Category Archives: Look to the Future sermons

All change!

You may be familiar with the hymn ‘Abide with me’ and in particular, that line which goes  ‘Change and decay in all around I see’ which suggests that change is undesirable – God doesn’t change so should we too aspire to be changeless, for things not to change? God doesn’t change because he is perfect and he is all mighty – omnipotent, omnipresent, all in all. He could only change by becoming more or less than he was before and if he is already everything, that is not possible.

The last verse of one of my favourite hymns, ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’ includes the lines ‘Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place’. Now, that’s more like it. Although God doesn’t change, we human beings clearly need to. We need to be formed into the likeness of Christ. For the whole of creation, change is necessary, essential. Without change there is no growth. Applies physically (plants, animals, people) but also spiritually to each one of us as individuals but also as communities. Not advocating change for change’s sake but to be alive is to change; we all change as we grow older – physically, emotionally, spiritually. Perhaps you know someone who seems to be stuck, unable to move on. They may feel trapped by their circumstances, by their experience of life, by some sort of addiction or emotion they can’t free themselves from. And if you know someone like that, you know how much better they would feel if they could change and grow; if they could be released from whatever is weighing or tying them down.

Change is necessary for our growth. It is sometimes forced upon us; often unexpected, unwelcome, painful. Not all change appears to be good or immediately fruitful – loss of physical or mental health, loss of status or employment, relationship breakdown, the loss through death or distance of contact with loved ones. Yet the message of the gospel, of the cross is that God does bring hope and salvation and healing from death and decay and evil. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it cannot bear fruit. It cannot change, it cannot grow.

The gospel reading for today set by the Church of England (John 2.1-11) is different from the one set by the Revised Common Lectionary (Mark 1.14-20), on which this sermon is based.  And yet, they share a common theme of change. Water is changed into wine; the new wine of the good news of Jesus Christ. For the first disciples Jesus calls there is a huge change of lifestyle. It’s not forced upon them, though. They have a choice. It was surely not something they were expecting! For those disciples who responded to Jesus’ call (and who knows how many others he called who didn’t respond) the day would have seemed very ordinary until Jesus arrived. They can’t possibly have been thinking ‘You know what, let’s go and found a new religion’ or ‘I think I fancy a career change’. No, their whole life was centred around fishing – for fish. It was the family business ; it was a tough life, hardworking, with its fair share of danger and disappointment but they would not have contemplated anything different, any form of change. And just let’s consider for a moment what an enormous change they said ‘yes’ to – just like that. It’s almost unthinkable. What about the impact on the rest of the family? Four able men to go off following a travelling preacher just like that! How could they do that to their fathers? Later in this first chapter of Mark’s gospel we read about Simon Peter’s mother-in-law – so Simon must have had a wife and quite possibly children as well. How could he, the main bread-winner, leave his nets and follow Jesus to ‘fish for people’??(whatever that might mean!)

Sometimes, that call of Jesus for us to change – as individuals and as a church – is that radical, that revolutionary, flying in the face of all convention and common sense. Sometimes we are called to leave behind what is comfortable and familiar and sensible.

This time last year, during this season of Epiphany, I preached a series of sermons around the theme of our calling as we considered where God might be calling us, as church communities, on this peninsula. In the coming weeks, our PCCs will be reviewing the plan which the Steering Group have prepared (Ramsholt have already done it). There will be changes – structural and organisational changes. These may look like cutbacks; it may seem that we are being asked to make do with less. But change is necessary if we are to grow. Sometimes we are called to leave behind that which is comfortable and familiar, to leave our nets and our traditional church lifestyle – dedicated and hardworking though it may be – and follow where God is calling us. The changes that the steering group have discerned are not just change for change sake or to manage decline but to release our time and our energies to go out and preach the gospel. Our 2020 vision is not to have fewer clergy or fewer services or fewer meetings; it is to put aside those things which keep us looking inward into our church buildings rather than outward into our communities; it is to give ustime and energy to devote to the needs of those communities; to tell people of God’s love and the fullness of life he offers; it is to cast off the nets that entangle and inhibit us and follow Jesus to fish for people. Simon, Andrew, James and John didn’t leave their nets and follow Jesus because it was the easy option, not because they weren’t busy enough, not because someone else recommended it as a strategy for the future. They went with Jesus because he called them. Where is he calling YOU?

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Is the Lord among us or not?

Or perhaps we’re more likely to cry ‘where is God in all this?’ – perhaps we might say this in response to a personal crisis, when things are getting on top of us, when one thing after another seems to be going wrong. Or when we see family or friends in difficulties; when we look at the many, many terrible situations in the world and we say ‘where is God in all this; what is he doing about it? doesn’t he care?’

And so we can understand how the Israelites felt when they grumbled about their situation in the wilderness. ‘What is God playing at? Why did he bring us here to this awful desolate place. Is the Lord among us or not?’

Now given that they were without water, we might think that their complaints were pretty justified – after all they wouldn’t last long without water to drink. But then if we read the previous chapter of the book of Exodus, we find that the Israelites have already been provided by God with food to eat – the manna from heaven and the quails. God has provided for them – and continues to do so – in the verses immediately  before today’s first reading we read that the Israelites ate manna for all of the 40 years that they were in the wilderness. And yet in this latest situation they find themselves in, a water shortage, they don’t trust God to provide them with what they need.

The journey that they began on so enthusiastically and joyfully has turned into a bit of a drag.

How often do we set off on a journey in good spirits and full of enthusiasm only to find we hit a problem and our mood changes? The motorway is jammed following an accident, the train is delayed because of a power failure or the flight is cancelled due to poor weather conditions. Do we wait calmly and patiently or do we respond with anger and frustration? Some of you will know that I spent several hours in A&E on Monday evening. It was easy to understand how frustrating long waiting times can be for those who have families to care for, commitments to attend to or who are worried about their own situation or that of others. The staff were amazing – kind, apologetic, thoughtful, stretched to their limits.  Hardly fair to take it out on them and I’m pleased to say no one did. But is the Lord among us or not?

The Israelites grew impatient and weary and rather than taking their moans directly to God, they take out their impatience and discomfort on Moses, demanding the seemingly impossible.

They blame their leader much as we are inclined to blame politicians, the way fans blame a football team manager. So often in response to a failure of some system or other, people demand the resignation of the person in charge – whether that person had any direct responsibility or not. Rather than letting the leaders work to change the system, they are replaced. Should we do more to resolve things for ourselves, take more responsibility to put right things that we see that are wrong, rather than leaving it to other people and then grumbling when we don’t like the result?

Yesterday at Boyton’s Annual Parochial Church Meeting, I presented a shortened version of the ‘Look to the Future’ presentation which was given to the churchwardens and elders last November. And I intend to do the same at our forthcoming Annual meeting on. One of the slides reminded me that it is  “Vitally important that decisions are made by PCCs, not imposed by the Diocese” – or anyone else for that matter – not the archdeacon, the rural dean or the vicar! On Friday the church remembered Thomas Cranmer  who was martyred  – burnt at the stake – in 1556 for his protestant beliefs, for protesting against the power and control of the Roman Catholic church; for wanting ordinary people to be able to worship in their own language and have a say in the way the church was run. And, of course, he wasn’t the only one.

When it comes to choosing a way forward, a 2020 vision for the future, no human being is going to tell us what to do; what that vision is. We have to prayerfully discern it for ourselves. Please, if you care about this church and the future Christian presence in this parish, come to the annual meeting; come to the 4 week course in May; let us explore together the exciting future that God has planned for us here on the peninsula, rather than grumbling when we find ourselves in a wilderness that was not of our choosing.

Like many of us – like many organisations today – the Israelites seem to have a vertical view of leadership: people, Moses, God. Some would say a hierarchical view – where there are succeeding levels or layers. In fact, if we look into the root of the word ‘hierarchy’ we find that it comes from the Greek of which one meaning is ‘rule by priests’. When things don’t go their way the Israelites automatically question whether God is with them or not.

Jesus’ model of leadership is quite different. Look how in the gospel reading he is clearly in command of the situation and is recognised as a leader – yet not by taking charge. Instead, he makes himself vulnerable; he asks for a drink; he does something different – he speaks not only to a strange women but to a women who is a Samaritan. He breaks not one but two Jewish taboos; he draws the woman out in conversation. More of a God in relation, sitting alongside, seen through other people, rather than God on a pedestal. If God is alongside us we do not need to ask whether God is with us or not, we just have to look at the people around us.

Jesus showed us that God is indeed with us, alongside us, one of us, in a very different way to the Old Testament view of a remote yet all-powerful God. Jesus showed us that God is beside us and within us as well as above us. In John’s gospel it is God who is vulnerable, God who is thirsty. Yet he sustains and refreshes us with more than physical water. God chooses to minister through people – he chooses to spread the message of his kingdom through the least likely of people – a woman, a Samaritan, untrained, scorned by those who had kept the Jewish faith over centuries, takes the message that God has come among us to her friends and neighbours and they too come to faith.

So as we Look to the future, let us remember that God IS with us but also that we may meet him in what might seem to us the most unlikely of people.

Blind Faith

Last night I had a dream – and as is the way with dreams, it’s hard to rationalise or even remember much of it. Some of the people I recognised, others I knew but I couldn’t tell you who they were. I think we were planning a Café Sundae session and we met outdoors. The one thing I do remember was telling the rural dean (yes, she was there too) that we were about to move house and, although this house was only just up the road from where I live now, not only had I not seen the inside of the house but I hadn’t seen the garden either. I was feeling slightly anxious about this because my current garden (in the dream, not in reality!) was flourishing with fruit and veg. I was particularly concerned about my blackcurrant bushes….. No doubt a psychoanalyst could have an absolute field day with all this but I’m not going to try and get any deep meaning out of it. Except to say that our attitudes to change, to moving on can say something about our relationship with God and our response to him.

The central characters in today’s readings – Abraham and Nicodemus – are the proverbial chalk and cheese of Scripture. Within Judaism, Islam and Christianity Abraham’s name has become a byword for faithfulness and obedience. Abram heeds God’s call to leave all that he possesses and journey to a far-off land. Unlike that other great figure in Hebrew history, Moses, he does not ask the Lord a series of questions or offer excuses – he just goes. His conversation with God appears to be very straightforward and one-sided. Abram was old – so we are told. Perhaps these days it would be said that his wanderlust was a result of a delayed ‘mid-life crisis’. While it is easy to be caught up in the finer detail of God’s call – how did Abram know it was the one true God who was calling him? – or become side-tracked by his age, it is important to recognise his courage and self-sacrifice. These days we’ve become accustomed to migration of people and peoples and we don’t think a great deal of it – partly because we know it is possible to travel half-way around the world on comfortable aeroplanes to study or work or just for fun.

But we also need to bear in mind the other migrations, undertaken in hazardous conditions – the migration of the trafficked people and asylum seekers. There are shocking statistics about the huge proportion of the population of Syria who have been forced to flee their homes. Migration is part of the human story and continues to be often a dangerous and risky business. The other aspect that we should take note of is to do with Abram’s age. Sometimes older people say to me ‘I’m too old to change’ and this usually refers to a change in attitude or ways of doing things. Physical age may prevent us from doing physical things but it is no barrier to progressing on our spiritual journey of discovery. As we get physically older, we may find it more time-consuming to learn new things, or we may not have the same mental agility as we did when we were younger but there is no such thing as being too old to reconsider and re-evaluate our ‘life attitudes’, if you like; no such thing as being too old to set out afresh on a new journey of discovery, a new chapter in our relationship with God and our response to his call. God has a calling, a vocation for each and every one of us, young and old; and for each gathered community of Christians – each parish. It is that calling, that vocation that we hope to recognise and respond to over the coming months as we look to the future as a team.

But, let’s for a moment contrast Abraham with Nicodemus. Nicodemus  is a Pharisee and a ‘teacher of Israel’ as Jesus calls him this during their conversation. For all his apparent learning, Nicodemus has only questions for Jesus.

While Abram had to step outside his comfort zone in response to God’s call, Nicodemus remained inside his. We might argue that Nicodemus was a ‘head’ man; a thinker who used logic and reason to work out who Jesus was. Equally, it can be argued that Abram was a ‘heart’ person; it made little rational or economic sense to leave all that he had to embark on what some would have called a ‘wild goose chase’ as part of a promise that he would not see in his lifetime.

Are we more like Nicodemus than Abraham? Are we more interested in the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ – wanting a rational, scientific explanation for everything. Have we, I wonder, lost something of the spontaneity, the appreciation of mystery? Christians are often described as ‘pilgrim people’, whose journey only ends when we die. But when we became the ‘established church’; when Christianity became the ‘state religion’ as far back as the Emperor Constantine, did we lose something of the spontaneity, the sense of journey, of adventure, of restlessness even? And I wonder if that makes us more inclined to be like Nicodemus – interested, searching but very cautious.

The good news is that we know that Nicodemus became a follower of Jesus. His questions were answered and he used his position with the Jewish leaders to question their attitude to Jesus (John 7.50) and took the risk of buying spices to anoint Jesus’ body before burial.

We can be sure that God will speak to us, will call us in a way that we can hear – whether we are ‘head’ or ‘heart’ people. If we have questions, God will answer them. But the decision to respond, to go along with God’s plan is ours alone and perhaps this story about Abram speaks into the situation of the church in Western society today and in particular to us in this benefice. Instead of feeling sidelined and marginalised and threatened by society’s attitude to the church; instead of feeling vulnerable and under-resourced, perhaps we are being pointed towards taking risks in the face of uncertainty and the threat of decline; perhaps we are being pointed towards being imaginative in the face of unforeseen opportunity, as we look to the future together.

God of Abram, our God,
we praise you that you are a God of journeys;
a God of excitement; a God of possibilities.
Bless us with the courage of Abram this Lent,
that we might draw closer to you and to one another
and become the people you know we can be.
We pray in Jesus’ name.
Amen.

 

Choices and Consequences

apple logo

I wonder how many of you own an iPad or an iPhone, or perhaps an Apple Mac computer.  Although the book of Genesis does not say what the fruit on the tree of knowledge of good and evil was, for some reason the apple seems to have been adopted as the fruit – and so we have Eve’s pudding and men in particular have an Adam’s apple. And then there’s Apple computers with their logo of an apple with a bite (byte?) taken out of it. In the film The Matrix, the lead character, Neo, acquires various skills and abilities simply by downloading them via a computer interface – much as we download ‘apps’ onto our phones or tablets. There are so many useful apps – ones which track what exercise you take or help you with a diet, providing so much information and analysis. On the radio the other morning, there was a discussion about university courses being available on the internet so that people could study for a degree from home and what people might be missing out on by doing so.

Learning via the ‘apple’ route appears far easier and cheaper (the internet university modules are free) than years of studying books in a classroom, doing extensive research or practice. Adam and Eve give in to temptation – with spectacular consequences. Jesus resists temptation. We are rarely tempted by the ordinary, the ugly or the boring routine.

Temptation is always presented to us  as something attractive, something which will give quick results, a shortcut to a desired outcome, something which will improve our lives – whether it’s the knowledge of good and evil via a piece of fruit, or some labour-saving device, wrinkle-banishing beauty cream or alluring perfume – we are susceptible. It’s not that these things are wrong in themselves.

Eve was tempted by fruit – good, nourishing, by the gift of knowledge. In our gospel reading, the devil tempts Jesus with making food, winning influence, getting people’s attention.

Temptation often takes the form of an easy option rather than a hard one. One option might involve cutting corners to get where you want to be – or even where God wants you to be – while the other option involves completing the course, regardless of the terrain, to get where you need to be. And so competitors are tempted to take a shortcut in a cross country race on foot or horseback.  The problem with cutting corners is that you often fail to learn anything from the experience and/or we wonder what satisfaction there could possibly be in winning a race, knowing you have cheated. As an extreme example, the person who gets a friend to take their driving test for them may have a licence but will lack the skill to drive and be a danger to themselves and others.

Jesus’ example of resisting the temptations he was faced with in the wilderness shows that overcoming temptation not only makes us stronger but is bound up with issues of integrity, morality and mission.

It is a question of doing things God’s way rather than our own.

Doubtless we could think up many different ways in which we might grow our churches on this peninsula. Psalm 127 : “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain”. We face choices between many good things – all the good things we could achieve in our communities.

But unless it is God’s way, it will ultimately not succeed. And so we must pray continuously, every step of the way so that God’s way will be made clear to us. Prayer must be at the heart of all that we do and decide as we look to the future. For that reason, the team clergy decided some weeks ago that we would offer the opportunity for us to pray together for that vision of the future to become clear.

The first of these weekly meetings is this coming Tuesday evening (11th March) at 6pm at St John the Baptist church, Butley. It will be for no more than 30 minutes and will be at the same time and in the same place (nearest the geographical centre of the benefice) every week. If you feel unable to come in person, please consider making time to join us in prayer in your home or wherever you happen to be. Resources will be provided.

As well as meeting in prayer, there is also the opportunity – open to all – for us to explore our vocation as a church in learning and discussion. Please put in your diaries now the first 4 Thursday evenings or Friday mornings in May when there will be a series of meetings led by the Rural Dean, Clare Sanders and the Diocesan Director of Ordinands and New Ministers, Mark Sanders.

The Thursday evening meetings will be at 7.30 in Boyton Village Hall and each session will be repeated on the Friday morning at 10am in Barts Hall, Orford.

Good to be here

It’s good to be here in church! At least I hope it is.

It’s good to be here with our friends, our families, with the family of the church, with God.

These days, there are so many other things we could be doing – shopping, gardening, sleeping, playing sport. But we have chosen to be here. Like Peter, James and John, Jesus has called us to this place so that we may glimpse his glory, his true nature as the Son of God.

It is good to come away to a special place, away from all the distractions of daily life; somewhere where we can forget for a while that the car needs washing, there’s homework to finish, the lunch to make. These things we can leave behind as we come to this special place.

No wonder the disciples wanted to build three dwellings to preserve that sense of special-ness.

Mount Tabor - the mountain of the transfiguration
Mount Tabor – the mountain of the transfiguration

If you have ever visited Mount Tabor,  the mountain of the transfiguration in Galilee, you will know that those dwellings – indeed a large church with separate chapels for Elijah and Moses have indeed been built. You can marvel at the beauty of the church with its elaborate decoration or wonder at the incredible view from the top of the mountain. Both acknowledge and declare God’s glory.

 

The Church of the Transfiguration
The Church of the Transfiguration

The early Christian church met in each other’s homes or in the Jewish synagogues and it was only in the time of the Emperor Constantine who was converted to Christianity that Christians were free and encouraged to build churches which were the best and most beautiful they could afford and which used their talents and artistic abilities to their full.

We are so fortunate to have these beautiful buildings to worship in. The churches of this peninsula, this diocese have been built and maintained for the worship of God and to His glory. It was a difficult decision to select just 100 treasures to include in the book produced to celebrate the centenary of the diocese. There were many others which could have been included, many of them from this peninsula.

Yes, it’s true we can worship God anywhere – in a garden, down at Shingle St, on top of a mountain. But our churches are special places. They are not just ancient buildings to be preserved but places where we glimpse God’s glory. They are places steeped in prayer, they are places of transformation; places where we can gather together in worship and be transformed by the person of Jesus Christ into his likeness, his image, together. The apostles and new believers of the early church were ‘united in the breaking of bread and the prayers’. They worshipped together as we do today; they broke bread together as we do today. Jesus meant his followers to meet together for worship.

Jesus took his disciples away to a special place for an experience which enlightened them and he brings us here today so that we can glimpse something of his light and warmth and glory before we begin the more austere time of Lent, with less singing in our service, the removal of flower displays from many churches. A time of wilderness.

Jesus took his disciples away to a special place and the tradition of pilgrimage – of going on a journey, perhaps to a special place – is well-known in Christianity as in many other religions. Often with pilgrimages it is the experience of travelling, of journey – with others or with our own thoughts that is valuable rather than arriving at the special place.

Here on the peninsula, some members of St Felix church at Rendlesham have begun a series of pilgrimages to our various churches – walking, cycling – not all churches at once but in stages over a period of weeks or months. They are inviting anyone who wishes to to join them on that pilgrimage and they are hoping to produce a booklet with each church being the destination on a particular Sunday. More details will follow.

The final, and arguably the most important aspect of pilgrimage is coming home again. There is the journey, the arriving but also the return and we return, hopefully transformed by our experience – whether it is an experience of a long pilgrimage or an hour in church on a Sunday morning. We return home – as the disciples did – different people to when we started out. We return transformed by our experience, our encounter with God and with one another.

We leave behind the special place, the special encounter but the one thing that should stay with us is the voice from heaven which commands us to listen to Jesus . The special places are important; we should value our buildings but not at the expense of listening to Jesus. His voice, his command, his will, his guidance must be our top priority.

Lord, it is good to be here in your presence.
Help me today to glimpse your glory in the little things,
that I may know you are close and rest in your presence,
your beloved child.
Amen.

 

Outside the box?

Give him your cloak also

If you’ve been watching the winter Olympics you’ll be aware of some controversies that have arisen. I’m thinking particularly of the ladies figure skating where there was confusion over the top placings and no one could understand why the Russian won and not the South Korean. And then why was British speed skater Elise Christie eliminated again after so much bad luck? Obviously the competitors and judges need to understand the rules, but do the spectators need to understand them too to appreciate what’s going on?

Even in our technological age, with so much at our fingertips, it’s not unusual for us to feel that we’re not in control, that we don’t have ownership or even influence in the situations that we find ourselves. In our gospel reading today, Jesus shows us how we can turn situations around, take control by doing the unexpected, going beyond what is asked or required, making those who might seem to have the upper hand, stop and think.

Sports men and women are challenged not just to embrace the rules and spirit of the Olympic Games, but to push themselves further than they or others thought possible. Jesus trains us to: turn the other cheek; go the extra mile; love your enemy; and to be perfect (that is, whole or complete).

Most of the nominees for best film at last weekend’s BAFTA ceremony were stories of going beyond, that we might find love for both neighbour and enemy: 12 Years a Slave battles with themes of slavery, abolition, personal dignity and the fight to stay alive; Philomena is the story of an Irish woman trying to find the child she gave up for adoption; Captain Philips explores the relationship between abductees and pirate kidnappers; Gravity tackles feelings of being lost, aloneness and hope of rescue. British director of 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen, said: ‘Right now there are 21 million people in slavery. I just hope that 150 years from now our ambivalence will not allow another film-maker to make this film.’

The stories of individuals who make themselves vulnerable in the face of the expectations of others can lead us and our wider community to find hope in the face of seemingly overwhelming adversity. Like great Olympians or movie screen heroes, we are called to strive for something better, both individually and as a church.

People were intrigued by Jesus (what he said and did) and this provoked them to ask questions.
In the same way if Christians today adopt values and practices that are different from normal this will provoke questions and lead to natural evangelism – which is more genuine and effective than any schemes.
The Church must become a Sign of the Kingdom – but this will only happen when the members are prepared to be different and take risks.

Last week, I spoke about the challenge of reconciliation, of being instruments of peace in our communities. This ‘going beyond’, stepping ‘outside the box’ means being prepared to be different, to upset the apple cart, not going with the flow. It may be uncomfortable, it may make you unpopular. But we will be following in the steps of Jesus.

 

Also in the last week or so, there have been reports in the media of what various bishops have said. The bishops of the church of England ruled out the blessing of same-sex marriages whilst on the same day the (RC) Archbishop of Westminster criticised the government’s welfare reforms for leaving people in destitution. Which is closer to what Jesus might have said? How can we best announce God’s equal and unconditional love for every single person. The church will not be seen to be relevant to people’s live, we will not convince people of Christ’s love, of his ability to meet their deepest needs while we are seen to be preoccupied with fund-raising and maintaining buildings. I’m sorry if that shocks or offends you. I’m not saying that we don’t have a responsibility to care for buildings and to meet the costs of ministry but if we want to grow the church, if we want to make disciples for Christ, if we want to share the good news we have to think about what really matters to us about our faith, what is at the heart of the gospel and be prepared to go the extra mile, to go beyond what is required of us. As Jesus pointed out, there is nothing special about being kind to our families and friends, nothing special about giving to charity, nothing special about helping those have met with apparently undeserved misfortune, victims of crime and so on. But loving your enemies? Praying for those who harm you? Helping those who appear not to be helping themselves, who have committed crimes or are addicted?

Keeping the rules is easy. Remember the meeting between Jesus and the rich young man. He claimed to have kept the 10 commandments – no problem there. But Jesus showed him that he needed to do more than that, to follow the example of the good Samaritan who was himself despised and excluded; to go the extra mile.

By going beyond what is asked of us we can both challenge society’s expectations and fulfill God’s.

 

 

A prayer, using the Winter Olympic slogan ‘Hot, Cool, Yours’, to accompany a time of reflection

Hot is the fire that burns within me in the face of injustice:
against those who seek vengeance;
against those who strike the weak;
against those who steal from the poor;
against those who ask for too much.
You are the Lord, my God.
Turn me to face your way,
for I claim to be a child of God.

Cool is often the response I give in the face of inequality:
when I fail to speak out against oppression;
when I fail to stand up to the one who bullies my neighbour;
when I fail to campaign for the poor;
when I fail to turn towards those who everyone else has turned away from.
You are the Lord, my God.
Turn me to face your way,
for I claim to be a child

Yours is the Kingdom
which defies society’s expectations.
Yours is power
which enables us to risk going beyond rules.
Yours is the glory
reflected in each person who turns from darkness to light.
You are the Lord, our God.
Turn us to face your way,
for we claim to be your children.  

Amen.

Anger management – called to reconcile and be reconciled

Last week we looked at the role of the church as salt and as light in our communities. How we could make a difference in both an unobtrusive and perhaps a more open and obvious way. This week we consider one important aspect of that role – arguably the most important, the key role of the church of Christ. That is the role of the church in healing and reconciliation. Jesus is described as the ‘one who will bring healing to the nations’. Paul in his letter to Titus writes of Jesus ‘The grace of God has dawned upon the world with healing for all mankind’. Reconciliation and healing lie at the very centre of the Christian faith; they are central to our understanding of the cross – salvation means ‘healing’. One of the introductions to the sharing of peace at the eucharist reminds us that ‘Christ is our peace; he has reconciled us to God in one body by the cross. Jesus came to save, to heal, to bridge that divide, that gulf between God and human beings – and to help us be reconciled with one another.

On Wednesday, I was privileged to attend a talk by a Muslim gentleman to the children at Bawdsey school. He began by explaining how the words ‘muslim’ and ‘islam’ come from a common root, from the Arabic word for ‘peace’. A ‘muslim’ is one who is at peace with himself, with others and with nature. So far from the image which is portrayed on our television screens. It is perhaps ‘human nature’ that the ‘bad examples’ are the ones which grab our attention. It comes as something of a surprise – even to me who should know better – just how central peace is to Islam. So too with Christianity. We speak, sing, of the Prince of Peace, of Jesus who came to preach peace to those who are far off and peace to those who are near; the One who will bring healing to the nations. Yet we are challenged by the current situation in the Central African Republic, in Northern Ireland, by all those stories in the media about conflict and division between Christians and situations where Christians seem to be doing little to bring reconciliation and healing.

Reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel, yet everyday experience, underscored by even a tiny knowledge about Church history, proves that it is easier to talk about it than to practise it. Following his inauguration, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, acknowledged the difficulty of ‘managing discord gracefully’.

The church – we, here on this peninsula – need to develop a role in healing divisions, bringing people together, in managing discord gracefully rather than encouraging division and separation. Not just within the church but within and between our communities. Through prayer, God the Holy Spirit will lead us into transforming situations and people. We need to make that connection between what we do and say, and who we are, in church and when we meet others at work and at meetings of other organisations. It IS challenging!

It is arguably ‘natural’, but not always helpful, to lose one’s temper after experiencing a perceived injustice, or on seeing someone we care about being wronged. Today’s news items are full of people who have lost their temper over a range of significant issues. Whether their anger achieves results is a matter for debate. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus points out the dangers of losing one’s temper and the way it can be counterproductive both for God’s purposes and ours.

It is not always easy to remain calm in the face of some calamity or injustice. For instance, those caught up in the severe weather that is wreaking havoc in parts of this country, are naturally distraught when they see their previously ordered lives suddenly turned upside down. We have witnessed a lot of anger from those who believe the Government and the related agencies have not done enough to prevent the flooding, and then alleviate the problems that they have caused.

But several individuals and groups, while still being angry at what they perceive as a lack of coherence in the government-led response, have taken matters into their own hands and sought to build their own flood defences, as well as rescue those in danger. It is so encouraging to see farmers in this part of the country sending fodder and bedding to help those who have been so badly affected.

On the other hand, the government and the various agencies have been arguing that they have been doing all they possibly could to resolve the recent problems. This is evidenced by the number of visits made by the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers to the affected areas.

As a general rule, those who do lose their temper, usually excuse their heated response (afterwards), as ‘letting off steam’. Others even suggest that their rants were acceptable under the circumstances, and far better than resorting to some form of violence. In today’s reading we see Jesus making the connection between actions and words, especially with regard to the sentiment of our words. Words that are said in anger cannot be simply explained away as ‘blunt speaking’ or ‘harmless’ in comparison to a physical action. There is little doubt that at times words can wound as badly as an incision from a knife.

Unlike Jesus, our anger is often not redemptive, and our rage over some perceived wrong usually results in bitterness and hurt rather than reconciliation or some other form of positive resolution. Jesus says that if someone is looking to offer their ‘gift at the altar’, he or she should be reconciled with their brother or sister before offering this gift. The best place for our anger, especially if it has no righteous dimension, is to lay it at the ‘altar’ or the foot of the cross, for Christ to deal with it.

For  most people, anger is usually a more everyday, self-centred experience. How dare he/she behave/speak/drive like that, challenging my self-esteem, my self-image? Then we come up against Jesus’ words here and feel guilt alongside anger. We ought not to behave like this …

Approaches to anger management offer skills and techniques to handle violent emotions in ways that are socially acceptable. But, for Christians, the primary resource is God’s grace, empowering us to deal with both anger and guilt. ‘I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do:

says Paul (Romans 7.19), Anger is a powerful force. Being on the receiving end of someone else’s anger can be scary. Being so angry ourselves that we might lash out, or shout, or lose control is perhaps even more frightening – and we don’t want to talk about it, because we are ashamed. However, getting to grips with our frightening feelings is part of growing up into Christ. We first have to look into our hearts and be honest about our lack of control over our emotions. Jesus is not saying pretend not to be angry. He is saying deal with it – before someone gets hurt. If we bottle our feelings up until the pressure explodes, we are not modelling grown-up living.

There is a danger of presenting the gospel as a call not to Jesus but to the way of niceness. Conflict is difficult, but managing it is an essential part of living and growing together. The community that prioritises harmony above creativity and challenge will often ultimately fail to thrive. One of the reasons that churches lose teenagers so successfully may  be that we cannot deal with their challenging pursuit of penetrating questions. As models of ministerial leadership are transformed, it is vital that congregations take responsibility for dealing with the emotions provoked by change.

Our present review of mission and ministry on this peninsula presents us with an enormous challenge. For many the changes may be difficult to come to terms with. But reconciliation is about growing into new life and new relationships, not smoothing over the surface so all is sweetness and calm.

The work of reconciliation is demanding and costly; it means taking up our cross and dealing with rather than avoiding conflict. But our example and our reward is Christ himself. It is not our own strength but God’s that transforms us and enables us to discern God’s will (Romans12.2), to be instruments of peace.