Carol Service homily

There’s a story I heard of a meeting in heaven between three archangels – they had been given by God the task of working how how to spread the good news of Jesus’ birth, and they couldn’t agree!

Gabriel said, “We should go round and tell everyone one at a time. The personal, individual approach worked very well with Mary and Joseph.”

Raphael said, “We should write it all down – that way there will be no mistakes.”

Michael said, “Swords and trumpets! We need swords and trumpets! Nothing less will do!”

But they all knew that they hadn’t really found the right answer yet.

After much discussion, they finally had an idea that they knew would work – it was brilliant, in fact.

“We will write a song!” they said, in excitement. “If we write a really good song, with just the right words, and a fabulous tune, and harmony that makes your heart sing, then we’ll only need to sing it to a few people – it’ll stay in their heads and they won’t be able to forget it – they’ll sing it in the shower, they’ll whistle it down the road, they’ll teach it to their friends, their family, their children. And before you know it, the whole world will know this wonderful news!”

So they did.

They went to a lonely hillside and sang their song to a group of shepherds under the stars – and they even let Michael have his trumpet. The Shepherds were filled with joy, and the song stayed with them – they sang it as they ran down the hill, and into the town, they sang it as the searched for the stable, and they even sang it very quietly as a lullaby when they found the baby at last. Then they went out rejoicing, and sang that song to anyone who would listen – and anyone who wouldn’t too!

The song worked so well that the news spread throughout the world. People sang the song to their family and friends and their children and their children’s children. The song was so good that we’re still singing it – or a version of it – 2000 years later.

That’s why we gather at a service like this. To sing together, to hear the story again in carols and scripture and to join our voices with the angels who are still singing in heaven.

Singing is how we learn, and remember this wonderful story. I bet we’d all be able to write out the words to ‘While shepherds watched’ more easily than the same story in Luke chapter 2!

Some carols were written for this very reason: Once in Royal David’s City was written by Mrs Alexander, a Sunday School teacher, who wrote a hymn for every line of the creed, to teach the children in her class the basics of the faith.

Saint Augustine said, “Anyone who sings, prays twice” – we don’t only learn the stories of the faith, we learn why they matter.

We learn that Jesus shares our sadness as well as our gladness – he weeps with those who weep and rejoices with those who rejoice. We learn that we can hold those in need before God and know that our prayers are heard – because Jesus is already walking alongside them.

We learn that when we sing “Be near me Lord Jesus” we have already said a prayer, from out of our own needs, and we know that we are not alone.

We learn that when we think of all the complex needs of this troubled world, this isn’t too big a concern to bring to God, because the world belongs to God: we learn that the hopes and fears of all the years are met in the Christchild, on Christmas night and every night.

And we learn that we have an offering to make ourselves: we bring our voices to join with the angels’ song, and we bring our presence with one another in this place, and our love for one another and the world:

What can I give him
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
But what I have I give him:
Give my heart.

This Christmas we can offer ourselves, just as we are, to the one who has already given us everything.

The Sunday after Ascension

‘Why do you stand there looking up to heaven?’
It’s no wonder the disciples were caught staring up at the place where their friend and teacher and Lord had bid them farewell, but the angels are right to point the disciples back to the world – we are not to be so heavenly that we are of no earthly use.

It seems to me that the Ascension is, above all, a feast of the body of Christ – as is this Eucharist that we celebrate this morning, just a few days afterwards. It’s the period in the church year when we remember the departure back to heaven of Jesus’ earthly, incarnate form, the day when his presence stopped being particular (tied to a specific time and place and material form) and started to be universal – present to all times and places ‘even to the ending of the age’ (Mt 28.20).

But the ascension is but one moment of this process of the particular becoming universal.  Jesus fed a crowd with a few loaves and fish, and called himself ‘the bread of life’; at the Last supper he explained his own body in terms of bread and wine, which he then broke, poured out, and distributed.  On the cross his actual body was broken and his blood flowed.  At the resurrection his body was both physically real (which he proved by eating and drinking) yet also able to go unrecognised and walk through locked doors (a step up, perhaps, from walking on water?).  Then at his ascension, that physical body disappeared into glory, and in its place was left a group of bewildered disciples left with the task of carrying on their teacher’s work.

By the time St Paul started writing his letters to the early church, he had started calling the christian community ‘The Body of Christ’ – something which we still do, and to which we continue to aspire.  There was one final thing that needed to happen before those early Christians could assume the role as Christ’s new body on earth: that body had to receive the Holy Spirit, the breath of life, which we can read about in the story of Pentecost (Acts 2) or indeed in the quieter version in John’s gospel where the risen Christ breathes his Spirit on his friends in the upper room.  It is that which we look forward to celebrating next Sunday.

So during the course of this process, the Body of Christ which begun as the incarnate Son of God, born as a baby in Bethlehem, growing up as a carpenter’s son in Nazareth, being baptised and undertaking a three-year ministry of preaching, healing and teaching, and culminating the cross and resurrection – that Body of Christ is transformed into the Church – established by Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit to continue his work in co-operation with God.  Thus, Jesus’ particular body (limited to one time and one place, two thousand years ago) becomes universal, filling the whole world, and for all time.

We talk about the universal church, but really is that what we mean?  In the end, to be true to the Christ whose body we try to be, we come full circle: in the Church, the body of Christ becomes not, after all, merely ‘general’ or ‘universal’ but particular again, incarnate in the individuals and christian communities in which the Holy Spirit dwells.  If we are, in Teresa of Avila’s words, “Christ’s hands with which he blesses people now” then our action in the world is particular, in the places where we find ourselves.  The church may fill the world, but if it is truly to be the Body of Christ, then it cannot be ‘general’ but must always be active in the places where it finds itself.  If we are the Body of Christ then we must be incarnate, too – through the ascension we will always have a heavenly life, but here and now our calling is to continue, in his name, the work that Christ began.

You have heard the phrase, ‘you are what you eat’ – hear also these alternative words of distribution at the Eucharist: ‘receive what you are’.  These challenge us to connect what happens here in church with what happens in the other 167 hours each week. We are the body of Christ not just gathered in a church building to hear the word and bread bread together, but in everything that we do and think and say.

At times like these, when as a nation we face again the reality of terrorism, violence, hatred and fear, we must grasp more than ever the need to work out what being the body of Christ looks like in real life. What will it look like for us to be Christ’s hands and feet, his eyes and ears, today, this week, this month?  How will we be active in continuing the work of God in the world?  How will we be continuing to live out Christ’s own manifesto, as we receive the Holy Spirit afresh, and proclaim, as Jesus did, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, because he has anointed us to preach good news to the poor; he has sent us to proclaim freedom to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and liberation for the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’  We have seen this week the inspiring and humbling response of the people of Manchester. Their refusal to meet hatred with hatred and evil with evil. Their solidarity in diversity, and their embracing of one another in shared pain and fear so that there might instead be the transforming power of love.

When Jesus said ‘do THIS’ in remembrance of me, he cannot have been talking just about the breaking of a piece of bread in a closed room. He must surely have been talking about everything captured in the phrase ‘This is my body, broken for you’ – the totality of his incarnation, life, ministry, preaching and teaching, passion, death and resurrection, so that as we do ‘this’ and remember Jesus, we may truly receive what we already are, and go out to love and serve the Lord as his body on earth, ready to bless and heal and reconcile and bring something of the love of God to a world in desperate need of it.

Bible Sunday 2016

Sermon for St John’s Hills Road, Cambridge
Bible Sunday, 2016

Many years ago as I was planning an All Age service for Bible Sunday I lamented to a colleague that there weren’t many hymns about the Bible. The Colleague rightly pointed out that this was because hymns are songs of worship, and we don’t, in fact, worship the Bible as the written word, but rather the Living Word of God, Jesus Christ. There still aren’t many decent hymns about the Bible, for that very reason.

When the gospel is read in some churches, the reader kisses the gospel book – this is something I do, in fact, as you probably noticed – I don’t know if you’re used to he here or not. But what does that mean?  Why do it?  Am I really kissing a book – an object – print on paper, with a nice binding?  What if I’d printed out the reading and ended up kissing just the bit of paper from my printer, as I said, ‘This is the gospel of the Lord’? Or what if I’d been reading off an ipad?  Surrounded as we are by beautiful bibles of every kind, and with means to ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them’ this is an interesting question. When we say ‘this is the gospel of the Lord’, what is, in fact, ‘this’?  We’ll come back to this question a little later.

Our gospel reading tells of Jesus reading from Isaiah, and telling the gathered faithful that today those words come true – he’s going to show them what the words look like in real life. What an amazing thing to hear. ‘Today this comes true.’ ‘Today you find out what the word of God looks like in action.’ It’s Jesus’ manifesto in which he connects the words of the scroll with his own identity as the living Word of God.

Let’s look more closely at what’s there. What is is that Jesus promises to bring to life?  The Isaiah passage speaks of freedom and wholeness and good news….

And only three chapters later, we hear him again refer to the same passage about his ministry:

This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.  The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ When the men had come to him, they said, ‘John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”’ Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

We need not  stick just to Luke 4 – there are plenty of other places where we are given challenging manifestos – blueprints, in word form, of what the heart of the gospel looks like when it’s lived out, and which we can see in the life of Christ, and then in the life of he saints through the ages. We might think of the beatitudes, the ten commandments, the summary of the law, the parables, even the Lord’s Prayer… so much of scripture consists of words that are to be lived. There might be some words that you have found to be formative on your journey of faith, words that you’ve gone back to again and again as you’ve worked out what being a Christian means not just in church but in daily life.

You’re welcome to make your own suggestions…

You might want to pick just one from all these and focus on how you will live it today, this week, this month… how will it form you, change you?

Now look back at Luke 4, at the very beginning of the quotation from Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me… It’s the Holy Spirit who brings the words on the page to life in our lives.  The breath that gives voice to the word, as at creation. The breath that makes us come alive, and live as people of God.

The ‘this’ that is the gospel of the Lord, isn’t the physical object the page itself – though we do quite rightly treat the bible with reverence and respect – nor is it even the content, the words on the page. It’s more as if the gospel resides in the proclaiming and hearing of it – the way that it’s spoken aloud and heard, in public, so that we become like the crowds who first heard the words of Christ and saw him put them into action, the way that the Spirit inspires the proclamation, moves through and informs the hearing, and empowers the doing of the word. The gospel, ‘this’, is the contemporary living out of the words on the page, as the Spirit gives us power. This is how the word of God is ‘living and active’ – constant, and yet always fresh, always being made incarnate in the lives of God’s people.

So as you look at the bibles on display around the church today, don’t just look on them as objects – think of the fingers that have turned those pages, the eyes that have read them, the voices that have read them aloud… all the people who, through the generations have been been shaped and formed through their encounters with Christ in scripture, who have connected their story with God’s story, and lived the gospel.

This is how we are the body of Christ on earth. As Once the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel ate the scrolls on which the word of God was written, so we, in the words of the collect, ‘inwardly digest’ the Word of God, through our reading, our hearing, our speaking, and indeed through our receiving of the bread and wine, as we ‘become what we eat’ and become the good news that God is sharing with the world.

Is ‘none’ really a thing?

This is my sermon for Pembroke College Chapel, 29th May 2016.
It is based on 1 Kings 8.22-23,41-43, 
Psalm 96.1-9, & Luke 7.1-10.
See also this excellent post by Stephen Cherry, and this Guardian article responding to the British Social Attitudes Survey.

If you’ve been keeping any kind of eye on the media recently, you will probably have seen something about the church – and religion generally – being in freefall, with more people now self-identifying as being of ‘no religion’ than as belonging all of the Christian denominations put together.

You can do all sorts of things with surveys – and much depends on what, exactly, is being asked, how the question is phrased, what options are given, and so on. There are certainly various narratives out there that ‘religion’ causes conflict, that ‘spirituality’ is what we share as human beings; that ‘religion’ demands adherence either to things that are impossible to believe, or to norms of behaviour that we no longer believe represent the fullness of human flourishing, while ‘spirituality’ allows each person to find within themselves the path that leads them to becoming who they want to be.

Meanwhile, however, a lot more people are, in fact, coming to church than British Social Attitudes survey would suggest. They may not be coming as part of a regular Sunday morning committed congregation, whatever that means, but they are coming: 200,000 people a year attend a Church of England christening service, and many more may brush up against ‘religion’ at a wedding or funeral. They visit cathedrals and parish churches (when the door is left unlocked).  Chapels, churches and Cathedrals have, in many cases, a several-hundred-year long track record of standing firm through the changes and chances of the life of local families, of whole communities, and indeed of the nation itself. There is something here that taps into a sense of connectedness with the past (think of the massive increase in interest in tracing family history).  When people speak of a ‘thin’ place, this is often what they mean. These are places that allow us to brush up against something bigger than any of us, and nothing in the survey suggests that this is on the wane. These places say, God is here. Not somewhere out there, but here, among his people.

There is something of this in our reading from 1 Kings. Solomon built the Temple, because he wanted a place where the Ark of the Covenant could have a permanent home, as a powerful symbol of God’s presence with his people, and his blessing upon them.

But the trouble with building temples – or churches, or chapels or cathedrals, for that matter – is that they usually have walls. And walls mean you know whether you are on the inside or the outside. If God is here, then there is a danger in inferring that God is only here. There is a danger that the particular signs of God’s presence, be they a temple, an ark, or a chapel, become so particular that they lose their identity as a sign of something universal.

My children, when they were little, helped me think this one through. They used to take great delight in asking me, at length, ‘If God is everywhere, is God in this dirty coffee cup? Is God in this sofa cushion? Is God in this mud on my trainers?’  And so on. Eventually, in desperation, I said to them, ‘No, it’s the other way round. God is not ‘in’ these things. These things are ‘in’ God, because the whole of creation is ‘in God’.  And some of the things that there are in the world are ‘in’ God in such a particular and remarkable way that they allow us to glimpse something of who God is.’ Astonishingly, the explanation worked.  But the conversation stayed with me.

If God is not in the chapel or the Temple, but the chapel and the Temple are both in God, then it is hardly surprising that what the Social Attitude Survey reveals by its silence is the massive extent to which God is at work in all the other things that are, by virtue of their createdness, also ‘in God’, even though they don’t have the label ‘religion’ on them.  For God is, I believe, not only present but active in the whole of creation, and most certainly in the minds and hearts and souls of those who ticked ‘none’ on the survey.  At the simplest level, people pray. My experience has been that there is a heck of a lot of prayer going on outside the church walls – and no survey can ever measure how that works and why it still happens if we’re all supposed to be turning secular.  People pray, and God hears.

This is what Solomon almost understands when he prays in our reading, that the prayers of the foreigner will be heard just as the prayers of the chosen people are heard. This is a moment – an early moment – in a gradual shift in theology, from ‘my family’s God’ through ‘my tribe’s God’ to ‘my nation’s God’ (who is undoubtedly better and bigger than your nation’s God, by the way) all the way through to The God – the end result of this shift is technically known as monotheism.

Once we are aware of God as The God we lose our proprietary claims. It is no accident that the ‘growth’ of God, for want of a better way of putting it, from one tribal God among many to out and out monotheism went hand in hand with a renewed growth in appreciation for the natural world. If God is The Lord, rather than just A Lord then this must be the one who created everything, really everything, the whole universe. So the Bible starts to present to us world of sea monsters and stars and planets and leviathans and distant peoples, all of which become crucial for understanding our own place in God’s affections and purposes.

Universalism, as Solomon almost states it, demands, then, a level of humility that the People of God have often struggled with, it is fair to say, over the last few thousand years. It is a level of humility that says, along with the Centurion in our gospel reading, ‘I am not worthy’ while at the same time declaring with all its might that ‘I am worthy’, but only because we are all worthy. Even the outsider, even the sick slave, even the foreigner who might come and pray in our holy place.

What is going on here is the acknowledgement that if the whole of creation is in God, then there can be no outside. So there can be no outsiders. Because none are uniquely worthy, all are worthy. Equally so. Universalism becomes then not a cop out, but a demanding, difficult process of working towards that unity and equality that is at the heart of our acknowledgement of who God is. What we need most at the moment is a global community that transcends self-interest and tribalism, and seeks instead the restoration of humanity, and indeed of the whole of creation, the very creation that the psalmist hears praising the God of everything.

So, when we talk of ‘spirituality’ (with or without religion) we must be sure that we do not dismiss it lightly; that we are talking about something that goes deeper than subjective feelings, deeper than self-fulfilment or self-expression.  It has to hear and respond to the charge that, in Mandela’s words, to be free, we must not merely cast off our own chains, but also live in such a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. It must draw deeply from the rich traditions that we have inherited, learn from that history’s mistakes, and renew its accountability now and in the future to the creation in which we have a particular role and vocation.  This is a fully engaged*, ethical, demanding, accountable spirituality that the world – and the church – needs more than anything. Call it spirituality, call it religion, call it ‘none’, but know that the world needs it. Now more than ever.


*Thank you to Stephen Cherry for this insight.

St Luke’s Day 2015

A sermon based on Luke 10.1-9

When I read this gospel reading today, the thing that struck me (and that had never particularly occurred to me any of the other probably hundreds of times I’d read it) was the peculiar way that Luke talks about peace: ‘Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.’  It almost makes it sound as if the peace is a tangible object, something you could hold in your hand and offer to someone.  For Luke, peace isn’t an abstract noun, a concept, an ideal, it’s something very real indeed.  With this thought in mind, I wondered how this tangible kind of peace might draw together some of the big themes in Luke’s gospel, and indeed, with St Luke himself.

The first thing people probably think of when asked about St Luke is that he was a physician, a doctor. One who laid down the tools that would heal the body in favour of those that heal the soul.  So the first thing I wondered about was how this tangible peace relates to healing, to wholeness, to restoration, within the human being. I don’t know your names, let alone your stories. I don’t know what hurts you carry with you from the past or the present, the scars that come from your own mistakes and sins, or from the sins of others. I don’t know your doubts and uncertainties or fears about the future. But I do know that in the Eucharist, Jesus comes among us offering us each something tangible – a peace that the world cannot give, a peace that is about forgiveness, about the healing of old wounds.  I do know that when Jesus comes to meet us, he comes bearing that gift and he stays here, holding it out to us, giving us as long as we need to work out how to take that tangible peace in our hands and into our hearts. Luke the physician is intimately concerned with the healing not just of the body but of the whole person, and locates a person’s encounter with Christ at the centre of that process. As we celebrate Luke the physician today, we have another chance to take into our hearts and hands that tangible peace and let it work in us.

The second thing people might think of when they consider Luke’s gospel as a whole is his concern for the gap between the rich and the poor – he writes more about this than any of the other gospels – and his particular focus on the outsider, the outcast, the people who don’t fit in. Jesus’ ministry is seen by Luke as one of integration, that brings the outsiders into the centre of the community, breaks down boundaries and restores communities to wholeness.  This tangible peace, then, is not just about the healing and wholeness of individuals, it is for the healing of communities, it is for the building of communion in places of deep division. And Jesus does this sometimes with the skill of a surgeon – he cuts through the trickery and hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day and their obsession with boundaries and pecking orders, so that the people themselves can finally heal – be reconciled with one another, despite their differences, and with the God who made them all and loves them all.  So as we celebrate St Luke’s concern for the poor, the sinner, the outcast, and his desire to show what reconciliation looks like in real life, we have a chance to look at the tangible peace that is offered to this church community, to this village, and beyond. We have a chance to ask ourselves, where are the divisions here? Who finds it hard to fit in? How do we already welcome the stranger and the outcast, and how can we do more, in Jesus’ name?  When we take this gift of tangible peace, we take it not just for our own healing, but for the wholeness of those around us, and for the gradual mending of relationships, for the melting of old grudges, for the possibility of diversity in unity.

The third thing people might know about the gospel of Luke is that, of all the gospel writers, he is most concerned to root the story of Jesus in history – we can see this most easily by the sheer number of difficult to pronounce names (of people and places) in Luke’s gospel – he talks about who’s who, he mentions the names of the places Jesus went, and the names of all the Roman Governors, and the High Priests.  This is partly because one of Luke’s concerns was to establish that Jesus wasn’t a myth, an idea, he was a real person, and everything in the gospels actually happened. But more profoundly, rooting Jesus’ story in political history shows that this tangible peace is not something limited to the individual, nor even just to the local community, but is a gift to the nations, and to the whole world, given to real places and real times. And it’s offered to our own time and our own place, just as it was offered to Jesus’ time and place.  Throughout the last two thousand years, there have been glorious moments when, by the grace of God, our own nation, and even the world has grasped this peace with both hands, often at great cost, and taken the peace of God into the heart of our national and international relations. And we know all too well that there have been even more times when Jesus has patiently held peace out to us and, as a species, we have failed to grasp it.  As we celebrate St Luke, we celebrate someone who understood that the grace of God can work not just within individuals, or local communities, but in the political sphere. And so we think beyond the village, beyond the places where we ourselves live and work, and pray earnestly for that peace which the world cannot give to be given now to the world, and for the leaders of the nations and all who hold the future of this planet in their hands to be given the wisdom, humility and courage to reach out and grasp what God most desires to give us. And we think about our own role in enabling that kind of tangible peace – our democratic right to vote, our spending power, our engagement with current affairs are just some of the ways in which we can contribute to the peace of God taking root and growing here and now.

So today, keep in your minds that image of Jesus’ disciples, sent out by him to take a tangible gift of peace. And then realise that he sends us out today to do the same, he gives us that same peace, for ourselves, for the people we meet and for the wider world. Whether it’s in our own hearts, in our relationships, in our community, at work, in our dealings with people face to face or online, our interaction through commerce and comment with people we’ll never meet, let us bring that tangible peace with us, and may we let it be the very first thing we offer, wherever we are, and whatever we do.