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.

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.

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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.