Who are we?

Sermon preached by Revd David Walsh at Choral Evensong, on Sunday March 26th 2017
ISAIAH 43. 1- 7; EPHESIANS 2.8 – 14

Who are we?

We may think it’s obvious who we are. But there are many ways of answering this question ‘who are we’?

NATIONAL IDENTITY

The question ‘who are we?’ as a nation is rather important at this moment in our history. We are British, but what would it mean to be ‘British’ if Scotland gained independence? We are British, but are we also European, whether or not we belong to the European Union? Is Norway European? Is Switzerland European? And if they are, despite not being in the EU, how does it affect our understanding of ourselves that we are European as well as British?

Or that, as well as being British, we are English rather than Welsh?

‘Who are we?’ The answer doesn’t seem simple, even if we look just at our national identity.

FAMILY IDENTITY

There are many other ways of answering the question ‘Who are we?’ We start our lives as sons and daughters. That doesn’t change, but what it means to be a son or a daughter changes greatly through our lives, until we can reach a moment when our parents feel almost like children in their need and dependency. We remain sons and daughters even beyond the old age of our parents, but as a memory rather than as a lived experience. And through all those years, we acquire at the same time new identities: brother, sister, husband, wife, father, mother, grandparent, great-grandparent.

NAMES

So who are we? Who am I? When someone asks me the question, my answer is normally simple: ‘I’m David.’ We identify so closely with our names that for me to say ‘I’m David’ is more than passing on information about my name. It sums up in one word the whole bundle of memories, characteristics and emotions that make me ‘me’. And although I’ve changed, my name hasn’t. It provides continuity, enables others to identify me with the baby born in the Royal United Hospital, Bath, in February 1959.

And yet names not only reveal identity: they also conceal it. Yes, our surnames say who we are by identifying us with a family stretching back hundreds of years, all sharing the same name. But surnames only tell half the story, failing to identify us with our mothers and their families. And for many married women their names mirror the disruptions and lack of continuity in their lives, as they lose one name at marriage and acquire a new one.

So names, at first sight so simple a badge of identity, turn out to reflect the changes and complexities in our identity. They also make it clear that our genes and our families are far from being the only noteworthy thing about us. Although our surnames have been fixed for centuries now, often they bear witness to a time when someone’s name and so identity was wrapped up with what they did for a living: Smith, Mason, Wright, Butcher, Baker, Potter, Cooper, Taylor, Thatcher, Miller, Cook, Fisher, Shepherd.

ASCRIBED AND ACHIEVED STATUS

There’s been quite a lot of public conversation in recent months about different kinds of identity.

One way to make sense of the current disagreements in our country is to identify two different types of people: on the one hand those whose identity comes largely with things they were born with: a nationality, a language, a family, a town; and on the other hand, those whose identity is largely a matter of what they have achieved, through education and work, often by moving away from a town, from their family, sometimes even moving nations and learning a new language.

Sociologists have their own words for these two types of status in our society: ‘ascribed’ status and ‘achieved’ status. But there are simpler ways of putting this: we could instead see the divide as being between people who come from somewhere in particular, and people who could come from anywhere, whose roots and origins seem almost irrelevant.

The way we see ourselves – and the ways others see us – are important because they shape the way we behave.

THE IDENTITY OF CHURCHES

And so it’s not surprising that Christian faith raises questions about our identity. Of course who we are is shaped by the particular Christian tradition to which we belong. If instead of being an Anglican priest, I was ordained into the Coptic Orthodox Church; or the leader of an independent charismatic church, then I would understand my role, and so my life, in rather different ways.

The earliest Christian communities had within decades developed their own individual character or identity, and this becomes clear when we read the letters written to them by the apostle Paul’s, when we read the very specific way he addresses each church, revealing something of its character and identity:

To the church at Corinth, Paul writes: ‘We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours.’ (2 Cor ‪6.11-12‬)‬

To the churches of Galatia, Paul writes: ‘You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?’ Did you experience so much for nothing?’ (Galatians 3. 1a, 4a)

To the church at Philippi, Paul writes: ‘You Philippians know that in the early days of the gospel, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone.’ (Phil 4.15)

To the church at Thessalonika, Paul writes: ‘We boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.’ (2 Thess 1.4)

THE LETTER TO THE EPHESIANS

But Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, from which we heard earlier, lacks anything addressed to its recipients this specific. And although book of the Bible has always been known by its title of ‘Ephesians’, we now know that the very earliest copies of the letter are addressed simply ‘to the saints who are faithful’, missing out the words ‘at Ephesus’.

So it seems quite likely that the New Testament book we now know as the ‘Letter to the Ephesians’ started life as a general letter and that what ended up in our New Testament was a version of the letter which found its way to Ephesus.

OUR IDENTITY BEFORE GOD

But this doesn’t stop the letter from exploring issues about identity and reaching conclusions presumably not only for Christians at Ephesus, but also in Corinth, Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonika and Kettering. It’s true for Christians in all these places and others because it’s talking about something more fundamental, our relationship with God, our standing with God.

The Letter to the Ephesians, in words we heard earlier, makes it clear that for God our identity is not something we achieve ourselves, but something ascribed to us, as a gift: ‘by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God … For we are what he has made us.’ (Eph 2. 8, 10a)

‘We are what he has made us.’ There is no such thing in the spiritual life as the self-made man or woman.

The big identity issue troubling the early churches was the divide between Jewish and Gentile Christians, and the letter to the Ephesians addresses this issue head on:

‘Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near … For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us’. (Eph ‪2.13-14‬)‬

In other words, their identity as Jews or Gentiles has now been transcended by a new identity they share in Christ. And this might remind us of the apostle Paul’s words in the Letter to the Galatians:

‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Gal 3.28)

We don’t completely lose our identity when we accept our place in the family of God. But we are given a surname which transcends our differences.

In the book of the prophet Isaiah God addresses a foreign ruler, Cyrus, whose actions will unwittingly play a part in the history of God’s people, of his family:

I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me. (Is 45.4)

If God calls by name someone who doesn’t know him, if he gives him a new name – surnames him – as he becomes part of God’s purposes, how much more will he do so for those in his family, his people? And just two chapters earlier, in words we have heard this evening from the Book of Isaiah, God addresses his people and says:

‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine. ‘ (Is 43.1)

Each of us here today has their own unique identity. For each of us it is complex and embraces family, place of birth, nationality, language, work and so on.

But ultimately through all the changes in our life, our true and ultimate identity is hidden with the God who made us, who loves us, who calls us by our name. ‘Who are we?’

The answer is ‘God knows’

Are we ready, willing, to be surprised by God?

Sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack on Sunday March 19th 2017 at Ss Peter & Paul

Exodus 17:1-7
John 4:5-42

Loving God, by your Holy Spirit,
take these words such as they are and do with them as you will,
take us such as we are and do with us as you will
for your greater glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

As we reach our halfway point through this season of Lent, we continue with stories of wilderness journeys and encounter as we travel with a complaining and grumbling people through the wilderness, and encounter Jesus and a woman at a well, surprised by God.

A few years ago, Mike and I had an experience of wilderness journeys.  We were in Western Australia visiting friends who took us and their caravan on a 1500 mile journey north into the Pilbara, a large, dry and thinly populated area with some of the earths most ancient natural landscapes going back some 2 billion years.  There is little other than arid bush-land and mile upon mile of extraordinary landscapes and red dry earth.  The remote nature of our journey necessitated carrying with us all supplies including water – an experience that gave me a stark reminder of how precious water is.  We had to ration ourselves and think about how we used every drop.  Believe me; you can shower – just occasionally – in only 1 litre with the aid of a rose sprayer!  We cooked over camp fires and, with no street or city lights to obliterate the view, we saw the heavens in all their vast and wonderful beauty; I was reminded again of the wonder and glory of God’s creative love.

It was for both of us a real adventure, something that we had chosen to do and an experience that taught us much – about ourselves and about this wonderful world and its people.  We knew that this journey and the necessary privations experienced were time limited; and we knew with reasonable certainty when and where the end point would be.

Not so for Moses, and his grumbling, travelling companions.  Freed from slavery, they were en route to the Promised Land with absolutely no idea where it was, where they were going, or how long the journey would take.  They are a motley crew of refugees, travelling with little in the way of resources; moving from oasis to oasis.  It was a time of danger and anxiety and they were struggling to trust Moses and to sustain their trust in God.  Yes God had led them out of slavery, but where was he now – would He take care of them?  All the hope, enthusiasm and the euphoria following their Red Sea experience had gone, life was hard and they were complaining.  And I have some sympathy for that!   For a while eve, slavery seemed the better bet where at least they had plenty to eat rather than this freedom in a wilderness where there was nothing.

But as he had faithfully done in the past, God provided for their needs.  Those needs satisfied, life is calmer, people’s hope restored.

But it doesn’t last.  Memories of God’s faithfulness and care are quickly wiped clean by the challenges of the here and now.  They are thirsty; water is in short supply so they moan and complain yet again, trying the patience of Moses – ‘why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord? God answered their anguish, saying to Moses “Go ahead of the people…..I will be in front of you on the rock of Horeb.  Strike the rock, and water will come out of it.”  Even today, experienced Bedouin know to hit the rock exactly where water is to be found, dislodging the sediment blocking it.  Moses struck the rock, and the people drank.  Through the abundant amazing generosity of God, the wilderness is transformed into a source of flowing life.  God provides, sometimes in the most surprising way.

Those deep questions of faith and trust in God are powerfully connected to the experiences of our lives:  when times are tough, and the wilderness feels real, faith and trust may falter.  As for many people right now, it may be a shortage of food and water; for others it may be illness; broken relationships or relationships that trap us; enslaved working conditions, or unemployment; homelessness; or grief that threatens to overwhelm.  At such times, we too may question and join the travelling companions of Moses in their cry – ‘Where is God now?’  Yet the story of God and his faithfulness to the people he has loved into being is a consistent story of love and generosity – God giving to all creation what is needed for its life and flourishing.  Our hungers, our wants and needs and whether they are met are not the measure of God’s faithful generosity.  Rather they reflect our individual and communal selfishness and reluctance to live in a way that truly reflects the loving, self-giving generosity of God.

We glimpse this loving generosity in the remarkable story of Jesus and the woman at the well.

Jesus is travelling to Galilee and, we are told, had to go through Samaria.  He is tired, thirsty so sits by the well, longing for a drink of water and no means of reaching it, when along comes a Samaritan woman to draw water.   Would these two people play by the rules of how culture and religion dictated how God ‘ought’ to work; or would they be open to God’s providing in unexpected and surprising ways!

What follows is astonishing, not least because the barriers between the two people are great – Jesus a Jew; the unnamed woman a Samaritan.  A wall of separation divides Jew and Samaritan just as great as the wall of separation today between Jew and Palestinian.  A wall built then with bricks of fear, bigotry and suspicion just as it is today.  Men and women would not talk to one another in public – it was considered highly inappropriate.

Yet here is a woman who, it appears, is outcast by her own people for she comes to the well at noon – the hottest part of the day.  Women would normally go together to draw water early in the morning or late in the afternoon when it is cooler.  They do it in company, a time for social interaction, and a chance to catch up with neighbours and the news of family.  But this woman goes alone at a time when she is far less likely to find anyone else around – avoiding gossip, snide comments and the possibility of being hurt – yet again.

Jesus opens this extraordinary conversation by inviting the Samaritan woman to give him a drink.  As the conversation unfolds, He promises her ‘living’ water; a term familiar to people of that time; it spoke of fresh, flowing, sparkling water as opposed to that which was stale, brackish.   How the woman longs for this.  But what Jesus is offering is something quite different; a source of life flowing within her, enabling her to be truly and joyfully herself.  So she is unsure about what Jesus is really offering, doesn’t understand and yet deep within the core of her being, feels something is changing, something for which she has been longing.

They talk about her relationships, and she quickly realises that incredibly this man knows the details, the truth about her life, a life marked by emotional trauma making it difficult for her to develop deep and lasting relationships; a life that has left her isolated, living in her own wilderness.  Yet here is a man that seems to see into the depths of her being, really knows her.  Even more incredible for the woman is that knowing what he does, Jesus does not condemn her, but treats her with respect and loving kindness, accepts her as she is!

They talk about religion, faith, and the differences in understanding between their communities; the conversation draws to its close in the most astonishing manner:  the woman confesses her faith in the messiah who is to come, and Jesus tells her that he is the messiah.  So He reveals his identity not to his disciples or his own people, but this person who is marginalised three times over – she is a Samaritan, a woman and an outcast among her own people.  We do not even know her name, but Jesus entrusts her with his deepest secret – the truth of who he is.

Her experience of Jesus is brief, her understanding far from complete; she has no training, no commission, but transformed by her experience, the woman leaves what is precious to her – her water jar filled with water – and runs back to Sychar, telling her community – “Come and see…”  And they do, so many of them that Jesus refers to them as a field ready to be harvested.

These stories leave us with encouragement and much to contemplate as our journey continues:

  • God is there with us with the power to transform our lives, even when life feels more like a wilderness.
  • We are known and loved by God, each one of us, as we are! No if’s, no buts!
  • God is not bound by our limited vision and prejudices; He will surprise us, meeting us in the most unexpected people and in the most surprising places.
  • God surprises us in so many ways, not least in our opportunity to say ‘Come and see….’ based on our own experiences.

Are we ready, willing, to be surprised by God?

Consider the lilies

Sermon preached by Revd Canon Lesley McCormack on Sunday 19th February 2017 at Ss Peter & Paul

Romans 8:18-25
Matthew 6:25-end

‘Consider the Lilies’ is part of a series of paintings entitled ‘Christ in the Wilderness’ painted by Stanley Spencer. It is what you see on the front of our Order of Service this morning. ‘Consider the Lilies’ is one of eight in the series, owned since 1983 by The Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth – so rather a long journey awaits if you want to see them!

It’s generally thought that Spencer had intended 40 paintings in the series, each depicting a day Christ spent in the wilderness. While we cannot know for certain, Spencer’s own writing suggests two possible intentions for his paintings. One is that each work would be displayed in turn during Lent. The other is that the paintings were intended for the 40 square panels in the ceiling of the chancel of his beloved church at Cookham in Berkshire.

In the event, however, only eight paintings were completed, and these during the first few months of the Second World War when peoples across Europe found themselves flung into a wilderness.

But this morning, Spencer’s ‘Consider the Lilies’ helps us to explore the profound depths of this passage of scripture in Matthews Gospel and what it is that Jesus is endeavouring to instil in his disciples, in us. But Spencer does it in a delightful upside-down kind of way.

Because even a quick glance reveals that these are not lilies that Jesus is considering, but daisies! Here we have the everyday common daisy that grows willy-nilly in our gardens and countryside; the daisy that is so often trampled underfoot, barely noticed; the daisy that some will go to extraordinary lengths to obliterate from their lawns! The daisy that children will wonder at and make chains from. A tousle-haired Jesus is surrounded by them – no arid desert wilderness this, but a place of lush plenty with trees in the distance and what seems to be an early morning mist rising.
Jesus himself is monumental, vast, looking for all the world like a man who has enjoyed the invitations offered to share meals, who enjoys all the good things of God’s good creation, God’s banquet! And yet as we gaze at this picture, we perhaps notice that Spencer has painted Jesus resembling the rocks in the landscape recalling perhaps the worlds of the Psalm ‘He alone is my rock and my salvation’.

Monumental he may be, yet there is also a child-like quality about Jesus who is down on all fours gazing in wonder at the daisies around him, gazing intently at their simple yellow, white and pink tinged beauty. Why, I wonder, is Jesus staring so intently at these daisies? Perhaps for no other reason than because they are; delighting in them simply because they are made to be!

Christ contemplates the daisies – the beauty of God. And it seems that the daisies in the foreground contemplate him – the love of God. Christ and creation, a mutual regard of love and wonder.

There is a wonderful stillness in this painting, conveying a sense of calm, a sense of peace.

Contrast that image with the experiences of some this week. People whose lives were torn apart by the power of nature as the huge avalanche crashed down a French mountain close to the Italian border killing four people. Elsewhere starvation threatens, and three UN agencies have warned that an ‘immediate and massive’ response is needed to avert catastrophe in Somalia where more than 6 million people, half its population, are facing the “very real risk” of famine. War and persecution continues to blight the lives of so many peoples across our world, and the Arab world in particular; and still there are thousands of unaccompanied children across Europe seeking safe refuge from those wars, persecution or famine. Sadness, fear and anxiety are very real experiences in the lives of countless people across our world just now.

If we had to think of images of creation groaning, these might describe it very well. Day by day, we all share in what Paul describes as the groaning and labour pains of God’s world, its life and its community. But it wasn’t always like that.

In the Old Testament lesson set for today taken from the very beginning of Genesis, we hear again the story of creation (remind yourselves of the story again by reading it during the coming week). Time and time again, God looks at his creation and declares that it was good. And then, God creates humankind in his image, blessed them, saw everything that he had made and declared that it was very good. God is filled with joy and delight!

Genesis describes for us very clearly how things are meant to be, what joy each part of creation is meant to give the rest and how all of it is there to love and be loved by humankind whom God makes to be sharers in his own pleasure.

But human selfishness – sinfulness – distorts the relationship between peoples and God’s glorious creation. Yet deep within us is that yearning and call to be and reflect the image of God, to recognise it in one another and the whole of creation. Paul is no idealist; he understands the depth of the personal struggle and challenge involved in this yearning for a few verses earlier he says:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate……..For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!(Romans 7:15; 22-25)

Paul is not without hope! Creation is groaning, but that groaning, like a woman in labour, signals that unstoppable new life is coming to birth, glimpsed in the life and work, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. Therefore, Paul argues, we groan, we wait, but we do so with eager longing and with hope! The foundation for our hope is the goodness and constancy of God and his love; glimpsing that goodness seen in creation helps us, encourages us to wait patiently and with hope, striving for God’s kingdom.
So back to our picture. Inspired by the teaching of Jesus, Spencer enables us to visualise Jesus who, like a child, is simply enjoying the moment, no anxiety here about food or drink or clothing, or anything else for that matter; but completely present to the object of his gaze, simply lost in wonder and joy, seeking God in what to many of us would be the most insignificant of flowers – the daisies we so often ignore, or trample underfoot!

As we gaze upon this picture, we contemplate the God who is completely and utterly present to his creation lost in love and wonder, joy and delight. We see an image of God gazing at his children – the daisies in his creation – gazing upon us with the same tenderness, joy and delight, totally present to us, completely focused on this moment in your life, in my life, in the lives of every one of us.

As we gaze, He invites us to find that same joy and fulfilment in being the people we are meant to be, encouraging us to grow where we have been planted, striving for the potential that is within us and to know that we are loved. We see the God who invites us to look upon each other in the same way that Jesus contemplates the daisies, completely and profoundly present. We see the God who invites us to seek his kingdom with the same childlike dependency and joy we see in Jesus. And as we gaze, God invites us to an awareness of his breaking in to all those moments that make up our lifetimes.

Accepting that invitation, we become ever more alive to the presence of God in our lives, in the lives of each other and through all creation. That cannot but change the way we relate to each other, to our communities and the natural world. And that is what it means to dwell in God’s Kingdom, and calls our hearts to sing with joy ‘How great thou art!’ Amen

(Inspiration for this sermon taken from ‘Christ in the Wilderness – reflecting on the paintings by Stanley Spencer’ written by Stephen Cottrell)

Image result for consider the lilies of the field spencer image

‘The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts’.

Sermon by Revd David Walsh at Candlemas Evensong, Sunday January 29th 2017

These words may be familiar to us.  And the name Haggai may also be vaguely familiar.   But it may be little more than a name: one of a long list of minor prophets.  I’m going to spend a few minutes exploring a few details about Haggai, with the hope that for all of us, the prophet and the book become a little more than just a name.

One way of understanding any of the Old Testament prophets and how they relate to one another is to place them in relation to the huge defining event in the history of the Jewish nation: the exile to Babylon.

Some of the prophets lived just before the Exile and warned about it.  Some lived during the Exile, others around the time of the return.

Our reading tonight provides its historical context with its opening words: ‘In the second year of Darius’.  But to work out why that is significant and how to place it in relation to the Exile, we need to turn to some of the ‘historical’ books of the Old Testament: The Second Book of Chronicles and the Book of Ezra.

At the end of the Second Book of Chronicles, we read how Jerusalem was attacked by the King of the Chaldeans, who ruled Babylon, modern day Iraq.

It tells how he killed the youth of Jerusalem, showed no compassion to the rest of the population, ransacked the treasures of the king, his officials and the temple, taking them to Babylon, then burnt the temple down and broke down the city wall.

It continues ‘He took into exile in Babylon all those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia.’

Jerusalem lay desolate for seventy years.

Seventy years later, Babylon had been taken over by the Persians – modern day Iran – under King Cyrus and we read, again in the Second Book of Chronicles: ‘the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he declared: ‘The Lord, the God of heaven … has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem.   Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up.’’

This was an extraordinary turnaround and it’s understandable how this foreign King, Cyrus, is seen as a hero in the Old Testament writings.   In the book of the prophet Isaiah we read ‘Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who made all things, who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose’; and who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be rebuilt” and of the Temple “Your foundations shall be laid”

The story is continued in the historical book of Ezra which depicts exiles returning from Babylon to Jerusalem and laying the foundations of a new temple.  We read ‘many of the old people who had seen the first house on its foundations wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping.’

But as we read on, we discover that: ‘The people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build, and they bribed officials to frustrate their plan throughout the reign of King Cyrus of Persia and until the reign of King Darius of Persia.’

And suddenly we come across a familiar name, because Darius is the name right at the beginning of our reading this evening from the prophet Haggai which started ‘in the second year of King Darius’.

So we need to continue reading the historical book of Ezra to discovered what was so important about the second year of King Darius.  And we read: ‘the work on the house of God in Jerusalem stopped and was discontinued until the second year of the reign of King Darius of Persia.  Now the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel.    So the elders of the Jews built and prospered, through the prophesying of the prophet Haggai and Zechariah.  They finished their building by command of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus and Darius of Persia; and this house was finished in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius.’

So now we understand something of the context.  Exiles have returned to Jerusalem from Babylon.  They’ve laid the foundations of the Temple, but their work has been frustrated by opposition.

It’s in this context that two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, prophesy.  Their writings appear together at the very end of the Old Testament: only the very last book in the Old Testament follows them.  Haggai is one of the shortest books in the Bible – just two chapters – and it records three words, or sayings, from God all given in the second year of King Darius: the first in the sixth month, the next in the seventh month, the final one in the ninth month, overlapping with the rather longer book of Zechariah, whose first prophecy starts in the eighth month.

They don’t know what we know from reading other books of the Bible: that within four years, the temple will be rebuilt.

The book of Haggai starts with a reprimand: ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.  Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your panelled houses, while this house lies in ruins?”

Embodied spirituality

Why all this concern for a building?

Perhaps we can get some clue from a Christian perspective when we turn to our Gospel reading. ‘Destroy this temple’ says Jesus ‘and in three days I will raise it up.’  He was speaking of the temple of his body.

Is Jesus simply speaking in riddles just to be difficult and obscure?  Or is he hinting at something fundamental here?

In the Old Testament, the temple is the dwelling place of God.  In the Christian vision, God makes himself present in his creation by embodying or enfleshing Himself in the person of Jesus.   So is it possible that in the Christian understanding for God to be present and to be known as present in this world, a building, or a body – some physical or ordered structure – is needed?

If we continue reading through the New Testament and reflect on the ongoing life of the Christian Church, God’s presence has above all been discerned in two ways: first, in the ritual of bread and wine he passed on to us, when he said ‘This is my body’.  And second, in and among his followers.  ‘You are the body of Christ’ writes Paul to the Church at Corinth, ‘and each of you is a member of it’.   And the writer to the Ephesians says ‘’you are members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.  In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.’

Bodies and temples.  What do they have in common?

What I think they have in common is a mystery close to the heart of the Christian story.  Which is that our physicality is not something accidental or temporary, but a fundamental part of what it means to be human.  And that for us, there is simply no other way of experiencing God.  We know God in and through our bodies, this physical world, rather than by escaping them.

The Christian understanding of what it means to be human sees our limitations, our boundedness, as an essential part of who we are.   This becomes clear if we reflect on one of the most difficult of all Christian doctrines to understand: that of the ‘resurrection of the body’.  What can it possibly mean for our bodies to be resurrected?  Surely it’s our spirits that matter?

It’s not at all easy to cash out what the doctrine of the resurrection of the body really means.  But one thing it clearly suggests is that our experience of having edges, of standing out from our environment, is part not only of our physical, but also of our spiritual identity, an essential part of who we are.  There is no concept in the Christian picture of our one day attaining infinite freedom and capability, or of merging indissolubly with others or with the universe.

And this is why it is the Christian tradition which feeds and nurtures me: why, after around 15 years of wandering and searching, it was the Christian tradition to which I returned.

Because I am at heart a dreamer.  It would be very easy for me to float off into the ether in my spiritual life, to become completely ungrounded, lacking in any focus or definition.  But the doctrine of the Incarnation, of God enfleshed, which is at the very heart of the Christian story, and which we have been celebrating for the past few weeks, imagines the spirit enfleshed and the body ensouled.  And this is what drew me back to Christianity and what is at the heart of the Christian vision which inspires my faith and motivates my ministry.  Many of my fellow Christians possibly think that I’m far too relaxed about exactly what beliefs Christians should and should not have.  And it’s true: I don’t think what ideas we subscribe to, is, in the end, what counts.  And yet it does make me sad when Christians fail to take seriously, fail to begin to understand, this remarkable vision at the heart of Christianity.  That God encamped among us, made atoms and molecules his home, shared our life, became one of us.  It makes me sad because I think they are missing out on the precious jewel at the heart of our faith.  Sometimes Christians miss this even as they celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation, the celebrations which come to an end this evening.

The Welsh poet R S Thomas uses the phrase ‘the scaffolding of spirit’ to describe the words and sentences with which he wrestles, which he shapes and is then in turn shaped by.

Thomas is talking primarily about language, about the grammar and contours of words and sentences which structure thought and emotion and so spirit.

But Thomas is a poet and it’s hard to imagine he is talking about just one thing.  He has touched on a fundamental principle of the spiritual life – at least one seen from a Christian perspective.  Which is that our spiritual life needs scaffolding, needs structure, if it is to act as a container, as a holder for the presence and working of God.  Whether that is language, or music, or a building, or bodies, or a group of people coming together to follow Jesus and in doing so, however informal they are, necessarily shaping themselves into some greater whole, with relationships and so inevitably some kind of structure.

But does all this mean that because it won’t work for me to float off into some unbounded fantasy world, that I can no longer dream?

Far from it.

‘The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts’.

The prophet Haggai’s aspirations are centred on a building in Jerusalem.  And yet his dreams and ambitions for this house and what it means, are huge. ‘The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former.’

In the words of Jesus, who describes his body as a temple, this latter splendour is given a whole new dimension.  No longer is it just about the Temple in Jerusalem.

‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’   The temple of his body.  And yet once it is raised, it is still a body, with contours and edges and traces of a life lived in the flesh.

‘Put your finger here and see my hands’ Jesus says to Thomas.  ‘Reach out your hand and put it in my side.’

It is a body.  But it is a raised body.  It is, for a while, the only example we have, of the new heaven and new earth which is the final destination point for the whole of creation.  The new heaven and new earth are not a replacement or a substitute for the present heaven and earth.  Not their replacement but their transformation.

And we can see glimpses of this transformation here and now.

‘The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former’ says the Lord of hosts.

That could be true for any house of God.  It could be true for this house of God.

Do you believe that?

I do.  That’s why I’m here.

Come and see!

Sermon preached by Revd Canon Lesley McCormack on Sunday 15th January 2017, at St Peter & St Paul, and St Michael and All Angels

Isaiah 49:1-7
John1:29-42

 ‘What are you looking for?’  They said to him ‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’  He said to them, ‘Come and see’.

 Last Sunday, we heard again that story wonderfully rich in colour and imagery of the wise men, people travelling from afar, impelled to discover and explore what God was revealing to them.  Here were people, ready to question in search of deepening their wisdom, travelling with minds and hearts open to new possibilities; people filled with expectation; people travelling ever onward, undaunted when things don’t go exactly as they had imagined.  Remember? Their expectation was that a child born to be king would be found in Jerusalem.  Willing to have their world view challenged, they go onwards to Bethlehem.  In this relative backwater, and in the ordinariness, the particularities of family life, they recognise the extraordinary, the wonder and glory of God revealed in the vulnerability of a small child; they recognise all that they have been travelling towards, seeking, and so are compelled to worship and to offer their gifts.  Wise to the manipulations of worldly power, they return home via another road.  They had travelled a long and dangerous journey, had found what they were seeking and were changed by their experience – the return journey would never be the same as their outward.  Long before, something had prompted them to ‘come and see’; they took an enormous risk and were rewarded by the revelation of God himself.

This morning, we hear the story of other men drawn to ‘come and see’.  The story opens in Bethany with John the Baptist surrounded by people, some of them religious folk sent from Jerusalem.  They had been questioning him, trying to pin him down as to who exactly he was.  John gives them clues that they struggle to pick up.  These men are not on their own journey, seeking understanding, but men sent to get straight answers to the questions of others.  I sense frustration in John’s voice when he says:  Look, this is what I have been doing, but standing among you there is someone who is so much greater than me and you don’t even know him!

The next day, out among the people once more, John suddenly sees Jesus coming towards him and announces to the crowd: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  He goes on to tell them all that he has himself experienced and concludes: “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”  I find myself wondering what range of emotions and feelings were experienced by that crowd drawn to listen to John for their many and varied reasons – curiosity certainly; wonder perhaps; incredulity, utter disbelief – and I suspect fear.  For all too often we are driven to fear rather than wonder when faced with something, someone we don’t fully understand.

Later still, John  is standing with two of his disciples and he says to them “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”  As soon as the two heard this, they left John and followed Jesus.  John had no illusions about the nature of his calling and its limitations.  After all, later on in John’s Gospel we hear him say ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’.  John the Baptist understood that he could only lead people so far on their journey seeking God and then let them go to be guided by another.  God’s call to serve is costly.

The declaration of John will lead to an intimate conversation and the lives of two men will be utterly changed – Andrew and his unnamed companion – are the first to leave John and follow Jesus.  They are taking a risk, walking away from what is known and familiar towards that which is unknown yet inviting, compelling.  And so they walk, and in time Jesus turns, sees the two following him and asks ‘What are you looking for’ or as older translations record it ‘What do you seek’.  Here perhaps the older translation is more helpful – I may look (as I regularly seem to do) for car keys that I know I left on the kitchen worktop! – but I seek meaning in my experiences of life and faith.  Jesus looks at these two men and asks – ‘What are you seeking’.

I wonder – What would our response be if Jesus were to come in through those doors right now, look around at each of us and ask – ‘What are you looking for – what are you seeking’.  What would our response be – as individuals and as a community?   Are we seeking a safe life where everything is familiar and unchanging, or something more dynamic where our views and understandings of God and His world are challenged? In these early days of a new year, it bears considerable reflection on our part.

Caught on the hop, Andrew and his companion adopt the age-old trick of deflecting the question with a question of their own – ‘Where are you staying?’  Jesus answers – ‘Come and see’, an invitation to abide.  And so the two follow, and remain in Jesus company for the rest of the day.  Something happens to Andrew during this time – like the Wise Men he glimpses the extraordinary in the ordinariness of this particular human being drawing him in to a deeper relationship even when he doesn’t fully understand.  But the experience impels him to go in search of his brother, Simon and tells him ‘We have found the Messiah!’ drawing Simon to ‘come and see’ for himself.  God reveals and Andrew responds – just as the prophets and the Wise Men before him had done.

Jesus looked at Simon, called him by his name and added ‘you are to be called Peter.  All too soon, Jesus will look at him again – this time in the courtyard of the High Priest, and Peter will break down in tears.  For now Jesus calls him by his name, knows him as he is, but tells him things will change, he will become Peter, the Rock.

At our baptism, Jesus calls each one of us by name; He will continue to call, continue to reveal something of himself amidst the ordinary everyday of our lives; continue to invite us to come and see; should we choose to accept that invitation, we too will be changed, gradually becoming the person He calls us to be.

At an inner city church in the Elephant and Castle, South London, the Church Warden arrived early in the morning to open up only to find the side door swinging open. There had been robberies in the past although since the candlesticks were taken some time ago, there is little of value left to pinch.  So, it was with caution that the Church Warden entered – and saw was all the candles alight – main altar, side altar, about 20 or so on the votive candle stand, the candle in front of Our Lady – in fact there wasn’t a candle that hadn’t be lit.  And there, a few pews from the front, a solitary man sat, still.  He hadn’t broken in to rob or to damage; he had broken in to pray and it appeared had been there half the night.  He and the Warden chatted, he apologised for the door and then he left.  Later in the day, as people gathered for Evening Prayer, it was agreed that there was much to admire in a man who had gone to such remarkable lengths simply to get in to a church to pray.  Call the police?? Certainly not.  Oh that more people were so keen to come to church, to pray.  Someone asked whether he was ‘OK’.  What was meant by that was not defined, but the priest took the person to be asking if he was a bit unstable. The priest deflected the question but then asked if any of us are truly’ OK’, and was that not the reason we seek the source of amazing grace and love who continues to call us, inviting us to come and see, to experience healing grace.

Life is full of opportunities to show that love which is the mark of Christ in the ordinary particularities of life – if we dare to follow and grasp the opportunities.  A man on his own near a church in the South of London felt an overwhelming need to connect with the God who was calling him in the only way he knew how – to go inside a church and to pray.  We may question the wisdom or the appropriateness of his action but the priest, who by the way is Giles Fraser, one time Canon of St. Pauls Cathedral, goes on to say he totally gets why someone might break into a church to find what he is seeking.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not advocating that people should break in to churches.  But when things do happen that challenge our world view, then we can choose how to respond. Sitting in the quiet of that South London church at night surrounded by the light of candles, and the companionship of God, perhaps the man saw something as if for the first time and God knows how that will impact upon his life, and what road he may travel.  Clearly the people gathering for Evening Prayer, who also experienced a different way of seeing, did what the Wise Men and Andrew and Simon Peter did – they responded, taking a different path.

In a few moments, we will be encouraged once more to come and see, glimpse God’s glory in the simple everyday things of bread and wine, simple things transformed through the power of love.  As we open our hands to receive, let us dare to pray that God will grant us a new vision of what it means to respond to the invitation – Come and See – not just within these walls but into our town and beyond.

An adventure awaits with the potential to change the world!  AMEN

Be born in us today

Sermon by Rev David Walsh at Midnight Eucharist, 24th December 2016

Isaiah 52.7-10; John 1.1-14.

Well we’re not going to forget 2016 in a hurry.

As we look forward to 2017 and beyond we know that the world is changing.  But we don’t know, can’t be sure, what the changes will look like.  Nobody knows.

Our society and our world are clearly deeply divided.

Can we hold together despite our differences?  Can we live together despite our differences?  These are key questions for our society, for our nation, even for our community here in Kettering.

One disturbing feature looking back at 2016 has been the growing lack of respect, of genuine conversation, between people who disagree.

Stable societies find ways for people who disagree nevertheless to live alongside each other.    Ways of agreeing to disagree.  Once we lose this, we have a serious problem.

As we look forward into 2017 and beyond, in a world that is clearly changing, the fear is of change so unpredictable that few understand what is really happening and even fewer work out how best to respond.

‘History doesn’t repeat itself.  But it does rhyme.’ as Mark Twain reputedly said.

As we try to understand our own times, our hope has to be that the apparent parallels between our own decade and the 1930s turn out to be false and that events fail to take the ugly turn they did back then.

In the meantime, it’s not surprising if people are wary and anxious about the future.

Our first reading this evening from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is set in a culture, in a city, not anticipating the threat of calamity, but on the other side of it, after it’s already happened.

The disaster has actually struck.  And in the circumstances the message is a little jarring:

‘Break forth together into singing
You ruins of Jerusalem.’

It’s hard for us to get a handle on just how inappropriate these words must have sounded.  Because Jerusalem was indeed in ruins, destroyed in 587 BC by the Babylonians, modern-day Iraq.

What might open our eyes is the fate of another great ancient city, just 400 miles north of Jerusalem.  A city even more ancient than Jerusalem itself.

One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, a city whose wealth once made it the second city of the Ottoman Empire.  A city mentioned in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.   But now lying in ruins.

I’m talking about Aleppo.

‘Break forth together into singing
You ruins of Jerusalem.’

Perhaps one way to imagine the original impact of these words is to recall the images on our TV screens in recent weeks.   And imagine anyone saying

‘Break forth together into singing
You ruins of Aleppo.’

This is the desperate backdrop to some of the most inspiring literature ever written, the prophecies of Isaiah, a few lines of which we heard in our first reading.  These writings are one of the glories of Hebrew literature and speak to us today, 2,500 years later with such freshness, with such creative and vivid use of imagery and metaphor that the words at times simply leap off the page.  And what is their message?  One of hope.  One of liberation and transformation.  Of new life.

The lesson appears to be that if it’s visions of hope we want, it’s best not to go looking in comfortable, complacent times.  Our most profound and transforming visions appear to emerge in times of uncertainty, of anxiety and even distress.

The visionary writings written when Jerusalem lay ruined were inspired by another group of prophecies written 200 years earlier, prophecies which appear towards the beginning of the Book of Isaiah.

Those earlier prophecies also foresaw a new start, one very specifically related to a birth:

‘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.’

Hopes for the future are here crystallised in the hope surrounding a birth.  That’s not so unusual.  But these hopes eventually come to fruition in the birth of Christ.

This need not be the end of the story.   The hope that something new might be born and be a sign of God’s presence is one we can continue to nurture and cherish.

As 2016 draws to a close, many of us are understandably anxious about an uncertain future.  But uncertain times, times of transition and change, can be moments of opportunity as well as threat.

Perhaps, in a time of crisis, a new poetic vision will transform our expectations about the world

Perhaps something new is waiting to be born in our world. If so, how will we recognise it?  And how will we respond?

Do we believe that something new could be born here in Kettering?  And that we could be part of it?

Do we believe something new could be born in this church and this parish?

Do we believe something new could be born in our hearts?

That which is born is new and unpredictable.  But it is also familiar.  It draws on what is already there, isn’t something imposed from outside, something alien.  And yet it is new.

If something new is to be born in Kettering, the raw material, the seeds,  are almost certainly already here.

If something new is to be born in this church, in this parish, for it to be genuine and authentic, it needs to grow out of what is already here.

If something new is to be born in our lives, the change, the miracle, needs to happen within us.

The prayer at the heart of our Christmas celebrations was summed up in the last carol we sang:

O holy child of Bethlehem,
descend to us we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in,
be born in us today.

‘Be born in us today’.

Or, to borrow the language of our gospel reading, we pray that in some new way the Word might take flesh and live among us.   That we might see glory and that we might know God’s grace and truth amongst us.

Bear fruit worthy of repentance

Sermon preached by Revd Canon Lesley McCormack on Sunday 4th December 2016, at SM&AA and Ss P&P

Isaiah 11:1-10
Matthew 3:1-12

Advent is a time when we find ourselves waiting – hopefully, expectantly; a time of anticipation as we prepare both to celebrate the coming of Christ at his birth while also looking ahead to time when he will come again to judge the world, heralding God’s Kingdom in all its fullness. That patient anticipation, waiting watchfully is counter cultural in a world of frenzied activity that only seems to increase at this time of year. It is counter cultural in a world that exerts commercial pressure not to wait but to have everything, do everything – NOW. ‘Get what you want today with fast track same day delivery’; mobile phones and computers ‘ping’ demanding our attention NOW! Deliberately switch both off or go for a walk leaving them behind closed doors and you find yourself challenged as to why you did not instantly respond to your caller when in all likelihood there was nothing that justified such an urgent response!

But there is nothing passive or finger drumming about this kind of waiting that Advent calls us to share. In her book ‘The Meaning is in the Waiting’, Paula Gooder likens it to a pregnant kind of waiting, ‘profoundly creative involving slow growth to new life. This kind of waiting may appear passive externally but internally consists of never ending action……that knits together new life’.

Through Advent we find ourselves in the company of others who have faithfully watched and waited long before us, among them the Patriarchs, the Prophets, John the Baptist and of course Mary. This morning, we hear the words of two of them, men whose lives were separated by at least 400 years – Isaiah and John the Baptist.

Isaiah’s words are spoken to a people living in deeply troubled times with the constant threat of war and oppression. Isaiah’s words enable his hearers to dare to hope as they glimpse a new vision, a future when a king will come from the same root as David bringing forth a new order; a person upon whom the Spirit of the Lord will rest. In the Old Testament, the Spirit of God is invariably given for a specific task. So Isaiah tells us that the promised king will come with a particular mission – and the emphasis is on just judgement with a particular concern for the poor.

Isaiah’s vision would have us understand that the just rule of God looks forward to the restoration of paradise when the world and all creation will be so suffused with grace and peace that even the natural world is transformed and the primeval way of life restored. So through Isaiah’s vision, we are enabled to glimpse the world as God yearns for it to be.

And as we glimpse, we are reminded of God’s call to each of us to play our part – for by virtue of our baptism, God’s spirit rests upon us to bring good news to the poor, release to those held captive and freedom to the oppressed. Isaiah’s vision reminds us to look around, to look out in to our world, for if we really look, we can see flashes of that end time in our world now: we glimpse it when Palestinian and Israeli come together to make music; we glimpse it in the kindness of strangers; we glimpse it in the generosity of spirit that gives to people who have little or nothing; we glimpse it in the wonder and beauty of the natural world.

Perhaps like me you have been enthralled by David Attenborough’s latest series, Planet Earth 2. The photography is stunning and I am in awe of all those who go to untold and often very uncomfortable lengths to enable us to glimpse the wonders and miracles of this world that we inhabit. Week by week, the programme has also posed a challenge, spelling out in no uncertain terms the cost of the impact of the human species on the natural world and the degree to which we are rapidly destroying our environment and the ecological balance upon which we all ultimately depend. We are, it seems, a long way from Isaiah’s vision of creation as God longs for it to be, a peaceable kingdom where all may flourish.

Professor Stephen Hawking, writing in the Guardian on Friday, was reflecting on the growing inequality across our world and how he believed it was the driver underlying the recent political changes both in our own country and in the USA. he concluded by saying that
“….the really concerning aspect of this is that now, more than at any time in our history, our species needs to work together. We face awesome environmental challenges: climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans…..right now we only have one planer and we need to work together to protect it.

To do that we need to break down, not build up, barriers within and between nations……We are going to have to learn to share far more than at present.

We can do this, I am an enormous optimist for my species; but it will require the elites from London to Harvard, from Cambridge to Hollywood to elarn the lessons of the past. To learn above all a measure of humility.”

Meanwhile, we are all on a journey travelling between the imperfect here and now to the perfect yet to come. Travelling in hopeful anticipation, with a sense of longing in our hearts.

As we travel, we hear once more the second of those two voices mentioned earlier – John the Baptist, the one sent by God to witness to and prepare the people for the coming of Jesus. John, who always pointed away from himself to someone far greater. His style of waiting was certainly not passive; his waiting was disruptive, abrasive, unsettling, so unsettling that it would bring about his own death. But it was essential in preparing the way for Jesus ministry.

We find John out in the wilderness, down at the edge of the River Jordan. He is drawing great crowds, people from Jerusalem, across Judea and all the region along the Jordan, people longing to hear a message of hope in troubled times. Perhaps some were intrigued by this extraordinary man, others drawn by the power of his message: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’. The Greek word translated into English as ‘repent’ means so much more than simply saying sorry, and living differently. It requires a complete reorientation, a change of direction, starting again, living in a new way, living if you like kingdom lives where faithfulness to God was reflected in relationships rooted in forgiveness, justice, compassion and mercy. And quite shockingly for these people, that reorientation involved recognising that forgiveness for sin could take place not only outside the temple, but outside Jerusalem.

The Pharisees and the Saducees – the respectable and the pious – do not get a warm welcome at the waters edge. “You brood of vipers!” he calls them. Yet even vipers will be transformed in the kingdom of peace. John challenges them to “bear fruit worthy of repentance!” Such fruit cannot grow without a real and deep change of heart. John would not allow them (or indeed us) to rest on their status, their past or their ancestry. Then as now, goodness does not depend on who you have been, or where you have come from. Rather it depends on the choices you make, your relationships and dealings with others, and upon who you are becoming. This new growth is the fruit worthy of repentance.

Advent is a season of hopeful waiting, filled with anticipation. But Advent it is also a season of challenge. John’s words are as much a challenge to us today living in our fragile broken world, as they were to the people 2000 years ago standing near the waters edge. We are challenged to grasp again John’s disruptive spirit of reorientation, to turn and follow a new path, allowing ourselves to be changed, moulded and shaped anew by the Divine love flowing through us and all creation. We are challenged to grasp John’s disruptive spirit and open ourselves to God’s law of love and forgiveness, compassion and justice; opening ourselves to the spirit of fire that it may burn away all that is selfish and destructive, creating space so that new tender shoots will grow and flourish. For only then will we be truly ready when He comes. We dare to venture on this journey of repentance in the knowledge that God is with us, waiting for us, calling us onwards.

The kingdom of heaven that draws near will be filled with peaceable lions, lambs freed from fear and vipers transformed. In the kingdom of God all will feed in abundance, live in peace and we will bear for each other the best fruits of repentance. Let’s dare to dream, as we continue to journey joyfully and lovingly, in faith and hope. Amen