Lent 5 (A) – 29 March 2020

a reflection written for St Margaret Newlands

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Psalm 130

Romans 8: 6-11

John 11: 1-45

Today is Passion Sunday.  Next week it will be Palm Sunday.  Today is also our second Sunday with no church services and our first Sunday in Covid-19 lock-down.  Many of us may be feeling isolated, pent up, disorientated.  Meanwhile, Lent is moving us steadily towards the challenges and the depths of Holy Week, towards our time of thinking about the passion – the suffering – of Christ. This is a strange and unsettling time and it seems both highly appropriate and a bit overwhelming that the liturgical calendar is heading towards the contemplation of Christ’s suffering and death, just as we hear the growing numbers of people who have tested positive for Covid-19 and, even harder, the numbers of people who have died.  So many lives have been affected.  And in this situation of death and life under what for us are unprecedented restrictions, we are presented with the passages set for today, which speak hope into times of darkness and life into times of death.

One thing that struck me on reading these passages in our current situation is how much closer death and dying were to earlier generations. Times of darkness, illness and death are not new, but these days we here in the west and the north have little experience of pandemics and plague and perhaps we are no longer used to dealing with this kind of crisis collectively.  That was different in the past, when Catherine of Siena and her companions cared for the sick and dying in the midst of the Black Death, or when Luther and Melanchthon mentioned in their correspondence that Wittenberg University had been closed on account of plague and the students and professors dispersed. Even a century ago, isolation hospitals, fever hospitals, quarantine periods and other measures to contain infectious illness would have been a part of familiar life, something that people were used to.  We are privileged to live in a world in which most of us are pretty healthy most of the time (alhough our current situation has brought home to me just how little it takes, statistically speaking, to merit a huge disruption to all our lives, and some of our livelihoods). But suddenly, everything feels precarious.

Where is God in all this?  Today’s readings affirm that God is with us in all of this, and they remind us too that there will be a new beginning after this present crisis.

Our passage from Ezekiel takes us into the valley of the dry bones. Reading the text anew, I find myself wondering what disaster of battle or plague had caused them to be lying there, these unburied bones?  The image resonates strongly for me with the pictures we have seen of the dead lying unburied in Italy, in France, because capacity, and coffins are not there to bury them.  It resonates for me also with the ruins of the hopes and plans and things to do that I and so many of us had over the coming weeks and months.  Lives cut short and plans abandoned.  “Can these bones live?”  God asks Ezekiel.  Ezekiel replies: “God, only you know the answer to that question.”  And God breathes life into the bones.  The utter dried up hopelessness is given a new beginning.

Our gospel reading takes us to the home of Martha and Mary as they mourn the death of their brother Lazarus.  He has died and been buried, and Jesus did not come in time. And so the sisters, their family and their friends mourn their brother, son, cousin, nephew, friend, Lazarus.  This story resonates with the grief of all those who have lost a relative or friend to covid-19, with all those who wait anxiously to hear news of those who have been infected or are ill, with all who are living with the pain and suffering caused by other illnesses.  It resonates also with the bereft feeling that comes with being shut out of our churches, deprived of the rhythms of worship, of school and work, the patterns of our days.  And Jesus calls Lazarus back to life.  Those who are grieving are given a new perspective.

These are not cheap promises.  Our valley may remain full of dry bones for a while and our brothers and sisters, sons, daughters, mothers and fathers may remain in the tomb. Nonetheless what we have here is a promise of two things that are central to this liturgical season.  One is the theology of Good Friday: that Christ is with us at all times, even when he and we are hanging on the cross.   Christ shares this dark time with us. That is the promise of Good Friday and it is something to come back to again and again in this challenging time.  And the other is the certain resurrection hope of Easter, that is promised to us even when we cannot quite understand it, which is kept alive in what Margaret Adam describes in her book Our Only Hope as “friendship in Christ … local, neighborhood, workplace, small-scale friendship that does not change when circumstances change, when prospects look dim, and when life as we know it is changing.”[1]

Today, on Passion Sunday, we enter into a Passiontide which this year may extend beyond its liturgical season and the feast of Easter. This Passiontide is likely to confront us particularly starkly with the reality of suffering, death and despair.  It is important that in the midst of fear and death we also hold onto the promise of the Easter that is surely coming.  We will keep Easter this year, when we get there, in whatever way we can, as a reminder that this too will pass.  We will keep Easter this year in the confidence that the hope we proclaim is, as Margaret Adam writes, “not limited by the circumstances of a broken and limited world.”[2]  Julian of Norwich, whose visions began after she nearly died, perhaps of the plague, wrote that God spoke to her in her own time of crisis, saying:  “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”[3]  We will live through this long Passiontide with a “theological hope undaunted by disaster.”[4] We will keep Easter in the conviction that the time is coming when Jesus will speak to us too (to use the words of Janet H. Hunt): “Come out of your losses, your fears, your despairs, your unsettled griefs.  Come out of your too long winters and your weeks full of too much suffering.  Come out now.  For we are not done with this world yet, Jesus seems to be saying, and it surely is not done with us. Come out and live!”[5]

[1]   Margaret Adam, Our Only Hope (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock 2013), p. 222.

[2]   Adam, Our Only Hope, p. 12.

[3]  Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, 13th revelation, chapter 27; online at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/52958/52958-h/52958-h.htm.

[4]   Adam, Our Only Hope, p. 222.

[5]  Janet H. Hunt, “Looking for Crocuses” (30 Marc 2014); online at http://words.dancingwiththeword.com/2014/03/looking-for-crocuses.html.

Lent 2 (A) – 8 March 2020

sermon preached at St Margaret Newlands

Genesis 12: 1-4a
Romans 4: 1-5, 13-17
John 3: 1-17

It is truly amazing – and an indication of my sporadic preaching pattern – that after twenty years of preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, there are still Sundays, and therefore sets of readings, that I have never preached on.  And this is one of them.  The story of Nicodemus, one of my favourite stories from John’s gospel, which I have often read with students to think about John’s understanding of baptism.  For both Paul and John, baptism is about new life.  But for Paul, baptism’s new life comes about by passing through death.  Paul’s writings about baptism are full of tomb imagery.  John in contrast asks us to think about baptism in terms of rebirth:  new life through being reborn.  John’s understanding of baptism is rooted in womb imagery.

How are we to understand that?  This story of the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus suggests that one answer to that is “not too literally.”

Jesus says to Nicodemus: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

And Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. … The wind – that is, the Spirit – blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

One thing that is clear from this cryptic exchange is that being born from above, being born of the Spirit is not a literal being born again.  Something else is going on here.

In a reflection on this passage, the Methodist theologian Alyce McKenzie tells the story of an encounter she had whilst sitting in a waiting room, waiting for new tyres to be put on her car:

I picked up a women’s magazine and was intently reading an article called, “How to supercharge your metabolism.” I became vaguely aware that someone had sat down in the chair next to mine. This seemed odd because I was in the middle of a row of empty chairs. … Then a leaflet was put in front of my face with the heading: “How to be born again” and I heard a man’s voice ask, “Wouldn’t you like to read something of more eternal significance than this magazine? Have you been born again?”

I looked up into the face of an earnest man in his mid-40s who now sat next to me, looking at me expectantly. When I didn’t reply immediately, he asked, “Well, have you?”

 I said, “I’m glad you asked that question. I’ve been reflecting on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John chapter 3 and I don’t think Jesus means ‘born again’ as if it were some emotional lightning strike that once it’s over, we speak of our salvation in the past tense, like, that’s done, now I have that checked off my to-do list. I think being born again calls for our participation, and I think it’s a lifelong process.” At that the man shook his head as if to say “Geez, lady, it’s a yes or no question. How hard is that?” He took his tract back and moved on.[1]

“I don’t think Jesus means ‘born again’ as if it were some emotional lightning strike. … I think being born again calls for our participation, and I think it’s a lifelong process.”  That sounds like a pretty good answer to me, for it reminds us that this is not something that happens once and is over, but a journey we find ourselves on. A journey that shapes and changes us, which draws out who we truly are in God’s eyes.  Which takes us to places and situations that we did not expect, For “the Spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”

That is not to say that there are not moments of choice along the way.  For Robert Cornwall the contrasts between darkness and light are important in this story:

That Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night is a reflection of John’s desire to contrast light and darkness.  Nicodemus is a religious leader – a person who wants to believe, but he remains in darkness.  The question is: will he leave the darkness for the light?  According to Jesus, we will be judged on whether we embrace the one who is the light.  Those who live in darkness, do evil.  Those who emerge into the light – who embrace the light of God – will do what is good.[2]

In this reading of the Nicodemus story, to be born again is to be transformed: “The old has passed and the new has come.” But again, I think we are not to think of this as instantaneous, but rather as a process of transformation.

Notice how in the passage from Genesis, Abram and Sarai go on a long journey, and even when they come to the place the God tells them is the promised land they build an altar, but don’t stop and settle: they travel further.  Paul in this passage from the letter to the Romans emphasises that it is Abraham’s faith and not his works, his keeping of the law that saves him. The faith of Abram and Sarai gives them the ability, the trust to follow God into the unknown, to let God into his life, to go with God to unexpected places.

Like Cornwall, Alyce McKenzie understands the process of being born again as a trasformation:

Being born from above is letting the Holy Spirit do what God wants done at the depths of our life.  According to the Gospel of John, that is a gradual journey from night to day, from darkness to light. It is a daily pilgrimage from belief as reciting a creed to belief as opening the door to our soul and letting Jesus in. It’s a daily process of flipping the card on our door that says to God “Please do not disturb” to “please come in and help us clean our room.”[3]

This is something of what Judy Hirst is talking about when she writes about “waking up to life”:  Our choice, she says,

is between a life which is closed down to change, defended, narrow and me-centred (with the likelihood that this will mostly not be impossibly painful) or a life which is able to take the risk of change, which is open, generous and compassionate, which will bring a vast increase in delight, but also pain and hurt. … To have life abundantly is Jesus’s invitation to us: live, don’t sleepwalk through life.[4]

In the thought for the week printed on the service sheet, Bede Griffiths says something similar of his experience of being born again:

God had brought me to my knees and made me acknowledge my own nothingness, and out of that knowledge I had been reborn. I was no longer the centre of my life and therefore I could see God in everything.[5]

Seeing God in everything.  Recognising God in everything.

Being born again is about entering into a process of transformation, and it is also an experience which takes us into the encounter with the world as it actually is.  Not only we are transformed, but also the people, the world around us.

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.

Amen

 

[1]   See https://www.patheos.com/resources/additional-resources/2011/03/nicodemuss-non-decision-alyce-mckenzie-03-14-2011.

[2]   See http://www.bobcornwall.com/2014/03/yes-i-am-born-again-lectionary.html.

[3]  See: https://www.patheos.com/resources/additional-resources/2011/03/nicodemuss-non-decision-alyce-mckenzie-03-14-2011.aspx?p=2.

[4]  Judy  Hirst, A kind of sleepwalking … and waking up to life (London 2014), 106.

[5]   Bede Griffiths, The Golden String: An Autobiography (London 1979, 107-108.

Epiphany 5 (A) – 9 February 2020

sermon preached at St Margaret’s Newlands

Isaiah 58: 1-9a
1 Corinthians 2: 1-12
Matthew 5: 13-20

“You are the salt of the earth.”
“You are the light of the world.”

Yes: you!  You and me and all of us.  Each of us is the one who gives the world its flavour, who brings light to the world. And that, today’s readings remind us, is important.  That is true worship of God.  That is what living righteousness means; that is what it means to live righteously.

The last section of the gospel seems to suggest that living righteousness might mean keeping a set of rules.  But read together with the first part of the gospel and the Old Testament lesion from Isaiah, I think what we are being invited to do is to reflect on the deeper meaning of our worship and our prayer and on how that worship and prayer relate to our lived lives.  There are two parts to that reflection.  The first is to think about how we pray, how we worship: here on Sunday mornings, or elsewhere, or on Sunday evenings, or during the week; to discover and recognise and affirm the spiritual disciplines of our lives.  Isaiah talks about this in terms of fasting, but prayer and worship can take many forms, and we may want to stop and ponder on what they are for us.

The second aspect of our reflection concerns how these disciplines to connect with the rest of our lives. Isaiah warns that too often they may not: “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers.  Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.”  You fast, you pray, you worship, and it makes no difference, is the implication of what Isaiah is saying here. You pray to God, but you cheat people, or quarrel with one another (the implication that these rows are over things that don’t matter).  This for Isaiah is not true worship, for true worship will spill over to affect the lives of other people.  Rather, God has given him a vision for a true fast:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

“Then,” says Isaiah, “your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.”  I think this is what Jesus has in mind too when he says ““You are the salt of the earth. … You are the light of the world.”  You – I – we – are the ones who can make a difference, who can be God, be Christ to the world.  We can reflect on that too:  David Lose suggests “starting a ‘Salt & Light Log.’ … Start asking people to collect examples of where God has worked through them to help someone else.”[1]  Reflect on how God uses us, often in quite unexpected ways.

The danger of starting a log is that our being salt and light becomes a form of works righteousness, that we are tempted into a mentality of totting up our good works in the hope if we do enough we will be saved. I don’t think this is what Jesus is talking about. Being salt, being light is an attitude of mind rather than a shopping list.  Jan L. Richardson reflects on what she calls “[Jesus’s habit of going into places of lack. Again and again we see Jesus hanging out with people who live and struggle amid the daily wildernesses of body and soul.”[2]  We are told – in today’s reading from Isaiah, in Matthew 25, in so many places in the Old Testament – to feed the hungry, provide drink to the thirsty, free the prisoner, welcome the stranger.  As Richardson points out, “Jesus gets awfully specific in telling us where we can find him. Each of the habitations he lists is marked by lack: lack of food, lack of water, lack of hospitality, lack of clothing, lack of freedom. Christ chooses those places, inhabits these spaces, waits for us to show up.”[3]  To show up, to be in that space and hang out with people, is to enter into relationship.  In a prayer written in response to today’s reading, Sarah Brown puts it this way:

God, help us to use your Spirit
to seek out relationships
with those that seem different,
those that seem vulnerable and at risk.
Keep us seeking
until there is no other that separates us
keep us seeking until names are what we know
and not groups of people
– the weak, the sick, the poor.[4]

“Keep seeking until names are what we know, not groups of people…”  This is not about catalogues but about being, or becoming, friends and companions.  This is about being on the road together together.

That journey may be about calling out injustice.  I have this week been reading Rowan Williams’ book Luminaries: Twenty lives that illuminate the Christian way. One of the figures he reflects on is William Wilberforce, and he focuses particularly on the way that Wilberforce’s campaign against slavery sought to counter a system which Wilberforce understood not only to be abhorrent and cruel to the slaves, but to “enact and perpetuate in the corporate life of the nation what is directly contrary to the Christian understanding of God’s purpose for humanity.”[5]  Wilberforce wanted to change the laws because the laws were damaging not only to the slaves but to the proclamation of the gospel in society. The point, as Williams reflects in his piece on Michael Ramsey, is that “it is only in the service offered to the world by disinterested love that the action of God becomes manifest.”[6]  If you are a Harry Potter fan then you will know that ultimately this is how J. K. Rowling has Harry Potter conquer the evil that is Voldemort:  through disinterested love that is not afraid to sacrifice itself; through love that loves without wanting to gain something for itself.[7]

This  can be hard and we may not feel equipped for it.  But remember that the apostle Paul did not feel equipped, as he writes to the Corinthians: “I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (1 Cor 2:3). Nearly two thousand years later, we are still reading his letter.  Sarah Brown’s prayer begins

It is hard to admit that we are hungry
that at times we are hopeless
and maybe even today, we are struggling inside
as we utter the words “Fine,” and “Good, thanks.”
Crack us open, Lord, break out the truth within us…
For we are all weak and sick and poor
and we need You to transform our lives
that we might become a light to Your world.[8]

If we are feeling that way – a bit vulnerable ourselves – it may be comforting to be reminded that being salt and light is not always about being heroic, or being out there in the world campaigning. Our being salt and light may just be – may profoundly be – about attitude.   Some of you may know the book Pollyanna, published in 1913. If you do, you might remember the story of Pollyanna’s encounter with the Revd Paul Ford, who is struggling over what to do about the divisions and factions in his congregation. He is planning to preach a sermon of woe and condemnation, calling the people out, but then he meets Pollyanna who reminds him about what her father, also a minister, had called the “rejoicing texts”: the eight hundred biblical texts that call us to rejoice and be glad in the Lord. Paul Ford goes back to his study to write his sermon and finds a magazine article:

What men and women need is encouragement. …  Instead of always harping on a man’s faults, tell him of his virtues. … The influence of a beautiful, helpful, hopeful character is contagious, and may revolutionize a whole town…. People radiate what is in their minds and in their hearts. If a man feels kindly and obliging, his neighbors will feel that way, too, before long. But if he scolds and scowls and criticizes—his neighbors will return scowl for scowl, and add interest![9]

Attitude matters. There is a story about a portress who greets strangers at a city gate.  A man arrives and asks what the place is like.  She asks, “What was it like where you came from?” And the man says: “It was dreadful; everyone was always carping at one another, bickering and arguing.”  “It will be just the same here,” the portress tells him.  A little later another man arrives and asks the portress, “What is this place like?”  She replies, “What was it like where you came from?”  “Oh wonderful!” comes the response, “Such kind people always caring for each other and looking out for one another.” “You will find it is just the same here,” says the portress.[10]

Of course, that is not always how it works out, but there is a sound principle here which is summed up in Dorothy Law Nolte’s poem, “Children learn what they live”.  Here are some extracts:

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn;
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight;
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty;
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence;
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience;
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation;
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love;
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity;
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness:
If children live with fairness, they learn justice;
If children live with love around them, they learn to give love to the world.[11]

If people live with tolerance, acceptance, sharing, honesty, fairness, love, this is what they will give to the world.  And actually, that pretty much brings us back to the Ten Commandments,

May we be salt and light!

Amen

[1] See http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1543.

[2]  Jan L. Richardson, In the Sanctuary of Women: A Companion for Reflection and Prayer (Nashville 2010), 143.

[3]  Ibid.

[4]  Sarah Brown, Weekly Worship for 9 February 2020; online at. https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0017/62342/9-February-5-Sunday-after-Epiphany.pdf.

[5]   Rowan Williams, Luminaries: Twenty lives that illuminate the Christian way (London 2019), 85.

[6]   Ibid., 116.

[7]   This is the underlying message of the series, and particularly of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (London 2007). See especially in that novel the encounter between Harry and Dumbledore and their discussion of Vodemort’s inability to kill harry (pp. 565-579).

[8]  Sarah Brown, Weekly Worship for 9 February 2020; online at. https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0017/62342/9-February-5-Sunday-after-Epiphany.pdf.

[9]  Eleanor H. Porter, Pollyanna (1913), chapter 22; online at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1450/1450-h/1450-h.htm#link2HCH0005.

[10]   Adapted from “At the City Gates,” in: Margaret Silf, One Hundred Wisdom Stories from around the World (Lion: Oxford 2003), 124-125.

[11]  See http://www.empowermentresources.com/info2/childrenlearn-long_version.html.

Becoming dual national

A reflection on the day the UK leaves the European Union

How does identity change?  I was born in Bath, grew up in Derbyshire, Ur-English, you might say. But I come from a family which can trace its roots in England to the sixteenth century and in Scotland back to the eleventh century. Before that legend has it that our ancestors came from Hungary with Queen Margaret of Scotland, or possibly from Germany.  So what does Ur-English (or Ur-Scottish) mean anyway?

My own exploration of my European identity began in 1989 when I went to Germany to study for a year.  It was quite a year to choose: two months after I got there the Berlin wall came down, and German consciousness changed.  So did the German weather map, which within weeks went from just showing Western Germany to showing the united Germany, long before Germany was politically reunited or there was any real talk of it. I was improving my German by reading Sebastian Haffner’s book Von Bismarck zu Hitler in which Haffner argued that German reunification was never going to happen.  But it did. What do historians know about the future?

I was profoundly changed by that year in Germany, which has now become over thirty years. Theologically it grew and stretched me: I encountered feminist theology and a whole new way of thinking about gender and the church in history.  The vast majority of my fellow students, people of my own generation, had one or both parents who had been refugees after the Second World War, who came from places in Germany which are no longer in Germany. I was surrounded by people of my own age who said that they had no real German identity, but that their identity was European.  I found myself confronted with the history of the holocaust in quite a new way, with reflections on personal agency and involvement, with the church’s responsibility, and with deep questions about what it means to live in a post-holocaust world. Explorations of what it had meant to live under a totalitarian regime were – and are – very important.  German grappling with German history leads many Germans to ask what it means consciously to establish and maintain a democracy. Questions about democratic values are very present in the higher end German media (and in the German citizenship test), in a way that they simply are not in British discourse.  I was recently driving along the motorway listening to a serious debate on the radio about the public values which need to shape education, for instance.  These are debates which we need to bring back into public discourse here in the UK.

What astonished me when I got to Germany was the sense of familiarity. I had spent a year abroad at university in the US, in Alabama, and nine months on a course in South Africa; before I went to Germany I expected it to feel stranger – more foreign – than either, because of the language.  What I found was that despite the language it felt more familiar. We have a shared history.  Living in Germany – and in German – has made me look differently at where I come from. Coming from the UK gives me a perspective on Germany from born Germans.

My academic career began in Germany, with posts in Hamburg and Bochum, where I met my husband. Since 2005 – for nearly fifteen years – I have lived between the UK and Germany where my husband works as a research chemist. (As an aside: the vast majority of his colleagues who were working in science departments in UK universities have chosen to leave since 2016).  Since 2013 I have been German as well as British.  In 2013 I was invited to give a lecture on England and Scotland in a series on Europa und die Kirchen.  In preparation, I read a lot of opinion polls, and became deeply worried about what might happen in the case of a referendum on EU membership.  Finally after many years of um-ing and ah-ing, I applied for German citizenship. By the time I gave the lecture I could show my German Ausweis – identity card – and say, “This is the result of this lecture for me.”  You might call it research-led nationalisation.   It doesn’t solve all the problems that Brexit will bring, such as how to ensure that I can drive legally in both countries, or how to manage my health insurance.  And this is not the end of the story: this marks an identity in progress.  I am a naturalised German: in Germany I will probably always be „Eine Britin mit einem deutschen Pass“ (“A Brit with a German passport”).  Real Germans are blood Germans, and I don’t qualify and never will.  In the UK, few know or notice my dual nationality, although the university has me registered as German. For me, having both nationalities is a recognition and an affirmation of my double belonging.  I am both British(with all the complexities that that brings with it, of English and Scottish, for instance)  and German. I think – I know – that I am no longer quite me without both.

Moderator’s visit to the University of Glasgow – 28 January 2020

Opening prayer at the Communion

Loving God,
to whom all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from whom no secrets are hidden:
cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you,
and worthily magnify your holy name;
through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.

God of light and revelation,
as the darkness of winter
gives way to the hope and renewal of spring,
we give you thanks for the beauty of the Earth around us.
Open our eyes to see you in the world.

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!’

We come together to know your strengthening touch:
the care that salves all pain,
the love that holds all things in life,
the holiness that draws us away from evil,
the justice that demands our very best,
the providence that gives all that we need,
the hope that assures us that our faith is not in vain
the assurance that we have nothing to fear.

Help us to know your presence, open our ears to your Word and our hearts to your good news.

As we come before God, we confess our sins:

Loving God,
You have done so much for us,
more than we deserve;
more than we know;
more than we comprehend.

We confess our sin, and the sins of our society,
in our treatment of each other and our misuse of God’s creation.

Loving God, we are sorry
for the times when we have used your gifts carelessly,
and acted ungratefully.
Hear our prayer, and in your mercy:
forgive us and help us.

We enjoy the fruits of the harvest,
but sometimes forget that you have given them to us.
In your mercy:
forgive us and help us.

We belong to a people who are full and satisfied,
but ignore the cry of the hungry.
In your mercy:
forgive us and help us.

We are thoughtless,
and do not care enough for the world you have made.
In your mercy:
forgive us and help us.

We store up goods for ourselves alone,
as if there were no God and no heaven.
In your mercy:
forgive us and help us. 

Hearing the words of comfort our Saviour Christ says to all who truly turn to him: Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest  (Matthew 11.28),

Knowing that God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3.16),

May the God of love and power
forgive us and free us from our sins,
heal and strengthen us by the Spirit,
and raise us to new life in Christ. Amen. 

Held in your strength, loving God, we pray:

  • for all who feel they have no need of you,
  • for all whose suffering and sorrow are too great for us to share,
  • for all who wait and pray in patience,
  • for all who agonise over injustice,
  • for all who show mercy and compassion,
  • for all who inspire others,
  • for all who work for peace where no peace seems possible,
  • for all whose witness to truth and justice has brought them suffering.

Help us to pray with love and understanding; to understand and to enter into the real needs that are around us, to know that through our words and our deeds, you heal and bless.

Bringing together these prayers, we pray the prayer that Jesus Christ, our Saviour and our brother, taught us, in the language of our heart and the version of our choice:

Our Father in heaven / Vater unser im Himmel…  . Amen.

Baptism of Christ (A) – 12 January 2019

sermon preached at St Margaret’s Newlands

Isaiah 42: 1-9
Acts 10: 34-43
Matthew 3: 13-17

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

These are the words that God says to Christ at his baptism.  But I always think that they are also words that God says to each of us:  “This is my son, this is my daughter, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Or as Isaiah has it, in a passage that was surely meant by the gospel writers, by Matthew, by Mark, to be called to mind: “this is my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”  Chosen by God. Beloved by God.  That is the good news that we share as we join today to celebrate the Baptism of Christ. We are all, each of us, beloved by God.

Do we feel that way?  It can be difficult, as Henri Nouwen writes: “It is a real struggle to claim our belovedness. … Our identities are so wrapped up in the structures and the spirit of the world we live in that we live as though we were who the world says we are: rich or poor, able or disabled, good or bad, emotionally stable or vulnerable.”[1] These are so often categories that defie us by what we are not that it can be hard to affirm what we are.  We may be so attuned to what seems not to love about ourselves that it is hard to remember, to realise that God loves us.  There are often times when we can’t grasp our chosenness. As Henri Nouwen reflected, “The truth, even though I cannot feel it right now, is that I am the chosen child of God, precious in God’s eyes, called the Beloved from all eternity and held safe in an everlasting embrace.”[2]

Being Beloved by God is not an end in itself.  That affirmation of being God’s beloved, expressed at his baptism, was the starting point of Jesus’s ministry.  And that sense of being beloved by God should be a starting point for us too.

But a starting point to do what?  We can see that Isaiah’s chosen one of God is the Messiah who will transform the world:  “he will bring forth justice to the nations; … open the eyes that are blind, bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”  He will “establish justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”  The words spoken at Jesus’s baptism identify him with this prophecy, point to him as the one who will transform the world.  But this is not Jesus’s task alone:  rather that transformative, redemptive task is what we too are called to through our own baptism.

That means, as Karoline Lewis powerfully reminds us in a reflection on this passage, that baptism is about much more than just ourselves:

remember … that baptism is also about who the other needs you, and them, to be. To be present in the wilderness. To tell the other of God’s words from heaven. To proclaim that baptism cannot just be about the self, but is about living life as being the light of the world for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven here and now.[3]

Desmond Tutu also reminds us of the way in which the love we receive from God flows through us to others:

We who are freely loved and thus affirmed are meant to be as God for others, to seek to work for a world which has been preserved for the enjoyment of all. God longs that we, who are aware of our infinite worth, will see in one another the image of God.[4]

That vocation – to be God, to be Christ for others – flows out of the knowledge of your belovedness.  We are reminded of this by the introduction to the confession: “We love because God loved us first.”  It is not always going to be comfortable and it may take us to places that we did not want to go. Indeed, our vocation, for Benjamin Mann, is:

a school of charity and a means of crucifixion. Your vocation is the means by which your self-serving ego will die in order to be resurrected as the servant and lover of God. This is all that we can expect; but this is everything – the meaning of life, all there really is.[5]

It is important to grasp that we don’t need to do any of these things to earn the love of God. Rather, when we know ourselves to be beloved, the love of neighbour, the transformative love for the world, will overflow to others and in so doing will challenge and transform us in our turn.  And perhaps when we live out that love, when we help to make to world a little better for someone, we may also gain a better understanding that we are precious to and beloved by God.

This is another way of saying that baptism is the primary way in which we are marked as called by God to share in God’s mission to the world.  Responding to that calling, which is rooted in our being beloved of God and responding to that experience, may offer moments of self-revelation, but Benjamin Mann emphasises that we should not expect it to give us all the answers to all our questions, or to make everything make sense:

Discernment is not about finding the hidden, magic key that will unlock your life and solve the riddle of your being. When you figure out what you ought to do with your life, and begin to do it, you will be just as much a mystery to yourself as you are now. Your daily confusions, recurring frustrations, and deep puzzlements will remain. Life, even life illumined by faith, will be an enigma – at least as much as before. …
My vocation is where I will learn to let go of my questions, carry the cross of my problems, and be mysteriously fulfilled even when I am not happy.

Being held in the love of God may take us to places that are not at all comfortable, as Rowan Williams reminds us:

If you want God, you must be prepared to let go of all, absolutely all, emotional satisfactions, intellectual and emotional. … If you genuinely desire union with the unspeakable love of God, then you must be prepared to have your ‘religious’ world shattered.[6]

Being beloved of God may take us to a place beyond certainty where we experience the love of God in quite a new way.

Desmond Tutu reiterates that none of this is about earning God’s love:

Many of us have thought that we had to impress God in order for God to love us, in order for God to accept us. We have thought that we needed to achieve our acceptance of God through our own efforts – to impress God that we were deserving of His divine love and approval. We seem to think that God is somehow hostile to us, setting impossible standards for us to attain before we can hope to be accepted.[7]

But God is not like that.  God’s love and acceptance

are not based on merit or achievement on our part. No, it is a love that is prevenient, that goes before, that precedes any achievement or effort on our part.[8]

As Luther emphasised, grace is a free gift of God, an abundant free gift of God.  And grace is the true expression of the love of God.

Do you feel that love?  No?  Rowan Williams suggests that we may need to cultivate stillness and presence to God:

The real problem in prayer is not the absence of God but the absence of us.  It’s not that God is not there but (nine times out of ten) that we are not. We are all over the place, entertaining memories, fantasies, anxieties. God is simply there in unending patience, saying to us, “So when are you going actually going to arrive? When are you going to sit and listen, to stop roaming about, and be present?”[9]

Can we stop and allow ourselves to be bathed in the love of God?  It is in those moments, affirms Rowan Williams, that “the overwhelming joyfulness of God begins to impinge on us.”[10]  And that for Henri Nouwen is the fulfilling of vocation: “to enjoy God’s presence, do God’s will, and be grateful wherever I am.”[11]

May you know that you, each of you, are God’s beloved.  And may you respond to that knowledge in loving, joyful service.

Amen

[1]   Henri Nouwen, Discernment: Reading the signs of daily life (SPCK 2013), 139.

[2]   Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World.

[3]   Karoline Lewis, “You Are All My Beloved” (2017), online at: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4790.

[4]   Desmond Tutu, In God’s Hands (Bloomsbury 2014), 97.

[5]   Benjamin Mann, “Your Vocation is Not About You” (2014), online at: https://catholicexchange.com/vocation.

[6]  Rowan Williams, Open to Judgement:  Sermons and Addresses (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1994), 97.

[7]  Tutu, In God’s Hands, 71-72.

[8]  Ibid., 72.

[9]  Rowan Williams, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life (SPCK 2016), 81.

[10]  Ibid., 85.

[11]  Nouwen, Discernment, 107.

Sonntag in der Weihnachtsoktave – 29.12.2019

Predigt in der Alt-Katholischen Gemeinde Bottrop

Genesis 15,1-6; 21,1-3
Hebräerbrief 11, 8-16
Matthäus 2,13-15.19-23

„Wir sind nicht auf der Flucht.“  Oft spricht mein Mann diesen Satz aus, wenn wir etwas zu spät daran sind, oder wenn ich dränge, dass etwas bald passieren sollte. „Wir sind nicht auf der Flucht.“ Wir haben wirklich Glück, dass dieser Satz für uns stimmt. Wir sind es in der Tat nicht, wir sind nicht auf der Flucht.  Das war mal für die Familie meines Mannes anders, als seine beiden Eltern jeweils als Kind mit der eigenen Familie aus Schlesien vertrieben wurden.  Sie waren damals auf der Flucht, mussten schnell sammeln, was sie tragen konnten, als sie die Heimat verlassen mussten.  Manche von Ihnen, von euch werden auch wissen, wie es ist, auf der Flucht zu sein. Und die heutige Lesung erinnert uns daran, dass selbst Jesus, dass selbst die heilige Familie auf die Flucht gehen musste.

Der Grund dafür wird in den schrecklichen Versen genannt, die wir gerade in der heutigen Lesung überspringen:  Herodes, der von der Geburt Jesu erfahren hat, lässt alle männliche Kinder in Betlehem und Umgebung ermorden. Die heilige Familie geht auf die Flucht, damit Jesus dieser Schlacht entkommt.

Aber für Matthäus geht es nicht um den Kindermord als solchen, sondern darum, dass Jesus als Erfüllung der Schrift verstanden werden kann. Zuerst zitiert er Hosea 11,1: „Denn es sollte sich erfüllen, was der Herr durch den Propheten gesagt hat: »Aus Ägypten habe ich meinen Sohn gerufen«.“  Auch die schreckliche Geschichte des Kindermordes wird als Erfüllung einer Prophetie (Jeremia 31,15) dargestellt: „Da wurde erfüllt, was gesagt ist durch den Propheten Jeremia, der da spricht: »In Rama hat man ein Geschrei gehört, viel Weinen und Weh-klagen; Rahel beweinte ihre Kinder und wollte sich nicht trösten lassen, denn es war aus mit ihnen«.“  Schließlich kommt die Heilige Familie nach Nazareth, was ebenfalls als Erfüllung einer Prophetie verstanden wird: „Denn es sollte sich erfüllen, was durch die Propheten gesagt worden ist: Er wird Nazoräer genannt werden.“

Für Matthäus geht es um eine theologische, eine allegorische Geschichte also. Aber mit dieser Schreckensgeschichte von Mord und Flucht wird auch das Leben Jesu und seiner Familie fest mit der Schicksal der vielen Menschen verbunden, deren Heimat plötzlich durch Krieg oder Verfolgung oder Hungersnot zum Verhängnis geworden ist, und die zu einer Flucht gezwungen werden oder sich gezwungen fühlen. Auch dies ist eine theologische Aussage, die später am Kreuz bestätigt wird: Jesus steht solidarisch mit denjenigen, die sich im Dunkel des Lebens befinden.

Für Alexander Seidel ist dies die wahre Bedeutung von Weihnachten.  Das Christkind, der als Mensch geborene Gott, „kommt schutzlos in diese arme, elende und tödliche Menschenwelt, mitten hinein in den Alltag der Menschen mit ihren Ängsten und Freuden, ihrem Hunger und ihrer Mühsal. Zu Menschen, die ihren ganz normalen Berufen nachgehen, die manchmal täglich ums Überleben kämpfen müssen.“[1]

Oder, wie der Greifswalder Universitätsprediger Michael Herbst über diese Stelle geschrieben hat:

Was immer Ihr tut, das müsst Ihr wissen: In jedem, der sein Leben zurücklässt, um sein Leben zu bewahren, begegnet Ihr mir. Mit jedem Kind auf der Flucht, mit jedem Verfolgten, mit jeder verängstigten Familie, mit jedem, der vor Gewalt und Tod floh, identifiziere ich mich.[2]

Diese Stelle erinnert uns daran, das Christkind nicht – oder nicht nur – in unseren gemütlichen Familienbeisammensein zu suchen, sondern auch dort, wo Menschen ums Leben kämpfen und eben auf der Flucht sind.

In einem Gedicht hat Charis Doepgen OSB über diese Geschichte: „Unschuldige Kinder“ nachgedacht und zum Handeln aufgerufen:

Jene von damals
können wir heute
nur noch feiern

jene der Gegenwart
könnten wir retten …

jedenfalls viele
in Syrien
im Jemen
auf den Strassen
überall

die Ungewollten
die Ungeliebten
unter uns

jene von damals
sind eine Mahnung
heute zu handeln[3]

Und – wir wissen nicht, ob oder wann wir auf die Flucht gehen müssen.  Wir wissen nur: Selig die Menschen, die Gottes Wege gehen.

Amen

[1] See https://www.pastors-home.de/?p=3707.

[2]  See https://www.uni-greifswald.de/storages/uni-greifswald/fakultaet/theologie/dekanat/fakultaet/veranstaltungen/Uni_Gottesdienst_Semesterero__ffnung_160404_MH.pdf, S. 10.

[3] Te Deum, Dezember 2019.