Saturday, 21 January 2017

Epiphany 3 - Called by Jesus

Isaiah 9: 1-4, Matthew 4: 12-23

The calling of the first disciples – fishermen called to leave their nets and follow Jesus – is a familiar story, but this week as I have thought about it I have been haunted by a question.
What has this story to do with our call to follow Jesus? Why are we still reading and listening to this story and what is our call?

I have wrestled with the question all week – whilst I’ve been in meetings, answering emails, taking phone calls, writing letters. What is the call of Jesus in all these places – and what has my life to do with the fishermen on the shore of the sea of Galilee two thousand years ago?

While I was living with and wrestling with that question I had to make a long-ish car journey. One of the joys of my role across the South Western synod is that I spend quite a lot of the time in the car on my own, which means I get to listen to the radio – usually Radio 4. 

And so on Friday morning I found myself driving up the M5 just as Desert Island Discs came on…
‘and our castaway is the choreographer Wayne Macgregor’. 

I confess that my hand was reaching out for the buttons to change stations…but then Kirsty Young described this man I had never heard of “Born in Stockport in 1970 to Scottish parents, he was inspired by the John Travolta films he watched and took ballroom, disco and Latin American dance classes…”. 
I thought at least his choices of music would be interesting. 

Then Wayne Macgregor started talking about his life as a dancer and about the importance of the body ‘when I look at you I have a sense of your physical signature… you look in a state of readiness, yet relaxed, open’. 
I was struck by the irony of this disembodied voice coming out of the radio telling me how vital the physical body is to fully communicate.
As the programme continued, I wanted to hear more from this fascinating person, Wayne Macgregor – yet I realized I was not being drawn to what he does – I have never knowingly seen his work as a choreographer – 
but there was something about his passion, his interests, his way of being, which made me listen to the whole programme.

This lesson in the importance of being and not just doing took me back to the call of the disciples.

The account in Matthew’s gospel begins with a quote from the prophet Isaiah. 
This is the prophet who describes his call to be God’s prophet: who is touched on the lips with a burning coal, from the altar in the temple, by an angel and who becomes God’s messenger as a result. 
Isaiah has been called to be something very special – God’s prophet -  and in the passage we heard (and which Matthew quotes) Isaiah describes the call of God to the land of Zebulun & Naphthali.
This part of the land God has given his people has been despised as small and insignificant, but is to be a place of light and joy and rejoicing.

Matthew says that with the coming of Jesus this time of light and joy is here – and Jesus calls the disciples to be part of the coming of that kingdom. 

We are told that they leave their nets, that they are told by Jesus they will no longer be fishermen – but they, and we, are not told what they will do instead. 

Jesus says ‘follow me’ and ‘come and see’ – come and join in, be part of this kingdom movement, be part of my gang and learn what I know about the love of God.
They are told only what they will be ‘followers of Jesus’, ‘fishing for people’, turning to the kingdom’. Jesus does not tell them they will teach and preach and heal and found a church, and in some cases suffer a martyr’s death – he does not say what they must do, but what they must be – children of God, people of the kingdom, followers of Jesus.
So what about us – what are we called to be ?

A friend was telling me recently about the course she is on to become a spiritual director. They have been learning about how to help other people to find their calling in life. Many people concentrate on what they must do – what job, or what activities outside of work, or what tasks in the church – but they were learning to ask people how they will be, rather than what they will do. How will they be loving, patient, joyful, kind, people of the kingdom in whatever they do?

The little quote that we are human beings not human doings is so pithy that I’ve seen it attributed to at least five different people. But however first said it, it’s worth thinking about – what, who, how should we be comes before what we should do. And when what we can do is diminished, what we can be remains.

I have visited many people in my ministry who had become too old or infirm to do a the things they used to do – especially people who had previously been very active in the church. I have seen how hard it can be to no longer be able to do all those things – but the people who take it best are the ones who get that their status as a loved child of God is not in danger because they cannot do, because their identity as a child of God is something they can just…be. Jesus calls us to follow – to be. There is nothing greater than to be…loved.

This is the week of prayer for Christian Unity so perhaps it is a good time to think about what Jesus calls us to be not only as individuals but as a whole church.
We sometimes get caught up in what we can do – and not do – together as Christian denominations. With whom can we share communion? Whose ministry do we recognise? Who shares our understanding of mission and service to our community? I have lots of discussions with church leaders of other denominations where we get talking about unity for mission and doing loads of stuff – but the great times are when we can just be sisters and brothers together.

So what if Jesus is calling us to be rather than do things together? What if we could look at other churches and see them as filled with people called, like us, to be children of God? Surely we are called to be more loving, patient and kind towards our sisters and brothers in Christ.
And when we have worked out how to be together, we can turn our attention to being the body of Christ – a body which, Wayne Macgregor would say, communicates 80% of the time through the way it is as a body – through its body language and movement. If we can be Christ-like and be his body and be together we might be able to communicate God’s love in Christ in what we do and how we act and move.

I pray we will hear Jesus call us to be what he desires us to be – so that we can be part of the moving of God’s spirit and the building of God’s kingdom, that every child of God might know how loved they are. 
In Jesus’ name.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Second Sunday after Epiphany

Back in the preaching 'saddle' after a long Christmas & new year break.
Isaiah 49: 1-7
John 1: 29-42

Perhaps one of the best known images of John the Baptist is the Isenheim Altarpiece. The work is over 500 years old and is presently in the Unterlinden Museum at Colmar, Alsace.
Even if you haven’t heard of it you might have seen the detail of John the Baptist from it.

John is shown in his camel hair tunic, rather unkempt and in need of a good hair cut, with one muscular arm extended and a long index finger pointing very definitely at the figure of Christ in the centre of the altarpiece. His words from John’s 3rd chapter are shown, in Latin, behind him “He must increase, but I must decrease”.

This is the John the Baptist we have met in our Gospel reading today.

When he sees Jesus, he tells his disciples and everyone around him “here is the Lamb of God”. Two of John’s disciples leave him to follow Jesus, but everything we are told about John suggests that rather than experiencing a very understandable jealousy, he would be delighted by this. John says “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me” and then, later in the gospel those words “He must increase, but I must decrease”. John spends his whole ministry pointing to Jesus.

Turn to God (points) here’s the lamb of God
Change your life (points) he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit
Look for what God is doing in the world (points) here is the Son of God.

John is the human signpost, who spends his whole ministry pointing to Jesus.
As the new year gets under way we would do well to ask ourselves how we as Christians, and together as church, can be this sort of pointer and signpost to God’s love in Jesus Christ for the people around us.

But I know it can be really dispiriting, even terribly hard, sometimes, to be God’s people in the world.
There is so much suffering and bad news – war, terrorism, disease, addiction, poverty… how can we really help – surely it is all too much for us?

The good news, if we feel tired or uncertain or overwhelmed, is that we are definitely not alone.

Isaiah writes of his call to be God’s servant and then says “But …I have laboured in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity”.
Yet God takes him and assures him that he will make him, with the whole nation of God’s people “a light to the nations”.

This week I was talking with someone who is feeling a call to serve God through answering a call to ministry in the URC. What is it that gives someone the confidence to start thinking about serving the church in that way?
She talked about a sense of ‘burning’ to tell other of God’s love, and we spoke of how amazing it is that God needs people like her .. and me... to show the world what love means. God needs her.. and me… and you in this world.

We are all called to be signposts of love. We should all stand, like John the Baptist, pointing.

But how do we best do that?

Let’s go back to the Isenheim altarpiece.
It was painted for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, which specialised in hospital work. The monks of the monastery were noted for their care of plague sufferers as well as their treatment of skin diseases. The image of the crucified Christ at the centre of the altar-piece is pitted with plague-type sores.
For patients who sat before that altarpiece, John the Baptist pointed to this wounded, suffering, sore-covered Jesus, and showed those patients that Jesus understood and shared their afflictions.

Isn’t that what our whole suffering world needs? To know that God’s love is not distant or unfeeling or trapped in history. God understands the suffering of our world, has felt it and overcome it, and longs to soothe it even now.

John the Baptist pointed to Jesus Christ, here on this earth, among people, touching, healing, loving, teaching.
He said he knew this was God’s own Son because this was the one on whom the Holy Spirit has come to rest at his baptism, so he knew that the Spirit had enabled Jesus to show God fully to his world.

But before Jesus physically left his followers he gives them a final gift – the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit rests on all of those who follow Jesus, so that they are more than just signposts, they are a living church, Christ’s own body, living to be God’s own.

We – God’s church – Christ’s people – here today – are promised and given that same Holy Spirit. Through the power and work of that Spirit we are made into Christ’s body – the hands and feet and mouths which will show a suffering world God’s love and care among them, with them, alongside them.

Howard Thurman, a mentor of Martin Luther King wrote:
“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,  To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,  To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.”

As the memory of Christmas fades and this new year unfolds, God’s Spirit can help us to be pointers to Christ, like John the Baptist, and even to be Christ for our neighbours, so that God’s love can be shared.
So may God’s kingdom come,
In the name of Christ

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Advent Sunday

Isaiah 2: 1-5, Matthew 24: 36-44
This Advent Sunday I am preaching at the closing service of a church, which had got down to its last two members. I am trying to preach hope in God's future...

Today is the start of Advent – though of course you don’t get to start opening your Advent calendar until December 1st. There are many kinds of Advent Calendars. When I was growing up we had a traditional card one with little windows, which we opened each morning. Because there were four of us in the family and only one calendar, we took it in turns to open a door. I’m the youngest so I got days 4,8,12,16,20 & 24 (Christmas Eve – the one with the baby in the crib behind it!). Over the years it became a very predictable advent calendar. These days you can get advent calendars with chocolates behind the doors – a sweet calendar; or ones linked to TV shows or celebrities – a starry, sparkly kind of calendar.

But if Advent is meant to get us ready for the coming of Christ at Christmas, especially as we also face the reality of the closure of this church, maybe we need something less predictable or sweet or sparkly – maybe we need something more visionary.

Rowan Williams, when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, had his fair share of difficult Advents, I’m sure – times of hard decisions, great grief, deep unhappiness. He wrote this poem, which he called “Advent calendar”

He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

Here is a vision of the ways God will come to us – not easily, not predictably, not sweetly, but in reality and with purpose. In the midst of our sadness about the end of the life of a fellowship in this building, we need to be looking for where God is at work.

Isaiah shared a vision of God at work in his world – when the mountain of the Lord would be above all, considered most holy and most high and when people would beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Then there would be no more war.

Perhaps we think it is an impossible vision – a ridiculous dream of a world that will never be.
How could God do that?
Yet the vision is important enough to be found carved into a wall opposite the United Nations building in New York. When the delegates inside have finished talking for the day about the most recent atrocities in Aleppo or in Mosul or in Gaza they go out & face those words “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares”: that is the vision of peace for which they are striving and working.
That is the vision God promises – the world towards which God’s will is bending, the vision of what will be.

But we’re not there yet. God hasn’t finished with his world yet – we are still only on the way to God’s perfect vision. And in the meantime we have to do our best to be part of God’s project of perfection: we have to treat everything we are doing now as provisional – just for now – just until God’s perfect kingdom comes.
So this church has been part of God’s work in Charmouth, but now this chapter is finished. This church and its people have touched and changed lives, brought peace and joy, proclaimed love and hope…as part of the move towards God’s perfect world.
But the vision is still before us, and though we are sad to see all this go, we know that God will continue to work in new ways until finally the kingdom comes.

Yet we are human, so we want to know when and how and through whom this vision will come to be. Jesus says “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father… the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Even Jesus does not know the detail of when the Father’s vision of peace will finally come to be, and he warns us not to bother speculating. But just because we do not know the details of how God’s will is to finally, perfectly, come to be in our world, that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen.

What Jesus says to his disciples may sound like a threat of terrible things to come – he likens the day of the Lord to the time of Noah and the coming of the flood and says how unexpected it will be. But what Jesus is doing is not threatening but promising – we do not when or how God’s will is to come to pass – but we know that it will happen. God will bring all things on earth to himself, he will come to visit us in his wholeness and there will be perfect peace.

And meanwhile – what are we to do?
Today we give thanks to God for all that this church has been, and prepare ourselves to live without it. I know this is only my third visit here and I can’t pretend to understand how hard it is to be here today.
But we also celebrate Advent Sunday – we remember that all human life and activity and time is in the hands of God and that God’s will is for perfection and peace for all.
And so we prepare ourselves to hear again the story of the coming of Christ into the world. We will not be here in this church, but we will hear the song of the angels somewhere, for Christ comes to all the world and there is nowhere where he is not present.

Wherever we celebrate Christmas, the message is the same “do not be afraid” “God is come to us” “the kingdom of God is near” “God is with us”.

I want to close with this Lutheran prayer for courage:
Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths untrodden, through perils unknown. 
Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.