I was wondering this week whether anyone has a favourite phrase, stanza or verse from a hymn; something that really speaks to them, inspires them, challenges them or comforts them?  For me the last verse of Love Divine which includes the words ‘ changed from glory into glory till in heaven we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise,’ is pretty special. If that what heaven is to look and feel like, my deepest prayer would simply be this: ‘Lord, count me in.’

 

This week, as I thought about today’s readings I couldn’t help but think about some of the words in that great hymn At the Name of Jesus, in particular some of the words from verses five and six:

‘He is God the Saviour, he is Christ the Lord, ever to be worshipped, trusted and adored.’

 And,

‘In your hearts enthrone him; there let him subdue all that is not holy, all that is not true.’

Could it be that these sets of words provide us with two distinct Lent challenges?

 

In today’s epistle St. Paul informs that the first century Corinth was a highly sceptical place, a place in which true belief, or faith could only be offered on the basis of contingency: ‘for Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom.’ One group – the Jews- were looking only for the God of power and might: a game show God, whose efficacy was dependent on signs and miracles. The other group – the Gentiles – were interested only in the God of philosophy and ideas; hence the emphasis on wisdom. But, the paradox is that both groups had witnessed that for which they were still searching! The ‘sign’ that the Jews couldn’t accept was the cross, and the wisdom that the Greeks couldn’t accept were the very words of Jesus. Words which included the somewhat novel concepts of loving your neighbour and seeing the glory of God in the stranger and the outcast. The evidence was firmly there for Jew and Greek alike, but they couldn’t or wouldn’t see it. The evidence for God is still present but of course many will continue to refuse to see it. Why, we may wonder.

 

My suggestion is simply this: it is far easier to seek proof for a God that conforms to our existing world view than it is to accept the ‘foolishness’ of a Messiah worthy of being ‘worshipped, trusted and adored’ on the basis of the cross and resurrection. And, of course if we are to truly worship, trust and adore Jesus then the corollary is that we must cease self-worship, self-adoration, self-reliance. To worship, trust and adore Jesus is to reject the great heresies of our day: that only that which can be empirically proven is worth believing in and, that wisdom amounts to buying into a narrative that we are the only true authors of our own destiny. The greatest of all heresies is to measure or judge God by human, rather than divine, standards. The greatest of all heresies gives rise to two problems; either we see ourselves as all powerful or we see ourselves as incapable and somehow not up to scratch.

 

There is one other great heresy of our day that we need to confront and reject. That is the heresy which states that trade, commerce and economics can sort everything out. This heresy is dangerous because it denies the role and place of the sacred. The market becomes everything. In the gospel reading we are told that the Temple, that great icon of the Jewish faith, was full of people selling ‘cattle, sheep and doves’ and, that this was facilitated by the ‘money-changers.’  Its an unattractive image and it certainly got to Jesus. But, we need to be honest and accept that religion has always sought to collude with the worst aspects of commerce; just think of the pre-reformation sale of indulgences, or the grotesque appeals made by American televangelists, or the false promises made by those who preach a prosperity gospel. All of these sellers of religious rubbish seek to get in the way of an authentic, ‘true’ and ‘holy’ relationship with God, through Jesus. Their heresy is to deliberately, for their own ends, to seek to reduce God to the crudest laws of economics and commerce. The notion that God can be bought is a hideous notion. God did the buying, and the place from which he did it was the cross. You see the peddlers of false religion and secular ideology don’t want you to believe that God loves you without terms and conditions. They don’t want you to believe that God wants you to present yourself before him in all of your weakness and vulnerability. They don’t want you to make Jesus king of your hearts and let him, as the only one ‘ever to be worshipped, trusted and adored,’  ‘subdue all that is not holy, all that is not true,’ for if we do this there will simply be no room left for the shabby promises of pseudo science, popular philosophy, or the ‘because you are worth it’ school of economics.

The peddlers of false religion want you to, like the Jews and the Greeks of Jerusalem and ancient Corinth, to render your faith contingent on scientific data, a highly individualised account of wisdom or, the flimsy notion of economic success. They want you to prove yourself to God. The heresies of our age, it turns out, are the same heresies of the biblical age.

 

This Lent let us, through our devotion to Jesus, let him ‘subdue’ all within us that is simply neither ‘holy’ or ‘true,’ for only by doing so will be freed from the false ideologies, theologies and heresies that seek to hold us captive, Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

Some years ago an advert was run on television with the aim of inspiring people to consider a career in teaching. In the advert a number of famous people mentioned the names of teachers who had inspired them and who, in some way, were responsible for the person’s choice of career and their ‘success.’ There is no doubt that good teachers are capable of inspiring us and giving us a life-long interest in their area of expertise. I was very fortunate to have some wonderful A level teachers. These teachers helped me to believe in myself and in the ability of my mind. I will be forever grateful. I hope that many of you will have also benefited from some excellent and passionate teachers. Some of you I know are, or have been, excellent teachers; thank you.

Today’s gospel reading starts with the phrase ‘then he began to teach them.’ It struck me, as I was reading the gospel earlier this week, that one of our challenges, or invitations, in Lent is simply this: to allow ourselves to be taught by the best of all teachers: Jesus.  But, let me offer you a note of warning: allowing yourself to be taught by Jesus is no guarantee of success, in fact in worldly terms you may begin to look something of a failure!

Being taught, or becoming a disciple, implies giving ourselves the space and time to learn. It also implies relationship. In ordinary everyday life we can’t really learn from someone unless we commit to spending time with them. Its the same with our faith: we can’t really learn from Jesus unless we commit to spending time with Jesus, in prayer and in bible study. To learn well takes time and effort, it really can’t be done on just one hour a week.  Are you carving out some time each and every day to spend time with Jesus; learning from Jesus?

Like all teachers Jesus, if we let him, can be demanding. Jesus’ interest, as the supreme teacher, isn’t simply about imparting knowledge, facts, data but rather about shaping our characters. Of course he also wants to point the way to some eternal truths. As a teacher what he wants us to know is that our eternal destiny is tied up with his destiny. The relationship between us, as learners, and Jesus as teacher is to be a covenant relationship. Jesus is a teacher who will never let us down. Yes, we might have to endure real pain and suffering, yes we have to take ‘up our cross,’ and ‘follow,’ but the promise is that it will all, in the end, be worthwhile. Jesus’ message is paradoxical because what he is saying to us is that if we are prepared to ‘lose’ our lives, for the sake of Jesus and the gospel, then we will ‘save it.’

 

So what does losing our lives imply? Well, for me it implies two things: First, making God the centre of our lives and trusting in him just as Jesus did, and just as Abraham did, When we do so, as Abraham and Sarah found out, the unexpected and the miraculous might just happen. Secondly, it implies giving up the fantasy that we can, in any real and significant way, be the authors of our own story. To believe that we can script, navigate and act out our every whim, fantasy and desire is the ultimate fantasy and arrogance. To believe that we are autonomous, self determining and in charge is, ultimately, a strategy for failure. It is a strategy in the words of the gospel that is without ‘profit.’

What God is saying, through Jesus, is that we must learn to trust in him and him alone, and that as Christians we must, through the practice of learning from Jesus, learn to live our lives in an entirely different way. The way we must learn to live is the Christ-like way and, as the Gospel reading tells us, that means letting go of our fantasies, but the paradox is this: that by learning to lose, by relinquishing our fantasies, through taming our egos, what we actually end up doing is winning, or ‘profiting.’

Jesus as all good teachers wants to open up for us a whole new way of knowing, believing and relating. As followers, students, and disciples our Lenten challenge is simply this: to commit some time each and every day to prayer and reading the bible so that we can learn from the one who desires to teach us the deepest and eternal truths; Jesus. Amen.

 

 

Thank you for inviting me to share just a few thoughts with you this evening. Since today is the first Sunday of Lent I thought I would start with a confession: I have a love-hate relationship with the Church of England!

The good news I suppose is that many, perhaps all of us, have love-hate relationships with the institutions in which we find ourselves lodged. Maybe, that’s just the nature of things? But for me, the C of E really, on occasion, gets under my skin. Yet, at a very real level I know that I both love it, and need it. The C of E, put simply, has always been there for me; it baptised me, confirmed me, married me, and ordained me. It has held all of our family funerals and it has introduced me to some very interesting people. I love its music, its liturgy and its sacraments. I can put up with its coffee mornings, quiches and quiz nights! But, despite all of this it really, really irritates, frustrates, and sometimes angers me.

It does so because sometimes it seems to me to fail to address the really obvious question, that all churches should be asking. This is the question that then Bishop of Kingston, Peter Selby, asked in his 1991 Book BeLonging:

‘What is the shape of the community of women and men that you long for, and for which the Church is a preparation?’

This question has become for me a bit of a preoccupation, for it indicates two things: first that the Church as an institution should have a definitive sense of what it means to be a real a community, or holy communion of people, and, secondly, that the church should always point beyond itself.

The Church is always called on to model ways of being and relating that point towards a better way to live in the here and now (‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven’) and towards a vision of what that most perfect community of all – heaven – may look like. That, for me, is the basic calling of the church and her mandate.  And if the Church can’t, or won’t, do this, then who will?

If you think about all other institutions they are locked into a success- failure, win-lose, way of thinking and, behaving. The church needn’t and shouldn’t be imprisoned by such ways of thinking. Uniquely she is positioned to get on with the job of building communities shaped through a commitment to love, justice, equality and inclusivity. Uniquely, as an institution, the church should be able to affirm and relate to all, irrespective of temporal identity markers.

As a parish priest, community building and shaping healthy community is my absolute preoccupation.  In many ways I think that shaping community is integral to the notion of priesthood. 

Today’s readings provide an insight into community. The reading from Mark’s gospel starts with an account of Jesus’ own baptism during which, we are told, a voice came from heaven saying ‘you are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ So the first job of the church is to let others know, through word and action, that they too are ‘beloved’ and that they are God’s pleasure. It strikes me as a statement of the obvious to say that if all of us knew and behaved as people who are ‘beloved’ then we would, like Jesus, be able to withstand the inevitable temptations that are placed in front of us to big ourselves up, at the expense of others.  You see one of the problems in the church is that it does, quite mistakenly at times, pit people against each other: male versus female, white versus black, straight versus gay, able bodied versus disabled, rich versus poor, and so forth. And, of course, when it does this it creates an ideal, or an idol, out of God. Categorising, ranking and privileging are the greatest of temptations and ones the church should always face down; just as Jesus did when he was tempted in the wilderness. 

To rank, categorise and privilege are the worst mistakes the church can make, for nothing is so certain as to undermine and negatively configure the ‘shape of the community,’ than the marginalisation of those who are already used to being excluded in other walks of life. A church that doesn’t, or worst still won’t, offer the opportunity for people to have their deepest longings met  is a church that is failing to take the lessons from today’s readings seriously.  

The reading from the book of Genesis is descriptive of the sort of earthly community that God wishes to see. It is to be a community that seeks to welcome and include ‘all flesh,’ it is to be the sort of community in which no-one feels ‘cut off.’ It is to be a diverse and glorious rainbow community, one in which no-one is destroyed or made to feel ‘less than’, simply on the basis of who they are. It is to be, or should be, a community for ‘all flesh.’

At the door of my parish church we have a sign which reads ‘all, yes all, are welcome in this place.’ We also have three parish aspirations: hospitality, healing, and holiness. These three terms require constant working out; they are sufficiently vague and ambiguous to be of use. The essence of hospitality is, I think, a commitment to welcoming all and making sure that no-one feels cut off or adrift. Healing is perhaps about affirmation, constantly letting people know that they are ‘beloved,’ and holiness is about two things: confronting our temptations to rank, categorise and privilege and secondly, getting some muck under our finger nails for the sake of others. We frequently pray for a world where no-one need feel less than fully human and the job of the Church, it strikes me, is to seek to build such micro communities whenever and wherever she finds herself; at least that’s my understanding and my preoccupation, Amen.