Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Christmas reflection: Humanity on a Journey

Image result for syria refugee family

This was first preached as an address at the University of Surrey Carol Service, 2nd December 2015, in Guildford Cathedral. The collection at the service was for the Unicef: Syria Children Appeal and raised £1148 on the night.

+ In nomine Patris…

“After the border check the couple continued on their way. It was all getting very hard. The woman was pregnant, expecting her first child, the man carrying as many of their possessions as he could. His paperwork was checked to confirm that he was authorised to be in that town. So they had arrived, but would they have anywhere to stay?”

You may be wondering what that account is of. What’s it got to do with Christmas?

It could be an account of Joseph and the pregnant Mary arriving in Bethlehem, having their papers checked, and yet finding nowhere to stay.

Or, it could have been a contemporary report of a family of refugees today, on the borders of our European comfort zone having journeyed from Syria or Iraq.

It is, of course, both.

And after the birth of Jesus, as we know, King Herod sought to kill him. And again Mary and Joseph were on the move, fleeing into Egypt as refugees, to avoid the massacre of innocent children.

These journeys of flight from war, terror and murder are not how we want to, or should, live.

Humanity itself needs to go on a journey of transformation, and this is what Christmas invites us to: a changed, renewed world as we live the promises and purposes of God.

God does not will for us a world where we see, ‘the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood’ (Isaiah 9.5) as the prophet Isaiah described, but rather, a world in which all authority rests upon the shoulders of the one named, ‘Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’ (Isaiah 9.6)

Journeys, transformation and the movement of people are central to the Christmas story: journeys to God and from God.

Shepherds in the fields leave their task of looking after the sheep and go on a journey to Bethlehem and seek the new born child, the Good Shepherd.

Magi, who today might be known as the ‘boffins’, the equivalent of today’s academics, searching and researching after knowledge, wisdom and truth, got up from their desks, walked out of their labs, as it were, and sought and found truth in the Child of Bethlehem.

The journey of the Magi is interesting because they came by one route and, as the gospel tells us, they went home by another route, signifying a change of life and purpose (Matthew 2.1-12).

That change of purpose is effected through the person at the heart of Christmas: Jesus Christ, the beginning and the end of all our journeying.

Our final reading from St John’s gospel, in deeply mystical language, tells us two really significant things that challenge us today.

The first challenge is that God, in Christ, ‘dwelt among us’, which literally in the original Greek of the New Testament should be translated, ‘pitched his tent among us’.

Someone who pitches a tent is on a journey. A journey stripped of everything but the basics for life.

Tents pitched in camps have become the sign of the refugee, and just as God in Jesus Christ shares our lives, so he is with those refugees today.

The second challenge is that Jesus, just like the refugees today, received no hospitality, neither in the inn, not ultimately in the world: he died on a cross outside the walls, the comfort zone of the city.

The final reading tonight, from St John’s gospel, tells us, ‘[Jesus’] own people did not accept him’ (John 1.11).

But with those two challenges, of God dwelling among us in a tent and not receiving hospitality, is a promise.

That promise, St John says, is that, ‘to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God’ (John 1.12, 13)

At Christmas, today, every day, Jesus Christ is on a journey towards you and me, unworthy as we might think we are, and he comes and stands knocking on the doors of our hearts (Revelation 3.12). ‘You are precious, worthy and loved’, he say. ‘Do you hear me knocking?’ he says. ‘Will you open the door and allow me in?’ he asks.

May you be most blessed this Christmas: and being blessed, hear the cry of the refugee, the lonely, the homeless and outcast. Hear the knock of Jesus, the one born in the manger, give him the warmth of your life and receive his love.

© Andrew Bishop, 2015.

Monday, 21 December 2015

God remembers his mercy: Mary sings about it

Preached at the Guildford Cathedral Eucharist, 
Sunday 20th December 2015, Fourth Sunday of Advent. (Micah 5.2-5a; Luke 1.39-55)

“God’s mercy is on those who fear him through all generations”

+ In nomine Patris…

A mother, whose son is condemned to die for being a thief, kneels on the ground pleading with the Emperor, ‘Show my son mercy’. Coldly, he replies, ‘This boy is a habitual thief, and for what he has done, he deserves justice, and that justice is death’. The mother begs, ‘But I don’t ask for justice, your highness, I seek mercy’. ‘He deserves no mercy’ replies the Emperor. To which the mother says, ‘It would not be mercy if he deserved it’.

And so, the story goes, the Emperor was touched by the mother’s grief and compassion and released the boy.

This story draws on two particular themes that come from this morning’s gospel reading: that of the mother, and that of mercy.

Mary’s song, the Magnificat, touches many themes, of course. The fundamental one is her glorification of God and his works, in her life and in the world.

Mary magnifies for us the mercy of God: she says, ‘God’s mercy is on those who fear him throughout all generations”, “God, remembering his mercy, has come to the aid of his servant Israel”.

Mercy is at the heart of God’s relationship with Mary’s own people, Israel.

Narrating Israel’s history, Psalm 136 has this as a repeating refrain, ‘for his mercy endureth for ever’.

‘God, remembering his mercy, has come to the aid of his people Israel’, Mary sings.

Israel strays time and again from God. Justice would demand retribution and punishment for that: but God shows mercy and patiently calls Israel back to himself.

But how much mercy? What does mercy look like in the face of terror and violence, in bullying and ostracising? Bluntly, is there any possibility of mercy for Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Abu Bakr al-Bagdahi or Jihadi John?

Perhaps justice demands eternal death and damnation for them. Or is that just retribution?

Pope Francis, who is passionate about mercy, has said, ‘Mercy is not opposed to justice but rather expresses God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offering him a new chance to look at himself, convert and believe.’ (Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, §21).

This mercy is available to all people in our generation as well as in the past, otherwise it is not mercy.

This is what, in five nights, time we proclaim and celebrate afresh. Mary gives birth to divine mercy in human form. So now we see the divine mercy of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

The ultimate act of mercy is the coming of the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ. Christ emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness (Philippians 2.7). Christ born as one of us: that is mercy. ‘And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2.8). Christ dies for us and our salvation: that is mercy.

Jesus taught and lived mercy. ‘Go away and learn what this means’, he says, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ (Matthew 9.13). He became a sacrifice for sin to show us mercy. This is how we can sing, ‘O Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us’.

Jesus illustrates mercy in the parables.

The parable of the Good Samaritan hinges on mercy. The priests who passed by were being fastidious about ritual cleanliness and bypassed the bloodied man so as not to defile themselves ready to offer the temple sacrifice; because of that they were devoid of mercy.

That’s not what is seen in the Samaritan. Jesus asks the lawyer at the end of the parable, ‘“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy”. Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10.36, 37).

Another ‘mercy parable’ is the one known as ‘The Prodigal Son’. But focus on the son detracts from the merciful character of the father, which is, without doubt, telling us of the nature of God. It is the parable of the merciful Father.

In that parable justice demanded that the father reject and punish his wayward, disrespectful and morally bankrupt son, yet mercy means that he says, ‘let us celebrate for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ (Luke 15.24).

When mercy is shown to us it is life giving and life affirming.

It is this life that Mary delights in in the Magnifcat.

She sings about God’s mercy which frees us - and his people throughout the ages - to awe, reverence, adoration, honour, worship, confidence, thankfulness and love.

Put that way, when we sing ‘Kyrie eleison’, ‘Lord, have mercy’ it is not an abject plea, but a joyful response to all that God does for us, just as Mary sings about in the Magnificat. When we pray, ‘Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer’ it’s not to persuade God to be merciful but it’s because God is merciful that we can pray it.

So mercy has two faces.

It is the gaze of God upon you and me, mediated in the face of Jesus Christ, the image of the Father. As St Benedict says in his Rule, ‘Finally, never lose hope in God’s mercy’ (RB4).

The challenge of the Magnificat for you and for me is to gaze mercifully upon other people and upon yourself; to be the face of mercy to the people with whom we share our lives, even our enemies and those we find most difficult or detest.

In response to the impending birth of her Son, the Saviour of the World, Mary sings of God’s mercy in her life and in God’s world. Inspired by her example, and the merciful face of her Son, may we hear afresh these words of his, as we prepare for Christmas and live every day of our lives:

‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you’ (Mark 5.19).

Be alert at all times: starting Advent

Sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral at the Cathedral Eucharist, 
Advent Sunday, 29th November 2015.
(1 Thessalonians 3.9-13; Luke 21.25-36)

‘Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that you will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man’ (Luke 21.36)

In nomine Patris…

Advent: the beginning of the Church Year, a time of preparation and expectation, of the recalibration of our Christian hope and the renewal of God’s promise.

Today is a beginning, for it marks a fresh re-telling of the story of salvation in Jesus Christ, who in the power of the Holy Spirit, leads us to the Father.

Advent resets our bearings so that we can be receptive to God’s dramatic and decisive intervention in human history in the person of Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh, born of the Virgin Mary.

Familiar and beloved stories will unfold and be told in the coming weeks.

The call of today’s Gospel is that we are awake and alert to what is to come.

And in Advent we remember that what is on its way is not simply Christmas, but the ‘life of the world to come’, as the Creed calls it.

In this coming Church Year St Luke’s gospel becomes the guiding way that the mystery of Jesus Christ is presented to us. Many priorities unfold in Luke as we will see over this coming year.

The emphasis of today’s gospel reading is a repeated, but often overlooked, Lucan leitmotif which is, be prepared, be alert, be awake for the coming of the Son of Man.

Today’s gospel passage is hard to read and to hear. It sounds weird and whacky with its references to ‘signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars’, ‘nations confused by the roaring of the waves’ (Luke 21.25) and ‘”the Son of Man coming in a cloud”’ (Luke 21.27).

The language and genre of the passage and those phrases that we heard is called ‘apocalyptic’. This isn’t to be understood as what Hollywood means by apocalyptic: although the apocalyptic genre throughout scripture, for example the Book of Daniel, parts of the Gospels and Revelation has a certain cinematic quality to it.

Properly speaking ‘apocalyptic’ is about unveiling that which is hidden. It is about lifting the veil on things that are beyond our vision. In apocalyptic, as in Advent, we move through doors of altered perception as deep things are unveiled.

The only time we experience this outside drug induced experiences is when we sleep. In sleep we enter a world where we are still ourselves, and yet not ourselves; a world that is at the same time familiar, and yet profoundly strange.

So the apocalyptic imagination is vivid, fantastical, almost exaggerated. Sleep tells us about a changed perception of our bodies and experience.

Sleep is a deep and recurrent theme throughout Advent. A brief scan of traditional Advent hymns turns that up: ‘Wake, O wake, with tidings thrilling’, and readings such as, ‘now it is time to awake out of sleep’ (Romans 13.11).

The nearest we get to seeing these sorts of images is in our inner world of dreams. And indeed sometimes the Bible combines the world of apocalyptic and dreams (e.g. Daniel 2.1-45). Some of our dreams can seem prosaic and humdrum and appear easy to interpret: others seem to bear no relation to reality as we live it day by day but intrigue us, unsettle us or downright frighten us. Dreams are open to interpretation, but also to puzzlement and confusion.

Let’s be clear though: I am not saying that apocalyptic writing is not true. Quite the contrary it is true in ways we cannot fully grasp. I am not saying apocalyptic writing is a dreamy, ethereal and ultimately too whacky to take seriously, on the contrary it is speaking of things yet to be unveiled.

Apocalyptic writing and imagining, just like Advent, invite us to pull back the veil and peer into a world scarcely known to us: ‘the life of the world to come’.

And from there we look back at the world as we know it, here and now, but see it in new ways. That’s what we’re doing when we pray, ‘thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’.

Advent places before us four great things of the ‘life of the world to come’: death, judgement, heaven and hell.

But how can we possibly know what the ‘life of the world to come’ might hold?’ Surely it’s too far beyond our sight?

One way I have found it helpful to think about this is seeing death as a birth: as St Francis puts it: ‘it is in dying that we’re born to eternal life’.

The Christian hope is that when we die we are born into a new existence – life is changed not taken away’ (Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer for funerals) - retaining who we are, yet transformed: as St Paul puts it, our mortal bodies will be clothed with immortality (1 Corinthians 15.55). Strangely enough each of us has been through a bodily transition from what feels like one world to another: as a child in our mother’s womb we remain the same person after our birth but in a new world of the senses, familiar yet strange.

In the womb the baby can hear sounds and see shades of light and darkness. They are just hints of the world they will be born into. They don’t yet know that sounds become the voice of human communication or the glories of music; that the light and dark shades will become the brilliance of the colours of the world, the blue sky, green grass, the beauty of human eyes. The baby cannot possibly imagine or understand all that in their world in utero.

In the same way we come to know ‘the life of the world to come’ in Advent, through apocalyptic signs. These signs point us to the promises of God through the resurrection and glorification of Jesus Christ.

These apocalyptic signs are like the sounds and shades of inside the womb, by giving us what seem to be ‘puzzling reflections in a mirror’ (1 Corinthians 13.12), echoes and shades ready to be fulfilled in love.

Apocalyptic and Advent point us not to an ‘afterlife’ but  to a future fulfilled life, the ‘life of the world to come’ which is perfectly infused by love, when ‘we will see face to face…and we will know fully even as we have been fully known (1 Corinthians 13.12b).

Firm in that love, the love revealed in Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh, may we be alert at all times, that God would so strengthen our hearts in holiness that we may be blameless before him at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints (cf 1 Thessalonians 3.13) to which we boldly say: ‘Amen. Come Lord Jesus!’ (Revelation 22.20)