For All Who Hunger

Somewhere around 2014/15 a series of what we might call Godincidences brought St Lydia’s to my attention. I had stumbled upon a subject for my Masters’ thesis that involved sacramental theology and communal tables – and in the process discovered this “dinner church” in Brooklyn that appeared to embody much of the theology I was advocating. At the same time, a friend moved to NYC and joined the church’s staff team; another friend found themselves there sporadically when in the city… I finally made my first visit in September 2015, when over a two week break post-MA break, I managed to spend four evenings at St Lydia’s. (I wrote a very enthusiastic write up in the days when I still blogged regularly.)

I returned to St Lydia’s multiple times – my last visit was just a couple of weeks before my friend Hannah left the team to move to Toronto in January 2019. Each time, I picked up the name badge I’d written in 2015 and got stuck into to dinner conversation, washing up (always my preferred post-dinner chore) and after-church drinks. It’s also thanks to Lydians that I have a favourite karaoke/Korean food haunt in Brooklyn.

The Lydians setting up for Advent 2017

In St Lydia’s, I found a place where the meaning of the Lord’s Supper was enacted with an authenticity that felt lacking in many other churches. All were welcome at the tables; all were fed, physically & spiritually. [I have never gotten over the communion service I attended at a church in LA where in order to receive bread and wine I’d have needed to hand over documentation to prove that I was entitled to it. Not what Jesus meant people!!]

In the five years since my first Lydian encounter, I’ve pondered setting up a version of dinner church in my own context. Various things have got in the way, and now who knows what might be possible in a Covid-19 world? But the principles behind it remain inspirational.

By a stroke of luck, I managed to get onto the launch team for the release of For All Who Hunger – the story of how St Lydia’s came to be, by its founder Emily Scott. An advance e-copy of the book landed with me last month, but I’ve discovered that being a church leader in the midst of a global pandemic doesn’t allow much time for reading. So I find myself having finally read it – mostly within a single afternoon/evening – a week after it’s official launch. (Although it looks like readers in the UK can’t buy it till the end of May, so I feel marginally less guilty.)

British church culture currently seems very focused on church planting that results in large churches – particularly following the ‘resource church’ model. [Although who knows what the impact of Covid-19 will be on this? Perhaps we’ll be looking at planting lots more smaller churches….here’s hoping.] It was therefore refreshing to read Emily’s account of the slow grind in getting St Lydia’s off the ground.

“The part no one ever talks about is the humiliation. It’s humiliating to try to start a church in an aggressively secular city. To invite people to come to worship when they’ll likely think you’re unforgivably naïve, unsophisticated, uneducated, and conservative to believe in something so off-trend as God. It required divesting myself of the notion that I would ever, ever be anything resembling cool.”

For All Who Hunger isn’t a blueprint for starting up a church – every church, every leader and every community is different – but with its stories of how St Lydia’s evolved over the years, it provides examples that should inspire others. There’s common-sense relationship building – listening to people to hear what their needs are, rather than just barging in. Collaborating with the right people at the right time. Learning from those who were there first. There’s a powerful account of getting involved with Black Lives Matter and Faith in New York, told with acute awareness of white privilege. The description of the response to Hurricane Sandy hits particularly hard right now, as the world struggles to formulate a response to the pandemic. Who knows how St Lydia’s might have evolved were it not for the insight that that disaster provided?

The story of how the church evolved is told alongside (some of) the story of Emily’s own personal evolution.  As a single female church leader myself, I really appreciated Emily’s – often comedic, always realistic – insights into the perils of trying to date as a pastor! It concludes with her moving on from St Lydia’s – an important part of the journey that isn’t often told in this kind of book. St Lydia’s and Emily’s ministry continue, but in different places.

Ultimately, I’m grateful that there’s now a book I can point people towards when I tell them something of my own experience of St Lydia’s. Telling Brits to head over to the Atlantic for a Sunday or Monday night service isn’t particularly feasible, but reading this bridges that gap. It evokes so much of the atmosphere of St Lydia’s that when I finished reading late last night, I looked up from my iPad half expecting to be back in Brooklyn.

“St Lydia’s showed me abundance is a secret hidden inside of scarcity. It lives, tucked inside not-enoughness, waiting to show you that God does not do math. Abundance is discovering God’s provision right in the middle of your fret and worry.”

Resources for the Church in different times…

There is a certain irony to the fact that, having spent much of the last decade thinking about the way church can embrace digital (and vice-versa), I find myself leading a congregation where around 40% of regular worshippers don’t have access to the internet. (It’s a small congregation, with a significant number of elderly people.)

When churches first started closing across the US – a week before the same thing happened in the UK – I realised I needed a plan for how my congregation could continue to worship while in their own homes, because streaming was definitely not the answer. What I have come up with, I’m sharing below, in case it’s helpful to anyone else.

  • A Booklet of prayers & readings to use at home, plus suggestions for where to find worship on radio/TV. Compiling this was my distraction while waiting for the Archbishops to suspend public worship on March 17th. Virtually all the prayers come from the Church of England’s Coronavirus prayers and liturgy webpage. It feels like this has already made its way around half the Church of England, after I offered it up on Twitter! There are highlighted sections that should be amended for your own context…
  • Creating a piece of code that enables people to ring a number (local – you can choose it) and listen to a sermon (or any other mp3 file you’d want to share). I used this brilliant step-by-step guide, and had it up and running for last Sunday. I’d been concerned that some of my non-online people also had poor eyesight, so sending them text documents wasn’t necessarily helpful. An added bonus of this is that I can circulate the dropbox link for the audio around via email and WhatsApp, so everyone gets a sermon!
  • On the ‘Final Sunday’ we created a WhatsApp group for the congregation. I usually wouldn’t go down this route (I have a love/hate relationship with WhatsApp groups at the best of times, and there are potential safeguarding issues) but again, my congregation is small. We worked out who was not on WhatsApp and buddied them up with someone who was – this was pretty organic and there’s already a great pastoral structure that supports the older members. The WhatsApp group is now an easy place to share info and have it disseminated wider. We also get to hear updates on whoever has recently been phoned up – so it very much feels as though the pastoral burden is shared.
  • As my vicarage is connected to the church, I go in on Sunday morning and preside at communion. The congregation know that this is happening – they’re invited to send prayer requests in and we’ve shared the peace via WhatsApp. This week, as part of a Holy Week/Easter mailout, I’ve also shared the Church of England’s guidance on spiritual communion, in case that’s helpful to them. [There is a PDF on the CofE website, but frustratingly it goes onto 3 pages by just 3 lines, so I copied & edited it until I got it down to just two sides of A4!]

My other thought on March 17th, was that this was obviously going to affect Holy Week and Easter. In packs that I sent out yesterday (with palm crosses enclosed), I included two Holy Week/Easter specific things:

  • A booklet of Bible readings & meditations for each day of Holy Week (up to and including Holy Saturday). The meditations all have a sensory element to them – it’s basically a slightly adapted version of something I created for Good Friday two years ago, but I felt like it had the capacity to work in people’s homes too, and felt like it could work for families.
  • A liturgy for Maundy Thursday that could be used around an evening meal. My church was meant to be hosting a Maundy Thursday supper as part of our contribution to our Group Ministry Holy Week. Again, streaming didn’t feel right (although the Group’s Good Friday services will be done online), but I felt like something people could use in their homes would be apt. It’s drawn from a couple of different places and has several Bible readings in it (which could be cut down depending on time/attention spans), and although it mentions bread and wine, is definitely not sacramental!

While some may prefer not to send physical materials to their congregation (it is thought that the virus can live for up to 24 hours on paper), this is really the only way I can get such things to them. I made use of Royal Mail’s Click & Drop service, and the envelopes will have been sealed at least 36 hours before they actually arrive anywhere. I don’t imagine I will do anything quite like this again until we get to Pentecost.

I have quite a bit more to say about the church in its current season, but I’m going to leave that for another day. Certainly we are in unprecedented times, and if I can save someone a bit of time or mental energy with what I’ve managed to get done, I’m glad!

The curse of Hot Priest

Last month, the Guardian published an article entitled “Is this the cultural moment of the hot priest?” In the words of its author, “when I thought about it, I began to notice hot priests everywhere.” Obviously, there’s THE Hot Priest of Fleabag series two fame; but then there’s Grantchester, the Young Pope, and a trendy priest in Derry Girls. [If you haven’t watched this gem, why? In our current political climate everyone should watch a comedy set in 1990s Northern Ireland.]

The writer of the article decided to do some fieldwork, checking out their local Episcopal church (first sign that the article was written by an American dwelling Guardian writer) for evidence of hot priests in the wild. Their discovery?

The priest who administered my communion was fairly good-looking. But was he a hot priest? I wondered, tripping as I entered my pew. And how do you define “hot”? The scale itself is subjective, is it not? Does a man (or woman) of the cloth need some other, more je ne sais quoi quality in order to qualify? Is it more about charisma?

And this is where I begin having a massive issue with the hot priest trope…

Don’t get me wrong, Andrew Scott IS categorically hot. (And also bears an uncanny resemblance to Ant *and* Dec, which once pointed out to me, I can’t unsee…) The chemistry between him and Fleabag positively sizzled and honestly, drinking a gin in a tin on a bench in a church yard will never be the same again.* [See below for a sidenote of a story…]

Hot Priest was hot, and flawed. Each week I would ponder why he wasn’t thinking about crossing over to the Church of England. Whether he was playing Fleabag. Why he thought snogging someone in a confessional was a good idea. Why he hated foxes… Hot Priest needed to be hot. That was the point.

But take the hot priest phenomenon into a local parish and I have problem.

For starters, please don’t contemplate the hotness of the priest presiding at Eucharist – male or female. It’s not exactly the point of the sacrament.

And could we not expect priests in real life to be like the ones on TV? (In so many ways! I don’t want a priest like Hot Priest leading a church!) True, Adam Smallbone of Rev and Father Michael of Broken had moments of brilliant realness and embody some of what I know many clergy do in their day-to-day ministry, but they’re rare bright sparks in the media’s depiction of the clergy.

But the biggest issue I have with the fetishisation of the hot male priest is the way in which it undermines the campaign to smash the stained glass ceiling. Society’s ideas about female appearance and sexuality are shown to be a major factor in objections to women taking on leadership positions in the church. A recent video from the United Methodist Church showed male clergy reading aloud comments that their female colleagues had received from congregants. Many of the comments related to their appearance, including:

“It’s hard for me to concentrate when you say ‘this is my body given for you’ during communion…”
“I can’t concentrate on your sermon because you’re so pretty.”
“I keep picturing you naked under your robe.”
“If I were 20 years younger, you wouldn’t be able to keep me away from you.”

In the era of #metoo and #churchtoo, surely we should be beyond such a superficial obsession? Would the Guardian have published a similar piece on hot female priests? No – partly because there are none in TV sitcoms or dramas (would we call the Geraldine Granger “hot”? Or the feisty women clergy in Rev?); and – more likely – because it would be called out for being horrendously sexist and exploitative.

I’ve seen the occasional piece that’s made a thing of a female vicar’s looks – I recall a Daily Mail piece nearly a decade ago that suggested that the growing congregation of a rural church was down to its young, blonde female priest. I know friends who’ve been wolf-whistled while wearing their dog collar. There was my well-meaning parishioner (sadly no longer with us) who told me a few years ago that I should wear my black DM boots more often because they made me a “sexy vicar”. (He meant well. I never wore them to the office again!)

Perhaps the hot priest phenomenon is considered acceptable because it’s not new. The classic trope of the male curate adored by spinster parishioners has featured in literature for centuries – whether it’s Jane Austen or Barbara Pym. The history of film is littered with attractive actors playing men of the cloth, including Oscar winning performances from Spencer Tracy & Bing Crosby, not to mention the fact that Robert de Niro has played a priest at least four times. But Hollywood is always going to prefer a priest who’s on the hotter side of the spectrum…

Don’t get me wrong, I’m really happy to see some more mainstream depictions of clergy in the media; but it strikes me that we are heading down a road that’s unhelpful. Two of my favourite TV priests (or aspiring priests) of recent times have been attractive, but that’s not been a deliberate part of their character arc. Father Brah on Crazy Ex Girlfriend was a recurring character who dispensed wisdom and occasional dance moves. Daveed Diggs playing a seminarian on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was a genius way to introduce Kimmy to church.

It would be lovely for more of these characters to be female. Where’s the gritty drama starring a over-worked female vicar? Why, 25 years after the ordination after women as priests in the Church of England, is the only female vicar who’s the protagonist in a TV show the flipping Vicar of Dibley?? (In the 90s Dibley was groundbreaking. I am now thoroughly sick of it being the only pop culture anyone can make relating to my vocation.)

Yes, Fleabag is one of the best things that the BBC has ever produced, but it’s led us to something of a dark place. Society, could we get a grip please?

Fetishising priests doesn’t help anyone, especially not real priests. Especially at a time when churches of all denominations are having to rebuild trust between their leadership and wider society.

Fetishising male priests really undermines a lot of the efforts to level the playing field for women.

And, there will never be – ever – a member of the clergy who can compare to Andrew Scott. Apologies if that shatters any illusions, but it’s the truth!

[*Sidenote: In the middle of series two airing, I made a trip back to the shire to visit my family. Arriving at my parents ahead of a Sunday roast, my mum offered me a G&T which I declined on the basis that I’d had a train gin en route. She replied: “Ah, I thought you’d have a can of gin – they’re very popular these days, thanks to Fleabag.”

My first thought was “well, we’ve been drinking cans of G&T for absolutely years and I’m pretty sure you’d have been more surprised if I hadn’t picked one up for my post-church train journey”. This was swiftly followed by “wait, what??! You’re watching Fleabag?!” When questioned, she declared “Oh yes! It’s one of the best things I’ve ever watched!”

Reader, think about Fleabag and then think about whether it’s a TV show you’d expect your mum to be watching…]

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.