Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Edgy Places

As Christians we are called to watch out for those on the margins.  I have been reading Andrew Jones’ book “Mary: A gospel witness to transfiguration and liberation” in which he uses the same idea but talks about the need to be on the edge.  He uses Mary as a great example of this, pointing out how she “was a person who was at the edge of everything – status, gender, age, family, reputation – and yet she was supremely chosen to be the bearer of the incarnation.”

He goes on to talk about “edge places” as locations where we might particularly feel close to God.  However, in this context “the edge is not only a geographical place” but “also a place of the heart”.  These are places where we should be considering things from a different perspective.  It is, for example, Nicodemus encountering Jesus.

What are the edges on which God is calling us to be?

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Rushing To Christmas

It always seems to be a rush to get to Christmas.  I am sure many of you are better organised, but I always end up missing the last posting dates for some of the cards and going to Tesco – there are other supermarkets! – to grab the turkey early on Christmas Eve.  But maybe I am in good company.  After all, Mary and Joseph only just made it to Bethlehem before the baby Jesus arrived – God in human form.  I am not sure that the searching for the “right” present in quite parallel to their search for accommodation.  But I am sure that the joy of the arrival of that baby, celebrated by angels, shepherds and wise men, is something that we can – and must – share all these years later.

I have been reading Rachel Boulding's "Companions on the Bethlehem Road: Daily Readings and Reflections for the Advent Journey".  At the end of the reading and comment today, she poses the following question for reflection: "If someone were to ask you today (which they might ...), 'So what's Christmas meant to mean?' would you have an answer?  Could you plan what you might say?"

Happy Christmas!

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Star Gazing

I have been reading Stephen Cottrell's book "Walking Backwards to Christmas" in which he explores the Christmas story from the perspective of some of the more peripheral characters.  He is looking for new angles, new messages.  The fourth chapter focuses on Casper, the traditional name of one of the (again traditionally) three wise men or kings who went in search of the infant Jesus with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Casper describes himself as a stargazer.  Adopting Casper's identity, Stephen Cottrell writes: "Most people learn to look down.  Not me.  I would not let my horizon shift.  So there are obstacles in the path?  Let them trip me up.  Better to keep looking upwards, to chase after dreams and stumble, than only ever see the few steps in front of you and spend a lifetime going round in circles, getting nowhere fast.  That is me: a dream-chaser, a stargazer, a misfit and a seer, a student of the cosmos and the galaxies."

These ideas about looking up, about chasing the dream offer an incredibly helpful perspective.  It is true that we too easily get dragged down and that we lose our sense of direction.  The wise men of old were entirely convinced that God had them on a journey that was worth completing.  They were very much chasing the dream.  We need to have more faith about what God has in store for us - and that will happen if we look up and to God.  That's the journey we need to be on.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Sermon Tweets

Over the summer I saw a challenge to put my sermon in a tweet - and that is what I have been doing. So here are the first dozen (in reverse order):

21st December:
Preach @ Stetchworth - Mary encounters Gabriel, asks how "this" can be, learns nothing is impossible for God and expresses her 'yes' to God.

8th December:
Preached @ Wickhambrook yesterday-John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus while basing himself in the wilderness. Do we find such space?

30th November:
Preaching @ Gt Yarmouth today- Advent Sunday- what to say about preparing for the Christmas event to a society distracted by Black Friday?

23rd November:
Preaching @ Newmarket today -how awkward is it that Jesus tells us to do nice (but essential) stuff to those that society normally neglects?

17th November:
Preaching at Whittlesford yesterday- Deborah, prophet and judge, gives the example of using her talents for God, responding to God's call.

9th November:
Preaching at Haverhill today- our stories are important and need to be linked to God's story so helping us to be ready for God's call.

2nd November:
Preaching at Maldon today- leadership is about serving, recognising the need to reflect, the need to take action and the need to value all.

26th October:
Preaching at Burwell today - Be holy by loving your neighbour as you love yourself - what a great pastorally based church mission statement!

19th October:
Preaching at Hadleigh Suffolk - render to Caesar, render to God. We are called to responsible citizenship, but even more to "serve" God.

12th October
Preaching at Ipswich -God does not follow our conventions, but does call us to worship/discipleship and not to prioritise/serve other 'gods'

29th September:
Preaching at Debenham yesterday - Harvest Festival. What bits of God's good news should we be telling to others today?

14th September:

Preaching at Clare today - authentic forgiveness doesn't bear grudges, takes account of justice, is central to how we live and links to love

Sunday, 21 December 2014

For There Is Nothing That God Cannot Do

Luke chapter 1, verse 37: For there is nothing that God cannot do.  When we think that we face the impossible, we need to remember that, with God, there is no such thing.  It is sometimes difficult to hold on to faith.  It may seem that overwhelming odds are pushing us in the opposite direction.  We share the struggle of the father of the boy with an evil spirit whose dilemma is recorded in Mark 9:24 – I do have faith, but not enough.  Help me to have more!  We go so far in our faith, but only so far.  These words contain the reminder that God takes the limits off.  This little sentence provides us with the confidence we need when it seems that this is not so.  These are words of support, comfort, courage.  We can see these words as an encouragement to leave things with God.  There are many examples in the Bible of the need to take this point seriously.  When Sarah was told that she would have a son, she just laughed.  This was something unbelievable.  She didn’t take it seriously.  But, with God, the unbelievable can be what happens.  David had the courage to face the giant Goliath.  Sheer stupidity, on any kind of normal assessment – but, with God, he eliminated the threat that Goliath posed to the people.  When faced with the challenge of battle with the Midianites, Gideon gathered, as you might expect, a massive army.  But God told him it was too many – and so the numbers were reduced before the task was undertaken.  For there is nothing that God cannot do.

What are the tasks that we are facing that seem impossible?  What are the impossible challenges on our agenda?  The question is not about whether they are possible, but whether they are what God is calling us to do.  Of course, it doesn’t happen all the time and everywhere, but quite remarkable things can and do happen – when God has got something unexpected lined up for us.  It is difficult to face up to those logic-defying challenges and perhaps all the more difficult because there are many good things that we would like to do and we can’t understand why God is not making them happen.  I am not going to try and explain that because I can’t.  But I do want to say, as Paul did to Timothy, 2 Timothy 1:12 – But I am still full of confidence, because I know whom I have trusted, and I am sure that he is able to keep safe until that Day what he has entrusted to me.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

How Can This Be?

Mary’s encounter with Gabriel in which he offers the startling news of the baby she will have is recorded in Luke 1:26-38.  Verse 34, unsurprisingly, ends with a question from Mary – how, then, can this be?

The context in which this question is originally asked is very much the bombshell of the news of her pregnancy.  It can’t be.  What’s going on?  While Mary  clearly accepted what was happening to her, there is also a sense in which she couldn’t believe it – in which she needed to question it.  It didn’t make sense.  It was going to totally disrupt her life.  This was chaos with a capital ‘C’.  How, then, can this be?

It is a question that we, too, are quite likely to ask.  And not infrequently.  And in a variety of contexts.  When something dreadful happens, whether personal or global – how can this be?  When we have some great opportunity that we never dreamed would come our way – how can this be?  When our church life is struggling and the surrounding secular community seems to be entirely indifferent – how can this be?  When God seems to be calling us to do something that we consider to be beyond our capability or our resources – how can this be?  Challenges, struggles, opportunities, possibilities – how can this be?

Way back in the seventies and eighties, when something called Liberation Theology was at its height, small communities, especially Roman Catholics, and especially in Latin America, used to gather to discuss the Scriptures and to try and discover just what the Bible was saying to them in their context.  These were usually very poor communities, often struggling against the difficulties of life and the oppression of more powerful people.  The basic idea which emerged was of the freedom which the Gospel offered.  Hence, the term ‘Liberation Theology’.  A theologian called Ernesto Cardenal, in a book called ‘The Gospel in Solentiname’, recorded some of these conversations from a community in Nicaragua. 

There is a conversation about this passage which records the angel Gabriel’s appearing to Mary – and they explore how Mary’s experience has parallels with theirs.  “She must have been scared.  She was very humble, a poor little girl, and she’s frightened when they tell her she’s going to be so important.”  So says one of the group.  Another responds: “But there’s no reason to be afraid of that.  We also could be afraid of being important, because we have to have an important mission too – perhaps being leaders, some of us ….  to liberate others, to carry out a mission in the community and [perhaps] even [beyond] …  we don’t know.”  They go on to comment how “Mary joins the ranks of the subversives, just by receiving that message”.  This, in turn, leads to a careful thinking about what this means for them.  “It seems to me that here we should admire above all her obedience.  And so we should be ready to obey too.  This obedience is revolutionary, because it’s obedience to love.  Obedience to love is very revolutionary, because it commands us to disobey everything else.”

The question ‘how can this be?’ reminds us that God engages with us.  It reminds us that things happen to us that we don’t fully understand, can’t fully explain.  The prophet Jeremiah tells us, Jeremiah 1:4/5 – The Lord said to me, ‘I chose you before I gave you life, and before you were born I selected you to be a prophet to the nations’.  Jeremiah’s experience and Gabriel’s words serve as a reminder of God’s bigger plan.  We like to know everything, but that is not how it is.  Sometimes we need to ask: how can this be?

Friday, 19 December 2014

Tell Me

When I lived in Panama in the early nineties, the normal way to answer the phone was with just one word ‘digame’.  After being used to giving either my name or my number, it was something different to learn to use just this word, the same word that everyone else would use as I rang them.  As my Spanish left quite a bit to be desired, it also took a while before I realised what was being said – ‘digame’.  Literally it means ‘tell me!’

I suppose our equivalent phrases would be somewhere around ‘what’s up?’, ‘what’s happening?’, ‘what’s the news?’  But I grew to like that Panamanian response.  For me, it expressed immediate interest, a wanting to know, a readiness to listen.  It also meant that the reason for phoning was that you had something to tell.

Christmas is the time when we especially tell the story of the nativity – God coming to earth in human form.  It’s one of the best chances in the year to tell the Christian story.  Let’s grab it with both hands.  I am convinced that lots of people in their own ways, and often without really knowing it, are saying “digame”.  Let’s tell them the Good News

Monday, 8 December 2014

Men Behaving Badly

Journeys provide one of the most common images used in the Bible - a reminder that God is not static, but on the move.  God calls us to journey into the future, wherever that may take us.

John Goldingay reflects on this in his book "Men Behaving Badly" (Paternoster, 2000).  He writes (p. 41/2) - "The nature of  a house is to be in a fixed location.  Yahweh liked being flexible, being on the move, able to go off and do new things.  Human beings prefer God to be predictable.  If you can get God to settle down, then you know where you are with God.  You can get some control of things.  .... When a human being like David wants to build God a house, that implicitly reverses the relationship between God and human beings.  It turns that relationship into one whereby you look after God instead of God looking after you.  It is another aspect of control, of the human desire to domesticate God."

We often talk about freedom, but are afraid to give God the freedom to take us where we should be. We like to be in control, and that is a big mistake.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Become what you love

I have been reading “Travelling Light” by Daniel O’Leary which includes some interesting and some challenging ideas connected to spirituality.  It is written as a series of daily reflections and spiritual exercises to take you across a month – though I am reading and pondering it as and when.  I got to Day 21 a few days ago and was particularly struck by some of its ideas.  It has the title ‘Become what you love’ and encourages us to be positive – “So many of our negative moods, ‘bad hair’ days, lifeless morning feelings come because we are unaware that our possibilities are limitless.”

It goes on to consider something of the challenges – opportunities – of life: “Maybe we are right to be afraid.  Some prayers, like the Our Father for instance, are downright dangerous.  …  we know that we will be transformed all right, but crucified first.”  The Way of Jesus is a great way, but it is not easy, calling us, as it does, to  be those who are “daring to dream the impossible dream, because it is not impossible at all, since it is ours by birthright.”

We need to take God at his word.  O’Leary quotes Thomas Merton – “Make way for Christ whose smile, like lightning, sets free the song of everlasting glory that now sleeps in your paper flesh, like dynamite.”