Saturday, 31 July 2010

9th Sunday after Trinity: If you only look down, all you'll see is dirt


Colossians 3:1-11
The New Life in Christ

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

Luke 12:13-21
The Parable of the Rich Fool

Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’


Cambridge is a beautiful city. I was very lucky to have been able to study to be a priest there and enjoyed three years of living in one of the most exciting and vibrant places in England. But notice the difference between those two sentences; Cambridge is a beautiful city, or Cambridge is an exciting and vibrant city. I have to say that I felt that it was a vibrant city long before I noticed it was beautiful.

Those of you who have worked alongside me will know that I don’t usually notice details such as colours, clothes, hairstyles and the like. When I was writing this I was trying to remember what colour each room in the house was and decided that, without looking up, I honestly couldn’t recall the colour of the walls in my study where I was sat. I’m not joking about this. I actually had to glance up between sentences to see that the walls are a very pale blue.

Alison despairs with me over this, and I suspect it’s one of the reasons my study is always so messy, because I simply don’t notice things like that. Well the same was true of Cambridge. We lived there for months before I began to realise how beautiful a city it was. In fact once I had started to notice I made a point of purposefully looking up and around to try and take it in.

I’d noticed the vibrancy because I’m kind of more attuned to what people are doing and thinking around me. That’s just the way my mind works, and so my attention is naturally drawn to them, and we were surrounded by a multi-cultural array of excited students on every side. But in order to see anything else it was important that I consciously changed my focus. Only then did I begin to realise what it was about the beauty of the city that everyone raved about.

And so for the rest of my time at Cambridge, whenever I was around the city I would say to myself, ‘Look up.’ So gradually my perspective on the city changed, and became broader. I began to ‘see’ the place that was my home.

This idea of seeing a different perspective is what we find in our readings today. I want to begin with the Colossians reading, but the parable of Jesus will help us to understand what St. Paul is writing. And that will be necessary because the language St. Paul uses is not all that easy to follow.

If we ignore the first part of the first sentence it starts out fine, if I remind you, with:
‘ the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,’

Now that’s all quite understandable. That sounds just like what I’ve been saying so far, only with a spiritual slant to it; a kind of ‘look up...’ Now if we could just leave it there then all I would need to say is that, as Christians, we need to think about Godly and heavenly things and all will be well, our perspective will change, rather like my perspective about Cambridge changed, and we’ll be better people.

But that’s not enough, and St. Paul knows that’s not enough. If we left it there it would merely be self-help Christianity. If you do something, you’ll be a better person. But that’s rather like putting the cart before the horse. Christianity doesn’t start with what we do, it starts with what Jesus did.

St. Paul makes it clear that it’s not about anything that you’ve done, not at first. Sure we have to put our own will into it, but that’s not where it starts. Listen now to the second half of the sentence he began with:
‘...for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.’

This isn’t about thinking ourselves into a different space; this is about already being in a different space and actually seeing it for what it is. St. Paul affirms that something has already happened and everything that follows on in this passage is actually a kind of ‘...therefore’.

The key to all of this is that statement, ‘...for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.’ It all hangs on that, so we need to understand the spiritual perspective in order to see the spiritual surroundings. Or to put it another way, imagine I took you into Cambridge but surrounded you with a wrap-around photo of Birmingham. Would you even see that you were somewhere else?

This is, of course, joined by the phrase the whole passage began with:
‘So if you have been raised with Christ...’

So what do these phrases mean, that we have died and our life is hidden with Christ? I mean, I don’t feel very dead, at least not at the moment. What does St. Paul mean that we have died and are hidden? And what does he mean by saying that we have been raised with Christ? If we’re still alive, how can we have been raised?

I think that we can read this as a sacramental statement about baptism. Let me remind you what a sacrament is again. It is an outward and visible sign of something that God has done within you which is invisible but nevertheless real. Normally, in the Church of England, when we baptise babies and children we do so by pouring water on their heads as symbolic of being washed clean.

However, that’s not the way that St Paul would have likely experienced baptism. For the early church, as with the modern Baptist church, the Greek Orthodox church and some other denominations, baptism is done by full immersion. The reason I mention this is because there are two symbols inherent in baptism. When we pour water over someone’s head that is an outward and visible sign of God washing them clean.

But God is accomplishing something else in baptism. When someone is baptised by full immersion the significance of going down into the water is that it is about dying. As we go down into the water that is the old person dying, and as we come up out of the water that is a sign of having been reborn in Christ.

However these are not just symbols; this is what God accomplishes in baptism, or to put it another way; a sacrament effects what it symbolises. We die and we are reborn. The whole idea of being ‘in Christ’ is that through our baptism we die with him and are raised with him. Something has happened in a very real and spiritual sense. It doesn’t mean that we are now perfect; far from it. You might like to think of it as God’s down-payment on what he will accomplish in the future.

So what St. Paul is saying is that as baptised believers we are now members of the kingdom of heaven as ones who have died and been raised with Christ. We may be currently resident on earth but our real home is in heaven; that’s what we have been baptised into.

The subjects of the kingdom of God are baptised believers meaning that they have died with Christ and been raised with him. We live in God’s kingdom, even right now whilst we’re resident on earth, and that’s why our perspective should be different, not because of anything we’ve done but because of what God has done for us.

Let me go back to my analogy about living in Cambridge. I can tell you that Cambridge is a beautiful city, but you have to be a resident to really appreciate it on a daily basis, and even then you have to make a conscious effort to look up and see the beauty of where you’re living. If you only look down, all you’ll see is dirt.

The same thing is true of being a member of the kingdom of God. As baptised believers, through the work of God you have died with Christ and you have been raised with him. You live in the kingdom of heaven even if you’re currently resident on earth. However, are you looking up or down? If you only look down, all you’ll see is dirt, and that’s actually what St. Paul is saying.

With his list of prohibitions what he’s telling us is that we need to let go of the ways of the lives we used to live. Those ways are not suitable for subjects of heaven. Living like that is ignoring the fact that we are residents of the most beautiful city of heaven; it’s like looking down the whole time and only seeing dirt when we should be learning to look up and see beauty.

Being a Christian should change our perspective, but the change of perspective begins with having become Christians, not the other way around. We have to be careful not to put the cart before the horse. Trying to be a good person; trying to see good in everyone, should flow out from being born again in Christ. We cannot make ourselves good simply by trying to see the best in everyone, we must first be born again.

And that finally brings us back to the parable Jesus taught. What we see there is someone with an earthly perspective. This is a man who thinks only of himself. He’s looking down, not up. If he were looking up, not only would he see the beauty of heaven, and realise that all the earthly goods that he can stack into his new barns are like worthless dirty rags compared to the beauty of heaven...

...but his heavenly perspective would also cause him to see the physical needs of those around him and he would be moved to use his abundant resources to help them.

So the challenge to us is to ask, are we aware that we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, by virtue of having died with Christ and been born again, as revealed through our baptism? And has that changed our perspective? Remember, if you only look down, all you’ll see is dirt. Amen.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

St. James - Primate urges or spiritual service?

James the Apostle

Today's Readings
2 Corinthians 4:7-15

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—‘I believed, and so I spoke’—we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

Matthew 20:20-28

The Request of the Mother of James and John

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favour of him. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’or to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’

When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’


Alongside our celebration of the baptism of xxxx, today we also celebrate the apostle, James, the brother of John. James and John were nicknamed the Sons of Thunder, and this is actually quite important because there is this suggestion that they were rather head-strong, and maybe even hot-headed. You might recall from not many weeks back that there was an occasion when Jesus wanted to go into a town in Samaria but was not accepted there.

On that occasion it was James and John who very helpfully suggested that, if Jesus wanted them to, they would call down fire from heaven on to the town as punishment. Jesus politely refused their request, but you get the idea. Here were two men who, perhaps like most of the disciples, did not exactly seem all that fit for duty as disciples of Jesus. Maybe that’s simply because they were red-blooded males rather than perhaps the rather insipid idea we have about what a Christian man should be like.

I find it interesting, therefore, that James was one of the first disciples we know to have been martyred. John, we think, had a strong hand in setting up a community, perhaps in Ephesus, from which came some of the deepest and most mystical of early Christian writings, the Gospel and letters that bear his name, and the Book of Revelation.

Truly these men changed, but that’s not where we start from. Our Gospel reading instead brings this suggestion that their mother, who was perhaps also travelling with them to make sure they were doing ok, maybe suggesting they were quite young at this point, was attempting to get them further up the social hierarchy.

Actually it’s not so much further up the social hierarchy, it’s more that she wants them at the top of it, ruling with Jesus as his Lieutenants. We perhaps rather despair at this display of a drive for power, yet those with observant eyes will see the same thing going on in the church today in every denomination as professing Christians continue to give in to their desires to be at the top.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when word gets back to the other ten disciples they were livid with James and John, although a part of me wonders whether they were also thinking, ‘Doh! Why didn’t we think of that first?’ They, too, were not immune to this attempt to climb the social hierarchy.

Why do we do this? I have a theory. I believe that it’s because it’s somewhere deeply embedded in our human nature. We are higher primates and if we look at one of our nearest neighbours, Pan Troglodytes, known to you and me as the Chimpanzee, we see a very similar kind of behaviour amongst both male and female as they work their way up to the top, using force if necessary, but also by political manoeuvring. The aim seems like ours: to be as far up the social hierarchy as possible, and if at all possible to become the alpha male or alpha female.

I think this may sometimes be the reason why difficulties can arise when a new vicar arrives in a parish, because other, perhaps more dominant characters, have to get used to having a new alpha male or female who has been parachuted in to the group, the church, without having worked their way up the local social stratus.
I’ve seen it happen to a number of my colleagues with some of them simply leaving because of the pain that has been caused them, and others whose ministry has been compromised, and all because of this primate desire to be the one at the top.

This is just a theory of mine, but I think we would do well to remember our evolutionary roots probably have a common ancestor with the chimps, and our group social behaviour is likely to be similar to theirs. I think this is what we see in this political move by the mother of James and John; she is trying to politically move her boys to be alongside the alpha male in the group, Jesus.

And then we hear what Jesus has to say on the matter, because he basically says, ‘Listen, you’re better than this. You’re more than an animal. Stop trying to rise to the top of the social hierarchy. That is not the way it is to be for God’s people’

And then comes the really radical teaching as he says,
‘...whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

There’s a two step process there. If you want to be great in the church, then you have to become everyone’s servant; the word is diakonos from which we get our servant word, deacon. But Jesus goes one step further. If you want to be first; if you want to be the alpha male or alpha female, to use primate language, then you must become the slave of others.

That second word, slave, really is a different word, doulos, a much stronger word than diakonos. If you want to be at the top you must make yourself at the bottom; it’s the perfect antidote. Remember that elsewhere Jesus says that the first will be last and the last will be first. Ours is a very upside-down kingdom where all the social hierarchies are the wrong way around, and we really ought to get used to it.

But it’s not easy is it. It can be hard enough amongst other Christians, but how do we deal with this teaching out in the world? How do we hold ambition at work in tension was being servants? I saw two examples of this in the company I used to work for. In our group, one of my contemporaries was not above quietly claiming credit for the work of others.

We knew him to be quite Machiavellian in the way he would work supposedly alongside others only for them to later find that he was the one who was presenting the work in such a way as if he had managed the project. Sadly it worked for him as well as he gained recognition from those above him before moving on to a better paid position in another company.

In contrast, in one of the other groups was a very quiet yet conscientious man. He and I worked alongside each other on a number of projects. He would always share credit and I found my name alongside his on several papers that were published because he felt my share in the work should be recognised even though he had been the driving force and the work has been mainly his.

He was well respected because of his ability but I never saw him playing any political games or trying to work in a visible way that warranted promotion. So I checked the company website when writing this sermon to see what happened to him and was very happy to see that he is now Director of Research.

He wasn’t a Christian (to my knowledge), but he worked in a Christ-like manner; looking out for the needs of others and working to the best of his ability. He was a good scientist but he was also a trustworthy man without guile. I found this to have been a heart-warming outcome because it shows that you can hold in tension the ambition to be the best you can be with a Christ-like attitude of service.

What we should not, however, do is use political means to worm our way up. What James and John tried to do via their mother was quite simply wrong, and they were told as much. We should simply do our best with the gifts we have been given and if that means we do well in our employment, then we can thank God.

All of which brings us to xxxx as we come to her baptism. As her parents, yyyy and zzzz, you are choosing the narrow path for her, and those of you who are godparents have a strong responsibility to guide her in the way of Christian living. When we start really examining the gospels we find that they are not simply a belief system; they are about a way of living our lives.

What we believe about Jesus Christ should affect the way that we live. In fact I would go so far as to say, if it doesn’t then we really don’t believe it. Today we baptise xxxx into these beliefs and this way of life, and our promise as a congregation to you is that we will support her and you as she finds her way as a Christian, living a life of service. Amen.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Patronal Festival - Responding with Gratitude

Patronal Festival

2 Corinthians 5:14-17

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Luke 8:1-3
Some Women Accompany Jesus

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.


One of the downsides of having St. Mary Magdalene as our patron saint is that actually there is very little written about her in scripture. The Gospel reading we usually have at our Patronal Festival is the one from John in which we are reminded that Mary was the first person to see Jesus after he was raised from the dead.

So much has been inferred from that reading. Authors like Dan Brown with his Da Vinci Code have a lot to answer for in the way they have imagined or fabricated all sorts of things about Mary and her relationship with Jesus that are completely unfounded in either scripture, tradition or other early apocryphal writings about Mary.

However there are things that can be inferred about Mary Magdalene, even from the small amounts that were written about her, and one of those is that her relationship with Jesus seems to have been founded on her gratitude to him for the way he treated her. For example, have you ever noticed this tiny Gospel reading we have today: just three verses from Luke’s Gospel?

There seems to be so little in it, and yet it says so much. Jesus is going through cities and villages as a travelling teacher, preacher and healer. Like many Rabbis he is accompanied by his disciples, but unusually he’s also accompanied by a number of women who he had helped. This seems to be pretty much unparalleled in the Jewish world where women were definitely second class citizens.

The most prominent name in this grouping is our Mary Magdalene, but there were also Joanna and Susanna and many others. What we find is that this group accompanying Jesus and the disciples were providing for them. It’s significant that these were women because generally women had no financial resources unless they were widows, although Joanna being mentioned as married to Herod’s steward suggests she was allowed to spend her husband’s resources and that he was a ranking official. Jesus was known about at the highest level.

I believe that the message to us today is that we should take note of their gratitude to Jesus, and Mary’s in particular. We don’t know the exact circumstances, but this description of her having had seven demons cast out suggests that Mary had been in a terrible state when Jesus met her. Through his ministry he had set her free and she had responded to that with gratitude.

My guess is that something similar had happened with each of these women. In some way they had all received from Jesus and so they wanted to respond to him with gratitude. I suspect their gratitude would have been based on what St. Paul writes in the epistle that once someone is in Christ they are a new creation, and that the old has simply passed away. They are made new.

Plainly these women knew the reality of having being made new and that was what they responding to. So the question I want to ask us is, how aware of what God has done for us are we? Is that something we dwell on, or even think about? I suspect this is one of the reasons why Jesus made his comment about the difficulty the wealthy have with entering the kingdom of God being like a camel getting through the eye of a needle.

When we have so much, are we really grateful, of do we take it all for granted? Is our focus likely to be more on what we have than on being new creations?

So what does it mean to be a new creation? There was a certain boy who was very different from the type of children we seem to have at our school here. Whereas at our school, if I ask for volunteers in assembly I can guarantee pretty much every hand will go up, this boy was the kind of boy who would immediately look down at the ground and sink down in his chair, hoping that no one would notice him.

When he went on to senior school, a similar pattern continued. Despite being capable of doing good work he often deliberately did less well so that he would never get called out in front of the class to be congratulated on his good work. When his music class was split up into small groups to do presentations on their favourite bands he kept his head down again and managed not to have to do the presentation.

When he was fifteen he became a Christian. In other words from then on he was in Christ. He was a new creation. Nothing about his desire not to be noticed changed, but slowly and surely his life began to change direction eventually leading to him gaining in confidence and discovering that there were things he could do that he would never have dreamt of as a younger person.

That young boy was, of course, me. I look back at the timid child that I was, who would never in a million years have stood up in front of people and I wonder what happened. St Paul put it like this. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

Now there’s a lot of theology in that verse to do with being made clean; being made new, but I also think it’s about being given the chance to be remade as the person God intended for you to become. I look back at my life and what the Lord has done for me and I cannot help but be grateful. That’s not to say it’s been a bed of roses. You know very well that I have lost a great deal too.

Yet somehow that doesn’t alter the fact that the Lord has been good to me, and so I want to say thank you by trying to do with my life what he asks. I don’t think I’m very good at it, and I am way to good at taking things back for myself, so there’s an awful lot of saying sorry, but when I reflect on my journey with the Lord, I owe him a great debt for going on in this process of setting me free.

I think that’s how Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Suzanna and all those other supporters felt. Jesus had done something for each of them on a deeply spiritual level, and so they responded with gratitude by supporting him and his disciples in his mission.

So the question falls back to us all. How often do we reflect on what the Lord has done for us? Are we aware on the effect on our lives that being in relationship with Christ has had? And how does that move us to respond. What kind of gratitude should we be showing and how can we support Christ’s mission and take part in it? These are all questions for you to ponder. Amen