Saturday, 26 December 2015

Holy Family 27th December 2015

Imagine a land of pure delight.

Imagine a kingdom shining through and through with glory.

Imagine a place abounding in joy and laughter where each cared for all and all for each.

Imagine a country with no fear and the only tears those of joy unbounded and gladness unalloyed.

Imagine joy and glory and love in that country flowing between its citizens and their Ruler who is source of beauty and joy and love and glory and so gives to whom he wills.

Imagine the enthusiasm of that Ruler of the glorious Kingdom to welcome other beings into the sharing of endless laughter and mutual encouragement, into glorious light and peace beyond understanding.

Then imagine this ruler becoming mindful of planet earth of the solar system and of beings there capable of becoming citizens of the glorious kingdom.

Imagine that he came to us. He came from the glory. He came from the glorious kingdom.

I can imagine such a kingdom and such a King. I see hints of glory in the sky at dusk and dawn. I see bold red colouration reflected in the clouds and at times, as the setting sun hides them, an incredible brightness, an incredible shining and I see this sight as a glimpse of something far more glorious, a reflection of Someone far more wonderful.

I can sense in the smile of a believer something that transcends, I mean something that goes right beyond this world.

In particular as I visit people in enormous pain and yet with shining faces I look beyond them and see the glorious kingdom in my mind’s eye. I imagine that land of pure delight I’ve been speaking of and its Ruler.

I imagine – but, then, suppose my very imagination were the inspiration of that distant Ruler?
Suppose more than that.

Suppose the Ruler of the glorious Kingdom, so mindful of the earth and billions of souls eligible for his fullest blessing, had come in Person to open up a way from this world into that glorious Kingdom?

Suppose, because his nature were love, there was no question of forcing people into his Land but He were to set before us a choice.

Suppose the only way He could make human beings capable of glory was to win and enter their hearts so his indestructible life could be in them for ever? And that whether his life entered a soul was for that person to choose?

Suppose that were true – that the King of the heavenly country had come, had chosen to bring his own glorious life and join it to ours? Or join it to those who would receive him?

Suppose He came! Suppose He came from the glorious Kingdom. Oh yes, believer, He came from the glory.

Suppose He came - that the Word became flesh. God became man.

The Virgin Mary had a baby boy, the glorious King pitched his tent on earth in a human family – Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Holy Family?

Suppose the Prince of the heavenly Kingdom has come and his invitation is before me. Suppose I have chosen to invite him into my life?

Then I am not imagining that country of pure delight. I am destined for it. I have my citizenship.
Suppose the King of Heaven has come and opened his kingdom to mere mortals?

Then I have everything in the world to look forwards to, everything in this world and in the world to come!

Why? Because if He is indeed the King of glory, his possibilities go beyond my imagining.

In my imagination I can’t see a future for this mortal body beyond an earthly grave.

But if the Son of God brings his reality, his life, his power, his joy, his possibilities into the world and into my life I’m drawn by a love quite beyond what I can imagine.

Then, if He should choose to renew his life in me through the Bread which is his body – Christ Mass – So be it. I will not argue any more.

He came from the glory. He came from the glorious Kingdom.

The King who came to Palestine is coming now in Bread and Wine – that you and I may be raised beyond our fondest imaginings to his glorious Kingdom. So be it. Amen.

Friday, 25 December 2015

Midnight Mass & 8am 2015

Any preacher at Midnight Mass/Christmas speaks into a maelstrom of emotion.

Christmas is a milestone in lives and families bringing back memories of of past joys and not least those we love but see no longer who’ve passed beyond this world.

It’s a feast of family. Even now I look back at the excitement of finding my Christmas stocking to be emptied before Church, the pillow case of presents before lunch and listening to the Queen at 3pm all my life.

To enter the spiritual joy of Christmas though we have to go behind and beyond such experience however hard that can be.

To gain the forward looking newness of Jesus which is the spiritual force of tonight/today, our looking back needs to go further. Instead of looking back at our experience of the Feast, we’ve got to look back a lot further, beyond our lifespan and even the lifespan of Christianity to the Old Testament and make its eager longing for the Lord our own. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness - on them light has shined. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Those words of Isaiah are fulfilled by God’s speaking to not just in words but personally through the arrival of his Son onto the earth. Isaiah’s brother prophet Micah, also writing 800 years before Christ, predicts the geography of tonight when he writes in Chapter 5 verse 2: You, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.

Micah, Isaiah, Hosea, Jeremiah, Zechariah, David and the Psalm writers, all witness to those summary words of expectation in Isaiah Chapter 9 that the day will come when they’ll say The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness - on them light has shined. Israelites held – and Jews still hold by rejecting Jesus - that God will act in the future to redress the darkness in the world by bringing something new – Someone new.

When that newness broke into the world that first Christmas, Easter and Whitsun the writer of our second reading expresses the truth of it in an awesome sentence, Hebrews 1 verse 1: Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 

Later on in that epistle the writer speaks of God’s appointment of Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday and today and for ever. (Hebrews 13:8). Something new, Someone new who can never grow old, in whom we too find newness tonight.

The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. Those words from tonight’s/today’s Gospel put the Christmas message in a sentence repeated in another way by Saint John two chapters later: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)

Tonight/this morning we stand with the eager longing of Isaiah, Micah and the prophets before a revelation of God of immense spiritual force and possessing the capacity to turn our lives around tonight.

The one true and loving God planned and made human beings for eternal life with him.
Knowing that once made we’d need renewing again and again on account of the errors we’d make that dull our spirits God came to embrace us face to face. Love needs a body to express itself and in that way to bring renewal to the one who is loved. As God in the child of Bethlehem first embraced his mother he embraces us tonight/today through the physical elements of bread and wine we call Christmass.

The prophets cried out to God for 1000 years about the errors of the people but into their cries God spoke a promise that would be fulfilled on a time scheme of his own so that as St Matthew says, Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King. (Matthew 2:1)
God who is love spoke through the prophets and then as the second reading says in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 

I can point you tonight/this morning to the Bible and its witness to God’s speaking to us over 3000 years. I can point you to the Christian revelation of God in Jesus Christ 2000 years back and the building of St Giles to homage that truth 1000 years ago.

More powerfully and immediately though, my task as preacher is to point you to someone outside the pages of history who is here for us right now. Someone new who is waiting to bring something of his unending newness right into your soul tonight in the Blessed Sacrament of his body and blood.
To be a Christian is to be made new, day by day and hour by hour, by welcoming the perpetual newness of God’s love shown to us in the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6b)

Christmas isn’t ultimately about nostalgia but about newness gained through the unique reaching out of God to humanity in Jesus Christ.

May we sense with the prophets that gift of renewal which is ours day by day as we engage with the stupendous fact of God made flesh, made flesh to live in our flesh, Jesus, who came and died and rose, whose Spirit is knocking on the door of our heart tonight/today.

Jesus who came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God. (John 1:11-12)

Lord Jesus, the same, yesterday, today and for ever, bring your newness to our souls tonight/today in this sacrament of your body and blood.

O come to my heart, Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for you!

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Advent 4 Year of mercy launch 20th December 2015

If angels can fly because they don’t take themselves too seriously how much more that’s true of Mary, Mother of the Lord?

The tradition of her Assumption fits that thought.

The church’s greatest resource are people who know their need of mercy because those who know their need of God draw others to him through them.

We've begun a diocesan year of mercy that puts Chichester Diocese in a special way alongside the universal church. Over the last two weeks in Cathedrals  across the world special doors have been opened.

In Rome Pope Francis opened a door. In Arundel Bishop Richard Moth opened a door – with our Bishop Martin Warner. In Chichester Bishop Martin opened a door with Bishop Richard Moth, his Roman Catholic colleague. You can see that door on the porch notice board along with prayers for the year of mercy.

Bishops are opening doors across the world so that faithful Christians will themselves open more widely the doors of their hearts to God’s mercy.

Our sense of need for the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit is pivotal to our mission.

I’d like us to make a pilgrimage to the Cathedral in the coming year and go through that special door as part of our welcoming church project.

The more the welcoming love of God gets into our hearts and our congregation the more people around us will hear and see the Lord’s invitation expressed on the Year of Mercy cards, ‘Come to me’.

Notice on the card that the Lord’s invitation is Trinitarian – you have an image of Father, Son and Holy Spirit saying ‘Come to me’ Year of mercy 2015-16.

On the back you have prayers that recall God’s mercy as – paragraph one – the Father ‘slow to anger, abounding in mercy (who as in the parable of the Prodigal Son) sees us and runs to us when we are far away’.

I love that image. Many are seeking truth but truth is seeking them! That’s the gospel, the best news of Christianity!

The second paragraph prays ‘Jesus Christ, you entered the house of sinners, you sat at the table of the poor, you mounted the Cross, your throne of mercy’.

In the coming days we as a church will welcome into this building people bearing gifts for refugees and such mercy is that of Jesus working through us and them, Jesus who ‘sits at the table of the poor’.
The third paragraph invokes the Holy Spirit who ‘pours healing gifts over our wounds, who anoints us to bring good news to the poor’.

Mary’s self-forgetfulness, her reliance on divine mercy, is the gift of the Spirit who is her partner in the incarnation. Without Mary, Mother of mercy, there would be no Jesus, no mercy. Without you and I though – this is the welcoming church and mercy year challenge – without you and I many will lack the hope Christianity has for them.

Your sense of your need of God and his mercy, my sense of my need of God and his mercy, play as important a role in Horsted Keynes and its surrounds as Mary’s did for all of us in Nazareth. For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden. Mary sang. For behold, from henceforth: all generations  shall call me blessed. Or in today’s Gospel Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb… blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.

The Angel Gabriel knocked on the door of her heart and she opened it – opened it fully so that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

For us the opening of our heart to God seems more prosaic but in the sight of God it is no less significant - otherwise it would be pointless having a welcoming church project or a year of mercy.
When I read that last prayer on the card I am discomforted:

God of mercies, have mercy on us, so that where sin abounds your grace may abound all the more, and we shall become like you, Merciful. Amen.

I am discomforted because when I say the wrong thing my focus is too brief upon the person I’ve hurt, too long on my wounded pride and too little on the grace that can abound and overflow to the one I’ve hurt, to me and through us to those who look on at us, or look to us.

I am discomforted as I see people achieving so much, working so hard for those they say they love, whose relationships are crumbling because they take themselves too seriously and forget their need of mercy and of their family and fellows.

I am discomforted because I see people with failings whose self importance blinds them to their failings and prevents God’s grace abounding to bring them forgiveness deep down in their lives and more joy in their lives.

Angels can fly because they don’t take themselves too seriously! They live by God’s mercy - as we should!

God of mercies, have mercy on us, so that where sin abounds your grace may abound all the more, and we shall become like you, Merciful.

Remind yourself of the aching needs of the world we live in: global warming, war in the Middle East and elsewhere, family breakdown almost next door – what can we best do to make a difference?
The world is crying out for mercy and you and I to be its instruments!

Mercy has come – this is what we are about to celebrate – peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.

Our welcoming church project is about that reconciliation more than it is about funding and building the north annex, important as that is.

For St Giles to grow in faith, love and numbers we have to start with faith and love. The numbers will follow, and the funding and building!

The church’s greatest resource is people who know their need of mercy because those who know their need of God draw others to him through them.

That story of the man watching another being taken to the scaffold and saying  ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ needs to be ours, needs to be mine. More honesty about my own failings and need of mercy. Less concern with the failings of my neighbour. Fresh vision of God in his meekness, majesty and mercy.

God of mercies, have mercy on us, so that where sin abounds your grace may abound all the more, and we shall become like you, Merciful. Amen.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Advent 3 Finding joy 13th December 2015

How do we best find joy?

That seems a topical question linking the scripture of mid-Advent Gaudete Sunday, the Premier Radio series from the village and some of our experience in Horsted Keynes over the last week.

The Tree Festival pulled people into St Giles and in so doing pulled the village together though its 29 contributors. Last weekend was for many of us a series of joyous encounters picking up with people some of whom we’d not seen in Church before.

The Parish Council meeting we so dreaded, which was for me a time of prayer, ended up being a time of relief for many, touching on joy, with a sense that some of the suffering we’re going through as a village over the plan has meaning and purpose after all.

The Premier Christian Radio series for Advent from the village is about how people are finding joy in Jesus Christ through the church’s ministry. Advent’s about the Lord’s coming near to us and us to him and the Bible says ‘in God’s presence is the fullness of joy’ (Psalm 16:11)

‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice…. The Lord is near’ (Philippians 4:5, 4) writes Paul to the Philippians in a passage we read this morning. Helping people find joy in God is what the Church is about in its several ministries and the programmes build from stories of transformation linked to social action, spiritual direction, confession, evangelism and healing ministry.

You can hear some of these stories by going online to the listen again site noted in the eucharist booklet, but here’s a clip from one of the programmes on how we can get joy from physical healing.

My name’s Jan Goodenough and I want to share about the joy of physical healing received through Christian ministry. My first thought is that the real joy is not so much in the physical healing, although that is amazing and life changing, but the joy that Jesus, by his spirit, is blessing me, yes me, that for some mysterious reason he has decided to manifest himself to me in this way.  We all know he makes himself known in myriad ways, and I, like all those that love Jesus experience this but the joy of healing , well that was special. I was suffering from a very painful back condition which restricted me in lots of ways. I worked for an Orthapaedic Surgeon at the time and he and a colleague who was a neurosurgeon, decided, after I  consulted them professionally, that a spinal fusion was the best way forward.  I trusted them, and was inclined to go for the operation.  In the 80’s this meant a very long operation and very long recovery time laying on your back.  I was 40 and had a husband and three boys, so the prospect was daunting, but so was the thought of carrying on with the pain and restrictions this condition caused me. 
But first, before agreeing to the operation, I decided to seek out the vicar and the elders of my local Anglican church and ask for laying on of hands for healing. They came round with oil as well, anointed me and  prayed. I felt a tremendous sense of peace and they left.  That was Thursday, on Sunday morning I awoke and new immediately I was healed. I jumped out of bed, literally, did a somersault to the astonishment of my husband and went to church full of joy and rejoicing. I am now 73 and am still rejoicing, if not somersaulting.

Listening again to Jan – and I recently played her clip with profit to someone in our congregation with a painful back condition – I am connected afresh with the first reading this morning. Zephaniah prophesied in the reign of King Josiah which dates to 640 to 630 BC. Overall Zephaniah has a message like that of Amos of God bringing darkness on his people on account of their sins. In Chapter 3 however there’s a remarkable picture which the Hebrew text indicates as a somersaulting for joy like Jan’s – only it’s God jumping for joy over his repentant people. Here it is half way through the passage from Zephaniah 3v17 on p2:  The Lord, your God, is in your midst, … he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.

How do we best find joy?

By looking to God ‘in whose presence is the fullness of joy’ (Ps 16:11) Joy, to use three s’s, is supernatural and social and often linked to suffering. It’s not an emotion like happiness, though it’s linked to happiness, it’s something from beyond our emotions that’s given from above. It can be kept to ourselves as little as we can keep God’s presence to ourselves!

We find God’s joy through repentance and faith, as John the Baptist reminds us in the Gospel reading from Luke Chapter 3.

One of the most joyful places I find myself put in as a priest is that of hearing confessions. You can’t lose out when you’re witness to people blaming themselves before God with the simple task of providing assurance of God’s forgiveness.  There is indeed joy from heaven! The discipline of self examination and meeting up with a prayer partner or spiritual director challenges our core selfishness. Loss of joy is a classic indicator that in the core of our being we’re travelling alone, the joy of the Lord is distant from us, and our attention has switched to be more on the problems than on his provision to sort them.

Here’s a final clip from the Premier series to be broadcast this afternoon. After I’ve played it we’ll have some time to reflect:

Hello, my name is David Harper. Religion is a central part of my life - I regularly attend church, I pray for help, give thanks and feel a connection to God. I drifted from regular confession without realising, presumably as someone didn't tap me on the shoulder remind me to do it.  Following the birth of my first child I went through preparation for his baptism, and acknowledged the guilt I felt, with this lapse. My priest took me through some steps to returning to confession helping bust some myths, breaking down the key barrier of how I could go back after so long. The joy was instant, it was so cathartic and healing.  It was special too - the feeling was more real than I recall as a youth.  On reflection, I was flooded with relief of facing the areas in life as an individual, a husband, a parent, a colleague, a friend - where I fall short. Confession was a part of my life I had neglected but started putting right. Sensing complete forgiveness has spurred me on. In my life I've sensed a closeness, kindness and presence of God. What I hadn't expected but did receive through confession was a very REAL feeling beyond the thoughtful and other worldly, when you can sometimes feel distance from our Lord. Sharing the experience with my wife had such richness in our early parenthood but also in our married and Christian lives.  When I look back at my path, I recall people who are present or appear/pop up in my life - like super heroes- to help at moments in time.   I am grateful.  The greater gift, however, is the permanence of His capacity to forgive and, no matter how many times I go back, He is always there, we only have to ask for forgiveness. There are so many offers in life that are quick fixes - but this is longer lasting and somewhat more fulfilling.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Advent 2 8am 6th December 2015

Christianity is well thought out. It’s well thought out because it’s from the mind of God no less! You can’t rubbish Christianity as a blind faith because it’s a reasonable faith. There are few faith traditions so rooted in unambiguous historical events.

Listen again to that very specific account that introduces the third chapter of St Luke’s gospel which is today’s gospel reading: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip, ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

No wonder historians of all ages have applauded St Luke, whose gospel we’re now reading in Year C of the Sunday Lectionary, as being one of them. You can check his historical facts. We can consequently be 95% certain John the Baptist and Jesus Christ met in the River Jordan where the first baptised the second.

You can’t see God but at one point in history you could because God became one of us. John the Baptist was sent as the pointer to this. More than that, a pointer to the one who’d help everyone who wanted to know God to know God and share God’s life for ever.

To be a Christian is to share the baptism St John the Baptist came to speak of, the anointing in the Holy Spirit that makes the invisible God known as surely as the wind makes the air known.

A God we could see would actually be less wonderful than the God Christians believe in. We’d be able to contain him in our minds! Instead the Christian vision of God is one that expands continually from our limited dimensions to his unlimited ones. If you want a magnificent God the price you pay seems to be that of worshipping a God that’s invisible to mortal eyes.

How can I believe in a God I can't see? People ask us. I’m tempted to answer ‘you wouldn’t need to believe in someone if you could actually see them!’ Faith, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it, is conviction of things unseen (11:1).

The question ‘How can I believe in a God I can't see?’ is really the question ‘how can I find faith?’

A quick answer is ‘you should ask God for it, ask him to open your inner eyes to his all powerful yet invisible presence’.

I remember once my faith going right into the doldrums. It really burned low, so low I went back to the monastery at Mirfield where I trained as a priest and asked for help.

Maybe it’s not God who’s gone but your vision of him, the monks said. Pray for a vision of God more to his dimensions and less to your own they said. For three days I prayed a prayer rather like God, if you’re there, show yourself! He did – I survive to tell the tale – he spoke to me through a leaf on a tree.

I made you. He said. I love you. I want to fill you with my Spirit. That he did, though I’ve leaked since.

Asking God for a vision of himself more to his dimensions and less to your own seems always to bear fruit. Faith grows – it enlarges, especially if it is enriched by prayerful reading of the Bible and celebration of the sacraments. 

Christian mystics write of faith as a practical commitment.
In the medieval Cloud of Unknowing the anonymous mystical author describes faith as an ‘eager dart of longing love’ that reaches out to touch God and release his possibilities into our situation.

John the Baptist pointed to God so that we too could be drawn to reach out to God ourselves.

How can I believe in a God I can't see? You need to make a decision. That’s what faith is – an ongoing decision to go beyond and not against reason. As John Donne wrote Reason is our soul’s left hand, faith his right, by these we reach divinity.

Both faith and reason lift us to God and in Jesus God himself reaches down to us revealing himself to both our reason and our faith. In St Luke’s record of history of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ we should see a reasonable case for the Incarnation, the coming of God upon the earth.

Here, in the coming of Jesus that Advent centres upon, what we believe and what we see come together.

As St John the Evangelist writes No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known (John 1:18)

You can see him now with your mind and heart’s eye - in his word, in the breaking of bread, in our Christian fellowship.

St John the Baptist tells us so for his words echo on through history in our liturgy of the eucharist. John gives us the very words that speak of Christ’s presence:

Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.