Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Renewing our vision...

It’s a slightly strange experience to be producing the first autumn edition of the Parish Magazine before I take my summer holiday. Trying to get myself into the right frame of mind to set up and tackle fresh challenges when I’m still thinking about travel arrangements, my lack of language skills and working out care arrangements for the cat!

I’d hoped that being in the parish for most of the traditional holiday period would result in a lighter workload, the chance to sit in the garden, to read some books and perhaps even to plan ahead a little. It hasn’t quite worked out that way… I’ve failed so far even to get myself along to the exhibition of the Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham – though I did help organise a pilgrimage to enable two dozen clergy from all over the North to make the the visit! But we all have till the end of September to go and see the Gospels. Everyone I’ve spoken to has really enjoyed seeing them. With the accompanying exhibits they’ve appreciated the context in which the Gospels were produced and seen something new about their relevance to our faith today. And look out for the free exhibition upstairs! I’ve seen that – it includes an interactive copy of the Gospels so you can turn the pages, as well as other displays and the chance even to dress up as an Anglo-Saxon monk or peasant (I’ve seen some fellow-clergy doing that).

Meanwhile I have managed a bit of reading. One book I’ve enjoyed is The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. It’s been recommended for people taking part in a diocesan training day for spiritual directors. But there’s something for everyone in this story of a man who goes out to post a letter and keeps walking. It has deep perspectives on the way we lead our lives, our relationships, the things we do and don’t do and say… but it’s also very funny and it isn’t difficult to read. Rather harder to take, I’m finding, is John Cornwell’s book, Hitler’s Pope, about Eugenio Pacelli, Vatican Secretary of State who became Pope Pius XI. Cornwell argues that Pacelli’s attitudes and strategies were disastrous not only for the Church but for the lives of nations and most especially for the Jews. In part the old wisdom, “For evil to triumph, it is necessary only that good men should do nothing.” In part his desire for centralisation and control – if only the Church could dictate everything to its members… but the result was that it was silenced in its ability to speak about wider, critical issues.

It’s a work in progress, but salutary. We need strategies in our life as a church – but can’t control everything. Our pilgrimage is to follow Christ. Our power is the power of God’s Holy Spirit.     

(The September issue of St. Cuthbert's Parish Magazine has just been published - click here to find it online)

(And from St. John's, here's last Sunday's sermon)

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Not the medium but the message

(Jeremiah 23.23-29; Hebrews 11.29-12.2; Luke 12.49-56)

Barbara Brown Taylor is an American Episcopalian priest who apparently gets nominated quite routinely as “one of the top ten preachers in North America.” So while she is presently paying a visit to this country, the Church Times took the opportunity to ask her the question, “In the age of the screen and social media, is the sermon at risk?” Perhaps this is a dangerous way for me to start!
Here’s her answer to that question:
I know plenty of people who will happily listen to a good storyteller, lecturer, or stand-up comedian for 20 minutes; so technology does not seem to be the problem. The problem has more to do with the setting, content, and purpose of the traditional sermon, which too many people experience as predictable, manipulative, or both.
As long as sermons are conceived as being about affirming a certain belief system, and recruiting new believers to it, then they are going to attract only people who are in the market for those things.
When I preach, my goal is to say something that sounds like good news to anyone who is listening, no strings attached. There's no substitute for the unmediated presence of a live speaker, which is dangerous and potentially catalytic in a way that watching a screen will never be. 
So she’s saying the opposite of what has become received wisdom. The sermon has its place. The preacher has his or her place: “There's no substitute for the unmediated presence of a live speaker...” The problem is not the medium but the message.
The big issue is what should the message be? What should we be trying to put over to anyone with the ears to hear? And there’s something to think about in her answer: “When I preach, my goal is to say something that sounds like good news to anyone who is listening, no strings attached.”
What sounds like “good news” to you? What sounds like “good news” to you that is also good news to other people? – “good news” to people you might not get on with? And how does the Church deal with the fact that people are looking for quite different things in issues of daily life and in what they consider to be important? That’s a question that sometimes defeats us – perhaps because we haven’t got the vision or understanding to deal with it; but sometimes it perplexes even the most able, intelligent and wise.
“Good news,” I think, is going to entail the admission that we simply don’t get it right all the time. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, was at the Edinburgh Book Festival last week. He was reminded that his years as archbishop were marked by turbulence over the church's stance on the role of gay priests and bishops; gay marriage became a subject for angry debate; and homophobia became an issue in the wider Anglican Communion. So did he feel he had let down gay and lesbian people? His response was first a pause to think about it. Then he said,
I know that a very great many of my gay and lesbian friends would say that I did. The best thing I can say is that is a question that I ask myself really rather a lot and I don't quite know the answer.
Perhaps he could have quoted Jesus in today’s Gospel reading: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three…” There’s a realism in what Jesus says: try as hard as you may, but people are not going to agree. If they fall out over words and feelings, that’s bad enough. When they come to blows and take up guns and bombs, that is the world as we all too tragically know it.
Barbara Brown Taylor had said, “When I preach, my goal is to say something that sounds like good news to anyone who is listening, no strings attached.” And the point of Jesus’ teaching is that it should be “good news.” The problem is what we want to hear, and what we are prepared to do
The Church Times asked Barbara Brown Taylor about her experience of giving up her pastoral ministry as a parish priest – she’s written a book about it called, Leaving Church. So, they asked her, “What do you miss, and what do you not miss?”  
I miss doing baptisms and funerals, visiting nursing homes, and being called to the emergency room in the middle of the night. I miss being immersed in a great worship service, which is like conducting a great symphony. I miss the children, and watching them grow up.
I do not miss being the object of people's inordinate adulation, or hostility. I do not miss breaking up church fights - or causing them - or trying to meet my own expectations of what a good priest should be and do. I do not miss being the CEO of a small non-profit organisation that relies on overworking its volunteers. But, in hindsight, I bless it all. 
As I read these words, I could hear a chorus of clergy crying, “Yes to that!” “I do not miss being the object of people's inordinate adulation, or hostility. I do not miss breaking up church fights - or causing them…” But if that’s how it is in the Church as we know it, that’s how it was for Jesus, who comes to preach good news, who heals the sick, gives sight to the blind and even raises the dead – but with it also by his own admission brings division.
The word “Gospel” means simply Good News. It’s Good News that we are to preach, it’s Good News that we are to live out day-by-day. It needs to be Good News for the people we meet, whoever they are, with no strings attached. But it’s not the same as something that will keep everybody happy. It’s not a lowest-common-denominator, let’s-not-offend-anyone religious message. The Good News of the Kingdom recognises the true needs of our world. Good news for the poor can’t be preached while the rich are appeased. There are scarce prospects for peace in a world where so much reliance is placed upon weapons of force. Injustice for women will continue as a matter of fact while the administration of the law in so many parts of the world remains the preserve of men. Bullying and discrimination are perpetuated whenever people insist on the right to say whatever they think and feel about people who they perceive as different. While all this remains true, the message of Jesus brings division. But how else can it achieve its aims?
The Gospel of Jesus is simple Good News. But what do we hear? How will we hear? Listen in faith, says the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews – and recognise God’s Good News in a faith which is “stronger than kingdoms,” in a weakness which is greater than strength, in justice and promise, in the hope of Resurrection. And if it’s to be good news for everybody, we should add that we need to listen – and respond – with humility. God provides “something better” not only for me but for all those people who are quite different from me. Together we are called to be God’s people; for us all Jesus is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” He shows it when he goes to the Cross for love of the whole world, for me, for you, for those people we don’t get on with. If he didn’t do it for them, how could he do it for me?

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Where is your treasure? Where is your heart?

(Genesis 15.1-6; Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16; Luke 12.32-40)

          Few possessions: a chair,
          A table, a bed…

That’s the start of R. S. Thomas’s poem, At the end. It came to mind for me during the time which my father has been spending in respite care during the last month. It’s a question that so often strikes me when I’m visiting in a residential care home. What are the things that you can take with you, salvaged from a long life? For my father for a four-week stay, it was a small suitcase, a couple of carrier bags, and a jacket – not that he used the jacket, because he never went out. For those staying longer it might not be much more – perhaps their own television, some photos, a special picture and a few books? But there’s no room for anything else.
At the end, what can we take with us?... what do we need?
When I go to visit my parents, one of the things they ask me is to take away “all those old records of yours.” Nearly 40 years after I left home they still think of them as mine to take away. Perhaps two or three of them are – a couple of Beatles records on 45rpm vinyl, though I don’t think that “Man of Mystery” by The Shadows ever did belong to me. They’ve already had me remove piles of sheet music which I suspect were simply dumped on us when I was learning to play the piano – and those piles now languish on my piano in the Vicarage, unplayed. I admit that there’s probably a lot of my childhood stuff in their loft – old issues of Look and Learn and The Eagle and a lot of ancient school reports and exercise books. The thought of them waiting to be cleared at some point, I find rather oppressive – except for the prospect perhaps of being able to sell some of those old magazines to a collector. But I doubt anything is of any great value. And why didn’t my parents just get rid of them, if they didn’t want them there? Even worse, why have they allowed accumulations of other possessions elsewhere in the house? A garage full of stuff that’s no longer fit for purpose – tools that just don’t work, a bike that might be too old even for Beamish Museum. A bedroom which hasn’t been usable since my brother left home over 30 years ago, because it’s full of his old books, clothes, records and other things which he’s never going to take away to his home in America. He’s left it all behind. He doesn’t need it. It was even, perhaps, holding him back. But they’ve still got it.
What do we cling on to? What do we really need?
It’s a natural thing to accumulate possessions. But then what do you do with them? That’s a question that was beginning to trouble Abram in today’s Old Testament reading. He’s just won a great victory in battle. He’s been honoured by the mysterious priest-king Melchizedek. He’s seeing the fruits of God’s promise that he would lead him into a land of plenty where he would have riches, flocks and many servants. But what is he going to do with it all? Who can he leave it to? He’s got no children and his natural heir is the otherwise unmentioned Eliezer who lives far off in Damascus. Abram is thinking about his “things.” You can’t take them with you – and he’s not very happy about who might inherit them. But God has different ideas. God’s promise is not about the material things he wants Abram to have – it’s about his purpose for Abram’s life and about the purpose he has for his descendants, the lives that may be touched by God’s presence in them.
Abram is anxious about his stuff. Jesus addresses the anxieties of his followers in today’s Gospel:
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
What we read today follows on from what Jesus tells his followers about their worries concerning life’s daily needs. Just, don’t worry! Look at the birds of the air which find their food day by day. Look at the flowers in the field which are beautiful just as they are. So consider your priorities. What do you really need in the way of possessions? “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
I don’t think Jesus is saying everyone has to go out and sell everything they have. He’s talking about calling and purpose in our lives, not advocating a course which would lead to economic meltdown if everyone took it literally. But if you’re going to hear the call of God, you need to ask what should I do about it? – what do I really need? What action is God calling me to take?
Much of what Jesus says to the disciples seems to tie in with the life they are called to lead. His first words to them are, “Follow me…” And theirs is a life lived on the road – following Jesus, going out on their own with a mission to proclaim his Kingdom. It’s a calling which I find a challenge. I love being a follower of Jesus, but I also love living in that wonderful big, inconvenient Vicarage of mine. Stuff accumulates. I have to ask if it holds me back from doing the things I should. How many pre-occupations do we each have which get in the way of listening to God in prayer, even before we try to make our response to his call? What are the things that might be holding you back on your journey?
One of the people who has really made me think in recent months is Pope Francis. Almost immediately after his election he called on Christians to be a “Church of the Poor.” Straight away people began asking what that means in a Church which is so evidently wealthy. But at least something can be seen in the way he lives. He’d already refused to live in the Archbishop’s Palace in Buenos Aires – and he’d travelled not in a chauffeured limousine but by public transport. Now he lives in a simple room of a hostel for clergy and gets driven around in a Ford Focus. I wondered what it had been like for him as he found himself stuck in Rome with only his travelling bags. Wouldn’t I want to go back home to be given a few weeks to pack everything up? Instead he simply went back to the Casa del Clero on a bus with some other cardinals, picked up his suitcase, paid his bill and got on with his new job.
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Where is your heart? Where is my heart?
However we answer, Christ calls us always to be ready for him. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit…” Be like the servants waiting for their Master to come back from a late night banquet. They couldn’t just leave the lights on so that he could let himself in. Oil lamps needed to be kept topped up and their wicks trimmed. Elsewhere Jesus asks just what you can expect of the relationship between a servant and his master. But today’s Gospel has a twist. The servants wait up, the Master finally comes home – but then he gets them to sit down, and he serves them, bringing food himself for them to eat. We are called to do the work of proclaiming Christ’s Kingdom. But it is a Kingdom like no other, where the King himself is the servant to his people.
Jesus calls us to follow him. Christ commissions us to go out and travel light in proclaiming his Kingdom. And Jesus Christ is the King who serves his people, who sits us down to eat and nourishes us with his love.
What more do we need?