Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Wednesday's homily - Love is the fulfilling of the Law

Here's a short (5 min) homily based on tomorrow morning's Gospel reading from Matthew 5:17-19:


‘...Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one lett not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven...'

I would really value some comments please!

~~~~~~~

Not many days go by when certain sections of the British press decry the erosion of our legal sovereignty, especially to the European courts. But history shows that the laws of our land have been far from static. Over time, the Law has been applied, reapplied and redefined in differing times, places and situations.

Laws are sometimes introduced to respond to situations that with hindsight might be considered to be heavy handed where, if you like, the letter of the law is very different from it’s spirit; a sort of legal knee jerk.

The Law of Moses of which Jesus speaks in this morning’s Gospel reading, has been a source of light and inspiration to us over the centuries. It is foundation of the British legal system after all, but it was given by God in a particular time and place, to mark out the distinctiveness of His nomadic people - no intermarriage, the dietry laws, no mixed fibres, the avoidance of foreign Gods - are all about an ancient very practical holiness.

It is very tempting to looks at some of the Old Testament laws and dismiss them as being out of date, not fit for 21st century Christian living, but Jesus reminds us this morning, that he came not to do that,
‘...Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished...’

These words of Jesus are part of his Sermon on the Mount, which begins with a topsy turvey vision of God’s kingdom values where the last are first in the Beatitudes, and includes some very practical if not sometimes shocking teaching about faithful and Godly living. What Jesus teaches here does not remove the Law because it has been deemed unfulfilable, rather he reinterprets and reinforces the Law with words like, ‘...You have heard it said and eye for and eye... but I say to you...

History has proved that some laws no longer have relevance (the requirement to practice archery after Sunday worship for example), but Jesus comes to his own time and ours this morning, and reminds us that He comes not to sweep the law away, but to complete it. He calls not for law breaking but for Law keeping. Just as in his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well that we heard about in Sunday’s gospel reading - where Jesus broke every religious and social law - when asked about the nature of right worship, Jesus said it was not so much about the right place as the intent of our hearts. Being faithful to God, says Jesus, is about the spirit not the letter.

How we live as God fearing people still matters says Jesus. He is not advocating a sort of spiritual equivalent of what happened on London’s streets on Saturday, nor is He seeking the continuation of an almost Lybian style tyrannical rule of spiritual law.

Being faithful to God is about walking with Jesus on the Emmaus road of life, listening to him open the scriptures and revealing afresh to us the love of God. He calls us to a very practical holiness when we allow our lives to be viewed through the lens of the Gospel to see whether out living is loving to others, to God and ourselves; whether our living is compassionate and seeks to forgive and be forgiven; whether we live lives as people who long to to heal and to reconcile.

God’s Law of love calls us individually and together to be reconciled to Him and each other. This isn’t just when we break the Law of Moses, but rather when we fail to grasp the call of the Gospel - when we put ourselves before others or place them on the edge of our concern.

In this holy seasons of Lent - as we look to go deeper into God, to make new disciples, and to see Him transform our communities, let us be like the first disciples of Jesus, seeking to be like their Rabbi, and follow in the dust of his shoes. We come to Jesus with questions about how to go deeper, how to make new disciples, how to transform communities. As we walk and as we prayerfully wrestle with these questions Jesus comes alongside us, listens to our questioning and refocuses our searching through the Gospel’s lens and says, “you have fulfilled the law” or you are on the Way. Amen.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Bright Sadness at the well

This is a shocking and surprising Gospel reading. It would have been unexpected for a Jewish man at that time to allow himself to be alone with a woman – leaving himself open to temptation, or perhaps just in danger of gossip! And this particular woman was a Samaritan - the hated neighbours of the Jews, the ultimate ‘others’ – to the extent that Jews and Samaritans would never dream of talking to each other, much less sharing a drink. And finally, the woman is of dubious character. Jesus himself points out that she has had five husbands, and now lives with someone she’s not married to – even by today’s standards, five husbands is quite a lot, and in those days, living with someone without being married to them was just not the done thing. She probably went to the well at the hottest part of the day when all sensible folk were indoors so that she could draw her water on her own, and not have to endure the hostile stares and tutting of her neighbours.

If Jesus had been anyone else, he would not have struck up a conversation with this woman. And, of course, we know all about him from the rest of the gospel stories of his life and ministry and teaching: that he was quite happy to touch lepers, to name tax collectors among his best friends, to eat with sinners, outcasts, and other misfits. We know that he said ‘the first will be last’ and made no attempt to curry favour with the influential leaders of his own Jewish faith.
What we end up with is this chance (or not-quite-chance) encounter between Jesus and the nameless woman of Samaria; this woman is not looking for him, but she does seem to have a deep thirst that goes beyond the needs of her physical body, and right into her soul. Maybe her personal life and history are symptoms of some kind of seeking, longing, for meaning, for a relationship that will work, for someone who will be faithful to her.

She seeks meaning in worship, too – is it right to meet God here or there? This mountain or that temple? Again, this is a kind of seeking, but it’s one that misses the point. Perhaps it’s even an excuse – if we can’t even agree on how to go about meeting God, then maybe there is nothing of substance there to meet. Again, Jesus gently knocks this one on the head: the place isn’t important, but the integrity is.

For that woman, encounter with God is happening right then, by the well. She did not come to find Jesus, but she encounters him, in spirit and in truth, and recognises him because Jesus comes to where she is, because Jesus breaks down the first barrier by starting the conversation, because Jesus speaks the truth with compassion, because Jesus accepts her hospitality and because Jesus offers her something amazing.
She then responds and goes out and carries the good news to others. In that act of mission, the living water that Jesus offers her starts to bubble up and overflow. And Jesus is so excited about it that when the disciples come back he can’t even eat. He has eyes only for all that newly revealed potential for the gospel outside his own Jewish nation – outside of the chosen people, the ‘usual suspects’. So what about us?

This story challenges us to think about the way or ways that we encounter Christ. When was the last time you met God not just in church, but wherever you found yourself? Even if you didn’t think you were looking for him? When was the last time you’ve been aware of God making the first move, starting the conversation, even if he used someone else to do it? When is the last time you had the courage to ask God to gently speak the truth to you, to see you for who you really are? When is the last time you were aware of the hospitality that you offer to God, in your life, in your home, in your priorities, in the way you spend your time?

This gospel story also challenges us to think not only about how we encounter Christ, but about the ways that we enable others to meet him too. What if we add to the list of questions: ‘when was the last time that your encounter with Christ made you want to go and tell your friends and family and neighbours the good news of who Jesus us and what he offers us?’ That’s a tough one for most of us.

Jesus came to where the woman would be – he came where he would find the rejected and despised, showing them the love and acceptance of God. What would it mean for the church to act like this kind of Christ? If we are to be this kind of Christ, what would it mean here, and who would we meet and how would we meet them?

Jesus broke down the first barrier by starting the conversation with the woman. How confident do we feel about starting a God-conversation with others?

Jesus spoke the truth with compassion. This is a really tricky one! But is it something about speaking out on the global moral issues of each era, being a church that is not content to turn a blind eye to corruption and institutional sin.

Jesus accepted the woman’s hospitality – he drank the water she drew for him, and stayed in her city, as a foreigner. How confident are we in our own identity as Christians so that we too can risk stepping outside our comfort zone into what can feel like the ‘foreign territory’ of the world around us?

Finally, Jesus offered the woman something amazing – something she realised would fill the void in her life. This season of Lent is a chance to celebrate what God gives us, and in the midst of Lent’s bright sadness, to rediscover a joy in Christ so great that our faith overflows to those around us. Amen.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Kingdom of Love

Here is the sermon preached by Ben Masters on Sunday 20th March, based on John 3:1-17.

As I speak, may You speak, and may Jesus be glorified. Amen

People, power, revolution, government, justice, change, democracy, hope, future, a few words that touch the tip of the iceberg of what is going on in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt. What has all this got to do with Palestine 2000 years ago? More pointedly, what has it got to do with Nicodemus and Jesus? What has it got to do with you or me?

Just as in Libya, the ordinary Jewish people were seeking revolution against their government, as they were occupied by the pagan Romans. This revolution was going to bring about the Kingdom of God. The question on the lips of everyone was “what does the kingdom of God look like?”

There were many different factions, some collaborative, some quietly subversive, and others violently demonstrative. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, he would have believed that the way to bring the kingdom of God to earth would have been to keep the Torah. For the Torah was God’s given way of living, and if people lived as God intended then His kingdom would come! The thing was that there were many different ideas about what living the Torah looked like! And so Nicodemus opening sentence begins to make sense, Jesus has come from God, and if he has come from God then God’s kingdom is on it’s way. So Nicodemus wants to know Jesus version of living Torah, or how to bring the kingdom of God now, here to earth in the present.

I want to be very clear about this, as we heard in the Gospel reading, “how can anyone be born after having grown old?” Nicodemus wasn’t hoping for a place in heaven when he died, and referred to that as the Kingdom of God, he was hoping for the Kingdom of God on earth, now, just as it is in heaven.

Was Jesus collaborative, subversive or violent? What did the kingdom of God look like through His eyes? This is what Nicodemus wanted to know! Jesus first speaks of the grace of God, for to see the kingdom of God one must be born from above, or in other words a work of God first takes place. So we are to look away from ourselves, from the things we can do, to see what God can do and has already done.

Jesus was and IS calling for a revolution beginning with you and me, beginning at the centre of our lives, the very core of who we are. He is calling for us to be born from above, by His spirit, we are to be transformed from those who live in the here and now with no thought for tomorrow, to those who live in the here and now,so that God’s kingdom may come.

Jesus, leader of this revolution, wiped out the Romans with his military might and prowess and reestablished the Jews to their land. Wrong! Jesus leader of this revolution, chose ordinary people, like you or I to follow him. Peter, a fisherman, Matthew a tax collector, Andrew another fisherman... No military might there! The blind could see, the lame walked, the deaf hear, the mute sing for joy, the dead are raised. Where was this revolution going? As Jesus said in the Gospel reading we heard earlier, “The son of man must be lifted up...” Golgotha, the skull, an execution site, amongst thieves, murderers, pagan Romans, death....death...

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

This is so alien to Nicodemus, he just doesn’t get it, a crucified saviour? a contradiction in terms surely? Is it not alien to us? We love to follow the successful, we seek to be like them, and if we were like them perhaps our lives would be a great deal better! Here Jesus is proposing that we follow a crucified king, a king who let the darkness of the world do its worst to him, crowned not with gold but thorns!

We know that Jesus was resurrected, we know that the grave could not hold him, and that sin and death were defeated, we know that He lives and reigns now, as on that Sunday when he rose again.

And yet Jesus travelled the road to the cross, he gave himself in love for us, so that as those who looked to the serpent in the wilderness were healed of their affliction, so those who look and believe in Him would be part of His kingdom.

So Jesus our crucified and resurrected king ascended to heaven, so now we are his hands and feet. We are born from above, by the indwelling of Gods Spirit in us. So God continues to send His Son to the world, in and through us, to establish God’s kingdom on earth.

What does this look like? We proclaim the crucified and resurrected Jesus, we tell the world that Jesus is Lord, that the wrongs we have done, and death itself have been conquered and that God is working to restore and reconcile the world to himself.

We love one another as Christ loved us. He gave his life for us, and so we must be life giving. We give a voice to those who can’t speak, we lift the poor out of their poverty, we work for the equality of all people, Jews and Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Men, Women, Children, whatever nationality, culture, colour, or creed the kingdom of God is for the whole world and knows no bounds.

A documentary, where celebrities lived in the slums of kabira for a couple of days to raise awareness for comic relief was shown the other day. Lenny Henry, asked to live with a family, the parents long dead, the 16 year old boy, worked to pay for his younger brothers and sisters to go to school and so that they could have one meal a day. They lived in a hut that was directly next to where the open latrine was placed, it had been blocked for 4 months. These children were sleeping no more than 10 feet away from raw sewage. Lenny outraged at the injustice begged for his wallet back. His words, “if I can’t change these kids lives, I might as well go home now” He bought those children a house with a separate working toilet, and lifted them up out from where they were. During the viewing they showed a clip where Lenny just breaks down and sobs, his heart broken at what he has seen.

This is what the kingdom of God looks like.

The kingdom of God begins with grace, it is God who calls us to himself, to be part of His kingdom and be his hands and feet in the world, in 1 Corinthians 1 Paul puts it like this:

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards,* not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one* might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Quick Survey


We are in the process of doing some listening to you! So, if you live in Leverstock Green, we'd like 5 minutes of your time to fill in this short questionairre here.

In advance, thank you very much indeed!

Say One For Me


is a dedicated prayer website from the Church of England.

You can post your own prayers during
Lent which runs between March 8th and April 23rd this year and these will be prayed for by various Christian communities throughout the country.

Prayers will be moderated to make sure they don't contravene the guidelines of the site and may be edited to retain privacy.

This year there is also have a Facebook page where you can post your comments and any answers to prayer.


Give it a go here or via the 'Places to Pray' tab above...

Please feel free to pray others' prayers while on the site.

Monday, March 14, 2011

2 Lentern Prayers

The Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian:

O Lord and Master of my life, keep from me the spirit of indifference and discouragement, lust of power and idle chatter.

Instead, grant to me, Your servant, the spirit of wholeness of being, humble-mindedness, patience, and love.

O Lord and King, grant me the grace to be aware of my sins and not to judge my brother; for You are blessed now and ever and forever. Amen.








The 'Living God's Love' prayer:

Living God,
draw us deeper into your love;
Jesus our Lord,
send us to care and serve;
Holy Spirit,
make us heralds of good news.
Stir us, strengthen us,
teach and inspire us
to live your love
with generosity and joy,
imagination and courage;
for the sake of your world
and in the name of Jesus,
Amen.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Sermon to end Fairtrade Fortnight 2011

Lord Finchley tried to mend the electric light himself. It struck him dead: And serve him right! It is the business of the wealthy man to give employment to the artisan.

A rhyme by Hilaire Beloc may seem a rather flippant start to a serious sermon on fair trade, but actually Hilaire Belloc is expressing the same thought as the writer of Ecclesiasticus’s words that I read at the beginning of the service: “Do not cheat a poor person of his livelihood or keep him waiting with hungry eyes”.

Jesus also said that the labourer is worthy of his wages, but just as surely, in order to be worthy of those wages, the labourer must first be acknowledged to be worthy of a job. And it’s up to us, the ‘Lord Finchleys’ of today’s world, to use our comparative wealth to help provide opportunity and livelihoods for others. We are, after all, our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

Christians have always emphasized the importance of charity in helping to alleviate the lot of those worse off than we are. Traditionally, the concept has been that this would either involve donating money or, for those with the necessary talents and opportunity, rolling up your sleeves and getting down to work helping out in person. But there is another way: trade.

It’s a dirty word to some, trade. At one end of the political spectrum, the landed gentry always looked down on anything as grubby as commerce, while to those on the far left, trade, caricatured as capitalism, was the ultimate enemy.

But for a faith whose founder worked in the family business, this cannot be a Christian attitude. It is incumbent on us to use to the best of our ability those talents with which we’ve been blessed, to meet our own needs and help meet the needs of others. Just as important is the need to use those talents to ensure that all our brothers and sisters in Christ have the same opportunity. And that applies as much to us as a society as it does to us as individuals. The way we conduct our trade, the demands we make on poorer nations, are, ultimately, a matter of personal responsibility. And that is perfectly biblical – think of Jesus’ parable of the talents and the master’s rejection of the servant who hadn’t invested his money wisely.

Of course, a plea for more and fairer trade can be difficult particularly during the current recession with it’s deep worries about unemployment but, in fact, it is in our own interest as well as that of the producers. For if we buy developing world products, such as honey, the producers will have money and will in turn buy what we produce.

And, like honey, the benefit spreads even more widely. As a result of having money in their pockets, previously impoverished farmers have access to health care and education for their children, which not only increases the sum of human happiness, in the long term it will benefit every one of us. In the words of the adage: “Money is like manure; it works best when you spread it around.”

As an example of the mutual benefits that fair trade can bring, honey is an obvious choice. It is a product much in demand but, despite the recent expansion in bee- keeping as a hobby or a business here in the UK, we can only satisfy around 12 per cent of the domestic market from our own resources; we have to rely on beekeepers overseas for the rest.

The nectar gathered by bees is a sustainable natural resource, the exploitation of which has no detrimental environmental effects, indeed rather the opposite. And, after the initial comparatively modest outlays on training and equipment, bee-keeping is a skilled activity, producing a high-value product that people want to buy.

For the Christian, honey also has great symbolic resonance. “A land flowing with milk and honey” is a recurring theme throughout the Old Testament, and it continues to the end of the New Testament. The angel’s word’s to John in Revelation 10 compares the words of the scroll of God’s message to it: “...in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey.”
Our Gospel reading this morning reminds us that Lent offers us the opportunity to take time to reflect with Jesus in the wilderness on our fallen world, to decide what words and principles we will live by, to face our temptations and to determine how we will repent and respond.
Today’s world is one of gross unfairness, where half the world’s people live in poverty – despite there being enough for all.

The rich world’s refusal of restraint and the temptation to put our material comfort before godliness are part of the problem. We have created an unfair global trading system that allows us to enjoy cheap clothes and food but causes others to suffer (see section on cotton subsidies).

But God wills life and offers the healing power of repentance. And we, by grace and following Christ’s example, can reject temptation. One way is through Fairtrade, which is a strategy for poverty alleviation and sustainable development. Its purpose is to create opportunities for producers and workers who have been economically disadvantaged or marginalized by the conventional trading system. Fairtrade is good news – and a way we can respond practically to our hurting world. It is our duty as Christians to apply that sweet message of God’s love practically to ensure His whole world flows with milk and honey and not just our small corner of it. Amen.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

How to get more young people in church...

Thanks to Anna for pointing me to this: I had to share...

~~~~~

One of the most frequently asked questions I face as I visit parishes is, "How do we get young people to come to church?" I thought this week I would allow a genuine young person to answer that question. Tamie Fields Harkins served for four years as our chaplain to NAU Episcopal Canterbury Fellowship. Last week she had this to say about that question on her blog, which I share with you here.

+Kirk

Here is a step-by-step plan for how to get more young people into the church:

1. Be genuine. Do not under any circumstances try to be trendy or hip, if you are not already intrinsically trendy or hip. If you are a 90-year-old woman who enjoys crocheting and listens to Beethoven, by God be proud of it.

2. Stop pretending you have a rock band.

3. Stop arguing about whether gay people are okay, fully human, or whatever else. Seriously. Stop it.

4. Stop arguing about whether women are okay, fully human, or are capable of being in a position of leadership.

5. Stop looking for the "objective truth" in Scripture.

6. Start looking for the beautiful truth in Scripture.

7. Actually read the Scriptures. If you are Episcopalian, go buy a Bible and read it. Start in Genesis, it's pretty cool. You can skip some of the other boring parts in the Bible. Remember though that almost every book of the Bible has some really funky stuff in it. Remember to keep #5 and #6 in mind though. If you are evangelical, you may need to stop reading the Bible for about 10 years. Don't worry: during those 10 years you can work on putting these other steps into practice.

8. Start worrying about extreme poverty, violence against women, racism, consumerism, and the rate at which children are dying worldwide of preventable, treatable diseases. Put all the energy you formerly spent worrying about the legit-ness of gay people into figuring out ways to do some good in these areas.

9. Do not shy away from lighting candles, silence, incense, laughter, really good food, and extraordinary music. By "extraordinary music" I mean genuine music. Soulful music. Well-written, well-composed music. Original music. Four-part harmony music. Funky retro organ music. Hymns. Taize chants. Bluegrass. Steel guitar. Humming. Gospel. We are the church; we have an uber-rich history of amazing music. Remember this.

10. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

11. Learn how to sit with people who are dying.

12. Feast as much as possible. Cardboard communion wafers are a feast in symbol only. Humans can not live on symbols alone. Remember this.

13. Notice visitors, smile genuinely at them, include them in conversations, but do not overwhelm them.

14. Be vulnerable.

15. Stop worrying about getting young people into the church. Stop worrying about marketing strategies. Take a deep breath. If there is a God, that God isn't going to die even if there are no more Christians at all.

16. Figure out who is suffering in your community. Go be with them.

17. Remind yourself that you don't have to take God to anyone. God is already with everyone. So, rather than taking the approach that you need to take the truth out to people who need it, adopt the approach that you need to go find the truth that others have and you are missing. Go be evangelized.

18. Put some time and care and energy into creating a beautiful space for worship and being-together. But shy away from building campaigns, parking lot expansions, and what-have-you.

19. Make some part of the church building accessible for people to pray in 24/7. Put some blankets there too, in case someone has nowhere else to go for the night.

20. Listen to God (to Wisdom, to Love) more than you speak your opinions.

This is a fool-proof plan. If you do it, I guarantee that you will attract young people to your church. And lots of other kinds of people too. The end.

Lent - The Manhatten Project

With thanks, again, to Paul Roberts...

A friend of mine recently visited New York, spending four days doing most of the obvious sights available to someone lodging in mid-Manhatten. But he was caught on the hop by his reactions to the Rockefeller Center. John D. sounds a thoroughly nice guy who liked to do things philanthropically, especially by taking a big risk building the Center with his own money when all other sponsors had pulled out in the wake of the stock market crash on Black Tuesday. By going ahead anyway, he provided much-needed employment at a time when no-one else was hiring. He described his surprisingly negative reaction to the frescos within the center and Rockefeller’s sense of what human rights might look like which is placed on a stone at the front of the building.

The frescos in the Center are a celebration of the achievements of Man and human progress, which are unremittingly positive:

I believe in the supreme worth of the individual and in his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty.

I believe that the law was made for man and not man for the law; that government is the servant of the people and not their master.

I believe in the Dignity of labour, whether with head or hand; that the world owes no man a liking but that it owes every man an opportunity to make a living.

I believe that thrift is essential to well ordered living and that economy is a prime requisite of a sound financial structure, whether in government, business or personal affairs.

I believe that truth and justice are fundamental to an enduring social order.

I believe in the sacredness of a promise, that a man’s word should be as good as his bond; that character not wealth or power or position – is of supreme worth.

I believe that the rendering of useful service is the common duty of mankind and that only in the purifying fire of sacrifice is the dross of selfishness consumed and the greatness of the human soul set free.

I believe in an all-wise and all-loving God, named by whatever name, and that the individuals highest fulfillment, greatest happiness, and widest usefulness are to be found in living in harmony with His Will.

I believe that love is the greatest thing in the world; that it alone can overcome hate; that right can and will triumph over might.


This is a wonderful creed, which aims at the best for everyone, but ultimately bases its faith solely upon the human being, albeit with some niche found for faith in the penultimate article.

How do we square this monument of 20th century rationalist humanism with the history immediately preceding and following it. The glorying in human cleverness is incredibly positive, yet it was preceded by the slaughter of WW1, the tragedy of the Great Depression and was about to be followed by the gulags, the gas chambers and nuclear vaporization. What kind of faith manages to sing a triumphant hymn of praise to human beings when sandwiched by such huge, appalling examples of our inhumanity and brokenness?

On this Ash Wednesday, as we enter the Holy season of Lent, we are confronted with that same juxtaposition of our incredible God-given nature as people. Our abilities and drives. Our striving for betterment. This is rammed up against our capacity for hatred and barbarism.

Lent brings us up short, it reminds us of the bittersweet story of the whole of Scripture which commences with the wonder of creation, the paradoxical nature of human beings and their broken relationship with the Creator who on every pages goes on saying - I love you, I long to be with you, will you be with me?

As this story unfolds, God and humanity struggle against one another. Human power is a real thing and God sees it as an increasingly negative thing, having no limit. Rockerfeller’s hopes for human dignity are in a sense a striving after power and dignity. That striving though is sandwiched in history between periods of our worst inhumanity and depravity. His hopes for us as a race have deafened us to God’s love call to us, which reminds us that our power dignity are God given.

Lent is a time of, what the Orthodox, call ‘bright sadness.’ It is a gift from the church. It is a time for us to acknowledge humanity’s capacity for goodness but also a time to remove our fingers from our ears and the ears of our hearts and hear God calling in love to us again. It is a time to renew our relationship with him in prayer - listening to Him; in fasting - to remind us of our need of Him and our need to make time to be together; in almsgiving - in giving our time, talent, our riches, ourselves to others in need blesses them and us.

My friend had a dream, having returned from New York’s skyscraper lined horizon, of a little child building a sandcastle, then another coming along and kicking it over out of jealousy. Heaven help us: human nature, in all its beauty, needs some fundamental healing and the longer we walk this planet, the more obvious it seems to me, that we cannot fix ourselves by ourselves. Lent reminds us of that fact, and of the God who loves us, but instead of standing aloof above us shaking his head at what we have done and what we have become, instead joins us on the beach and rebuilds the sandcastle with us. Amen

elbow - open arms (live at blueprint studios)

Sunday, March 06, 2011

New York

H/T to Paul Roberts. A personal and deeply moving post from his blog

~~~~

Silence on the blog was largely caused by a trip to New York and to Yale a week ago. It was my first trip there and was for fun. The theology took place in Yale where I was presenting at the Liturgy and Migration conference run by the Institute of Sacred Music and Liturgy.

We had a great time in New York, spending four days doing most of the obvious sights available to someone lodging in mid-Manhatten. But I was caught on the hop by my reactions to the Rockefeller Center. John D. sounds a thoroughly nice guy who liked to do things philanthropically, especially by taking a big risk building the Center with his own money when all other sponsors had pulled out in the wake of the stockmarket crash on Black Tuesday. By going ahead anyway, he provided much-needed employment at a time when noone else was hiring. All the more surprising, then, how negatively I reacted to the frescos within the center and Rockefeller’s credo which is placed on a stone at the front of the building.

The frescos in the Center are a celebration of the achievements of Man (sic) and human progress, which are unmitigatingly positive, combined with a sculpture of Prometheus. Rockefeller’s credo reads thus:

I believe in the supreme worth of the individual and in his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty.
I believe that the law was made for man and not man for the law; that government is the servant of the people and not their master.
I believe in the Dignity of labour, whether with head or hand; that the world owes no man a liking but that it owes every man an opportunity to make a living.
I believe that thrift is essential to well ordered living and that economy is a prime requisite of a sound financial structure, whether in government, business or personal affairs.
I believe that truth and justice are fundamental to an enduring social order.
I believe in the sacredness of a promise, that a man’s word should be as good as his bond; that character not wealth or power or position – is of supreme worth.
I believe that the rendering of useful service is the common duty of mankind and that only in the purifying fire of sacrifice is the dross of selfishness consumed and the greatness of the human soul set free.
I believe in an all-wise and all-loving God, named by whatever name, and that the individuals highest fulfilment, greatest happiness, and widest usefulness are to be found in living in harmony with His Will.
I believe that love is the greatest thing in the world; that it alone can overcome hate; that right can and will triumph over might.

My inner reaction was one of initial sadness, then revulsion, and eventually growing horror. What on earth was wrong with me? After all, it is the credo of a man who is trying to work out what is best for his fellow humanity.

I had come face to face with my own Augustinianism. This was a wonderful creed, which aims at the best for everyone, but ultimately bases its faith solely upon the human being, albeit with some niche found for faith in the penultimate article. (There’s also a niche for Jesus in one of the frescos, although his teaching is largely re-interpreted as moral, subjected to John D’s meta-religion, rather than actually upon its content.)

The sadness-revulsion-horror was because I could not square this monument of 20th century rationalist humanism with the history immediately preceding and following it. The glorying in human cleverness was unremittingly positive, yet it had been preceded by the slaughter of WW1, the trajedy of the Great Depression and was about to be followed by the gulags, the gas chambers and nuclear vapourisation. What kind of blind faith manages to sing a triumphant hymn of praise to homo sapiens when sandwiched by such huge, appalling examples of the flawed nature of this faith’s subject+object? On the other hand, I was also disturbed by my own vehement reaction: was I also in danger of lurching into some kind of reactionary Manichaeeism?

I didn’t sleep too well that night – possibly I was still jetlagging. My dreams were filled with images of the frescos and all the hundreds of skyscrapers which characterise the island of Manhatten. That same day, earlier in the morning, we had stopped to look over Ground Zero. It’s one enormous building site at the moment, with little evidence of the atrocity which took place there. The aim is to open the memorial on the tenth anniversary this coming September 11th. Was all that terrible act caused by religion – of the kind which was probably fuelling my reaction to John D’s humanism? Or was it caused by human nature, masquerading as a religious impulse? Whatever the cause, the images of Ground Zero and the Rockefeller were overlaiden in my disturbed sleep.

These days, I am convinced that the most important philosophical and theological questions are around anthropology (the nature of human beings), since it is on this subject, paradoxically, that the big divide exists between theism and atheism – rather than over the nature of God. (The absence of divine phenomena is not an overwhelming problem for theistic religions. It would be really naive faith which hitched its theistic waggon merely to phenomena.)

The first twelve chapters of the Book of Genesis are a bittersweet story, commencing with the wonder of creation, then outlining the paradoxical nature of human beings and their broken relationship with the Creator. In it, we have the story of the first skyscraper, the tower of Babel. (Chaper 11). The text says, “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’” God, with the divine council, responds with a counter-concern (verses 6-8):

And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.

As with many occasions in the Bible, God and humanity are struggling against one another. Human power is a real thing and God in this passage seems to see it as an increasingly negative thing, having no limit. So, the story tells us, the differentiation of speech was an intentional limitation upon the technological power and intellect of humanity, since such power and intellect was flawed, oriented to itself, rather than the creator.

Well, we build our towers now. The skyscrapers of Manhatten have served to raise, artificially, the height above sea level of the average New Yorker by about, say, 50 – 100 feet. If the tower of Babylon was left unfinished, the Rockefeller Center nevertheless scrapes the clouds in its triumphant proclamation of Man, with John D’s credo at its base acting almost as an exposition of Genesis 11:6. There is as much danger in having an overly negative view of our humanity (Manichaeeism) as there is an overly positive one. Concerns with a dangerously positive assessment of human nature should not lead to an equally (and possibly more) dangerously negative assessment, which results in misanthropism. All humanity is to be valued and cherished because we are created, not hated because of our obvious capacity for evil. The whole incident indicated to me the challenge of constructing a realistic anthropology which is honest about human evil, human genius and human beauty and love. Christian theology’s potential gift to the world is a system which can hold those things together. But to do that, still requires a submission to the Being of God as the origin of all things and, ultimately, the Lord of all things.

My final dreams lingered around the image of a little child building a sandcastle, then another coming along and kicking it over out of jealousy. Heaven help us: human nature, in all its beauty, needs some fundamental healing and the longer we walk this planet, the more obvious it seems to me, that we cannot fix ourselves by ourselves.

Silence on the Mountaintop

Here's a version of what Tim Bourne, who is one of the Lay Readers here, preached this morning, based on the readings for the day which can be found here.

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Today our readings lead us to think about the Transfiguration, when Jesus was acknowledged as God's own son in the presence of his closest friends, Peter, James and John. This is the last Sunday of Epiphany, the time in the church's year that began after Christmas with the baptism of Jesus, marking the beginning of his ministry, and ends now with the Transfiguration, marking the end of Jesus' ministry of travelling and teaching and healing, and the beginning of the period of Lent that leads us to the foot of the cross. It's a landmark moment; Peter didn't know how to react, and perhaps neither do we.

There's something about being on a mountain. We no longer believe that the earth is flat and covered by a great dome, with heaven above it, but somehow there's still a feeling of being somehow closer to God, “closer to Head Office”, as a friend of mine put it.

This isn't something new. In today's Old Testament reading, which you can find on the Bulletin, we learn how Moses was given the Ten Commandments on top of a mountain covered in clouds.

So as Jesus' disciples climbed with him “up a high mountain”, they may have felt a growing sense of God's presence. Then when they reached the top, suddenly His glory became real and visible, and God himself spoke to them out of the cloud: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’

This moment was important to Peter, and it remained vivid in his memory, as we can see from his account of it in his letter, our New Testament reading.

As our gradual hymn we sang “Be still, for the presence of the Lord is moving in this place.” When God is most visibly and tangibly with us, often the most fitting thing to do is to be still and treasure the moment.

Silence is powerful.

There are times when we should not be doing anything, not even speaking, just being still and listening.

Lent starts this week, and that’s a good time to think about the role of silence, both when we’re together and when we’re on our own. Not just to listen, although that’s important

Also to give ourselves time to “tune in” to God

There are many ways to pray, and finding the ones that work best for me, or for you, is not easy.

Silence can help us all, but we may need to use it in different ways - there is no one right way to pray.

- think about a bible passage
- imagine you’re a character in a bible story
- look at something in nature, perhaps a leaf, and think about the God who made it
- use a book about prayer

Another aspect of prayer - it isn’t all asking, and it isn’t all thanks, or praise. When you’re with a close friend, there are times when you don’t need to talk; it’s enough just to be together. Peter just had to say something
Have you felt like that?
We feel that something has to be said to break the silence
, but we’re probably wrong, just as Peter was.

Yesterday I was at a Reader trainee selection conference. We had two striking demonstrations of the power of silence.

On the negative side, during an interview one of the candidates was apparently so afraid of silence that she talked non-stop, and there was barely a break long enough for us to get a question in! Probably it was mostly nerves, but we did wonder what would happen if she led a discussion group! Don't worry – we had a laugh about it afterwards, but she did get selected for training.

The candidates are asked to take part in leading worship at some point during the day, and on the positive side we were all struck by the way one of them made careful use of silence, and pauses when speaking, to heighten the sense of God's presence.

Words are sometimes necessary, but if God speaks through us, it’s more likely to be through who we are and what we do, rather than directly through our words.

“Silence is golden”

Silence is a friend, not an enemy; don’t be afraid of it.

This Lent, why not give some time to just being quiet with God, in whatever way works for you.
Amen.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011