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Reluctant Blogger

Why? The eternal question…

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I have been a Reader for the Church of England since 2013 and have written and preached lots of sermons, all of which I have saved on my laptop never to be seen or heard again.  Or so I thought.

A few weeks ago, my husband suggested that I should have a blog and publish my sermons. He thought that the sermons should reach a wider audience as I put so much effort in to writing them. I felt that it was far too personal and wasn’t ready to share with the world. However, anyone with a faith knows that God moves in mysterious ways and calls us to do things out of our comfort zone. In the weeks following my husband’s first suggestion of publishing a blog, several other people from church, on a few separate occasions, have asked me to consider publishing my sermons for other people to have access to what I’ve preached.

Well, I can’t keep pretending that God is not calling me to share so, reluctantly, I am going to publish some of my sermons, prayers and musings on faith in the 21st century.  I do not claim to be a great theological mind nor am I anything other than a Christian with a gift for talking about the word of God and what it means to us all today. I hope you enjoy reading the sermons and, maybe, God willing, there may be something to inspire you, challenge you, or nurture you.

Yours

The Reluctant Blogger

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Grains of Wheat

They say there are three things that cannot be talked about. You know them, right? Religion, sex, and politics. Personally, I think they are wrong. We do talk about those things. We just do it really badly. There is, however, something we do not talk about. Death. Yes, we acknowledge death when it happens but for the most part we do not talk about death with any real depth or substance, and certainly no enthusiasm. We don’t deal with it. We deny it. We ignore it. We avoid it. No one wants to die.

We don’t really acknowledge, talk about, and deal with death. The death of our loved ones is too real, too painful. Earlier this week, it was the first anniversary of my Dad dying, and even as we stood round his bed in the hospice, just over 12 months ago, fully aware that he was dying, none of us truly acknowledged it. We never spoke about what would happen after. If we don’t speak about it, we can pretend it isn’t happening. And then, our own death is too scary, so very few people talk about their wishes for their funeral etc because nobody really wants to admit that they are going to die even though it is inevitable and we know it deep down. Then we get to the relationships and parts of our lives that have died and they are just too difficult to discuss. So, for the most part, we just avoid the topic of death. Besides it’s a downer in a culture that mostly wants to be happy, feel good, and avoid difficult realities.

I suspect the Greeks in today’s gospel did not go expecting to talk or hear about death. They just wanted to see Jesus. And who can blame them? Jesus has a pretty good track record up to this point. He has cleansed the temple, turned water into wine, healed a little boy, fed 5000, given sight to the blind, and raised Lazarus from the dead. I don’t know why they wanted to see Jesus but I know the desire. I want to see Jesus. I’ll bet you do too. Seeing Jesus makes it all real. After all, seeing, they say, is believing. We all have our reasons for wanting to see Jesus.

If you want to know your reasons for wanting to see Jesus look at what you pray for. It is often a to do list for God. I remember, as a little girl, praying that I would get the doll I wanted. Later it was for good grades in school. Then it was to pass my exams, then it was to find a job I liked. When my first marriage fell apart, I prayed that God would fix it all. I pray all the time for people I love to get the things they want, to keep them safe and healthy. When Dad died I just wanted God to make it stop hurting.

You probably know those kind of prayers. We want to see Jesus on our terms. We don’t want to face the pain of loss and death in whatever form it comes. Sometimes we want something from Jesus more than we want Jesus himself. There is a real danger that we will become consumers of God’s life rather than participants in God’s life. We pick and choose what we like and want but we skip over and leave behind what we do not like, want, or understand. Christianity, however, is neither a buffet nor a spectator sport. Christianity means participating in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is what Jesus sets before the Greeks who want to see him.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.

If we want to see Jesus then we must look death in the face. To the extent we refuse to acknowledge the reality of death, to the degree we avoid and deny death, we refuse to see Jesus. Really looking at, acknowledging, and facing death is some of the most difficult work we ever do. It is, as Jesus describes, soul troubling. It shakes us to the core.

There is a temptation to want to skip over death and get to resurrection. So, it is no coincidence that this week and last week the lectionary points us towards Holy Week and reminds us that death is the gateway to new life. Death comes first. Death is not always, however, physical. Sometimes it is spiritual or emotional. We die a thousand deaths every day. There are the deaths of relationships, marriages, hopes, dreams, careers, health, beliefs. Regardless of what it looks like, this is not the end. Resurrection is always hidden within death. There can be, however, no resurrection without a death.

To the extent we avoid death we avoid life. The degree to which we are afraid to die is the degree to which we are afraid to fully live. Every time we avoid and turn away from death we proclaim it stronger than God, more real than life, and the ultimate victor.

The unspoken fear and avoidance of death underlies all our “what if” questions.” What if I fail, lose, fall down? What if I get hurt? What if I don’t get what I want? What if I lose the one I most need and love? Every “what if” question separates and isolates us from life, God, one another, and ourselves. It keeps us from bearing fruit. We are just a single grain of wheat. We might survive but we aren’t really alive.

Jesus did not ask to be saved from death. He is unwilling to settle for survival when the fullness of God’s life is before him. He knows that in God’s world strength is found in weakness, victory looks like defeat, and life is born of death. This is what allowed him to ride triumphantly into Jerusalem, a city that will condemn and kill him. That is what allows us to ride triumphantly through life. Triumph doesn’t mean that we get our way or that we avoid death. It means death is a gateway not a prison and the beginning not the end. It is this belief that has helped me through the past 12 months.

Regardless of who or what in our life has died, God in Christ has already cleared the way forward. We have a path to follow. That path is the death of Jesus. Jesus’ death, however, is of no benefit to us if we are not willing to submit to death, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Ultimately, death, in whatever way it comes to us, means that we entrust all that we are and all that we have to God. We let ourselves be lifted up; lifted up in Christ’s crucifixion, lifted up in his resurrection, lifted up in his ascension into heaven. He is drawing all people to himself, that where he is we too may be.

Grains of wheat. That is what we are. Through death, however, we can become the bread of life. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies….”

Amen

 

Prayer for International Women’s day 2019 #BalanceForBetter

Dear Sisters, I pray that love will rise in you and through you. I pray you would wrestle with your own story until you own it, body and soul, and have learned how to make it sing.

I pray that you would be a woman who celebrates other women. I pray you will be surrounded by women who know what it is to love and to champion and to celebrate, by women who are dreamers and schemers. I pray for spiritual midwives in your life, women who will breathe alongside you as you are giving birth to the new you over and over again. I pray that you may join hands in the rising. I pray that the women of your lineage of faith will inspire you. May you know their stories in scripture and in history and in your own circles: may you be curious about other women and amplify their influence. May you learn and challenge and grow. May you reclaim curiosity and wisdom and knowledge. I pray for opportunities to do the work you love to do and I pray for equal pay when you do it!

We call out the sins of violence, rape, abuse, torture, against all women. No more. May you be a woman who is safe, a woman who does not fear, a woman who builds safety and security for other women, too. We call out the economic injustices, the educational inequalities, the maternal mortality, toxic patriarchy, movements designed to baptise inequality in sacred language, the forced prostitution, the sex trafficking, all of the countless ways that the image of God in women is abused and mistreated and broken or diminished. May we work to call these things out and to dismantle them from our world … and from our own hearts.

I pray that the places where this world has broken you, where evil has left its mark, where you have felt abandoned and broken and hurt, where you are in pain would become a wellspring of healing and wholeness for you. I pray for the desert to bloom with flowers. I pray for the dry parched earth to be filled with cleansing rain and healing waters. I pray for your healing, sister, and I pray for your wholeness.

Right from Pentecost, the Church has known that the mistreatment and dehumanisation or devaluing of women was not and never would be part of God’s plan and purpose, so may you be moved to act for justice in both big and small ways in your life. May you find your place in the big story of redemption, rescue, and renewal that God is weaving together. I pray for you to remember the big story of women in the world and to pay attention to their voices, to elevate and empower and affirm them as worthy and valuable just as you are worthy and valuable. I pray that you would remember the truth of who you are. That you would know you are valuable and you are loved – not because of what you do or what you say or what you accomplish, not because of how men perceive you or desire you, not because of how you look or dress, not because of your income, not because you are (or are not) a mother – but simply because you, Sister, were made in the image of God.

Sisters, you have been called to the spirit-filled life, so may you live out the ways of Jesus into every corner of your womanhood, always with an eye on who is alongside of you, ahead of you, and coming up behind you. May you know how deeply you are loved by God. 

May you pay attention to your anger and to your joy. Your calling is hiding somewhere at that intersection. I pray you would be a friend to the poor, to the oppressed, to the marginalised.

Stop waiting for permission, Sister: it’s time. I pray you would rise up with your gifts and your words, your passion and your insight, your skill and your brain, your perspective and your history, in the fullness of God. I pray against the temptations of silence and despair and numb anger: I pray that you would run the race that is set before you, that you would flourish in your lane while cheering on every other runner alongside of you. I pray that you would look fear in the face and speak up anyway. I pray that you would look hopelessness in the face and be the voice declaring the hope of the Lord for the redemption and rescue and renewal of all things. I pray for you when you are tired and discouraged, when you feel futile and small and ridiculous, when it is tempting to shrink back and give up, I pray for rest, I pray for renewal, I pray for faith, for fearlessness, for boldness, for new courage, for new vision, for new life to come to you in ways that surprise you and bless you.

And now rest in the knowledge that your life was God given. Stop holding your breath, hiding your gifts, ducking your head, dulling your roar, distracting your soul, stilling your hands, quieting your voice, and satiating your hunger with the lesser things of this world. You are set apart for the daily work of liberation and love. It’s in the name of Jesus that we send you out to live your life. Rise up, Sister!

Amen.

John the Baptist and Us: A Strange Connection (Advent 3)

According to a psychologist from the University of Hertfordshire who has studied humour, the world’s funniest joke goes like this:

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. His friend takes out his phone and calls 999. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says “Calm down, I can help. First, let’s make sure he is dead.” There is a silence, followed by the sound of a gunshot in the background. Back on the phone, the man says, “OK, now what?”

Humour depends on making connections that are a bit quirky. Our minds, I suppose, work by making patterns but when the patterns are disrupted and an unexpected new link is made, laughter occurs as the new connection is made. This explains a lot about jokes – why they are really only funny the first time we hear them and also why jokes rely on stereotypes: stereotypical behaviour is easier to disrupt and force new connections.

Several years ago, there was a book and TV series called Connections, in which James Burke, looked at how trivial, incidental discoveries were, in fact, connected. For example, we have telecommunications because the Normans wore stirrups at the Battle of Hastings…a simple advance caused a revolution in the increasingly expensive science of warfare. Europe turned its attention to making more money to fund wars, which in turn led to the need for deeper mineshafts to reach silver. This caused flooding and led Galileo to investigate vacuums and air pressure. In turn, this led to the discovery of electricity and magnetism. Which finally led to the development of radio and telecommunications…all because of the simple stirrup. Big patterns are changed by tiny details.

So, what does all this have to do with today’s readings. What has John the Baptist got to do with us? In what way does his life and example connect to what we are about? At the risk of another joke here, John will always be remembered as the man who lost his head at a party, the one for whom death was brought about in the context of the very things his ministry was about – the fight against opulence and sin – yet the Gospels, it seems, cannot quite face this fate; that he was killed by the very things he spent so much time preaching against.

Sometimes it is uncomfortable to own the connections that bind us to history, and perhaps to one another. It is true to say that without WWII we wouldn’t have had the NHS. The one prepared the ground for the other, and so it is with John the Baptist: without him, his ministry, and his untimely death, there is no preparation for the Messiah. No John, no Jesus.

This is not as heretical as it may first sound. After all the Gospels make a virtue out of utilising the narrative from the book of Isaiah: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord…make way” is how it is expressed to us. Now, there are two senses to the phrase “make way” here, and both are implied. One is clearly proactive – namely make the way clear, clear the path, make rough places smooth, create the road. But the other is more humbling: “make way”, as in “get out of the way”, because he is coming. Here, we are to step aside and take all obstacles, including ourselves, out of his path. For we are not the message nor the messenger; the One who is to come is not to be obstructed.

Whichever way one reads the use of the passage from Isaiah by the Gospel writers, it is clear that for those who follow John the Baptist, the common denominator in the vocation is the ministry of preparation. For those of us who follow after him, we are the seed and not the fruit; the cause not the result; the start and not the finish; the beginning not the end. We are those who prepare the way.

So, arguably, there cannot be a more apt saint for Christians. For here the ministry of preparation is life-giving, one in which we are God’s midwives, bringing new spiritual life into the world. The progeny he has begun and will continue forever. The fruit of the Spirit was planted in Mary, but it requires an Elizabeth and a John to help it to come to full term. John’s role is to prepare the ground; to make a way in the desert. On this, Jesus can come.

Significantly, Mark, the first of the evangelists, begins the story of Jesus, not with the nativity but with John the Baptist, at a time when the prophecies of Isaiah all seem to be coming true, into which he places these words: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies. It remains a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” We already know how John’s story will end from these words.

The connection here is one of paradox. Unless we step aside and make way – die to ourselves – we cannot bear fruit. We must yield ourselves, our power, our identity, our heritage, ourselves, so that what God longs to give birth to will grow and flourish. This is no easy lesson, but it is the only one we have to ponder on as we learn from the example of John the Baptist. For in the end, John the Baptist’s example embodies what it means to be a follower of Christ – we must follow by going before and preparing the way. The only ministry that we all have is preparing ourselves and others for Christ to come into our lives; being like a nurturing womb, a place that nourishes and feeds but ultimately has to let go making way for new life. It is, I guess, a form of mothering, and that is why we might celebrate Elizabeth today as much as we remember John. For she too has her ministry of preparation, of yielding, of letting go, of bringing life but then stepping aside, of brining into being and preparing the ground – but all the while knowing that she is not the central actor in God’s drama. Like all of us, she was part of the supporting cast.

Elijah figures prominently in Jesus’ teaching, and in early Christian writings and this is because Elijah finds the God of Abraham outside of Israel, God is encountered in the wilderness, beyond tribal boundaries and national borders. And like Elijah, John the Baptist cared enough about society to protest against inequality and the abuses of power. He loved mankind so much that he was able to summon the words that spoke out against injustice and wrongdoing. Like Elijah, John the Baptist prayed for those who persecuted him, and like other prophets both before and since, his passion and love meant he paid with his life. His ministry could not have been more costly.

Thinking of John the Baptist, then, is bitter-sweet. For we remember and celebrate a life that was cruelly cut short: “the grass withers and the flower fades” as Isaiah so beautifully puts it. But God is coming, and John’s ministry was to make way; to prepare the way for the Messiah. Unless he died, like the grain of wheat must die, then there would have been no fruit. It is John’s willingness to both make way and give way that is so remarkable – his ministry of preparation, a life of extraordinary sacrifice, in which the connection between repentance and hope is now fully realised. During the Advent season, as we prepare our lives and hearts for the coming of the Messiah, as we prepare to welcome the Christ child into our lives afresh, it is good to remember the words of John the Baptist’s short but nevertheless necessary prayer:

“Dear Lord help me for He must increase and I must decrease”

Amen.

What if….? September 2018

THIS WAS MY FIRST SERMON AFTER COMING BACK FROM MY SELF-IMPOSED EXILE FROM PREACHING AND FROM THE DARKNESS OF DOUBT

What if the Big Bang was reset button for a previous universe that got messed up?

What if algebra teachers are really pirates and they’re using children to find X so they can find the treasure?

What if I told you Easter is more than one day?

What if the meteor that killed the dinosaurs was really a UFO and we are all aliens?

What if one day Google was deleted and we couldn’t Google what happened to Google?

These type of what if scenarios are all over the internet and range from deeply philosophical – What if everything I am going through is preparing me for what I want in life? – to the plainly silly – What if I have a child who is allergic to dogs and I have to get rid of the child?

Our Gospel reading this morning came from Mark and there is a big “What if?” question about the whole Gospel: “What if the disciples had been more perceptive and not such “slow studies?” We know that in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ pet name for the disciples is “ye of little faith.” (6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8) At least they have a little, and, by the end of the gospel they do make progress.

But in Mark, they contest Jesus each time he foretells his suffering, crucifixion and resurrection, they quake in fear in two separate storms at sea, and they are unable to heal a boy possessed by a spirit because they forget to pray. Finally, after dramatic promises of undying loyalty, they abandon Jesus to those who abuse and kill him.

I guess the answer to the big “What if?” question − what if the disciples had “gotten it?”− is that they would be positive role models for us rather than cautionary tales. They wouldn’t have abdicated the function of “positive role model” to several people that appear in Mark’s gospel who, while not disciples, are better models of faith than the disciples, including a man possessed by demons and a blind man whose faith allowed them to be healed,  the woman who anointed Jesus as if preparing him for burial and Joseph of Arimathea, who used his own tomb to lay Jesus in.

Of course, if the disciples in Mark had been better role models for us, we wouldn’t have the satisfaction of feeling superior to them and thinking smugly to ourselves, “If we had been there, we would have gotten it the first time.”

But what if we had been there? There is a question. Let’s delve into this text a bit deeper with a couple of “What ifs” of our own:

  1. What if Jesus had not asked the disciples who others thought he was and who they thought he was?
  2. What if Peter had not rebuked Jesus?

Lets start with the first of these:

What if Jesus had not taken his public and personal opinion poll of the disciples?
Well, they would not have had been challenged to express their thoughts and feelings or crystallize their convictions into words so that they could evaluate and hopefully improve them. It’s significant that the question comes as Jesus led his disciples into a region, Caesarea Philippi, where Pan was honoured and the cult of the emperor was practiced, at the northernmost reaches of Israel and a predominantly Gentile setting.

It is vital that we twenty-first century Christians take the pulse of our cultural context to understand who those outside the church think Christ is and who they perceive Christians to be. If, as some studies suggest, the view outside looking in, is that Christians are judgmental and unloving, then the Church needs to ask itself, what can we do about the aspersion that this casts on the identity of Jesus whom we allege that we follow? If Christ’s reputation suffers because of our stunted discipleship, then what are we going to do about it?

But Jesus doesn’t stop at asking the disciples for a public opinion poll. He asks them for a personal one. “Who do you say that I am?” Is that different from public opinion? While we are fortunate enough to live in a pluralistic society and have much to learn from the religious choices of others, still, we need to be able to give an account of our own. If we have chosen Christ, then why? Who is he to us? Who are we becoming as we live into his identity that resides within us? “Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus continually asks us that question. If we don’t hear it, then maybe we’re not listening. In the world of the text, it is those who are already “on the way” with Jesus who hear his question and who are then challenged continually to reflect on, articulate, and live out who he is to them. It stands to reason, then, that the mission of the Church is to invite others to embark on “the way” with us. Not so much so that we can give them all the answers, but so that we can invite them to hear Jesus’ question and think on it for themselves.

And so we come to the second question:

What if Peter had not rebuked Jesus?
That could have meant one of two things. It could have meant that he decided to hold his disagreement inside for the time being. Or, it could have meant that he was starting to get with the program and finally understand.

In the latter case, it would have meant that while he was repulsed by Jesus’ prediction of future persecution and death, he was neither going to stand in Jesus’ way nor abandon him.

Brainstorming about what it would have meant if Peter hadn’t rebuked Jesus clarifies for me the significance of the fact that he did. I think his rebuke of Jesus foreshadows his eventual falling away and denying all knowledge of Jesus when it mattered most.

We twenty-first century disciples have the glorious benefit of hindsight. That means that, while we can join in Peter’s rebuke, we don’t have to join in his eventual denial. They say it’s not healthy to bottle up emotions. So maybe it was best that Peter expressed his feelings, his anguish, his outrage, his opposition, directly to Jesus in this moment. Maybe we should follow suit. It would be better than smiling and offering lip service to discipleship, while inwardly not getting with the program at all. I have been having a very personal period of struggle with my faith in recent months and I have found it much more helpful to be honest with myself and others, and, also to allow myself to be angry at God without beating myself up about it.

Cognitive dissonance is when you believe one thing inwardly but live out another set of values outwardly. That is not Peter’s problem, according to this text. Nor do I think, it is mine. The problem is that many of us don’t really believe that the life of discipleship should have to involve sacrifice or suffering. Since life holds enough of that as it is, why voluntarily add to it?

In the narrative flow of Mark’s gospel, Peter’s rebuke allows Jesus’ to vocalise the very clear, pointed summary of the life of faith that comes at the end of this morning’s reading – (8:34-38)

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Each of the four gospels is a depiction of the identity of Jesus, shaped by the agenda of the writer in response to his context. It matters who we understand Jesus to be because his identity shapes our own. That’s what being a disciple means: embarking on a lifelong journey of allowing his identity gradually to shape our own. Those final verses state the shape of that life.

It would be nice if we could say, “OK, I get what Mark is saying in those final verses. I get who Jesus is and what he expects of me. I can tick that off the list.” But the life of discipleship is a journey, starting with baptism, it is not an instantaneous accomplishment. It’s one in which we express both our faith (“You are the Messiah.” Mark 8:29) and our own anger and fears (“Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him” Mark 8:32). Discipleship is a process of our continually articulating our faith, but also of being able to talk about our difficulty with or objections to Jesus’ identity and mission, so that he can counter them. Having doubts and questions is part of the journey.

I’m glad, for Peter’s sake, however, that Mark isn’t the only gospel. Why? Because in the Gospel of John, Peter gets a chance he doesn’t get in Mark. He gets the chance to come face to face with the Risen Lord and receive from him forgiveness for his earlier abandonment and energy for future discipleship and sacrifice. And so do we, every day, as it says in the baptism service: you may daily be renewed by his anointing Spirit. So we must make sure that we take that chance and not be left with our own “what if…?”

Amen.

 

The Outsiders – Epiphany 2018

The Christmas celebrations officially came to an end on Saturday as we marked Epiphany. In the popular imagination the Christmas story is all celebrated together – Jesus is born, angels sing, shepherds visit, wise men bring gifts. Yet we know from the story of the murder of the innocents that Herod had the boys under the age of two killed and so it’s likely that the visit of the Magi happened quite sometime after the birth of Jesus. St Matthew also says that the Magi “entered the house” where the Holy Family was staying, so clearly our crib scene isn’t overly accurate! You do know what would have happened had it been three wise women that had visited – they’d have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, and brought more appropriate gifts such as a casserole, nappies, and a blanket – but I digress!!!!

Things have moved on since the birth of Jesus. The story of the visit of the Magi is the part of the Christmas story where we often have the most questions – How many Magi were there? What was this star they followed? Where did they come from? – yet the important part of the story is what the Magi, the star, and the ancient prophecies all point to – Jesus as the Messiah. As we reflect on the Jesus that is pointed to in this story I am drawn to the outsiders who are part of this story and how they react.

The passage starts and ends with outsiders and has one huge outsider in the middle!

Clearly the Magi are outsiders. We know little about them other than they were “from the East” and studied, and found meaning in, the stars. People have mused about whether they were Zoroastrian priests; history often refers to them as three kings; their remains are supposed to be in Cologne Cathedral (though how they ended up there is a bit of a mystery to me). These outsiders knew the purposes of God or at least they knew that something momentous was signified by the star and they knew they had to act. These outsiders didn’t know much about the Jewish religion and didn’t seem to have a copy of the Jewish scripture – they rely on Jewish teachers to find a prophecy – but despite being strangers to the Jewish faith they found the long-promised Messiah.

The other outsider in the story is Herod. From the distance of history we’re used to thinking of Herod as the Jewish king of the time, however this isn’t strictly true. Herod was from a country just south of Israel called Idumea which the Bible referred to as Edom and is now subsumed into Egypt, Gaza and Jordan. The Idumeans had converted to Judaism and had intermarried with Jewish people but most Jews did not consider them to be really Jewish. Herod was a puppet king of the Romans, which also meant he would be seen as an outsider to the Jewish people. Whilst Herod had rebuilt the Jewish Temple he was also a murderous tyrant who killed members of his own family, rabbis and others who opposed his rule.

Interestingly all the outsiders, even Herod, knew the purposes of God. Herod knows he has to go and pay the infant king homage but has no intention of doing what he knows he should do. In this story various worlds collide – Jewish and Pagan worlds find meaning in the star and prophecy of old, the deviant king and the devout sages and Magi meet knowing that something threatening, and wonderful, is happening. All of them, oddly, needed each other. The Magi needed the Jewish understanding of the prophecy; Herod needed the Magi to lead him to the new-born king, the Jewish scholars needed to be prodded by outsiders to see the beauty and truth of their faith. But as these worlds collided the responses to God’s sovereign act differed. The Magi knew they had to go and worship the new-born king but the Jewish sages stayed back. I wonder why. Maybe they were afraid to look too interested in this new king with the old one being rather more immediate. Maybe they didn’t like to relate their knowledge and faith to action. Maybe they were unwilling to journey with the pagans. Herod’s response, as we know, was devious, cunning and murderous. Three different responses to God’s sovereign intervention in our world: rage, indifference and worship. Perhaps things aren’t so different now.

It seems to me that there is a parallel between the Church and those Jewish sages of old. God was up to something but outside the Jewish faith and, whilst they saw within the Scriptures evidence of what God was about, they couldn’t bring themselves to go and take part. It’s clear that the churches in the West have declined massively over the last 50 years or so. In modern Britain Christianity is very much a minority religion – only about 8% of the population go to church regularly – and the position of privilege that the Church had has gone as it is dismissed as, at best, irrelevant or, at worst, dangerous. Yet, at the same time, people aren’t becoming atheist. There is a huge interest in spirituality. I see this in the funerals and baptisms that still take place in churches or with religious leaders. During funerals where the families say “I’m not religious but…” it’s clear that they want some sense of hope, some sense that this life isn’t all there is, and some form of spiritual input. People are searching for spirituality and for meaning but, for whatever reason, think that the Church is the last place where it can be found.

The new atheists seem to react with rage at anything the Church does – and of course sometimes what the Church does is quite deserving of some decent rage. Most of society is indifferent to what the church does whilst a few are attracted by the truth we proclaim and come to worship.

Now this shouldn’t surprise us if we know our Bibles well. God is always at work on the outside of the establishment – political and religious. Bethlehem was insignificant – kings should be born in palaces not stables. Nazareth was in the far north and, as we know the north, then and now, is often ignored by those who make policy. The first visitors to the infant messiah were shepherds – outsiders who routinely broke the Law by working on the Sabbath. The next visitors were pagans. Throughout his life Jesus was always at work on the edge and seeing what God was doing with people who, well, weren’t part of the mainstream religious scene. The woman at the well with all those husbands, the Roman centurion, prostitutes and tax collectors – all the people who wouldn’t be seen dead in a Synagogue but who connected with Jesus.

When presented with God’s truth people react in different ways – they may rage, they may turn their backs or they may engage. The hardest thing for us as part of the Church is to know how to react, how to present the truth in ways which make sense to our people. The Jewish sages in the story were asked about their faith, they explained it but they wouldn’t go with the Magi to see how it worked out. We may get asked about our faith but may feel it’s difficult to accompany people as they start to make sense of it. We may forget how powerful our faith is; I remember a friend of mine who converted to Christianity from Islam asked what this sense of peace was that she felt every time she went to worship. At the time her life was in crisis but she found within Christianity a deep sense of peace as well as strength for her journey. If the Church is to flourish in the new circumstances it finds itself in – on the edge allowing it to be edgy, away from power allowing it to see the world as it really is, with the outsider allowing it to remember its Lord who was also an outsider – then we need to become a little more bold in proclaiming what we believe and sharing our knowledge, our love, our faith, and our insights and then going a step further to journey with people as they discern and discover.

The Wise Men found in their own culture something startling that they needed to investigate, the people who should have had all the answers either didn’t understand the significance of it all or were threatened by it and so chose to protect their power and status. We need to be better than those sages of old and prepared to help people interpret their dreams, longings and spiritual experiences in the light of the Gospel.

Unlike those sages who stayed in their studies, we need to be ready and willing to journey with those who are spiritually seeking, who are exploring their experiences and who are seeking what God is doing in their lives. We also need to be open to the real possibility that God is at work in the hearts and lives of those outside of the Church just as God was at work in the lives, intellect and faith of the Magi. Through their gifts, as we saw earlier, they recognised God in Jesus as king, priest and sacrifice. They had a clearer understanding of the Messiah than did those who were at the heart of the Jewish faith.

So we have to take some risks, we have to risk sounding silly, we have to risk making fools of ourselves, we have to risk admitting that we don’t have all the answers but show we’re willing to journey, to explore and to recognise God at work on the outside of the Church and of our own comfort zones – just as those Wise Men did so long ago.

Amen

 

 

 

Advent Prayer

Advent, from the Latin word adventus meaning “coming”, is a season observed in many Western Christian churches as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas. It is the beginning of the Church year and commences on Advent Sunday (four Sundays before Christmas Day).

The Latin adventus is the translation of the Greek word parousia, commonly used in reference to the Second Coming of Christ. For Christians, the season of Advent serves as a reminder both of the original waiting that was done by the Hebrews for the birth of their Messiah, as well as the waiting of Christians for Christ’s return to bring the Kingdom of God.

Advent Prayer

God of hope, who brought love into this world,
be the love that dwells between us.
God of hope, who brought peace into this world,
be the peace that dwells between us.
God of hope, who brought joy into this world,
be the joy that dwells between us.
God of hope, the rock we stand upon,
be the centre, the focus of our lives
always, and particularly this Advent time.

Amen.

 

Vicky Miller (Reader)

A Prayer for World Refugee Day (June 2018)

In a world where violence forces thousands of families to flee for their lives each day, the time is now to show that the global public stands with refugees. On World Refugee Day, held every year on June 20th, we commemorate the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees. This year, World Refugee Day also marks a key moment for the public to show support for families forced to flee. On this World Refugee Day, we call upon those who follow Jesus to set aside 6 ½ minutes to pray for the 65.6 million forcibly displaced men, women and children in the world. Perhaps you could join us in praying the following prayer:

Father in heaven, we pray for the tens of millions of men, women and children in our world today who have been uprooted by persecution, war and violence.

We pray for the children who make up over half of the global refugee population. We especially pray for unaccompanied minors and the fatherless. They are among the most vulnerable people in the world. Reveal yourself to them as their loving Father, their Protector and their Provider. As the Good Shepherd, go before them and lead them on their journey. Hear their cries and rescue them.

We pray for the displaced women in our world – grandmothers, mothers, wives, sisters, daughters. We pray especially for single women and single mothers among them. You know that they are unprotected and face many dangers and challenges. Protect them from those who would try and take advantage of them. Surround them with supportive community. Renew their strength and hope today. Hear their cries and rescue them.

We pray for uprooted men – grandfathers, fathers, husbands, brothers, sons. Their fellow refugees often rely on them for leadership, help and protection. Grant them wisdom. Renew their strength and hope today. Reveal yourself to them as the Good Shepherd and faithful Provider who has walked with many displaced people throughout history. Hear their cries and rescue them.

We pray for the refugee church – our brothers and sisters. Remind them today that they are in the company of many of your children who were forcibly displaced in years past. Remind them today that you, yourself, were forcibly displaced along with your family shortly after your birth. May they know your faithful presence with them. Renew their faith. May they extend supportive community to their fellow refugees. Hear their cries and rescue them.

We pray for refugee-producing countries in our world – especially those generating the largest number of forcibly displaced people: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Somalia, Sudan, D.R. Congo, Central African Republic, Myanmar, Eritrea, and Burundi. We pray for peace and justice to take root. We pray for the people living in these troubled nations. Hear their cries and rescue them.

We pray for the nations providing refuge to people – especially those hosting the largest number of refugees: Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Uganda, Ethiopia, Jordan, Germany, D.R. Congo and Kenya. May your blessing be upon these nations as they provide safety and refuge to desperate people. Increase their capacity to care for the refugees within their borders. Bless them with political, economic, and social stability.

Father, we pray as did the psalmist thousands of years ago:

Some are wandering in desert wastelands, finding no way to a city where they can settle. They are hungry and thirsty, and their lives are ebbing away. They are crying out in their trouble, O Lord. Please deliver them from their distress. Lead them by a straight way to a city where they can settle. Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind, for he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.

It is in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that we bring our prayer before you.

Amen