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.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Gospel, glory and veils

2 Corinthians 4:3-4 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 

Luke 9:28-31 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. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 

The Westminster Catechism asks this question:
‘What is the chief end of man?’
Answer: ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.’
The word ‘glory’ in Greek is doxa, from where we get our word ‘doxology’: the ‘Glory to the Father’ said after psalms are chanted or sung.
‘Glory’ in the OT was a big concept and the rabbis had a special word to describe it: Shekinah.
The Shekinah of God was His manifest presence in a located place.
When God dwelt amongst his people for a protracted period of time, it was said that his glory, his Shekinah, was amongst his people.
His Shekinah inhabited the Temple; crucially when His presence left the Temple this coincided with Israel’s apostasy and their Exile.
It was said that when Moses came down the Mountain after receiving the 10 commandments from God, his face shone with glory, the glory of having been in the presence of a holy God.
The glory shining in his face was so bright he had to put a veil over his face when he talked with the people; otherwise they could not bear to look at it.

Paul, in our first reading, is defending his message against the so-called ‘super apostles’, who promised glory without discipleship/suffering.
Disciples are willing to suffer before they see glory – Paul never hid this fact.
Paul speaks then of the so called veiling of his gospel - the 'the god of this world' veils the gospel, but how does this exactly work?
Which are the things which veil the Good News today?
What things could we be putting in the way, things that act like veils?
Busy-ness, apathy, material comfort, distance from God: perhaps all these and more can act like veils today.
Are there things we do in church (or don’t do) which veil the message?
This is an important question: are we hiding Christ somehow?
Lent is a good time to consider, individually and corporately, what is veiling our walk with God...

It’s sometimes said of those who walk very closely with Christ that you can see something of God in their faces…
I wonder if you can think of anyone…
It’ll be someone who has walked daily with God; someone whose expression is peaceful but perhaps who’s suffered and come through; someone whose obedience and joy have been so much a part of their lives that their very face reflects God’s glory.

Our gospel is about Christ revealed in glory on the Mount of Transfiguration.
He has taken his closest three friends along, and it says he took them up the mountain to pray.
Can you imagine going up a mountain with Jesus to share a time of prayer with him?
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 are clouds swishing around up there, the weather might be more violent; the atmosphere might be a bit rarified, you might be worn out from the climb…
All that was part of the strange experience Peter, James and John had.
But the mountain top is also a metaphor for a spiritual experience.
We say ‘I had a mountain top experience.’
We are usually elated during a mountain top experience; everything seems real and exhilarating.
It was as if Jesus was revealed for a few moments in all his divinity.
Yes, he was still the man they knew and talked with but now they saw ‘beyond the veil’ as it were…
The veil of this life was temporarily parted to reveal a deeper reality.
This reality is open to us and sometimes we sense it closely – if we’ve lost someone we love, or if God’s presence seems particularly real in a particular place.
Jesus is suddenly seen beyond the veil and at God’s right hand.
On one side of him stands Moses, law giver: on the other Elijah, representing all the prophets.
The Law and the Prophets…
What are they doing there with Jesus?
They’re speaking of his departure – his death, which, the text says ‘He was about to accomplish…’
Jesus had been speaking about his death and resurrection - he’s trying to get through to his disciples, but, understandably they are not able yet to equate the Messiah with suffering.
They too do not understand that the Messiah had to suffer before entering his glory.

But the glory they see before them on the mountain top is too much for Peter, James and John; Peter gets incoherent.
Here’s Jesus in all his glory…and the disciples are bamboozled by it…
Peter gabbles some nonsense about putting up shelters, but you cannot box spiritual experience in the hope of living off it for ever.
Because soon you get right back to 'normality'.
Suffering (daily life, the daily grind) and glory.
How do we suffer for our faith?
Certainly not like our persecuted brothers and sisters, but to put Christ first in a world which largely ignores him is tough.
To be brave enough to speak of our involvement in church can be tough.
Sharing your faith is not easy, but if we think of it as shining out automatically, it might help.
It is a natural outpouring of the heart.
We are veiled, if you like – it is Christ who shines out.

As we approach Lent and think about Jesus' Transfiguration today, we pray that our message may be unveiled and that we may reflect his glory to the world in which we live and the community we serve.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

How cosmic is your Christ?

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.  
Colossians 1: 15-16

I had a primary school teacher moment this week and made these jigsaw pairs for Sunday's all age talk on Colossians 1: 15-20, the pre-eminence of Christ or, depending on your age, How big is your Jesus?/How cosmic is your Christ?

There's a reason why I nearly always, out of the 3 set readings for Sunday, go with the gospel for an all age talk. 

Because stories speak loudly, and you can focus on narrative for younger minds, and the meaning behind the story for the older ones (though sometimes, a wonderful bright 6 year old can be relied upon to give the succinct theological meaning in front of everyone else, thus proving the truth, 'from the mouths of babes and infants you have ordained praise').

But this Sunday's gospel is (again) John 1 - the Prologue. We read it at the Carol Service every year: 'In the beginning was the Word'. It's a wonderful pean to the divinity of Christ, but it's not a story. So this Sunday we're going with the Epistle. And that presents some challenges for the children - hence the jigsaws. I enjoy preparing all age talks in the hope that, like the 1970s Heineken advert, they will 'refresh the parts other sermons cannot reach'.

But this still leaves the problem with preaching on doctrine, not narrative: how to avoid the sacred/secular divide? The sacred/secular divide line runs right through every area of life and even believers find it hard not to fall into the chasm - the chasm where you talk about religious stuff in church and then return to your normal every day life completely unaware of how faith relates to your life - to work, leisure, finance, parenting, politics, peace, ecology, healing.

Because the picture of Jesus in the Colossians reading is of a very big Saviour. This is not an image which fits well with the pluralistic range of 'saviours' on offer today. Even thinking about Jesus as a baby or a dead man who mysteriously re-appears is to limit the scope of what St Paul puts before us in this letter. Christ is cosmic. In him all things hold together - that is, atoms as well as the inner healing we all need before we can make peace with our lives and losses.

The pictures of Christ in this short reading are amazingly multi-faceted - hence the wide array of images on one half of the jigsaw pieces. Put briefly, Jesus is:

  • fully part of the Godhead (the image of the invisible God)
  • the agent of and reason for creation (all things have been created through him and for him)
  • the being by which creation holds together
  • the head of the body which is the church
  • the alpha (beginning)
  • the first raised (the first born from the dead)
  • the one through whom we are reconciled to God (by his blood on the cross)
This doesn't just touch on theology but on the way we see the physical world, the metaphysical world, the ecclesiastical world, and the inner world. It speaks to the outburst this week by Stephen Fry, who railed against a God who was 'utterly utterly evil' because he apparently 'created' bone cancer in children. It speaks to the fear of death. It speaks to the human need to find meaning and purpose in life.

Christ is 'all in all' (another favourite Pauline phrase). Here's hoping that young or old tomorrow, we not only have a mind expanding experience of how big Jesus really is, but also take that picture out into the world - a world that is, despite the false sacred/secular divide, still 'charged with the grandeur of God' (Gerard Manley Hopkins). 

Monday, 2 February 2015

Well done, Rory

Has something happened to the media portrayal of the Church? 

I can't stop thinking about the vicar of Broadchurch. I want to call him Rory (his character in Dr Who) but in this case Arthur Darvill plays the part of Revd. Paul Coates, fictional vicar of a seaside town devastated by the murder of an eleven year old boy, in the award winning UK drama, first aired in 2013 and currently running series 2.

I was wary of Broadchurch the first time round. The trailers put me off: everything seemed so utterly desperate. I didn't think I had the emotional energy for it. I was right - unless you have a stone for a heart or are a cynical detective yourself, it would be hard not to be affected by child murder in a quiet Dorset town where everyone, from the dad having an affair, to the loner who lives in a caravan (and the insomniac vicar) is suspect. 

I badly didn't want Revd. Paul to be the killer. I wondered how he managed to carry so much information about so many different people, and still maintain impartiality and fairness, kindness and perceptiveness. Did he get a perverse kick out of being involved in so many lives? I felt keenly my own ministry temptations to wield spiritual power. 

In thinking about much of the media representation of the Church, I delighted that he wasn't bigoted, clueless, stupid or farcical. Are things are improving for clergy, image-wise? Granted, we've had Geraldine Grainger (funny and smart Vicar of Dibley) and Adam Smallbone (flawed and honest inner city priest in Rev.) but in terms of the writers, I wondered what had happened to the public perception of the Church for them to come up with someone so interesting, and central to the drama (who is not, thank God, the murderer). When Revd. Paul stands up for his faith to David Tenant's pointless cynical questioning I wanted to cheer.

The role of Revd. Paul Coates was the very first role cast, with Arthur Darvill in mind - no audition. Did the writers think small close knit community - everyone will know the vicar; let's put a first class one in...(but I thought were always being told the Church is irrelevant to everyday people and their concerns...?)

When tragedy strikes, it is the vicar who finds himself right in the middle of community attempts to come to terms with death, a profound loss of innocence, and the ensuing fear and suspicion. Darvill shadowed a local vicar for his acting preparation and has spoken about how he imagines the loneliness of ministry and yet the opportunity for bringing a community together:


As the local vicar, Revd. Paul is involved in the school where murdered boy, Danny, was a pupil. He breaks up fights, chats with locals in the hotel and talks to the media. He seems to know Danny's parents, Beth and Mark. From the pulpit he voices what many feel, that it's when tragedy strikes that we wonder if God has abandoned us. 'Nineteen people out of a population of 12,000', is his rueful comment afterwards, looking around a mostly empty church. But it means a lot to Danny's Grandma: 'it was comforting; it was just what we needed to hear'.

After suspicion falls on local shop owner, Jack Marshall (a kind of Jude the Obscure figure, with a spent conviction for underage sex) an angry mob gather, wrongly assuming he's guilty of child molestation. The vicar warns he'll need protection, but this goes unheeded and tragically Jack takes his own life. It's up to Revd. Paul to defend his innocence in the funeral address: 'Jack Marshall was a good man' a man who was lonely, who had also lost a child many years ago. This time the church is full of people feeling guilty. He practices just the right tone as he paces his vestry beforehand. It's as if he's earned the right to speak some hard words.

Danny's parent are not religious, but desperate people need comfort. They want to talk to the vicar about their grief ('you can mention God if you like'). A further emotional complication is that Beth is pregnant. Her husband thinks they should focus on the baby but how can she love this new child when every fibre of her being cries out for the other? Wisely the vicar suggests they have the scan; this new life growing inside might be a gift.

The murder case is brought to conclusion. Not only must Paul Coates do that thing all vicars dread - take the funeral of a child - but as a Christian leader he must dare to introduce the first hint of the extraordinary possibility of forgiveness. His funeral text: 'Put away from you all bitterness, and wrath and anger, and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, just as in Christ, God forgave you' (Ephesians 4:31-32). You can't really imagine any other words being so appropriate.

As the camera pans round the packed church, we remember that as well as a family grieving, there's a community struggling with fear, anger, betrayal and the truth behind complex, misplaced human expressions of love. Finally, it's also a community which comes together under Paul's leadership to light a beacon to Danny on the beach where his body was discovered. It's an incredibly moving and fitting act of solidarity, even hope.

So well done Rory. Serious, single minded and entirely solid. Now that Christianity as a practised religion is pretty rare in your average community, is it the case that our media clerics no longer have the luxury of being lazy, incompetent or ineffectual, but instead need to be wholly convincing, in tune with the community and willing to step up when the occasion demands?

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Not just information - Transformation

Epiphany 4 Sermon

Mark 1:21-22
They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, (Jesus) entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 

In Mark’s gospel this morning we find Jesus in the Synagogue, teaching.
The word is ‘didaskē’, from which we get ‘didactic’.
The Jews were used to Rabbis teaching – the Scribes were learned men who studied the Law, transcribed it and wrote commentaries on it: Ezra, in the OT book of that name, was a scribe. They were ultimately concerned with the written word – hence ‘scribe’ – scribblers.
So in one sense Jesus is not out of place teaching in the Synagogue.
He was a Rabbi, and Rabbis taught.
But in another sense, he was doing something very different.
Mark tells us they were amazed at his teaching because he taught 'as one with authority'.
There are some people who say things and you instantly know their words have power and authenticity.
This capacity to match words and actions with authenticity appears to be sadly lacking in political discourse today.
It’s easy to judge, but we’re so used to hearing people saying one thing and not following it up, or hearing people change their minds the instant it become expedient to do so, we can easily forget what teaching with authority looks like.
Perhaps think of a figure like Nelson Mandela. His life and long-suffering enabled him to speak with authority.
Or Aung San Suu Kyi, Leader of the Burmese opposition Party, who has spent a great deal of her political life under house arrest, fighting human rights abuses whilst suffering them herself, and who is listed as the 61st most influential woman in the world by Forbes.
When she talks about human rights, she speaks as one with authority.
We can only assume that in contrast, the Scribes just talked.
They were no doubt fascinated by the finer points of the Law, and knew every detail of how a good Jew should live.
But did it connect with the common person at all?
Apparently not.

We run the risk of being similarly out of touch today, in the Church.
Pope Frances has been thinking about why young people reject the Church: speaking of those who perhaps have been baptized, even been confirmed, and may attend church semi regularly, he commented they nevertheless have ‘never been truly evangelized. They have never experienced a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ or real transformation through his Church’ (http://brandonvogt.com/reject-the-church/, accessed 30.01.15)

Why is this? He offers 10 reasons:

1.The Church no longer offers anything meaningful or important.
2. The Church appears too weak.
3. The Church appears too distant from their needs.
4. The Church appears too poor to respond to their concerns.
5. The Church appears too cold.
6. The Church appears too caught up with itself.
7. The Church appears to be a prisoner of its own rigid formulas.
8. The world seems to have made the Church a relic of the past.
9. The Church appears unfit to answer the world’s new questions.
10. The Church speaks to people in their infancy but not when they come of age.

These are hard things to face, but may help us to understand the difference in Mark’s story between teaching for moral outcomes only, and the transformation Jesus brings.

The Archbishop was in the news this week for suggesting the same thing, in a sermon to Trinity Church, New York, for their conference on ‘Creating the Common Good’ (about the Church seeking the welfare of the community).
The Telegraph gave the report the title ‘too much claptrap in sermons’, quoting Archbishop Justin: “The old sermons that we have heard so often in England, which I grew up with, which if you boiled them down all they effectively said was: ‘Wouldn’t the world be a nicer place if we were all a bit nicer?’
“That is the kind of moral claptrap that Jesus does not permit us to accept.”
 Similarly Jesus was not giving morality training in the synagogue that day.

While he is teaching, as we heard, a man bursts in and starts shouting wildly.
Mark describes the man has having an unclean spirit.
We understand this to be some sort of evil that has got hold of him; something intrusive that has possessed him.
Perhaps the best way we can view it is that possession is similar to addiction – the man is not in control of himself; he needs release and deliverance.
And one thing is clear – the demon (or demons) know who Jesus is.
Mark’s gospel contains the concept of the ‘Messianic secret’ – Jesus didn’t reveal his true identity willy-nilly; he tried to keep it secret, because he knew people would try and make him a celebrity.
But the first to recognise him are demons.
‘What do you want with us? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God’.
The demon shouts out in panic.
The irony of the religious Scribes sitting mute while Jesus talks with a possessed man is intense.
But Jesus will not allow evil to have even a brief platform.
He tells the demon ‘Be silent and come out of him’. The command carries the sense of a muzzle – ‘be silent!’
The man is convulsed and, crying out with loud voice, is released and delivered.
In one small episode, both Jesus’ teaching and his actions are of one piece with each other.
He not only talks the talk – he walks the walk.
This is why Christianity is not about merely information, but transformation.
Let us develop a lens of transformation through which we look at our lives together as a Church.
How does worship transform you?
How does receiving the bread and the wine transform you?
How are you transformed by prayer, by your relationships?
How is your character being transformed, from glory to glory?
Because if we’re only here for the morality, or the interesting information disseminated from the pulpit, we will have nothing dynamic to offer the world, and no power with which to tackle injustice and evil.
So as we share the christian life together, know that Jesus is in the business of transformation - of individual lives and communities. 
As the PCC meet next week, pray for us as we seek God's leading for our church and think about the future.
Not just information – Transformation.

To end, I’m sure you’ll be able to see the difference between the two, in this story from the C of E website, a story about transforming faith.

Finding faith on the doorstep

(from https://www.churchofengland.org/our-faith/faith-stories-christianity-in-everyday-lives.aspx)

When Duncan and his wife Helen moved to Kirkheaton, within sight and sound of St. John's, Helen wanted to go. Duncan, having lost interest in anything to do with church (which had figured prominently in his childhood), decided to reluctantly tag along. He often worked on Sundays but when at home opted to join his wife rather than be home alone!
He found the people at St. John's very friendly and welcoming, but this made him suspicious.  'I couldn't wait for the service to end' he said.
That was until Easter Sunday 2008.  Helen as usual was keen, Duncan dragged along behind her not wanting to be left at home.
Here, in Duncan's own words, is what happened next.  'At first I thought I was having a panic attack!  How wrong I was.  I found the Sermon very moving, and inexplicably told Helen that I was going to take Communion for the very first time.  I cannot adequately describe the feelings I had as I humbly knelt there, but I was suddenly overwhelmed both emotionally and physically and I had never experienced anything as powerful before in my life.  I knew then that I belonged to the Church, but most importantly I belonged to God.'
Helen and Duncan joined the Emmaus Course at the church, which they found to be a 'wonderful, rewarding and enjoyable' journey in their faith.  Helen was baptised in October 2008, and both Helen and Duncan were confirmed the following week in Wakefield Cathedral (see pic)
'I am still continuing to grow in my faith' said Duncan 'and I know that my journey will never end.'