Tuesday, July 30, 2013

HAKEN - Atlas Stone (ALBUM TRACK)

To say that I am excited about this album would be an understatement! Haken (as in bacon) are of the UK's (almost unnoticed) treasures who deserve long overdue recognition... I hope you enjoy :)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sunday Podcast

The Wish List


Do you have an Amazon wish list? I do, it’s digital list full of books, music and films that I would like to have, to possess and perhaps more so actually have the time to enjoy. I need none of them, but I would still love to have them.  It is part of human nature; to consume. 

René Descartes, trying to define what it ultimately means to exist said ‘I think therefore I am.’ In 21st Century Britain our existence seems rest on a different perceived reality - ‘I shop therefore I am’. Western society is built on consumerism.  ‘...My wages are gone within a week of being paid.  I’m not a materialistic person but I do like materialistic things...’

Just like society, prayer can become a wish list.  All that we utter in this divine conversation is a list of things we would like God to sort out.  This is illustrated no better than in the film Bruce Almighty.  God hands over the running of the world to Bruce, who then has to deal with the billions of prayer requests eventually answering all of them with ‘yes!’ with catastrophic results.

However, when the disciples asked how they should pray, Jesus taught them, what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. It’s interesting that we call it that, because what Jesus gives is not His prayer but a corporate one for all His disciples - we say ‘Our Father...’  In some senses though it’s not a prayer at all, but at a structure, an order, a means to affective prayer.

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Jesus’ teaching begins with acknowledging God, and His holiness.  This holy God dwells in heaven - he is infinite, mysterious and unknowable as this heaven is beyond the limitations of our earthly experience.  That said, Jesus reminds us that He is not distant or aloof.  If you want to know what God is says Jesus, He is like a tender Father. 

We are invited to address this high and holy God as Abba, Papa, Daddy and it displays a wonderful intimacy with the divine infinite. It’s a word used by children when talking to their fathers.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Next comes a call for God’s Kingdom and for God’s will and purposes to be seen and known and felt.  A kingdom is the place or places where the King dwells and reigns and is to do with territory.  But in God’s case it is also to do with the topography of the human heart and His values, His purposes, His will being exercised everywhere including in our lives, words and actions.

Give us this our daily bread.  We do get a section for our needs, but they are for our needs and not our wants. No holidays or shoes, no films or music but the staple, the vital things in life but not just this day but every day.

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  Forgiveness is next, and not just ours, but others - two words are used by Jesus: sins and debts. As we ask for forgiveness from God for our sins, we are called to forgive others of what they are indebted to us by. It’s about our freedom and building new communities between us and God and us and each other - where we are no longer beholden to each other.

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.  Finally there is a call to keep us from temptation, from testing, from trial.  It should take our minds back to the story of the prophet Job and the testing trials he endured which demonstrated his faith and trust in God.  It’s a call to our own holiness.  Not being led into temptation and being delivered from evil are in essence about aligning our will to the will of God.  Jesus’ teaching on prayer begins with recognising God’s holiness, it concludes with us longing for our own.

Having modeled a structure for our praying that begins with God and ends with us being sent out to live holy lives, Jesus then teaches about how to pray.  

What Jesus doesn’t do here is wrestle with what is all too often our experience of prayer - that some prayers remain unanswered. When that happens there are all sorts of temptations to try to explain it away, none of which are entirely satisfactory.  We may hear that God does sometimes refuse our request because it’s not His will - but aren’t health, well-being and peace His will? Sometimes you hear ‘everything happens for a reason’, so are we saying that all sorts of violence, torture and illness are somehow God’s will? No and no.  Prayers are not wishes - to be granted or not. Prayer is something more.

Prayer is relationship.  Those of us who have or have had the privilege of playing a part in bringing up children will know that children understand the word ‘love’ as being spelt ‘T-I-M-E’. How much time do we give to our heavenly Father? On their deathbed no-one ever says, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office’ but more of often people speak of regret at not spending enough time with those they love the most, developing and deepening relationships, sharing love.  Even in those times when our prayer remains unanswered, we are spending time with God, deepening that relationship, discovering that prayer is not about our wills and wants, but about placing ourselves within in His.

Prayer is dialogue.  Jesus does encourage us to be persistent - to spend time asking, to spend time getting to know, and listening and waiting for, the loving will of our Heavenly Father to be revealed, to developing and deepening our relationship with Him.  It’s a dialogue in that sense.  Prayer helps understand His will and purposes for us better, so we can live them.

It is exactly because God is like a tender father, a passionate lover, and a lenient judge, Jesus invites us to pray. Keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking, he tells us. If a person will answer the door at midnight when a visitor knocks, how much more will God respond to our prayers? And when a child asks for basic nourishment like a fish or an egg, no parent would ever give him something poisonous like a snake or scorpion. How much more will God give good gifts to his children, says Jesus, who ask.

And at the end we say Amen - literally ‘so be it’ - ‘so be it’ whether God answers, ‘so be it’ however God answers, ‘so be it’ whenever God answers.  Jesus teaches that prayer is ultimately about us having the sort of relationship with God that enables us to trust Him enough to have His way among us for our good and for His glory, and to that we all say Amen.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Table Manners


Last Sunday afternoon many of us gathered for lunch in the sun or shade depending on your preference. It was a wonderfully relaxed affair including picnic blankets, chatter and games. The social nicities were done away with and a good time was had by all.

I have only had one meal where I have not been sure which set of cutlery or which wine glass to use next. Those sorts of meals are governed by all sorts of unwritten social codes and etiquette. But actually all meals are enjoyed most when diners do things that are expected of them. We teach them to our children - always say please and thank you. Keep your elbows off the table. Eat with your mouth closed and never talk with it full etc...

Martha welcomes Jesus into the home she shares with Mary her sister. Jewish meals, in fact Jewish life was bound by all sorts of social and religious rules. Luke has placed the story in a particular place in his account to alert us to something special about Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is redrawing boundaries between men and woman within Israel – blurring the lines which had been clearly laid down; redefining what it means to belong to God.

The real problem between Martha and Mary wasn’t the workload Martha had in the kitchen. The real problem was that Mary was behaving as if she was a man. In that culture, as in many parts of the world to this day, houses were divided into male ‘space’ and female ‘space’ – and male and female roles were strictly demarcated. Mary had crossed an invisible but very important boundary within the house – and another equally important boundary within her social world.

The public room was where the men would meet; the kitchen, and other quarters never seen by outsiders, belonged to the women. Only outside, where little children would play, and in the marital bedroom, would male and female mix. So for a woman to settle down comfortably among men was bordering on the scandalous. Who did Mary think she was? 

To sit at the feet of a teacher was a decidedly male role. We hear about the Apostle Paul sitting at the feet of Gamaliel in Acts 22. He wasn’t gazing up adoringly and thinking how wonderful the great rabbi was; he was listening and learning, focusing on the teaching of his master and putting things together in his mind. To sit at someone’s feet meant, quite simply, to be their student. And to sit at the feet of a rabbi was what you wanted to do if you wanted to be a rabbi yourself. Mary had the audacity to quietly take her place as a would-be teacher and preacher of the kingdom of God. And what is astonishing is that Jesus completely affirms Mary’s right to do so.

Jesus affirms Mary’s decision to step away from household duties and to sit at his feet and listen to his words of eternal life. She has completely understood what it means to be a disciple. Martha though is jealous - I believe that is why she complains to Jesus. She wants to be where Mary is, but whether she feels more bound by the rules and expectations of others or not, she allows her provision of hospitality to Jesus to be distraction for her from her heart’s desire - to learn from him. That is surely why she invited him into their home in the first place. Jesus, I want to be where Mary is, but I won’t allow myself... 

How often are we like Martha? Full of good intentions? Lord I will pray more, but first I need to... I will spend more time bible reading when I have first done... Jesus again and again when he teaches, says that we need to place God first in our lives. When we do, the rest will follow. If we want to deepen a friendship or strengthen a relationship we need to spend time with, talk to, listen to and give undivided attention to and be with that one person. The same is true with God. How often do we have Jesus to ourselves so to speak, and instead of taking the opportunity to listen and learn from him, to experience the love of God through him, to be a disciple, do we instead confine Jesus to an hour or so of worship on a Sunday morning? He longs to be with us and for us to be with him. Are we willing to put away the distractions of the tv, the computer, and like Mary, to make and take opportunities to meet with Jesus?

Over the course of this encounter, both Martha and St Luke the Gospel writer refer to Jesus as Lord on a number of occasions. This isn’t just more social etiquette. Lord or Adonai, is a respectful title of a distinguished guest, but the title was also used in place of the name of God - YHWH - written in the Old Testament scriptures. The Lord that Martha and Mary initially encountered was Jesus the Rabbi who would teach them about God and His ways. Later they and we are left in no doubt that we are being asked to discover this Lord is the same Lord who brought all things into being. The power of Almighty God, YHWH himself, is at work in and through Jesus of Nazareth. Where are we this morning? Are we hear to learn things about God from a good teacher, or are here to sit at Jesus’ feet and develop a relationship with him. A relationship for which he longs.

Jesus reassured Martha by her name. In Jewish society, what you are called or how you are named sometimes said things about you and your parentage, social standing, and family trade. When God reveals to Moses His name - I am that which I am - on Mount Sinai, God reveals everything conceivable about himself to successive generations. What's in Martha's name? Martha means 'Mistress.’ Our names are deep and precious to us, chosen carefully for us by those who love us. It is the things that are deep and precious in us that define who we are - our moral codes, how we speak or behave speaks volumes about us. To know someone’s name still, is to know something about them and invites them into a relationship with us.

Jesus called Mary and Martha by name into a living relationship with God through Him. It is a relationship that transformed life and death when their Jesus raised their brother Lazarus from the dead. Jesus clearly dearly loved them. Jesus clearly and dearly loves each of us. He longs to go from being our teacher to being our Eternal Friend; from being recognised by us a provider of information about God, to us recognising the power of God at work in Him. 

This same Jesus calls us by name away from our distractions and beckons us over to sit at his feet. He asks for some of our time, not His Sunday time, so we can not only learn about eternal life, but as his disciples, can learn to live it.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Neighbourhood Watch


Some years ago a famous experiment was conducted with theological college students. Researchers gathered a group of students in a classroom and told them that each of them had an assignment. Their assignment was to record a talk about the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The thing was, the recordings were going to be done in a building on the other side of the campus, and because of a tight schedule, they needed to hurry to that building. 

Unbeknownst to the students, on the path to the other building the researchers had planted an actor to play the part of a man in distress, slumped in an alley, coughing and suffering. The students were going to make a presentation about the Good Samaritan. But what would happen, the researchers wondered, when they actually encountered a man in need? Would they be Good Samaritans? Well, no, as a matter of fact, they were not. Almost all of them rushed past the hurting man. One student even stepped over the man's body as he hurried to teach about the Parable of the Good Samaritan!

We should not look down at these students who couldn't put the parable into practice, because neither can we.  We think we know what this famous story of Jesus’ is actually about - but I believe actually don’t. We think Jesus is asking us to be kind and loving to all we meet, but there’s much more.

Jesus is asked how to inherit eternal life. It’s a trap, a test. Jesus response is effectively, ‘You’re a lawyer, you know the law, what does it say?’ which elucidates the response to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and to love your neighbour as yourself. But who is my neighbour...?  The neighbourhood that the law that is quoted refers to is primarily the citizens of Israel (from Lev 19:33-34) but also included ‘resident aliens’ too.  Jesus’ vision of neighbourhood, so to challenge his questioner and to illustrate his point, Jesus tells a story well known to us.
The priest encounters this naked and beaten man. Knowing the law well and unsure whether the beaten man is a Gentile or a corpse and having no way of knowing whether this man was a neighbour and fully aware of the laws about ritual impurity - he passes by on the other side.

The Levite encounters the naked and beaten man and has a similar internal conversation with himself.

The hearers would have expected Jesus then to talk of how an ordinary good, honest Jew encountered the man on his way back to the Temple, but Jesus ups the ante and adds shock value. A Samaritan is traveling the road, he is not bound by the same laws as the Levite or the Priest.  Even though neither Priest nor Levite would have included the Samaritan in their neighbourhood, he did limit his neighbourhood or compassion and in so doing, he undid the violence of the robbers and the neglect of the Priest and Levite.

As you can see then, the parable is not just about being kind to people and in it, Jesus is certainly not asking us to be nice.  It reminded me of something often quoted as a poem, but it’s not:

First they came for the Communits
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the Socialists
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Catholic.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

It was written by Martin Niemöller who was an anti Communist German pastor who initially supported Hitler’s rise to power, but when Hitler insisted on supremecy of the state over religion he changed his mind. He joined a group of German clergy opposed to Hitler’s regime which led him to being detained in the concentration camps for ‘not being entheusistic enough about the Nazi movement.

At it’s heart, those words are about political apathy and not acting when you could or should - irrespective of the consequences - and they go to the heart of what Jesus is saying.  We tell this story like we know what it means, but if we do know what it means we do not act on it.

The ones who didn’t act in Jesus story were in the main - rule bound to act with and for those like them (whether Jew or welcomed alien). The Samaritan - a religious and social outsider threw the rules away, enlarged his horizons and acted with compassion.

Who was the neighbour to the beaten man Jesus asks the lawyer? The one who threw the rule book away, who showed (literally ‘did’) mercy, and in acting like a neighbour - enlarging the group to whom he could and should show compassion to from those like him, to those who shunned and detested him. Go and do likewise said Jesus.

Remember how this exchange started? This began not as a conversation about compassion as such but about eternal life? You want an eternal life, then act in the same sort of a way that God did in sending the Son into the world to have compassion and love on those who would normally detest Him. Go and do likewise.  As good Christians we should go out of our way in our community not just to welcome the stranger like us, but to support and help those who might treat us with disdain. Go and do likewise. Our temporal decisions and actions have eternal value - go and do likewise says Jesus. Amen

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Travelling Light

Rt. Rev'd Christopher Herbert, former Bishop of St Albans

‘...Deacons are called to work with the Bishop and the priests with whom they serve as heralds of Christ’s kingdom. They are to proclaim the gospel in word and deed, as agents of God’s purposes of love. They are to serve the community in which they are set, bringing to the Church the needs and hopes of all the people. They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible.... We trust that you are fully determined, by the grace of God, to give yourself wholly to his service, that you may draw his people into that new life which God has prepared for those who love him...’ 

Thursday of last week marked the 14th anniversary of my ordination to the Deaconate.  The day that Bishop Christopher Herbert (above) said those words to the congregation, me and others being ordained Deacon in the Abbey at St Albans.  Thursday was a day saturated with memories for me of the journey that God has and continues to lead me on in His service.  Appropriate that as a Deacon is called to serve, Thursday included conversations about extending the ministry of our foodbanks and spending time with a family planning a funeral service.

I can vividly recall not being ready for my Deaconing. I don’t mean arriving late and in a flap. I mean, having a very real sense of unpreparedness. I had only begun the formal stages of my journey towards that day 2 years previously.

And yet on that day, 14 years ago, the Church was acknowledging that, no matter how I felt on the day or since, I had been identified, trained, and sent to a specific place with the specific responsibility of initially being a Deacon for a specific period of time. 

Interestingly this Thursday marks my second anniversary as your Parish Priest.  Much has happened in that time.  I still feel daunted by the task ahead of us but I am all the more aware of God’s specific call here with you to make known His Kingdom.  In a similar way, in this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus asks us to consider carefully the mission, the task, he calls disciples to.

This morning we meet Jesus appointing pairs of disciples to go from the comfort and safety of their life with Him, on a specific task, to specific places, for a specific period of time. This should not have been a shock for them. They will have been well aware that this day was coming. Luke records for us in the opening lines of the Gospel, ‘After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go...’ After they had experienced the equipping and sending the 12 disciples in a similar mission, after they had seen a huge crowd fed with 5 loaves and 2 fish, after they had heard Peter’s declaring that Jesus was God’s long promised Saviour, after they heard Jesus foretell his own crucifixion and resurrection and referring to their own following of Him in terms of taking up the cross, after they had seen copious healings and miracles, after they had seen the way that Jesus was received by some and not others, after they had begun to become aware that Jesus was asking them to place God first in their lives - above family, friendship, or other social nicities... after all this, he identifies 70 of them to try it out his job for themselves.

This sending of the 70 was part of a strategic, planned mission not some random whim of Jesus. The places where these pairs were to go, were places on His’ agenda anyway.

Go, says Jesus, aware of where you are going and what people are really like. Go like lambs in the midst of wolves. Go attentive to your surroundings and the people you are amongst. Go with an openness. Go with a vulnerability.

Go also, not unprepared, but with little to tie to a certain place or people. Don’t take a bag, sandals, a purse or a money belt. Rely on the hospitality and provision of others - rely especially on God.

Go proclaiming a message of peace - a message of the saving love of God, of his holiness in the now; a message that God longs to be in relationship with all people whether Jew, Greek or Samaritan. Go with the message that His Kingdom is near, that ‘God loves you. He wants to be with you. WIll you come and be with him?’ Go with this message to house and town alike. Go expecting to have your message received well, go expecting to have your message ignored and be drummed out of town.

Whilst this fortnight has anniversaries for me, this passage isn’t about me as an ordained person. It is for all of us as those who are baptised.  The gospel tells two things about every baptized person here today. The first is that the task of telling the Good News to others is given to us all. We may achieve that task in many different ways, quietly or spectacularly, verbally or by our loving care for others, but the task of showing Jesus to others is one of the chief reasons why we exist. That is not an exaggeration. We have to grasp the idea that each of us has been created, was born, for a purpose, and that purpose is in the mind of God and is more important than any other purpose we may take on.

The second truth the gospel tells us is that we have been “empowered” so to do. That’s an assurance and a challenge. We tend to absolve our passivity by muttering things like, “I’m an introvert,” “It’s not in my nature,” “I get embarrassed.”

The Gospel assures us that we are all empowered to witness, to tell of the nearness of the Kingdom, in our world and that empowerment is not the same as natural talent.

Jesus, present among us this morning, continues to call us, send us, and empower us. As we ready ourselves to take on a Curate this time next year it is worth remembering that we all have a vocation to ministry. Perhaps this coming week, in quieter moments, when we have the opportunity to reflect, or even to pray, it might be good to consider what task, seemingly beyond of strength or talents, our comfort zone, God wants us to take on and embrace, in the power of the Holy Spirit, who has lived within us, often unrecognized, since the day we were adopted by God in Baptism.