It’s not just about cheese….

cheese

Words for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, preached at Colton Methodist Church.

In a former life as a teacher, I once asked a class of 10 year olds why there are so many different religions. There was a long silence – then someone said, ”because some people like cheese, and some people hate cheese.”

I never worked out whether he was very silly – or very profound…but it seemed as good a place as any to start thinking about Christian Unity this week.

I suppose he was saying there are different ways of having faith – or different ways of being Christian – because people are different. Just as some people prefer a mild cheddar or Red Leicester, whilst others feel only a really ripe Stilton worth eating…so some feel closer to God in silence, whilst others need to sing traditional hymns or modern worship songs.

I’m sure there’s some truth in the cheese analogy, and it can be a tempting way to look at Christian Unity. After all – it makes it quite safe. I might find it hard to imagine that anyone could possibly enjoy Stilton – but we’re unlikely to come to blows over it. I’ll probably never agree with my son about cheese – but we have so much else in common that the cheese issue doesn’t come between us.

So should we this morning concentrate on what we Christians have in common – think of our differences as cheese preferences? Mark, in our gospel reading, makes the shocking point that Jesus’ call has priority even over the commandment to ‘honour your father and mother’, as Zebedee is left without sons to work his boat. Surely the fact that we are all responding to Christ’s call is more important than how exactly we do it…surely in this week of all weeks we should just concentrate on what we have in common?

I’m not so sure. Obviously dis-unity between Christians is not what God wants…but the things that profoundly divide our two churches, and us from the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches did not arise on a whim, or because of a preference for type of building, art or music.

When churches split, it’s because people have agonised and wrestled with an idea or a practice they believe dishonours God, or misrepresents him…it’s because people feel they can no longer worship God truthfully where they are. If we ignore these issues, we ignore things that make us and other Christians who we are.

But you might say, these divisions have led to violence and hatred, have led to statements like “You don’t really believe that do you?” Statements that might devalue years of intellectual struggle to get to that belief. Statements that threaten the way people understand themselves in the light of God.

Thankfully I’ve never heard that in Leeds 15 – so shouldn’t I let well alone? Well I’ve not heard that, but when I taught RE, children often said things like…”I’m a Christian, but my Grandma is a Roman Catholic, or a Methodist”…I’m sure none of us would make that mistake, but if someone asked us what Roman Catholics believe…what makes them not Methodists or Anglicans would we be sure?

And if we’re ignorant of one another’s beliefs we can make vague, sweeping and probably inaccurate statements that make them sound ridiculous. Perhaps this is a week for examining our differences, for taking them seriously – in love, as fellow followers of Christ.

For example our understanding of communion, the Eucharist, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper? (Even the names cause division!)

…well perhaps if we just read a definition, or pick up a vague idea from a TV drama, the idea that bread and wine actually become Christ’s body and blood, or indeed that they don’t change at all, might seem ridiculous. But if we talk to someone who has wrestled with the idea, and decided it is part of their truth, their identity as a Christian, then at the very least we might recognise how it helps them in their Christian journey.

Rowan Williams – former Anglican Archbishop – suggests we ask ourselves ‘Can my Christ save you too?’ and if the answer is no – how have I distorted the vision of Christ that I see him only saving me or people who think like me.

He says we should ask, ‘Can your Christ save me too?’ If I can see how your vision of Christ can be life-saving or life-giving to you, even if I don’t agree, I might learn from it some truth that speaks to me.

Of course this exchange means we have to be ready to answer questions too. When I’d been an Anglican for about 40 years a new vicar put on a course called “What is an Anglican?” I went along because I was embarrassed to realise that I didn’t really know.

Does it matter? I think it does – how can we expect the world to take Christ seriously if we who claim to follow him know little about our own church and less of our fellow Christians?

Because theology, unlike cheese, is a matter of life and death. Our beliefs should be more than a preference for this or that style of worship or building, they should be the core of our identity, the foundation of our hope.

The Jesus in whom we hope does not tell us how exactly we should worship him. Jesus who said ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ – didn’t explain exactly what happens when we obey.

We have to interpret, put into words, because we are human and language is how we make sense of our world; but as we wrestle to express our experience of Christ, so do others.

So my prayer for this week is that we take seriously the ideas that divide us…that we take the time to find out what exactly is a Methodist, an Anglican, a Roman Catholic, a Baptist…that in sharing our differences we each enlarge our vision of the God who is bigger and more mysterious than we can ever comprehend.

 

Shifting sands…some thoughts for an Epiphany Eucharist, St Mary’s Whitkirk

Camels for epiphany

“When Christmas is over

and New Year is past

we three slow visitors arrive at last.

 

Too late for the angels

we wonder and long

for the piercing white beauty of feathery songs.

 

We wandered the wastes

Where the wind and the sand

whispered and shifted and remade the land.

 

And now by the maker

of all things we stand

Mysterious gifts in our trembling hands.

 

The gold and the incense

are all fine and good

and the myrrh has its meaning too – all understood.

 

But here at our mercy

lies God – and we shiver

Just what is the gift here? And who is the giver?”

 

(Jan Dean – from ‘Wallpapering the cat’ – poems for children)

 

From a book of children’s poems, I think it captures perfectly the nature of the easily overlooked season of Epiphany. Epiphany, which means revelation or realisation.

The poem is filled with a sense of unease, of bewilderment, as the three men find themselves kneeling before the Christ child. Wise men or kings, they have come, presumably, from comfortable homes and lifestyles…from places of control and power…from positions where other people did the travelling, where the world came to them.

“We wandered the wastes

Where the wind and the sand

whispered and shifted and remade the land.”

They’ve been called from what they know to a place that changes not only their lives – but how they see what’s around them. When the most important thing is searching for a baby at the edge of their known world who is somehow infinitely greater than themselves – they look around them – and what once seemed so important perhaps now seems irrelevant. Their land has indeed shifted and been remade.

And so it should be for us. It is easy to forget, because the world has taken the Christmas story and exploited it to prop up the status quo – where money and celebrity are what count, and where even charity can be used to show how well that world is working.

The wise men are a timely reminder that even though he comes to where we are – our journey to Jesus should take us to places where the sands shift and the world looks different.

“But here at our mercy

lies God – and we shiver

Just what is the gift here? And who is the giver?”

The world looks different when we realise with those travellers that what ever we offer to God is only a tiny part of what he has first given us. His gift is everything we have and everything we are. And the gift is not just for us, or those like us – it’s for everyone.

Once we really understand that, the sands shift and our world looks different. A bit like a party where some of us have grabbed far more than our share of the presents. And charity is revealed as giving back what was never really ours in the first place – as a kind of apology to those who haven’t had their share of God’s gifts.

In this way we might see beyond the success of Christmas appeals to the failures that make them necessary. We might see beyond our throw away lifestyles to the damage we do to the world others also depend on.

But in the strange, bewildering landscape of Epiphany – we hold on to the joy of Christmas, and remember that God’s gift is infinitely better than anything this world can offer. And that if we share it – there is always more than enough to go round.

 

 

In the fullness of time.

‘In the fullness of time…’ a sermon for Christmas 1.

Today’s reading contains the earliest version of the Christmas story – from Paul’s letter to the Galatians – almost certainly written before any of the gospels.

“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman’.

Compared to John’s poetry, or Luke’s story telling, it’s a bit tame. It wouldn’t make much of a nativity play – in fact it’s easy to miss altogether.

“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman’.

Actually, ‘God sent his Son, born of a woman’, sums up incarnation pretty well …but it’s the phrase, ‘in the fullness of time’ that’s stuck with me.

I guess Paul is saying Jesus was born ‘when the right time had come’…but that word ‘fullness’ is to me a lovely reminder that although the heart of our faith is Christ, what came before wasn’t just killing time before God’s wonderful gift but full…

…full of a developing relationship between humanity and God. I’m not suggesting a master plan – God ordering triumphs and disasters so they led perfectly to Jesus – but God using what went before, until the time was somehow right.

‘The fullness of time’ seems to me a beautiful way to think about our own lives. We often look back with regret for missed opportunities, with bitterness for what life has dealt, or with guilt for our wrongs. Time can appear wasted or empty…that can stop us living properly in the present or looking to the future.

Perhaps it stuck with me because of a conversation I’ve had repeatedly this year…

“How is your new role?”

“I love it. It’s really fulfilling. It feels like the right thing for me to be doing.”

“Don’t you wish you’d gone into it earlier?”

Well it is so wonderful that I could easily look at younger colleagues and wish I’d come to it earlier, easily regret the time spent doing other things.

…but sharing this recently with fellow (equally middle aged) curate Sonia – she said,

“there were things that had to happen in my life to make this possible”…and she is exactly right. The time before was not just waiting for me to wake up – it was full…

…of good things – studying science, teaching, having children, being a full time Mum. …of hard – or horrible things – dealing with depression of close family members – losing my Mum far too soon…

…full of experiences God has used to make me into someone who can now be a priest. I can’t believe in a God who would cause the depression or death of my loved ones to increase my faith or my empathy, but I’m sure God was in that time with me. Looking back I can see how the darkest times were also full of my growth…in faith and in humanity. So regret would be silly – I am just thankful to those who helped me recognise when the fullness of time had come.

Sometimes it really feels that time has been stolen from us…

Nelson Mandela went into prison, for protesting against apartheid, in the prime of life – he was released 27 years later, an elderly man. He had 27 years stolen from him, he missed his children growing up.

It would surely have been better if he had not been imprisoned for so long. There was nothing good about the harsh and demeaning treatment he received. However, those were not 27 empty years – but time full of growing grace, of willingness to let go of resentment, of a developing vision for the future.

In the fullness of time Nelson Mandela was ready to be the first black president of South Africa and lead the way to reconciliation.

But what about when we are to blame for the difficult times? When our careless actions or cruel words hurt others or damage relationships? Days, weeks or even years filled with guilt really can feel like lost time. But guilt can help us grow; can teach us not to repeat our failings. Guilt prompts us to apologise, and though some relationships may be beyond repair – facing up to our part in their destruction can help us become people who would no longer say or do those things.

Perhaps the most beautiful, and difficult, part of the fullness of time…is recognising when guilt has done its work and we can let it go.

As Paul’s whole Christmas narrative says, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman…in order to redeem those under the law.” God gives us Jesus, so that all our human experiences can be given back to God. We are not wiped clean like slates – we are shaped by what has gone before – but in the fullness of time God takes our experiences, our bitterness, our guilt and helps us move on.

The brink of a new year seems a good moment to think about the fullness of time. We can look back to the old year, at how it has changed us. We can look forward to the New Year – and what those changes mean for our life.

Are we in a time of enduring something difficult, of waiting? Perhaps all we can do is offer it to God and ask him to be with us and shape us.

Have we reached a fullness of time moment – time to take a leap into a different future? – time to let go of guilt and move on?

How do we know? I’m not sure we always do…but if we offer our lives to God – we trust that no experience is wasted, that our time is full of God’s grace as he gently remakes us in his image.

And at Christmas especially we remember that although God’s people had ample cause for regret, bitterness and guilt…“when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman…in order to redeem those under the law.”

 

Encountering God in the liturgical year

Worship_Advent-Wreath1_2015

‘Repent’, said John the Baptist in the wilderness.

‘Repent’, said Jesus at the start of his ministry.

My Dad, a sixth form chemistry teacher, once had a very puzzled student come and ask…”Mr Whilde – why have you written ‘repent’ on my work?” Now my Dad has awful handwriting…what he actually wrote on the work was ‘repeat’. The work was so awful he couldn’t be bothered to write anything else.

It’s become a family joke – but it is perhaps a good picture for how we often understand that word ‘repent’. We imagine God saying “your life is so awful I can’t be bothered with you until you change.” Saying…if you repent, then the kingdom of heaven will be open to you. Saying…look to yourself first before you are ready to come to me.

But when the equivalent passage in Matthew’s gospel came up in our Pilgrim session last week – I noticed that Jesus doesn’t just say “Repent”, or even “Repent because your life’s bad”…but “repent for the kingdom of God has come near”.

I suggested last week that Advent might be a time to examine not ourselves, but God – and the difference this makes in how we might hear Christ’s call to repent has been with me this week.

We often understand ‘repentance’ as turning around lives that are going in the wrong direction – in Advent we might think of turning from darkness to light. But do we focus first on the darkness of our lives or on the light of God?

Maybe it’s just me – but I’ve found focusing first on myself rather than on God can result in me swinging between two extremes. Looking at my own life, with only the world to compare it with…it’s easy to deceive myself. I know I don’t get up in the morning intending to do wrong. I know there are people who behave far worse than me.

If someone criticises me, I can get defensive, make excuses, persuade myself that what happened was someone else’s fault as much as mine…end up feeling not that I need to repent – but rather self-righteous.

But then, because deep down I know I’m far from perfect, I decide everything must be my fault, I wallow in guilt… feel there’s not much point in repenting as I’ll just do the same again.

That may be only me…but I do think there’s a danger that the act of repentance at the start of each Eucharist becomes just saying sorry for things we’re almost certain we’ll do again next week. If we focus first on us rather than God – we can be left where we are.

But Jesus said, “Repent – for the Kingdom of God has come near”…God, in Christ approaches us – to help us repent. What if I look first towards the light of Christ this Advent – at God first, rather than myself?

For me this difference became real through the story of the Prodigal Son.

A book I was reading suggested imagining myself as the prodigal son – living through the story. It was a powerful experience – and this is how it looked from the inside…

The Son has what seems a completely sensible idea – he should have the wealth he will inherit from his father while he is still young enough to enjoy it. Focused on the world, he has only the world to compare himself with – and sees nothing wrong with his life.

Even when the money runs out and his friends desert him – he sees himself as victim, rather than sinner. At his lowest point, reduced to eating pig food, he realises how much better off even his Father’s servants are. So, he carefully composes a speech to his Father about how he has wronged him, how he isn’t worthy to be a son anymore…and sets off home to deliver it.

Living through the story, I could feel no repentance in the son, he was just hungry! His speech is what he thinks his Father wants to hear.

But as he approaches he sees his Father waiting for him in the road with arms open to embrace. He realises the Father has been there every day…waiting. Faced with such love and forgiveness, the son can see how he needs to turn his life around and the apology, the repentance, suddenly become real.

Advent seems a good time to think of repentance as looking first at the light of Christ, as turning to that light. We still have to look at our own lives – but doing that in the light of Christ means we can’t hide our sin, our need for repentance…but also that we know we are forgiven and offered an alternative, a pattern to follow.

Christ’s light shows us how life should be; through him we know that the Father is always waiting with open arms. Although we know we will continue to fail – repentance becomes less about dwelling on our failings, on saying sorry in the knowledge we’ll probably do the same again – and more about trying each day to walk a little more in the light.

That experience with the prodigal son didn’t suddenly make repentance simple, but I think…I hope…looking first at God before I look at my own life has made me a little more forgiving, a little more loving, a little more self-aware…just a little more Christ-like.

And so I pray…heavenly Father, when your son comes he brings to light the things now hidden in darkness, and discloses the purposes of our hearts. This Advent may we look for his coming light, repent of our sins, and walk with him in newness of life. Amen.

 

a little surer of being a little nearer

Thoughts on the liturgical year at the start of Advent. (Advent 1, Year B – Isaiah 64:1-9)

This last year – and particularly since my priesting in June – I’ve been initiated into the strange and wonderful world of Anglican vestments. And since they were all made for men, I’ve had to work on me wearing them – rather than them wearing me…

And it isn’t just one set – the liturgical year (and the glories of the Whitkirk cupboards) demand regular changes. Today we begin Advent – so having presided at 8.30 I now know there’s at least one chasuble of each liturgical colour that I can wear. Today we begin Advent, so the legendary four candles banner is also on show.

Why do we go to all that trouble? Well I guess for the same reason Matthew makes an effort to celebrate festivals on their correct day – with week-day Eucharists – and why as well as spurning your coffee, at this time of year he will also refuse your mince pies…

…because the church year can be a powerful aid to our faith. It can seem odd and inconvenient…this year Advent 4 is also Christmas Eve; sometimes there is hardly a gap between Epiphany and Lent. But in a way that is its power…the church calendar is different to other calendars…it is not a marking of historical events in order…but a story, an account of the self-revelation of God. Not just dates to remember…but something we participate in. And by taking part – something that makes God’s interaction with the world real for us now.

That’s why after the excitement of processions and hosannas on Palm Sunday, we travel with Jesus through Holy Week. If we share in foot washing, stripping the altar and the desolation of Gethsemane on Thursday; and the almost unbearable sadness and cruelty of Good Friday – then the emptiness of Holy Saturday prepares us to experience, as well as proclaim the joy of Easter morning. As St Paul says – by dying with Christ, we live with Christ.

Forty days later, we come on a perhaps inconvenient Thursday evening to be reminded by his ascension – that Jesus conquered death for all people in all times. Putting aside that time does far more to make it real than just reading about it.

Sometimes, the way the story fits into the year can seem odd. Infant teachers struggle to explain Jesus going from baby in a manger – to the Son of God dying on a cross…in three months.

…and it can become too familiar – we know what happens next – one year blurs into another. This can seem especially acute in Advent.

Advent, we are told is a season of waiting…but one of the comings we wait for has already happened. We celebrated it only 11 months ago…

The introduction to my Advent book this year uses the image of a snowball rolling downhill as a useful picture for the church’s year, and its story of God’s interaction with the world. As the snowball rolls, it’s the same snowball – but with every turn it picks up more snow…

…we recount the same story each year – but with each telling and retelling it picks up more resonances, more ways we can understand…and we are drawn deeper into God’s story.

The snowball picking up new snow reminds us that the salvation story continues today. The point of telling and retelling the story of God’s interactions with his people is so that we can recognise it when it breaks into our world. Entering properly into the church year reminds us that God does break into our world: creating, healing, saving…and will do so again. God is present in our world – but so often we don’t recognise his presence.

To experience Christmas as God breaking into the world, rather than the recollection of a nice story, we need to make use of Advent. The purple vestments and hangings can make Advent seem a lot like Lent – and both are a time of preparing, of waiting – but whereas we use Lent to examine ourselves and how we have wandered from God…Advent is a time to examine God, and our readings help us do this.

Today we heard Isaiah wrestling with how God has chosen to relate to the world, how God seems hidden, seems to have turned his face away – how hard this makes it for God’s people. Yet, he says ‘O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay and you are our potter.’

In Advent we spend time with patriarchs, prophets, John the Baptist, Mary…people who were called to speak of God in difficult times…people who understood that though often hidden, God is faithful…people who lived in hope.

Advent is not about hurrying on to Christmas. Advent is about acknowledging the darkness of the world – but doing so with the collective memories of God’s people reminding us that God has broken into the world, and will do again.

Sharing the same story year after year means that every season, whilst unique, also contains the truth of the whole year. In advent we wait with longing for Christ to come into the world…but we do so not as unredeemed people who fear that Christmas might not come.

The purpose of Advent is not to persuade Christ to come…but to prepare us so that we notice when he does. Advent is not Lent – but the disciplines we use in Lent are a good pattern…the doing something different…the changing the rhythm of our lives just a little.

I will try to set aside time to read my Advent book and consider what it tells me – but there are lots of other things we can do…join us at morning or evening prayer, or midweek Eucharists; James has advent candles – light one each day and spend the time waiting on God, or if you are waiting with children he has advent calendars…read the readings for next Sunday each day.

What ever you decide to do – I pray that this Advent we will all learn a little more about the God for whom we wait in hope.