Evensong 14th January: Reconciliation 2 Corinthians 5, 16-end & Luke 15, 11-24
Sometimes we struggle as humans to do the necessary things; those things which may open us up to the pain of rejection. It is in some ways easier to come up with reasons as to why we shouldn’t pursue a particular course of action. When we do this we frequently project, or make assumptions, about others: ‘there is no way that they will accept the hand of friendship, or the offer of an apology.’ Of course when we do this we let ourselves off the hook, but we also make a theological error. We fail to take St Paul’s words that ‘from now on we regard no one from a human point of view, sufficiently seriously.
Reconciliation is one of those necessary but difficult challenges. It is in many ways far easier to keep those we disagree with, or those we perceive to have caused us pain at a distance, reflecting on their weakness of character. But, for a faith based on the notion of incarnation – God becoming flesh in order to share our lives with us – distance is an anathema. This is St. Paul’s point: ‘God reconciled us to himself through Christ.’ St. Paul then goes onto explain that if this is true the consequence for Christians must be that we who are asked to live Christ like lives have been given the ‘ministry of reconciliation.’
Reconciliation is a very necessary ministry and yet it is the hardest of all ministries. The older son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son can’t, for instance, meet its challenge. He remains stuck and paralysed at the level of duty. He is imprisoned by a view of the world that suggests that intimacy and fellowship is a reward and not a grace. He can’t quite get his head fully round the virtue of forgiveness. Because he can’t do these things he is the one to suffer; resentment is to be his lot. Its interesting, isn’t it, when we first think of the notion of reconciliation we begin by thinking of others but actually one of the main points is that reconciliation is good for us and our sense of well-being.
So what does it mean to be an agent of reconciliation? I suspect it starts with the notion of truth; straightforward acknowledgement of the pain that has been caused. It then moves onto the possibility of forgiveness, restoration and inclusion. This is, of course, dramatically presented by the way that the Father embraces the Prodigal Son. Reconciliation demands a real generosity of spirit and a willingness to rise above past harms whether real or perceived. In rising above past harms, through the acts of forgiving, restoring and including we arrive at the teleos or end-point of reconciliation: reconciliation is finally a supreme act of creativity. Reconciliation opens up new possibilities; new ways of being and relating.
Think for a moment about the amazing work of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in South Africa. They always told the truth about the horrors of apartheid South Africa but they refused to be held captive by a toxic past.
We must allow ourselves, through the injunctions of Scripture and the lived examples of people such as Mandela and Tutu, to be inspired by our mandate to be ‘ambassadors for Christ’ in the ‘ministry of reconciliation,’ because when we do so what we broker is the very real possibility of a ‘new creation,’ and a better future.
Let us this year rise up to the hard but necessary challenge of not ‘counting their trespasses against them’ but instead becoming enthusiasts for the ‘ministry of reconciliation,’ Amen.
Epiphany 2: 1 Samuel 3, 1-10, Revelation 5,1-10, John 1, 43-end
Last week I spoke about wisdom. At the risk of boring you through repetition I would like to speak about wisdom one more time. I am going to do so because I believe it is such an important spiritual quality and, one seriously lacking in the world. Wisdom, alongside hope and innocence are the three spiritual qualities I aim to work at developing this year.
I would want to say that Christian wisdom starts from a slightly different place than worldly, or secular, wisdom. Our Christian wisdom starts with the simple – or innocent – acknowledgement that God is the foundation for our lives, and that God is revealed to us in and through the person of Jesus Christ. Christian wisdom starts with a simple commitment, like Philip, to simply ‘follow’ Jesus. Christian wisdom is first and foremost a counter cultural commitment to be not a leader but a follower. Christian wisdom can only ever start with the words spoken by Nathaniel ‘you are the Son of God.’ Without first faith and then a commitment to follow there can be no Christian wisdom.
So having decided to first accept that Jesus is the Messiah and then to fashion our lives according to his, as followers, what do we then need to do to grow in wisdom?
Well, like Samuel, we need to learn the art of true listening; listening to what God might be saying to us and where God might be leading us. Like Samuel we too need to learn the art of saying ‘speak Lord for your servant listens.’ Like Samuel we also need to allow others, spiritual friends, to point us in the right direction, to the place where we can truly listen. And, if we are to listen we need to make the space and time to let God whisper his words of love, encouragement, invitation and challenge. We need to make time for God. Can I encourage you to carve out some time for God and simply use Samuel’s mantra: ‘speak Lord for your servant listens.’ One of my hopes for this church is that each and every member will find a way to pray and carefully read the bible for it is through these two spiritual activities that God speaks. Prayer should be the very oxygen we breathe.
We also need to learn to expect the unexpected and to rise above the level of cynicism. In the Gospel reading we heard the famously cynical phrase ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Well, the answer is that the ultimate, consummate, good came out of Nazareth. So looking to see where God is acting and allowing ourselves to be surprised by what we discover is to grow in spiritual wisdom. Recognising that God will act where God will act and that this is often in the most surprising of places is also to exercise the virtue of humility. Don’t we all, to an extent, want God to act where and how we would like him to act?
The problem is that if we place conditions on God, if we fail to accept that God will act how and where he wants, even out of wherever our modern day equivalent of Nazareth is, then we limit God.
God, often, frequently chooses to act from the periphery and not the centre, from places such as Nazareth. The growth in Christianity in this country has frequently come from the periphery. Think of the Celts for example. The implication for us, if we truly desire to grow in wisdom, is that we need to develop an acute sense of spiritual peripheral vision.
If we desire to grow as a church, both in holiness and in numbers, then we must learn the spiritual arts of listening, seeing and following; listening to what God is saying, standing in solidarity alongside Samuel and saying ‘speak Lord for your servant listens,’ and watching for where God is already at work on the periphery and at the margins, for then and only then will we catch a glimpse of the ‘new heaven and the new earth’ that John refers to in the Book of Revelation. We learn these skills, and acquire this growth in wisdom, through the practice of regular prayer and reading the bible. Wisdom is rooted in and routed from prayer. Let us this year as a community commit ourselves to growing in spiritual and distinctively Christian wisdom. Amen.
Epiphany: Ephesians 3, 1-12 & Matthew 2, 1-12
One of the ideas that has been mulling around in my mind for the last few weeks is the notion of travelling, or journeying; more specifically the idea that as Christians we perhaps ought to learn the art of travelling well.
As a nation I suspect we are not good at travelling well. We get irritated when we have to queue, or when the train is delayed, and when we are forced to sit in a traffic jam. We have probably all seen the worse excesses of road rage and it seems at least possible that some of us – not me of course – might have said the odd rude word when we are on the receiving end of someone else’s bad driving. And, what about car parks, has anyone here ever been just a little bit irritated by poor car park etiquette? Without wanting to excuse others poor driving, car park etiquette or the state of the railways I think we must also own up the fact that we also seem to be a nation that is perpetually in a hurry. We are simply not very good at travelling.
When I commuted into London each day on the train one of the things that I found most amazing, and it is something that I was personally guilty of, was the profound sense of irritation or disease people expressed when the rituals of travel were disrupted. The primary example of this is when people sat in the ‘wrong seat’ in the carriage. Believe it or not I have even seen people in churches develop a sense of anxiety and irritation when someone else sits in what they regard as their seat!
The feast of the epiphany challenges us to do two things: to re-learn the art of travelling well, and to do so alongside others; others who we wouldn’t necessarily chose to travel or share a compartment with. Epiphany asks us to consider the possibility that all of us are fellow and equal travellers. In Jesus’ economy first, business and standard compartments don’t exist. We travel with whoever it is we find ourselves alongside. In St. Paul’s language that is the ‘commission of God’s grace.’
Learning to travel or journey well requires spiritual ‘wisdom.’ Wisdom is the art of seeing as God would have us see, hearing as God would have us hear, feeling as God would have us feel, and worshipping as God would have us worship. The magi epitomise the art of travelling well. They follow the star, and we too need to look out for where God is already at work. This year why not ask God to give you eyes to see? They listen to, and then chose to ignore, Herod and in doing so take a massive risk. In and through Herod’s words of insincerity they hear they perceive the abuse of power. ‘Again why not ask God this year to give you ears to hear? On finding Jesus the Magi were ‘overwhelmed with joy,’ we too need to allow ourselves to be overwhelmed with joy. Our response to Jesus should be a felt response. And finally the Magi give us a wonderful picture of what true worship looks like. Worship is best done from our knees in a spirit of true humility and where we offer back to God of our very best.
So my challenge, or invitation, to you, this year is to re-learn the art of travelling well. Travelling well requires developing a real sense of spiritual wisdom where wisdom is defined as seeing as God would have us see, hearing as God would have us hear, feeling as God would have us feel and worshipping as God would have us worship; together and alongside whoever God calls us to travel with.
May you travel well this year, Amen.
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