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It was near the end of my first year at University – exams had just finished. They had been a bit of a shock…hard. People around me seemed much more confident than I was about how they’d gone. I rang home for my weekly chat from the rather public payphone in college…and told my Mum I thought I’d probably failed.
‘Ok’, she said calmly, ‘and..? What other news? What plans have you got now the exams are over?’ She didn’t talk about what would happen if I did fail, or try to persuade me all would be well…but I came off the phone feeling that in a way it didn’t matter…because I knew that our relationship didn’t depend on how well I did in exams…I was her daughter and she just loved me.
Today we celebrate the Baptism of Christ, and we’ve just heard Mark’s account of it. In this gospel, the baptism itself is mentioned only briefly. Mark focuses on what happened next. Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and a dove descending…he heard God’s voice from heaven, saying, “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
This is the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry on earth…this is before he’s resisted demons, healed, preached, walked on water, died on a cross. God looks on him and loves him, totally and unconditionally, just because…Jesus has no need to prove himself, that has nothing to do with it.
The way Mark tells the story gives the intriguing thought that perhaps only Jesus heard and saw these things. Presumably – because we know about it – that wasn’t the case. But the way it’s recorded suggests what happened was for Jesus’ benefit, not for those around him. Jesus is being addressed here – not ‘this is my son’, but ‘you are my Son’. Not an announcement about who Jesus is – but a moment of pure love between the Father and the Son.
But in an important way we are more than just onlookers, it does concern us too – since we too are baptised or can be in the future. Baptism reminds us that, amazingly, Jesus’ death and resurrection give us the possibility of becoming children of God too.
As the introduction to the baptism or Christening service says, ‘In baptism we are clothed with Christ, dying to sin that we may live his risen life. As children of God, we have a new dignity and God calls us to fulness of life.’
So we can hear those words…’you are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased’, as meant for us too.
This is nothing to do with our actions…I was only 4 months old when I was baptised…I hadn’t had chance to do anything much. No, God just loves us totally and unconditionally. Incredibly, there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do that will make him love us less.
There is nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do that will make him love us less…I don’t think we remember this often enough. Just imagine for a moment those words being said, by God, about you. “You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
This doesn’t mean we don’t have to try to be better. I don’t think it means God will never be sad or angry at our actions. But I do think it can make a big difference to how we face the world. Jesus heard these words at the start of his ministry: as he went out into the wilderness to face temptation; as he began the journey of love that would lead to the cross.
We too, are once again at a frightening and difficult point in our lives. And unlike last March, it is cold and dark, and we are already weary. We are facing another period of home schooling, of not seeing friends, of feeling isolated, of worrying about friends and family, of being annoyed by restrictions, or by those who don’t stick to them.
We’re facing challenges that will not always bring out the best in us…which sometimes make us feel we are failing…or not considerate enough…or just can’t manage. Which is exactly when we need to hear those words. “You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
When I was training at Mirfield I loved to go into the church and sit on the floor by the font. There was a particularly good bit of underfloor heating there – but also the beautiful font reminded me of my baptism.
Now is not perhaps the time for going and gazing at fonts, and we certainly can’t boast underfloor heating, but there are other symbols of our baptism to hand at home.
You might like to get a small bowl of water – dip your finger in it and trace the sign of the cross on your forehead…remembering that Christ claims you as his own.
You might like to find a candle; some incredibly organised people may even be able to find their baptism candle – but any will do. Light it and sit quietly looking at it…and hear God’s words spoken to you…”You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
May be that will give us the courage and energy to, as the baptism service puts it, ‘shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father’, or maybe it will just help us get through the next day or two.
One last thing – important as fatigue and anxiety make us less patient with those around us – remember just as God says to you…”You are my child, my beloved”…he says it to the people around you too.
Usually, at this time of year, a well-loved member of our congregation helps Father Christmas out by standing in for him at a school the other side of Leeds. This year of course – he couldn’t go. The children were sad, and worried that with all the restrictions Father Christmas himself might not get to their houses this year. So, our Father Christmas recorded a video – assuring them that even these strange times wouldn’t stop the deliveries on Christmas night.
It reminded me of another Christmas memory I read recently, from the early 60s…of a British child brought up in Zimbabwe, who travelled ‘home’ by ship once a year. One year, unusually, they travelled over the Christmas season.
The young Malcolm was worried; they would be way out at sea…what if Father Christmas couldn’t find them? There was a Christmas Eve party, but what of the man himself?
Suddenly that party was interrupted by conversations on the bridge accidently broadcast over the tannoy.
Malcolm writes…”we heard an alarmed call from the navigator: “Something on the radar, sir. North-north-west, approaching swiftly. Shall I take evasive action?” “Hold your course steady,” the Captain called. “Let’s see if I can get a sighting through the binoculars.” Down in the dining room, we all held our breath.
“Oh yes, yes, it is!” came the Captain’s jubilant voice. “It’s him! Slow and steady,” he called to the engineer. “Bring her over, and cut the furnace for a moment; we don’t want too much heat and smoke when he comes down the funnel. All right, everybody, prepare to take on an extra passenger.”
And of course, a slightly sooty Father Christmas was soon ushered into the party – with presents for all the children. He wasn’t going to let a little thing like a ship out at sea stop Christmas.
There has been talk this year of ‘Christmas being cancelled’. Even limited plans had to be altered at the last minute, leaving some very upset…perhaps this year it’s not only the children who need reassuring. All the usual certainty and family traditions…Christmas day with this part of the family…Boxing Day with that…sprouts – or not…cramming into church for Christmas services…meeting old friends…none of it possible in the usual way.
But if we think about the Christmas story…in a way it was always one of changed plans and making do.
I wonder how Mary and Joseph felt…their plans for an ordinary, respectable wedding dashed…their lives no doubt challenged by unkind talk about this mysterious baby. Perhaps they thought God might have made his announcement a little more widely, told the neighbours at least, to avoid the stigma of this unexpected arrival.
I wonder too, what they thought as they trekked from door to door in Bethlehem, desperately looking for a safe place for his birth. Might they have expected God to plan more carefully for this special child? No room at the inn, and then no home as they fled from Herod, becoming refugees.
What of their parents? No doubt they’d imagined the arrival of their first grandchild: respectable, safe at home, with family around to share in the joy.
And the religious people of the day…faithful Jews, longing for the coming of the Messiah…doing their best to follow the law…assuming the saviour would come into the midst of those traditions…come first to places of worship…recognisable to those expecting him…
But no. We may have tamed it with our beautiful Christmas carols, clean and tidy nativity scenes, traditional round of services…but that first Christmas was a mess of altered plans and dashed hopes…played out against a background of fear and anxiety in an occupied country with a volatile King.
And so it went on…shepherds settling down around their fire to an evening of storytelling perhaps…confronted by a host of angels forcing them away from their sheep, down into the busy town…Shepherds who normally kept to the edges…finding themselves the centre of attention, sharing their news.
The Magi, wise men…I don’t know what their plans were, but I don’t suppose they included a trek of hundreds of miles, following a star to an unknown destination.
In fact, this 2020 Christmas of disrupted plans, of being out of our comfort zone, of making do, is far more faithful to the event we celebrate.
Christmas was never about the traditions – although they help us connect with the mystery. Christmas is God’s statement that he is with us in times of darkness and uncertainty. That can’t ever be cancelled…not by the disapproval of society…not by the danger of a busy town and a dirty stable…not by Herod and his soldiers. Not by a global pandemic.
Christmas is a reminder that God’s presence doesn’t depend on carefully laid plans, and following traditions…that he comes to be with us particularly where there is chaos and fear.
I trust that many worried children will find this year as always that Father Christmas somehow manages…because he is propelled by the love and sacrifice of anxious parents, and the compassion of strangers.
And I pray that we, as we gather at the crib…in the churchyard…in church…in our own homes…in our hearts…As we gather with a few loved ones or alone…in joy or grief…in despair or with hope…will find that Christmas is not cancelled.
This Christmas is not easy – but with everything else stripped away it might be a time to accept God’s gift of being with us in the darkness, of sharing the pains, joys and uncertainty of human existence…the gift of love.
“Happiness is a new bike; joy is a new baby.”
“Joy is stronger than happiness.”
Preparing for this sermon on joy, I trawled through various learned books on my shelves…but ended up, as I often do, returning to some of the best theologians around – our children.
“Happiness is a new bike; joy is a new baby.”
“Joy is stronger than happiness.”
The first, a quote from a school assembly when I was curate; the second from our own Callum Holmes when year 3 came to church last week.
To try to tease out the meaning of ‘joy’, we were looking at how it differs from happiness…and why joy, not happiness is our Advent theme.
It’s not an easy thing to put into words and I’ve been wondering what it is about those two statements that hit the nail on the head. I think perhaps it’s something about trust, endurance and promise.
Trust…it can be difficult in today’s world. All around the world people are bombarded with fake news…statements made just to keep people happy…with little regard for the truth. ‘The virus is nothing to worry about’, ‘climate change isn’t real’, ‘we’ll be fine by Christmas’, ‘our country is doing just fine’; and promises to do the impossible if only one is elected.
Some of the time it works, at least for some people – there can be too much hard stuff to face, especially at the moment…we might well be happier ignoring it. But this happiness won’t last – because it isn’t based on the truth.
Today’s readings also contain joyful messages of wonderful things to come; but both concentrate on the authority of those bringing the good news. The prophet Isaiah begins, ‘The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me, he has sent me to bring good news’. John the Baptist is very clear that he’s not the Messiah, nor Elijah; he’s the voice crying in the wilderness foretold by Isaiah, sent by God, he’s there as a witness to the coming of Jesus. These are messages from God, messages that can be trusted.
Callum suggested ‘joy’ is stronger than happiness – perhaps this is because it’s always rooted in the truth. Joy comes when we trust the good news we hear, even if things are not so good at the moment.
Perhaps joy is also stronger because it endures. Even genuine happiness tends not to survive difficult times; but joy is strong enough to withstand the darkness.
Advent comes at a time of darkness and shadows, when days are short, the weather often poor. This year we can add anxiety, the weariness of isolation, grief made worse by separation, fears about the economy. But Advent is also when we hear the good news that God comes to live as one of us, to share the darkness and shadows of even the worst human life. So Advent brings the news that we are unconditionally loved…by God. We can know this to be good news even in the darkest times. Happiness may be difficult at the moment – but joy endures.
Of course, happiness can be very real. This summer held many happy moments enjoying nature, on holiday, with friends. And I well remember the happiness of a new bike – or other longed for toy when I was a child.
Yet I immediately recognised the truth contained in that statement: ‘happiness is a new bike; joy is a new baby’. And I wonder whether that truth lies in the promise and potential of a new baby. Unlike happiness that comes from possessions or holidays…a new baby holds the promise of a lifetime of growth, development and interaction. It’s not just about now – but about what is to come.
I was bowled over by the birth of both of our children…but I have to admit to finding tiny babies a little boring. The joy of being a mother unfolded as they smiled, laughed, began to ask endless questions, and shared their childlike wisdom with me. The joy is still unfolding now they are adults and our relationship grows and changes.
That child in my assembly chose the image of a new baby because there was one in her house; but we could equally talk of joy being a deep and lasting friendship. I suspect, I hope, we all have people who bring joy into our lives by their companionship, the phone call or text when things are hard, the offer of help. And friendships aren’t static…bonds gradually deepen as, bit by bit we share ourselves more fully. Again, the joy comes in the promise, of love given and returned, of an unfolding relationship that is always new.
Advent joy comes from the promise that Christ can be born afresh in us this Christmas. And it’s joy rather than happiness, because it’s not just a day of recalling Christ’s birth, but the start, or the deepening of a lifelong relationship.
Advent is traditionally a season when, despite the business of preparing for Christmas, we try to put time aside to wait quietly for God. This year I’m doing that partly with this book on the poems of R.S. Thomas. Advent is quiet, sometimes solemn – but it’s still a time of ‘doing’.
Perhaps trust, and promise bring enduring joy rather than fleeting happiness because they call for a response. In Advent, even in the darkness and difficulties we are asked to trust in God’s steadfast love. To trust that God really does want to share even the darkest parts of our lives.
Then we are invited into a relationship, with Christ. As with every other relationship, the more time and effort we invest in it, the more its promise will unfold, and the more joy it will bring.
Advent joy is stronger than happiness because advent joy is a new baby. As we await the birth of the Christ-child we are called not only to come and adore him, but to stay and grow with him. Amen
Advent means a new church year. It also means a change in our Sunday gospel readings. Last year we mainly heard from Matthew – this year it’s Mark.
Today we heard the start of Mark’s gospel, and he starts as he means to go on – abruptly! This isn’t Luke’s beautiful nativity story or John’s soaring poetry introducing Jesus.
No, for Mark, ‘the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ’ comes through John the Baptist shouting in the wilderness, and a baptism of repentance…owning up to what we’re doing wrong…judgement if you like. Judgement – perhaps not the first thing we expect from ‘good news’.
In the past though, advent sermons traditionally tackled the themes of death, judgement, heaven and hell. In recent times we’ve moved to ‘softer’ themes: hope, love, joy, peace; so today you’re expecting love rather than judgement. But actually, in the good news of Jesus Christ, I don’t think judgement and love are that far apart.
For me, Christianity is all about love…since God is love. But it’s an active kind of love: not just a beautiful feeling for a baby in a manger; but the challenging sort of love found in Mark’s Jesus; who comes to shock us, to show us who we really are, and who we ought to be. Jesus who says that entering his kingdom involves facing the truth about ourselves and changing the direction of our lives.
A group of us have been using the ‘Pilgrim course’ to explore some of the foundations of our faith. We’ve reached the ten commandments, the traditional standard against which lives are measured. This week we were challenged by Jesus’ comments on them. ‘Never mind don’t murder…if you’re angry with someone that’s just as bad. Never mind adultery…don’t even look at another woman.’
This sounds very judgmental, almost impossible to live up to – and not much like love. But as we explored Jesus’ words, they altered our view of the commandments, from a list of remote ‘do nots’, to a framework that leads us into fullness of life. Judgement, yes; but judgement that helps us to grow.
‘Don’t murder’, ‘don’t commit adultery’, ‘don’t steal’, can be taken for granted. Of course they’re important, but for most of us keeping them doesn’t impact our lives much. They’re about what we don’t do, more than how we live. Jesus challenges us to go further, to judge our own lives, and address the anger, lust and envy they contain. And these are things that hurt us as much as they do others.
The Pilgrim course asked us to consider the ten commandments as ‘a firm and friendly arm around the shoulder saying, “this is how to live”’…that seems to me an example of judgement experienced as love.
Mark’s good news is that Jesus Christ is coming…that he’s coming to shock us, to show us who we really are, and how that’s not who we should be. But Mark’s good news is also that Jesus judges with love…that he loves us just as we are – but he loves us too much to let us stay that way.
So, our Advent love is a challenge. Preparing to welcome the Christ child into our lives involves having a good look at those lives. Christ’s judgement comes to us as love – but love that offers us some hard work as we try to become more like him. Advent love as tough love perhaps!
There are places in the bible though, where judgement is welcomed not feared. The announcement ‘Here is your God, he will come with vengeance’, is seen as an occasion for rejoicing in song and dance.
‘Your God will come with vengeance’, hardly seems like a cause for joy – unless perhaps it’s spoken to the oppressed, the wrongly imprisoned, the enslaved, the poor and needy. If you’re wronged or exploited by the system – then judgement is indeed a reason to rejoice, judgement might be felt as love.
American philosopher Cornel West says this about love: ‘tenderness is what love feels like in private; justice is what love looks like in public.’
We’re all individual followers of Jesus, who hope to feel his love tenderly working in our lives. But we’re also Christians citizens of this community…country…world, who are called to make his love known to others. ‘Justice is what love looks like in public’, so justice is also part of Advent love.
You may have seen on the BBC news this week a film of two vicars in Burnley almost broken by the burden of feeding the hungry and listening to desperate people. It put the problems of my job into sharp perspective. It also, I think, demanded a response.
One vicar said ‘I go into homes with families; there are children ripping open the bags to get at the food as I come through the door.’ This surely demands justice not charity. In a society as rich as ours, even a global pandemic shouldn’t result in starving children.
For me, sharing Christ’s love must involve actively working for a society where everyone has the right to food and warmth, even when jobs are scarce and some industries struggling. It must involve working against injustice wherever we find it.
We’ve been rightly proud of Adel’s response to our Advent Foodbank appeal, but I think we should also be doing all we can to bring about a time when such an appeal isn’t needed.
Today Esther/Joshua/Ted lit our candle of love. This Advent I pray that we all experience the tender, challenging love of Jesus who comes in gentle judgement to help us change and grow.
Today n lit our candle of love. This advent I pray that we share Christ’s love – working for the justice that is its public face. Amen
How are your plans for Christmas coming along?
I imagine – could I see you – there will be wry smiles, or people throwing things at the screen. Planning anything at the moment feels like aiming at a moving target.
We find that hard don’t we? We like certainty, we like to know where we’re going. Uncertainty makes us anxious…it’s hard to look to the future when we have no idea what it will be like.
Today we bring that uncertainty to the first Sunday of Advent, with its theme of hope. Perhaps we’re left wondering what it is we’re hoping for.
Of course, we know Advent is about preparing for the coming of God, the birth of the Christ child. We know it’s not about shopping, presents, stuff. But without the music which helps us enter the mystery, or the special people in whom we encounter Christ our hope to meet Christ this Christmas might feel dimmed.
Those words we heard from Isaiah, spoken for a people in exile, seem especially relevant today when we feel exiled from normal life, from a normal Advent and Christmas. Isaiah struggles to reconcile the ancient stories of God’s powerful presence, with the people’s experience of God’s absence.
‘Come down, like you used to do’, he implores God. ‘Come and sort out our problems and rescue us.’ Our prayers might well be similar…’send a vaccine…make this go away’. I’m sure these are good things to pray for…but there’s a verse at the end of the reading that I think tells us more about Advent hope.
After his demands for God to act, Isaiah says: ‘Yet Lord, we are the clay, and you are our potter.’
‘We are the clay and you are the potter’, a beautiful image that alters my picture of how we might live in hope this Advent.
The focus is moved from passive waiting for God to come and sort things out, to creative waiting, a time of being changed by God.
From what I know of Adel, there’s probably at least one expert potter listening to this, and most of us will have seen a film of a potter at their wheel…the miraculous turning of a lump of clay into a beautiful, useful pot.
It’s quite a slow process, the potter has to be patient and work with the clay, slowly shaping it into the pot they’ve planned. Sometimes it goes wrong, the pot collapses, or the wheel becomes unbalanced. But all is not lost – the potter picks up the clay and starts again.
Those are two images of hope I’ve found useful at the beginning of this strange Advent.
Firstly, we might hope and pray for a sudden drop in cases, the quick roll out of a vaccine before Christmas. But whether or not that happens, God can be at work in our lives, moulding them gently and patiently into lives where there is room for Jesus.
We’re not just waiting, passively for Christmas to arrive or not. If we submit ourselves to God the potter, he can begin to change us into people ready to accept Christ, people who might begin to turn our bit of the world into a place fit for Christ.
Secondly, like the potter with the clay, if things go wrong, if our lives go astray from God, he will always start again with us. Advent is not just a new church year; it’s a reminder that God waits for us to make a new start with him. Whether this Advent is the first time you’ve really thought about welcoming Jesus into your life…or you feel you come with the same old faults you’ve asked God to help with time and again…God the potter is ready to work with whatever clay we offer him.
That’s a real story of hope.
If, like me, you’re of a certain age, the words ‘potter’ and ‘clay’ may have brought to mind the famous ‘potter’s wheel interlude’ from the early days of BBC television. Back then, breakdowns were frequent. The BBC needed to reassure the audience their TV was still working, and hang on to them until the programme could restart.
They needed to fill the gap – with something people wouldn’t switch off – but that they wouldn’t mind leaving once the fault was fixed. They chose a potter at a wheel, making a pot.
There was something almost Advent like about that waiting. To paraphrase Mark’s gospel…we didn’t know the moment when the programme would restart. But in the meantime – we were drawn into something creative.
In these uncertain times, it’s perhaps good to be reminded in Advent that we aren’t waiting passively for a God who comes down in power and might. We’re hoping for a baby in a cradle, who comes to invite, to teach, to persuade, to love us into new people.
Advent hope is about letting God the potter gently mould our lives so we’re ready to hear the message Jesus brings.
And that means making ourselves available.
We have some offerings that might help…
…our ‘Advent windows’ on the side of church – a different personal reflection each week on our Advent themes, put together by some of our artistic members.
…our Advent course – a chance to reflect with others – please get in touch if you’d like to be involved.
Or you may prefer to find your own resources – bible readings, poems, paintings – find a quiet space to sit and let God in.
Whatever you do – I hope Advent will be a time of creative waiting.
A final word about that BBC potter’s wheel: apparently ‘Viewers who stayed alert noticed that the potter never finished the pot, but just kept remodelling it.’
Perhaps a good picture of Advent hope as the beginning of a lifetime journey. A journey of letting God gently make us more Christlike.
This week we come the end of the church’s year, and the Sunday called ‘Christ the King’. The year that started with us anticipating the birth of the Christ-child in a humble stable, ends with us proclaiming him King – with power over heaven and earth.
Royalty is a bit out of fashion these days. We have great respect and affection for our Queen – but the notion that some should have power because of an accident of birth has largely been abandoned. However, democratic elections still result in some people having great power over the lives of others.
I want to start today with two pictures of power, both in the news in recently.
The first came in the reaction to the death of Peter Sutcliffe; and the apology issued by the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, on behalf of the force, for language used at the time of the killings.
The second has been the spectacle of the President of the United States attempting to cling on to power after the people failed to re-elect him.
Both the US President, and our police forces are given power on our behalf. The mission of the Police is to… ‘make communities safer by upholding the law fairly and firmly’. The US President swears to ‘preserve, protect and defend the constitution’. Both suggest an obligation to all people – especially those who most need protection – something apparently ignored in these two cases.
In 1970s Yorkshire, high ranking police officers talked of ‘innocent’ and ‘respectable’ victims of Peter Sutcliffe, implying that others were neither of those things. Implying perhaps that these deaths were less tragic, less worthy of police time.
In what he’s said since the election, I’m afraid the US president appears to want power mainly for its own sake, not to help the powerless. Over the last four years those in power seem to me to have used it to protect and support people like them, whilst dismissing others as unworthy.
In both these cases power has been used to judge, rather than serve.
Today’s gospel reading also begins with a striking picture of power and judgement…Christ in glory, attended by angels, seated on a throne. There’s no mistaking who the king is. And the judgement seems fairly straightforward too – there are sheep and goats – surely it’s pretty obvious which are which.
I imagine those listening to Jesus thought this too. Probably they were fairly confident about who the sheep were… …religious people…followers of Jesus…people like them. Because it’s not just US presidents and police chiefs who use their power to support their own.
But of course, it turns out not to be that simple.
This king, it seems, doesn’t use his power to benefit those like him, whilst ignoring the others. And he doesn’t want his followers to do that either. For me the interesting thing about this picture, is that the difference between sheep and goats is not at all obvious. Even individuals themselves seem surprised at which group they belong to.
This is a picture of Kingship using power for the good of all – especially those who need it most. Followers of this King are called especially to the poor, the needy, the prisoner, the stranger…those on the outside.
We might wonder what is specifically Christian about this…good people of all faiths and none spend their time and money helping of others.
Well for me this goes beyond an instruction to charity. In this passage, Christ says to the people, “I was hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, a prisoner, a stranger…the way you dealt with such people is the way you dealt with me.”
This is a completely different exercising of power. Christ comes not just to help the weak and powerless – he identifies totally with them. As Christians we are asked not just to help the weak and vulnerable we come across – but to meet our king and saviour in those people.
Christ says – when your life is disrupted by the powerless – when you have those uncomfortable encounters with the homeless, with refugees – that’s the place you can be sure to find me. It gives those people at the bottom of our society new dignity – and in a way, power, because it should change the way we look on them.
“Whatever you did to one of the least of these,” says Christ, “you did to me.”
There’s a sobering thought. When we come across someone in need and powerless, whatever we do – we’re doing to Christ…whatever we do, the positive and the negative. It’s not about our stated beliefs, or mission statements, but how we react when caught off guard. How we use our power over others.
After reading this I’ve been haunted a little by a plea for help to which I did not respond. I may have been right, that it wasn’t really something within my capacity…but I can’t help wondering…would I have responded differently had I thought it was Christ on the other end of the phone…
Of course, we cannot help everyone we come across in the way we might want, but we can control the way we look, smile, speak or ignore. We can try to look for Christ in those, the least of his children.
As Christians, though, we have not only this enormous challenge, we also have a promise. We may be lucky enough never to be cold, hungry or in prison…but at times we all feel helpless and overwhelmed. At times we are those ‘little ones’. And it is in these moments above all others that our King is with us. If we are in despair, Christ not only loves us, he dwells in us.
And when we are weak, vulnerable and powerless, we are the place where others can meet with Christ. There’s a thought for the turning of the church’s year!
It’s probably something many of us have done…arrived at an event only to find we’re not suitably dressed. Or if we haven’t…we’ve probably worried about it.
As a teacher, the usual fears were added to by endless possibilities of getting the wrong day for non-uniform, red nose day, children in need…or worse still, the dreaded ‘World book day’. I have a vivid memory of walking to school rather conspicuously dressed as Willy Wonka – from Roald Dahl’s book about a chocolate factory. By the time I was half way I’d convinced myself I’d got the day wrong…so it was a great relief to meet a ‘Cat in the Hat’ coming the other way. We exchanged a wry smile…clearly a fellow sufferer who worked in a school!
It’s a very human failing isn’t it? Either we love clothes and spend too much time thinking about them…or we’ve no confidence with clothes…and spend too much time worrying about them.
Surely though, God is different? Surely God doesn’t care how we’re dressed? But then we hear this rather disturbing tale about the man without a wedding robe. A man just going about his daily business more or less forced into a wedding feast…and then apparently expected to be carrying a wedding robe – just in case.
We want to hear that God welcomes everyone – just as they are…and this parable disturbs that picture.
It’s fairly obvious the King in this story represents God. Presumably the party is for his Son Jesus…in recognition of his coming Kingdom. So we might assume he first invites the religious leaders, the great and the good – people who would expect to be invited to God’s banquet.
But they appear to think they’re already ‘in’ with God, they don’t recognise Jesus as his Son, so they find more important things to do…or even get angry at the repeated invitations…and kill the messengers.
So far so good, we know that bit of the story…many of God’s chosen people didn’t understand who Jesus was. They were indifferent, or angry and even violent towards him. So the message was taken out to others…the lame and blind, tax collectors, prostitutes, the riff raff…in fact the slaves were sent to fetch ‘everyone you find…both good and bad.’
Here’s the bit we want to hear…Christ’s banquet is for everyone. All are invited…the ones the world ignores…the ones who don’t feel themselves worthy…even the ones described as ‘bad’. Jesus welcomes us just the way we are…and then there’s that man without a wedding robe – who gets thrown into the outer darkness…
That’s the thing about Jesus…we think we have him pinned down, understood…but he upends our ideas leaving us totally disorientated.
So, let’s look at that bit of the story again. The king notices a man not wearing a wedding robe, and says to him “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” Not an angry dismissal – but a friendly enquiry. “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?”, a gentle encouragement to talk.
But the man apparently has nothing to say…’he was speechless’. He can hardly have been surprised…I don’t suppose 1st century Palestinians were any less embarrassed by not having the right clothes…but he has nothing to say.
Perhaps he had nothing to say because he just wasn’t interested, wasn’t bothered. He had somehow been gathered into the banquet, was happy to enjoy the food…but didn’t feel it required anything of him.
Is Jesus perhaps reminding us that God does indeed invite everyone to his banquet, good and bad alike…and does love us just the way we are, but that he doesn’t want us to stay that way?
God issues the invitation – but it’s up to us to really accept it. And that means being ready to change, to at least begin to clothe ourselves appropriately.
I’m not sure what appropriate clothes for the kingdom of God are…perhaps love, justice, mercy, truth? I’ve experienced enough of God’s love to feel confident that we aren’t expected to have perfected these before we’re welcome. In the parable both good and bad were brought in. It seems the only one who wasn’t welcomed was the one who couldn’t see the need for change. Who when gently asked about himself had nothing to say?
I wonder, what could he have said to the King?
“I was hungry and smelled the food…I hoped you would feed me”?
“I was lonely and saw the lights on…I hoped you would welcome me”?
“I was sad and grieving and heard the music…I hoped you would share your joy”?
“I didn’t have the right outfit…I hoped you would clothe me”?
Would he then have been welcomed…offered a robe?
I’d like to think so. I’d like to think this parable isn’t describing an arbitrary, ruthless God…who apparently on a whim throws someone out. I think it’s something just as tough – but much more loving. I think it’s a challenge to those of us who feel we’ve accepted God’s invitation…to those who have just stumbled through the door…to understand the invitation brings with it a requirement to at least engage.
Following Jesus is a call to action. A call to listen to his words and consider how they apply to our lives; to repent and reform. I don’t know what that looks like for you…reaching out to heal a rift with family or friends…spending more time in prayer…offering more of your time, talents, money to help others…finding time to enjoy God’s creation…owning up to a part of you that is especially unChristlike…giving faith a bit of serious thought?
I don’t think there’s one identical robe…but I do think we’re all invited to consider how we need to change…and to make a start.
I think this parable tells us these two things…God will go to extraordinary lengths and look in the most improbable places to invite everyone to his table…
…if we accept his invitation, we should be ready for change.
Harvest has always been one of my favourite church celebrations. As a child it was a time of making a basket of fruit and veg to take to church; singing harvest hymns; and best of all, the church barn dance. This was a magnificent occasion of pooled supper, putting on our long dresses (yes I did own a dress or two in those days), relearning how to strip the willow, and best of all, it didn’t end until midnight!
Harvest – not one of the beautiful, sombre times in the church calendar – but a chaotic community celebration. The festival always has that wonderful anarchic point where an apparently endless stream of gifts are brought up, with the first hymn having to be sung on repeat.
Harvest a reminder of the certainties of life. Leaves will fall, conkers will ripen, the harvest will be gathered in and celebrated in church.
I have to admit that this year it’s been hard to celebrate. Autumn leaves, conkers, harvest have still come round – but this seems merely to underline how few of our old certainties are still there.
Last Sunday our wonderful small choir began to rehearse as I cleared up at the end of the service. In many ways it was such a joyful sound…sacred music sung once more in this ancient place. But actually, I wanted to cry.
That harvest anthem – the only one I ever remember singing as a child – seemed more like a lament.
But although it’s not usually a part of harvest, lament has always been part of the journey of faith. Tonight we shared the beautiful psalm 42. I chose it partly for those words…’ When I remember these things, I pour out my soul in me: for I had gone with the multitude, I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holyday.’
God’s people have been lamenting for thousands of years. Not because they have lost hope – but because it’s ok to admit to each other and to God when we’re finding things tough.
It is almost exactly a year since my first services here, when I looked forward to travelling through the church year with you all. I find that today I need to lament what I have lost, what we have lost this year. And as usual when I don’t have the words…I reached for poetry to help me.
Firstly, a book I used in this service last year…at harvest it seems appropriate to ask nature to help us speak.
Little astronaut, where have you gone, and why is your song still torrenting on?
Aren’t you short of breath as you climb higher, up there in the thin air, with your magical song still tumbling on?
Right now I need you, for my sadness has come again and my heart grows flatter – so I’m coming to find you by following your song.
Keeping on into deep space, past dying stars and exploding suns, to where at last, little astronaut, you sing your heart out at all that dark matter.
I love the song of the sky lark, and have been very aware of them this year, especially early on when traffic noise was so much reduced. I love the song, but I find it plaintive, almost like a lament.
Plaintive – but still – as the poem says – singing its heart out at all that dark matter.
A beautiful parallel from the natural world for the lament of God’s people. For lament is not despair. It is sorrow for what is lost, held in the knowledge and trust of God’s steadfast love.
So, like the skylark, the psalmist can end with words of hope, ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.’
So tonight, I come before God with tears of lament for what has been lost this year. But also as befits a harvest celebration, with tears of joy and gratitude for his faithful love, that is surer than the harvest.
In China in 1958, as part of the ‘Great leap forward’, a campaign was launched to rid the country of sparrows. Sparrows, after all, were gobbling up fruit and grain needed to feed people. Soon 1 billion sparrows had been killed. Of course, it turned out not to be that simple. The sparrows had been eating more insects than grain…particularly locusts…locust populations exploded…
Soon, far from increasing, harvests had reduced by 70%, mass starvation followed. Killing the sparrows wasn’t the only cause…but it certainly didn’t help. It’s a good example of how interconnected nature is…and how we too are part of this web.
Harvest festival has always been a celebration of our connection with, and need for nature…as we thank God for the harvest…for crops safely gathered in. In recent years, with people less connected to the land, Harvest has also been a chance to remember our dependence on farmers and others who produce food…and how they depend on us paying a fair price.
This year, interdependence seems an even more relevant focus for our Harvest celebrations. When the pandemic hit in March, we were suddenly made aware of how much we depend on one another – of how connected we are even in a world where many people hardly knew their neighbours.
We were forcibly reminded of how our lives depend on the many low paid workers often taken for granted. Care workers, refuse collectors, teaching assistants, hospital cleaners all found themselves on a list of ‘key-workers’.
Perhaps even more disruptive to our picture of society was the inclusion of fruit pickers and supermarket shelf stackers. As the official key-worker list described them…’those involved in the production, processing, distribution, sale and delivery of food’ had never seemed so vital to our daily lives. It’s obvious when you think about it – but in normal times we take it for granted that we can buy whatever we want, whenever we want. And we don’t always think much about those who put it there.
That very long list of key workers brought home to us just how much we depend on one another…how we are part of a community. How a problem for one part of that community is a problem for us all.
This virus has brought home the importance of community in more deadly ways. Restrictions have stolen our times together, even with family. Restrictions have stolen our children’s schooling; our dream wedding, our chance to gather to mourn loved ones…in losing them, we’ve realised how life-giving these connections are.
Yet we need restrictions because we are so connected…and the virus exploits this…spreading most easily when we gather. The paradox of this harvest is that the virus has helped us rediscover how connected we are – and made many of those connections impossible.
But Harvest is a time of celebration. So let’s celebrate our rediscovery of community: people who’ve reached out to elderly neighbours to offer help…and the friendships which have grown as a result; small local shops who stocked essentials…delivered to the vulnerable; gardeners and carers who became shoppers; young families sending cards to cheer older people and ensure they don’t feel alone; friendships which have blossomed out of phone calls.
Let’s celebrate how love has found a way. In words the Archbishop of York used at Synod last week, ‘We have learned that at the moment the best way to love one another is to keep a distance. And we have learned that love transcends boundaries and can easily jump 2 metres.’
But traditionally Harvest is also a time for action. We have our Foodbank collection – sadly more needed than ever. Do come along to the churchyard and add to it. But perhaps this year we can also act to build on the connectedness we’ve found.
Let’s do our bit to make sure restrictions are upheld and work for the common good. Let’s remember how local businesses supported us when we needed them; and think about supporting them not just when we run out of milk.
Whenever we find ourselves in a position to speak about or influence political decisions, let’s remember the value of the lowest paid in our society and speak out for their rights. We clapped our carers; let’s support them in more concrete ways.
And above all let’s build on the community links that have grown. Let’s come out of this horrible time with new traditions, things that grew out of necessity but turned out to be even better than what they replaced.
The slaughter of sparrows in China had unexpected consequences. Large upheavals always do.
An unexpected consequence of social distancing has been the rediscovery of community. An unexpected consequence of closing church buildings and restrictions on worship has perhaps been to refocus our faith.
We’ve been forced to reevaluate what it means to be Christian. And we’ve found that although the building and the rituals enrich our faith, faith survives without them, because it is Christ on whom we depend.
The removal of the usual ways we meet with Christ has forced us to think about what they meant to us, and why. Recognising what we miss has helped us find new ways to engage with Christ.
So, this harvest as we celebrate the web that binds us together, we do so knowing that the whole web is also bound in the love of Christ. He is the glue that joins us and holds us. He is the source of creativity, energy and love that will help us build new links and sustain us in the coming months.
This harvest – as we thank God for his goodness, let’s thank him for creating us to live in community. Let’s celebrate our interdependence, and pledge ourselves to work for the good of all. And above all, let’s remember our connection to Christ who in his life showed us how to value everyone, and through his death and resurrection gives us the courage to depend on him.
Mrs Battye is a good teacher, although she’s very weird…Mrs Battye’s a good teacher because she’s very weird…
These two statements may illustrate the differing opinions of my pupils. They also illustrate one of the challenges of teaching children to write well…explaining the difference between although, but, so, because…and why it matters.
The rules of grammar are often beyond the grasp of young children, but they understand examples. There wouldn’t be much point telling them, ‘if we use although it suggests something unexpected…if we use because it gives a reason’. We could however have a fruitful discussion on whether my weirdness helped or hindered my teaching…
I was reminded of that wrestling with grammar as I studied the reading for this week, and the various ways of translating it.
This morning we heard what is thought to be an ancient Christian hymn – describing how Christ, who is God, became human. I’ve heard that passage many times – usually in the version we had this morning. It tells us that Christ, ’though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.’
Though…although Christ was in the form of God. I think that’s the picture I’ve always had…something unexpected. Jesus is God, almighty, powerful…and yet despite being God he somehow chooses to give up all that power and might to become human.
But this week I’ve looked at other translations – I’ve found that word ‘though’ isn’t there in the Greek…so we could miss it out. You’re now probably thinking you didn’t come to church for a grammar lesson…but bear with me. It’s really quite exciting!
If we remove the word, ‘though’, we get something like, ‘Christ, who was in the form of God, didn’t see this as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.’
That suggests Christ didn’t go against his divine nature in order to come to earth and save us…he did it because this is what God is like.
So the passage could go…‘Christ, because he was God, emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and was born in human likeness.’ That’s what God does – he doesn’t cling onto power.
That’s a mind-blowing thought. God who takes the form of a slave…not although he is God, but because he’s God. A slave…someone whose life is entirely in the hands of others.
So when, in the wilderness Jesus is tempted to use his power to make others follow him, he’s being tempted to follow his human nature. He’s being tempted to find his identity and authority by holding on to power over others.
Instead Jesus chooses to reveal himself as God by taking the form of a slave. He puts himself totally into our hands, even though we push away the love he offers.
Why does this matter? Well for me, partly because it enlarges my understanding of God a little. But more because we should try to be like Christ.
As Paul says in the previous sentence, ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.’ This emptying, this giving yourself completely to others isn’t just something to wonder at in Christ, it’s something to copy in our lives.
And Paul tells us one way to do just that. ‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit’, he says, ‘but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.’
Well, as with grammar – examples are easier to understand than rules, so I’d like to give you two from my life. Two people rooted in God’s love, who don’t need to hold onto power to find their identity.
First, Ella. In 2002 I went to help at a Beaver Scout group…and 3 months later found myself running it. I knew nothing about Scouting – but Ella did. She’d been Scouting for 40 years. She came every week – stayed in the background serving drinks, washing up, clearing up at the end. She gave ideas when asked and regularly told me I was doing a good job. She asked for no recognition, but it was thanks to her that I survived and grew to love Scouting.
Ella – helped me to grow not although she was a good scouter herself…but because she was.
Secondly Matthew, my training incumbent at Whitkirk. He gave up hours to my training, answered endless questions, picked me up when things went wrong…but mostly he was generous. He gave away parts of ministry he enjoyed, things that were important to the running of his parish, so that I could have a go.
Although he gave plenty of constructive criticism, he didn’t fret when things weren’t done quite the way he would have done them. And when things went well, he rejoiced for me and with me. His identity wasn’t threatened by my growing identity as a priest, because his identity was rooted in God – who is always giving. A great trainer not although he is a wonderful priest himself, but because.
A couple of examples from which I try to learn.
I find the thought of God emptying himself and putting himself totally in the hands of others, almost incomprehensible. I need examples to help me understand. But when I find these examples – in Jesus’ life, and in the lives of some of his followers, I can see how this emptying gives life to others.
So, although I’ll go on wrestling with scripture…trying to understand, I’ll also seek to be an example bringing Jesus’ life-giving love to others. Jesus who took the form of a slave not although he is God, but because he is God.