Jesus & ethnic prejudice

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An Irish priest was driving along on country roads.  He was stopped by the Police.  The Police Officer smells alcohol on the priest, and notices a bottle lying beside him, and says to the driver, “Have you been drinking?”  The priest replies, “Only water.”  The police officer says, “Well how come I can smell wine?”  The priest looks at the bottle in amazement and says, “Good Lord!  He’s done it again!”

 

It’s an Irish joke.  And it works because of the stereotype that the Irish are not so bright and not so educated and not so sophisticated as other folks, as us.  You don’t hear Irish joke so much now because people realised that they were racist, reinforcing an image of the Irish that is untrue and unhelpful.  At one level, ethnic jokes are about telling ourselves that we are better than people from Ireland or Poland or that other country that we’re not altogether comfortable with.

 

The joke about the Irish priest was published by the Irish Mirror just before Christmas.  It is different when people tell jokes against themselves.  I laughed out loud when I read it, because it is a good religious joke, and very appropriate for epiphany because it refers to the story of Jesus changing the water into wine at the wedding at Cana, which is one of the essential stories of the revelation of Jesus in the season of epiphany.  But it stops being funny when you try to analyse it!

 

Though ethnic jokes are less common now, racism is still alive and thriving.  A woman rang me recently to ask where she could pass on some goods that her family collect take them to pass on to asylum seekers and refugees or she could contact the Community Project.  She preferred the stuff to go to the Community Project. It was clear to me that she didn’t want her stuff to go to foreigners.  The conversation left me feeling really sad because of her racism.

 

There was an appalling story of racism in the news this week.  President Trump was at a meeting of lawmakers on Thursday to talk about immigration reform.  He wondered aloud about why the United States kept taking people in from ‘shithole’ countries.  Sorry for using that word, but I am just quoting the President of the United States, the Leader of the Free World.  And if you felt offended by me saying that word, just think how offended the people of the African nations, Haiti and El Salvador feel!  The President has been roundly condemned by the United Nations, and US diplomats all over the world have been summoned to receive reproach.

 

In the Gospel reading, Nathanael comes out with a one-liner Galilee joke.  Galilee was in the north, well away from Jerusalem, the political and religious centre of the Jewish world.  People from Galilee were regarded as slower, not so connected, not so with-it.  And Nazareth in particular was a small village in the stick, a nowhere place.  When Philip goes to find Nathanael to tell him that they have found the Messiah and he comes from Nazareth, he says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  And the implication is that nothing interesting or valuable or noteworthy could come from Nazareth, of all places!

 

Philip tells Nathanael, “Come and see!”  And Nathanael goes with Philip to meet Jesus.  When Jesus meets him, he offers a compliment, he says that Philip is a genuine guy, what you see is what you get, he doesn’t say one thing and mean another.  Nathanael is surprised and says, “how do you know me?”  He clearly accepts Jesus’ assessment of him.  Jesus says, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”  In other words, he had supernatural insight – he could see beyond the normal sightline, and he could see into peoples’ hearts.  And if he knew where Philip was and what kind of a person he was, Jesus would also know about Philip’s disparaging comment.

 

Philip is impressed.  He calls Jesus “rabbi”, “Son of God”, “King of Israel”.  He started with a racist stereotype and an insult, and when he looked again, he moved on to amazement and wonder and appreciation.

 

Everybody is prejudiced to some extent.  We all make snap judgements about other people, and they are not always right, especially when our snap judgements are based on the stereotypes we carry about people from certain countries or races or whatever.  When Philip looked beyond his prejudice, he found the Son of God, he found a teacher he could trust, he found where his heart really lay.

 

Nazareth was, in Donald Trump’s terms, a “shithole” place.  200-400 people lived there in small stone houses and left their rubbish in the alley-ways between the houses.  That’s where Jesus came from.  That’s where God comes from.   And when we welcome the people who come from those places that Donald Trump despises, we welcome Jesus.  Trump doesn’t want them in his country; he wants to keep them out.  He wants to reform the immigration laws so that he can keep these people out.

 

Emmanuel Mensah joined the US army a year ago and worked in the National Guard.  He was home for Christmas, when a fire broke out in the apartment block in the Bronx in New York where he lived.  Emmanuel Mensah rescued a number of people from the fire.  He went back into the burning building to bring out more people, but was overcome and died himself, one of 13 people who died in the conflagration.  He has been posthumously awarded the Soldiers Medal and the New York State Medal for Valor.  This hero had emigrated to the US from Ghana, one of Trump’s shithole African countries.

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Baby Book

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In 1945, ancient texts were discovered at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, which shed considerable light on religious thought.  I thought you might like to hear from one of the unusual books that were discovered there.  It was Jesus’ baby book, compiled by his Mother Mary.  It must have been abandoned in Egypt when the family returned to Nazareth after their time as refugees in Egypt, but kept by faithful Jews until it ended up with the collection of scrolls at Nag Hammadi.  This is how it goes:

 

PREGNANCY:  I am pregnant!  Me, a virgin!  An angel said so.  I don’t think everyone believes me!  Mum is looking hurt and Dad is stony-faced.

FATHER: Joseph, a carpenter. Not best pleased at first, but he had a dream of an angel, and now he’s going with the flow.  But it will be a quiet wedding, all things considered.

FIRST HOME: We had to come to Bethlehem for the census.  Joseph’s relatives let us have the stable of their house so that we could have a bit of space for the baby.

LABOUR: I am NEVER doing that again.  It was SOOO painful.  It went on for hours! Joseph’s cousin Rebecca and Rachel the village midwife helped me.  They were so kind.

WEIGHT: 6lb 9 ozs.

FIRST VISITORS: The baby was only 3 hours old when a bunch of unwashed shepherds arrived, straight from the fields.  They were very kind, if a bit over-excited at having seen angels dancing in the sky and praising God.  Gave me a lot to think about though.

CIRCUMCISION:  Baby was circumcised on the 8th day.  We gave him the name Jesus, as the angel had instructed.  Great way to see in the New Year.  We had a party.  Roast lamb.

HOME LIFE:  Joseph got some work, and we found somewhere more permanent to stay in Bethlehem while Jesus was little.  I love being a mum, though it is exhausting sometimes.

CRAWLING: 8 ½ months.  Clear the decks – this child is mobile!

FIRST STEPS:  Jesus took a few steps at 11 months, but was so shocked by the experience, he didn’t try it again for a couple of weeks.  Now he’s into everything.

OTHER VISITORS:  Jesus was about 14 months old when a party of foreigners arrived in Bethlehem.  I heard the local kids calling and cheering before I saw the visitors themselves.  They had come a long way.  I never got my head round where they had come from, different people were saying different things, and I didn’t like to ask.  Some people said they came from Persia, but someone else said they had come from different places.  They said they were magi and they studied the stars.  Someone told me later that they were kings, but I wasn’t so sure about that.  They said they had seen a star and knew that it meant that an important person had been born, a great king.  (My baby, my Jesus – a great king!)  They had been to Jerusalem and spoken to King Herod (of all people!) who had advised them to look for Jesus in Jerusalem.  They had followed the star and it stopped over our home.  They came in, and I made them a cup of peppermint tea.  Jesus was toddling round.  He was a bit shy at first, but curiosity got the better of him and he wanted to suss out the visitors.  They took it in turns to pick him up and he played with their hats and odd things they presented from their pockets.  They stayed in the village for a few days and then they set off for home.  They decided not to go back via Jerusalem, but took another route.

GIFTS: The women of Bethlehem were so kind helping out with clothes and practical things.  The shepherds brought a lamb, which was great.  We roasted it for the circumcision feast.  But the foreign magi brought the most amazing things:  gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Not necessarily the most practical things – except for the gold of course.  Frankincense – they use that in the temple to burn before the altar, to take the sweet fragrance of our prayers to God.  Myrrh is used for preparing bodies for burial – not much use to a small child at the start of life.  Was it supposed to be some kind of omen?  Were they saying that Jesus would need this himself?   That was a bit creepy.  Joseph got a good price for the frankincense and myrrh – the money was more useful to us.

BIG EVENTS:  Joseph had another dream.  An angel warned him that we should go, and go quickly.  So we packed up and set off.  I was a bit annoyed, to be honest.  I didn’t want to go.

BAD NEWS:  We travelled on the back roads.  We stopped off in villages.  Sometimes we picked up a bit of news.  We heard that a troop of soldiers had gone to Bethlehem and they had killed all the baby boys.  It made me realise – that could have been Jesus.

A NEW HOME: We are in Egypt now.  Joseph has found some work – thank goodness he is so practical and can use his skills anywhere.  And we used some of the money we got from the frankincense to get somewhere to live.  But it isn’t easy.  I am trying to learn the language.  The people don’t seem to like immigrants, so we get a bit of abuse sometimes.  When I go to the market, they won’t sell me the good stuff, only the vegetables that are wilting already.  But King Herod has no power here and we are safe.  And that is worth so much.

 

And that is where the Baby Book stops.  There is so much more we would like to know about Jesus growing up, about his first words and the games he liked to play, but we shall never know.  We can only imagine what it might have been like.  There were things that were very similar to our own experiences, and some aspects that were very different.  It wasn’t easy for Mary and the family.  And life isn’t easy for many young families in our own day.  Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Responding & Rejoicing

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The angels have been and gone.  They had been singing and dancing in the skies, praising God, rejoicing in the birth of God’s own son in a stable in Bethlehem.

 

Were the shepherds the only ones to notice?  Was everyone else tucked into their beds asleep?  Maybe someone woke up and thought the town drunks are at it again, and snuggled down deeper into the blankets.  And maybe one of the drunks did hear and see the shenanigans, but put it down to too much ale.  Perhaps there was someone still outside who saw and heard, but thought something really weird and evil was going on, so they said a private prayer to ward off such devilish doings.

 

When something happens, people respond in different ways.  You have to make sense of what is happening, and then you have to do something.  We see this every time there is a major incident, and you get the stories of people who responded bravely, the people who helped themselves and others to get to a safe place.  We tend not to hear the stories of people who respond out of fear, but there are always some of them as well – very understandably.

 

And it wasn’t as if the world’s press was turning up on the doorstep to record people’s stories of the night the angels came.  All we have is the shepherd’s story.

 

The shepherds were amazed at seeing the angels and hearing their message.  And the first thing the shepherds do is to want to check out what they have been told.  They act on their amazement.  The angels had told them about a baby born in Bethlehem, lying in a manger.  So they set off to see the truth of it, and sure enough, they find the family, just as the angels said.  That is the sign for them that everything the angels had told them was true, that this baby is the Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord.  This is the sign that God is doing a new thing, and if all the angels of heaven are rejoicing, then something really wonderful is happening.  They accepted the truth of what the angels had said, the whole truth of it.

 

Then the shepherds respond in worship – they glorify and praise God.  I rather suspect the shepherds hadn’t done that in a while.  When they praise God, they let God’s joy into their hearts, and that changes them from the inside.  When they praise God, they take part in God’s glory.

 

Of course, the shepherds weren’t the only ones there.  Mary herself is trying to make sense of it all.  Little more than a child herself, she has just given birth to a baby.  She has her new husband and probably the women of his family and the village midwife, but her own mother and aunts are far away, the people she has always relied on.  She has barely had time to rest when a bunch of smelly shepherds turn up from the fields wanting to see the little fella in the manger, all excited because they have seen angels in the sky telling them to come by and visit the new baby.  They have such a story to tell!

 

And Mary listens, hanging on to every word.  She maybe asks them to tell the story again.  Joseph maybe asks questions for clarification.  Mary remembers it all, committing every word to her heart.  She treasures the story she hears, because it helps her to understand that her baby really is special, that her own weird experience with the angel was real.  She goes on pondering for the rest of her life.  She puts things together, from whatever she heard when the scriptures were read, from what people said to her about the baby, from what the stories her people told her about their own experience.

 

I say Morning and Evening Prayer every day and read a portion of Old and New Testament twice a day, and it’s amazing how many times I can see my own life and the life of the church and the community reflected in what I am reading, so that scripture shines a light on life and life illustrates the Word of God.  And when I am reflecting on a particular theme, I find ideas and images coming from different directions – a newspaper article, something someone says on twitter or facebook, a verse from a psalm, and they all help to make the matter more clear, more visible, and make more sense.

 

That way of reflecting on scripture is helpful for everyone.  It’s like chewing a delicious mouthful and paying attention to it, so you appreciate the flavour and the texture and joy it brings you.  It can be a really good practice to look up the Sunday readings during the week and just hear them again in your mind and make the connections with what is going on in your life and let God speak to you.

 

Today’s Gospel invites us to take the stories of the birth of Jesus into our heart and mind and soul, to give them a place where we can go on looking at them and finding new pieces of the jigsaw that enlarge the picture and make it clearer.

 

As you have heard the stories this Christmas, how have you responded?  Remember the times when you have pondered on the truth of the story, or wondered what it might have been like to have been there.  Remember the joy in your heart when you have responded in praise and worship.  Give thanks to God that you have an open door to the birth of the Son of God, that he came because of just how much you matter to God.

Gifts with layers

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Christmas is a time of giving gifts, and later on today, you will, no doubt, be receiving and unwrapping lovely surprises and not-so-surprises from your nearest and dearest.  Tonight we hear the Christmas story, and discover that here also is a gift, all wrapped in pretty paper, glitter and tinsel, and containing something very special.  Though in some ways, it’s more like the present in pass the parcel, where there are lots of layers and wrapping, and if you are very lucky, you might find a little something tucked between the sheets of paper as an extra prize.

 

Unwrapping the multi-layered parcel of the Christmas story is also like those direction posts in tourist towns – York has a lot of them – which tell you which way the Minster is and where to go to find the Viking museum, giving you pointers about what to look for.  The Christmas story is a story in which the details matter, and often we think we know the story so well, that we miss the point.

 

The way Luke tells the story, it begins with a decree from the Emperor Augustus.  Let’s stop right there – we usually skip the Emperor Augustus.  He was born Gaius Octavian, the great-nephew and adopted heir of Julius Caesar, and took charge of the Roman Empire from 27BC.  He was the first Roman Emperor, and he thought a lot of himself. He called himself ‘son of god’.  He took on the name ‘Imperator’, or Commander.  He also added ‘Augustus’ to his name, which means majestic.  He worked hard to maintain his world-conquering power, and changed the world by force.

 

In contrast, we come tonight to hear the story of a baby born in humble circumstances, who really was  – is – the Son of God, who didn’t claim power, but was the power; who didn’t assert majesty but was utterly majestic; who changed the world not with violence but with love.  The way Luke tells the story, he is making a point.  There may be an Emperor in Rome, but here was the real King.

 

That’s what I mean about the pointers – the little details in the story that show you something important about what is going on.

 

Bethlehem was a little village not far from Jerusalem.  People lived simply in two or three roomed houses, with one of the spaces kept for the animals in winter – the animals helped to keep the whole house warm, they were protected from the elements and protected from thieves.  That is the area we generally call the stable.  We often think that the baby was born as soon as Mary arrives in Bethlehem, but the story says “while they were there” – in other words, they got there and got settled in and were able to make preparations.  Joseph was descended from King David, and a lot of the family lived in Bethlehem.  That’s why he and Mary had to travel there for the census.    The extended family would never turn away a family member, especially when his wife was near to term.  That would have been so shameful!  In the culture of the Middle East, you show honour to guests, because that honour reflects well on you.  Bethlehem was too small to have a hotel.  The word translated as ‘inn’ means a space for visitors, or guest room.  But if the space allocated for guests was full with other visitors, you needed to find somewhere suitable for the woman to have her baby.  It wasn’t winter – the scholars say it was either autumn or spring, and the animals were outside.  So Mary was given this space, the stable, to have her baby.  The men would have been sent away and the women and the local midwife would have helped her deliver the baby.  And when the child was born, he was all wrapped up and placed in the manger.

 

But there are other layers in the packaging of this story.  Luke uses a number of puns – words that sound like other words, and these are pointers to the real meaning.  The word often translated as ‘inn’ sounds like a technical word often used for the holy of holies in the Jewish Temple, the really sacred, special place where God dwelt.  The Hebrew version of the word we know as manger sounds like an ancient word for Jerusalem, and recalls a line in Psalm 2: ‘I have set my king in Zion’.   And the manger is also important because it is comes into the next stage of the story, because the angels tell the shepherds that’s the sign for finding the special baby – lying in the manger.

 

The first people to visit the new born baby are shepherds.  Shepherds were poor people, unimportant and uneducated.  They were very ordinary folk, nothing special.  In the eyes of the religious authorities, they were even regarded as unclean.  Now there’s a bit of unpacking the parcel to be done here.  You know it really, but did you ever make the connection?  ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ – Psalm 23 – we often read it at funerals, one of the most loved and comforting psalms.  And it’s a theme picked up by the prophets who talk about the leaders of Israel as shepherds.  When this baby grows up, Jesus tells a lot of stories about finding lost sheep and how he is the good shepherd.  Sheep and shepherds are really important in the whole story. And it starts right at the beginning.  The shepherds come to visit the Good Shepherd.

 

So it is these people, guarding their sheep, who are given the privilege of a vision of angels dancing in the sky and praising God.  A baby is born and all the angels of heaven rejoice!  The angels tell them about the baby that has just been born in Bethlehem, the City of David, and is lying in a manger.  Sure enough, they find the baby, and then they have such a story to tell about what they have seen and heard.

 

And another layer of the story is that Jesus comes first to ordinary people.  They see the glory of the angels and hear the good news they bring from God.

 

Christ is born in Bethlehem!  And we come here, year by year, to worship with the shepherds at the manger.  Christ has come to us, to ordinary people.  And when we look more deeply at the simple story about a baby being born, we see more clearly how God was giving us so many signs that this special baby is God’s Son, and that he has come because God cares.

Safe & Welcome

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This is the text of a Christmas service for people – especially children – who experience the world differently, and their families.  Thank you very much to those who helped me.  I am posting it so that the families and individuals who are planning to come along can prepare themselves, so that they can be comfortable that they know what is going to happen.

Here goes:

Meg welcomes everyone to church and explains the service.

  • During this service, you will need the service booklet that explains what we are going to do and has the words of the songs;
  • It is OK to move around the church during this service;
  • If you need some time out, that is fine. The hall at the back of church is open with things to do;
  • There are toilets in the lobby area if you need to find them.

 

We sing a Carol.  Carols are special songs we sing at Christmas when we are remembering Jesus being born.

 

Carol:  O little town of Bethlehem

 

Story:

Bethlehem is a little village near Jerusalem in Israel.

A long time ago, two thousand years ago, a woman called Mary was expecting a baby.

She and her husband Joseph had to walk a long way to get to Bethlehem.

They had to go there because the Romans wanted to count everyone by family.

When they got to Bethlehem, the baby was just about to be born.

They needed a safe place to go.

There were so many people that the family guest room was full of people and noisy.

So the family made room for them in the animal shelter, which was quieter.

The animals were all outside.

The baby was born and Mary wrapped him up in cloths to keep him warm.

Mary and Joseph didn’t have all the things you need to look after a new baby, so they made a bed for the baby in the feeding trough or manger.

 

Carol:  Little donkey

 

Someone will bring you a piece of fleecy fabric.

 

Activity and Prayer:

Now we are going to do an activity to help us think about the prayer I am going to say.

Our activity is about getting ready for a new baby and our prayer is about asking God to help all mams and new babies.

This orange box is our manger and we are going to use it to make a cradle ready for the baby Jesus.  Take the piece of warm fabric you have just been given and lay it in the manger to make a warm, safe, comfortable place for the baby.  Today we are using a doll to represent the baby Jesus.  Mary and Joseph didn’t have a cradle for their baby, so they had to use what was there, so they used the manger.

As we make the cradle ready for the baby Jesus, think about all the families who find it difficult to get ready for their babies coming.

 

I will now say a prayer for babies, mams and families:

Father in Heaven, thank you for the birth of Jesus your Son.

Please look after all mothers with new babies,

and all those who are waiting for babies to be born.

Look after all the babies and help them grow well and happy.

Be with all our families.  Amen

 

Someone will place baby Jesus in the cradle we have made.

 

Carol:  Away in a manger

 

Someone will bring you a battery candle.

 

Activity and Prayer:

It was night time when Jesus was born, and it was dark outside.

We sometimes talk about Jesus being the light of the world, the light that shines for us when our lives seem dark and difficult.

So I invite you now to think about someone who finds life dark and difficult.

Switch on the battery candle you have just been given and put it on the ground near the cradle we made.  Then I will say prayer for people who are finding life difficult.

 

Someone will say this prayer:

Dear God, please help everyone who finds life dark and difficult at the moment.

Let Jesus be a light for them in the darkness, so that they can see the way to being safe.

Help them not to be sad or worried.

Help them to trust in you.

And help us when things are confusing and difficult.

Be with us always.  Amen

 

Carol:  Silent night

 

Story:

In the fields near Bethlehem there were shepherds minding their sheep.

It was night, and they sat round the fire together and talked about the day.

Then something amazing happened.

The dark sky suddenly became bright, and the shepherds could see that there were angels singing and dancing in the sky.

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven!’ they sang.

One angel told the shepherds that a special baby had been born in Bethlehem.

The angel told the shepherds how to find the baby.

So the shepherds went into the village of Bethlehem, and they found baby Jesus lying in the manger, with Mary and Joseph.

The shepherds went and told everyone they met about the special baby.

 

Carol:  While shepherds watched their flocks by nigh

 

Story:

The shepherds weren’t the only visitors.

Far away, in another country, which may have been Persia, there were wise men who studied the stars and the patterns the stars made in the sky.

Some people think the wise men were kings, but we don’t really know that.

Some people think there were three of them, but we don’t really know that.

A new star appeared in the sky, which was especially bright.

They decided that the new star meant that a really important king had been born.

They wanted to visit the king.

They travelled a long way, following the star all the way.

When they got to Jerusalem, they asked King Herod where the new king had been born.

King Herod thought that Bethlehem was a good place to look, so the wise men went there.

Sure enough, the wise men found the baby Jesus and they gave him presents: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

 

Carol:  We three kings of Orient are

 

Someone will bring you a yellow star shape and a pen so you can use to write or draw on the star

 

Activity and Prayer:

Stars are important at Christmas because the star led the wise men to Jesus.

We also say that some people are ‘stars’, because they are special people who make us feel good and happy.

Think about the ‘stars’ in your life, the people who make you feel good and happy.

Write their names on the yellow star.  Or draw them.

Hang your star on the special Christmas tree.

 

Someone will say this prayer:

Thank you God for all the people who are good and kind and helpful.

Thank you for the people we love and the ones who love us.

Thank you for Jesus, who loved us all so much.

Help us all to be stars that shine in our world.  Amen

 

Story:

The story of Jesus has inspired lots of people to do good and kind things.

Once upon a time there was a king in Bohemia called Wenceslas.

It was the day after Christmas and the weather was really bad.

Wenceslas went out into the snow and ice to take some food to a poor peasant.

His page could hardly keep up with him in the bad weather, and had to follow his footsteps.

The next carol tells that story.

 

Carol:  Good King Wenceslas

 

Ssomeone says a prayer and a blessing prayer:

 

When the waiting is over and the child is born

When the shepherds have gone back to the fields

When the Magi have left their gifts and returned to distant lands

When Mary and Joseph have fled Herod’s wrath –

Keep our hearts open, O God, to the call of your Kingdom.  Amen

Dear God,

Let your light shine for us so we can follow you

Let your light shine around us so we know that you are with us

Let your light shine in us so we can light up the world.

Go with us and bless us in all that we do,

Now and always.  Amen

 

Carol:  We wish you a merry Christmas

Compassion Attraction

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Today in the church calendar we reach the end of the year.  In the church’s pattern of readings, called the lectionary, this has been Year A, and the focus of the readings has been on the Gospel of Matthew.

 

And the last reading from the Gospel of Matthew is a picture of judgement.  Jesus tells a story about the end of time when Christ returns in glory and there is a great judgement, when everyone is measured by their deeds.  And what makes the difference in separating one from another is compassion.  Those who are given in place in the kingdom are those who welcome strangers, who provide for those who are in need, who care for those who are suffering, who visit those who are imprisoned by their circumstances.  All those who serve people in the community in this way are serving Christ.  And the converse applies:  all those who fail to help people in need are failing Christ.

 

In a few minutes, we are going to baptise F.

 

F told me that what attracted him to Christianity was what he had observed for himself, the way that Christians reached out to people of whatever creed or colour and gave them assistance.  So it is a wonderful and amazing coincidence that the Gospel Reading set for today encourages that compassion and care.

 

And now F wants to make his commitment to following Christ.  It is a very important step.  Today, he becomes a Christian and a member of the church, the body of Christ.  Today he is washed clean of sin and refreshed in the water of life.

 

I will be asking all of you to give your support to F as he is baptised.  So pray for him, now and in the coming weeks.  He will continue to study and learn about the Christian faith as he prepares for Confirmation by the Bishop.  Help him with that.  Get to know him.

 

Today, F will start to receive Holy Communion because he is “desirous of being Confirmed”, as the Canons put it.  That is another big step.  He will receive the body and blood of Christ; he will be united with Christ and nurtured by Christ.  God is no longer separate, out there, but within him, part of him.

 

And part of us.  And because we are committed to Christ, part of the Body of Christ, nurtured by the body and blood of Christ, we are called to be compassionate in the way that Jesus describes.

 

Today’s reading is a reminder to us about the way we treat other people.  How can we as a church be more compassionate?  How can we welcome other people with generosity and hospitality?  How can we make the church a place where people feel safe, welcome and at home?  We were looking at that in the Advent Course that began on Tuesday.

 

Next week, Advent begins.  We turn to face the Coming of Christ, born as a baby in Bethlehem, and the Coming of Christ at the end of the age, whenever that may be.  Next week, Year B begins with its focus on the Gospel of Mark.

 

F is taking a new step in baptism, and we are encouraged to go a little deeper into living out our baptismal promises.  We do this together, in the name of Christ.

Death & Departing

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At this time of year, we do a lot of remembering.

 

Last week, we had our service of Remembrance and Thanksgiving when we remembered those who have died.  We invite the families of those whose funerals we have taken – and anyone else who has lost family and friends – and we read out the names of those who are on their hearts and minds.  Before I came, there would also have been a proper All Souls service, where Mass would have been said for all those who are on our list – the list of people we remember week by week in our intercessions at the anniversaries of their deaths.

 

When we read out the names of those who have died, we are remembering them before God, putting them once more into God’s hands, praying that they will have peace and rest and praying that we will have peace and rest in our memories of them.  Yes, it can be painful; it can be very intense; it brings back memories; it reminds us of our loss.  And we give our pain and loss to God, and ask God to touch our wounds and heal them.

 

Today is Remembrance Sunday, and we are remembering all those who died as a result of war, whether family members or not.  This includes members of the armed forces and all the civilian casualties caught in the crossfire, of whom there are many millions.

 

War is terrible.  So many young men and women have been killed in the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries.  And the physical and mental injuries caused to those who survive can have a huge and continuing impact on peoples’ lives and on their families’ lives.   Violence is never the answer to conflict.  When people fall out and when nations fall out, war is not the solution.  So Remembrance Sunday is a reminder to pray for peace, and to encourage our politicians always to go for peaceful solutions to international problems.  It’s not the fault of those who go to war.  They are sent by the politicians – and they must take the blame.

 

Those who serve in the armed forces, those who go to war, are serving their country, and I am sure that many of them do with good motives.  They are the people we are remembering today.  We know that hundreds of men from Bensham were killed in the First World War.  We have a number of objects given to the church to remember some of them.  And then many others were killed or injured in the Second World War, in Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan and all the rest.

 

All this recollection of those who have died raises big questions for us and a huge challenge.

 

The questions are about what death is like, and in particular what life after death is like.  As Christians, we believe in life after death.  We believe Jesus rose again from the dead, and we too will rise on the Last Day, when Jesus returns.  That’s exactly what it says in today’s second reading from the epistle to the Thessalonians.  Paul teaches that in the Resurrection our bodies will be entirely transformed.  We will be fully alive with Christ, renewed to live with him with energy and vitality – life in all its fullness – living in a redeemed and re-created world, in a new heaven and a new earth.  That will all come about at the End of Time.

 

The Bible is less clear about what happens between death and the Final Resurrection.  There are hints and suggestions here and there, but it takes some skill to pick out the key elements.  It seems that those who have died go to a temporary resting place.  Somewhere along the line there is judgement about our lives on earth.  The righteous – we might say the saints – go straight to be with Christ, praising God.  It may be that those who have died get another chance to commit themselves to Christ – I certainly hope so.  And that’s as much as we can say based on the New Testament.  There is so much that we don’t know.

 

I would say, from my own experience, that there is consciousness in the next life, the life in between.  I have heard so many stories of people who have experienced the presence of a departed loved one.  They know us and they care about us.  I believe the veil between heaven and earth is very thin.  But I can’t prove any of that.

 

The challenge for us is to face our own mortality.  When we remember those who have died, it is also a reminder that we too will die one day.  And that gives us choices to make about our own lives, about who we are, how we want to live, how we want to be remembered; and choices about our dying.  I pray that I will make a good death, and for me, a good death means being at peace with God and being at peace with my family.  Being at peace with God means knowing that God has forgiven me and loves me and that I have done my best to be the best Meg Gilley God created me to be.  Being at peace with my family means having resolved any differences and having told them how much I love them.  A good death also means for me having some control over the process – personally, I don’t want to be kept alive by medical processes when there is no quality of life – though I realise that once I’m in that position, I might see it differently.  I want to have all the appropriate sacraments at the end of life: confession, Holy communion, anointing for death.  And I need to have that all written down, so that the family know my wishes.  I also need to renew my will so that it’s up to date and expresses my wishes regarding my worldly possessions, including how some of that can be used to make the world a better place.  All of those things will help me to go peacefully whenever the time comes, in so far as I have any control over things.  In the end, there is such a lot that it out of my control, and I am at peace with that.

 

I tell you all this as a challenge to think about what a good death means for you.  It’s not morbid to do that, but a sensible and spiritual thing to do.

 

We have been thinking about the deaths of loved ones and of those killed in war and what that means for our own living and dying.  In doing that we are saying: Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.

Endure!

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In 1890, this area was just fields, with a few large houses set in lovely gardens.  Then land was need to build homes for the workers coming to the new industries along the Tyne.  The Tyneside flats were put up, and the population increased rapidly.  In 1897, Henry Chadwick Windley came to be Curate-in-Charge of this parish and proclaim the good news of Christ here in Bensham.  He had a vision for a church to be built as a cathedral for the working people of this parish.  This meant getting various people on board, including the bishops of Durham and Newcastle, the architect, the very prayerful William Searle Hicks, who prayed over the plans and imbued the designs with his prayers and reflection.  Then there was the business of raising the considerable funds required to build, and the joy when Miss Emily Matilda Easton agreed to put up a considerable amount of money.  The foundation stone was laid in 1900, and three years later this building was consecrated.  It is a building designed to speak to the people of God and where the people could speak to God.

 

I am often here on my own to pray or potter around doing jobs – I love being in this church, because it does speak to me so powerfully of God.  And Durham Cathedral also has that effect on me.

 

I imagine that the Temple in Jerusalem would have been like that.  People went to the Temple for the festivals, to make their sacrifices, to worship God.  And maybe they too looked at it and got that sense of God’s presence.  It represented God’s presence with the people.  It was the place where you went to encounter God.

 

Jesus and the disciples went to Jerusalem for the festival and they were stirred by the building and everything it stood for.  But Jesus warned them about putting all their hope in the building.  We often say that the church is not the building, it is the people.  And Jesus was trying to move them away from thinking about their faith in terms of a building.  He told them that the Temple would be destroyed.  And sure enough, some 40 years later, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans.  But Jesus also needed to teach them a bigger truth, namely that He, Jesus, is the temple, the place where God abides, the place where God comes to be with the people.  And he is the temple that will be destroyed when he is put to death on the cross.

 

As a church, we need to remember that the church is not the building.  It is a beautiful church building, and it does act as a signal of God’s presence here in Bensham, but the church is us, gathered here, and the future of the church in Bensham depends on us, not on this building.   If we look to the long term, I would say that we will only be able to keep the building if we become stronger as the church, the people of God.  And to do that, we need to go out of the building and get alongside the community, make friends in the community, and live out God’s love for the people of Bensham.

 

For a lot of people round here, they find the church scary.  They don’t want to come through the doors.  I meet children in the streets and they tell me this is a place of ghosts.

 

Jesus’ disciples were clearly shocked to think about the destruction of the Temple.  It was part of their tradition that the Messiah would come to the Temple Mount to save Israel from its oppressors.  If there was no Temple, how would the end play out?

 

Later on, the disciples came for a private words with Jesus.  They want to know what it will be like when Jesus comes as the Messiah and what the end of the age will be like.  Jesus tells them not to get distracted by the end of the world.  There will be trouble ahead, there will be wars, there will be natural disasters.  But it’s no good trying to interpret these to discern the coming of the Messiah.

 

But Jesus gave them some key advice.  The disciples – and that includes us – need to endure.  They – and us – need to keep going whatever happens, however hard it gets.  The disciples were going to face persecution.  Jesus was trying to teach them how to live in peace in a world of war.

 

For Christians in many parts of the world today, being a Christian is really difficult.  They are discriminated against, abused, persecuted, killed.  This happens now in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Sudan.  We are so lucky!  We are not persecuted for our faith.  We should support fellow Christians who are suffering.  And we should make our faith count.  Endurance for us is hanging on in there when nobody cares; it is going the extra mile to show that we care for our community; it is being seen to follow Jesus when the world can’t see the point.  Jesus wants us to proclaim the kingdom – that means living in our world with Jesus in charge, doing everything we can to make this world the place where Jesus is king.  Because we are not persecuted, we should be all the more eager to do God’s work here in Bensham.  That is how people will judge this church, when they see us out there building the kingdom.

 

For example, In God’s kingdom, everyone is treated with respect.  In God’s kingdom, there is no sexual harassment, because women and junior staff and interns are safe. In God’s kingdom, bad behaviour is challenged.  In God’s kingdom, children are treated with respect and people don’t undermine them with constant criticism.  In God’s kingdom, asylum seekers and refugees are treated with respect, and people support them and value them.

 

What can we do to BE the church?  What can we do to be SEEN as the church?  If people won’t come in, how do we open our doors and the doors of our hearts and get out there?

The Way Ahead

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Twenty years ago I went on retreat to St Oswald’s Priory at Sleights.  I was looking forward to the talks by the spiritual writer Martin Israel – I had been to one of his retreats before.  As time got nearer, however, Martin Israel was ill and he wasn’t going to be able to lead the retreat.  The nuns at St Oswald’s asked their chaplain to step in, and so the retreat was led by Fr Edmund Wheat SSM.  So, given the timescale, I guess he picked out a set off addresses he had used previously.  The retreat turned out to be about ministry through the experience of Moses.  It was once of those examples of God-coincidences.  I had been booked on the retreat for some time, long before I knew that I would be exploring my vocation to ministry and that the selection conference would take place a month later.  And then the subject of the retreat was about ministry – it was exactly the right thing at the right time.

 

The retreat took us through the life of Moses, just as we have been doing over the last 8 weeks, step by step from the burning bush to the liberation of the Israelites and the long slow perilous journey through the wilderness, incident by incident.  And this, Fr Edmund said, is what ministry is like, representing God to the people and the people to God, walking alongside them, praying for them, anguishing over them.  Moses was not perfect, not by any means – he was full of flaws, but God used him anyway.  I burst into tears.  It was as if God was telling me directly that ministry for me would be walking with the people into the wilderness.  And so it has been.  I accepted the calling in the full knowledge that it would be hard.  For all that, it is a great privilege.

 

The story of Moses, therefore, has shaped me as a priest, an important part of my calling to walk alongside, to serve, to take on difficult challenges.  I have enjoyed doing a special study of Moses over these last few weeks so that I could bring him to you and make connections for you, just as Edmund Wheat did for me in June 1997.

 

Today, we come to the end of the story of Moses.  He is an old man now.  He climbs up to the top of Mount Nebo, and from there he can see Jericho and all the world around, and if it had been a clear day, he might have seen as far as Jerusalem.  This is the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey, the homeland promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the land to which the Israelites have been travelling these many years.  Moses can see it all.  But Moses himself cannot go there.  God has forbidden it.  He has walked with the people through all their trials and tribulations, but there is no fulfilment for him, no reward of reaching the final goal.  His job was done.  He had brought them so far, but he could go no further.

 

Moses could see the future for Israel, he could see where they would all be going, but this was as far as he himself went.  He had to let go of the future, and let the people go without him into the future.  There is something that feels just so sad in that!  Moses dies and is buried in the valley, and the way the story is told, it is almost as if God himself arranges the dying and the laying to rest.  There was no monument, no place where people could come at the anniversaries to lay flowers or pebbles.  The people have to let Moses go, just as much as he has to let them go, and they have to let go of him entirely.  And as Fr Edmund said, that is what the ending of ministry is like.  When a priest goes, the people have to let her go, they can’t keep calling her back for this or that special occasion.  And the priest needs to let the people go and move on to the next stage of life.  Moses’ memorial is the future for his people.

 

The important thing was that the Israelites had a future.  They knew where they were going.  They were on the verge of the next stage of their life as the people of God.  They had a new leader: Moses had commissioned Joshua to take over and lead the people from now on.  Different leaders are needed at different stages of a nation’s life.

 

Though it was sad that Moses couldn’t go with them, he had given them that future.  They had a way ahead, and that was a tremendous gift.  And he had also given them a history, a story about where they had come from and how they were God’s chosen people and how God had liberated them from oppression and violence.  They had an identity as a people with a shared story, an identity as God’s people, and a shared vision of the future.  However flawed Moses was, God had used him to give them that.

 

Well, I’m not going just yet.  You’ve still got me for a few years more, God willing.  But the story of Moses gives us a sense of what we need to do together before I do move on.  We need to develop a vision for the future.  I want to be able to stand at the top of Bensham Bank, look down and see your promised land.  The ministry of Moses wasn’t just about him; it was what he did with the people.  Ministry isn’t what the vicar does, it’s what the church does in the name of Christ.  Where are we going as the people of God in this place?

That’s how the light gets in

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There is Moses, there is God, and there are the people of Israel, and the relationship between them is constantly being re-negotiated.

 

God has chosen the Israelites.  He is the god of Abraham, Isaac and Israel.  But in all their years of Egypt, the people lost touch with their God, and the story of the wilderness is a story of learning over and over again who God is for them and how they can trust the one true God, the invisible God, who comes and goes.  But every now and then, they lose it completely.  They want to replace God with a statue of a calf, and that makes God really angry with them.

 

The relationship between God and the Israelites makes us think about the relationship between God and the church.  How does God look at us, do you think?  How do you think God feels about us?

 

Then there is the relationship between Moses and the Israelites.  He has to convince them to follow him, to leave the oppression and violence of Egypt for the uncomfortable journey through the wilderness to the uncertain future of freedom in a promised land.  Moses is their leader.  Moses solves their problems.  When things go wrong, they blame Moses.  Moses stands between the people and God.  Moses brings them God’s promises and God’s instructions.  Moses pleads for them when God is angry.  There is an extent to which they begin to put Moses on a pedestal, so that when he disappears up the mountain for too long, they need to find something else to put on that pedestal.

 

But today’s story is about the relationship between God and Moses.  Right from the start, Moses was a bit of a reluctant player.  God reveals himself to Moses in a pretty awesome way in the burning bush, but it is all too much for Moses.  He gave excuses to God about why he was entirely the wrong person to lead God’s people into liberation.  The relationship is pretty one-sided to begin with.  God knows Moses personally, but God’s desire for friendship with Moses far exceeds Moses’ love for God.  Moses also has to learn to trust in God, but in an even deeper way.  And Moses has to discover that with God’s help he can do amazing things.

 

Today’s story marks a point in the deepening of the relationship between God and Moses.  Moses wants to go beyond being known by God.  Now he wants to know God for himself.  “Show me your glory!” he asks of God.  And that’s how it starts – wanting to know God, the desire to get a little closer.  After that comes the asking: please God, show me your glory, I pray.

 

And God explains how no human being can look at the face of God and live, God’s glory is just too much for human kind to bear.  It’s like looking at the sun – you can’t do it, you know the sun is there and you appreciate the light and warmth, but you can’t stare at the heart of the sun any more than you can behold the face of God.  The only way in which Moses can see something of who God is, is for him to go in to a narrow crevice in the rock of the mountain.  There, God’s hand will protect him and he will be able to glimpse God’s back as he passes by.

 

So this is how Moses comes to experience God, squeezed into a cave, with the weight of the mountain above him, peering through a crack.   And this is where he meets God, up close and personal, in the closest and most intimate encounter of his life.   Rays of light shine through the crack, so bright, so glorious.  But it is only as God passes by and Moses looks back, can he see that yes, that was the presence of God.  The moment itself is too intense, he is just watching and listening and feeling and experiencing.  Afterwards, when the presence of God has moved on, he can assess what he has seen and recall his own interior reaction.

 

And that is how we see God, through the cracks in our lives.  The light shines into our darkness, and when it’s all over, we realise that God was there, and we are staring at his disappearing back.  It’s like the Leonard Cohen song “Anthem”: There is a crack in everything – That’s how the light gets in, that’s how the light gets in.

 

Moses’ experience of God helps him grow in faith and wisdom.  It gives him the assurance that God is with him and with the Israelites on this perilous journey to the promised land, with all its hazards and difficulties.  But it is never just for his own sake.  His meeting with God spills over to the people.  From this point, his face shines with the reflected light of God.  It helps the Israelites in their walk with God.  Moses has to wear a veil, his face is so bright, and the people cannot bear so much light.  Moses first encountered God in a burning bush.  He has come a long way.  Now the light shines through him.

 

The story of the developing relationship between Moses and God makes us think about the relationship between God and each of us individually.  What is your relationship with God?  How has it changed and developed over the years?  What kind of a relationship do you desire to have with God?

 

There are times in our lives when we turn to God and say: Show me your glory! Teach me a little more. Let me know you a little better.  That is the kind of prayer that God longs for.  That is the kind of prayer that God will respond to.  God is careful not to give us too much too soon, because we would be blinded by his overpowering light.  But it starts with the longing, the deep desire, the crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.