Friday, 27 January 2012

sermon spoiler...

Epiphany 4
Mark 1:21-28 –Jesus exorcises a demon in the middle of teaching in the synangogue

If Jesus came here today to this pulpit, what would we make of him?
Firstly he might mount the pulpit steps – after all this is where we get our teaching from, and he was teaching at the start of today’s gospel: ‘They went to Capernaum and when the Sabbath came he entered the synagogue and taught.’
Oaky, we have our teaching on a different day – Sunday, the first day of the week (Resurrection Day) instead of the Jewish Sabbath, but we do have teaching from the pulpit so we know all about what that looks and sounds like…(but how many sermons from the last three months can you remember?)
So he might well mount the pulpit steps and begin teaching…
What would he say?
Would he stick to traditional themes? Would we be tempted to nod off?
Jesus was quite keen on questions, so I wonder if he might turn the exercise back on us and instead of preaching at us he might ask us about our own faith in God.
Some questions he might ask… ‘Tell me, who do people say that I am?’ (Mark 8: 27)
‘What do you want me to do for you?’ (Mark 10: 51)
If Jesus stood here in the pulpit asking: ‘what do you want me to do for you?’ I wonder how you’d answer.
Because invariably Jesus’ ministry was a ministry of words AND actions.
The Christian church down the ages has had an uneasy time trying to match these two aspects of Christian witness – words and actions.
Too many words and people can think we’ve nothing better to do than to sit around in synods and conferences debating matters which are of no actual importance to the average person in the street.
Too much action without words and the church might be mistaken for a benign human agency trying to do good in the world but without any real distinctively Christ like voice.
So we do need both actions and words in our Christian witness.
So Jesus might be standing in this pulpit teaching…
His teaching might be uncomfortable.
We learn in John 6 that many who heard Jesus’ teaching about feeding the world with his own flesh had found it just all too much to take: ‘This teaching is too hard…who can listen to it’?
Jesus knows people are grumbling about this and asks his disciples ‘do you want to give up?’
You can imagine a PR specialist at his point trying to advise Jesus about how best to minimize the damage done and maximize his chance of success and his numbers of followers:
‘Lord, you just need to tone down the whole ‘flesh and blood consuming’ thing – people are getting uneasy about it. Best not to mention the stuff about death and sacrifice, and then we should be able to get a few more people signed up…’
But Jesus is not interested in quantity – only quality.
And to his poignant question: ‘Do you too want to give up?’ Simon Peter answers "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’
That’s the kind of follower Jesus is looking for.
So to return to Jesus in our pulpit…..after a possibly uncomfortable time listening to his difficult teaching about sacrifice, we might suddenly have an intrusion into the church…
I don’t know how synagogues were designed but it does seem somewhat strange that a random mad man can rush into the middle of the gathering and start shouting above the sermon.
I think this is why we have Wardens in the Anglican Church.
If someone rushes in and starts screaming before I’ve finished this sermon I give you full permission to remove them as quickly as possible.
But this is precisely where we go wrong.
The demon possessed man was about to be the best sermon illustration anyone could ever hope for.
Let’s not be so busy repeating the words of our faith every Sunday in church, that we miss the action of God in us.
Verse 24 reveals that the demon possessed man understood, in a way that perhaps we are slow to, that an encounter with Jesus is a life changing event.
‘What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?’ he shouts.
This could be the fear of the demon talking – demons always knew their end was up when they came across Jesus.
Think of the legion of demons that begged to be sent into the pigs (the ‘Gadarene swine’) – they begged for this fate over the fate of being sent to hell.
So ‘What do you want with us?’ in today’s gospel could be the demons talking.
But it could equally apply to us.
‘What do you want with us, Jesus?’
What do you want with us in this small village in the Oxford Diocese at the start of 2012?
Yes, Jesus does want something with us.
He wants us to respond to his words, to give our lives in love and action – ‘Send us out as living sacrifices, to live and work to your praise and glory…’
So we don’t really know what Jesus would do were he to stand in this pulpit and teach and act, but we do know that he wouldn’t mind being interrupted by a pressing need or by someone who was desperate for freedom from bondage to evil.
Jesus’ ministry is a perfect weaving in of action and words, a perfect lived out demonstration of the breaking in of the kingdom of God.
He can deliver us from evil still today, whatever that means in our lives, and he can still break in.
He can deliver us from mere words to a life changing encounter with him.
A little illustration to end…
The life of an Anglican Minister is also a strange mixture of words and action.
I really enjoy the action – pastoral visiting, bible studies, leading worship, assemblies, baptisms, even funerals (especially funerals.)
But I also enjoy the words – writing essays for ongoing Curates’ training, writing sermons, writing prayers.
I was in the middle of this sermon, pumping out the words, when I felt an inner voice telling me to go for a walk in a certain part of the village (call it the Holy Spirit, call it the need for fresh air…)
I wanted to deliver something to someone there so, abandoning the words of my sermon, I walked, called round and had a very good visit, with some good community ramifications.
On my way back home I saw a lady struggling along the pavement with heavy shopping bags.
I recognized her from a funeral I had taken once.
She told me she hadn’t been very well so I plucked up courage and sent an arrow prayer up – ‘Lord I don’t want my ministry to be words only, but also action…’ (thinking: ‘are you really going to offer to pray for her in the street?’)
Then I asked if I could pray for her, there and then – and she was very keen.
So I had the privilege of discovering that during the writing of a sermon, God can lead you right to where he wants you to be acting.
The walk, the visit and the prayer on the street were all part of God’s gracious leading.
It seemed the perfect illustration for this sermon about Jesus and his seamless life of words and action.
May God give us all, here in this church and across this area, the grace to live our lives like Christ did – in proclaiming the freedom and power of God today in words and in actions.


Saturday, 21 January 2012

Mission or Maintenance?

Thinking and planning this week about how best to use our brand new Parish Room has given plenty of food for thought about the relationship between maintenance and mission. The Anglican 'Five marks of Mission' are pretty comprehensive, taking in safeguarding the integrity of creation and striving to alter unjust structures of society as well as loving service, teaching and nurturing people in the faith AND evangelistic outreach....all quite a mouthful when talking casually about mission with church members so I'm a bit lazy and tend to use the word for ordinary conversation purposes to refer to the way our church is playing its part in this time and  in this place, in showing/telling the Good News of Jesus Christ to those outside the church. 
I am aware from talking with other clergy, that maintenance of Sunday worship in often ancient and cavernous buildings, takes such a lot of time and energy, there doesn't seem to be much left for new mission initiatives. On a recent church growth conference, we were asked to do a brief audit of what in our church's life amounted to presence, to persuasion or to proclamation? A large amount of what we did was really presence (we're just here, and that's blessing in itself but.....) Not so much was persuasion (talking through the real implications of the Christian faith with interested parties) and hardly any proclamation (to anyone who wasn't already in the club anyway.) Are we so busy maintaining that we're not growing?
They had a similar problem in Acts chapter 6 only here, rapid expansion meant that Greek believers felt their widows were being neglected in the church's daily distribution of food - a central part of the early church's ministry in a pre-welfare state society. The church's response is interesting: 'And the twelve called together the whole community of disciples and said 'It is not right that we should neglect the word of God to wait at tables.'' They duly appointed more disciples to do the waiting on tables whilst the original evangelists continued the proclamation of the gospel. Their central driving force was evangelisation; whatever else was needed they dealt with almost as an aside.
Is there a danger of becoming so caught up in maintenance of 'normal service' inside the church that we neglect the much larger numbers of people there are outside?
Or is it that all our activities are in a sense mission...? Baptisms, weddings and funerals are all obvious opportunities for the Good News. Choosing chair colour (now there's vexed issue); buying a nappy changing mat and checking health and safety for a new space may seem like very temporal issues but if they are undertaken to a constant background tune of outreach for the sake of those Christ came to save, ministry might become more holistic and life giving.
So it's back to the drawing board...what coffee cups shall we use when, with mounting excitement, we finally open up the new Parish Room for our much awaited community coffee drop in session?!

Monday, 16 January 2012

Annie - Amazing.

'I have been fascinated with the notion of change and impermanence since I was a young girl' - Annie Lennox, as quoted in the excellent The House of Annie Lennox exhibition at the V&A which I saw today. It was memorable for all the reasons the artist herself is enduring and attractive - creative, honest, a sense that having a platform of fame gives you the chance to use it for good - in recent years she has focussed attention on the plight of HIV positive women and children in sub Saharan Africa through her SING campaign. 
The exhibition takes up one room in the V&A in the centre of which a small (one roomed) house features a desk strewn with artefacts of her creative life - bits if paper on which are scrawled priceless first drafts of songs, all impeccably notated in a way you would expect from a classically trained musician (she left the Royal Academy of music a just weeks before her final exams.) Around the walls of the outer room are projected the moving images of a suburban town, such as you would see from the windows of a car or train. She perhaps shows her age (57 and beautiful still) by commenting that on such a journey her creativity is fostered as she becomes introspective and lets her mind wander across the changing landscape. All I noticed on my train journey up was the plethora of people missing the landscape whilst being plugged into their iPhones, iPods and Kindles. Whilst my creativity was being nurtured looking at her wonderful costumes, photogenic portraits and music videos displayed large on a screen, I had some random thoughts about faith too. They were firstly negative: with such talented and humanitarian ambassadors for change in the world, why do we need the church? (whilst partly sympathetic to faith generally, Lennox doesn't claim to be a Christian.) And if a highly creative person stumbled into a typical Anglican church service, what would they make of it? 
But then I thought about God being above all our limitations...if He wants to use someone like Lennox to bring about good in the world, who am I to quibble if she doesn't tick the Christian box? And then her song 'Oh God' is so like one of the Psalms...

'Oh God,

Where are you now?
And what you gonna do
About the mess I've made
If there was ever a soul to save
It must be me
It must be me'

For me she reflects a God who is ultimately Creator. I hope I also have the grace and vision to reflect Him in the way I see His world, in my day to day ministry and especially every time I lead worship.
For a little bathe in gorgeousness...follow the link below...

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Baptism Qualms

Infant baptisms - I love 'em!! The usually gorgeous small child; the gleaming godparents, the sense of family, the swelled congregation...but if I'm honest I do have a few qualms...

Mainly the liturgy..... 'Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God?'...... 'May Almighty God deliver you from the powers of darkness.' I hope I'm not getting too wishy washy (excuse water-based pun) but I find this bit difficult to explain to the poor unsuspecting parents beforehand. I'm sure you can't do it adequately without wading into deep theological waters (pun again) - those stirred up in fact by Augustine's doctrine of original sin, and the necessity of washing it away by baptism (with the attendant awkward corollary of the dubious final destination of the unbaptised.) How much is baptism an active sacrament (effecting slavation) and how much is it a sign of something you hope will come later? The theology of baptism is so dense - the idea of the Exodus deliverance through water; Jesus' own baptism; death and resurrection; the new life of the Holy Spirit (being born again); covenant theology etc. etc. As an Anglican priest I'm overwhelmed at the thought of how to communicate all this in the two 'baptism visits', and probably fail miserably. It feels in the service as though we've chewed off an enormous piece of theological meat and are having trouble chewing through it. There is nothing light and contemporary about the words. You can sense the parents of small children losing the plot half way through the 'Prayer over the water' (goes on for three paragraphs). In the final analysis, should I be more concerned that the family felt loved and welcomed, and will have an ongoing relationship with the church, than that they grasp the finer points of baptismal theology? If there were a parental test afterwards ('How far do you understand your child to have experienced a symbolic death and resurrection after his/her recent baptism experience?') I'm not sure how well we'd score! It's probably time for some soul searching and more Curates' training (cue Hard Skill Day coming up....) In my mutli-denominational Christian past I experienced two baptisms (naughty) and I enjoyed the second one more, but then I don't really remember the first.....

Returning to the present question though, I do love them babies.......and say thanks to God every time I'm asked to do a baptism, trusting that He will continue the good work by His Spirit and help me find a way through the tangled forest called 'baptism liturgy'.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Twelfth Night

It's got to be my favourite Shakespeare play - mistaken identity, gender confusion, shipwreck, love, mirth, madness, and ultimately, melancholy ('With a hey ho, the wind and the rain...') All you ever want from a real human life. The traditional merry-making on Twelfth Night collides richly with the Christian tradition of Epiphany - the evening of 5 Jan being the 12th night after Christmas Day and the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany (6 Jan) when Christians ponder the significance of the visit of 'Magi from the East' to the Christ child. The didn't need Satnav - being astrologers they knew how to plot a course by the stars. After the dead end that was King Herod, the king they eventually found became the unlikely recipient of their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Magi are not the domesticated crown-wearing 'kings' of Christmas cards, but strange Gentiles, outside of the traditionally Jewish people of God. They are mysterious, mystical even; their gifts to the newborn are costly, rare and, frankly, odd (imagine presenting your new godchild at her baptism with the gift of a shroud - that's the kind of thing myrrh, a burial ointment, suggests.) The '3 wise men' are a good reminder of the strangeness of faith, the endlessly wide embrace of the gospel and the sheer otherness of the divine. 
We're taking down the decorations tonight; I used to be glad to clear away the mess, now it just makes me sad, it feels so much like an ending. Or is it a beginning? In the visit of the Magi, a snapshot of the whole life, death and resurrection of the Messiah King, the one without beginning or end, is presented for us to feast on in wonder. Happy Twelfth Night.