A homily for 3 before Advent on Luke 20.27-38

The notion of heaven as a place where we are reunited with our loved ones is a powerfully hopeful one. And this may well be an aspect of the life of heaven. I hope so. But it’s not all that heaven is.

The religious experts of Jesus’s day had a habit of making everything too small, too exact, too limiting.  Here, they want to undermine the abundant love of heaven and limit it merely to what human beings are able to give and receive in this life.  Now, earthly love is a wonderful thing: it can change the world, it can transform individuals, it can make the impossible feel possible.  In fact, the human experience of love is one of the most persuasive arguments for the reality of heaven: our hearts tell us that real love transcends death so logically there must be somewhere for that love to go.

And that’s only earthly love.  But the love that exists in heaven, free from the polluting effects of jealousy, self-centredness, laziness, and more?  That love is beyond my imagining. It certainly can’t be reduced to an argument about the extent to which marriage is still valid after we die.  The very fact that the life of heaven will be free of conflict and division, hurt and regret, means that it must be a very different kind of life from that we experience now.

It’s always going to be tempting to define heaven in terms of earth because earth is pretty much all we have to go on – it is our only real frame of reference. But heaven is so much more.  As my young son put it when he was five: “Heaven isn’t up in space, it’s all around us but differently real… God is outside time and space, so he could even look at everything backwards if he wanted to.”

So while my heart tells me that I can look forward to a heaven in which I am reunited with those of my loved ones who have died, my head tells me that this cannot be all it’s about. If it were only about me and my loved ones, then heaven would have been reduced to a sort of private preservation and perpetuation of my earthly existence, but without all the bad bits, and my looking forward to it would in fact be looking backwards.  Can this really be all it is?

The fact that this reading falls on Remembrance Sunday brings the biggest challenge to this ‘reduced’ and ‘private’ heaven.  For today our hearts tell us that heaven must be about reconciliation, genuine peace, the healing of old conflicts.  It cannot be a merely private matter.  And because heaven is communal and not private, it follows that we will be reunited not only with our loved ones but also with those we found it extraordinarily hard to love in this life.  Those against whom we fought in battles real or metaphorical.  Those against whom we competed, those who characterised some of the hardest times in our lives.  Because we don’t get to choose which of our enemies makes it into heaven, we have to have a vision of heaven that allows for a much deeper unity than the reuniting of those who managed to love each other even on earth.

But that again is good evidence for the inextricable link between heaven and love.  Heaven must be that place where love is perfected, or else the unlikely unity of past enemies could never be part of it.

This time of year in the church, what we call the ‘Kingdom season’, we reflect on the relationship between heaven and earth.  And on this very day we remember those whose entry into the life hereafter came through a complex mix of duty and conflict, cruelty and desperation, peacemaking and destruction.  We remember the circumstances in which their lives ended. And we try and hold together the hope for a heaven in which there simply is no place for conflict, with the reality of an earth that has been at war, somewhere or other, pretty much continuously for centuries.

So by all means let us look forward to being reunited with our loved ones.  But let us even more look forward to being united with those for whom earthly unity proved elusive or downright impossible. For with the Love of God, all things are possible.

For what, exactly, are we supposed to be ready?

A sermon on Luke 12.32-40

What matters most to you?  Take a moment to think about it.
People?  Values?  Things?  “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” says Jesus in today’s gospel.  But he’s not making some simplistic division between earthly things (= bad) and heavenly things (=good) but rather inviting us to live as heavenly people, to live in acknowledgement of the fact that by virtue of being part of God’s creation, we are heavenly people, created to enjoy God for ever and to be part of his family and household. Our treasure is with God because God holds in his hands all that he made, all that really matters.

So how does that relate to the next bit of the reading, the part about the slaves. We may be very uncomfortable with the language, and it may have quite different connotations in our modern society in which we (mostly) tend to assume that slavery is a thing of the past.  But the difference between a slave and a more palatably-titled “servant” is that a slave actually belongs to the household, to the master of the house.  And if the master of the house is God, then belonging to him and to his household may not be such a bad thing after all.

And the work of the slaves is mind-blowingly important work – the master has entrusted his whole household to us, the care of everything that belongs to him, everything that he values. What an awesome responsibility, and what an awesome display of trust and affirmation!  In the household of God the work of the slaves isn’t polishing the silver and sweeping the floor, it’s building the kingdom, it’s working to make sure that everything that belongs to God (and that really is everything!) is how God wants it to be.

To do that work means we have to have some idea of what God wants his household to be like. What are the values by which God would like this household to run itself?  These are the values to which we work. Our work is no less than shaping God’s household into the sort of household he wants. Between us all, that means doing everything, and working out what our own task is within this great and noble work is the most crucial thing we’ll ever work out. And then getting on and doing it is our life’s work.

That’s why we won’t misunderstand all that stuff about being ready.  I have a friend who has a T-shirt with a picture of the Holman Hunt ‘Light of the world’ painting, with the caption, “Jesus is coming, look busy!”  That’s not it at all, being ready isn’t a clever guessing game about when precisely to get off our collective backsides and look as if we’re working hard just as the boss comes home. It’s about simply getting on with the task that God’s given us to do, because it’s the whole household that’s got to be ready, not just individual people in it.  The master doesn’t want to come and find slaves that look busy in a house that’s still a tip.  Being ready means getting on with our part in making God’s world nearer to how he created it to be.

And that incorporates our care and compassion for one another, for the environment and natural world, our economic choices and the impact they have on the world economy, and our lifestyle choices and their impact on our society and community, and much more besides.  We might look on the world around us and despair of it ever becoming more like the kingdom of God.  And we might long for a Revelation-like vision of the whole earth being recreated perfect.  And then we remember that God does, in fact, have a whole army of slaves whose job it is at least to begin this process of transformation and renewal.  It is we who build the kingdom according to God’s design.

Working out what that looks like can be hard – what does God actually most care about?  We should ask him.  We should pray, and read scripture, and think together and discern, and start to develop our own understanding of the values of God’s kingdom, God’s household, so that we know what we’re working towards.

And the end result of all this?  The story doesn’t talk about judgement, about failure, about bad slaves being sacked, or cast into outer darkness. It talks about how the slaves were ready, and that when the master comes home they’re invited to sit round his table and he serves them their dinner.   The slaves weren’t working for some other person’s benefit at all –  it turned out that all that preparation, all that cleaning and clearing of the table, all that polishing of chairs, all that washing up, was so that when the master came home he could sit down with his whole household and be a family.  That’s what they had to be ready for. That’s what they were preparing for all this time.  They had to be ready to be part of the family and household of God.  We have to be ready to be part of the household and family of our beloved heavenly Father.  And I sometimes wonder if we are.

We work to make earth like heaven because we want to be part of it; and the more we help to create the kingdom of heaven the more ready we are for it.  Everything we do here in church is supposed to be a foretaste of heaven, from the welcome when you come in to the sharing of coffee afterwards.  But more than that, everything we do in the rest of life is also supposed to be making earth a little more like heaven  – the encounters we have at work, in the street, in the shops, these are all opportunities for kingdom-making and kingdom-growing and kingdom-building.

And that’s what the story of the ‘ready slaves’ has to do with the treasure in heaven, and why far from being an injunction to separate a bad world from a good heaven it’s actually about being part of God’s ongoing work of reuniting the two.  And it’s about our own readiness to be wholly part of earth at the same time as we are children of heaven.

The Transfiguration

Some thoughts on Luke 9.28-36

I wonder if you’ve ever had a moment of absolute awe and wonder? A moment when time had no meaning, when it seemed as if the universe was in technicolour, and you were swept up by it, even overwhelmed?

Wedding couples often tell me that their marriage service felt like this – they expected it to feel special, but it surpassed their ability to imagine.  For that glorious day, and especially for that glorious 35 minutes or so, they are transported out of their normal existence and are part of something that is far bigger and more magnificent than any of us.

If you’ve been blessed by such a moment, you may well have wanted to hold onto it, to make it last for ever. But such moments tend to be glimpses, slipping through our grasp, or dissolving like mist. Those who experience many such moments may find that they are hugely important to them, crucial in their spirituality and faith. Others may never experience such a moment, and may be acutely aware of missing out on something very special.

Jesus’ disciples saw a lot of things during their time with him, many of them strange, many of them challenging, some of them downright incredible. I wonder how significant it was that when it came to his transfiguration he took only his closest friends with him?  This wasn’t just a revelation kept to the disciples rather than the larger crowds who followed Jesus around; it was kept even from the rest of the Twelve.  I wonder if they knew that they had missed something significant?  And, what was it, precisely, that they had missed?  What was it, that Peter, James and John, and actually witnessed?

My experience of reading the gospels and then preaching on them has been that everything that’s included is there for a reason – each verse, each little story, each saying, each event that’s narrated, tells us something about Christ. My confirmation candidate and I tested this theory the other day, by reading just one chapter of Mark and writing down everything about Jesus that we discovered in the chapter.

Mark 1 wordle

We used single words, and used them to create a wordle – this is a wordle that represents Mark chapter 1.

If we had read Luke 9 and done the same thing, I wonder if the worldle would have looked very different?  It’s a chapter which is rich in stories, sayings, happenings, miracles, arguments, and more; reading it, we learn a great deal about Jesus, just as the crowds and the disciples and his most trusted friends must have done. It’s a chapter in which more of Jesus’ identity is revealed, layer by layer. So what is it that we learn about Christ in this most mysterious of happenings?  

It’s as if for one moment the veil comes off, and we see Christ in all his glory, timeless, awe-inspiring. In short, God. That’s what Peter, James and John see.  And they want it to last. They’ve been granted a glimpse of heaven, and they want it. As ever, Peter is the one to put his foot in it, talking about making dwellings for the three figures, but he’s only saying what they’re all thinking: if only we could keep this moment, if only we could stay here, in this little patch of heaven, for ever.

And you can see why.  I remember reading C S Lewis’s The Great Divorce when I was a teenager, and falling in love with his vision of heaven, and then crying my eyes out when the central character discovers that his time in heaven had been all a dream and that he has to return to a world that is not only terribly earthly, but also frightening, and dangerous. Peter and the others knew what their world was like, and that it was a very hard place to live and to thrive.  They, along with all God’s people, longed for a time when the Messiah would come and save them – for some this was a very practical desire for God to defeat their current oppressors, the Romans, but for others it was a much more eschatalogical hope, that God would finally bring about his heavenly order in the wayward world and that there would be a real and lasting peace with the people of God at the beloved centre of it all.

Can you blame Peter, James and John for wanting that moment to be right then? And for them to have been just the first stage of the salvation of Israel? And then finding out that the whole thing was only a glimpse?

That walk down the mountain must have been a long one. No wonder they were able to avoid talking about their experience with anyone.  It may well have been a long time before their disappointment gave way to courage and hope again, and they could recapture the joy and awe of the vision – by the time the story was told and the gospel was written down, they’d had time to interpret what they’d experienced, but at the time…?

So why give them this glimpse? Why show a tantalising snapshot of heaven and then not let them stay?  There are probably a million answers to this question, but mine I think has to be this:

Heaven is eternal, beyond time and space.  But there are aspects of the character of heaven that can be nurtured on earth.  Jesus talks a lot about the Kingdom of God, about how it is already near, but that our own behaviour, our own choices, bring us, and the world around us, closer to heaven, or drive us further from it.

Perhaps the transfiguration is a reminder of the truth of how near heaven is, that it might break through any moment. But perhaps it is also a reminder that our experiences of ecstasy, if we have them, are there not only for our own edification and spiritual growth, but for the transformation of ourselves, inside and out, so that we can be part of what transforms the world.  I have no doubt that Peter, James and John, were transformed by their experience on the mountain.  But their calling wasn’t merely to be transformed, it was to let their own transformation become something that guided their words and actions, making them part of how God was bringing earth and heaven closer together.

I’m not even going to ask whether coming to Holy Communion constitutes a powerful spiritual experience. Perhaps sometimes it does, and other times it doesn’t. Perhaps it’s to do with whether the sunshine has broken through the clouds by 8.30 to illuminate the chancel, perhaps it’s to do with us arriving with just the right openness of mind and heart, perhaps it’s to do with the quality of the poetry in the epistle, or the quality of the silence just before the Lord’s Prayer  – these are all things that can lift the ordinary into something special that can start to transform our mundane souls.

Whether we feel it emotionally and spiritually or not, in a service of Holy Communion we come into contact with something profound, and we receive the grace of God, so we shouldn’t leave church as exactly the same people we were as we came in.  And we should be able to take a little of that heaven with us when we go.  What will we do with it? With whom will we share it?  Not by talking about what it felt like taking communion (remember Jesus told his friends not to talk about what they’d seen) but by letting our closeness with heaven rub off in our dealings with others, and with ourselves.  And that’s something that could change our little bit of the world and beyond.

What can we take with us?

Today I got the chance to spend part of the service with the Junior Church (one of the Readers was preaching, and there wasn’t anyone else from the rota to be with the children). It was great fun. First we tried crawling through a table while dragging a chair behind us (we were being camels going through the eye of a needle).  We began to think about what sort of things we can take with us into eternal life, and what sort of things we need to leave behind. Then we made two little paper pots, labeled one ‘Take’ and the other ‘Leave’.

So, what did the children put in the pots?

Well, it started with the obvious things. They put ‘money’ and ‘TV’ in the ‘Leave’ pot.  And they put ‘love’ and ‘friends’ in the ‘Take’ pot.

But after that it got more interesting.  They found that there were good things about our life now that still might not have a place in heaven – we weren’t sure about toys, for instance. But we were quite clear that there was fun and laughter in heaven nonetheless.

Then we got rid of some things like war and bullying and cruelty and lies. They all went in the ‘Leave’ pot, because there’s no room for them in heaven. And we put ‘soul’ and ‘good memories’ in the ‘Take’ pot.

We put ‘everything bad we’ve ever done’ and ‘guilt’ in the ‘Leave pot. And we put ‘everything good we’ve ever done’ and ‘good memories’ in the ‘Take’ pot.

At that point we spotted a big hairy spider on the wall, and there was heated debate about whether we would take it to heaven. Then we remembered that God loves it and God made it, so we drew a picture of a spider and put it in the ‘Take’ pot.

Then someone asked about whether we could put ‘People we don’t like’ in the ‘Leave’ pot, and we thought about that together. We had to conclude that, just like the spider, the people we find difficult have to be able to come with us. We thought that the gift of heaven might be that we would come to love them just as God loves them.

We realised, finally, that the eternal life that the rich young man in the story was asking about doesn’t start when we die, it starts right now, and that loving the people that God loves was part of how we start to live as if we are in heaven.

Camels and needles – Mark 10.17-31

It’s another of those gospel readings that’s slightly odd and difficult to understand, and in which the bits we do understand make for challenging reading.

First, I’m not going to explain away the thing about the camel going through the eye of a needle by saying that ‘the eye of the needle’ was the name of one of the smaller gates into the city of Jerusalem, large enough only for a camel on its own, not one laden with possessions. This may well be the case, but it’s not the point. At least, I don’t think it’s the point.

So what is? Well, there are a few things that are well worth pursuing.

Let’s start with what Jesus says just after the camel bit, namely that what looks impossible turns out not to be, because God is not limited by what we can imagine, and by what we think the normal rules set out.  ‘For people it is impossible, but not for God, everything is possible for God.’ The other famous time in the gospels which talks about what is possible and what is not is when the angel speaks to Mary in Luke chapter 1 – the proof that God can do the unlikely thing of giving her a child while she is still a virgin is that God has already given a child to her elderly cousin Elizabeth, after years of the older woman and her husband trying to conceive. ‘For nothing will be impossible with God,’ concludes the angel.  We might well try and find ways of explaining away that bit of divine intervention too – many people do – but sometimes the gospels do present us with a miracle. Jesus does them all the time. If God can perform the miracle of a virgin birth, which human beings consider to be impossible, perhaps he can also thread camels through needles, and indeed grant a place in heaven to someone rich.  Indeed, anything is possible with God.

So far, so good.

So is the rich man doomed or isn’t he? He certainly seems to think so, as he goes away despondent. But is he really?  Remember that lovely line, ‘Jesus looked at him and loved him,’ or words to that effect. Is the rich young man, whom Jesus loved, condemned by his wealth, or is there something less simplistic going on?

Remember the famous phrase, that money is the root of all evil?  I can see some of you longing to correct me, that it is not money itself, but the love of money that leads us into sin (that’s from 1 Timothy chapter 6). Perhaps it is not ownership of wealth itself that is problematic,  but rather the miserliness and selfishness that clings onto it, that will not let it go, that gets obsessed by it.  Is Jesus testing the young man’s ability to let go?  To be generous?  Contrast this story with the encounter between Jesus and Zaccheus: the man was a crook, but Jesus did not ask him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor – Zaccheus himself demonstrated that he was no longer a slave to his money by repaying with interest the people he had defrauded, and by making a generous donation to the poor from what was left over. But at no point did Jesus require him to give everything.

So why does he ask for such an enormous act of generosity and selflessness from this young man in today’s gospel?  Is it at least in part to test the man’s attachment to his wealth?  That’s certainly part of is. Great wealth brings great responsibility. All of us here are wealthy in comparison with so many of our brothers and sisters in Christ across the world.  We all bear great responsibility in the way that we use and spend and give away our wealth, and we all need to spend time thinking about praying about how our possessions and our money can be a blessing to ourselves and to those around us, to God’s church, to the charities that are close to our heart, and to God’s world and people. The more we have, the more decisions we are called to make when it comes to how our generosity is going to find expression.

All of that goes without saying, but it’s not all that is going on.  Remember how the story starts. The man approaches Jesus, and asks him what he must do to get to heaven. When Jesus replies, reminding him of the commandments, the young man is able to reply that he’s always kept them all. Unlikely? Maybe, but even if we give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he really has led a super-virtuous life, it does rather seem as if the man is asking the wrong question. If he’s kept all the commandments, the likelihood is that he already thought he’d done enough to earn his way into heaven. Was he asking just to be sure? Or to get a nice pat on the back from the traveling Rabbi? Or was it yet another trick question, and had the young man been put up to it by the Pharisees? We don’t know.

But what we do have is Jesus’ answer. He loves the young man, but takes his question at face value. You want to guarantee yourself a place in heaven? Well, the price is more than you thought. In fact, it’s more than the law demands. Jewish law had plenty in it that encouraged, even demanded generosity but it didn’t ask people to give everything. What Jesus is saying is that getting a place in heaven isn’t something that is a matter of dotting every i and crossing every t. You can’t get to heaven by keeping your nose clean and obeying the law. He deliberately asks what feels unreasonable and unjustifiable because getting a place into heaven isn’t about reason and justice, it’s about the generosity and mercy and grace of God.

That’s why Jesus’ response to the young man only makes sense in the light of what he goes on to say to the disciples: all things are possible with God. We don’t know what became of the young man. We hope that he reflected on his wealth, and learned how to be generous, to exercise good stewardship over this possessions, to sit more lightly to them, to use them for good. But like so many of the walk-on characters in the gospels, as far as we know we never see him again.

But that’s not the end of the story. Not for him, and not for us. Because a young man who thinks he’s done everything right is like a red rag to a bull for Jesus.  Even though the young man is probably a very nice chap, his attitude is that of a pharisee-in-the-making: he thinks everything is about keeping the law, and that if he tries really hard and ticks all the right boxes, he’ll be OK. That’s how the Pharisees knew were they were in the religious and social pecking order. That’s how they could be confident about their status before the people and before God.  But that wasn’t how Jesus saw them.

The reading ends with ‘the first shall be last and the last shall be first’. If this is a parable about the relationship between our earthly life and the life of heaven, then I’m strangely comforted by it. The rich young man, by the miraculous grace and mercy of God, may well find himself in heaven when he dies. But he’ll find himself there not at the head of the queue, having earned his place, but somewhere in the crowd, perhaps towards the back, with the poor and destitute going in ahead of him.  And that is the real test for him.  When he sees that his place in the earthly pecking order doesn’t translate into the life of heaven, will he still want that eternal life that he was pestering Jesus about? That’s Jesus’ test. And it’s a test to any of us who have things that we cling to here, any of us who have ideas about our status, our importance.  Any of us who fall into the trap of trying to earn our way into God’s favour.

Eternal life, a place in heaven, involves being willing to relinquish any kind of status, either in terms of what we’re born into, or what we’ve earned. Quite simply, we can’t take it with us. If there’s a hierarchy in heaven at all, Jesus is quite clear on how it goes: the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  We may read this story and imagine that the young man’s moment of choice was in his conversation with Jesus: will he give everything away to buy his way into heaven or won’t he?  But in reality the man’s true moment of choice comes much later. When the time comes for him to find out if he made the cut, if he was good enough, if he really did earn his place, he’ll find that God isn’t sitting in state like a judge at all, but instead is welcoming all and sundry, including the unwashed, the repentant tax collectors and prostitutes, the lowly, the poor and the lame.  Does the young man want to join the queue behind them in order to receive the mercy that God is offering so freely?  That’s the real test of whether he’s willing to give up everything.

But, you know, it wouldn’t do him any harm to start practicing while he’s still alive.