Thursday, 27 April 2017

Seeing the person

A vocation of love

27th April 2017

Here is a story I have heard today. 

She was born during the early years of the Second World War. She grew up in the Black Country. She met her husband in one of those happenstance events - just thrown together on a night out organised by mutual friends. They met before Christmas. were engaged within a couple of months and married by the Autumn. They had two lovely children. She devoted herself to them while he worked in a local factory. She inspired her children to live life to the full and gave a very loving foundation. 

Then, aged 40, she took herself off to night school in order to get some qualifications to train as a nurse. Alongside a whole class of 18-year-olds she qualified after 146 weeks. And so began her new vocation. She rose to become a ward sister and combined her gifts of straight-talking and no-nonsense with her love and compassion. It was very fulfilling. She changed through it. 

Then, after 49 years' marriage, during which she had also traveled widely to Asia and the far east, with her husband, her life took another extraordinary turn. She left her husband and, out of the shock and trauma of divorce, found a new vocation as grandmother to an adopted family from an Indian heritage. 

For the last five years of her life, this new home expanded to welcome in her son and her daughter and her former husband. She poured out her life for this new family, somehow drawing in her blood family. Out of the mess came a new kind of family - not without pain and hurt, but overwhelmingly, full of love.

If our common human calling from God is to bear his image, tonight I have seen the beauty and diversity of God in an unprepossessing anonymous three-bedroomed home in the parish where a Black Country-woman united with love two families whose roots lie 5,000 miles apart.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

What is vocation?


27th April 2017

What are your hopes and dreams? And how do you know if they are part of God’s purpose? How does God get through to you?

In the month of May at our four Sunday morning services we will be pursuing a stream of sermons and talks that explore the subject of vocation.

The word vocation comes from the Latin word ‘vocare’, which simply means ‘to call’. In the biblical tradition, God is constantly calling his people to be ‘image bearers’ reflecting the character and nature of God. The diversity of people responding to God's call through history reflects the true and wondrous beauty of God. And you and I are part of that story.

In the bible, there are many stories of people young and old who respond to God’s call to live a life designed and created just for them. There is Samuel, a young son of a devoted mother, who hears God calling him very clearly – and he is helped to listen to God by an old priest. He becomes a faithful and courageous prophet. There is wealthy 70-year-old Abram who responds to a call to get up and go to a far away land in pursuit of a deep promise of a future from God. His steps of trust led to the family and nation of Israel. There is a young widow Ruth, who has suffered huge personal losses, yet finds her vocation by remaining loyal to her mother-in-law. Her faithfulness led her to become the grandmother of a great king, David. The list goes on and on… there are people who run away from God’s call (like Jonah) yet discover God’s persistent grace; there are people who embrace God’s call while going about their ordinary work (like brothers and fishermen Peter and Andrew); and there are others who respond out of sheer gratitude for forgiveness (Mary Magdalene).

This week on the radio I listened to a phone in about work. The question asked was 'do you work for love or for money'? It was a fascinating listening to men and women reflecting on the tension between a sense of call to a role that brought satisfaction and growth and jobs which paid well but were not fulfilling.

One man had been a successful accountant and stockbroker but, a chance course on developing listening skills lit his fire and retrained as a counsellor; a job which gave him great satisfaction and reward (for much less pay). Another man gave up his job as head of a physics department at a big high school to work in theatre, sometimes depending upon the dole and sometimes paying bills by scavenging skips to sell stuff online! He said he had found his vocation as an actor and did not regret leaving the steady and stable income of a successful school teacher.

In the next few weeks I would like to explore what vocation means. If every human's vocation is to bear the image of God - in all God's beauty and diversity - can this mean sometime more profound than simply a 'job' or formal 'role'? And how do we listen to God? How does God get through to you? And how do you help those you love discern God's call in their lives? 

Lots to get our teeth into.

Please contribute.

Can we begin with the bible - what story of God's call from the scriptures speaks to you?

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Surprised by joy

Behold the man

Easter Sunday
16th April 2017

There was a moment today when I was surprised by joy.
Really, it should come as no surprise that on Easter Sunday, of all days, we are utterly bamboozled by the wonder of the
good news. Yet, great is the mystery of faith and great
is the surprise too.
The moment came as the choir sang with such triumph the joyful cantata Behold the Man. I was giving bread to
Irene in the pew. She had not been to a church service 
for several years due to illness. Yet here she was, flanked 
by her daughter and her son. This was a resurrection
moment (unexpected, never thought it would happen,
not even on the radar of hope). 

And I had to get the words out quickly before I was 
overcome by the utter joy of the anthem. 'The body
of Christ, broken for you, Irene,' I said, just as the choir reached the climax of the cantata:
Behold the Man, 
King of kings 
and Lord of Lords.
Through all creation,
Jesus Christ is Lord.
He is Lord. He is Lord. He is Lord

And in that moment, when hand holds out the broken body of Jesus to hand, the wounds of Jesus and the wonder of the resurrection came together. Jesus' wounds never disappear, even from his risen body. But they are transformed by his risen body. He is clothed anew.

We so often feel defined by our wounds. And sometimes
we feel trapped by our woundedness, like it has the last
word. And often we feel like we can't let go of our guilt
or shame or hurt, perhaps especially the hurt. And so we 
go round and round in circles, maybe believing fervently   that Jesus is Lord of all, yes of course (just not believing that Jesus can be interested in my guilt or shame or hurt). 

But the good news of today is that when we are in Jesus,
we are a new creation. Even though we have these 
wounds, it is as if we are clothed by Christ. We are 
offered a new wardrobe of clothes, clothes of maturity, 
clothes to fit a mature you and I rather than the childish
you and I.

Through Holy Week we focus in particularly on Jesus
the Man who is wounded and bruised, despised and 
rejected, whose face we hide from in shame. We hide
our shame too, for all this suffering seems too costly, 
to incredibly hard to bear, and we do not believe we can
possibly be worth dying for. 

But on Easter Sunday, we discover that we (and all 
creation) is so utterly precious to God. And that we are 
being called to grow into the image God has of us. We are
called into maturity, a maturity which is able to accept 
both God's healing and God's discipline.

Oh praise be to the God and Father of us all, whose Son
Jesus is not far off but very close, who comes to us and
meets us with the wounded hands of forgiveness, to 
make us whole - even now, a new creation. 

Here are the inspiring words of the cantata by Jimmy
Owens, Behold the Man:

Behold the Man,
wounded and bruised, crowned with thorns.
He was despised, rejected.

Behold the Man,
a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.
We hid our faces from him.

We did not know that it was for our sins he died;
that for us the Son of God was crucified;
that in love he bore our sorrow and pain,
and in love he willingly suffered.

Behold the Man,
suffering in silence, bearing our shame,
We hid our faces from him.

We did not know that this was God the Father’s plan;
born of love to bring redemption down to man,
that in love he gave his only Son
so that we might be forgiven.

Behold the Man,
risen in glory, coming to reign.
By the Father exalted, crowned with glory and honour.

Behold the Man,
King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Through all creation
Jesus Christ is Lord. He is Lord.

Saturday, 15 April 2017



Holy Saturday
15th April 2017

It's coming. But we have to wait. Jesus' home is not the grave. Nor is it the earth. It is a different dimension.

Saturday morning, walking round the woods, there was a special stillness. Not much traffic on the roads. Just a slight breeze. But above head height there was plenty of activity in the emerging leaf canopy of the trees as squirrels prepare their drays and birds their nests. Nature's rhythms echo God's. Home-making for all God's creatures - furry and feathery. And an anticipation of a different kind of home-making by God's Son. 

Holy Saturday is the quiet day of waiting between two momentous events - the death and the rising of Jesus. It is difficult for us to wait not knowing what comes next, unlike the first traumatized followers of Jesus and his mother. They did not, could not, register that resurrection was round the corner.

For them, the grave was his home. 

But we are able to make sense of the cross because of what does come next. Jesus true home-coming begins tomorrow with the rolling aside of the stone and his risen self. He is to be ever-alive, with the promise that this ever-alive nature is for us too. Our home is not the grave either, but life in all its fullness. 

Just as the daffodils above wait for the sun, so we on Holy Saturday, wait for the Son with a mounting sense of eager hope and anticipation. Dare we believe it possible? Our home is never the grave but ever turned towards God.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Wonder and wounds


Good Friday
14th April 2017

Is Christ Jesus defined by his wounds? The Gospel writers devote upwards of a third to a half of their accounts to the passion of Jesus, in particular his last week and, especially, his last day and hours. By contrast, the resurrection stories are like fragments of memories. Blood and bones give way to Jesus of a different dimension. 

So, yes, the Gospel of Jesus is defined by the cross - for it subverts everything expected about God. Yet, without the Third Day, which we now wait for with deep longing, the cross is utter defeat. And the Third Day subverts everything we expect of our earthbound life.

Yes, of course, Jesus is defined by his wounds. But he is also defined by so much more. We focus in on the wounds on Good Friday, naturally and with trembling. The particularities of Jesus' suffering move us to tears and hit home to define also our personal response. How often, we hear, it is the death of Jesus (not the resurrection) which effects deeply and converts our hearts and shapes our lives. 

But tonight, Good Friday night, we enter into a vast space. We enter into the mystery of a God who dies. And we get ready for a God who cannot be contained by the grave. The black hole of death is about to be exploded by the power of the resurrection.

The vast love of God cannot be constrained or contained by the brutality of the cross or the sealing of the tomb. Vast love begins with wounds but does not end with them. In the end, the wounds don't define Jesus, the wonder does.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

He will keep your life

Candle breath

Thursday of Holy Week
13th April 2017

Tonight, the light begins to dim. Darkness encircles Jesus. It is night. And they, Jesus and his friends, go out into the garden singing psalms. What psalms might they have sung, I wonder? 

What would Jesus have sung on this night of all nights, the night of his betrayal and arrest and trial and whipping and mocking and spitting and blindfolding and striking and stripping of humanity and bludgeoning of hope? We know that Psalm 22 is on his parched tongue as he gasps for breath on the cross.

But in the gentle breezes of the late evening, wandering between the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane, with a heavy heart, might Jesus have sung Psalm 121
I lift up my eyes to the hills—
    from where will my help come?
 My help comes from the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth.
 He will not let your foot be moved;
    he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel

    will neither slumber nor sleep.
 The Lord is your keeper;
    the Lord is your shade at your right hand.

The sun shall not strike you by day,

    nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
    he will keep your life.
 The Lord will keep
    your going out and your coming in
    from this time on and for evermore.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Into the night

Morsel of bread

Wednesday of Holy Week
12th April 2017

Judas is portrayed as the bad man of our faith. John pulls no punches. He is described as a thief, greedy and the one who betrays Jesus. But there is also a sense in which Judas is portrayed as being obedient to Jesus, close to him and an essential player in bringing Jesus to ‘his hour’ of glory upon the cross.

Today we think of Jesus, betrayed by a friend.

The first thing to note is that Judas is a friend, not an enemy. He is on the inside of the circle. He may have been the treasurer of the group – trusted with what little possessions they shared.

The second thing to note is that Jesus is deeply committed to Judas and to the rest of the disciples. According to John 13, Jesus has just washed all their feet as a sign of love – including Peter, who had initially rejected such a sign. Judas puts up no battle and allows Jesus to wash his feet. And yet, Jesus knows that Judas is going to reject that sign of love with his actions.

The third thing to note is that Judas does what Jesus tells him to do – and does it quickly. Judas is obedient, yet disobedient. Judas is that mixture which we often see in ourselves.

The final thing I would like to note is that Jesus hands Judas a piece of bread – his very body – as the sign that he is to go out into the night. This is one of the most extraordinary acts of Jesus, to my mind. Even though he knows Judas is going to hand him over to his enemies, Jesus still offers him the sign of his broken body to eat and take with him into the night. It seems to me a sign of the offer of continued relationship.

Both Peter and Judas betray Jesus. Judas hands him over to his enemies, Peter denies him. But we see in the two men two different responses. Peter is bitterly disappointed in himself but hangs on for Jesus to restore him. Judas is bitterly disappointed in himself and hangs himself before Jesus can restore him.

No matter how much we have let down Jesus – or others whom we love – there is always a way back. The path of the cross takes us to face up to our own betrayals – ways in which we have let down others, even done something we consider unforgivable. And yet, the Gospel account is full of grace and truth. The truth faces up to the reality, the grace offers forgiveness and restoration. May we learn the path of Peter, so close to Judas, who was brave enough to hang on for forgiveness, healing and restoration.