Numbers and Miracles…

You may have come across this headline:

People of no religion outnumber Christians in England and Wales

To be clear, this is not just that the number of people in church is smaller than those who don’t go on a Sunday. And this is not the fact that active members of the Church of England are in a minority. What this is, is that when you ask people their religion, 48.5% of the population of England and Wales say they have no religion. And the number who say they are Christians, of whatever denomination, is 43.8%.

The increase in those who identify themselves as having no religion has increased massively in a very short space of time. As recently as 2011, the figure was 25%. And by 2014 it was 48.5%. It used to be that people who were not very religious (but who were not actively anti-religion) would put themselves down on forms as ‘Church of England’. That is increasingly not the case. And people who were brought up in a family where religion was practiced now say they have no religion, rather than simply identify themselves with the religion of their parents or grandparents.

Half of those who identify themselves as Christians are over the age of 55. ‘Millennials’ – those born in the period from about 1980 to 2000 are missing from church. We might comfort ourselves by saying that as they get older, get married, have children, they will come back to church. That’s highly unlikely because they are not people who see themselves as Christians who just don’t have time to go to church; increasingly they see themselves has having no religion.

In 1983, those who identified themselves as Anglican made up 44.5% of the population. In 2014, it was 19%. The Church of England has never been good at converting people to faith: we have somehow assumed that everybody in England was more-or-less a Christian unless they identified with another religion, in which case it was in poor taste to suggest they might like to come and join us. Those who do join the Church of England tend to come from another Christian denomination – a transfer, rather than conversion. And for every one person who joins the Church of England, 12 leave it. The Church of England itself predicts that attendance is going to fall for the next 30 years, at least.

Clergy numbers are going to continue to decline as those who retire outnumber those who come forward for ordination. 25% of C of E clergy are aged over 60. Only 13% are under 40. In another profession, people would be asking me about my plans for retirement.

How do we respond?

Abject despair!

This is it. We are the last generation. The church may limp along for a few years yet, but there’s no real future for the church when we have gone. Will the last person to leave kindly turn out the lights?

Guilty Activism

Something must be done! If we don’t get more people coming to church, the collections will continue to go down, we won’t be able to pay our bills. We are in danger of making ourselves and one another feel guilty. Clergy do this all the time!

We are doing some good things: looking at our worship and the way in which we publicise our services. We want to develop the building so that it provides a welcome to visitors. Those are good things. But we can’t do that just to assuage our guilty consciences.

Is there something we have going for us?

It turns out, we believe in resurrection. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus raises the widow’s son from death to life, as an act of compassion and in anticipation of his own resurrection.

The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favourably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country. (Luke 7:15-17)

A miracle like that would do us a power of good! But we see little miracles here all the time. On Thursday morning, as walked to the front of church to start the service there two people talking to each other, oblivious to me. I stopped for a moment and waited for them to finish their conversation. They looked at me and I looked at them. And it made me laugh. That Thursday morning congregation has in it a number who have suffered loss and bereavement. Some who live with long-term illness in themselves or are carers for others. And on Thursday mornings, we meet here and make each other laugh. There’s a communion service complete with sermon in the middle; but far more importantly, we have a cup of tea and a biscuit afterwards. It’s a group of people who have learned to love one another.

It’s not just the Thursday morning crowd. I’ve had a couple of people say to me in recent days how much they have appreciated the support of the church while coping with difficult circumstances. These are little miracles and they happen here. They are not things that we proclaim from the rooftops but we give thanks to God because we sense that God is here amongst us.

On Pentecost Sunday, we had a service of all-age worship. There was quite a group of younger children, some currently part of Praise and Play, some now part of the school. They came and sat on the carpet on the front. I did a magic trick, creating a cake to celebrate the church’s birthday and we sang a children’s song. And while I was talking, one little lad engaged me in conversation. At one point he was telling me that his trousers had a pocket in. It’s become one of my favourite things: sitting on the step at the front of church with the Praise and Play families on a Friday afternoon and with the children who come to our all-age services.

We live in a society where people are increasingly isolated. The elderly who never see a living soul from one day to the next. People of working age who never get time to be with their families. Young women with children who long to have another adult to talk to. People who live with mental health problems and don’t fit in. Young people who spend hours a day looking at a screen, not another person. Church is the opposite of social isolation. Church is where you come through the door and you belong. From the youngest to the oldest of us, this is our space where we matter and so does everyone else.

Conclusion

What if that got out? That this was the place of little miracles? Where people get to know themselves loved? And commit to learning what it means to love one another? Maybe it will be a while before we have queueing round the block, but you never know!

Men and the Church

In my previous diocese, clergy were asked to fill in a form for the Archdeacons’ visitation which included the question: ‘what does your parish do for men?’ I was tempted to reply, ‘I don’t know what it’s done for anyone else, but when I came here I was two stone lighter and my hair was dark’!

Someone once said that the Christian Church is like a lifeboat: it’s for ‘women and children first’. In many church congregations, women seem to be in the majority, followed by children. Young adults and men, in particular, seem to be missing. Why is that?

Of course, when it came to ordained ministry, until fairly recently, the picture was reversed: priestly ministry in the Church of England was a club for men only. The C of E started ordaining women priests in 1994. In 2012, 490 new clergy were ordained: 269 were men, 221 female[1]. In 2014, the Church of England saw its first woman bishop, the Rt Revd Libby Lane, Bishop of Stockport.

65% of churchgoers in the UK are female[2], so they are in the majority. Part of the answer to why that is may be to do with age. The average age of a churchgoer is 61, whereas the average age of the general UK population is 40[3]. Given that women have tended to live longer than men, you might expect more women in church than men. But it isn’t necessarily a modern phenomenon:

In 1904, religious writer Richard Mudie-Smith conducted a census of Church of England attendance in London and found that 84,602 women were present compared to just 46,343 men – almost a two to one ratio.[4]

Other religions in this country don’t seem to have the same gender balance: Islam and Judaism have more male adherents than female. So why is the Christian Church more appealing to women than to men?

Is it that men more rational, and don’t accept religious teaching? Perhaps it is because men are notoriously bad at dealing with emotions. I have often seen someone in tears in church, simply because they have heard a hymn with particular associations (it was sung at a parent’s funeral, for example). Perhaps it is because women are better at talking about personal things. Men seem to substitute sport for personal interaction. “Did you see that game? That was never a penalty!” may be as deep as some men’s conversations ever get! Or perhaps it is because men have traditionally been career-focused, leaving women to look after children, including taking them to church on Sunday. Or is it the case that, having spent a hard week at work, men prefer to relax on Sundays, washing the car, mowing the lawn or playing golf? Of course, those stereotypes are dated, but there may be something in them, given the average age of churchgoers.

In a 2011 book, a Christian author, David Murrow asks: “Why Do Men Hate Going To Church?” David Murrow is the Director of Church for Men. The organisation’s website[5] offers to put you in touch with a ‘Man Friendly Church’. You can even get a study guide to look at with the book, to ask how your church can become more man-friendly. It’s a question we might like to ask of our own churches: how ‘man friendly’ are we?

Jesus, of course, has no trouble relating to either men or women. I have often preached on his radical acceptance of women and children, in a culture that was very male-dominated. But perhaps we should start to think about how Jesus worked with men. Jesus seems to have had no problem talking to men of different social status – fishermen and tax-collectors, centurions and rulers. After all, the twelve apostles were men.

The gospels are full of Jesus’s encounters with men: Nicodemus, Zacchaeus, Jairus, Herod and Pontius Pilate – as well as the many men, blind, lame and oppressed by demons, whose names we don’t know. And, in Mark 10:17-31, the man we know as the rich young ruler.

Here is a man with a desire to understand: he asks Jesus the question, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus plays with him: ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone’. Jesus runs through the commandments for him, and the man, as far as he can tell, has kept them. He has been faithful and devout. So what’s missing? Jesus puts his finger on it. This man who wants to know how to be good is a wealthy man. Jesus challenges him:

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Mark 10:21, 22)

I don’t think this is a general prescription: that all Christians should (literally) give up all their possessions – although some, like St Francis of Assisi, have done so. But Jesus knows that for this one man, although he appears open and seeking after truth, the stumbling block is that he is really deeply wedded to his wealth. Perhaps men are locked into a view of themselves in which their value is rooted in their material wealth? How hard it is, Jesus says, for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God! Easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle! (V25) In other words, it’s impossible for a wealthy person to be saved. The disciples are astonished: if the rich aren’t God’s favourites, then what hope for the rest of us?

Jesus’s answer is that rich men and women are saved on the same basis as the poor. We are saved because God chooses to save us, because God loves us. Not because of what we have achieved or earned in life.

Perhaps that is why some men find religion difficult: because men have been told that their worth is to do with their accomplishments, their achievements? And the bible says we are saved, by grace, unmerited, unearned love:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

We are saved, not by our own goodness, but because of God’s goodness. We do good works, not in order to impress God, in order to get God to accept us, but because it’s what God created us for. (And we’ve all come across the self-made man who worships his creator…)

Perhaps it’s difficult for men, to allow themselves to be accepted by God without that being something we have to work for? Men who have been taught that their worth, their value, lies in what they have achieved, earnt, rather than simply knowing themselves to be valued by God?

Jesus ‘loved’ the rich young man, but he still went away grieving, shocked to discover where his heart really lay, in his material wealth.

Men (and women and children) need to know where true wealth is to be found. Jesus talks about the man who discovered treasure in a field, or the merchant who finds a pearl of great value. They sold all that they had to obtain that which was of far greater value (Matthew 13:44-46). Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is the thing which is to be valued above all else: we should let go of everything else in order to find it.

Jesus says we are to:

…store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:20, 21).

So, men, here’s the challenge: are we prepared to put all other things aside in order to gain the Kingdom? And are we ready to share that message with those around us? Jesus tells us not to worry about material things. God knows what we need. We are to:

…strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)

[1] https://www.churchofengland.org/about-us/facts-stats.aspx

[2] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/10035155/Why-do-more-women-flock-to-the-Church.html

[3] Office for National Statistics, Social Trends 2009

[4] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/10035155/Why-do-more-women-flock-to-the-Church.html

[5] http://churchformen.com/community/about-david-murrow/

The Sign of Jonah

Wednesday 17th February 2016

Jesus said,
‘This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.’ (Luke 11:29)

Jonah was a prophet. A reluctant prophet. God said to Jonah, ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and cry out against it!’ So Jonah set out in the opposite direction. He gets on a ship that is going to Tarshish. God sends a mighty storm and the ship is likely to be destroyed. The mariners each cry to their god while Jonah sleeps in the hold of the ship. Why aren’t you praying?, they want to know. They cast lots to find out whose fault it is that the boat is in danger and the lot indicates that it is Jonah. Which god do you worship? I worship the LORD, the God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land. So, what have you done, Jonah?!

Jonah admits that he is fleeing from God and eventually the men throw him into the sea and the storm ceases.

But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:17)

Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land. (Jonah 2:10)

The ‘sign of Jonah’ is a picture of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is not a reluctant prophet, far from it, but he is ‘swallowed up’ by death in the ‘belly’ of the grave, before being ‘spewed out’ into resurrection life.

In “Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent“, Richard Rohr (American Roman Catholic priest) takes the story of Jonah and uses it as a picture of our spiritual journey. We may find ourselves in the belly of darkness, thrown there by circumstance. Jonah ends up in the place where God wanted him to be, even though he had rushed headlong in the opposite direction. Rohr says our spiritual journey is “more like giving up control than taking control”. In life, we may boldly set out in one direction, perhaps knowing that it is the wrong one, perhaps not, but end up somewhere we never expected to be. Who knows whether we might not end up where God wants us to be, despite ourselves?

Faith is a leap into the unknown. Religion likes certainties and absolutes. (Religion is a ‘first half of life’ activity; faith is more possible in the ‘second half’ of life.) Faith is more like falling or being thrown in at the deep end. Somehow we might just end up where we were meant to be.

Rohr quotes the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard:

“Life must be lived forward, but it can only be understood backward.”

Jonah knows what God is doing only after emerging from the belly of the whale. Despite his best efforts to avoid God’s call he ends up being transformed by it. (Actually, he still has much to learn – spoiler alert: the wicked city of Nineveh hears his message and repents. God changes his mind about destroying the wicked city of Nineveh and that really annoys Jonah! He knew all along that God was merciful. That’s why he fled to Tarshish, so that Nineveh wouldn’t benefit from God’s mercy! Jonah gets really depressed and sits down to sulk. A bush grows over his head and shelters it from the harsh sun. And then God appoints a worm to kill the bush and that makes Jonah angrier still. ‘Why are you angry about the bush? Well, do you not think that I care about the people of Nineveh?’)

“God of surprising journeys, help me to live my life forward, trusting that you are steering the ship. Help me to understand my life backward by seeing and forgiving the many ‘signs of Jonah’.”
(Richard Rohr, “Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent”.)

Ashes to Ashes

So, how’s Lent going for you? I’m writing this at the start of Lent (on Ash Wednesday to be precise), so, so far, so good! I am reading “Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent“, a collection of meditations by Fr Richard Rohr. Rohr is an American Franciscan Roman Catholic Priest. I first came across his writing when I was attending a conference in Salisbury. The conference was aimed at those looking at sustaining ministry for the long haul. (In other words, those who have been in ordained ministry for quite a while but who aren’t ready to think about retirement just yet! People like me.)

Richard Rohr has written about spirituality for what he calls the ‘two halves of life’. The first ‘half’ of life is a time for finding out who we are. It’s time to test the boundaries, to strive, to achieve. In the second half of life, all being well, we have found out who we are. Now it’s time to be who we are. So who are we? He says there are two key moments in our lives:

“One is when you know that your one and only life is absolutely valuable and alive.
The other is when you know your life, as presently lived, is entirely pointless and empty.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call a paradox!

The first moment is about connecting with God, our ‘ultimate Source and Ground’, in which we find ‘energy and joy’. The second moment gives us ‘limits and boundaries, and a proper humility’. We need to know both, and in Lent, we are invited to find both.

I suppose it depends on your personality and experience whether you need to be reminded how fabulous you are, or whether you need reminding how limited you are. We begin Lent with Ash Wednesday. Ashes have long been a symbol of humility and repentance – in Genesis the Bible says that we have come from ‘dust’ and to ‘dust’ we will return; and the phrase “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” is used in the funeral service. It might seem morbid, being reminded of your mortality and of the need to repent, but we don’t do it every day of the year, just on Ash Wednesday.

Richard Rohr points out that the ashes we use at the start of Lent are traditionally made from the previous year’s Palm Crosses. Palm Sunday (on 20th March this year) is a bit of a false start. The crowds welcome Jesus as a hero whom they hope will liberate them from the oppression of their Roman masters. But those hopes are cruelly dashed on Good Friday. They were false hopes. Jesus will bring about our liberation, but not by espousing the methods of their oppressors – the violence of arms and force. So, as we begin Lent, the crumbled hopes of false starts are placed on our foreheads. No need to rub it in! we say. But it’s only one day a year and we are very stubborn when it comes to learning lessons. Especially the lesson of the Cross. We want a Palm Sunday Jesus, all cheers and celebration. But Ash Wednesday reminds us (even before we get to Palm Sunday) that Jesus won’t get to the bright glory of Easter without passing through the ash-darkness of the Cross.

We have a number of ways of helping you to know yourself a bit better during Lent. On the Wednesday evenings (February 17th and 24th; March 2nd, 9th, 16th and 23rd ) we have a service of Compline (7:30PM at St Matthew’s). Compline is to do with bringing the day to ‘completion’ – a quiet, peaceful, thoughtful time of prayer before the day ends. But it also invites to consider how all things will come to their completion. (Don’t worry, it’s not as morbid as it sounds. Those who come love it.)

On Palm Sunday (20th March, 4:30PM at St Matthew’s) we are getting our ‘extended choir’ together again for a service of worship that will get us ready for Holy Week. On the Monday of Holy Week (7:30PM, 21st March) we look forward to welcoming the Bridgewater Singers who will perform Bob Chilcott’s ‘St John Passion‘. And then on the Tuesday and Wednesday evenings there will be more opportunities for prayer and reflection.

Thursday 23rd March is Maundy Thursday, when we mark two of the greatest gifts that Jesus gave to his disciples – the eucharist and the great commandment ‘to love one another’. There will be services at St Matthew’s at 10:30AM and 7:30PM.

Good Friday is on 24th March. We will be following the Stations of the Cross at both churches – 10:00AM at St Cross and 2:00PM at St Matthew’s. Between them, at noon, there is the Bridgewater Churches Together act of worship and witness in the middle of Stockton Heath.

So, have a good Lent. Easter isn’t that far away…

The Epiphany

In the west, we think of the Epiphany as being mostly about the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. But there are other associations which we are invited to make during the season of Epiphany – including the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan and his first miracle, turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee.

The word ‘epiphany’ means a manifestation or revelation. It’s sometimes used to mean a moment of inspiration: you’ve been thinking about something for days and getting nowhere. Suddenly, the thing that was hiding from you pops into your head. You’ve had an epiphany. Something that was hidden becomes clear, that’s what an epiphany is. In the Christian church we think of the mysteries of God – things long hidden – being revealed to us. Starting with the birth of Jesus where God shows himself definitively to us in the poverty and humility of the manger. Outside of the Holy Family, the first revelation is to the shepherds.

The first nowell the angels did say was to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay…

The shepherds were humble folk, Jewish but not particularly religious. Then come the magi, the wise men. They are exotic rather than humble, and religious but not Jewish. The shepherds are familiar local figures, down from the hills. The magi are mysterious foreigners who have travelled far. Matthew (2:1-11) tells us that they follow a star to find the place where the new king has been born. First of all, in Jerusalem, they face another king, Herod, who is afraid when he hears that a new king has been born. They outwit him – well, they were wise men! – and pay homage to the new-born King in Bethlehem. These strangers are drawn in to the story of God’s dealing with his people. Right at the start of Matthew’s gospel we hear that the one who is born to be Messiah, in fulfilment of (Jewish) prophecy, is also King to the gentiles, the foreigners, strangers, outsiders. The Gospel is not just for us and people like us. It is Good News for all.

And that is the note of Epiphany: like dropping a pebble in a pond, the ripples move ever outward. From the narrow confines of the manger, the news of the birth of Jesus spreads, to Jewish shepherds, to gentile wise men. At his baptism, Jesus is revealed as God’s Son:

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Luke 3:21, 22

In John (2:1-11) we hear of the first miracle of Jesus, turning water into wine – not just any old plonk, but good wine – and are told that ‘his disciples believed in him’. In John, miracles are ‘signs’ which point to something. They are epiphanies, moments of revelation. John will tell us of healings, feeding the 5,000, walking on water, and the raising of Lazarus. At these moments, the veil is drawn back and we see the truth about who Jesus is, and how he reveals God to us. And we are invited, like the first disciples, to respond with faith.

The pebble is dropped into the pool and the ripples reach out, from the manger, to us. We are here because the Good News has reached us. But what if the ripples stop with us? What if this is as far as they go? We are the last to be reached. The Good News comes to us, but stops with us. The season of Epiphany is a reminder to us that the revelation of God’s love to the world is not just for us. We are charged with allowing the ripples to go beyond us, into the wider world, where our families, friends and neighbours are.

At the start of this year, we might well think of how we can share the Good News of Jesus with those beyond the church. Where shall we start?

In The Bleak Midwinter

I’m sticking with the themes of the Epiphany season. On Sunday I took as my sermon topic: why I never choose ‘We Three Kings’ for carol services. Put simply, the Bible doesn’t say they were kings nor that there were three of them… There’s also no mention of camels or stables and the magi almost certainly didn’t come across the shepherds, as they do in our nativity plays. But there were three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh, and they offer fertile soil for reflection. Gold is a gift fit for a king; incense is offered to God; and myrrh speaks of both healing and anointing for death. The magi are exotic strangers who are drawn by a star to the little one who is the Light of the World, showing that God’s plan for the world isn’t limited to his people, the Jews. The magi are foreigners, gentiles. They too are brought in to the story of the incarnation.

So, today my theme is: why I almost never pick ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’, despite it being a favourite of just about everybody. It has a fabulous tune, by Gustav Holst, who was born in Cheltenham. The tune is called Cranham, which is the name of the Gloucestershire village where Holst lived when he composed it. The words are by Christina Rossetti:

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

First of all, we don’t know when Jesus was born and it is unlikely to have been during the winter, bleak or otherwise. The shepherds were out on the hills at night, which suggests that it was not winter and that it was not bleak. And if it was in the winter, how much snow do you think there was in Bethlehem? It does apparently sometimes snow in Bethlehem in winter but it’s rare. And, if it happened when Jesus was born, you would have thought that either Matthew or Luke might have mentioned it. But they didn’t. So, no ‘snow on snow’.

But I guess that Christina Rossetti knew that. What she did is what artists have always done: she transposed the story of the nativity into her own world. White Christmases were more common in the nineteenth century than they are today (because of a ‘little ice age’ that ended around the 1850s). Climate change means that our winters are increasingly likely to be warmer and wetter than they were in Rossetti’s day. There’s something about bringing the gospel into our own time and culture that makes sense: the incarnation means that God makes himself known in human flesh, in a particular place at a particular time, but in doing so, God is made known in all places and at all times.

I recently wasted a couple of minutes watching a video online in which an animated Martin Luther argues with a couple of Anglicans over writing a Christmas hymn. Luther wants to write about the doctrine of the incarnation and God’s plan to redeem humanity. The English hymn writers want to sing about snow and livestock.

But there’s theological reflection in Rossetti’s poem, as well as the description of meteorological phenomena. King Solomon, at the dedication of the Temple, asks:

‘But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!’
1 Kings 8.27

The God who cannot be contained by heaven, let alone a temple built by human hands, deigns to dwell in a mere stable-place and to be content with “a breastful of milk and a mangerful of hay”. We’ll skip over the fact that the Gospels don’t actually mention a stable, nor the “ox and ass and camel which adore”, and dwell on the humility which God shows in coming among us as that most vulnerable creature, a new born human child, born in poverty. I also love the tenderness of the description of his mother worshipping her Beloved “with a kiss”, while angels, archangels, cherubim and seraphim throng the air.

But the crunch comes with the final verse and this is what makes the hymn work in worship, despite the dubious meteorology and livestock references:

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give Him –
Give my heart.

At the epiphany we think of the magi with their gifts, honouring the new born King. With them we recognise that the greatest gift of all is the humble child in whom God is made known. And with Christina Rossetti we wonder what it is that we can give in return for such a gift. Shepherds and wise men had the opportunity to worship the infant King:

Yet what I can, I give Him –
Give my heart.

Alan Jewell

Christmas 2015

These days, television shows which use hidden cameras are commonplace. Back in the day, there was Candid Camera. Members of the public were put in bizarre situations and their reactions secretly filmed. And hilarity ensued.

My favourite stunt is from the American version of the show (1974). Children were interviewed and asked a hypothetical question. Imagine you could meet a legendary sportsman, like the boxer, Muhammad Ali. What would you say to him and what would you do? Muhammad Ali probably still is the most famous sportsman of the modern era. What would it be like to meet such an iconic figure, a legendary almost mythical character? What would it be like to meet Muhammad Ali, face-to-face?

The children have a variety of responses; questions they would ask, things they would say if they could meet the legend. Of course, while they are answering the hypothetical question, Muhammad Ali himself, in person, walks into the room, behind the child. While they are still talking, Ali taps them on the shoulder. They turn their heads and find themselves looking up into the face of the legendary, mythical figure. At that point they stop talking. Their mouth falls open and they are silent, for a moment at least. What had been a hypothetical question about a mythical figure is now a face-to-face encounter with a person who has entered the room.

And that’s what the Christmas story is about. The figure of myth and speculation has entered the room. We can speculate about God – whether God exists, what God might be like – but the Christmas story says that God has walked into the room and is not a concept to be debated, but a person to be encountered.

It’s time to stop talking about God. It’s time to meet God. We find ourselves looking into the face of God in – of all places – a manger, an animal’s feed trough. The last place on earth you’d go looking for God!

The trouble is, the God of our imagination doesn’t look like this: that most helpless of creatures, a new-born human baby. A weak, vulnerable child that needs a mother’s milk to survive; a baby that needs to be changed and cleaned by human parents. And don’t give me any of that ‘Away in a Manger’ nonsense about the little Lord Jesus – “no crying he makes”! Of course he cried, when he was hungry, cold, uncomfortable or dirty. Like any one of us.

The adult Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus and over the city of Jerusalem because it didn’t know the way to find peace. It seems highly unlikely that he didn’t cry as baby!

‘Once In Royal David’s City’ gets closer to the truth:

He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;

He was little, weak and helpless.
Tears and smiles like us he knew.
And he feeleth for our sadness
And he shareth in our gladness.

The bible says, that’s what God is like: little, weak and helpless. The child in the manger, because there was “no room at the inn”, discovers there’s no room in the world. The earthly life that begins in a wooden manger, will end on a wooden cross. Mary’s child will be nailed to a beam and publicly exposed to humiliation. A baby in a manger or a man nailed to a cross is hardly in a position of power! But then, this man shows what real power looks like when he wraps himself in a towel and washes the feet of his disciples. Jesus shows us a God who chooses the role of a servant, not the boss.

Not the God you want? Other gods are available! The gods of power, wealth, fame, comfort, religion… But I’m sticking with this one! The one who, as ‘Emmanuel’ – God with us – offers to share our lives with us.

Of course, one day we will have to give an account to God of what we did with the life he gave us. That’s a terrifying prospect! But the bible says we can face it with confidence because of what that child in the manger has done for us: he has broken the barrier between us and God through his death on the cross. At the Lord’s Table we are invited to take bread and wine in remembrance of him; the God who makes himself known as the babe in the manger, the foot-washing servant, the man on the cross and in the everyday ordinariness of bread and wine.

Happy Christmas!

Do You See This Woman?

Luke 7.36–end

Jesus asks a good question. Let me rephrase that: does Jesus ask a good question? (You’ll have guessed that I think he does.) Here, the question addressed to a respectable religious man named Simon, is:

Do you see this woman?

How could he not have seen her? She’s in his house! And behaving… Like that! Such a notorious woman, a well-known ‘sinner’. How could he not have seen her? A woman like that! (We are never told what kind of sinner she is. But we can guess. Her reputation goes before her.)

Perhaps we wonder how a woman like that comes to be in the house of Simon the Pharisee. ‘Mr Respectable’ certainly didn’t invite her. We’re so used to living behind locked doors, keeping the world out, that we can’t imagine a world where, if you invite a celebrity to dinner, the whole street turns up.

And what does she think she is doing there? It turns out, that although the respectable, religious world has rejected her – they know what sort of woman she is! – Jesus hasn’t. And Jesus, through his actions, models what God is like.

Simon, the respectable religious man, thinks, “If Jesus were a prophet, he would know what sort of woman this is, and have nothing to do with her”. And here she is, bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears, drying them with her hair. Kissing his feet! Showing her gratitude and love in the only way she knows how, through intimate, tender touch.

Simon, do you see this woman? Simon hasn’t seen this woman. He has only see what sort of woman she is. Jesus has seen this woman: a unique individual, created in the image of God.

And so Jesus tells this story about the two debtors. Neither of them is ever going to pay back what they owe, but the banker lets both of them off! Given that one owed a large sum of money and the other, a ginormous sum of money, who is going to be more grateful? (A: The one who is let off the larger amount.)

Simon, the respectable religious man, presumably feels that God is jolly lucky to have him on board. This woman (and sadly we are never told her name) feels simply overwhelmed that God, unlike so many others, has not rejected her. That’s what Jesus shows in the way in which he accepts her love.

Jesus tells her that her sins are forgiven, that her faith has saved her; that she can go in peace. Who is this that even forgives sins? Jesus is demonstrating God’s love, welcome and acceptance.

The photographer, at ‘the wedding of the year’, is taking pictures of guests as they arrive in church. The bride’s mother appears in all her glory. “Young man”, she says to the photographer. “I hope that you will do me justice!” “What you need”, says the photographer under his breath, is not justice, but mercy.”

How do you approach God today? Demanding that he do you justice? (Be careful!) Or simply needing his mercy? (I know which I need!)