I just thought ...
27 May 2012
22 August 2011
Who do you say I am? A question with consequences
When I can, I rather like to watch the BBC TV programme “Who Do You Think You Are?” You probably know that it’s a programme where well-known people are helped to look into their family history. It often has surprises in it, not least that people you don’t know, or aren’t specially interested in, can turn out to have the most fascinating stories. How often do we find that in life? – There’s more to someone than meets the eye?
I knew I would be interested in this week’s subject, J K Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books. But last series, I found a quite unexpected interest in the gardener, Monty Don. Well, you probably know that I have no interest at all in gardening!
It turned out that Monty Don was related to someone who had been Vicar of our home church – someone whose portrait we had seen countless times in the church. And there was our friend, the current Vicar, on TV talking about it all! Who would have thought it?! (Actually, it came as quite a surprise to Monty Don too!)
Of course, when Jesus questions his disciples in our passage from Matthew’s gospel, he turns the question around: not “Who do you think you are?”, but
“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Mt 16 13b GNB)
The disciples come back with a variety of answers: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or some other prophet. People differ on exactly who Jesus is, but the general opinion is clear – he is in the tradition of the prophets of old; those who have interpreted God to his people, and, on occasion, pleaded with God on their behalf.
But Jesus is interested in more than just the consensus view. Away from the public gaze, he probes his followers still further:
“What about you? … Who do you say I am?” (Mt 16 15)
And Peter, never backwards in coming forwards, has the answer:
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Mt 16 16)
We have reached a turning point.
It may not yet be for general consumption, but the disciples now know beyond doubt who Jesus is. They are soon to begin to discover what it means that Jesus is the Messiah. And things are different – radically different – from what they expected when the Messiah came.
That question: “What about you? … Who do you say I am?” is the point around which everything turns: the key question.
• It was so for the disciples;
• it has been for every generation since –
• and it is for us today.
Jesus asks us
“What about you? … Who do you say I am?” (Mt 16 15)
Are we admirers of Jesus or are we followers?”
It’s possible to respect and admire Jesus, and that’s a perfectly appropriate reaction – but it doesn’t quite fit in with who Jesus is.
Once we begin to understand just who Jesus is – the Messiah, the Son of the living God, the one who is both God and human, come to reconcile us to our Heavenly Father – then mere admiration is not enough. Our lives are changed.
Saint Paul saw this plainly. He realised Jesus is exactly who Peter said he is.
And the implications of this amazing fact were quite clear.
Paul was not just an admirer, he was a follower of Jesus.
The answer to Jesus’ question – the realisation of who Jesus is – changed Paul’s life utterly. He dedicated his life to helping others to understand who Jesus is, and helping them to take on board the implications of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection.
As we heard, he wrote to the Romans
“So then, my brothers and sisters, because of God's great mercy to us I appeal to you: offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service and pleasing to him.” (Romans 12 v1)
Those words are very familiar to us. We often use them towards the end of a Communion service, appropriately enough as a response to our sharing in the Eucharist. It’s good to be reminded of them regularly, because recognising Jesus, dedicating ourselves to serve God in this way, is not just a sudden realisation, not just a one-off decision – it is the work of a lifetime.
Moments after Peter made his wonderful declaration about Jesus, he was “in the doghouse” – showing by his reaction to Jesus’ words about his suffering and death that he still had a lot to learn about the Messiah and his mission. And so it is for each one of us.
We respond with joy to the realisation of who Jesus is, but our understanding and our faithful response develop over time – over a lifetime.
It’s telling that the original Greek verbs in the next verse of Romans 12 reflect this. The instructions are in the continuous imperative – go on being transformed . Paul says
“Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind.” (Romans 12 v2)
This transformation is a process of growth – continuous growth brought about by God. We are none of us the finished article. In the jargon I used to hear in Further Education, we are all “Lifelong Learners”!
So, if we believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, then we have to make a response. Recognising our Lord, our lives are changed,
• as day by day we offer ourselves in service to God,
• and as we allow God to transform us into the people he calls us to be.
We serve God in humility – how could it be otherwise? – but we serve him, too, trusting in his grace and love for us.
We serve as part of the body of Christ, using our God-given gifts, in the church and in the wider world.
And as we serve together, then God’s will and purpose is revealed, is fulfilled – that which “is good and is pleasing to him and is perfect.”
Maybe that sounds like a tall order? I’m sure it did to those who first heard Paul’s words, living at the very heart of the Roman Empire which cruelly oppressed the fledgling Church.
• But the miracle is that, in us, just as much as he was in them, God is at work.
• God has promised to transform us, and to transform his world.
• And all this flows from the answer to one question:
“What about you?” [Jesus] asked … “Who do you say I am?”
27 March 2011
Lent and Living in the moment with God
Lent and Living in the moment with God
John 3 1-17; Psalm 121
Lent can be a difficult time – I know that I have said that before, because I feel the same way every year.
I remember reading something recently about the importance of living in the moment – of not being so caught up with our worries and concerns that we miss out on the life we are living right now.
I can’t remember precisely where I read that, but it obviously made an impression on me. I remembered it the other day as I was walking into town and saw some children playing on the slide in the playground.
Even before I saw them, I could hear them! One little boy was enjoying himself so much that he let out a long, loud, uncontrollable belly-laugh – it was lovely to hear!
That little boy was living in the moment. He was relishing the joy of playing with his friends, experiencing the physical pleasure of speeding down the slide. He wasn’t worrying about what he was going to have for lunch – or even about how rough his landing might be!
Well, of course, that’s how it is when you’re little.
• Mum or Dad will provide lunch, and you probably haven’t realised yet that life has its share of rough landings.
• You certainly don’t watch the news and take in the horrors of what’s happening in Japan, or Libya, or so many other places.
• You haven’t yet formed the difficult questions in your mind, let alone got round to asking God about them.
Our readings tell us that following God, understanding him and his world, is not easy or straightforward.
Nicodemus was no fool, but he couldn’t grasp what Jesus was talking about. All of us hear the words of Psalm 121, and we wonder.
“The LORD will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life;
the LORD will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.” (Ps 121 7,8)
The evidence for that promise around the world isn’t very strong at the moment.
The liturgy we used on Ash Wednesday gave us some suggestions as to how and why we might keep Lent.
• It spoke of repentance and the assurance of God’s forgiveness;
• of growing in faith and devotion to our Lord.
And it included this reminder of our absolute reliance on God:
“God our Father,
you create us from the dust of the earth:
grant that these ashes may be for us
a sign of our penitence
and a symbol of our mortality;
for it is by your grace alone
that we receive eternal life.”
Lent is a reminder of our sins and shortcomings, a reminder of our mortality – and also a reminder of the promise of immortality which we receive by God’s grace.
Sometimes we need to be able to lift up our eyes to the hills. (Not difficult to do as you walk into town, even before you hear the children playing!)
We need the perspective that Lent brings – both the challenge and the reassurance of being God’s people.
• Yes, we often fail and fall short – but there is glory in the midst of it all.
• Yes, living in relationship with God can be difficult – but God loves us. He created us and blesses us in so many ways.
Dr Maggi Dawn is an Anglican priest who is about to move to a new post. She doesn’t know yet where it will be, but knows that this year holds much uncertainty, both for her and her son. And she is looking at this uncertainty through the prism of this season of Lent.
She writes this:
“I give thanks for health and strength, for my beautiful son, and for my fine friends. I stare down the threat of uncertainty and insist, instead, that it is an adventure. But at the end of every day there is an acute sense that we are but dust; that life is short and is running through our fingers.
It matters to do more than survive. Life needs to be lived, not just endured.
So this Lent I shall not be giving up chocolate, but instead I shall be actively, daily,
• giving up the dark tunnels of worry and fear,
• giving up an over-burdening sense of responsibility,
• giving up working overtime,
• giving up the bruising anger and resentment that I am entitled to.
Instead I shall be living … deliberately one day at a time, finding every day
• something to enjoy,
• someone to celebrate,
• and something to laugh about.
It feels like Friday already. But Sunday is coming. I know it is.”
When I read those words, I knew that for me, this year, Lent could be different! I had found some positive disciplines to offset the negativity I so often feel in this season.
We may not be facing the sort of change that Maggi is this year,
but we all face life’s challenges, and we all live in an uncertain and disturbing world.
In the midst of it all, it’s good to remember that we live in this world with God, and that we can lift up our eyes – take time to recall God’s presence with us, God’s love for us.
We can take time to find everyday
• something to enjoy
• someone to celebrate
• something to laugh about.
We can take time to live in the moment with God.
Jesus breaks down barriers27 March 2011
Jesus breaks down barriers
John 4 5-42
It occurs to me that reading the Bible is like watching American Football.
[OK, I’m not sure how this analogy is going to work – but stick with me!]
I’ve been watching American Football for quite a while now, and I think that I understand a lot about the game and what’s going on.
• I know the difference between a touch-down and a touch-back;
• I can tell a Nose Tackle from an Offensive Tackle,
• a Full Back from a Tight End.
• I even know that a “Hail Mary” in football is different from a “Hail Mary” in church – although not that different: they both involve praying!
But sometimes during a game, something happens that I really don’t understand. (I am English, after all!)
Fortunately, because of the wonders of the Internet, I’m in touch with quite a few fans of my team – the Green Bay Packers [by the way, did I mention that we won the Superbowl this year?!]
These are fans who know all there is to know about the team, and who have grown up watching and playing the game. If there’s anything I need to know, they can explain it to me!
• You see, sometimes, however much you think you know, the only way to fully understand something is to be part of the culture.
• And that’s where our gospel reading this morning comes in: the story of Jesus and the Woman at the Well.
It’s a remarkable story, but it needed footnotes even at the time it was first written down. The writer explains in v 9 that “Jews do not associate with Samaritans”.
That, as they say, is an understatement!
By Jesus’ time, and for hundreds of years before, there was an intense, historic hatred between Jews and Samaritans. We can’t really understand what Jesus was doing – unless we realise that.
In fact, you have to have grown up in the culture to appreciate the power of what was happening. We like to joke a bit about the rivalry between Yorkshire and Lancashire (at least, I think it’s a joke!) but think how things were just after the Wars of the Roses.
And more than that, Jesus was taking on another social taboo. The woman was … well … a woman!
She, herself, is astounded. She says to Jesus:
“You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (Jn 4:9)
There is so much in this passage from John’s gospel, but perhaps nothing is more remarkable than the very fact that the encounter takes place at all!
The disciples certainly get the point – notice what happens when they come back.
“Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no-one asked, ‘What do you want?’ or ‘Why are you talking with her?’” (Jn 4:27)
They were obviously used to Jesus doing this sort of thing – defying social convention. They may have muttered to each other “There he goes again”, but they certainly didn’t challenge him.
But there’s one more thing about this encounter which makes it even more remarkable: Jesus knows that the woman is an outcast, even among Samaritans.
She has come to the well in the heat of the day. It would have been normal for the women to gather together early in the morning, or in the cool of the evening, when the work wouldn’t have been quite so hard. But she comes to the well at noon, when she can be sure to be alone.
She was accustomed to the whispering wherever she went, having been used and discarded by so many men of the village – and this in a culture in which there was little if any privacy, and gossip spread quickly. And yet, see how Jesus treats her.
As Sarah Dylan Breuer notes:
“Jesus addresses her in the same terms as he addressed his mother [earlier in John’s gospel]. He meets a woman who couldn't be more of an outsider, and he receives her as an insider, an intimate, who has no cause for shame. He brings up her past, and her present, not to shame her, but to take away their power, … showing how little they affect how Jesus and the God he proclaims receive her.”
The living water that Jesus offers the woman, and all those who follow him, is powerful stuff! It makes possible fullness of life – a new quality of life and relationships. Where Jesus is present, barriers are broken down.
Which is all well and good in the culture of 1st century Palestine – but what about us? Jesus is present with us, today. We are his followers – what is our experience?
Well, we are no different to people anywhere at any time. We know who our friends are; we tend to relate most easily to “people like us” – I know I do!
That’s quite natural, of course: there’s a level of comfort and security in that. But we all tend to define ourselves in comparison to others who are “not like us”. And the church behaves very much like the rest of society in that respect.
I think it’s immensely sad that the church, the followers of that same Jesus who met the woman at the well, is actually known far better for keeping barriers up than for breaking them down.
• We are known for our difficulty in accepting certain people.
• We are seen as those who claim exemption from equality laws,
• who put people into different categories,
• rather than doing as Jesus did – accepting everyone as human, created and loved by God.
That’s an exaggeration, of course. I suspect that no-one is quite as they are presented in the media.
But we do need to be careful that, however good our motives might be, we don’t manage to frustrate God’s persistent, transforming love for all people – the sort of love Jesus showed that Samaritan woman, who, by rights, he shouldn’t even have been talking to.
Inclusiveness is at the heart of the new way that Jesus calls us to.
That living water, that practical, accepting love shown by Jesus transformed the woman at the well. From being an outcast, she went back into her village and started telling all and sundry about her amazing man she’d met. “Could this be the Christ?” (v29). And she brought crowds of people back with her to meet him.
That same love can transform all our relationships – transform our churches, our communities, our world.
• Jesus sees each one of us, as he saw that woman – not judging us, but understanding and accepting us;
• and he makes it possible for us to share his love with others
• whatever the barriers might be.
See Sarah Dylan Breuer's Lectionary Blog for this reading: http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2005/02/third_sunday_in.html
and also Walter Brueggemann, Charles B Cousar, Beverly R Gaventa, James D Newsome Texts for Preaching – Year A Westminster/John Knox Press 1995 p208
27 February 2011
A Golden Age in Sport!
I was thinking only the other day that this is a remarkable time for those teams and individuals I follow in sport.
Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club are the County Champions!
Europe has retained the Ryder Cup!
England has retained the Ashes - winning them in Australia for the first time in years!
Lee Westwood is the world's number 1 golfer!
The Green Bay Packers have won the Superbowl!
I mention this because Lee is about to lose his number 1 status - temporarily I trust - to his Ryder Cup Colleague Martin Kaymer.
But this is indeed a Golden Age! It's important to remember times like these, because it isn't always so ...
God’s Kingdom: challenge and comfort
God’s Kingdom: challenge and comfort
Matthew 6 25-34; Romans 8 18-25
As you probably know, this year marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. And, even for me, who came to faith largely through the Good News Bible – even for me, our reading from Matthew’s gospel echoes somewhere in my mind in the traditional words:
“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow;
they toil not, neither do they spin:
And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Mt 6 28, 29 KJV)
Consider the lilies of the field …
And yet, the trouble is that I’m not a poet!
It’s not just the language that I find a problem – it’s the imagery too.
They are wonderful images: don’t worry about food and clothes – look around you at God’s beautiful provision. “O ye of little faith”.
But I immediately want to rationalise!
My mind says: It’s easy to say “Don’t worry” – I’m pretty well off really, especially if you consider the world’s poorest people. My mind says: It’s easy to say “Seek ye first the kingdom of God” – but the Diocese still wants it’s Parish Share: and it’s going up!
I’m not a poet.
The good news is that the Bible contains all sorts of literature and styles of writing.
• It nurtures and shapes the life of the church and of individuals.
• It presents a God whose character is revealed in Jesus, and who engages with people in many different ways.
The Bible makes clear
• what life under God’s reign looks like,
• how faithful disciples think and act,
• what priorities they set
• and what passions control them.
And much more often than not, it does this
• not by laying down rules,
• but by prodding our imaginations,
• telling stories, describing scenarios.
It does it by asking questions about life without giving direct answers.
God forces us to stop and take stock; and he does this for all of us, whether poets or not.
• He encourages us to think,
• and he makes us sensitive to the things of his Kingdom.
Nowhere is that more clearly the case than in this part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
We are confronted with a series of choices:
• serving God, or pursuing wealth
• trusting God, or fretting over life’s necessities
• seeking God’s rule, or worrying about tomorrow.
One commentary on this passage offered rather helpfully
“There is little a preacher needs to say about this passage.”
And I know what it means – even if I find it difficult advice to follow!
As I said a few weeks ago about another part of the Sermon on the Mount, we need to allow the passage to speak for itself. Its images are powerful, and its challenges are clear. They give us all pause for thought – they create an opportunity for God to speak to us; to speak into our situations.
So what more do I have to offer, apart from encouraging you to go and pray and reflect on that gospel passage?
Well, one thing that struck me was a parallel between our gospel and the reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Jesus tells his disciples to seek first God’s Kingdom and his righteousness, whilst Paul says:
“I consider that what we suffer at this present time cannot be compared at all with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.” (Rom 8:18 GNB)
Paul is acknowledging what is plain to all of us – that all is not as God intends it to be. And yet he is saying quite clearly that this will change – that God’s purpose (for us and for all creation) is glorious!
“That creation itself would one day be set free from its slavery to decay and would share the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Rom 8:21 GNB)
So much that we see in the world today is less than it could be, less than it should be.
We know that a great deal of the suffering we see is caused by us, by human beings – the way we treat each other; the way we treat God’s creation.
We know too that much of the suffering we all face is beyond our control – suffering caused by decay and by death.
But we have the hope, the promise of glory.
Jesus says we are to seek first God’s Kingdom.
Yes, (in the words of Romans), we wait with patience for glory to be revealed – but our waiting is active waiting.
As disciples of Jesus, we are called to seek the Kingdom by challenging everything that is contrary to it – all that stands in the way of the fullness of life that Jesus came to bring.
We stand together with everyone who opposes injustice, who struggles against poverty, who works to bring in the values of God’s Kingdom. As we do this, we begin to glimpse glory; to see just a little of what will be when God’s Kingdom truly comes.
And we seek God’s Kingdom too in the midst of decay and death.
We cannot know or understand why life is as it is, why, as Paul said, all creation is in slavery in this way. But we have the promise that it will not always be so.
By his own death and his resurrection, Jesus has opened up for us all the way to glory. He has promised us that God’s Kingdom will come. In the midst of grief and sorrow, God gives us grace to offer, with his love and compassion, the hope and the assurance of life with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ.
As I said, I’m not a poet.
But I do thank God for the challenge and the comfort he offers us, both in the words of the Bible, and in the Living Word, his Son Jesus Christ.
• I long for my trust in God to grow, so that I may learn not to worry, and realise that he knows what I need.
• I long too to see God’s Kingdom come more and more – to glimpse the glory that is going be revealed.
May God make us sensitive to the things of his Kingdom – both now, and for all eternity.
For some of the ideas in this sermon, see
Walter Brueggemann, Charles B Cousar, Beverly R Gaventa James D Newsome Texts for Preaching – Year A Westminster John Knox Press 1995 pps 161 ff
24 October 2010
Bible Sunday - Scripture, Reason & TraditionSun 24 Oct 2010 Bible Sunday
Luke 4 16-24
[A bit of a thumbnail portrait, but in the hope of encouraging people to think a little more deeply.]
I have to admit that I was really pleased when I saw our reading for today – one of the readings set for Bible Sunday. It has to be one of my very favourite Bible passages! It’s a wonderful story – the sort of story we would recognise: Jesus going to the synagogue. And in his own home town too!
• It's interesting that though the Bible was written at least 2,000 years ago – and most of it much longer ago than that – it’s still important to us; it still speaks to us; we still learn things from it.
• Interesting too that there are so many different sorts of writing in the Bible:
[History; stories (parables); rules and instructions; letters; poetry; anything else?]
All different types of writing which help us to understand God better; which describe people getting to grips with God.
I want to think a little about how we use the Bible – how we hear it “speak”.
Throughout the history of the Church of England, people have recognised three ways of understanding God (sometimes called the 3-legged-stool)
• Reason, and
Scripture – the Bible – is a very important way in which we understand God: not least, of course, because of what it tells us about Jesus, his life and teachings, his death and resurrection.
But as we’ve seen, there is a lot in the Bible. And different parts of it often say different things.
It’s worth noticing that in our story of Jesus in the synagogue,
• although as Luke says, Jesus reads from scroll of the prophet Isaiah,
• he actually reads from 2 different parts (Isaiah 61 and Isaiah 42),
• and then goes on to teach from them.
By putting these 2 passages together, Jesus described more fully what his life and work were all about. He didn’t just pick one single passage or one single quote, but used different parts of the Bible to teach truths about himself, and about God.
We all have our own favourite passages and stories in the Bible, but especially on Bible Sunday, it’s good to remember that we can always learn from reading more and hearing more of the Bible – it’s an amazing book!
The second leg of the 3-legged-stool is Reason: the God-given ability to think and reflect about things – to grow in our own understanding.
Human beings are always learning more and finding out more! Our son [A] is studying Physics and Chemistry for A-level. Now, I’ve always been interested in science – and especially about anything to do with space [I grew up during the Apollo flights to the Moon]. But I’m learning so much more now. Whenever we watch a TV programme by Stephen Hawking or Brian Cox or Jim Al-Khalili, it always finishes up with [A] getting a pen and paper and trying to explain things to me in more detail! The trouble is, I’m sure I keep on asking him the same questions!
God gave us our minds – and he expects us to use them! And just as we can discover things about the world and the universe around us, we can discover more about the Bible:
• when the different books were written,
• what kind of people they were written to,
• and the sorts of things people thought and believed about God at the time.
Sometimes we have to read things in the Bible (say for instance about slavery or women)
• remembering the way the world was at the time,
• and most of all remembering what the whole of the Bible, and what Jesus himself shows us about God and his love for all people.
And we can’t expect the Bible to say anything directly about climate change, for example, but we can notice that in the stories in the Bible about creation – which have been told and re-told for thousands of years – people very clearly understood that God wants us to take care of the earth and of all he had created.
So, we’ve talked about the Bible and about our own intelligence as ways of knowing and understanding God better. The third leg of our stool is Tradition.
By tradition we don’t mean the types of seats we have in church or even the different hymns we sing! We mean the things that the Church and Christian people have come to believe and understand over the years about God and our Lord Jesus Christ.
If we remember our Christian tradition, we learn from people in the past – and also from those in different Christian churches today, in our own country and throughout the world. And we learn from different traditions within the Church of England.
• We remember that, though we ourselves are part of Christian tradition – we are only a part.
• We recognise that no one person, no one church or tradition can completely understand God
• We realise that we need each other and the insights we each can bring to have the fullest possible picture of God, and of God’s purposes for his creation.
As I said at the beginning, that story of Jesus reading from Isaiah is one of my favourite stories in the whole of the Bible.
It’s so wonderful that Jesus was reading and teaching about words which have been passed down, over thousands of years, to us, today.
It’s so dramatic when they all turn to him and he says, very simply, that Isaiah was speaking about him.
But most of all, it’s truly amazing that everything Jesus teaches us about God – both in his words and in his actions – speaks of love and freedom and fullness of life.
May our Lord Jesus help us to play our part, as the message of the Bible, the message of God’s love is fulfilled.
For Jesus’ use of Isaiah, see Sarah Dylan Breuer here.
11 October 2010
The Costs of the UK's "wolf pack" media systemA very intersting and perceptive article from the LSE's British Politics and Policy Blog
As Ed Miliband builds his new Labour front bench team without his talented and experienced older brother, Bart Cammaerts wonders if David Miliband’s purdah is just the latest cost of the UK’s strong, national media system and its personality-driven coverage of political life.
Read the full article here
05 October 2010
Norman Wisdom and the European ParliamentSir Norman Wisdom has died. He is being described today as a "comic craftsman", and was reportedly (Sir) Charlie Chaplin's favourite clown.
I remembered a story from former MEP Richard Corbett, which tells of an unexpected moment of humour in the European Parliament:
One classic story is about a debate when a member from Normandy came up with just the right compromise at the right time. One of the French MEPs, using an old French expression, said that this was thanks to "la sagesse normande" (the wisdom of people from Normandy). The English interpretation rendered this as being "all thanks to Norman Wisdom". No one of any other nationality could quite understand why the British and Irish members were in stitches!