants, into faithful committed relationship with God. If ‘Zechariah’ is a reminder to the people that Yahweh has not forgotten them, ‘Elizabeth’ is a reminder to the people—every time someone called out her name—that they should not forget God. That they shouldn’t look around for a better god-offer when the honeymoon shine had worn off their love.

So, Zechariah and Elizabeth both mean something. But there is more: biblically, when a man and a woman marry, they become ‘one flesh’, Zechariah and Elizabeth become ‘Yahweh has remembered his oath’. That is, ‘the time has come for Yahweh to act on his oath to rescue his people’ who have once again found themselves in need of rescuing and have once again found themselves calling out to their god.

And the result of Zechariah and Elizabeth becoming one flesh is John. And ‘John’ means ‘Yahweh is gracious’. So, when the time has come for Yahweh to act on his oath to rescue his people, the result—that is, the action—is grace.

And that grace looks like provision of a fresh start, in a renewed kingdom-of-God with a renewed faithful king, Jesus, descendant of David. A fresh start, symbolised by John in baptism, in an historical re-enactment of passing through the Jordan into the land. But now the kingdom is not limited to Galilee and Judea, and the reign of the king is not limited by death.

When Paul is invited to bring a word of exhortation for the people—a word that urges that we do something in response—he rehearses stories of Yahweh remembering his people and acting on his oath. Stories of leading his people out of slavery in Egypt, of acting to give to them the land he had promised to give to Abraham’s descendants, of giving them judges to deliver them from the surrounding nations who contested that land, of king David and God’s promise to king David. A story that culminates in John the baptiser holding out grace, setting the scene for Jesus.

And to discover what happens next, you will have to read on in Acts. But the promise is that by Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins that hold us captive. From fear and greed and everything that comes between us and loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves. You see, the name ‘Jesus’ means ‘Yahweh saves’.

Today, the Church remembers the birth of John the Baptist. Today, we retell the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth and John. Today, we reaffirm that God has not forgotten us, even if some days it feels as if God has forgotten us. Today, we celebrate God’s promises, and reaffirm our commitment in response. Today, we rejoice at God’s grace, birthed in our midst, much to our amazement, starting small and vulnerable and growing strong—grace that is hidden away, perhaps for years, until in God’s time the day comes when it appears publicly and has a wide impact.

A truth, carried in a story, we need to come back to year by year. And where we find ourselves again today. And where are you in the story? Elizabeth’s neighbours heard and rejoiced and came and assumed that they knew the same-old story and challenged the new chapter and enquired and found out and were amazed and a little bit afraid and gossiped the news everywhere they went and pondered what would come of it all. Elizabeth stood her ground, trusting God. Zechariah experienced freedom and used his freedom to praise God. John grew and became strong in spirit, in the hidden and even lonely place. And you, as a congregation? And you, personally? And me? Where are we in the story, this time of hearing? Because it is a gift to us, a means of God’s grace, to find us where we are and to draw us deeper into the mystery of God.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Second Sunday after Trinity 2018

Paul wrote, we believe and so we speak. That isn’t just a description of Christian witness in the world. It is a profound observation into the human condition. What we believe determines our speech – and how we speak reveals what we believe. What we believe about God, and human beings, is revealed in the tone of voice we hear and use.

Turn with me to Genesis chapter 3. This is part of our Origins myth. By myth, I do not mean an entertaining tale, or a downright lie, but an account of the world that is so deeply true that it transcends its original context and expands to fill all of time and space.

If this were a play, the stage directions for this scene would begin [noises off]. God is walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze. And God calls out to the humans, ‘Where are you?’

When you read those words, what tone do you hear? Is it playful, like a parent playing hide-and-seek with their children? Is it enquiring, like a friend who has called you on your mobile phone because they expected to meet you at a certain time and place, and can’t spot you – are you delayed? Is there an edge to it, a busy person somewhat exasperated to be kept waiting? You see, it matters: because what you hear reveals what you believe concerning God’s fundamental disposition towards us, and about our fundamental position in relation to God.

God calls out, ‘Where are you?’ This is not a distant God who has created the world and left, having more important things to be concerned with than mere people. And it isn’t an all-seeing all-knowing Big Brother, who has filled the garden with security cameras. This God is genuinely interested in getting to know both the garden and the humans.

Was asking this question a new experience for God? Or had God called out, ‘Where are you?’ before, as he came looking for us? Was the difference not so much that the humans were temporarily hidden as before, but that they were deliberately hiding, in the hope of not being discovered?

How we hear God matters; as does how we hear the humans. The man says, ‘I was afraid’. Note that fear was not necessarily a new experience. The man has already known loneliness; has already experienced being overwhelmed by the enormity of the task of tending the garden, so needing a helper. The gift of man and woman clinging-together in the face of the enormity of the world is rooted in an earlier scene. But now, the fear relates to himself, to his nakedness. It is a fear of being ourselves – he is literally not at home in his own skin – without something external that projects a character into the world.

This is new. And God responds, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ And, again, what tone do you hear? Anger? Or genuine interest? Or concern? This is fundamental to how we view God, goes towards what we believe God’s disposition to be towards us and others. And as we believe, so we speak.

If you believe God is angry with you, you will believe that to be true in relation to others. And if God is angry – as fundamental disposition – towards others, then we ought to be, too.

If you believe God is genuinely interested in you, you will believe that to be true in relation to others. And if God is genuinely interested in others, then we ought to be, too.

If you believe God is concerned for you, you will believe that to be true in relation to others. And if God is concerned for others, then we ought to be, too.

But it is hard to be genuinely interested in, or concerned for, others if we believe that God is fundamentally angry with us all. That isn’t to say that God doesn’t ever get angry – as the story unfolds, we will see what makes God angry, and how God responds in ways that are not volatile and unpredictable, but measured and dependable.

How we hear God matters; as does how we hear the humans. The man says, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ The woman says, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’ What do you hear? Is this blame-shifting: the man shifting blame on to the woman, or, indeed, on to God; the woman shifting blame on to the serpent? Or, are they genuinely trying to work out what has gone on: to make sense and find meaning? Or, is it all these things?

The wonderful thing about myth is that it is so deeply true that it is big enough to embrace our humanity. When we read these verses, we need to resist the temptation to indulge in caricatures: ‘typical man, blaming the woman!’ or ‘typical woman, seducing the man!’ What we see here is not typical man and typical woman but archetypal humans: complex, and often conflicted, in our motivations.

God says to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ And, again, what tone do you hear? Does God have an angry voice, an I’ll-give-you-something-to-really-be-afraid-of-young-lady! voice? Or is it the voice of anguish, because God knows the consequences?

God’s response is to curse – that is, to severely restrict the freedom of – the serpent. And if you read on from where we left the story hanging, if you pay close attention, you will see that while God goes on to address the woman and the man, God does not curse them. God curses the serpent, not the humans. What follows, for the woman and the man – for humanity – is not punishment. God sets out the inevitable consequences of what has occurred – that is to say, God shares with them divine knowledge. And while this is not an omnipotent God, any more than an omnipresent and omniscient God [those ideas come from Greek philosophy, not the Bible], God sets out the ways in which, out of divine mercy and compassion and determined commitment to humanity, those consequences will be moderated. But that is a story for another sermon.

Turn, if you will, to our Gospel reading. In it, Jesus is accused of representing a god: Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons. In refuting this, Jesus gives this god not a name but a title, the Satan, or Accuser: the (possibly self-appointed) Counsel for the Prosecution in the court of heaven. Jesus makes it clear that he comes, according to the character of his God, to oppose and utterly defeat the Accuser. He goes on to clearly identify himself as being with and for the offspring of the woman, in enmity with the offspring of the serpent. For those of us who are Jesus’ disciples, Jesus’ family, this also speaks to how we hear the voices of God and of the man and of the woman: what we believe, and so what we speak.

Finally, let us revisit Paul, who tells us that the God who went looking for his friends in the garden will not let even death get in the way of bringing us into his presence (verse 14). Not even death, the ultimate consequence. And not just us, but – through what we believe and so speak – more and more people (verse 15). We have been caught-up in a story of being searched-out and found and reconciled. Reconciled, not only with God, and with one another, but within ourselves. Remember the fear, of being naked, of not being at home in our own skin? The glory we had from the beginning was too much to bear; but God is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure – that will not crush us, but provide us with an eternal home, or body to inhabit. For now, perhaps, we stand at the door and look in, unable to comprehend. But this hope wells up to fill all of time and space, and beyond: it is uncontainable.

That is the glorious God whose Spirit speaks to our spirit, who draws us out from our hiding-places, from start to finish. The God who frees and restores us. And that is truly, and in so many ways, good news.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Choral Evensong, Pentecost 2018

One day back in April 2015 I was taking the lunchtime Communion service when I felt a pain in my chest. It was severe enough to take my breath, and to prompt me to pay a visit to my GP. She got out her stethoscope and her blood-pressure cuff and reassured me that everything was fine…but went on to say that, at my age, I really ought to consider doing some regular exercise. And that is how I got into running.

There is a theme to our readings this evening, and it is the heart.

‘Search me out, O God, and know my heart; try me and examine my thoughts. See if there is any way of wickedness in me and lead me in the way everlasting.’ (Psalm 139:23, 24)

‘A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.’ (Ezekiel 36:26-28)

‘…therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope.’ (Acts 2:26)

‘Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”’ (Acts 2:37, 38)

In Scripture, the heart is the seat of the will: the place from where we exercise our will; we make choices. Those choices might be informed by our mind—the seat of both thoughts and emotions, for the two go hand-in-hand, whatever pop-psych personality tests might claim—and might be informed by our strength, our physical bodies—that experience hunger or fatigue. But it is our heart that moves us, closer towards or further away from God and neighbour. What should we do, the crowd asks Peter. What the heart was made for: choose; repent and choose life.

God gives us a will of our own in order that we are free; and life-giving, life-enabling wisdom, in statutes and ordinances: the distilled life-lessons of an entire community. But all of us have had our heart broken, one way or another, and on many occasions. You see, a broken heart has to do with our will. The child whose fledgling will is crushed—most likely, quite unintentionally, and to their own mortification—by their parent. The young- or not-so young-adult whose will is squashed by unrequited love. The marriage-partners whose twice-shy wills must find courage to yield in mutual submission. The parent whose child is making choices that do not lead deeper into life in all its fullness, or at least, not as far as the parent who loves them can see.

With the best will in the world, our hearts become calcified over time, as we try to protect them, only to discover that we are going through the motions, existing rather than living.

Ezekiel’s vision is millennia ahead of its time, for he foresees the heart transplant. Spiritually-speaking, that is what God has done for us: removing a heart that can no longer beat and giving us a new lease of life. Removing a will so calcified it struggles to choose right from wrong and replacing it with a will that is sensitive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit—who, in Ezekiel’s incredible vision is both internal pace-maker supporting our heart and physiotherapist training us back to full mobility.

So come, all those who need healing of heart.

Let your heart be glad, and your flesh live in hope.

Pentecost 2018

Today is the Feast of Pentecost, the day the Church celebrates that, after ascending to the Father, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit. And today I want us to consider one thing Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would do; but first, some context.

There is a recurring story in Scripture concerning the people of God. It goes something like this. Having experienced God as Saviour, the people fail to trust God as Lord. They adopted ‘God, plus’: God, plus various other gods; God, plus monarchy; God, plus a certain set of ritual or moral behaviours. God, with an insurance policy on the side. But far from adding security, this half-hearted approach inevitably led them to a place of defeat. Again, they would cry out to God as Saviour; again, God would save them; and again, they would fail to trust God as Lord. Yet, God still held out the hope that they might know him as both Saviour and Lord, who not only set them free but in whom they might live in freedom.

Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones sits within this recurring pattern. In the vision, the people have been utterly defeated. There was no one left to bury the dead. Once the jackals, the carrion crows, the flies had stripped the bones of meat, and the ants had picked them clean, the unrelenting sun had bleached them. Yet, even so, the breath of God can bring new life together, resulting in the vindication of his previously-judged people.

The Day of Pentecost puts flesh on the bones of Ezekiel’s vision, with devout Jews drawn- and knitted-together from the four corners of the world and animated by the Spirit of God. It enacts what Ezekiel envisioned.

Against that backdrop, listen again to what Jesus said that the Spirit of truth—the Advocate—will do:

“when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgement because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”

Sin and righteousness and judgement. Those are our three words for today.

Jesus says, the Holy Spirit will prove the world wrong about these things. Or, convict the world of them. The original Greek conveys the sense of both a negative and a positive: that the Holy Spirit will show you where you are wrong, and what is right, about these things.

The world is wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement. The world says, there are good people and bad people. The world generally tells us that we, and people like us, are good; and that people who are not like us are bad. The world tells us that we deserve good things, and that they deserve their comeuppance. You need only look at the media or social media to see these things; though you will also hear them expressed as self-evident truths in conversation with our neighbours, and, if we are honest, often on our own lips.

Sometimes, the world flips the game. When we are at our most vulnerable, we may hear the whisper of Accusation telling us that we are a bad person, one of the ‘them,’ an outsider. The unloved child in the family; the constant disappointment; the person with no friends. Or, the imposter, living in fear of being found out for who we really are; and then the judgement will be swift, and unforgiving.

But either way round, the world is wrong; and the Holy Spirit brings us to Jesus.

What does Jesus have to say about sin? Remember the woman caught in adultery? Adultery is a serious betrayal, a breach of trust that tears the very fabric of society. And causes us to hide, from others, and from God. Sin matters; and Jesus does not dismiss it. But what does he say? To the crowd—to the ‘us’ circling one of the ‘them’ like a pack of hyenas—he says, let whoever is without sin cast the first stone. And when they fall away—starting with those who are older and wiser—Jesus says to the woman, neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.

What does Jesus say about sin? Firstly, that we are all in the same boat: not good people and bad people; just, people. Secondly, that the separation from God we experience as a result is not permanent, at least from God’s side: Jesus reveals that God is not hoping for our comeuppance. And thirdly, that we can be empowered by God to resist sin, over and over again.

What does Jesus have to say about righteousness? As it happens, not a lot, at least explicitly. Matthew records him as saying that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are happy, because they shall be filled, their appetite fully satisfied. And that happy are those who are persecuted for their longing, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Righteousness, then, is a good thing: we are commended to pursue it; without it, we cannot know God’s good reign. But it belongs to those who recognise the gap between their longing and their reality: to ache with hunger and thirst is to know a lack of food and drink, over some time. Indeed, Jesus is quite provocative towards those who saw themselves as righteous, who trusted in their own righteousness, those who thought of themselves as a good person, respectable, upright. Those who didn’t need God. Jesus came for those who knew that they did need God—who alone Jesus called righteous: Righteous Father.

Indeed, Jesus explicitly says that he has come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance. Righteousness is something we might see in others but can never claim to possess for ourselves. The paradox is that only those who know themselves to be sinners can know the good things that God shares with those who are undeserving. If others experience it in meeting us, it flows from closeness to our heavenly Father, time spent in the secret place of prayer that overflows into our days.

What does Jesus have to say about judgement? He says that the ruler of this world—satan, the Accuser—has been condemned. That is, the overturning of the order of the world. Speaking of his own death and resurrection, Jesus declared now is the judgement of this world, now the ruler of the world will be driven out. In a decisive clash of empire and kingdom, God’s oppressed people will be liberated and decisively vindicated: dry bones brought to life; a people scattered far and wide brought together and filled with power from on high. Judgement matters—God does not stand by, impassive, immune to our cries. It takes place in history. It is costly. And yet, and yet. God’s judgement is for a glorious vindication on all who would call on Jesus as Saviour and Lord, for the building of a new society, to be a light to the nations. Of this, the Holy Spirit gives us—keeps giving us—confidence.

Today is the Feast of Pentecost, and the Holy Spirit fills this place, lighting on each one of us here. And of what is the Spirit convicting you? Does the Spirit come to lift the burden of sin that has been weighing you down? Or, as a strong wind, to drive you beyond the rules of respectability to the table where your hunger is fully satisfied? Does the Spirit come to free you from fear of judgement? Or to renew you when you have given up hope that you will see God’s judgement?

What is it that the Spirit saying to your spirit today? May we respond, Maranatha! Come, Holy Spirit! Amen.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Seventh Sunday of Easter 2018

There is a beautiful Prayer of Preparation that comes at the beginning of the Communion service, in both the Book of Common Prayer (1662) and Common Worship (2000). In its contemporary form, it goes:

‘Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.’

It comes before the Prayers of Penitence, where we confess and receive absolution for our sins. You see, though we need to acknowledge our sin, that is not the starting point. Our starting point, in preparing to come before Almighty God, is to know ourselves as known, and loved. The secret desires of our hearts are known to God; not least because, directly or indirectly, God placed them there. The hopes and dreams we dare not share with anyone else, lest they should laugh at us or handle our hearts roughly. The deep desires we hide even from ourselves, shut away behind a locked door in our hearts because they are too scary to let out—because who am I to harbour such dreams? because if we were to admit them, who knows where it might lead? but, chances are, only to disappointment. Of course, if the Season of Easter tells us anything, it tells us that locked doors are no barrier to the risen Jesus.

The world, after all—as Jesus recognised—is a scary place for dreamers, for those who acknowledge the desires God has entrusted to them. Like the first disciples, we hide, in fear. But when our hopes are deferred too long, the heart grows weary and sick. Like Abraham and Sarah, waiting for a child, we are tempted to take matters into our own hands. In scripture, the heart is the seat of the will, of our God-given ability to choose for ourselves how we will respond. That is why the prayer continues in confidently asking our loving Father to cleanse the thoughts of our hearts, that so easily get bent out of shape or become calcified. This is pre-emptive, proactive, before the need for confession. We pray with confidence in the One who declared through the prophet Ezekiel:

‘A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.’ (Ezekiel 36:26)

The secret desires of the heart feature in our reading from Acts, as the disciples find themselves held in that expectant place between the ascension of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Peter senses that they need someone to step into the place abdicated by Judas. It needed to be one who had been a witness to all that Jesus did and taught from his baptism until his ascension, with emphasis on his resurrection. Two candidates are proposed, Joseph and Matthais. ‘Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship…”’ (Acts 1:24, 25)

I wonder what was going on in their hearts? I wonder whether one (or both) was silently praying ‘Please pick me’ and the other (or both) silently praying, ‘Please pick him’? After all, they both knew what it was to be part of the wider group of disciples from the beginning, but overlooked for a place in the limelight, among the Twelve. Was this a second chance, a moment to step up? Or, the risk of disappointment for an unbearable second time? And what of their hearts when the lots were drawn? Relief? Disappointment? Or the joy Jesus prayed would be made complete in them? Joy for themselves—in receiving affirmation or in knowing contentment—and for the other—in their ‘success’ or in being spared the weight of responsibility of stepping into a traitor’s shoes?

I get the very strong impression that either candidate would have been the right one. Both recommended, the group could not decide between them. I don’t think Joseph was not chosen because of some hidden fault, but because the Lord, who knows everyone’s heart, knew what was best for both men, and for the community. A win-win situation.

And what of us? Each of us have a heart-full of desires, some cherished and some locked-away; some fulfilled, some fulfilled though not in the ways we would ever have imagined, and others unfulfilled. They make us, us: me, rather than you; you, rather than me; and us, as a community called together by God, in order that—cleansed by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit—we might love God more perfectly and magnify his name more worthily. The process is both a mystery and a holy adventure. Come, Holy Spirit. Show us our place in the body of Christ. Amen.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Ascension Day 2018

There was a time when our family was carried off into exile. It was a devastating experience. By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion (Psalms, 137). How, we asked, could we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

At just the right time, Daniel gave us a vision, to keep hope alive. A vision of a courtroom being set up on the earth, and the Ancient One—the Lord God, King of the universe—coming to sit in judgement over the pagan nations. Then, as the trial unfolds, one like a human being comes from where they have been hidden in heaven, and is presented before the Ancient One, who confers upon him rule over the nations.

This language is a code, in which the one like a human being represents the people of Israel, who live under the rule of the pagan nations—but who are to view themselves as hidden by God in the heavens, waiting, until he passes judgement on those nations and restores his people to the glory they had lost. That is how we were to view ourselves.

But why speak in code? Why not declare openly that God would soon overturn the fortunes of the nations, stripping Babylon of her empire and restoring the throne of David? Well, for a start, Daniel—to whom this vision is attributed—served as a very high-ranking government official within the Babylonian empire. More, he did so in obedience to God’s instruction, given through the prophet Jeremiah, that his people in exile should settle and establish themselves and seek God’s blessing on their hosts. He wasn’t there as a traitor to his people, or as a double-agent, but to be a blessing.

What we needed, you see, was a form of language, a way of speaking, that held in tension our desire that God would make all things right, and our genuine love for the people among whom we lived. This was not like when we were slaves in Egypt, and God sent Moses and Aaron to confront Pharaoh, who hardened his heart; or even like the time God sent Jonah to Nineveh, to confront the Assyrians with imminent disaster, when they repented and changed their mind and their actions, and so God repented and changed his mind and intended actions. No, traumatic though being taken into exile was, the lived-experience of our family during those seventy years was, for the most part—though with occasional rough patches—that of being highly honoured.

Indeed, when Daniel’s vision came to pass, in the events of the fall of the Babylonian empire to the Persian empire, and the opportunity came about to return home to Jerusalem, many of us chose not to go.

By the time of Jesus, the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem was one of the wonders of the world. But Jerusalem and the whole Land had been taken first by the (Egyptian-based) Greeks, and then by the other (Syrian-based) Greeks, and then by the Romans. A new set of pagan nations. Recalling Daniel’s vision, Jesus declared that although the chief priests and the whole council rejected him, they would “see the Son of Man [him, and his followers] [first] seated at the right hand of Power and [then] coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64). Code: a way of saying that God would judge the pagan nations of the Greco-Roman world, and then vindicate his people—but that now the people were to be understood as those who recognised Jesus as the one appointed for dominion and glory.

Hence, six weeks later, when Jesus was hidden in heaven, the angelic messengers declared that he will return in the same way: that is, with the clouds of heaven. The disciples had asked if Jesus was about to restore the kingdom to Israel; but this was still the time of being hidden until the judgement was passed. In the meantime, they were to invite all nations: that is, in the very midst of God sitting in judgement over the pagan nations, all who would name Jesus as Lord—whether from among the Jewish diaspora or the gentiles—would be included, incorporated into the one like a human, or, Son of Man.

All this came to pass, as across the Roman empire nations fell and rose, and Christianity spread across north Africa and Asia Minor and Europe, even to our own islands at the very end of the Roman world.

But what of us, who live so long after? We believe, in the words of the Nicene Creed, that Jesus ‘ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.’ But what does it mean to believe that?

It means, I think, that we need a code language that allows us to speak of our hope that the Lord God is at work in human history to bring about justice in a world that is full of injustice, and at the same time to hold before God all that is good and beautiful about the nations we are from and live in and that we want to see flourish and don’t want to see swept away. A language that enables our Iranian brothers and sisters to speak of all that is good about Persian society, and to endure the problems they face, ranging from being denied employment, to imprisonment and execution. A language that enables those of us who are British citizens to bless all that is wonderful about being British, and to speak prophetically to power (that, by the way, is what the Bishops are doing in the House of Lords: being Daniel in the court of Babylon). A language that holds us back from putting our nationality before God, but that keeps us from thinking the nations are of no concern. A language that affirms divine judgement and divine mercy.

One of our codes is that of art. At the west end of the Minster you will find a depiction, in stained-glass, of the gazing disciples and the two men in white robes and the cloud hiding Jesus from our sight. At the east end of the Minster you will find a depiction, in stained-glass, of the ascended Jesus seated on a throne in heaven. The ascension seen from both ends, if you like.

Another code is apocalypse, that fantastical genre in the Bible, in books such as Daniel and Revelation and in parts of the Gospels, that push language to its poetical limits to express faith. That, by the way, is a language that resonates with science fiction and fantasy in books and comics and films and tv dramas. It is not meant to be understood, so much as to immerse ourselves in.

Then there is music: both music directly inspired by the ascension, engaging us at an emotional level; and music that inspires us as we seek to live in the light of the ascension, lives hidden with Christ in heaven. This is the code David and the choir teach us, by which our life together is enriched.

What these codes have in common is the ability to express what reason cannot, to say what we don’t have the words for, to live with our feet on the ground and our head in the clouds, to grow deeper into mystery. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have produced a booklet, the Novena 2018, of daily images and prayers for each day between Ascension and Pentecost, a week on Sunday. Please take a copy, a gift to you. Whether you are just beginning to learn this language, or a fluent speaker, I commend it to you as a way we might speak together of our faith over the next few days.

This is the language of faith. May we find again our voice to sing the Lord’s song in the strange land in which we live.