Be blesséd

Luke 1:46-55 – The Magnificat

Christ Church Highbury, December 17th 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But why is this important?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

The challenges & encouragements of the talents

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

Christ Church Highbury, November 19th 2017

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

 

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

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

But it is also an encouragement – I promise!

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

The right kind of anger?

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

Christ Church Highbury, September 24th 2017

When were you last angry?

What was it that made you angry?

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

Were they right to be angry?

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

A handful of examples include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

The 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?

What we measure controls us

Luke 19:1-9, Christ Church Highbury 12th March 2017

(Third in the Lent series based on Archbishop Justin Welby’s ‘Dethroning Mammon’)

 

“What we measure controls us” suggests Justin Welby. And when you think about it, he’s got a point. Take a moment to think about the things in your life that you measure…your bank balance; your mortgage repayments; your weight; your academic grades; your success at work… If we’re not careful, these are things that can take over our lives in unhelpful ways.

Instead, the Archbishop argues that our dethroning of mammon’s place in our society “requires a leap of faith of being defined by what we do not measure – cannot measure – because it is infinitely valuable, utterly cosmos-transforming love of God in Jesus Christ.”

We cannot ever hope to measure the extent of Jesus’ love for us and the rest of God’s creation, but this love should mean more to us than any of the things that we invest considerable time and effort into measuring.

What difference can it make to our lives when we re-assess what we measure and how we measure it?

Measuring Zacchaeus:

Luke doesn’t tell us just how short Zacchaeus is, just that he needed to climb a tree in order to get a proper look at Jesus. We don’t know his height in feet & inches, and to be honest, in similar scenarios most of us would probably need to be up high in order to view an important person in the midst of a crowd.

Zacchaeus’ height is just one of several aspects of this reading that could be measured. We hear that he’s wealthy, that he’s a sinner, that he gives away half of his possessions, and that he will pay back four times what he may have cheated people. We also know that there is disapproval amongst the onlookers, who mutter their objections to Jesus’ interactions with the tax-collector.

None of these things affect the way in which Jesus interacts with him. There is no mention of Jesus spotting him, taking a measurement of just how sinful Zacchaeus was, and then choosing to spend time with him. Nor are we told that Jesus measures his wealth and duplicity, in order to tell him how much to give back – it’s suggested that this is done out of Zacchaeus’ own free will.

What Jesus gives Zacchaeus is also un-measurable. He receives salvation – and there is no scale of redemption, you are either saved or you’re not! He is also included in the ancient promise of Abraham. As a Jew, Zacchaeus should have already been an inheritor of this, but his sin would have excluded him in the eye of the religious leaders of the time. But Jesus’ words demonstrate that again, there are no degrees of being a Son of Abraham – it is all or nothing!

But Zacchaeus and the crowd have been measuring the things that control them, even if they haven’t realised it. Zacchaeus clearly feels a level of guilt for what he has done in his life thus far – his collusion with the Roman authorities, collecting tax from his own people who are living under an oppressive regime, and cheating in order to gain personal wealth.

The crowd are measuring Zacchaeus and Jesus by the standards their society and culture have given them. The tax collector hasn’t met the standards that their religious laws expected – working with gentiles and stealing. Jesus is associating with a known law breaker, and seemingly isn’t chastising him for his actions. Both have fallen short according to their tools of measurement.

Measurement:

The Archbishop is, in this chapter of his book, making the point that what we can measure, particularly in terms of wealth, we can control. The problem is, that we seem to disproportionally value those things that we can measure.

The crowd could measure others according to their religious and social standards.

Zacchaeus could measure the amount of money he made from his job and lies.

We can measure our bank accounts, our debts, and the objects we own.

As with last week’s theme, ‘what we see we value’, it comes back to sight. Jesus wants those around him – and us – to see the world as he does. Zacchaeus has two reasons for climbing the tree: he wants to see, but at the same time, not to be seen. He doesn’t want Jesus to see him for who he is, but in fact Jesus sees beyond that and sees who he truly is: redeemed and a Son of Abraham.

Measurement is tricky. We’re not very good at measuring what actually matters. Take the church for example, one of the main forms of measurement that the Church of England has is church attendance. Every October, each church denomination in the UK submits their data for the month and these numbers form the official statistics regarding the state of the church. Inevitably, in recent years these stats have inspired headlines proclaiming the death of the church. Average weekly attendance is in decline. Electoral rolls are getting smaller. The money churches receive in offerings and donations decreases in line with these numbers. What we’re measuring is not telling a cheerful story.

And on the one hand, that’s ok. These statistics prompt – or should prompt – churches to do something about it! It’s why the Fresh Expressions initiative emerged over 15 years ago – an attempt to find new ways of being church that might encourage those who have never been part of a church to join in. It’s also behind the Renewal & Reform process that the Church of England is currently exploring – a programme of change, development and creativity to make it fit for purpose in the 21st Century.

But at the same time, these statistics don’t tell the full story…

As some of you will be aware, I work part-time at Christ Church and the rest of my time is spent working on various research projects. Prior to starting theological college, I worked in the research department of the Methodist Church, working on their statistics and hunting for stories to go alongside the numbers. Now, one of my regular pieces of work is helping organisations – including churches – measure their impact. Specifically, in terms of making new followers of Christ, discipling them, and their impact upon their local community. It’s about finding out what’s happening beyond the numbers – and not letting the numbers control what happens in or to these communities.

One of the places that’s doing a lot of work on this is Leicester Diocese. A few years ago, they looked at their stats and decided to come up with a strategy that would help them grow as a church. So they sold off some property that they no longer needed and put the money into a ‘Growth Fund’ which projects and churches can apply to for grants. The team that I’m part of then does a workshop with successful grant recipients, helping them establish how they will measure the impact their project has over its funding period and beyond.

The point of the exercise is to help them measure what matters to them. That won’t necessarily be the same as another project – the church employing a children’s worker will have different criteria to a pioneer appointed to a brand new housing estate – but the measurements all fall within the diocese’s broad vision of: making new followers of Christ, increasing discipleship & building relationships with the wider community.

The measurements will end up being a combination of numbers and stories, but the hope is that together they will provide as full a picture of impact as possible. And, that it will give the projects, churches and diocese the tools to see where things are working and where things may need to change. Rather than having a set of measures imposed upon them, these teams work together to ensure that they’re not being controlled by unreasonable expectations.

In Leicester, we’re created measurements that help demonstrate the impact that the Jesus’ love and the Kingdom of God on earth is having – sounds dramatic, but that’s the motivation behind their actions, just as it is in our own community here in Highbury. One project I worked with recently is going to count the number of smiles its team receives as they get to know a new housing area, as a way of measuring their engagement and relationship building! It’s a little different to simply counting people in seats on a Sunday morning…

Our parish accounts are another form of measurement, but is another great example of not letting what we measure control us. If a parish was controlled by this measure, they would spend all their time saving money – not spending it. Perhaps they might have the philosophy of saving money for a rainy day – perhaps just in case the roof falls in and it quite literally is a rainy day in church! Instead, as you’ll see later, we have a pretty healthy attitude to how we spend the money that we’re fortunate to have. We keep an eye on our spending, not just to check we’re not spending too much, but to check that we’re spending our funds in line with our missional priorities. It doesn’t control us, but helps guide us to fulfilling the vision that we believe God has for this church and the community of Highbury.

Conclusion:

On the one hand, Justin Welby is encouraging us to move beyond the measurables of 21st century life, into the unmeasurable goodness of God’s Kingdom. To let the love we receive from Christ be enough to free us from the control of our earthly belongings.

But I think there is also a value to reassessing what it is we measure. Once free of society’s expected measurements – the bank balance or salary – we are able to measure what God is doing through us.

Zacchaeus, once free of his sin and his ill-gotten gains, is able to follow Christ fully. We don’t hear what he does next, but one could assume that he becomes a follower of The Way and proclaims the Good News beyond Christ’s death and resurrection. Instead of measuring his height, his wealth or his sin, we could now try to measure the impact that this short passage of Scripture, this single encounter between Jesus and a tax collector, has had in the intervening two millennia. How many thousands or millions of people have come to Christ through the story of the saved sinner? How many people’s faith has increased as they’ve heard this tale and realised just how far Jesus’ love stretches? But such is the vast-ness of God’s love in Jesus Christ that we can’t possibly hope to put a number on that impact! We just see the results of it all around us and throughout the church’s history.

And how will Jesus use you?