Welcome to part time priest. Bits of life come together - priesthood, part time worker, mum, wife, person. Not really part time ontologically, obviously, but I do have other things to do, quite apart from being...and one of them is enjoying sharing ministry experiences and reflections with you.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

St Luke: love, loss and healing

Image: gorillafilmmagazine.com

Today the Church remembers St Luke, writer of the gospel of that name, and of the book of Acts. 

Luke the Physician, healer of bodies, whose subject was Jesus the healer-Saviour.

As a boy's name I hadn't come across Luke much before 1989. That year I had one in my class. Small, freckled, fair. Quiet, but sharp as a pin. Any teacher will tell you, a name can become loved or loathed, depending on the child. I was probably unconsciously storing them all up for when I might have my own children. There were six Daniels in my first class so that was never a front runner. Robert, Roy and Jason: absolutely no. 

But Luke, yes. Lovely name. 

Luke was one of four. Seven years of age. One day I arrived at the school to be met by a distraught Deputy Head running dangerously fast downstairs from the staff room to tell me, class teacher, that Luke's dad, a part time DJ, had driven at high speed into a tree on the way back from a local disco the night before. He was killed outright. 

Needless to say Luke didn't appear in school for many days. When he did, he was even quieter.

When I finally did have my own boys to name, he was still in my unconscious. We lost a son in stillbirth and when we had another, we gave him Luke as a middle name. Because grief can be healed, though it takes a long time. 

The Jesus of Luke has a special place for the sad, the bereaved, and for women. As a famous singer* once sang: 

'Magdalene is trembling,
Like washing on a line,
Trembling and gleaming.
Never before was a man so kind,
Never so redeeming.'

The gospel according to St Luke: Jesus as real, human, vulnerable, not impervious to loss.

I'd love to know what happened to Luke. I hope he grew up to know that he was loved, that this knowledge gave him strength to be everything he could be. He'd be 32 now. Maybe even with his own son. I hope that eventually healing came to lodge there, right in the centre of his life, like a middle name.

*Joni Mitchell, from the album Passion Play.



Saturday, 4 October 2014

A harvest of people


Sermon for Trinity 16. Parable of the wicked tenants.
Matthew 21:33-46 highlighting Verses 41, 43

They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 


Warning: this is a pre-harvest festival ‘Harvest’ talk, though it’s not about a harvest of fruit and vegetables.



On Wednesday last week some of us met Bishop John on Whitchurch Bridge (in fact we had, not one, not two but THREE bishops on the bridge that afternoon; we were indeed triply blessed).
Pilgrims who had joined him on that day’s section of the Thames path were greeted by school children from Whitchurch Primary and we walked across to a midway point where we were met by school children from Pangbourne – a community that, though a few metres only across the bridge, is in a different County, has a different Local Council, is in a different Deanery and even a different Archdeaconry with a different Area Bishop.
So the Bishop of Dorchester and the Bishop of Reading also met in the middle and surveyed the beauty of the Thames in each direction; and Bishop John blessed the bridge and prayed for all who cross it each day and for those whose work is connected with it.
With blue ribbons being held to signify our fellowship across the Thames divide, and many Diocesan representatives accompanying Bishop John, it felt that we were all one in Christ.
After the lunch, there was a short act of worship for pilgrims continuing up Pangbourne meadow.
During that act of worship, Bishop John challenged us to consider two questions, and to walk the next stretch of the Thames in silence as we pondered them.
The questions were these:
What kind of person would you like to be when you ‘grow up’?
And: What is stopping you from becoming that person?
Several things were suggested: Would you like to be more compassionate, more courageous, more relaxed, more focused, more at peace, less judgmental?
What kind of person would you like to be when you grow up?
And: What is stopping you from becoming that person?

Two very good questions.
They seemed linked to our readings today.
And so I’d like us to think about a similar question now, linked to our reading about the wicked tenants.
What kind of people is God looking for today?
Is he looking for people with a perfect religious pedigree, or for people who will help him bring in the harvest?

Two strong readings today – you might call them uncompromising.
First of all St Paul talks about his religious background and upbringing, which was clearly very intense in its purity.
But it wasn’t enough.
It somehow missed the point.
Is it possible to be so immersed in a religion that we miss the point? It would appear so.
After meeting the living Christ, Paul considers all that special religious background of his as rubbish (a very polite translation of the word, which the KJV renders ‘dung’).
All that learning, all that desire to be a pure Jewish Pharisee, he now considers rubbish (dung) because of the great prize of knowing Christ.
Because knowing Christ puts everything else into a different perspective.
Then in our gospel we have Jesus falling out again with the Pharisees as he tells the parable of the wicked tenants.
Honestly, if the main requisite of being a religious leader were not to fall out with people, Jesus (and Paul for that matter) would have failed many times over.
We’re in Matthew’s gospel again, where Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of heaven is particularly important.
He tells a parable.
People had by now learned that when Jesus told a parable, you needed to watch out.
Because the parables tended to surprise. And to divide.
People were not stupid: they realized this parable is told against the Pharisees, because Jesus can see where their hatred of him will lead. And they know this. So in his parable of the wicked tenants, he sets out the history of God’s people, and places himself right in the middle of it.

So here’s the tale: A landowner plants a vineyard; puts a fence round it, digs a winepress there, and builds a watchtower in it.
What is the point of this, we may ask?
The whole point is the harvest.
Everything he does points to one end: he wants a crop at the end; he wants a harvest.
He goes away to a different land and rents the vineyard to tenants.
So far, so good.
When harvest comes, he sends his slaves to collect the harvest from the tenants.
This is the point at which the tenants are supposed to hand over the harvest so the owner gets his due; but they beat and kill the slaves and the owner gets nothing.
He sends more slaves; the same thing happens to them.
It’s as if the tenants, not the owner, have assumed ownership and are now doing whatever they please, even thought the vineyard was only loaned to them.
Finally, he sends his own Son, his own heir: surely the tenants will respect him?
But they do not. They seize him and kill him, thinking they can get their hands on the harvest themselves.
At that point, the owner comes back in person.
And Jesus stops the story!
And he asks his hearers what will happen next.

We’re going to do the same, so before we go on I want you just to discuss with your neighbour some of the questions posed by the parable, because a parable is something literally ‘thrown down’ alongside something else, so that one meaning is held up against another. So oblige me for a minute:

Who is the landowner, what is the vineyard; who are the tenants, the slaves and the son? Who are the new tenants who will deliver the harvest? And what is the harvest today?

So, what happens when the owner comes back?
Look carefully at verses 41 and 43.
Given the primary objective of the planting of a vineyard, and if the owner is God, what kind of people is God looking for?
He’s looking for a people who will bring in the harvest.
The religious leaders by and large rejected Jesus, but the ‘stone the builders rejected has become the capstone’ that is, the keystone around which the whole edifice of our faith stands complete.
And today Jesus is calling us to join with him in bringing in a harvest of people.
How, practically, can be we be fully involved as a church with that?

What do we want to be when we grow up?
And what is stopping us from becoming that today?
What kind of people is God looking for today?
Is he looking for people with a perfect religious pedigree, or for people who will help him bring in the harvest?
What or where is the harvest today?


Saturday, 27 September 2014

Christian Feminist?

Image attributed to neontommy.com

This week Emma Watson, child star of the Harry Potter films, delivered a speech to the UN launching a campaign called #HeforShe, http://www.heforshe.org/ which calls on men to join the fight against global sexual inequality.  

The earlier announcement that 24 year old Emma had been asked to become the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for Women drew so much attention that the UN website crashed and was down for 12 hours.

Her speech http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hyg_QIYKv_g
was notable for several reasons and got me asking myself again a question I've been asking since I was 18. Am I a feminist? 

Initially her speech was hailed as a 'Game Changer' for feminism; then it was criticised for being meaningless to actually effect any change. I watched it and felt stirred, but that was partly to do with the manner in which it was delivered - she'd flawlessly memorised the whole thing and in its delivery employed that sweet (bordering on slightly cloying) serious earnestness for which so many girls love her Harry Potter character, Hermione Granger. The fact that Watson is so young and has her whole life ahead of her to do something lasting, I found an inspiring thought. You'd have to be a real cynic to knock it.

I first encountered feminism at University in the form of the 'Women's Group', that my much more switched on and politically aware friend attended, which I, for rather pathetic reasons, didn't attend. It seemed a bit too radical, a bit 'other'. The interesting thing, according to my atheist friend, was that at some point during the life of this group, it was lead by a Christian student, which, looking back, was pretty radical, for a Christian.

So can you be a Christian and a feminist?

One one level, of course you can. Many have combined them - for example, Sarah Bessey's 2013 book, Jesus Feminist http://sarahbessey.com/jesus-feminist/jesus-feminist-endorsements/ and in lots of ways it makes sense. There is a basic shared standpoint on equality, though it might be couched in different terms. But there are very likely different over arching narratives to Christianity and feminism, which it's just as well to be aware of. Ideologies are important, as 21st Century 'peaceful' Islam vs. 21st Century militant 'Islamism' illustrates.

The basic tenet by which I'm happy to be called feminist is the conviction that 'God shows no partiality' (Acts 10:34) a truth revealed to Peter after he'd seen the vision that indicated God was offering salvation to Gentile as well as Jew. It logically follows that if this is God's position vis a vis the races, it must be true between genders, and this is what we see in Genesis - two persons, one male, one female, each made and mandated together, equally, in the image of God.* So the starting point for equality, for me, is the Christian gospel, into which feminism can slot fairly comfortably, up to a point.

Where I part company with feminism is where there is any appeal to patriarchy as the definitive overarching narrative by which everything else is interpreted. This tends to have the effect of making everything about women's rights, when actually the deeper issues are, for me, best described by GK Chesterton in his short letter to the Times, after that newspaper asked its readers 'What is wrong with the world?', to which he replied, 'Sir, I am'. Or to put it another way: 'the heart of the problem is the problem of the human heart'. In short, we all need redemption.

Patriarchy still exists globally, though, and no one who has read anything recently from Christian Aid would doubt it http://www.christianaid.org.uk/whatwedo/in-focus/gender/gender-overview.aspx 

However, I'm also not proud of the way in which the Church itself has been compromised by gender favouritism, ongoing in nearly all sections of it now for centuries, though of course we've come some distance. Sometimes the Church has led the way (St Paul enjoined women to learn alongside men: this was radical for Jews) and sometimes we've lagged behind. So where feminism and equal rights discourse have taken the ball and run with it, leaving the Church dragging its feet, we've had to appeal to the feminist framework, which, you could argue, has itself grown out of the Christian ethic of God's equal creation anyway. 

Christianity and feminism are like two threads that have woven in and out of each other down the centuries, sometimes coming together, sometimes coming apart. When Christians complain that the Church has 'bought into' secular anthropologies, with their talk of 'human rights' and 'equal rights', I think, well what has influenced these movements for banishing favouritism in the first place? It was God's idea originally. The Church does not own the intellectual property rights of Almighty God; the redemption hermeneutic of the radical Jesus has a life of its own; the Spirit blows where it wills.

So I support the #HeforShe campaign, especially its idea that both men and women are in some way reduced by gender inequality. That seems a good gospel idea. Like all social media fuelled phenomena, it will need to be backed up by hard action, though. Gender justice globally is linked to poverty, and poverty is about the abuse of power and the unequal distribution of the earth's resources, in which we are all implicated. 

I wish I'd been a bit more radical when I was 18. I was certainly a Christian then, but was I a feminist? I don't know. My best friend was, and I'm glad for her influence. Down the years, as I've gone into the Church (a Church where I'd hardly heard a woman's voice from the pulpit, nor seen a woman presiding at Holy Communion till I was over 40) and taken up a role as a woman leading in the Church, am I now 'finally feminist'? 

It would have to be a 'yes', but a qualified one. 

As for Emma Watson, putting herself on the line out there, GO FOR IT girl, and bless you.

*I don'y buy into interpretations that put Adam 'above' Eve in the creation pecking order because she was taken from his rib; I see this as indicative of their interconnectedness. 



Sunday, 21 September 2014

Building bridges

Newly opened Whitchurch Bridge, pristine and ready for crossing.

We finally have a re-opened bridge in our village, all brand spanking new and beautiful, and I've been thinking about the significance of bridges all week.

For those familiar with the social media site, Twitter, one of the most followed accounts is @Pontifex which is the official Twitter account of Pope Francis, with 4.5 million followers. 

What do these two seemingly random facts - a strengthened bridge and the tweeting Bishop of Rome - have in common?

The etymology of 'pontifex' is pons (Latin for bridge) and facere (to do, to make), so a 'pontifex' or 'pontiff' is actually a bridge builder. It refers to any Bishop. I like to think it refers to any Christian.

Building bridges came to mind too because of the Scottish referendum on Independence. For all sorts of reasons (mostly inchoate, to do with having had a beloved Scottish grandfather) I was in the 'No Thanks' camp (not that I had a vote...) In the same way, I'm against us leaving the European Union. In the words of some mobile telephone company or other, 'We're better together'. Though I am well aware that 'together' needs to mean 'on equal terms' for it to be meaningful at all, and that it doesn't feel like that to a lot of Scots...

This week there was a social media conversation about the BBC TV Sunday programme, Songs of Praise. Some vicars apparently think it's outmoded and twee, containing nothing remotely like what real faith is like in the 21st Century. I admit I'm a bit allergic to soft focus photography, but I caught an episode this afternoon where the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool and the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool (both new in post) joined together in a prayer for peace on this 'World Peace  Day' and stories were told of Christians who were building bridges to their neighbours, resulting in the gospel bringing new life, new hope and freedom from addictions for some of those society had forgotten. Faith in Christ was certainly very real for those people who shared their own stories.

I remember a defining moment during Holy Communion in my local church many years ago. All the usual people were there, no change; all going up to receive the bread and the wine...then we were joined at the altar rail by someone new, someone seeking, someone from my generation (shock, horror). I was so excited I remember a spontaneous prayer rose up and took me by surprise. I was thinking about Ordination at the time and wondering if it really was for me. I found myself saying to God (and I hope it came from him because it was quite a grumpy prayer) 'if the kingdom doesn't look like this, like new people coming in as a matter of normality, I don't want to be part of it.' In other words, if there's nothing new, no new life, no new hope, no breaking through of the Spirit into lives where previously Christ was absent, I'd rather just be a humanist.

I still feel like that. Where is the wind of the Spirit blowing today? Where is the hunger for sharing the Good News? Because it's all about bridges. Can I be a bridge over which someone else can walk to faith? And will it be a bridge that is suitably fortified, welcoming and ready for just such an occasion?

Sunday, 7 September 2014

The dreaded 'Giving' sermon


2 Corinthians 9:1-9, Luke 6:32-38


'The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver'.



This week we delivered our stewardship

campaign leaflet to every home in the village.


September seems a good time to take a fresh look at our 

giving, as part of our stewardship of the resources 

entrusted to us by God. New academic year, new start.


In all our thoughts about money, though, especially when 

there doesn't seem to be enough, we mustn't forget 

to ask the question: where is God in all this?

The worst thing we could do as a church was to leave God 

out of the equation!


So, keeping this in mind, here's another question for us to 

consider today:


What is the number one problem facing the church today?

Various answers have been suggested: apathy; inability to 

keep up with pace of change; youth exodus; reduction of 

Christian input in schools; not enough volunteers; a multi 

faith society; all too busy; no perceived need for God any 

more etc...


I wonder what answer you would come up with if you eves-

dropped some PCC meetings around the country…


I suspect you might be tempted to think, from endless 

conversations and doleful shaking of heads, that the 

number one problem facing the Church today is lack of 

money.


So I was interested to read quite a different take on the 

problem, quoted by Martyn Percy in a recent 

Cuddesdon newsletter.


The biggest problem facing the Church, according to Hardy and Ford, who wrote the 1984 book, Jubilate: Theology in Praise, is 'coping with the overwhelming abundance of God'.

    Because God is into abundance. When you begin to think about all the ways in which we already live in blessing, it can become overwhelming.


Why not carry out your own 'blessing audit'?

Here's mine:


A typical day:

·      I wake up

·      I have slept

·      I have slept safely

·      I can know that breakfast awaits

·      I can wash in clean water

·      I can stand under a hot shower

·      I have purposeful work

·      I can meet with others to pray without fear

·      I spend my days in a very nice house

·      I have a loving family

·      I live in a beautiful and peaceful place

·      God has taken care of my children as they grow up

·      They are developing their own lives

·      God has worked in my life and I can look back and see many blessings

·      God knew me before I was born

·      Many of the things we enjoy today – including the blessings of stability, love, a good example to follow, all blessings passed on to us from other generations that we can only begin to imagine

·      We know the Christian gospel – somehow, centuries ago, the saints brought it to us and we have the blessings of that still today

·      We know the forgiveness freely available in Christ

·      We have the Scriptures

·   We have a culture of free speech and freedom of worship

·     The sun shines on the righteous and the unrighteous alike

·      When we celebrate harvest in a few weeks time, it will be a harvest enjoyed by all, whatever their beliefs

·      We can take holidays

·      We can turn to free health care when we need it

·      Our politicians are largely accountable


When you stop to think about it, God’s blessing is utterly 

abundant.

     

And, if you’re like me, it’s easy to miss it.


It’s easy to feel there’s not enough.


BUT we must resist the discourse of scarcity


We can remind ourselves of the scriptural truth about 

blessing:


In our reading Paul writes to the Corinthians who have 

previously promised a financial gift to the Macedonians, 

who were in severe need.


You can almost hear Paul’s anxiety as he reminds them of 

their decision to give in this way:

   

  'So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you, and arrange in advance for this bountiful gift that you have promised, so that it may be ready as a voluntary gift and not as an extortion.'


Even Paul is tempted to doubt the generosity of the 

Corinthians. I love the mixture of the free choice behind 

their generous gift but being reminded of the necessity 

of following through with it it as well!


In verse 7 Paul details the best way to give: 


'each of you must give as you have made up your mind, 

not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a 

cheerful giver'. 


I love that: everyone is free to make up his/her mind about

what they will give. Imagine churches paying their 

Diocesan Share cheerfully (that would definitely be a sign 

of the Holy Spirit...)


And note this: the law of sowing and reaping will 

always apply.


In other words, what you reap, you sow.

    
   What we reap, we sow.


If we give sparingly we will reap sparingly.


The message is the same in our gospel:


'...give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’


Think about the coca cola can you shake up for fun, then open it - it bursts out everywhere. That's the image of blessing - pouring out in abundance.

That’s why we began by thinking about blessing – when we can truly say ‘I’m overwhelmed with the generosity of God’, that’s when we can be cheerful givers.

So is it sensible that we decide in advance that a percentage of our income will be given to God?

God’s people down the years have sometimes done so and sometimes not...

In some churches, tithing is considered normal: i.e. giving a tenth of one’s income to the church.
·  
   And giving to charities (I believe) is on top if that.
·  
   That’s a sizeable amount, when you think about it…
·  
  Someone has calculated that US Christians give on average 2.5% of their income to the Church (let's talk about them, because it's easier to do than talk about us...)

    If they were to tithe, this is what might happen:
  • $25 billion could relieve global hunger, starvation and deaths from preventable diseases in five years.
  • $12 billion could eliminate illiteracy in five years. 
  • $15 billion could solve the world’s water and sanitation issues, specifically at places in the world where 1 billion people live on less than $1 per day. 
  • $1 billion could fully fund all overseas mission work.
  • $100 – $110 billion would still be left over for additional ministry expansion. 
Those are some amazing numbers.


Read more at http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/church/what-would-happen-if-church-tithed#p7FFUdHgkMLjRmfO.9

I believe the C of E current advice is that we consider giving 5% of our income to the Church.

I suspect this actually means to the local church.

Now a lot of people feel giving to the wider church or to Christian charities (or other charities) counts…I don’t know if this is what the C of E has in mind but…

I once sat down and calculated how much this 5% to the local church would represent to me and my family

Let’s just say that our giving to the local church would have to treble just to keep up.

It’s an awkward but perhaps important thing to do, because it helps us to refocus the debate from ‘there’s not enough money’ and ‘the Share is too big’ to ‘we respond generously to God because he is generous to us.’

Imagine if all our giving trebled…

Now I know that percentages have their disadvantages: if you are wealthy, 10% can represent a too easy easy sum.

If you are poor, 10% is a lot to find.

But proportional giving was the way the OT people of God lived all the time and it was considered perfectly normal.

But I don't want to get into the area of ‘you must do this/you must do that’.

Remember: ‘The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver'.

And the promise from God’s angle is this: 

And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.

The discourse here is not that the church is lacking – far from it, the church (i.e. the people of God) aware as they are of their abundant blessings, are giving back to God, giving to others and receiving yet more blessing form God.

That’s the virtuous circle (as opposed to the vicious circle).
So what can we do practically?

 

1. Live in the blessing of God (count them each day; dwell in them)

2. Consider your response and be generous

3. Consider your response to giving afresh each year

4. If you’re in a position to revisit your giving, to calculate a percentage even; do so!


For giving is a not primarily a matter of money; 

it’s a matter of the heart.

 

Amen.