What Dobby the House Elf can teach us about John 15:9-17…

…or, how JK Rowling convinced me to have confidence in the angle I wanted to take on this passage.

Usually, if I upload the text of a sermon here, I just copy & paste it – making only a few amendments. This time, I want to tell the story of how I came to preach the sermon I gave on May 6th.

***

Firstly, let me take you back to Sunday April 29th, when I was rudely awakened from a deep sleep by my phone ringing at 7.20am. (It was rude only in the sense that my alarm wasn’t set till 8am, a perk of not being on duty at the 9am service. The person on the phone was as lovely as ever.) My colleague was ringing to inform me that our guest preacher was seriously unwell and couldn’t make it to preach & preside at our morning services. We needed an alternative sermon, and fast! Within minutes we decided to congregational lectio divina on the Gospel reading – handily the very appropriate for lectio purposes John 15:1-8 – and I raced to get ready to lead two services. [As an aside, some frantic googling revealed a congregation in the States who’d used it to great effect, along with some prayers they’d formulated for the occasion – really helpful and a great resource to have up one’s sleeve.]

It went down well with the congregation (which was fortunate), and as I prepared the following week’s sermon, I reflected that Lectio Divina is actually very similar to the process that I go through when I begin preparing a sermon. I read through the passage and see what grabs my attention. I read it through again and think about how it relates to my life, or our community. I read it through again and ask for the Holy Spirit to speak to me through it. I might not do it quite in that order, but those are some of the questions that I ask myself.

[As an aside (and because Harry Potter is a theme of this post), I’m a particular fan of lectio as a spiritual practice because of its prominence in one of my favourite podcasts: Harry Potter & the Sacred Text.]

Here’s the thing, when I sat down and did my multiple readings of the passage in order to begin preparing my sermon, the verses that stood out – verses 12 and 13 – weren’t necessarily what I felt comfortable preaching on:

 “My command is this: love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

***

I knew that one of the reasons why verse 13 stood out to me was because of its use on war memorials, particularly following the First World War. I wanted to include something in my sermon about the need to redeem that particular verse – but I didn’t want it to seem as though I was undermining the huge loss of life that had taken place.

But then I had a sign.

I was on the bus, browsing Twitter, when a tweet from JK Rowling caught my eye:

As is her custom on the anniversary of the fictional Battle of Hogwarts, JK Rowling apologises for killing off one of her characters. [Personally, I’m still not over Remus Lupin.] This year, she invoked the language of John 15:13 in her apology for killing off Dobby the House Elf and in doing so, she led me down a path of discovery at what this fictional character can teach us about this Bible passage.

If you’ve not read the books or watched the films, you’ll have no idea what a house elf is. In summary, it’s a mythical creature enslaved to serve the wizarding community. Dobby appears in the second book of the series, determined to keep Harry Potter safe from forces that seek to do him harm. In the final book of the series, Dobby reappears in a scene where Harry and his friends are held prisoner. He succeeds in bringing them all to safety, but in the process is mortally wounded.

Quite by chance, Dobby was very fresh in my memory as just a week earlier I’d been at a screening of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets accompanied by live orchestra, at the Royal Albert Hall. When Dobby appeared there was a massive cheer. He is a beloved character. In fact, when I then came to look up the passage in the final book where his death and burial takes place, it brought tears to my eyes.

Dobby laid down his life so that his friends could live. It was a selfless love that had a huge impact upon his friends. Their survival meant that they could go on and win the Battle of Hogwarts. I think that’s why so many readers/watchers of the films have formed an attachment to this elf. It’s an incredibly powerful image of love and sacrifice.

Sermon prep via Instagram story.

But, that’s not where the Dobby – John 15 connection ends. The important thing about Dobby is that he is a free elf – it’s what Harry inscribes on his grave marker. Dobby is free as a direct result of Harry’s actions at the end of book two, and by the time we reach the final volume, they are friends. Dobby is no longer a slave, he is Harry’s friend.

John 15:15 reads: I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” Jesus now considers his disciples as friends, not servants. That’s why the love between them is so deep.

It’s easy to see the parallel with the love and friendship between Dobby and Harry et al.

***

Bringing up Dobby as an illustration in a sermon may seem like an odd thing to do. The Harry Potter series is *not* scripture – obviously. But one of the points I had wanted to make is how pervasive some of the gospels’ language in our modern society, despite secularism. A lot of people know a form of: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” They might be more familiar with the King James’ Version: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

This is, in part, because of the verse’s use on the war memorials that were built across Europe following WWI. It has become synonymous with the sacrifice of war and the language of remembrance. Many of those whose names are etched below that verse literally did lay down their lives for their friends.

However, its use in this way runs the risk of people misunderstanding Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross. Love should not justify violence. Christ’s atonement for our sins on the cross does not begin a cycle of violence that we should participate in.  It also contributes to an image of a violent God, who may love us, but asks for death in war in return – and that is not the Father that Jesus is referring to in this passage.

That’s why I wanted to have a focus upon John 15:12-13. But it’s an intense theme for a sermon on a spring Bank Holiday weekend, and had the risk of offending people if I wasn’t careful. So I’m grateful for JK Rowling’s tweet for spurring me on and for giving me a light-hearted counterpoint.

***

I don’t know how well the Harry Potter illustration worked with the two congregations who heard the sermon. (There was positive feedback, but I’m sure I baffled some of the older members of the church.) For many in my generation and younger, the characters and themes of Harry Potter run deep in our lives. It’s not just a series of children’s books (in fact, beyond book three it gets really dark and really unsuitable for children), and it features at its heart the battle of good versus evil – complete with bucket loads of Biblical imagery and themes.

The podcast I mentioned at the start – Harry Potter & the Sacred Text – demonstrates this week after week. Using Judeo-Christian spiritual practices like Lectio Divina, Floralegium, Havruta & PaRDeS, they delve into a specific theme each chapter. It resonates with people of all spiritualities and none. I highly recommend the podcast (and the books too, if you’ve never read them) as a way of enriching your life!

And no, I won’t be looking for more Harry Potter themed sermons any time soon, but I really like it when God aligns things in a particular moment!

Where recognition takes place…

Luke 24:13-35 The Road to Emmaus

Christ Church Highbury, April 15th 2018

The story of the Road to Emmaus is probably my second favourite resurrection appearance – after Mary’s recognition of Christ in the garden. I can place myself both in the pain and grief of the two walking away from Jerusalem; and in their joy at the moment when Jesus reveals his identity to them. It also provides us with an encounter with Christ that we can emulate when we break bread and drink wine – as we’ll be doing later this morning.

****

One of the things that has surprised me about ordained ministry is how easy it is for people to not recognise me when I’m not wearing my dog collar. Even more so if I’m wearing especially casual clothes, on my way home from the gym for example. (Or at the gym!) We all struggle with recognising people out of context. Even more so when we simply don’t expect to see that person – like the time I saw an old friend on the tube, who, as far as I was aware, was living in Singapore!

Jesus was the last person the two men on the road to Emmaus expected to see. He was dead. They were grief-stricken. Their hopes had been dashed. They’d witnessed the brutal killing of the man they’d believed was their messiah. No wonder they didn’t realise who Jesus was!

But the revelation of his identity was saved for a particular moment. At the Last Supper Jesus had called his disciples to remember him in bread and wine, using the words that we hear every time we receive communion – this is my body, this is my blood… But in Emmaus, it wasn’t remembrance that took place, it was revelation.

I don’t know how much time you’ve spent thinking about how you might go about telling people about Jesus and the message of the Gospel? Perhaps you’ve been involved in an Alpha course, or suggested that someone else do it? Or lent someone a book? Or been alongside someone in their darkest moments and offered to pray? There’s countless courses and books out there designed to train us as evangelists, as sharers of the good news, and revealers of Christ.

But something that the Road to Emmaus narrative tells us is that sometimes revelation happens without any of those things. Instead, Jesus a moment in which to reveal himself.

***

Some of you are aware that once or twice a year I go on holiday to France in order to work with friends to renovate an old farmhouse. In fact, I just returned from our latest trip on Tuesday. We’ve been going for nearly 7 years, and the initiative is managed by the missional community of which I’m part. Over 13 trips, around 80 adults from the UK, US and a handful of other countries have helped turn a tumble-down barn into a space that – as of last weekend – can now be inhabited.

The ‘chateau’, Easter 2018.

One of the main features of our community is an open-table meal at our building in Limehouse every Thursday evening. When in France, the gathering around a large table is the focus of every evening. It’s no mean feat cooking and seating 20-30 people in one go!

In London, these meals are a place where relationship is built week upon week. There isn’t any explicit Christian content, apart from a prayer before the meal, but it has become a safe place for some who are exploring their relationship with God. In France, we often only have a few days in which to build relationships with those from places other than London, but the same principles apply.

Last summer, a family from Colorado joined us at Chateau Duffy (it is not a chateau, but it is owned by a guy called Duffy!). When they returned home, their father spent some time reflecting upon this rather peculiar European vacation that they’d been on. Jim wrote:

“It’s hard to explain the community-building work you’re doing through Chateau Duffy, but it seems to me a bit like that walk along the road to Emmaus. Strangers come together, get a little dusty, and talk about the things that matter most – by which I mean both their personal concerns and life’s biggest questions. 

Jesus is there in those conversations, but he’s not jumping up and down saying, “Hey! Look at me!” He seems rather to content to follow the road, and to let it—and the conversations—lead where they will.

But then there are these moments, and of course they tend to happen around a shared table, where something more is revealed, and deeper connections are made.

There seems to be a deep trust that whether we recognize it or not, God is on that round and around that table. He will reveal himself as and when he sees fit.”

Gathered around the Chateau Duffy table, summer 2017

In the years that this project has been a feature of my holidays, I’ve seen what Jim described over and over again – but had never put it together with the story of the Road to Emmaus. But as I read his words, I thought back over the years…

  • I thought about the conversations atop of a scaffold rig on a hot summer’s day, discussing relationships while trying to make mortar stay in between stones.
  • I remembered the late nights staying up drinking good whisky and getting to the types of conversation that only ever come up when you’ve been drinking good whisky!
  • I remembered the American interns who returned home with a new appreciation of what a diverse community can look like.
  • I think of atheist friends who’ve found a welcome and a place in which questions could be asked.
  • I think of the friendships which are deepened purely because we shared a week in a gite together, and have some brilliant stories about the ridiculousness of learning to tile a bathroom.
  • And I marvel at the deep friendship formed with a British family who live around the corner from our house, in this tiny village, who have opened their home to us time after time and who are now a firm part of our family.

We’ve been practising hospitality through meals for years, and if you asked me or Shannon (who founded our community) what our theological objectives were, I’m not sure that we would have articulated them as clearly as Jim managed to after his trip to France. But, the more I’ve reflected on this passage, the more I see it as a calling to all disciples of Christ to give him the space in which to encounter those who have not recognised him for who he is.

***

I believe that we have a role to assist in Jesus’ revelation to others. After all, in our passage today, the two men tell Jesus the story of his ministry – but it is Jesus who provides them with the other half of the story, the prophecies that have been fulfilled, and the all-important punchline of realisation.

It brings me back to thinking about communion. Every time we share in the bread and wine here, we re-tell the story. Each Eucharistic prayer tells the story of who Jesus is; what he came to earth to do; and of the meal he shared that last night with his disciples. Then we receive the bread and wine, a tangible reminder and a physical encounter with the body and blood of Christ. It’s then up to Jesus to do the rest – to fill in the punchline.

Someone who has really inspired my personal theology of the Eucharist (which was the subject of the MA thesis I was finishing up when I arrived at Christ Church), is a woman called Sara Miles who lives in San Francisco.

Today, Sara is an internationally respected practical theologian, who leads a ministry that is shaped by her experience of the Eucharist and what that means for the community in which she lives. Sara came to faith while eating the bread and drinking the wine. This is how she tells her story…

“One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans – except that until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything.

Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food – indeed, the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realised that what I’d been doing with my life all along was what I was meant to do: feed people.

And so I did. I took communion, I passed the bread to others, and then I kept going, compelled to find new ways to share what I’d experienced.” 

‘I found [righteousness] at the eternal and material core of Christianity: body, blood, bread, wine, poured out freely, shared by all. I discovered a religion rooted in the most ordinary yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcome, where the despised and outcasts are honoured.’ 

Sometimes, for Christ to reveal himself to others, all we need to do is to welcome people in and let Jesus meet them in that place – whether that’s communion; or a shared table; or a chance conversation; or any number of spaces in which revelation is possible.

Quote from Take This Bread. [Picture Credit.]

***

Today, I have two thoughts for you to ponder:

Firstly, how well do you recognise Jesus in the world around you? If you’re not sure, ask the Holy Spirit to open your eyes and reveal Christ to you.

Secondly, where might you make spaces where Jesus can reveal himself to others? Inviting someone to a meal, or to church could be a simple action that leads to an encounter with Christ. Ask the Holy Spirit to encourage you and show you what to do.

The mystery of everything

The Mystery of Everything & The Magic of Stuff’ – Genesis 1:1-14

Christ Church Highbury, February 18th 2018

[Each year, Christ Church chooses a Lent course that is followed in home groups & in Sunday’s sermons. This year we used The Mystery of Everything, a course by Hilary Brand based upon the film The Theory of Everything. We use the course in our home groups and Sunday sermons – this was the first week of that series.]

The ‘mystery of everything’ is potentially quite an undertaking for just 6 weeks, but it’s broken down into five themes of mystery:

  • Our origins
  • Suffering
  • God’s care for us
  • Wisdom
  • Weakness
  • The cross

It acknowledges that faith requires us to engage in mystery. We never reach a point in our relationship with God where we know all the answers. No human in the history of creation has come close to fully comprehending the mystery of God, although many have tried!

The problem is that this doesn’t sit well with our human instinct of curiosity – we’d rather know the theory behind everything, rather than having to settle for a mystery. We seek answers to questions; we are created with an innate desire for knowledge within us. I’m not sure we ever fully depart from that phase all small children go through where every other question is “But why….???”

And, over centuries, humanity has tried to establish the answers to our questions. This course explores some of these questions, doing so through the story of someone who attempted to find answers in science: Stephen Hawking, and the film based upon his earlier career, The Theory of Everything.

Stephen Hawking is arguably one of the greatest scientists the UK has ever produced. His book A Brief History of Time, published in 1988 as an introduction to his work and ideas for the masses, sold over 10 million copies in 20 years. It’s been published in 35 languages and is one of the bestselling science books ever published. Covering topics such as the Big Bang and Black Holes, for many people it’s been their main introduction to some of the ‘big’ questions around our origin and how our world works.

Modern culture has a tendency of viewing science and faith as an either/or situation. Can you believe in Genesis and the Big Bang? Hasn’t modern science disproved monotheistic views of how the world came into being?

The Mystery of Origin

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” 

The most we are told about HOW God created the world is that his Spirit hovers above all, and that at his command, light, sky, land, and all that grows & lives on earth. The intricacies of exactly how this all came to pass, and a precise time frame is not part of Genesis’ opening chapters.

It’s generally understood that this account was written by Moses, in around 1445 BC. It is certainly not an eye witness account! There are also widely understood to be two creation narratives, this in chapter 1 and then a further narrative in chapter 2. They are complementary rather than contradictory, providing God’s people with an understanding of his centrality in their world.

God’s creation is shrouded in mystery, and the more that we have learnt of the world through scientific exploration, the more questions have been raised. Some would argue that theories such as the Big Bang and Evolution are indicative of Genesis being wrong. That there is no God, or that creation couldn’t have taken place in the way Genesis accounts for.

I don’t know where you stand on these questions. I am categorically not a scientist! It was not my strongest subject at school, and I don’t really have the greatest of interests in it – certainly not to the extent that I would buy A Brief History of Time and read it for fun! But I am a historian and theologian. I am interested in why and how things happened. I’m fascinated by the way in which our world has grown, changed and evolved. And obviously, I believe that God is in the centre of it all.

My father has a scientific background – he was part-way through a science degree when he realised he was being called to ordained ministry. As a result, growing up, religion and science were not regarded as an either/or – they were compatible rather than being mutually exclusive. I learned about evolution at school, but was shocked to discover that there were Christians who didn’t believe in the scientific theory because it was at odds with Genesis. Aged 9, I was rather hasty in my dismissal of these Christians (probably to my parents’ great amusement), but it resulted in a long conversation with my father about how to reconcile the two arguments with each other. As an adult, I still hold a similar view – that I can see God at work in these scientific ideas, and I don’t consider them to undermine my faith and beliefs.

There isn’t time to go deeply into the debate of which creation ‘story’ or theory is correct, or grounded in the most evidence. I’m sure many of you will have your own opinions on this. What we should not do is dismiss scientific discoveries and research as attacks upon God’s autonomy – because although there are atheist scientists, there are many who have a belief in God’s work in creation too.

I love this story about one of Einstein’s classes:

A class of students were saying they had decided there was no God. Einstein asked them how much of all the knowledge in the world they had among themselves collectively, as a class. The students discussed it for a while and decided they had 5% of all human knowledge among themselves. Einstein thought their estimate was a little generous, but he replied: “Is it possible God exists in the 95% you don’t know?”

Even within science, there is still mystery…

When we read the creation narrative set out in Genesis as readers dwelling in the 21st century, we do so in our specific time and culture. We bring to our reading myriad questions that would not have crossed the minds of those hearing Moses’ account centuries ago. But we see God at work at the beginning of time, just as we see God at work in the world in which we live today.

A sense of awe:

In the mystery of creation is a sense of awe. As we ponder these questions of how, when and why, we are struck by the majesty of what God has done and is doing. Where do we find that sense of awe at God’s creation in our lives?

There has been more than one depiction of Stephen Hawking’s life over the years. Just a couple of years before The Theory of Everything came out, the BBC made a film of his life starring Benedict Cumberbatch. I happen to be more of a Cumberbatch fan than an Eddie Redmayne one, and in this drama was a scene between Hawkings and Jane – who he later married – where they lie together in a garden, gazing at the stars. As they do so, Stephen attempts to explain some of his ideas about black holes and the universe – very romantic!

But as I was re-reading Genesis, I was struck that I have a similar response to the stars. Not a scientific weighing up of possibilities, but a sense of awe at the vastness of God’s creation. Living in London, it’s not something I get to do every day – but I think of when I’m on holiday in rural France, sitting outside late at night, looking up at a sky that seems so huge and full of infinite possibilities. That the stars I’m looking up at began burning bright centuries ago. That people I care for far away can look up at the same stars. That, these lights in the sky were created at God’s command…

This sermon was preached just a few weeks before Stephen Hawking died. In the days following his death, many tributes appeared that included some of his work on stars. (Credit.)

As I look back on my life I can think of plenty of other moments where I’ve felt a similar sense of awe:

  • Holding a newborn baby & marvelling at this tiny, perfect creature who’ll grow up to be someone.
  • Watching a child do something for the first time.
  • Standing in the waves of the Pacific Ocean, overcome by the vastness of water.
  • Catching sight of a beautiful sunrise or sunset.

I could go on, and I’m sure you would all have plenty of moments to add to that list. I would encourage you to find time to think about those that have come into your mind. Thank God for his creation, and for the way in which it has reminded you of his presence.

Perhaps you have questions? Lent can be a time in which you choose to intentionally engage in the mysteries of our faith and our world – through a lent course, through conversation with others, or through intentionally finding out more about an area you’re curious about.

Despite all our questions and wondering, in the midst of the mystery of everything, there is one certainty: God is at work – yesterday, today, and forever.

A love letter to a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

As 2017 drew to a close, I began drafting a post of TV recommendations & discoveries – I never got around to finishing it, but there’s no doubt what #1 on that list would have been: the sleeper hit Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. [Available on Netflix.]

I think I first tried episode one in late 2016, and turned off half-way through. The fact that it is now one of my most favourite TV series ever is fairly incredible. What can I say? The whole series is grounded in the premise of a high flying lawyer (Harvard & Yale trained) leaving their job in NYC and moving to a small town in California after a chance encounter with her summer camp boyfriend. I have a sneaky suspicion that I over-identified with the main character, and couldn’t fathom her actions…

Fast-forward to mid 2017 and a sense that a buzz is growing around Rachel Bloom – her appearance on a Hamilton fan podcast suggests that her taste in musicals and its influence upon her tv show (which she created and stars in) would make it something I would really enjoy. So, I went back and got stuck in. And, my goodness, I am SO glad that I did! My life is all the richer for it.

I rave about the show on a semi-regular basis, and what follows are some of the (genuine) reasons I’ve given to friends, family, colleagues and even virtual strangers as to why they *must* watch it. [There are a lot of links included – you owe it to yourself to follow them…]

“The women look normal!!”
Specifically, the two leads – Rebecca & Paula. It took me just a little while to realise that Rebecca not only looks like a regular human woman, but also makes a thing of it on the show. (Going as far as to dedicate a whole song to her “Heavy Boobs” and the pain of getting ready for a hot date…) It is so refreshing!

“It’s a musical theatre nerd’s dream! There are SO many parodies of musicals & genres!”
The first season includes a brilliant Les Mis parody about water pressure (much better than it sounds – “Rivers of Justice”), as well as a clear nod to Gypsy (“After Everything I’ve Done For You (That You Didn’t Ask For”). Frequently, musical numbers parody music videos or dance routines – there’s references to everyone from Backstreet Boys, to Astaire & Rogers, via Katy Perry. Oh, and a recent episode featured an ABBA parody on the theme of male genitalia

“I could add SO many songs from it to my ‘inappropriate songs to listen to while writing about the church playlist’!”
Yes, that playlist is real (it was a collaborative effort many years ago, but still comes out on an occasion). The songs are, how shall I put it? Earthy? Don’t hold anything back? Downright dirty? All of those. But done brilliantly in context! Sometimes the gag is in the lyric, sometimes in the performance – which is how I found myself on a train to my grandparents watching two grown men tap dance on a giant bottom (during a musical number entitled “Tap that Ass” – obviously).

“It’s become my go-to playlist for running to. Though lip-syncing the lyrics could get me into trouble.”
As above, great songs, questionable lyrics. I returned from a particularly excellent run in rural Vermont a couple of months ago unsure as to which had been more motivating – the fall foliage and fresh air, or the joy of matching my running rhythm to “I gave you a UTI” and “Oh my God I think I like you”. What can I say, it’s strange what gets me motivated…

“There’s a priest in it!”
As a priest, you have to cling to good depictions of priests in the media where you can find them. (It says a lot that I know another two curates who are huge fans of the show!) Father Brah is a Filipino, youthful, basketball playing and bubble tea drinking priest. His methods are a tad unorthodox sometimes, but his influence does result in a main character going to seminary later in the series – which in turn results in brilliant depiction of what someone thinks the ‘Holy Ghost’ is!

“It does religion *really* well!”
In addition to the priest, there are countless Jewish references, as Rebecca is a self-styled Jewish American Princess from Westchester NY. Hands down, my favourite song relating to this is “Remember That We Suffered” – if only for the lyrics:

Nights like these are filled with glee
Noshing, dancing, singing, whee!
But we sing in a minor key
To remember that we suffered

All the while, sung in a minor key (obviously) and thoroughly going to town on the Jewish tradition of telling the story of Israel and its times of suffering. It’s probably the only time in the whole series that I’ve thought “My Dad would love this!” – because I’m really not sure that he would love the rest of it!

“It’s not really about the ex-boyfriend…”
Josh is the reason Rebecca leaves NYC, but honestly, my loyalty has been with other men in the series – Greg, largely. (Possibly because the same guy voiced Prince Hans in Frozen…) But I’ve also found myself rooting for Nathaniel lately. [Though, tbh, this is largely due to one of those curious instances of art imitating life, thanks to a musical number that weirdly emulated a scenario I’d faced in a field in France not 12 hours prior to catching up on the episode on a plane home.]

“It doesn’t make ‘issues’ issues.”
I’m not sure if this makes sense, but things that would be major plotlines elsewhere, because of their ‘controversy’, are just part of the deal with this show. An early episode featured a major character realising that they were bisexual – there was a musical number, and that was it, it was part of that character and the series carried on. I’m pretty sure I used “Gettin’ Bi” as a way of getting one friend into the show. Similarly, feminism and the current reaction to #MeToo is also continually in the background. It’s very much of its time, in a good way.

“It does an excellent job of depicting mental health.”
I think some have been critical of the show because of the use of the term ‘crazy’ in its title, but as the series has worn on, it makes sense. There’s a deliberate arc that plays out over the planned 4 seasons (season 3 has just 4 episodes left to be broadcast), and it’s the current season that has really bitten the bullet in terms of showing someone in the depths of a mental health crisis. And still managed to write songs about it – like the brilliantly true to life “A Diagnosis”. I’m not terribly qualified to speak to this – but plenty of other people are, and have. I’m deeply curious as to where it will go next. It does a fantastic job of making the lead character both immensely likeable and unlikeable, while unpacking all the reasons why she behaves the way she does.

“Josh Groban’s in an episode!”
This might seem like a curious thing to include in a tribute to a series that will soon total 44 episodes, but it has genuinely been a reason I’ve given to more than one person as to why they should watch it! That particular episode while I was in the States recently, and I managed to persuade my host to watch it with me on the basis that the delightful Groban appeared in it. [Honestly, if I was to create my perfect man, he would tick many of the boxes – a singing beardy man with an excellent sense of humour, who supports Murray in the tennis!] Who doesn’t need a guest appearance of Groban in which he does a fabulous job of singing his own name?!?

To conclude, try it out! It’s routinely described as one of the best, yet lowest rated, shows on TV. Despite being nominated last year, this year’s Golden Globes decided that it wasn’t deserving this time (yet The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, which has been out all of two minutes and is neither as funny nor musical as Crazy Ex Girlfriend is, won ‘best comedy or musical tv show’. Ridiculous.) I’m paranoid it could be cancelled before they’re properly done!

If you watch just one of the songs from the show to whet your appetite, go with this one. This is what I went with first while on a road trip with a friend who I was trying to convert. It’s not rude, it’s not particularly weird – it’s just an excellent parody of a classic power ballad. Start here, and see where it takes you…

2017 Firsts

A (probably not exhaustive) list of everything that I did for the first time in 2017…

Spent New Year’s Day in a country other than the UK
Visited North Carolina (and stayed in Durham)
Explored Duke University
Flown from Raleigh airport
Purchased Hamilton tickets
Drunk Icelandic gin
Preached at Muswell Hill Methodist Church
Celebrated Burns’ Night
Owned a hip-flask
Watched ‘The Girls’
Owned a yellow armchair
Preached at Hope Church Islington
Been a trustee of the CEA
Watched ‘School of Rock’ on stage
Carried a table home on the tube
Encountered a 3D printer
Visited QMUL
Explored the Leicester Square Lego Store
Listened to the Gilmore Guys podcast
Shopped at Broadway Market
Sunbathed in London Fields
Watched ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’
Preached & led at St George’s Tufnell Park
Been in the audience for the London Philharmonic accompanying HP & the Philosopher’s Stone at the RAH.
Visited & eaten Crumbs & Doiles
Attended a Nat Blooms gig
Co-led a Harry Potter & the Sacred Text gathering
Watched ‘An American in Paris’ on stage
Eaten at Home Slice Pizza
Drunk Hawaiian tequila
Watched ‘Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour’ (and sat on the stage for a West End show)
City hacked the City’s dragons
Flown from London City airport
Visited CS Lewis Square in Belfast
Owned a graveside cloak
Been asked for a photoshoot by a photographer to the stars
Been a curate in a vacancy
Taken a wedding
Married friends
Eaten at Naked Dough
Made strawberry gin
Eaten Udderlicious ice cream
Been up a dock crane
Assisted the Archbishop of Polynesia at the Eucharist
Attended feminist morning prayer
Watched ‘Lady Day at the Emerson Cafe’
Met Audra McDonald
Stayed in Southbourne
Baked snickerdoodles
Taken a toddler to the London Transport Museum
Had a toddler to stay for 24 hours
Baked American biscuits
Explored Westminster Abbey at night
Listened to the West Wing Weekly podcast
Visited Quorn, Leicestershire
Attended an awards ceremony at BAFTA
Created a London Bus birthday cake
Made Christmas mincemeat
Slept a night in Manhattan
Drunk at the Whetstone Tap, Brattleboro, VT
Become an aunt/gained a niece
Run in Vermont
Watched a zombie flash mob
Attended the Brattleboro Film Festival
Visited a Portuguese bakery in Ludlow, Massachusetts
Eaten Vermont apple pie
Stood in the stand-by line for Seth Meyers
Seen half of Big Bird cross the street
Been first in line for Seth Meyers
Visited St Patrick’s Cathedral
Watched Seth Meyers tape his show
Been in the same room as Hillary Clinton
House & cat sat in Brooklyn
Shopped at Strand Bookstore
Visited the hats of 23rd Street
Met the Subway Therapy guy
Visited the Whitney
Explored North Central Park & Columbia University
Worshipped at St John the Divine Cathedral
Made a checkerboard, Minecraft themed birthday cake
Explored the Scandinavian Christmas market at Rotherhithe
Watched ‘Follies’
Led Carols Around the Clock Tower
Watched the Christ Church Playgroup nativity
Travelled to Gloucestershire on Christmas Day
Walked along the river at Evesham
Visited Coombe House

Be blesséd

Luke 1:46-55 – The Magnificat

Christ Church Highbury, December 17th 2017

Unusually for a sermon, I’m going to begin with a lesson in grammar…

In this reading this, there is a word that is pronounced one of two ways, usually pretty much inter-changeably. In verse 48 Mary declares that: “From now on all generations will call me blessed…”

Sometimes the word is pronounced blessed and sometimes blesséd. As someone who is regularly teased for the way in which I pronounce certain words (particularly ‘theatre’) and who has been known to refer to the famous play as “Harry Potter and the Curséd Child”; I wasn’t sure if this was a quirk I’d acquired.

You might think it’s simply a quirk of history – that if we’re being traditional or old fashioned, we use the accent – but in fact, there is a specific meaning inferred by the accent. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the following rules apply:

When a person or object receives a blessing, they are blessed – like when I lay hands upon children coming for communion – it’s the past tense of the verb ‘bless’.

However, blesséd is an adjective describing the state of someone – like a beatified saint, or Mary, or the child she bore (as Luke describes in verse 42). Or the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. Blesséd are the peacemakers, etc.

Before I continue, I’m going to put forward a disclaimer. Although I’ve now worked out and explained to you the rules of pronunciation, I may well forget to use the correct pronunciation throughout the rest of the sermon. As I’ve been writing this, Word has helpfully auto-corrected my use of accents to try and remind myself – so even Word doesn’t seem to recognise that there is a difference between the two words!

But why is this important?

Because being blessed is something of a temporary state, whereas being blesséd is a permanent state of affairs.

Generations will call Mary blesséd. The role given to her by God was not a temporary state – she was forever to have been blessed by the Holy Spirit having given birth to the Messiah.

In the preceding verses before Mary’s song, the word appears multiple times. Elizabeth declares: “Blesséd are you among women, and blesséd is the child you will bear!”

And, speaking about herself: “Blesséd is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!”

Elizabeth has recognised Mary’s unique state of blessedness, which comes from the child she is carrying for God. It’s not that she’s in some way won a competition to be the most blessed of all women in the entire world, it’s that she has received a unique, divine calling. Only one woman in the entire history of creation would ever have the opportunity of giving birth to God’s son. For Elizabeth, it is an expression of joy that Mary is associated with the Messiah in this way – which in turn also makes her blesséd too.

In these verses, Luke is trying to get across an important message for the reader. This isn’t just about the holiness and blessédness of two women whose status none of his readers will ever emulate, it is about the fact that it is a joy to be associated with Christ, no matter what that association is. We will not give birth to Jesus or John the Baptist, but we can and do have a relationship with Christ, which brings us joy and leads us into the condition of being blesséd.

That’s why the grammatical distinction is important. In our relationship with Christ we are in a state of blessédness, not receiving a temporary blessing. We receive the Holy Spirit and can be joyful in our relationship with God.

***

Unfortunately, as is so often the way with language, the word “blessed” has become somewhat devalued in recent years.

Some of you may be aware of the social media phenomenon that is “#blessed”. It’s particularly evident amongst young, white, American women where even the most unassuming event is a blessing. Something along the lines of:

“The barista at Starbucks put an extra shot in my grande Pumpkin Spice Latte.  #blessed”

“Got a parking space right next to the store when it was raining. #blessed”

I suppose it comes from an attitude of counting every blessing, which is a good thing to do. But being blesséd means so much more than an extra shot! It is knowing that God has anointed us with the Holy Spirit. That we have been identified as being a crucial part of his mission on earth.

I was in New York last month, and (obviously) did some shopping. I was at Target – my all-time favourite shopping experience, the UK has nothing that compares – and spotted a sweatshirt emblazoned with “blessed”. I was very, very tempted to buy it and wear it as my Christmas jumper – and use it as an opportunity to share a mini version of this sermon every time I was asked about it. To be honest, I regret not buying it!!

I guess I was worried people would see me and judge me – for using the word to mean something ridiculous & inconsequential – when in fact, we would all be justified to wear one!

The people who felt blessed because of their latte & parking space? Well, they ARE blessed, just not for the reasons they think!

***

So, Mary is also to be known by future generations as blesséd. She is blesséd because she is humble; because God chose a simple human being to play such a major part in his plan.

A major theme of Luke’s gospel is his concern to show that its message is for all – including those who are marginalised, in fact, especially for those who are marginalised. In the world of 1st century Palestine, this included the poor, the outcasts and women. In Mary’s song, the message that the hungry will be fed but the rich will be sent away empty is an element of this emphasis – but so is the fact that Luke emphasises the importance of women in the birth of Christ.

Obviously, a woman had to have a fairly crucial role in the birth, but Luke highlights the importance not just of Mary, but also Elizabeth and Anna – who prophecies over Jesus when he’s presented at the temple after his birth in chapter 2. This should emphasise to all of us that God can and does use anybody. He didn’t – and doesn’t – care how they are regarded by society. He has chosen each of them – and each of us – for a divine purpose.

Mary realises this, and she sings praises to God – not herself. That’s why we call this part of the passage the magnificat, because Mary is glorifying God, his deeds and his promises. It is he who has been set apart and is worthy of praise, not Mary. Mary is blessed because she is God’s humble servant and realises that all she can do is praise God for his blessing upon her.

If God can use an unprepossessing, young, poor, woman as the key to bringing salvation to the world, what can he do with us?

 

***

An old friend of mine is currently reading the Bible for the first time (other than having to study bits of it at school). A few months ago, she asked my advice on which Bible to buy and where to start reading – so I suggested she begin with Luke and Acts. It’s a good place to start for lots of reasons. They’re written by the same person. They provide a good chronology to the early life of the church. And, they tend to emphasise the role of minorities and the discriminated against.

We met up a couple of weeks ago, and she told me how she was really enjoying Luke. She loved how the role of women was emphasised and the historical context of events. (She & I both studied history at university.) But what had impacted her the most was Mary’s song glorifying God. She’d read it over and over again, in awe of this young woman’s reaction to God’s dramatic declaration.

For my friend, the most amazing thing was Mary’s gratitude and confidence that this would all work out, because it was God’s purpose for her. Mary was God’s humble servant, given the most arduous of tasks, yet took it on with grace and thanksgiving. In her song, Mary lists the many things that God has already done for his people. It is a song of exalting God – not herself.

What hit her was that we are all given gifts by God – admittedly, not giving birth to the Messiah sized gifts – but gifts nonetheless. We have a God who is merciful and has plans for us. Yet how quick is humanity to glorify itself? Or, when we believe the task ahead of us is too hard, complain that we cannot possibly do it? Why can’t we be more like Mary, she asked.

***

I mentioned earlier that, as a result of our relationship with Christ, we too are blesséd. And I mean blesséd – it is not temporary, it’s permanent.

Just like Mary, we have the power of the Holy Spirit to guide us through the challenges and gifts that God puts before us.

So, today, in addition to encouraging you all to know that you are indeed blesséd, I would love you to begin this final week of advent what your song of praise and glory to God might include. How might you be thankful for what God has already done in your life?

The challenges & encouragements of the talents

Matthew 25:14-30 – The Parable of the talents

Christ Church Highbury, November 19th 2017

Have you ever participated in a challenge based upon this parable? Where you’re given a sum of money and challenged to do something creative with it…

Several years ago, Tewkesbury Abbey – where my sister worships – did this with its congregation in order to raise money for a worthy cause. Every participant was given £10 and challenged to use it to raise more money for the church. She spent the money on ingredients for Christmas mincemeat, selling the jars to friends and family and giving the abbey back not just the original £10, but also a tidy profit.

Obviously, this wouldn’t have worked as a fundraising strategy had everyone at the abbey buried their £10 note in the ground and returned it when the abbey asked for it back. It’s a pretty good contemporary illustration of Jesus’ parable.

***

We know this parable best as ‘the parable of the talents’ – but our modern translation has exchanged ‘talent’ for gold. A ‘talent’ was a measure of wealth equivalent to more than could be earned over 15 years as a labourer, but we can probably visualise bags of gold more easily. Either way, the servants are entrusted with a phenomenal amount of money by their master – and acquired a good deal of wealth on their master’s behalf.

In Jesus’ time, servants were often expected to care for their masters’ properties and businesses while they travelled – potentially for long periods of time. The masters needed to be able to trust these caretakers, and expected faithfulness in return. In addition, it was important for the servants to do their job, but not to inflate their own status – believing themselves to be stand-in masters.

In this parable, not only are the servants trusted, they are given the extra responsibility of caring for their master’s money. Verse 15 states that the gold was given to each ‘according to their ability’ – so one could argue that the master already held the last servant in low esteem!

The third hapless servant is overcome with fear. That is his motivation for burying the gold. Perhaps he was concerned that he might be tempted to spend his master’s money. Perhaps he feared that he wouldn’t manage to keep it safe from thieves. He doesn’t trust his master for giving him this responsibility and seeks to protect his own interests. In contrast, the two other servants are ready to take a risk – for themselves and for their master – and it pays off.

***

I wonder which of the servants you find yourself identifying with? Entrepreneurship is a gift that I don’t think I possess, so I’m not sure that I could have thought of a way to double the master’s money!

 

This parable is an invitation from Christ to us to take up the gifts we have been made responsible for, and to do the best with them for the good of the kingdom. It is one of a series of parables Jesus tells to illustrate what will happen when he returns and brings about the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

The message is stark: ill-treat what God has entrusted to us, and face miserable consequences. The unfortunate servant is thrown “outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

But it is also an encouragement – I promise!

We should be encouraged that all of us have been entrusted with gifts by God. They take different forms of course – for some it may literally be bags of gold to use wisely and for the benefit of others. For others it may be practical gifts that can be used to give our society a glimpse of God’s Kingdom. The parable tells us that each servant is given money according to their ability. God does not call us to tasks or situations without also equipping us with the gifts we need to fulfil his calling.

Each of us, as Christians, have the opportunity to multiply the gifts God has entrusted to us – in turn, growing the Kingdom.

The challenge is to overcome the fear that is the third servant’s downfall. It is very easy to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task that God has put before his church. When we are overwhelmed – as I’m sure we all have experience of – the temptation is to bury our heads (or our gifts) in the sand, and to put off offering any kind of contribution to God’s mission – the proclamation of the gospel.

But, as I said, the encouragement is to be found in the faith and trust that the master placed upon his servants. We have been entrusted. God has confidence in us, his children. All we have to do is act!

***

I had one further thought that struck me as I thought about this familiar passage was how helpful it is for Christ Church, during this season of being in vacancy. While we are without a vicar, we are responsible for the church and the resources that God has given us. I’m not suggesting that Jonathan (our previous vicar) was our master, but that it’s an interesting parable to draw comparisons with. We have been entrusted with keeping Christ Church going – all of us, not just the staff team and Church Wardens – and, to each of our abilities, God has given us even more.

Vacancy periods are great times to give people new responsibilities, particularly those who are not ordained. So  a few members of the congregation, have had training in how to lead some of our services and over the next few months this will be a really valuable contribution to keeping our worship going. Similarly, a group of people have taken on the responsibility for our monthly Jazz Vespers service.

In this way, when a new vicar is appointed, they will be greeted with more than was left behind when Jon left us in July. Many of you will have acquired new skills; developed new responsibilities; and grown in your relationship with God. A church that buried its riches during a vacancy period would stagnate, even regress – but I am very confident that this is already not the case with Christ Church.

***

I asked you earlier which of the servants you identified with this morning – and that’s a question that I would love you to leave today pondering.

If you are confident that you are using the gifts you have so well that you’re multiplying them – great! And thank you! Perhaps you could do some encouraging of those who are apprehensive of the responsibility.

If you are feeling apprehensive, perhaps disbelieving that you have been given anything, may I encourage you to take just one small step. Perhaps that’s reading a book that will deepen your understanding of God and your faith. Perhaps it’s volunteering with the church or in our community in some way. It could even be taking the time to sit down with someone you trust to talk through what gifts you may have that you don’t even realise you possess – often we need other people to point them out to us.

The right kind of anger?

Matthew 20:1-16  – The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

Christ Church Highbury, September 24th 2017

When were you last angry?

What was it that made you angry?

***

As far as I’m concerned, the last time I was angry is a pretty typical example of ridiculous anger. And actually, it was more being peeved than angry. I’d had to make two trips on consecutive days to Euston’s lost property office (both during rush-hour) in order to collect my Dad’s iPad, which he’d managed to leave in Watford the previous week. The first day, it hadn’t arrived (apparently it can take several days for an electronic item to travel from Watford to London). The second time, it turned out I needed a signed letter to collect it on my Dad’s behalf – a piece of info that I was not provided with the day before. All ended happily, but it was frustrating!

We all get angry for different reasons and in different ways. Some people will have a short fuse and lose their tempers quickly. Others may take a long time to get wound up, but once they’re angry, my goodness you’ll know about it! We all have pet peeves that drive us wild; and what sends someone into a frenzy might be like water off a duck’s back to someone else.

Today, I want to encourage us all to be angry. In the right way…

***

To avoid confusion, the workers in this passage are NOT angry in the right way! Verse 11 describes those who had worked all day as ‘grumbling’ about the fact that those who had only done a couple of hours’ work had been paid the same as them.

Grumbling seems something of an understatement. I expect that they were livid! I don’t know how many of you have experience of labouring hard under a hot sun for hours. It’s tough work. Every penny of their wages would have been sweated for. With the arrival of fresh labour every few hours, their toil would be more and more evident. The contrast between those who had worked since early morning and those who had only been hired at 5pm would have been stark. If the first ones there had known every labourer that turned up that day would be paid the same, would they have worked so hard?

Were they right to be angry?

As the landowner in the parable points out, they had been promised a denarius for their day’s work and this (as a footnote to our passage tells us) was the usual daily wage for such labourers. They had not been deceived or underpaid. As the landowner responds in verse 15: “are you envious because I am generous?”

This is the issue. Not that the workers who had toiled all day had been underpaid; but that they felt that the latecomers were overpaid.

The landowner’s generosity stands out in a culture where those he is providing work to, are very much at the bottom of the pile in terms of social and economic standing. Labourers gathered overnight in the hope of being picked for casual work. They owned no land to tend themselves; they often were without a permanent home; and they were poor. The tasks they were picked for were often brief but urgent, especially during the harvest season. To get a whole day’s work would be an achievement. To be paid a day’s wages for less than a day’s work would have been virtually unheard of!

The workers are angry, but it is not a righteous anger.

It is an anger that Jesus uses to illustrate the conflict between society’s desires and those of the Kingdom of God. In God’s Kingdom, generosity is central. Our God, like the landowner, is generous to each of his children. They have responded to his call and in turn he responds with generosity – it is not about the earthly values of earning recognition or reward.

***

Take the landowner’s final words in this passage: ‘So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

It goes against everything their society – and ours, especially with our love of queueing! – stands for. The greatest reward is not for those who have worked the longest. It is for those who came last, for they received a much greater reward than they felt they deserved.

On Wednesday, the passage from Mark’s gospel that contains this verse – chapter 10 – was the reading for morning prayer. In this instance, the words are spoken by Jesus at the conclusion of his interaction with the Rich Man who asks how he might enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus instructs him to sell all his belongings and give the money to the poor – and says to his disciples “how hard it is for those with wealth to enter the Kingdom of God”. As Jesus explains to his disciples who will receive eternal life in his Father’s kingdom, he concludes: “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first”.

As the Wednesday morning prayer group discussed this passage, I shared with them a story from our recent parish weekend away, that involved this verse…

…in July, at our parish weekend away, we had what is now the traditional Christ Church weekend away quiz. I love quizzes and was very happy when a team partially made-up of the winners from last time invited me to join them. Their quiz talents were obvious and we managed to win by just half a point! However, our quiz master declared that too small a margin of victory; there was a tie-break with the 2nd place team; and we lost. Then, the quiz master pulled a blinder, declaring: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last!”. All of a sudden, the last placed team had won!

There were gasps as I told the story. In fact, over the summer I’ve told a few people this story and they’ve been similarly shocked. [It’s perhaps indicative of how well my competitiveness is known that my Mum’s first question was “I hope you didn’t get angry and cry!”] Of course, it was only a church quiz and the prize was chocolates and wine – it wasn’t the test for entering the Kingdom of God! But what it was, was an illustration of how difficult our society still finds this value. And, in fact, knowledge and pride in knowledge can be as much of a barrier to accepting God and His Kingdom as earthly wealth can be.

***

I believe that what this parable teaches us is not only the order and love that determines those who join God’s Kingdom, but also how we might try to embody its values on earth. To show God’s Kingdom to the rest of our society – aware that it is profoundly counter-cultural.

As I mentioned earlier, the anger of the workers who arrived first was not a righteous anger – it was selfishness and greed. But I do believe that part of our calling is to be righteously angry when we see things in our society that need to change, that are not compatible with Christ’s teaching and God’s Kingdom. Where our generosity of heart, mind and material goods seeks to reflect the generosity of the Kingdom.

There may well be situations that have immediately crossed your mind. And, unfortunately, there are many aspects of our world where righteous anger has needed to be the response to society’s injustices.

A handful of examples include:

  • The setting up of foodbanks to support those who have no way of buying food. Perhaps because the system has let them down, or their circumstances have changed.
  • Providing support to refugees who cannot get support elsewhere and who are vilified by many in our society.
  • Protesting political decisions that we don’t believe are in the best interests of society.

I could go on, but I want to tell you about one particular initiative that has emerged out of righteous anger, and that is particularly relevant to this reading.

The labourers employed by the landowner were at the bottom of the heap as far as Palestinian society was concerned. When we think of our own society, who are the equivalents? Perhaps it’s those caught up in zero hours contracts, or who try to make a living in our newly evolved ‘gig economy’ – they don’t have to wait in a marketplace for a job, but wait by their phone, hoping for a call. It also includes cleaners, who are often unseen by those who own the places in which they clean and, who in London especially, often have to work multiple jobs in order to make ends meet.

A few years ago, an initiative emerged out of a church in the City of London out the anger felt as a result of the injustices that the cleaners of London face. How could the lives of cleaners be improved? A seed of an idea emerged that involved paying a living wage and providing benefits. It took a few years to develop, but this year Clean for Good officially took on its first cleaners and first clients – and I’m delighted to say that Christ Church is one of them!

Clean for Good pays its cleaners the London Living Wage, and provides them with sick pay, holiday pay, national insurance and pension contributions. In doing all of this, they are putting some of the last in our society first. Bestowing generosity upon them, showing that they matter, and demonstrating Kingdom values in a society that does not often reflect them.

I’m sure Clean for Good has and will face opposition – there will be people who think it’s not worth the expense; or that investing in people they generally don’t think about is a waste of time, energy and money. But such attitudes match those of the labourers who worked all day

***

I want to leave you with three challenges from this morning’s passage…

Firstly, to ask God to make you angry about injustice in our world, to show you specific situations where your anger can be channelled into productive actions.

Secondly, to ask God to inspire you to be generous. Generous out of anger and generous in your way of life. That could be as simple as letting someone get on the train ahead of you; or paying for a suspended coffee in a coffee shop that will go to someone who needs it; or using your God-given skills and talents to help those who may need them.

Thirdly, to show our society that there is another way that comes from another place. That in God’s Kingdom the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and that our earthly society should seek to be more like the kingdom of heaven.

The challenge of the Canaanite woman

Usually, if I publish a sermon on here, I publish it verbatim. This sermon was a bit long, so I’ve cut out some of context setting from the opening section. It was also written for my very social-justice orientated congregation in Highbury – but I’ve added some things that I’d want to say to a wider audience…

Matthew 15: 21-28

Christ Church Highbury, August 20th 2017

The person who confronts Jesus has two important characteristics: she was a woman and she was a Canaanite. On two counts – her gender and her ethnicity –  this woman is unlikely to be listened to by those in religious or political positions of power. Including, it seems at the start of this encounter, Jesus and his disciples. When she cries out to Jesus to heal her daughter, verse 23 tells us that:

“Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.’”

How does this response sit with you? Is this a rather inconvenient moment in the Gospel narrative of Jesus’ ministry? Where is Christ’s empathy?

There is an explanation for his reaction contained in his reply that: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’

***

When we read the New Testament as a whole, the message that the gospel is for both Jew and Gentile shines through. We take Paul’s words to the Galatians as a vision to live by: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

But a reading of Acts or Galatians also reveals the division that was caused in the Early Church by disagreements about what ethnicity meant in the context of being a Christian.  The fact that the Early Church was able to unite over this division should be inspirational for us.

In this encounter, Jesus realises that he is not embodying the fullness of who he is as the Messiah. Yes, he has been sent to the lost sheep of Israel, but there is also enough of his glory for even just the scraps to be given to those outside Israel. In this Canaanite woman, Jesus recognises more faith in who he is and who his Father is, than many in Israel have managed to muster!

A key message throughout Matthew’s gospel is one of Gentile inclusion. Time and again he reinforces the fact that Jesus came for all, regardless of their race. Just four chapters prior to this morning’s reading, Matthew has recorded Jesus’ rebuking of those who had not recognised him.

In chapter 11, verse 22, the cities of Tyre & Sidon are mentioned specifically. Jesus says to the crowd before him:

“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.” [Matt 11:21-22]

And it is here, in the region of Tyre and Sidon that a miracle is performed for a Gentile who had recognised Christ as her Messiah.

***

In confronting Jesus, this woman seems to have a huge amount of confidence! Standing in front of an acclaimed teacher, who has ignored her and then told her that she is irrelevant because of her race, she throws his words back in his face.

In fact, she adopts an attitude that was something of a tradition among poor, desperate women in this culture. Being persistent in an attempt to gain justice from a corrupt judge or similar authority figure is a trait seen elsewhere in contemporary accounts. Luke’s gospel includes an account in chapter 18 of Jesus telling the parable of a widow who finally receives justice from a judge because of her persistence.

The Canaanite woman’s response uses language that is strong as the reply she’s just had from Jesus. Can you imagine how you might have felt having come to someone desperate for help and been referred to as a dog? Yet she throws the analogy back at him brilliantly: ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.’

‘Yes it is, Lord,’ she said. ‘Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’

It is a phenomenal example of the power of faith. Having been ignored, I’m sure many of us would respond by simply walking away and avoiding a confrontation, but not this woman. And in turn, this interaction not only saves her daughter, but has an irrevocable impact upon Jesus’ ministry.

***

I knew a few weeks ago that I would be preaching on this passage today and was looking forward to it because it’s an encounter that I find deeply powerful. But over the last week it has increased in resonance. While doing some research online, I found an article in Political Theology Today published on Monday, in which today’s lectionary gospel reading was considered in light of current events in America.

It highlighted the importance of ‘Jesus’ conversion to justice’ – how he had realised the need to be open to the call his Father had given him – and called upon society to consider their own approach to justice. One sentence that particularly struck me was:

“Jesus models the reality of failure—that we often fail to think beyond the limited categories of our culture—but also the possibility of redemption through the reinstitution of justice.”

In the US, this is a call to recognise the events in Charlottesville and the response of the President for what they are: fascism; white supremacism; and evidence that institutional racism still exists. You may be aware that 81% of Americans who identify as “evangelical” voted for Trump. This article, along with many, many other leading Christian voices in the US and beyond, calls for those Christians specifically to recognise the President for who he is. To change an opinion and act on it – as Christ did in this encounter. To embody the message of the New Testament that in Christ there is no Jew or gentile, slave or free, but all are one…

Changing your mind in public view requires humility. It can be a deeply difficult thing to do and requires courage. I have been very impressed with those Republicans who, in response to recent events, have come out and criticised their President for failing to properly condemn the violence and actions of those who seek to promote racist ideology. But one notable absence has been the majority of members of Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council. Does a group of evangelical Christians really not have the strength and wisdom to speak the Gospel truth into this political mire?? It is no longer about who was the better candidate in last year’s election; it’s not about Democrats versus Republicans; it is about what is good and just in society.

The Canaanite woman challenged Christ and forced him to reconsider – which he did in full view of his disciples and those around him. Can these American Christian leaders have the courage to do the same? Could the people in churches across the US who voted for and have vocally supported the President do likewise?

And what about here in the UK? We may not have had white supremacist demonstrations on our doorstep, but just weeks ago there was an act of hatred and aggression on our Muslim friends and neighbours in Finsbury Park. Evidence suggests that since the referendum last year, acts of racial violence have dramatically increased in our society. Are we making sure that we speak out against such words and actions? Are we calling upon our church and political leaders to do the same?

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There is also inspiration to be drawn from the actions of the Canaanite woman who stood up and demanded action. Who had faith and wisdom with which to speak to her Messiah.

Do we have the strength, courage and wisdom to know when to stand up for justice?

For me, one of the most powerful images to emerge from the violence and protests in Virginia was a photo of a line of clergy, robed and arm-in-arm leading a peaceful protest:

One of these protestors, the black woman with the red stole, is someone I heard speak on racial injustice in the US last autumn while I was visiting New York. Lisa Sharon Harper is someone who has dedicated her life to taking peaceful action against social injustice. She’s been arrested many times and has found herself in deeply difficult situations, but she carries on, firmly believing that this is what God has called her to do.

As I listened to her share her stories in a church hall that wouldn’t have looked out of place in suburban London, but was actually just off 3rd Avenue in Manhattan, I veered from “ok, I could do that…” to “my goodness! I’m not sure I could do that!!” The session was about the foundations of institutional racism in the US (I had several moments of feeling uncomfortable as a Brit as – of course – a lot of it was our fault originally) and what we, as Christians, could do to become more aware of, and take more action regarding racial justice. It’s how I discovered the brilliant Harvard Implicit Association Test – which I highly recommend as a way to become more aware of your own bias. During the evening, Lisa told the story of a 21 day fast she’d participated in to push for immigration reforms. She spoke of times when she had been arrested and was scared. It was both inspiring and extremely challenging.

Thinking about last weekend, if I had been in Virginia, would I have joined them? It just so happened that last weekend, one of my closest friends was in VA (although not in Charlottesville) staying with some good friends who I’ve visited twice in the last year. I have a lot of love for Virginia! And I like to think that I would have joined these clergy, even though it put them at risk of physical harm; arrest; and subsequent retribution as the photo travelled around the world. I grew up going to demos and protests, and since ordination I’ve been even more aware of the power of the dog collar in demonstrating that Christians can and do stand alongside those fighting for justice – whether that’s been at peace vigils; rallies against hate; or the memorial to murdered MP Jo Cox.

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That’s not to say that we’re all called to be in those spaces. But we are called to use our voices to speak the words that Christ would speak. To bring light into dark places.

Many of the people who fight for justice in our society are not people of faith – so one challenge for you could be explaining the deeper motivation behind what you do. Whether that’s why you volunteer at the night shelter; or are involved in rehousing refugees; or are part of a political party; or give money to particular causes.

Or, a challenge for you could be to spend time in prayer and to ask God to show you where your words and actions are needed. This doesn’t need to be a grand gesture or big stand – it could be as simple as engaging in conversation with someone who has very different views to you and listening to them. Or bringing people together around the dinner table to unite in their difference by eating together.

I strongly believe that as followers of Christ we are called to be modern-day prophets. Not in the sense of predicting the future or having dreams and visions, but in our behaviour and our words. Of taking the risk of potentially being a lone voice calling in the desert, speaking out against injustice. Of showing that there is a different way. So I pray that the Holy Spirit would fill us afresh to perform God’s work in our world.

Wedding lessons

Firstly, a lesson for you, dear readers: when you come across a clergy person (or registrar, or officiant…) who is about to conduct their first wedding, please – for the love of all that is holy – do NOT reference the epitome of all British wedding movies Four Weddings and a Funeral! It’s not even so much to do with Rowan Atkinson’s performance as the bumbling priest conducting his first wedding (the infamous line about ‘holy goats’ is no longer much of an issue as Common Worship goes with the more modern ‘Holy Spirit’), more the endless tales of woe that occurs at celebrations of holy matrimony. A death occurring at a wedding? Or the nuptials being called off at the moment the priest asks for objections? The stuff of ecclesial nightmares!

[What perhaps makes the evocation of this movie even worse is that I can name more than one priestly colleague who has experienced both of those terrible events at weddings they’ve officiated at. It happens. We don’t need reminding!]

And a lesson for those who’ll take their first wedding in the near future: when you’ve got a couple of them under your belt and you’re feeling the relief of a job well done, put Four Weddings on and revel in how smoothly yours went! As for me, the biggest lesson I’ve learnt is that getting to marry people is an absolute delight and a privilege!

I’ve known Jenni since 1997 – it doesn’t get much better than this!

A common pattern since ordination is that my “firsts” have generally been a bit of a baptism of fire. My first baptism is still fondly referred to as such by several members of the congregation, in part because one of the children decided to escape and hide before I could get to her. My first funeral was an epic affair that brought our neighbourhood to a standstill as a band and crowd of mourners danced their way up to the church. My first wedding? Just the small matter of a marrying a friend of 20 years standing to her lovely fiancé..

…it wasn’t meant to be. When they asked me (in the glamorous context of a road trip up the A1), I had my first wedding scheduled for mid-July. That wedding then moved, first to June (even better) and then to November. It’ll now be wedding number four of my career! When I got word of the last re-scheduling, I despaired slightly. On the one hand, my first wedding was going to be phenomenally special; on the other, I was going to be on alien territory, I’d know at least half the congregation well, and if I got things wrong it would be an utter disaster!

I prepped and prepped hard. Before he moved on to new pastures, I downloaded every bit of wisdom I could get from my vicar. I walked through how things worked on my home turf. I talked to other clergy. And, most helpfully, I got to work on weddings number two (8 days after number one) and three (in September). The aim was to look like I knew exactly what I was doing by the time July 29th rolled around!

Did I succeed? Possibly. I certainly learnt a lot, including:

  • DON’T let friends put you off. This includes their references to Four Weddings, but also includes moments when your dear friends (and certain family members) decide the night before to run through potential heckling opportunities. Don’t do a practice run-through with them either (especially if you’ve just arrived back from a great holiday during which you really haven’t slept enough), because any and every mistake you make while reading from the book will be seized upon!
  • DO let a trustworthy friend read-through the sermon that you’ve been angsting over for a couple of weeks. There’s always the hope that you’ll have them in tears before they’ve finished reading the opening paragraph.
  • DON’T leave your sermon in the vestry. Realising this mid-way through the declarations is a tad awkward. However, it turns out that you can do many things with authority and as if it’s exactly what’s meant to happening and no one will know. [I did a loop back into the choir vestry during the reading and returned to sit in the clergy seats at the top of the choir stalls which no one noticed at all.]
  • DO use tons of those mini Post-Its that work as book marks. They’re very handy for marking up your service book with crucial bits of info like hymn titles and the myriad middle names the couple possess.
  • DON’T forget to turn your mic onto mute when not needed. [I remembered during the hymns & forgot during the signing of the registers. I’m thankful for the friend who was in the baby room listening to a feed from my mic who dashed up and told me before the hymn had finished!]

Service over, it turns out that there are also lessons to be learnt about attending wedding receptions as the officiating priest. [There’s also an ethical conundrum regarding which reception invitations to accept, but I’m still figuring that one out.] A quick change in the vestry after the service, and I was reception-ready sans cassock, surplice & dog collar.

I have a lot of love for my singing girls.

In the toilets at the reception venue, a fellow guest did a double-take as I emerged from the cubicle and then exclaimed in recognition of who I was – which was nice, if an odd location for the spiritual conversation that emerged. Later, on the dance floor and excitedly (doing what amounts to) dancing while clutching a glass of rosé, I was bumped into by a group of guys who worked with the groom. Their surprise at stumbling across a vicar on the dance floor was evident. One of them looked at me and declared: “But you’re the vicar! And you’re dancing! And you’re drinking wine!” [Their minds would definitely be blown by witnessing what clergy can get up to en masse…] I chuckled, made conversation, and carried on dancing, amused at blowing stereotypes away. Then, minutes later the band struck up the Kings of Leon classic Sex on Fire and I had a revelation: I needed to leave the dance floor. It’s one thing for the priest to be seen dancing and drinking. It’s quite another to witness them singing “Woah! My sex is on fire” along with the band and tipsy guests! Valuable lesson learned before it was too late!!

Wedding number one was incredibly special, and I was a little worried that my first parish wedding the following weekend would be something of an anti-climax. I needn’t have, because it was an utter joy. Far more relaxed than the week before and in my usual church context, I had a confidence and attitude that was distinctly absent at wedding number one. When a text arrived that evening from my first bride asking how it had gone, I was loath to respond with “It was great! So much easier than last week!” It may have been true, but it wasn’t a true reflection of just how special her wedding being my first was.

Another valuable lesson: brides seem to appreciate sparkly shoes…

The likelihood is that I won’t do another wedding that is *that* special. My sister’s already hitched, and so are most of my closest friends. Perhaps I’ll have a shot with nieces/nephews… While I might wish that I’d been less nervous, the fact that my first wedding was so incredibly special and wonderful is an excellent thing – something I’m incredibly grateful to Jenni & Crispin for! (And they were grateful too – Crispin thanked me for letting them take my ‘wedding virginity’ in his speech!)

Wedding number two (and the planning meeting I had last week with wedding couple three) has made it clear that I love doing weddings and I (God willing) am not going to become a cynical priest who sees them as a burden rather than a joy. That’s possibly a luxury from currently being in a church that doesn’t have many weddings, but to be honest, I don’t think it’s in my (hopelessly romantic) personality to view the role of marrying people as anything but a joy and huge privilege!

It’s possible that Crispin & I found the handing over of the marriage certificate a little too amusing!

Returning to Four Weddings, last weekend’s bride left our wedding rehearsal to watch the film with her bridesmaids. I didn’t like to suggest it was a bad idea, and instead drew her attention to the fact that significant scenes were filmed locally. In fact, had Charles wanted to marry Carrie, he could have done so at Christ Church as he lived in the parish. [Every so often when it rains, I’m tempted to re-enact the terrible “Is it raining?” scene on Highbury Terrace.]

Oh, and although ‘Holy Ghost’ does not appear in the modern marriage liturgy, do you know where it does crop up?? The BCP Eucharist liturgy, which Christ Church happens to use on the first Sunday of the month. So, having been confident that I didn’t need to worry about erroneous goats in my weddings, I then had to work super hard to prevent them from appearing in our 9am last Sunday. Thanks for that dear friends!