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?

***

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.

***

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!

The eucatastrophe of the resurrection

Luke 24:13-35 The eucatastrophe of the resurrection

Christ Church Highbury, April 30th 2017

This reading is, I believe, a resurrection appearance in which it is easy to place ourselves within the story. The two travellers towards Emmaus are dejected, disappointed and hopeless. You can imagine the catch in their voice as they conclude their story of all that has happened in Jerusalem over the last few days: “…but they did not see Jesus.”

In Luke’s account of the resurrection, Jesus has not yet appeared to his disciples at this point. The travellers on the road may be leaning towards one of the more logical explanations for the empty tomb – that someone has stolen Jesus’ body – perhaps to make the disciples’ grief all the more painful. The body of their beloved teacher isn’t even being given the respect that it deserved.

I feel like we can probably all empathise with Cleopas and his companion. Most of us will have experienced deep grief and hopelessness at points in our lives. Situations where promises seem to have been broken. Where things have not gone to plan. When a loved one has left us. Where all hope feels lost.

The pair are responding in a very human way. As they walk, they talk and discuss with each other. I can imagine them weighing up different scenarios. Pondering what meaning they might have. Perhaps they went over things they had learned from Jesus, trying to find an answer.

It feels like a human response to me, because this is exactly what I do when I’m faced with a similar situation. I walk. I think. I ponder. I talk to friends or family. When things haven’t being going to plan in my life, or when difficult events have occurred, I pound the streets. I take my anger out on my feet. I let the tears flow. It’s immensely cathartic, and an attempt to make sense of all that is going on within and around me.

***

Of course, we, the readers, are in on the secret. We know the identity of the stranger who comes alongside them, but their eyes remain closed to Jesus’ presence.

In just a few verses, the two disciples move from the depths of despair to the pinnacle of elation. At the moment when Jesus breaks bread, he is revealed to them and they realise that prophecy has indeed been fulfilled, right in front of them. It is an amazing moment of joy!

In 1944, Tolkien coined the term ‘eucatastrophe’ in one of his letters. It’s a word he used to describe ‘the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears’. It’s the opposite of a catastrophe, changing everything irrevocably for the better. In one sense, he was describing a literary device – a moment in a novel when the unexpected happens and your perception of events changes completely.

My favourite fictional example of what Tolkien was describing takes place in the work of one of his closest friends. In The Lion the Witch & the Wardrobe – when Aslan defeats death. Many of you will be familiar with this scene, but to put this passage into context, Susan and Lucy have just spent a night watching the White Witch and her allies tying Aslan to a stone table, before killing him. As dawn breaks, something happens…

At that moment they heard from behind them a loud noise…. The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great crack that ran down it from end to end; and there was no Aslan.

“Who’s done it?” cried Susan. “What does it mean? Is it more magic?”

 “Yes!” said a great voice from behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.

“Oh, Aslan!” cried both the children… “But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.

 “It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”

I vividly remember the first time I heard this story – I was 6 or 7, on holiday in Llandudno. My parents were strong believers in the importance of reading to my sister and I, and on this occasion, I was suffering from an ear infection and my mum read to me while I cuddled under a blanket on the sofa. I’ve heard the book far more times than I’ve read it for myself – we had a complete set of the Chronicles of Narnia on cassette tape read by the Shakespearian actor Michael Horden, and it’s his voice I hear in my head as I read that quote. But, in common with most children of the 1980s, what I visualise in my head is the BBC adaptation of the book.

Every time – and I mean every time – I read or hear this part of the story I get goosebumps. Even as I sat in Starbucks working on this sermon, the hairs on my arms stood on end.

Of course, we’re well aware of the deliberate parallel between Aslan and Jesus. This scene is intentionally evoking the resurrection of Christ. But I don’t think I had much idea of that the first time I heard it.

This word ‘eucatastrophe’ that Tolkien coined can be applied to other books or films. The dénouement of the Harry Potter series. The moment of escape in The Shawshank Redemption. There is a eucatastrophic moment in Tolkien’s most famous work – LOTR – but I can’t speak of its impact because, and this may be shocking, I’ve never read the books or watched the films! [No one in my family has. We’re not stubborn, we’re just not huge fans of fantasy that has no foot in our reality.]

But it isn’t just a literary device that one of our greatest writers established. Tolkien considered the resurrection to be “the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest fairy story”. He wrote that: ‘it produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places joy and sorrow are at one, reconciled as selfishness and altruism are lost in love.’

By no means is this the same as “happily ever after”. These moments cannot be experienced without also experiencing the sorrow that precedes them. We cannot fully rejoice in the resurrection without going through the despair of the crucifixion.

***

On the road to Emmaus the two disciples journeyed from the sorrow of Christ’s crucifixion to the joy of his revelation of himself in the breaking of bread.

They knew Jesus’ teaching, and the prophecies made about the Messiah. As verse 21 reports, “we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” But their sorrow clouds their ability to have faith in all they had learnt. It’s as though their hope has been buried in the tomb alongside Christ.

Jesus – although they still don’t know who he is – chastises them, saying: “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” As he outlines the ways in which prophecy has been fulfilled, they realise later that their hearts were being warmed. Once he has revealed his identity, they say to one another: ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’

Just as we can relate to their sorrow as they set out on their journey, we can also relate to their disbelief. Jesus’ explanation consisted of teaching what they had heard before, but their grief prevented them from fully believing until the moment when bread is broken.

Our journey of faith is one that follows in the footsteps of these disciples. We can draw confidence from this resurrection appearance because it is a witness to who Jesus was, is and shall be: the Messiah.

That moment when Jesus breaks bread and they are able to see who he is? That is the moment of purest joy, pushing aside all the sorrow and confusion of the preceding days!

We need to share in that joy of the resurrection. To emulate Cleopas and his companion who returned at once to Jerusalem to share the joy with the other disciples, telling all who they met on their journey of the amazing event that had occurred.

Many of us will have moments where the joy of the resurrection has shone in our lives in a similar manner to this moment of revelation for the two disciples. A moment when our hearts have overflowed with the elation of the truth that Christ is risen.

I have a taste of this every time I’ve begun our Easter Sunday services with the words: “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!” Simply proclaiming that truth fills me with immense joy – especially having journeyed through the grief of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Or every time I get to say the Eucharistic Prayer and once again share the story of who Jesus is and why we remember him in bread and wine.

Then there’s my own testimony of how the risen Christ has been at work in my own life. Of the difference that this glorious news has made – which I often get to share with others when they ask how I came to be ordained.

So the question I want to leave you with is twofold:

  • What is the moment that fills you with joy at the truth that is the resurrection?
  • Who can you run and tell about it?