Monthly Archives: January 2017

29 January – The blessed are the hopeful

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Epiphany 4
29/1/2017

Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12


3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4
 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5
 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6
 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7
 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8
 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9
 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10
 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11
 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (NRSV)              

Really? Are the unworthy, the grief-ridden, the humble “blessed”? Perhaps this depends on what we think “blessed” means but, on the face of it, blessedness scarcely seems to fit those who’ve suffered tragedy, suppression, want – for those, we might say, who live in the midst of death.

Certainly, such a designation of blessedness makes no sense if the link between brokenness and blessing is conditional: “if you are poor, then you will inherit”. This would be to say that comfort is an automatic outcome of grief, and even to imply that grief or poverty might be a means to comfort or riches – a kind of emotional or political “technology” which delivers to us the things which we really need or want.

This is nonsense, both in our normal experience and in relation to God.

The link between the presence of death in the condition of need and its contradiction in the inheritance of all things, or comfort or a vision of the divine (etc.), is not a “natural” one. It is not the way of nature that those who mourn will be comforted, that those who work for peace will in fact see it, that the merciful will receive mercy. Jesus declares, rather, that this is the way of God.

This is to say, then, that the way of God is the overcoming of the many forms of death among us: the way of God is resurrection. The affirmations and anathemas of the Christian faith are as simple as this: we believe in a God who calls order out of chaos, creates out of nothing, brings the dead to life. It is only this which can make sense of the blessedness which Jesus announces here: the kingdom for the unworthy, the world to those powerless to claim it, righteousness for those who hunger and thirst for it.

The only question is: is this simply foolishness? Is there really any reason to step forward again after death strikes?

We do, of course, step forward most of the time, but very often simply because it is the only thing we can do if we don’t want to die ourselves – a kind of defiance of death, if ultimately futile. Yet this is not the blessedness Jesus announces here. The blessed are not the stoic nor the heroic nor the courageous. The blessed are the hopeful. They step forward not because it is the only thing to do apart from dying themselves but because they deny all forms of death their apparent dominion over us.

The blessedness of the unworthy poor in spirit is that God will lift them up. The blessedness of those who mourn is that the day will yet break in their night. The blessedness of those who hunger and thirst for justice is that God will fill them.

This, of course, is not what we usually see, for God is not usually seen in these places. This is why the beatitudes might offend us; they do not seem to tell the truth. But the blessed, the hopeful, are those who, though they cannot see God coming, yet expect that he will and adjust their outlook on the world accordingly. The hopeful see God coming, as if out of nowhere.

That God might come to us in this way is, surely, foolishness and weakness on God’s part. How much better if we knew where God was and how to get to him, or get him to us!

Yet St Paul writes that this is so that none may boast: what God gives is not a matter of our knowledge or power, but of God’s gift. God comes – as if out of nowhere – so that we might know that it is indeed God who has come and not merely some extension of ourselves.

Blessed are they who see more than what is just in front of them, more than what has always been. The blessed are they who expect more than can be rightly expected.

And the blessed are they who, because of what they expect, have begun to reshape their way in the world according to God’s own way: bringing justice where is it not expected, loving the mercy which reconnects, walking in the humility which opens up to all things.

By the grace of God, may we each be found so to be blessed: giving because we have received, comforting because we have been comforted, forgiving because we have been forgiven.

Amen.


22 January – Caught by life

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Epiphany 3
22/1/2017

Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23


“Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” This is the reason the disciples are called: in order to catch others.

But one of the first things you notice about fishing is that fish don’t like being caught! The fish in the net – even more so the one on the line – is caught up in a life-and-death struggle.

This is often what it feels like to be evangelised – whether it’s the cold call at the front door by two charming and well-dressed young Mormons or the preacher pushing a little too hard at those who’ve already taken the bait. We sense the threat of an end to the kind of life we think is our right.

The assumption here, of course, is that we have not already been caught by some other angler, considerably less conspicuous than the religious nutters we avoid or try not to be.

That assumption, however, is not a very safe one.

In fact, we are all fish in a broad ocean and on the shores there stand myriads of people, institutions and forces casting lines to hook us in. The political upheavals of last year were precisely processes of “fishing for people”, as is every more or less democratic process. Democracy is not a matter of freely thinking people thinking freely about who they want to vote for; it is a matter of casting bait in the form of visions and promises which flash in the water to catch our eye, to land us in this basket and not that one.

In the same way, the engine of our consumer society is advertising with the goal of creating further consumption. This is, again, precisely a “fishing” expedition, whether takes the form of sale leaflets in the letter box, cold calls on the telephone or billboards on the highway featuring pretty young things who seem to need to wear fewer clothes when drinking a particular drink, driving a particular car or holding a particular phone: “bait”

Sometimes we recognise the lures, and swim around them, but the truth is that we are all already caught, each one of us, in things which enslave us, not least the delusion that we are free and that it is our right to be free in this particular way.

Our existence, then, is not threatened by the fact that someone might be fishing for us with the hook of some purportedly good news; to have hooks in front of our noses is simply part of what it means to exist. The question which matters is, Who or what is fishing for us, and is it for our own good?

Evangelism is a struggle of life and death. But if indeed it is “evangelism” – literally the bringing of good news – then the life-and-death struggle is not that of a fish which is being dragged from life to death. Rather, if the gospel is good news, the evangelist drags her catch from death into life. It is against life that we struggle.

What, then, is this life?

It is what we see in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who also wanders the shores of our lives and calls us also to follow, and to fish.

In Jesus we see a person whose life is contained not in the net in which some passing power has caught him, but in the God who sent him, calls him and justifies him. He lives precisely in the midst of us, and wholly for – unto – us, but without the entanglement of the things which have caught us – those things over which he constantly clashed with the religious authorities. Jesus lived freedom for others, a God-mediated life.

But a life lived like that is more than the world can bear, which is precisely why he did clash with the powers. And so, in the end, Jesus is himself hooked: hooked on a cross cast into the river of the water of life, wrenched out of the life of God’s kingdom into the death which comes with every other dominion, and left to end his story gasping on the shore.

And that would be the end of the story but for the power of God which takes the weakness of Jesus’ humility and the foolishness of his trust of God and reasserts him in the resurrection: this is how we are to live before God and before each other.

It is only resurrection – the power of God – which can haul us back into life, for the dead can’t even bite down on a hook which will lift them up. Salvation can be had only through gift – the giving of something which we could not make or earn or buy for ourselves. Perhaps evangelism, then, is more a matter of nets than of hooks.

But however we model it, it becomes imperative that we hear the good news, and speak it.

St Paul asks,

…how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10)

Our message is one which looks weak and sounds foolish – that God’s claim on us is a gift of life. We really only half-believe it within the churches, if even that. How could be that, for all of our other wisdom and power, for all of our planning and budgeting and strategising, the humility of Jesus and the power of God are the things we need most? This is the question the gospel poses.

“Follow me”, Jesus said, “and I will make you fish for people”.
“And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

Here we find our light and our salvation (Psalm 27.1).

15 January – The Revelation of God and the World

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Epiphany 2
15/1/2017

Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

Sermon preached by Dr Michael Champion


‘I came that he might be revealed to Israel’. We are in the glorious season of revelation. But revelation is dangerous. With the coming of Jesus, we were confronted by the massacre of the innocents. Last week we heard of the baptism of Jesus, which threw him into a chaotic world. And today’s revealer, John the Baptist, will soon be brutally beheaded. For revelation offends and threatens.

First, it offends reason because it puts a mere person where reason demands a universal principle. ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ – Jesus, a particular man in a particular time and place, not the pure, eternal Being of natural religion. And historical revelation like this is chancy, contingent, unpredictable, and therefore unreasonable since unjust. Why should God be there and not here, then and not now, with you and not me? Second, divine revelation offends and threatens both the powerful and the reasonable. A Herod or a Hume can only see it as an abusive act of power. A revealed God, in this view, threatens worldly authority and forecloses debate and exploration. So-called revealed truths, then, are mere claims to power, attempts to put religious claims (and religious professionals) beyond rational challenge. And third, revelation offends against individual choice and self-determination. I know myself best, and know best what is good for me. And if I am religiously inclined, then I know best what sort of relationship I have with God. Who are you to tell me who God is, and what that means for me? And John, of course, presumes to reveal Jesus not just to people, but to a people, to Israel, not just to individuals.

One can’t help but think that John would have met as sticky an end today as he did back then, and not only if he brought his proclamation to the churches. Revelation offends. It’s unreasonable, an act of abusive religious power, and a scandal in a world where individuals determine what they believe and who they are, in the absence of authoritative communities, institutions, or traditions.

But today’s gospel, as always, reframes and relativises these modern objections. The first thing to say is that revelation has nothing to do with additional knowledge. John repeatedly insists that he does not know Jesus. ‘I myself did not know him…but I came baptising that he might be revealed’. ‘I saw the spirit descending and abiding in him’; but immediately thereafter ‘I myself did not know him’.

Certainly, John testifies that Jesus is the divine Son because the Father reveals that Jesus is the divine bearer of the Holy Spirit. But that is to say that in lives open to God like John’s, it is possible to recognise, if not to comprehend, the divine presence. Just so, as the Evangelist famously proclaims elsewhere, we receive power to become children of God. Revelation, then, invites us to change the way we live. It is not the pouring of new knowledge into an unwilling subject. Still less is it God setting himself up as another powerful agent in the world, since God is freely beyond such human strife. So it cannot be the forceful deployment of special knowledge battling reason.

What John points to, and what we recognise by grace, is God freely offering himself to the world. So to experience revelation is to experience divine freedom. Revelation is God freely giving himself to us, as far as possible. But even to begin to imagine such unlimited divine freedom and eternal desire for relationship, is to be overwhelmed by the radical gap between finite minds and the reality of divine fullness. (‘He was before me, he ranks ahead of me’, says John, in cosmic understatement). Revelation draws the mind into the presence of God, where it recognises its limitations, its weakness, and its ignorance, in the face of the divine glory in which it nonetheless shares.

For revelation puts the lie to the fiction that we are the best judges of ourselves, and that we can know all there is to know, about ourselves, about others, and about the world. In the light of God, we find ourselves laid bare and placed under an infinitely loving judgement that changes our lives in a way no universal principle ever could. ‘God is more intimate to me than I myself’, as Augustine had it. Our fantasies about ourselves are stripped away and replaced by the vision of God: by the just, forgiving, merciful scrutiny of the God who loves us and takes our sins upon himself. ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’. Beholding God means recognising our sins, and recognising the redemption of our sins by the peaceful Lamb. For the one who identifies sins mercifully forgives them, and compassionately takes them on himself. He will strengthen us to the end, that we may be blameless in the light of his coming. For the one who baptizes by the Holy Spirit thereby draws us into the life of God.

The key is that the revelation of God is just so the revelation of creation. In the revelation of God, the truth of the world – both its radical distance from the transcendent God, and its radical value in God’s eyes – is revealed. In the sight of God, we become our true selves. As Paul has it, ‘those sanctified in Christ Jesus [are] called to be saints’, those in whom the light of God’s glory shines.

So John becomes the baptizer because of the divine self-revelation of Jesus. And we see this dynamic again at work when the first disciples have the Lamb of God revealed to them. ‘Behold the Lamb of God’, proclaims John. And immediately when ‘the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus’. The revelation of God makes us change our lives. More, it gives us a new, renewed identity. Andrew announces to Simon that ‘We have found the Messiah’, and when Simon too comes into the Messiah’s presence, he receives his true identity. ‘You are to be called Cephas’, the rock on which the body of Christ is built.

Revelation, then, entails relationship with God, recognition of sin, wonder at forgiveness, and disrupted and graciously restored identity. In revelation, we come up against the transcendent closeness of the God who can never be comprehended, even as he knows us intimately.

This gulf between us and the God who comes close impels us to follow him. ‘Where are you staying?’ ask the disciples, a perfectly ordinary question with a terrifyingly gracious answer. ‘Come and see’, Jesus commands, again revealing the divine desire to be in personal relationship with his creatures. ‘No one comes to the Father except through me’. But we know too that when the disciples do follow him, they look towards the central revelation of John’s gospel, the glory of the cross. ‘Where I am going you cannot follow now; but you will afterward’.

We began with three offenses: revelation’s irrationality, its lust for power, and its denial of self-determination. But today’s gospel renders these offenses trivial. Self-determination is replaced with the possibility of growing into a vision of our true selves revealed by a loving God who knows us better than we ever could ourselves. Revelation reveals our own destructive lusts of power, but is no more and no less than the invitation to see the world as it truly is, sin redeemed by the merciful Lamb, sparkling with the glory of God. And since revelation is not the addition of new facts, it is not in conflict with reason anyway. In fact, it can readily enough be rejected, and often enough is. Being presented with one’s true identity, and with the manifold ways we lie to ourselves about it, is not exactly comfortable. We know the truth of the Psalmist’s fear of turning away from God towards the desolate pit.

And yet it is certain comfort and delight to behold ourselves in God’s loving gaze. For in all this, we see that Jesus is his own revelation. He is the forgiving, just, merciful, Lamb of God. He reveals himself in loving, compassionate, and equitable relationship with us. Come, taste and see that the Lord is good.

LitBit Commentary – Gordon Lathrop on Preaching 8

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LitBit: The preacher needs to articulate the awful truth of human need, a need that many of the hearers may already know but for which they may have no words. The words of the sermon need to include the hearers together with all the outsiders and the sinners, using the terms of the texts as names for our sin and death and sorrow. There will be no insiders here; all of us need a word to say the truth about our common lot and all of us need a word in order to begin to believe again.

 

Gordon Lathrop, The pastor, p51.

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LitBit Commentary – Gordon Lathrop on Preaching 7

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LitBit: The preacher ought never to introduce a new text as “my text”, as if the preaching event were something other than what the assembly is doing as a whole. Even Jesus was handed the scroll of Isaiah. In the Christian community, all the members of the assembly need to know the texts, own the texts, be able to prepare the texts.

 

Gordon Lathrop, The pastor, p49.

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LitBit Commentary – Gordon Lathrop on Preaching 6

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Litbit: In the assembly, the preacher arises to bring to present articulation what the assembly is doing by gathering, reading Scripture, praying, and holding the meal on Sunday or on some other festival. Indeed, the juxtaposition of this sermon to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper makes it most clear that this a word that is to be eaten and drunk in faith, just as that is a meal that “preaches”, that makes proclamation into present need.”

 

Gordon Lathrop, The pastor, p47.

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LitBit Commentary – Gordon Lathrop on Preaching 5

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LitBit: When you open the book containing the gospels and read or hear how Christ comes here or there, of how someone is brought to him, you should therein perceive the sermon or the gospel through which he is coming to you, or you are being brought to him. For the preaching of the gospel is nothing else than Christ coming to us, or we being brought to him.

 

Martin Luther, in Gordon Lathrop’s The pastor, p49.

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LitBit Commentary – Gordon Lathrop on Preaching 4

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LitBit: …this is what preaching is for: to show forth God and God’s grace, in the terms of the materials of the gathering – the texts, the sacraments, the assembly itself – so that the assembly and each of its participants may come again to faith. The ordo of the liturgy will then move on to urgent prayer to God for all the needy world, to that actual meal of faith, and to the sending of food to the hungry and witness to the world.

 

Gordon Lathrop, The pastor, p51.

 

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