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, 6 February 2016

I closed my eyes, pulled back the curtain...

Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

2 Corinthians 3:18And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

Luke 9:28 - 9 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 

The first line of a popular song from the Musical Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat, goes like this:
“I closed my eyes/pulled back the curtain/to see for certain/what I thought I knew…”
Today’s Gospel shows us the peeling back of a curtain between earth and heaven as Jesus is revealed in all his glory on the Mount of Transfiguration.
It’s a glimpse of glory, which is very tantalizing.

We’ll firstly take a look at the word GLORY, then have a digression on the difficulty of imagining Eternal Life and thirdly, we’ll ask where in our lives do we experience glory?

1. Glory is a fascinating topic in Scripture – I wonder what images the word conjures up for you?
Perhaps something akin to a bright light, something white and blinding, maybe images of a coronation service…certainly not an every day occurrence.
The Westminster Catechism talks of glory: to the question: ‘What is the chief end of man?’ the answer goes: ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.’

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, a Sunday all about GLORY.
It’s a Sunday when we think of Jesus, an otherwise ordinary looking man, who had no particular physical attractiveness, and who experienced all the common emotions and troubles known to humankind, being suddenly revealed to be who he truly was, behind the curtain (so to speak).

The word ‘glory’ in Greek is doxa, from where we get our word ‘doxology’.
A doxology is what we say after a psalm: ‘Glory to the Father and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, Amen’.
Saying a doxology is a little repetitive reminder that despite all appearances to the contrary, the glory of God is his very nature, and that nature is something we can fully rely on to be real.

‘Glory’ in the Old Testament has a special word: Shekinah.
The Shekinah of God was His manifest presence in a local place, like the Temple.
It was said that when Moses came down from his mountain top experience, after receiving the 10 commandments, that his face shone with glory, the glory of having been in the presence of God.
The glory shining in his face was so bright he had to put a veil over it when he talked with ordinary people; otherwise they could not bear to look at it.

On Transfiguration Sunday we see Jesus revealed for a moment in all his true glory.
It’s a moment to savour, because soon we will enter Lent and it will be a while before the resurrection glory of Easter Day dawns (though let’s not forget that every Sunday is a resurrection morning really).

We can picture the mountain top scene perhaps:
Jesus has taken his closest three friends up the mountain to pray.
Can you imagine going up a mountain with Jesus to share a time of prayer?
It would be pretty special.
While he was praying the appearance of his face changed and suddenly his clothes became dazzling white.

Now strange things can happen at the top of mountains.
There’s a lot of cloud up there, the weather might be unpredictable, the atmosphere might be a bit rarified; you might be worn out from the climb…
Can you really believe your eyes as Jesus’ appearance begins to change – is that the sun bursting through – or just Jesus getting whiter and whiter till you can hardly look,
As the curtain is peeled back for a moment….
…..the curtain that separates this age from the age to come?

2. A little digression on the nature of the afterlife…

We have problems in our language describing the afterlife/heaven/eternal life etc.
We think we live here now, then we’ll progress to something that comes after.
We struggle when we use time-related words.
But another way to think of it, is that Life Eternal is present alongside ours and that’s possibly much more helpful.

There’s a scene from the Harry Potter movies where Harry sees his godfather die in a battle against the forces of evil.
In the film the sequence is slowed; in slow motion you see the fatal blow fall on the godfather, Sirius; you see him stop for a moment, fall backwards slowly, and a curtain appears – a very flimsy curtain - and he falls through it and into the other side, wherever that is…

Sirius falls through the curtain...
Granted it's separate from 
Harry, in that Harry is distraught and cannot see his godfather anymore; but in fact he is apparently only on the other side of the curtain…
That’s a good visual image of Life Eternal being just out of sight, NEXT to ours…

Or imagine you’re at a theatre, and the scenery is stacked up one screen behind the other, each screen ready to be brought out at the right time.
As the scene changes, the scenery that you can see now, is lifted for a moment to reveal something much more spectacular behind it.

On the Mount of Transfiguration, the reality behind the ordinary mountain walk is suddenly revealed, and the disciples ‘see’ the Old Testament prophets alongside the exalted Son of God, talking with him about his forthcoming death.

They suddenly see reality. And NOTE: when this happened they were praying.

3. So finally, when have you suddenly glimpsed spiritual reality right in your midst?
Sometimes it’s at our most testing moments that we see the reality behind the curtain…
Moments when I have glimpsed the glory have often been at funerals, or with the bereaved who are reaching out to God; as well as the moment when couples make their wedding vows, or a baby is christened, or I’m singing an uplifting hymn, or sitting in silence in the presence of a flickering candle….you will have your own moments.
Be encouraged that probably the times when we’re most likely to glimpse the glory poking through the curtain are the hard times – so we mustn’t lose heart.
Suffering leads to glory if we let it.
Paul says that we reflect the glory as we are being made into God’s likeness,
That’s a huge privilege and also a challenge.
That challenge is that the transformation he speaks of needs our co-operation.
Lent is a perfect time to reassess this; to reassess our spiritual lives, our walk with Christ.
The Lent Course a perfect format in which to be open to each other in power of the Spirit.
But if you can’t come to the Lent Course, find a way to make room for Christ, especially in your prayer life this Lent.
Is there a book, a task, a daily discipline that you can practice to deepen your relationship with Christ?

Can I put in a plug for not just the usual ‘I’m giving up chocolate’?
There’s nothing wrong with a type of fast, but the reason for doing it is to draw nearer to God.
In Lent we pray for the grace to catch the glimpses of glory.

"I closed my eyes/pulled back the curtain/to see for certain/what I thought I knew..."


Friday, 5 February 2016

"E" is for Evangelism

This week brought news that Pentecost 2016 is to be set aside in the Church of England as a time of specific prayer for evangelism:


Evangelism is one of those E words, like Evangelical, that can cause confusion, even inside the Church, as a previous post explored: http://parttimepriest.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Evangelical 

From the Greek evangelion, it means gospel, or Good News, and suggests that if you're a Christian you'll want in some way to share the Christian message with others. To some people, both inside and outside the Church, this can come across as:

a) very scary
b) wholly inappropriate
c) thankfully only for super keen Christians

However, the reality is that with the decline of traditional ways of passing on the faith (you go to Sunday School because your parents did, and their parents did, and their parents did, etc.) it's going to become more and more the norm to find intentional ways of sharing the Christian message, because we in the church can't just assume that other people are somehow getting the message anyway.

The reaction of clerics on social media to the news that the Archbishop of Canterbury is writing to all 11,300 C of E clergy urging them to 'engage' with the 2016 evangelism project has been mixed, viz.

1. At last - what a great idea 
2. What does he think we've been doing for the last n years?
3. Cringe.....whatever happened to good old fashioned holiness/authenticity?

It's the same with all initiatives that come down from on high - they can either look like the Church behaving desperately, teaching us to suck eggs, or providing us with exactly what's been missing for years.

Reactions to the E word are all about Churchmanship. 

I went into the Church full of evangelistic/fresh expressions zeal and found that really what 'the Church' wanted was services taken, sermons given and pastoral work sensitively carried out. When you are channelled in this direction, it is hardly surprising that explicit evangelisation becomes less forthcoming. 

Then again, there is such a thing as pre-evangelism (a kind of preparing the ground), and weddings, funerals, baptism preparation and any community/school event is likely to have a large element of this anyway. So in this particular small, semi rural, multi parish setting I feel like we're doing evangelism and we're not doing evangelism...

If society is becoming less religious, less clued in about church, then pre-evangelism is going to be more and more needed. In the 80s we thought nothing of 'putting on an event' in a church hall, inviting 'non-Christians' (who were often loosely connected with the church anyway) to hear an evangelistic speaker, and expecting several to respond. I can't imagine that working today.

My first experience of evangelism up close and personal was at age 16. It was bracing, to say the least, but then thankfully you're often up for bracing new experiences when you're 16. I was a disinterested church-going teenager and had been invited, along with best friend, "E" (yes, weirdly, her name began with E) to 'an event' like the one detailed above, only on a larger scale - Wembley Arena, no less. 

The place was crawling with Christian youth and full of worship bands, missionary stalls and budding evangelists. "E" was 17, bolshy, funny and sceptical, and had no church background. She and I were wandering around in the foyer looking at stalls when a young guy stopped us and started making conversation, based on the T shirt "E" was wearing; a T shirt featuring the London Marathon, which her uncle had just run in.

'Did you run the London Marathon?' asked our keen guy, eying the T shirt (he was older than us - maybe mid 20s). My friend replied no, it had been her uncle who ran it. 

'I ran the Marathon reciting bible verses all the way round', said our eager conversation partner, introducing himself as Kevin. I could see the word 'weirdo' passing across "E"'s face.
'Really?' she said sarcastically.

Undeterred, our young evangelist then launched into an unrelenting discussion with "E" about the bible, belief and Christianity, demolishing all her prejudices and engaging her in one topic after another till I felt embarrassed, and she expressed herself to be very tired. A hint that a lesser, perhaps subtler Christian might have taken. But not our Kevin. 

'I'm tired too', he said, proceeding to inform us that he had been up till 3am that morning talking to a group of people in a night club about Jesus. He was nothing if not persistent. After eventually reducing "E" to tears; no mean feat, given her sparkiness and propensity for loud displays at parties, he then turned his attention to me and said, more or less, 'And what are we going to do about you?' Feeling reasonably smug, I cited my life-long church going habits, but this cut absolutely no ice with Kevin.

From goodness knows where, he started talking about romantic relationships and inner and outer congruence, honesty, holiness, sacrifice; the works. I was gobsmacked because he weirdly seemed to know exactly what made me tick and it was like nothing I'd ever come across before in my sheltered, middle class, polite, studious church-going existence. It would be an understatement to say I felt as though I had met the truth of myself face to face, and after some further soul searching, I came away with the deep and shocking realisation that being a Christian was all about forgiveness, grace and beginning a completely new life.

I'm sad to say that I lost touch with "E" so I don't know if she stuck with our new found faith. As for me, I was hooked, and never looked back. The messenger might have been a little crazy, but the message was dynamite, because it revealed an actual spiritual reality that I hadn't bargained on at all. Who knew church was actually about something (someone) REAL? 

In effect, I had been evangelised.

I wouldn't recommend the approach of Kevin. I later found out he was training for the Anglican priesthood and six years down the line spotted his name on a list of C of E Chaplains that attended the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Perhaps he'd mellowed by then. Perhaps his abrasive, no-holds-barred approach to evangelism was well suited to tough young athletes. I expect he'd be delighted at the Pentecost 2016 Evangelism project. In some ways I pray to have his boldness, but on reflection, if I should, in my enthusiasm for sharing the Good News, reduce an unwitting parishioner to tears, I might ironically discover that the C of E, whilst desiring the fire of Pentecost, does require from its priests a bit more pastoral sensitivity than Kevin the Evangelist was blessed with.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

"The bible says..."

The Archbishops argued, but they also washed each other's feet
and prayed for each other in their diversity.
Anglican Archbishops from all over the world met recently to discuss, among other things, disagreements over human sexuality. Since then, Christians on social media have responded either with sadness or with satisfaction at the outcome, using a variety of ways of appealing to the bible to support their view. If you are going to appeal to a source of authority for your standpoint, it is often helpful to know not just that you are using that source, but how you are using it, and what other factors might be influential too.

Everyone has sources of authority, be they values we imbibed as children, influential books, political positions, or philosophies. The person who tells you they make up their mind entirely free of any influence, doesn't know themself. From time to time, unpicking your sources of authority can be unsettling, especially if you have held a position on a subject and then find that as you look at how you have got to your position, you can honestly say that your position is weakening. We can see this if we reflect on how attitudes towards marriage have altered from one generation to another.

So, for example, it's widely accepted today, at least in the UK, that a couple who come to the Church of England with a marriage request, will normally have lived together already. Not many C of E priests I know even think of this as in any way strange. We go right ahead and welcome them, of course; me included. But 200 years ago, social mores were very different. Imagine how society (let alone the church) would have reacted then to an unmarried woman living intimately with an unmarried man. And yet the bible hasn't changed. It says various things; it doesn't mention others; and all sorts of people appeal to it for various positions. We who take moral stances and say 'the bible says.....' have sometimes forgotten that morality has its own fashions.

To realise you are a child of your generation is to realise that the things you find morally 'normal' are different from what your parents thought of as 'normal' and (more challenging) will be different from what your children will think of as 'normal'. What is actually going on? Is it that as time goes by, things are genuinely going downhill morally, OR, are things actually improving morally? Your answer to this depends a lot on your perspective. Or perhaps it's neither of the above; it's just that culture alters, and sometimes these alterations appear to be in line with God's good purposes for humankind, and sometimes they don't. 

The tricky thing (and, surprise, surprise, exactly what the Archbishops found) is that not everyone agrees on how to read the intersection between faith and culture.

This is why, on the subject of human sexuality, we need to be gentle with the consciences of those with whom we disagree. It is not a good idea to ride roughshod over someone else's conscience, because though you might be 'unshackled' yourself on a particular topic, one day you might wish that your conscience be given some leeway on another. St Paul, counselling the church over a change in attitude towards religious practice and food, asked that those with a 'stronger conscience' defer to those with a weaker one, so as not to 'lose' them, as it were (1 Corinthians 10:28-9).

When someone says 'the bible says x, y, or z', they're probably referring to a text, or group of texts, which say certain things about the situation for which they were written, and which might have a much wider application too. So there are many texts about marriage. All of them are about heterosexual marriage, and that has been taken to mean entirely opposite things: that marriage between persons of the same gender is wrong; or that since the bible doesn't mention them, gay unions can't be that wrong. Different people read 'the argument from silence' completely different ways. So it's complex. The challenge for believers (and for all people with sacred books) is always how to interpret the texts...

(See this from the archive, for instance) http://www.parttimepriest.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/religion

And we don't interpret them alone. We interpret them with each other and (especially) alongside those with whom we don't agree. Whatever the Archbishops did or did not achieve, at least they sat down with each other to talk. 

Anglicans value Scripture highly, but reason and tradition are also important tools in interpretation, something the great Anglican Doctor of the church, Richard Hooker explored in his 16th Century work The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.

Hooker inaugurated the Anglican 'via media', the middle way between the Roman Catholic and the Puritan answer to doctrinal matters. The middle way appeals to me as a concept - I like to think it's reasonable and respectful - but is seen by some as a hopeless liberal fudge. 

Hooker's Scripture, Reason and Tradition can be seen as a three legged stool in all matters theological and ecclesiastical. No believer is outside a tradition - we all develop our beliefs and faith practices within one - and we may as well recognise the nature of our particular one, whether Conservative Evangelical, Catholic, Pentecostal, Methodist, Charismatic, Liberal, or whatever. 

A three legged stool of Scripture, Reason and Tradition is stable - a chord of three strands cannot be broken. Three is good. Fast forward a few centuries and Wesley also stressed experience, going one better and giving us the 'Wesleyan Quadrilateral': Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience'. When Christians make decisions about what God thinks on a particular topic, they could do worse than consider these four in conversation with each other.

For example, for centuries, until 1994 in fact, the Church of England officially interpreted scriptures concerning female leadership in the church as prohibitive, not even imagining that women could be priests. Many bible texts taken at face value appeared to point in this direction. Scripture and Tradition held that female ordination was absolutely no-go. And for years, that was the norm. But reasonable voices began to question it. If society was changing to embrace women in all levels of public life, and if women themselves were saying they thought God was calling them to ordination (voicing their experience) shouldn't the church think again about women's leadership? 

And that is what the Church of England did. Other Christian denominations got there faster, some have yet to arrive. It took a long time but eventually we embraced the idea, even though the bible had not changed. Yet how it was interpreted changed. In addition, the C of E, along with many other denominations, also redefined marriage to include those who might re-marry after divorce, something our Anglican forebears would have baulked at. Because society was accepting that although marriage is ideally for life, sometimes things go wrong and people want a fresh start.

Some Christians get nervous at the mention of 'society' and the re-interpretation of biblical texts. They think the church is capitulating to social pressure, being moulded by the times, etc. etc. without realising that 'society' and 'church' are a lot less separate than we imagine. If we believe that God is active throughout the world, surely it's not just through believers that good change can be brought about. (But what is good change?!)

So next time you cite a bible verse in support of an argument, ask yourself, why have I chosen this verse and not another; how has my Tradition interpreted this subject in the past; how does reason handle texts which say different things about the same topic, or nothing about the topic; and whose voices (with different experiences from mine) should be brought to this topic?

And whatever you do, avoid pointless and hurtful arguments on social media. Some people genuinely want to engage and some only want to win the argument.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Not very dry January

Sermon for Epiphany 2.

1 Corinthians 12:1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.
John 2: 3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ 

Despite its being 'Dry January', this morning we're confronted with an overwhelming abundance of wine.

When Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana, the amount of wine produced was staggering. In fact I did some maths on this, and discovered it far outstrips the amount of wine purchased, even, for the ‘world’s 2nd most expensive wedding, between Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes (2006), which cost $2m ($2.2m when adjusted for inflation).
Held at the 15th century Odescalchi Castle outside Rome, this wedding featured a five-tiered white chocolate cake decorated with marzipan roses. They were joined by Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez and David Beckham, among others. Costs included $900,000 for guest airfare and accommodations and $180,000 for 300 bottles of wine.’ 

According to John’s account, the six stone water jars, which provided the water for the wine, each held 20-30 gallons…
If 12 bottles = 2.378 gallons
720 bottles= approx. 120 gallons (assuming the stone water jars had 20 gallons in each).
100 guests need…. 50 bottles?
720 bottles therefore, would do for 1500 guests…

It speaks to us of abundance. (‘I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly’).


First, four interesting details of the story:

1. Jesus was invited to the wedding party (Are you the kind of person people want at their parties?) What do we deduce from this? He was a fun person to have around/he was someone who made warm friendships/he was connected in the community and known/he hallowed the most ordinary of life events by his presence (his presence at this wedding is alluded to in the Preface to the Marriage Service).

    2. Mary noticed the wine had run out and thought it noteworthy to mention to Jesus. Why? Was she embarrassed for the couple? Maybe they were not that well off and had not been able to afford enough wine. If you are welcomed into a home and not offered a drink it is in some ways a failure of hospitality. Other wedding failures one reads about have included various mishaps ironically connected to drinking too much; wearing too little; behaving embarrassingly at the post wedding dance and saying unforgivable things at the wedding reception.

Why does she ask Jesus? It shows she was used to him sorting things out – NB. she didn’t specify what he should do. This is a trap we fall into in our prayers. She didn’t say: ‘they’ve run out of wine; it might be a good idea if you tried a miracle here – you’re obviously gearing up for one; how about turning the water into wine?’ It was probably a million miles from the imagination of Mary that Jesus would do what he did, in fact. And that is how it is with how God moves by his Spirit today. In church life, especially where gifts and calling are concerned, sometimes the people who end up coming forward are not those you would have picked; sometimes money comes in from unusual places; sometimes provision comes at the last minute from unexpected sources. In fact when we’ve stopped being surprised by God, it may be a sign that our faith is growing stale.

3. Jesus appears to be reluctant to respond. He says to her: woman, what concern is that to you and to me?’ The Gr. literally says ‘what to me and to you, woman?’ (the translators insert ‘concern’). The King James says ‘Woman, what have I to do with thee?’ which makes it sound as though he doesn’t want anything to do with his mother: it seems to me rather he is questioning whether now is the appropriate time to reveal his glory. He says his hour is not yet come. The Message renders it well: “Is that any of our business, Mother—yours or mine? This isn’t my time. Don’t push me.” However, as the other gospels show, Jesus often does respond to being pushed: he’s good at planning but good at spontaneity as well: recall the Syrophonecian woman whose daughter had a demon – even the dogs eat the crumbs under the table – for which response Jesus heals outside of the house of Israel, in Gentile territory, responding across religious, ethnic and gender boundaries in the process.

4. When he does agree to do a miracle (or sign, as John would have it) it is not advertised with a loud shout. The Chief Steward makes the comment about the good wine being brought out first, whereas in this wedding party the best is left till last, but he does this without knowing how the good wine has materialised. And Jesus makes no attempt to advertise the sign. Those who will read the sign, understand it, as John makes clear when he writes 'Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him'.

So what have we discovered?

1. Jesus is good company.
    2. As soon as there’s an issue, Mary turns to Jesus but doesn’t dictate what he should do.
    3. Timing is important to Jesus but he can be opportuned. (this suggests an open future that our prayers can affect).
    4. And finally, some of the most amazing things spiritually, happen in secret.

We started with the abundance of God though, and this is the image I want us to take away.

Focus your 5 senses on the first sign of Jesus; the sheer overwhelming abundance of wine: the colour of it, the smell of it; its power to make glad the heart, and even to intoxicate. But mostly its overwhelming abundance.
We’ve said that the stone water jars each held about 20-30 gallons and were used for ritual washing.
In turning them into wine, Jesus is redefining religion to be one of celebratory abundance, to an almost embarrassing degree.
The wine would be equivalent (at the most conservative estimate) to 720 bottles. 
Remember at the 2nd most expensive wedding of all time, as recorded by the Telegraph, there were only 300 bottles of wine. This is more than double – enough for 1500 wedding guests. What was Jesus even thinking of?
It’s almost as if, once you unleash the abundance of God, you cannot really control it.

Interestingly this is what happened in the early church in Corinth. We had our first reading from Corinthians and it was about spiritual gifts... 

God not only poured down his Spirit at Pentecost, he sent gifts to his church as well. Do you know that if you’re born of the Spirit, if you confess Jesus Christ as Lord, you are able to function in the gifts of the Spirit? It’s a lovely thing to look round the family of God and see them in action – we have amongst us prophets (they say the hard things in love); teachers (they bring the Word of God alive for us); those with gifts of healing, tongues, miraculous faith and discernment. All these and many other gifts God showers on his people but the Corinthians got themselves into chaos with the gifts. They had so many people displaying so many gifts, all simultaneously; they couldn’t function properly during worship. Read on in the letter to the Corinthians to find out what happened. And when we’re in danger of having so many people volunteer to go on the PCC and use their gifts, that we’re in chaos, I’ll let you know.

Of course, often we seem to suffer from the opposite problem: and I suggest that it is one unfortunate characteristic of rural English Anglicanism. Instead of perceiving abundance we appear to see only scarcity. Not enough people, not enough money (apparently), not enough interest in Church.

I leave you with the thought that if the Lord we worship turned water into more than 720 bottles of the finest wine, and didn’t even advertise the fact, we might have got it wrong when we complain of scarcity in the Church.

As we gather round the Lord’s table and fill ourselves up from the abundant grace of Christ, may we each take out of this church the conviction that God is more than enough: for us, for our neighbours, for our community and for our church.

And may we, like the first disciples who recognised his glory, not miss the signs of God’s great abundance this Epiphany tide and throughout the new year.