Saturday, February 22, 2014


Matthew 6.25–34

People in advertising know that fear sells. Have you seen advert for the latest kitchen hygiene product from Detol? The Detol no touch hand-wash system! The idea behind it is that the thousands of germs which may be on the end of your liquid soap pump might hurt you, so now you can buy an automatic soap dispenser, recommended retail price £9.99, which means we never have to touch a germy nozzle again! Great idea… but completely pointless… So I get bacteria on my hands from my soap dispenser, but what do I do next? I wash my hands! Foiled again, pesky bacteria! The thing is, we’re all terribly afraid of bacteria these days, unless of course it’s L. Casei Immunitas or lactobacillus casei shirota, and advertisers know they can use our fear to sell us pointless things. Fear causes us to act irrationally.

In the gospel reading which we heard earlier, Jesus tells us how to live a life which isn’t dominated by fear and anxiety. But to some of us his words might not quite hit home. Jesus lived in a largely rural world. It might have just about made sense back then to tell people to trust God not to worry. But he didn’t have school fees or a mortgage to pay; he didn’t know the strain and stress of modern life, particularly during the economic squeeze. And what about all the people who do look to God and who do seek his kingdom and righteousness, but are still cold, hungry and thirsty, who suffer form preventable illness, who don’t have nice clothes to wear and who live in poor accommodation? Should we really take Jesus advice seriously? His words might seem a little hard to swallow.

Well I think we should. In fact, I think that Jesus teaching liberates us from the fear and anxiety which, far from making life better, makes it considerably worse. There are two things that Jesus says can liberate us from being ground down by anxiety:

The liberating love of the Father
The truth is that, rich or poor, we worry. You worry about getting more (or even enough) if you’re poor, or you worry about hanging onto what you have got if you’re rich, and you worry about a whole raft of things in between. This tells us one thing and one thing only. Getting more doesn’t free us from worry. Having little or nothing is a source of great misery and stress, but you can’t make your life less miserable and stressful simply by having more. So worrying about how much we have is useless, it turns us in on ourselves. It is completely unproductiveexcept, maybe of stomach ulcers. As Jesus said, you can’t add another moment to you life through worrying. Far from it! You may shorten it. 

Worry grinds us down into the ground, but Jesus wants to raise us up to live lives of hope and joy, and so he reminds us that although our troubles make us feel unimportant, our lives is of great value to God. Jesus points us to the natural world, to birds and flowers. If God cares enough for birds that he feeds them, and cares enough for ‘grass of the field’ (which lives and dies in a matter of days) that he clothes them with beautiful flowers, won’t he also supply the needs of his people? Jesus wants us to realise just how important human beings are to God. Much more important than flowers and birds. If God loves us so much, he will give us what we need.

Now Jesus isn’t saying that we don’t need to work, or that we can be lazy. Martin Luther, the German reformer said that some people think that Jesus’ teaching means that we can sit back and wait for God to drop a roasted goose into our mouth. But that really isn’t what Jesus has in mind. Anyone who knows birds knows that they are actually quite industrious – God feeds them by providing in nature the means by which they can feed themselves. Gardeners, likewise, know that plants expend a great deal of energy in producing flowers. They are not ‘Lazy’ (if you can refer to a non-rational organism in that way), they work incredibly hard. Both birds and flowers cooperate with God. In both cases what they lack is not industry but anxiety.

So we too should work hard, we do what we need to do, but we’re not to worry about things which lie completely outside of our control. That really is the folly of worry – we end up making ourselves responsible for things which human beings could never really be responsibility for – and we forget that there is a God.

The liberating desire for God’s Kingdom and righteousness
This phrase ‘strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these will be given to you as well’ really is the key to understanding Jesus’ radical call to live a life without fear for tomorrow. The Kingdom of God isn’t a static territory like the United Kingdom. God’s Kingdom is a dynamic reality. Neither does striving for God’s Kingdom mean striving to get into heaven when we die. That is far to individualistic a view of religion for Jesus. To strive for the kingdom of God is to strive to see God’s reign as King, which is already a present reality, become more and more apparent. 

God’s righteous kingdom is one in which there is no poverty, hunger or thirst, where there is no trouble or war but only peace. It is a kingdom of perfect justice and fairness. So if we are to strive for these things, we make them priorities in our own lives as individual Christians: in the way we are with our families, in the way we behave to each other in church, in the way we spend our time and money. But we are also to strive for these things in the life of our community, to pray for the day when the kingdom of God is made known in all its fulness. The question we always need to ask is this, ‘how are the values of God’s Kingdom reflected in the life of our Church?’ 

This is why, despite there being people throughout the world who have little or nothing, who experience much trouble in life and little comfort, that we can still say, with confidence, that God provides for his beloved children. In fact, he provides abundantly. He provides abundantly by asking those who have received much to be the means by which he provides for those who have little. As we seek to live the life of God’s kingdom, we will necessarily seek to bring people out of poverty. We will try to alleviate suffering, sickness and trouble wherever it is found. And if the Kingdom of God really becomes our primary ambition, if living under God’s righteous reign becomes what we value most highly, then we will have a faith which can face trouble and still remain firm, because whilst churches come and go, whilst money comes and goes, whilst people come and go, the kingdom of God comes and grows and will one day fill the whole earth with justice, mercy and peace.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

love is a place...

                                                             love is a place
                                                             & through this place of
                                                             love move
                                                             (with brightness of peace)
                                                             all places

                                                             yes is a world
                                                             in this world of
                                                             yes live
                                                             (skilfully curled)
                                                             all worlds

                                                                                                           e.e. cummings

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Divine humility...

Mal. 3.1–5
Luke 2.22–40
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
For many of us, these words of Simeon which we have just heard, “Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”, signal a blessed departure from Evensong. I remember once being at a particularly tedious Evensong where we had a very long reading from the book of Genesis. The reader went on and on and eventually concluded, quite properly with ‘Here endeth the lesson’, to which one of the congregation humourously replied, ‘Thanks be to God’.  Here though, the departure in mind is Simeon’s departure from this life, having beheld God’s promised salvation. A fulfilled promise which brings to an end Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth and reminds us of the strange way God fulfils his promises. To appreciate this though, we need to step back and look at the rest of the story Luke tells about the coming of the Messiah.

Luke’s story begins and ends in the temple, the symbol of God’s living presence among his people. In the first chapter we find a priest called Zechariah on the duty rota to offer incense to God in the temple. He had probably done it a hundred times before. He’d get his charcoal going and put some incense on it and wave it about, nothing out of the ordinary about this fairly mundane ritual. Except this time was different. This time, as Zechariah was waving his censer and the people were praying outside, an angle appeared. Zechariah, was understandably terrified. But the angel calmed his nerves and gave him a message. He was told that he and his wife, Elizabeth, who were both very old would have a son, a son who would make Israel ready for God’s return to them. In the words of Malachi, the Lord they sought would suddenly come to his temple, and Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist, would be the one to prepare his way.

Now, at the end of Luke’s story about the birth of Jesus, we return to the temple. Here, another elderly man receives a message from God. Not this time in the form of an angel coming from heaven, but as the fulfilment of a promise which God had made many years before. Simeon could depart this world in peace knowing that in the baby he held in his arms, he had seen salvation. At this moment, the Lord had returned to his house as Malachi had prophesied. But look at the way in which he comes into his temple. 

Many expected the Lord to come as a warrior to occupy that which was his by right. But he comes as a child. ‘Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?’, but none had realised that they would fall, not beneath the might of a conquering war-lord, but would be silenced by a baby that needed to be carried. So often we want to see shock and awe, for our enemies to fall beneath incontrovertible force, whether intellectually or politically. We respect strong leaders who get things done, whatever the cost. And so often the church looks little different to the world. We want to have our way, on general synod, even perhaps in this church. We can be tempted to use coercion to win the day. But though we might win the battle, it will be at the expense of our soul. If we are Christians then we are followers of Jesus, and the manner of Jesus’ coming turns our conceptions of power and influence on their head.

Yes the Lord is like a refining fire, he purifies his people. But how does the Lord purify? Not violently and destructively, but by bringing them light. Yes, the Lord will restore the glory of his people. Not by destroying his enemies though, but by making this child a light for the enlightenment of the gentiles, allowing those who were his enemies to become his friends. The outcasts are to be admitted to his holy nation and this will be the glory of Israel. This wasn’t the revelation the world was expecting, and it certainly wasn’t the sort of glory Israel had wanted and prayed for. But it was what God had intended, and it was, in reality, more truthful and glorious than they could have ever expected. Perhaps sometimes, we need to be open to God leading us into better future than we could have imagined by ourselves?

The Lord comes to Judge. But how does he judge? Notice that we often talk about “the rise and fall” of people, nations, empires. But not here. With Jesus the order is reversed. He will cause the falling and rising of many in Israel. He will cause us to stumble and to be seen for what we truly are, but he will also lift us back up back up to new life in him. No one will be immune from falling under this judgement and restoration, not even Jesus’ mother. His sword of judgement would pierce here own soul too, as she came to realise that her relationship with her son was not to be one of a mother but of a disciple. Yes, Mary had to learn this like the rest of us; we all come to Jesus the same way. And it would be by his hand that she would also be raised back up too.

When the Lord comes to his temple, he surprises us with his lowliness, with his willingness to step down and become weak, and this not only judges our attempts to find our worth in strength and power over others, but frees us from the burden of having to mask our own failings and weakness. 
St Augustine of Hippo wrote,

Human pride pressed us down so low, that divine humility alone could lift us up.” (Sermon 188)

And so when we embrace divine humility, when we embrace the God who shows his power and glory through weakness, we are transformed and raised up. The salvation Simeon saw was a baby, the saving presence of a God who gently changes the world, who refuses to fight fire with fire, who refuses to save by violence or coercion, a God who chooses to identify with humanity, not in its pride and aggression, but in its weakness and vulnerability. Simeon and Anna had waited a lifetime to arrive at this moment of seeing God’s salvation, of holding it in their hands. But for Mary and Joseph, this was going to be the beginning of a much longer story. And it is a story which we are caught up into as well. We must learn to follow Jesus into the deepest darkness, to the places where human life is regarded as dispensable and cheap, to put aside our pride and status and to raise up those who have fallen. And in doing this we will be showing Christ’s light to the world, we will become mirrors which reflect the light of the world into the gloom, we will become people who lead others into liberty.