Saturday, 25 March 2017

Mothering Sunday 26th March 2017

It’s Laetare Sunday, Rejoice Sunday.  ‘Rejoice Jerusalem’ is the opening antiphon on Mothering Sunday in the fuller rite. We’re allowed a little respite from Lent – today is also called Refreshment Sunday – with rose rather than purple vestments and we even have flowers. The daffodils will appear in the Porch at the end for you to take away.

This Lent I’m presenting a 15 min weekly series on Jerusalem on Premier Christian Radio to which you can listen again. The holy city of Jerusalem is sacred to the monotheistic triangle of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Built as a city that is bound firmly together by Jewish King David (Psalm 122:3), central to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Christians re-read the Old Testament in the light of Christ’s resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit so that Jerusalem becomes a mirror of humanity in its beauty and fragility, a pointer to holiness and the need to repent. In Christian believing it is foretaste of the ultimate holiness and beauty found in the fullness of the Church named in Revelation as the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God (Revelation 21:10b). 

We rejoice today in Mother Church, our Jerusalem on the hill but also the heavenly Jerusalem spoken of in Revelation and today’s epistle. As God is our Father the Church is our Mother. The world has reduced this to our earthly mothers, which is no terribly bad thing, especially when, as for many of us, our faith is owed to good mothering as well as fathering.

There is another mother I need to speak to and her image is over the altar.  ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord’ she says in the Gospel we read on Lady Day yesterday: ‘Let what you have said be done to me’. Her ‘Yes’ to God might be the model for what we’re to be about over the last three weeks of Lent. We’re called like Our Lady to let Christ and his kingdom prevail. This means being attentive to God’s gracious demands, as Mary awaited the call of Gabriel.

We best serve God and others through discerning and then effecting best harnessing of our gifts into his praise and service, and this discernment stems from a determination to listen to God like Mary.

The more real Jesus becomes to us and in us, not least through our Lenten devotion, the more our actions will grow loving as he is loving. It’s not how much we do or say or even listen that matters so much a how much love we put into it so to speak, which is why our listening to God is so important.

How can we best give more of ourselves? Through a more profound examination of our conscience which will involve listening to God and then secondly to ourselves with Mary. Mary encourages us towards a positive self-regard. The Almighty has done great things for me she says as part of her Magnificat which is the subject of the second window in this Chapel.

These last weeks of Lent you and I have an invitation to take stock of all that Jesus is doing in our lives and rejoice! To take stock also of the ingrained selfishness, the ‘dog in the manger’ bit so we can give it to God in confession, possibly sacramental confession which is available next Sunday evening’s healing service, on Good Friday or by appointment.

Listen to God, listen to yourself, sift and purify your agenda, then listen to those God puts your way who need your ears! As we listen to others on this feast of family with our outer ears let’s keep two inner ears listening to God and to our own reaction to what we hear lest it get in the way. Like Mary let’s be there for people without getting in their way.

Let’s go more for surrendering ourselves, as at this Eucharist, to whatever God wants of us so we’re made better Christ-bearers under the watchful care of the Mother of believers.  Jesus who was first carried by Mary at Bethlehem, who is carried to us in Bread and Wine this morning, waits to be carried by you and I to a waiting world!

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Lent 2 Abrahamic religions 12th March 2017

If the seven and a half billion inhabitants of the world were but 100 we’re told there’d be: 32 Christians, 23 Muslims, 15 Hindus, 7 Buddhists, 7 people who practice other religions and 16 people of no religion.

Given these statistics, we, as Christians, need discernment over how we share about Christ and engage in as positive a way as we can in a context where awareness of the variety of religions is widespread, even, and I would say especially in Horsted Keynes!

I want to get us thinking about all of this on a Sunday when the Lectionary centres helpfully on Abraham as father of faith. He is so for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the so-called Abrahamic faiths. In our first reading from Genesis God promises to Abram I will bless you and make your name great. So he has, as Paul says in the second reading Abraham is the father of us all. His faith as a Jew is in the same God we put faith in who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

Our worship reminds us all the time of our Jewish roots. We chose for our entrance procession an Abraham hymn used to open Synagogue worship with last verse amended. The preface chant I sing at the Eucharistic prayer has beauty because it traces right back to Jewish worship, as does the whole idea of ‘eucharist’ or berakah, thanksgiving.

Let’s go back though, thinking beyond the three Abrahamic religions to list five approaches to the varieties of religion in the world today since we want to get our minds and hearts engaged with this key issue. It’s key if only because though in a sense religion is God-given it’s also heavily man-handled – even the Christian religion - and hence the source of division in the world.
This morning’s teaching is important since, as Hans Kung once said, there’ll be no peace in the world without peace between religions and no peace between religions without understanding between religions. Put this morning down to our going for deeper understanding from a Christian vantage point.

There are five possible approaches to the existence of different religions:

  • All religions are false
  • One religion only is true, the others completely false
  • One religion only is true, the others mere approximations or distortions
  • All religions are true in what they agree about; and false wherever they disagree
  • All religions are true and any contradictions are superficial.

‘All religions are false’ is the first approach and you hear it voiced from time to time especially after atrocities committed in the name of religion. Hardest hitting book is Brian Leiter’s Why Tolerate Religion

‘One religion only is true, the others completely false’ is a view we can quickly gauge from ‘door to door religion sales folk’, Rector excepted – I mean Jehovah’s Witnesses and to some extent Mormons. Roman Catholics were said to hold ‘outside the church there is no salvation’ but  now clearly deny they do so, with recent teaching accepting in some degree the baptised of any Church and looking positively, from a salvation angle, on all who follow their conscience.

As you can guess as a good Anglican I’m aiming for the middle thesis that ‘one religion only is true, the others mere approximations or distortions’. I’ll come back to this.

‘All religions are true in what they agree about; and false wherever they disagree’ may have some truth about it in identifying a hierarchy of truth but it is over optimistic about the clash of truth claims there is between religions.

Lastly ‘All religions are true and any contradictions are superficial’.

Again too optimistic – some of you may have heard this very beguiling story along those lines from Sussex priest Kevin O’Donnell’s book ‘Inside World Religions’.

‘There were five blind Hindu holy men on the banks of the Ganges. A tame elephant wandered among them one day. One reached out and touched its body; he thought it was a wall of mud. One touched its tusks and thought these were two spears. One touched its trunk and thought it was a serpent. One touched its tail and thought it was a piece of rope. The last one laughed at them and held onto its leg. He said it was a tree after all. A child walked by and asked, ‘Why are you all holding the elephant?’

The story is quite seductive, a sort of ‘plague on all your houses’ that fits those who say ‘all religions lead to God’. The parable is used by Hindus to teach each faith has the truth but not the complete picture.

So where does this lead us? As I said earlier to the third thesis that one religion only is true, the others mere approximations or distortions’ which is the consensus of most Christian churches.

In John chapter 14, verse 6 Christ said: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me’ and in Chapter 18 v38; ‘Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.’

If everyone believed that life would be simpler and I wouldn’t be speaking as I am this morning!   Putting it in a more challenging way to you and I, the existence of other religions is proof of our failure to meet with Jesus at a deep level and become the heart to heart draw we’re meant to be through his magnetic love.
What though of those who’re drawn elsewhere? We see distortions of Christ’s truth in faiths and also approximations.  If you read my book Meet Jesus it has a section on how I see other faiths where I write:

‘Saying yes to Jesus does not mean saying ‘no’ to everything about other faiths. It can mean saying ‘yes, but…’ or rather ‘yes, and…’ to other faiths, which is a far more engaging and reasonable attitude.

I say ‘yes’ to what Buddhists teach about detachment because Jesus teaches it and Christians often forget it. At the same time I must respectfully question Buddhists about the lack of a personal vision of God since I believe Jesus is God’s Son.  

I say ‘yes’ to what Muslims say about God’s majesty because sometimes Christians seem to domesticate God and forget his awesome nature. At the same time, I differ with Muslims about how we gain salvation, because I believe Jesus is God’s salvation gift and more than a prophet.’

Other faiths can wake us up to aspects of Christian truth that might otherwise get forgotten. What might happen, for example, if Christians were as serious in their spiritual discipline as many Buddhists are?’

In conclusion I invite you to reflect from your own experience asking yourself the question ‘What good do I see in people of other faith?’ Then, mindful of the Gospel reading this morning , that God so loved the world he gave us his only Son, I invite you to think about what’s very basic to us as Christians namely the question ‘Can religion lead you to God?’ Our faith sees religion as expressing love in return for love. In Christianity it is God who leads us to God.

So it is this morning in the eucharist – we can lift our hearts to God in the eucharist only because God so loved us as to give us Jesus whose word and body are the subject of this service.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Lent 1 5 March 2017

The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote a short story called The Two Pilgrims.

It tells of two Russians who set out on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem intent on being present at the solemn Easter festivities.

One had his mind so set on the journey’s end and object that he would stop for nothing and take thought for nothing but the journey.

The other, passing through, found people to be helped at every turn and actually spent so much time and money along the way that he never reached the Holy City.

Yet in the story he received a blessing from God the other failed to find in the great Easter celebration.

As we start Lent Tolstoy’s story reminds us true religion is more about generosity than proper ritual observance. Keeping short accounts with our neighbour is more important to our sanctification than freeing ourselves of all distractions.

What distracts is very often flesh and blood - which we sweep away at our spiritual peril!

It comes down to choices, as our first reading reminded us. The story of Adam and Eve warns against choosing things that conflict with the destiny we have under God. Its a poem full of truth about the human condition that’s picked up by St Paul who describes how Our Lord’s obedience counters human disobedience. That obedience is represented in our Gospel reading from Matthew Chapter 4.

Bishop Tom Wright’s commentary on this passage in his Lent for Everyone commentary on Matthew’s gospel explains temptation as being about good things getting distorted. He writes: Bread is good. Jesus will later create a huge amount of it from a few loaves, to feed hungry people.

But should he do that just for himself?

Coming back to Tolstoy’s Lenten pilgrims it is good to be single-minded but it is also good to be sympathetic.

In the story the sympathetic guy is the hero.

Better slower together than faster alone.

In his book Future Minds Richard Watson prophesies the internet will one day rank with the alphabet and numbers as a mind-altering technology of universal significance. His book e goes on to expose and warn against the associated cult of the immediate and contemporary with all the unsympathetic impatience it carries with it.

Whilst it’s wonderful to see electronic networking bringing the world together our best future is challenged by the erosion of conversation and reflective thinking that it brings.

There is a need for some users at least to find space and time for these lest electronic technology saps their patience and, most significantly, the resilience essential to creativity.

Internet usage illustrates the creative tension there is in many an area of life between single-minded pursuits and relational obligations.

Both are encouraged in Christianity.

The seeking first of God’s kingdom is there in one text alongside a warning in another text that to do so, to go for loving God ignoring your brother or sister in need is serious sin.

If Lent is a call to single-mindedness it is so with the spiritual health warning that comes out of Tolstoy’s story.

The single-minded pilgrim so set on his object that he stopped for nothing was not commended as he lacked discernment and sympathy for his fellows. 

The second pilgrim who was so occupied helping people he got spent up and never reached Jerusalem was commended.

As part of the stocktaking of Lent we might examine where we are on the big life journey and how much our own preoccupations, even spiritual ones, help build authentic humanity in us and around us.

In a village like our own we’ve less excuse for not wasting time with people as the Spirit leads us. Love is in some respects wasting time. When I hear people say ‘time is money’ I feel slightly uncomfortable. There should be sufficient time for us to be ourselves and be ourselves with others, not least those nearest and dearest. The demands of the workplace are incessant upon many of us – I was struck by the TV interview with the burnt out Devon police officer this week. There are no easy fixes here, but government should help us work for a balance because stressed out mums and dads do no good to their families.

Lent’s the annual reminder to look to the main things in life and better keeping of them as the main things.

For Christians the main things are attention to God and neighbour but you’ve got to give attention to yourself to succeed in these.
Examining our stewardship of time, talents and money is part of this, as well as refocusing on the Lord, giving him the things that agitate. There’s the opportunity for prayer for individuals after the eucharist today

To quote another Russian writer, St Seraphim: Acquire inner peace and thousands around you will find salvation. In Tolstoy’s story the blest pilgrim was the one who let his peaceable heart be emptied on the journey in service of the human needs that presented themselves.

The other pilgrim achieved his personal target but was judged to have missed the mark through seeing the people on the journey as potential distractions.

How often do we get put into that position, treating people as less than they are because we’ve got ourselves set upon the next thing or the next person?

This gives me opportunity to warn us as a community to be always alert for Our Lord’s presence with us in the person of the occasional newcomer or visitor after service. St Giles is a place to catch up with our friends on a Sunday, but let’s make sure everyone in church is treated as a friend!

The moral is, whatever grand spiritual aspirations we make, the Holy Spirit is closest to us when we are about our neighbours, sorting out our destructive attitudes, putting love in where there is none, recognising the humanity of those who can seem to be somewhat blind to our own.

May Our Lord deepen such sympathy in us and among us as we prepare in this holy season for the Easter Feast.

May we see triumphs of his Spirit as we correct the balance of our lives in obedience to his call upon our lives to seek a richer humanity that is more in his likeness.