Let’s Listen

This week we had Bell’s ‘Let’s Talk’ day. I’m not sure how long this has been going on, but a lot of people are taking part in it on social media. The basic idea is to break the stigma about mental illness and mental health by talking about our struggles. This, I’m sure, is a good thing. Most people don’t have a problem talking about broken bones and heart disease; why shouldn’t we feel just as free to talk about anxiety and depression? And so this week I’ve seen many brave people opening up on social media about their struggles with mental health, hoping to encourage those who are still suffering in silence to find a friend they trust and talk about their issues.

But there’s a corollary, of course, and I’m not so sure we’re as good at it as we should be. If we’re going to encourage people to talk, we also need to be good listeners. And listening isn’t something a lot of people are good at. It’s not always something I’m good at.

Sometimes I’m too distracted to listen carefully. I’m sure you know the sort of situation I’m talking about. I come home from church, and some of the conversations I had during the coffee hour are replaying in my mind, and I suddenly realize that someone said something that might be really significant—and I didn’t pick up on it. I was distracted (and probably tired), and I wasn’t paying attention.

Sometimes I’m not willing to take the time to really listen. I’ve got a hundred things to do, and only limited time for this conversation. So I listen just long enough to delude myself into thinking I’ve got a good grasp of the issue, and then I start firing off well-meaning advice. But I haven’t really understood the full complexity of the situation the other person is describing for me, and so my advice is not helpful.

And anyway, chances are good that the other person wasn’t really looking for advice. Often, people aren’t. They’re looking for assurance that they’re not alone. They get that assurance when we really listen to them and don’t try to minimize or dismiss their struggles, and when we show by our answers that we understand and empathize with them, and assure them that the way they feel is valid. But if we’re too quick to answer, they don’t get that assurance.

Sometimes I find it hard to deal with the darkness people are struggling with. I want to fix it. I need to be able to fix it, so that I can keep my confidence that the world is a place where everything can be healed and set right. So I offer what I think in my arrogance is a very good solution, and, not wanting to upset me, the other person pretends to be grateful. But inside, they’re feeling disappointment and loneliness, because they know I haven’t really understood.

I need to learn to be a better listener. The letter of James in the New Testament says, ‘Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.‘ (James 1.19 NLT) Usually, when I consider this verse, I skip to the last phrase: ‘slow to get angry.’ But I need to pay attention to the first part too: ‘quick to listen, slow to speak…’ Those velocity descriptors are important: ‘Quick to listen, slow to speak…’ I need way more practice with those two.

So yes, ‘Let’s Talk’ is a good thing. But in order to be really effective, it needs to be coupled with ‘Let’s Listen.’ God help us all to learn to be better listeners.

P.S. This fuzzy picture is Ken Burningham and me, back in the 1990s. As I said yesterday on Facebook, Ken was a real mentor to me in my early days of ministry in Saskatchewan. He was also the best and most intentional listener I’ve ever known. When I know I need to learn to be a better listener, I think of Ken.

Tim & Ken

The Power of the Cross

I want to speak to you today about our epistle reading, from 1 Corinthians 1.10-18, and I want to begin by acknowledging how difficult it can be for us to read a letter like this and think ourselves back into the situation of the people who first heard it. Let me quickly name some of the differences between them and us.

First, we aren’t the first Christians in Edmonton. Christian churches have been active in this area for at least a hundred and fifty years, and many of us come from families that have been Christian for much longer than that. But this was not true of the people who first heard 1 Corinthians. They were the first Christians in Corinth.

Sometime in the late forties A.D. a short, unimpressive-looking wandering preacher named Paul arrived in one of the busiest and most prosperous cities of the ancient world, the city of Corinth, capital of the Roman province of Achaia. In Paul’s day it was a multicultural city, more Roman than Greek, with a good number of rich people and tens of thousands of slaves, and more gods than you can even begin to imagine.

When Paul arrived in Corinth he soon met a Jewish couple who were in the same business as him: tent-making. Their names were Aquilla and Priscilla, and they had recently arrived from Rome. It’s not clear whether they were already Christian when Paul met them, but if not, they became Christian very quickly. Paul moved in with them and they became business partners, and in his spare time, Paul went to the Jewish synagogue and tried to convince people there that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. They put up with him for a while, but eventually they’d had enough, and he left them and moved his activities next door, to the house of a man named Titius Justus. He was probably one of Paul’s first converts in Corinth, and so was a Jew called Crispus, a member of the synagogue. Things took off from there, and before long there were probably several thriving house-churches in the city of Corinth.

So, with the possible exception of Aquilla and Priscilla, these first Corinthian churchgoers were all brand new Christians. They could remember a day when they had never heard of Jesus, they could remember when Paul first preached the Gospel to them, and they could remember their decision to become Christians. Their baptism was an adult, believer’s baptism. Their conversion was a darkness to light, ‘was blind but now I see’ kind of experience. That’s the first difference between them and us.

Second, their church life was very different from ours. Our church is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion. We meet in a very nice building set aside for the worship and life of our congregation. We have an administrative framework, a full-time, paid parish priest, a governance structure, and centuries of traditions. We have written Bibles we can hold in our hands and a defined theological tradition to help us interpret them. We come together to worship using a liturgy with roots that go back almost two thousand years.

The Corinthians had none of that. Their churches had no paid professional leaders. They met in people’s homes and had no written order of service. They had no Bibles to read from, unless some of the Jewish members had been able to copy out by hand a few of the most important passages from what we call the Old Testament. If there were Bible readings, they were probably delivered from memory, and the New Testament didn’t even exist yet, so stories of Jesus were like gold dust, and if you knew a few of them, you were always busy sharing them! As far as we can tell their communion service was more like a pot luck supper, and some people were actually getting drunk at it! There was no international church structure that defined Christian doctrine, and not much of a process to discuss issues when they came up.

Third, their Christian experience was far more vivid and egalitarian than ours. In 1 Corinthians we read that when they came together, their services were more like a free-for-all. I imagine them sitting in the round, facing each other in their small house churches. When they were praying, it was normal for someone in the group to receive a message from God to pass on to the people, which would be done, and people would listen and weigh what was said. Sometimes a member would suddenly break out in an unknown language—‘speaking in tongues’, it was called—and when they were finished, someone else would speak in Greek (everyone’s common language), the Holy Spirit giving them the interpretation. Different people exercised gifts of healing and miracles, or received revelations from God about things they couldn’t have known by their own natural abilities. It was all very exciting and supernatural; there was nothing boring or predictable about it.

We know from the book of Acts that Paul stayed in Corinth for about a year and a half, and then he moved on to share the Gospel in other communities, taking Priscilla and Aquilla with him as far as Ephesus. We presume that when he left, he had appointed teams of elders to lead the house churches, but they weren’t priests or ministers the way we understand them; at best, they were a cross between lay readers and vestry members. We can imagine what powerful figures Paul and Priscilla and Aquilla had been when they were living there, and how much the people missed them after they left. And after a while, troubles began.

Apollos was a powerful, charismatic preacher who encountered Priscilla and Aquilla in Ephesus. John the Baptist had set him on the way to faith, but he hadn’t yet been baptized as a Christian. Priscilla and Aquilla helped put him on the right track, and before long he was full of enthusiasm to share the Gospel in Corinth, so off he went. Paul, by his own confession, wasn’t much of an orator, but Apollos was amazing, and he held the crowds spellbound. Some people started making comparisons in their mind. “Wow—Paul wasn’t really anything to write home about compared to this guy!” So he began to attract quite a following in Corinth.

And there was another party too. We know from the New Testament that some of the more traditional Jewish Christians weren’t very happy with Paul. He was telling the Gentiles that it wasn’t necessary for them to be circumcised and keep the Jewish laws; all they needed was to believe in Jesus, be baptized, and walk the way of love as Jesus had commanded. This made no sense to the Jewish Christians: God had promised to send the Messiah to Israel, so in order to benefit from the Messiah, you had to be Jewish! So Gentiles who wanted to become Christian had to be circumcised (if they were male) and take on the whole Law of Moses.

Paul was constantly trying to fight off the verbal attacks of these people, and we can make a very good guess as to what the strongest one was. “Well, you know, Paul did a very good job in his own way, but he’s not a real apostle! He didn’t actually follow Jesus around Galilee and listen to him preach, so it’s not surprising that he got a few things wrong, is it? And now we need to set you straight about those things.” We don’t know for sure whether Peter was ever involved in those disputes, but we do know that those Jewish Christians claimed his authority. “Peter was the one Jesus actually appointed as our leader, you know, not Paul!”

So that’s what’s going on in our reading for today. Some messengers had come to Paul to tell him the Christian community in Corinth was splitting up into opposing groups. “Apollos is the best!” “No, no—we’re loyal to Paul!” “No—Peter is the original leader, so we’ll follow him!” And perhaps worst of all, a fourth group was saying, “None of you lot are real Christians—we’re the only ones who really follow Christ!”

Now, on this point, we might find it easy to identify with our ancient Corinthian sisters and brothers! Because of course, since the earliest time, we Christians have found it very hard to stay united around Jesus. Apollos and Peter and Paul are long dead, but others since their time have been influential leaders, and those leaders have attracted their loyal followers. Presbyterians and Reformed Christians around the world look to John Calvin. Lutherans look to Martin Luther. Mennonites look to Menno Simons. Twentieth century evangelicals might have looked to Billy Graham. Very few Anglicans are actually great admirers of Henry VIII, but we do like Thomas Cranmer, who wrote the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549!

Today we see how some TV evangelists are strong preachers with great communication skills and all the wonders of modern technology to help them reach their audience. Modern Corinthians might say, “I follow Joel Osteen!” or “I follow Paula White!” or “I follow Kay Arthur!” But let’s not get too smug about this; it’s not only evangelicals and Pentecostals who get easily wowed by strong leadership. I watch the way people treat the Pope sometimes, with crowds of hundreds of thousands flocking to meet him as if he was Jesus Christ himself. And, even closer to home, I have sometimes been told that I’m a real follower of C.S. Lewis!

What’s wrong with all this? What’s wrong is, first, that it distracts people from following Jesus, and second, that it emphasizes human strength rather than human weakness.

In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul makes a radical statement: God’s power is made perfect in weakness. And the Christian gospel glories in weaknesses. In the passage just after our reading for today, Paul says, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1.22-24). Let’s stop for a minute to notice the shocking nature of that statement. ‘Christ’ is the Greek word for ‘Messiah’. The Messiah was supposed to be a king who God was going to send to defeat Israel’s enemies and set them free. ‘Christ crucified’? What a nonsensical statement! ‘We proclaim the king who was defeated by the Romans’? How is that good news? How can that help us?

But we know that Christ crucified is the heart of the Gospel. This is the power of God—that when he came among us in Jesus and we rejected him and killed him, he didn’t destroy us in rage but forgave us in love. This is what the Cross tells us. The Cross shows us how truly sinful we are: when pure love incarnate came among us, we rejected him and killed him. But it also shows us how full of grace and love God is: when we rejected him, he did not reject us. His love was never defeated. His love was victorious. And if we were missing the point, the resurrection underlined it gloriously for us.

So ‘Christ crucified’ would be an embarrassment to Jews and to Gentiles, but Paul refused to be embarrassed by it; he made it the centre of his message. And he made sure the Corinthians knew that they were called to walk in the way of the Cross too. Let me close by reminding you what that means for us today.

First, walking in the way of the Cross means that love is always the centre of what we do. Not flashy communication techniques. Not powerful speakers or great preachers. Not the world’s most impressive church building. No: a love that is so stubborn that it refuses to give up, even though it’s rejected over and over again. That’s God’s love for us: a love you don’t have to earn or deserve, that comes to you as a free gift from God, because God is love. But it also comes to us with a challenge: love as you have been loved. Leaders aren’t meant to impress us; they’re meant to love us, and lead us in love and service to one another.

Second, walking in the way of the Cross means suffering is inevitable. Powerful people didn’t like Jesus, so they crucified him. Powerful people always have the most to lose from a gospel that tells them they are not god; only God is God! If we follow Jesus consistently, he’s going to challenge our allegiance to wealth and power, and challenge others through us, and we can expect to suffer for that.

But we can also expect to suffer because of love itself. If we give ourselves in love to others, there will be a price to pay. It’s so much easier to do what we want all the time and let others look after themselves. To enter into a relationship with someone is to open yourself up to pain, because when they suffer, you suffer with them. That’s what Jesus did when he became one of us and eventually died our death. And now he tells us to take up our Cross and follow him. What did we think that meant, if it’s not suffering?

So walking in the way of the Cross means love is at the centre, and suffering is inevitable. But finally, walking in the way of the Cross means looking to the Resurrection. If Jesus had been crucified and stayed dead, no one would have taken any notice, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation today. But when his followers began to see him alive again, and began to get it through their heads that God had raised him from the dead, that changed everything! God had vindicated everything Jesus had said and done. He was the Messiah, he was the Son of God, he had given his life a ransom for many—and now he was exalted to God’s right hand as Lord of all. So there was no need to fear. What’s the worst our enemies can do to us? Kill us! Well, they killed Jesus, didn’t they? And look what happened to him! And one day, we’re promised that it will happen to us, too!

Paul says, ‘The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know that it is the very power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1.18 NLT) Far more powerful than the preaching of Apollos or the signs and wonders done by charismatic preachers. Far more powerful than all the Greek philosophers in all their wisdom. Far more powerful than any politician or celebrity or CEO or self-help guru. In the Cross of Christ, the indestructible love of God meets all our human failure and despair, and gives us fresh hope and new life. So let’s glory in the Cross of Christ, and not be ashamed to make it the centre of our message and the centre of our lives. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’m not OK—you’re not OK—and that’s okay

I’m dating myself here, I know, but back in the late 1970s when I began my ministry, I’m OK, You’re OK was still a very popular self-help book. Based on the psychology of Transactional Analysis, it outlined several different approaches people take in their relationships with each other. “I’m OK—you’re not OK”, “I’m not OK—you’re OK”, “I’m not OK—you’re not OK”, and finally (you’ve guessed that this is the one the book recommended!), “I’m OK—you’re OK.”

I was discussing Transactional Analysis one day with a good friend of mine and he made what I thought was a very wise comment. He said, “The problem is that they missed out the best option: ‘I’m not OK—you’re not okay—and that’s OK.'” I have never forgotten that. To me, it was a profound statement of the Christian experience of grace, which is that God loves us with a fierce and stubborn love that absolutely refuses to let us go. We all fall short of what we ought to be ‘through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault’, but God is patient with us, refusing to abandon us. And God calls us to the same love for each other. Hence, ‘I’m not OK—you’re not okay—and that’s OK.’

I’ve been thinking about this lately in connection with a statement I read in Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection: ‘Everyone is basically doing the best they can.’ I love that statement. It’s encouraging us to be gentle with each other. We all have complicated stories, and they’ve shaped us into the people we are today. None of us has a perfect story, so none of us is a perfect person. Knowing that about ourselves, and hoping others will be gentle with us, we ought to be gentle with them too.

But is it really true that everyone is basically doing the best they can? To answer that question I need only look into my own heart. No, I don’t always do the best I can. Sometimes I choose not to, because I’m getting older now and I have to be aware of my energy levels. Sometimes I choose not to, because I’m selfish and lazy, and my natural inclination is to aim for a pass mark rather than the best mark I could achieve. Am I proud of that? Of course not. Is it reality? Absolutely.

I remember a conversation with my friend Steve London about this subject. We’re both lovers of the Anabaptist movement, which has a high vision for Christian discipleship. It emphasizes how each of us is called to put the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in our daily lives, including the tough stuff like loving your enemies, living a simple life, caring for the poor and marginalized, telling the truth, and seeking first the Kingdom of God.

But Steve and I both realize that we fall far short of that, and we’re also lovers of Brennan Manning’s book The Ragamuffin Gospel, which basically takes the view that all of us fall short, and without God’s grace we’d be sunk. I know this is true too. Yes, we should all be trying harder, but at the end of the day it so often feels as if it’s two steps forward and one step back—or sometimes one step forward and two steps back. But God’s mercy and grace is the safety net, and when I fall, it’s there to catch me. Or rather, he’s there to catch me.

So we have what appear to be two contradictory visions of what it means to be a Christian. There’s the discipleship vision, which calls us to press on as followers of Jesus, working hard to put his teaching into practice in our daily lives, so that we’re transformed into his likeness. And there’s the ragamuffin vision, which basically seems to say that we’re ragamuffins today, we always will be, and so will everyone else, so we’d be wise not to be too hard on ourselves or other people.

How do we reconcile these two visions? Are they totally contradictory?

It occurred to me a while back that they’re really not.

The ragamuffin vision is profoundly true. I am not OK. I try to be, but I fall short. There’s never a day when I don’t need to pray the prayer, “I have not loved you, God, with my whole heart, and I have not loved my neighbour as myself. Please forgive me.” And I can pray that prayer with confidence, because God is a God of indestructible grace, patient and gentle, ‘slow to anger and abounding in love’.

But where does the discipleship vision come in? Well, it seems to me that, when it comes to putting the teaching of Jesus into practice, some of the toughest parts of it are about forgiving one another and being patient with one another. In other words, the ragamuffin vision assures us that God loves us in the midst of our failures. And the discipleship vision challenges us to love other ragamuffins in the same way we’ve been loved—in the midst of our ragamuffin-ness.

And at the end of the day this is what matters. Business leaders may exhort me to ‘be my best self’, but I really don’t think my best self has anything to do with metrics and sales figures. My best self is to do with love, patience, gentleness, compassion, kindness, and generosity. It’s about forgiving others and refusing to give up on them. And the Christian gospel tells me I can do these things with the help of the God who refuses to give up on me.

One of my favourite Bible passages goes like this:

‘Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.’ (Ephesians 4.31-32, New Living Translation).

I think this gets right to the heart of the matter. God help us to live by it, for our own comfort and the comfort of others.

Tomorrow Can Be Different (a sermon on John 1.29-42)

I want to start this morning by recalling a hilarious scene from the old movie ‘Notting Hill’. For those of you who haven’t seen it, in this movie Julia Roberts basically plays herself—the most famous actress in the world, in this case named Anna Scott—and Hugh Grant plays Will Thacker, the humble bookstore owner who ends up falling in love with her. You’d think that everyone would instantly recognize the most famous actress in the world, but there are one or two who don’t. Will takes Anna to his sister’s birthday party where she strikes up a conversation with his friend Bernie, played by a very young Hugh Bonneville. Bernie asks her what she does, and she says, “I’m an actress.” Bernie immediately starts to commiserate with her, telling her about actor friends of his from university who are barely scraping by on seven or eight thousand a year.

He then asks her what sort of acting she does. “Films, mainly, she replies. “Oh, splendid!” he says. “Well done! How’s the pay in movies? I mean, the last film you did, what did you get paid?”

“Fifteen million dollars.”

“Right, so, that’s fairly good.”

You see what’s happening here? Bernie doesn’t know who Anna really is, so he’s making a fool of himself by approaching her with all the wrong questions and comments. It’s funny for those who are watching, but not at all funny for Bernie!

One of the reasons John’s Gospel is written is to teach us who Jesus is, and then to encourage us to put our trust in him. Earlier on in chapter 1, John the Gospel writer introduced us to John the Baptist, a man sent by God. ‘He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.’ (John 1.7-8).

So Jesus is the true light, the one who gives light to everyone in all the world. John the Baptist isn’t the light; his job is to bear witness—or, as Tom Wright translates it, to ‘offer evidence’—so that we will be convinced of who Jesus is. And he does this not just by sharing stories but also by using names and titles for Jesus. Those names and titles are important, because they help us understand the different ways Jesus is good news for us. This morning I want to look closely at two that appear in today’s Gospel reading.

The first is in verse 29. We assume John’s at the Jordan with his disciples, preaching and baptizing, and he sees Jesus in the crowd, coming toward him. “Here is the Lamb of God,” he says, “who takes away the sin of the world!”

To Jewish people, that’s sacrificial language. They offered lambs as sacrifices to God, often for the forgiveness of their sins. If you’d committed a sin, this is how you received forgiveness. You spent your hard-earned shekels on a lamb, took it to the temple, and gave it to the priest. You would go to the altar with him, lay your hand on the lamb and confess you sin, symbolically transferring the guilt to the lamb. The lamb was then slaughtered, its blood was collected, some of it was sprinkled on the altar and some on you. And so your guilt was taken away, and you could go home in peace.

Many preachers will draw this connection today: Jesus is the one who died on the Cross as the perfect sacrifice for our sins, and that’s why he’s the Lamb of God. But I think the picture might be a little more complicated than that. In the Book of Leviticus there’s a description of the ritual for the annual Day of Atonement, the day above all days when the high priest confessed the sins of all Israel and made atonement for them. To do this he offered several sacrifices and also performed an interesting ritual with two goats. One of them was sacrificed in the usual manner, but the other was not. The priest was to lay his hands on its head and confess over it all the sins of the people of Israel—we assume he gave a summary, or he would have been at it for a very long time! The goat was then taken away into the wilderness, banished from the community of Israel. Leviticus says, ‘As the goat goes into the wilderness, it will carry all the people’s sins upon itself into a desolate land’ (Leviticus 16.22, NLT).

Now it’s true that Leviticus talks about goats and John calls Jesus ‘the Lamb of God’, not ‘the goat of God.’! But nonetheless, when John says that Jesus ‘takes away the sin of the world’, I can’t help thinking he might have had that goat in mind. Do you know what that goat is called in Judaism? The scapegoat. All the blame for all the sins of Israel is laid on its shoulders, even though it has done no wrong, and it is then banished from the community, removing the guilt.

Now, what can that possibly mean for us today? We’re not in the habit of performing weird rituals with sheep and goats. How is this relevant for us?

It’s true that we’re not in the habit of sacrificing lambs, but we’re still very familiar with the burden of guilt. In fact, I think the age of social media has increased the burdens of people with a sensitive conscience. Social media is all over our imperfections. If you’re against misogyny but you don’t also fight for social justice for LGBTQ people, then you’re a hypocrite. If you’re a politician and you slip up in even the smallest way, your digital accusers are all over you. If you struggle with your body shape, images of perfection are presented to you all day long. And so it goes on.

We may not use the language of sin today, but we’re well aware of the burden. I’ve often mentioned Francis Spufford’s lovely definition of sin: our ‘Human Propensity to Mess Things Up’ (except he uses a much stronger word than ‘mess’!). Many of us are well aware that we’ve caused all sorts of distress and pain in the lives of other people, intentionally or unintentionally. We know we don’t measure up. We don’t even measure up to our ownstandards, let alone the standards of others, or of God! Francis Schaeffer said that on the day of judgement he imagined a tape player hanging around everyone’s neck, on which are recorded all the negative judgements we’ve ever spoken against others. When it comes to our turn to be judged, God will simply lean forward and press ‘play’, and let our own words be our judges. I can’t think of many things more devastating than that!

So what do we do with this burden of guilt? One of the truly profound insights of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is the power of sharing our burden with someone else. Step Four of the Twelve Steps encourages us to conduct what it calls ‘a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.’ Then in Step Five, we’re encouraged to ‘admit to ourselves, to God, and to one other person, the exact nature of our wrongs.’

This is called the ‘Fifth Step’, and of course clergy are often asked to be the ones who hear these confessions. There are many other situations in which we hear people’s confessions as well, both formally and informally. I’ve been at this for over forty years, and I’ve lost count of the number of times people have told me things about themselves that they’ve never dared to tell anyone else. And in every case, the simple act of telling the absolute and unvarnished truth, and hearing words of forgiveness spoken instead of words of judgement, lifts a burden from their shoulders.

I would suggest to you that this can be a powerful way of understanding how Jesus ‘takes away the sin of the world’. Psalm 32 talks about the happiness of those whose sins are forgiven by God. The writer talks about his experience with guilt:

‘While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.  Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord”, and you forgave the guilt of my sin.’ (Psalm 32:3-5)

God, we assume, is not in favour of sin; certainly God’s Old Testament people would have assumed that. So it would have come as a big surprise to them that Jesus, the Son of God, was gentle toward sinners. Over and over again in the gospels, when people come to him with a burden of guilt, he forgives them. He reaches out to prostitutes and crooked tax collectors and all kinds of people the righteous had no time for. ‘My son, your sins are forgiven’, he says, short-circuiting the whole process of going to the Temple to offer a lamb. You don’t need to do that anymore. He’s the Lamb of God; if you confess your sins honestly to him, rather than being a play-acting hypocrite, then he acts as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Like the scapegoat going out into the desert, he takes the burden off your shoulders, and takes it away to a place you’ll never find it again.

So John the Baptist is preaching the Gospel to us. He’s encouraging us not to wear a mask with God, the kind of mask that pretends we’ve got it all together. We don’t need to do that. We can come to Jesus and share the burden of our guilt with him. We probably won’t hear him with our ears, but we can be sure he’s saying to us what he said to sinners so many times: ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ As the first letter of John puts it, ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ (1 John 1.8-9).

But that’s not the end of it. Jesus doesn’t just take away the burden of our guilt but leave us unchanged. He gives us access to a power beyond ourselves, to make real change possible. This is the second description of Jesus I want to talk about in today’s passage. Look at verses 32-33:

‘And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’”.

In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit is the power of God active in the world. The Spirit of God descends on warriors and gives them strength to defend God’s people against their enemies. The Spirit descends on prophets and gives them words to speak in the name of God. The Spirit descends on kings and gives them wisdom to rule God’s people well. But the Spirit isn’t given to everyone. In the Old Testament, the experience of the Holy Spirit is reserved for people with a special place in God’s plan.

All that changes in the New Testament. The prophet Joel points forward to our day:

‘Then afterwards I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my Spirit’ (Joel 2.28-29).

This is the promise of Jesus in the New Testament: “If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11.13). The same Spirit that gave strength to warriors and wisdom to kings and words to prophets now lives in you and me. That’s one of the gifts we were promised in our baptism.

John the Baptist uses vivid imagery here. He had been sent to baptize people in water, he says, but the one to come, Jesus, will baptize people in the Holy Spirit. ‘Baptizo’ in Greek means to immerse, to sink, so that the immersed object is completely surrounded and filled, like a ship sitting on the bottom of the ocean, or a sponge totally full of water. That is obviously a very powerful experience of the presence of God’s Spirit in our lives.

But I need to say that it doesn’t always feel like a powerful experience. Sometimes it does; some people testify to a strong sense of the joy and love of God’s Spirit. Our friend Joe Semeniuk, who died a couple of years ago, had an experience like that. He told some of us that on his confirmation day, when Bishop Jane laid hands on him and prayed for him, he distinctly felt the Holy Spirit coming down on him and filling him from top to bottom. It was such an amazing experience that every Sunday after that, when he came up to receive communion, he tried to stand in the same space, because he liked to remember, and to relive the memory!

But not everyone has that experience. What tends to happen for most of us is that we find ourselves facing a task God has asked us to do. Maybe it’s to control our temper. Maybe it’s to offer ourselves for some ministry in the church. Maybe it’s to love someone we find it hard to love. We’re daunted by this task, because we know deep down that we don’t have the inner resources to complete it. It demands too much love, too much patience, too much self-control.

So what do we do? We make the choice to do it anyway, but before we do, we pray that God will fill up whatever’s lacking in us with his love and power and wisdom, so that we can do what we’re being asked to do. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians, God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. So we ask the Spirit to fill us and make us equal to the task, and then we step out in faith and do it. And when we’re finished, we look back and think, “Well, that wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be!” And then we remember that we had access to help beyond ourselves.

What happens when we make a habit of this? What happens is that gradually God changes us. In Galatians Paul compares this to a tree growing fruit: he says, ‘the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’ (Galatians 5.22-23) It’s fruit, so it grows slowly and steadily, not quickly and magically. It grows as we step out in faith, do what God has called us to do, and call on him to strengthen us in our weakness and inadequacy.

But I don’t like displaying my weakness and inadequacy. I’d much rather have you all see how strong and capable I am! And maybe this is one of the reasons why I don’t experience baptism in the Holy Spirit as often and as vividly as I’d like. Maybe I’m too scared to step out in weakness and trust God’s power. Maybe I need to remember that instruction that’s given in the Bible more often than any other command: “Don’t be afraid!” And maybe you need to remember that too!

So here’s the good news; Jesus takes our burden of guilt on his own shoulders, and in its place, he gives us access to all the power of God’s Holy Spirit. And this means that our future doesn’t have to be a carbon copy of our past. Our sins and weaknesses and failures don’t have to define us. The Lamb of God can take away our guilt, and the Spirit of God can give us power to change.

So when you come for communion this morning, come ready to receive what Jesus has to offer you. Be honest about your sins and failures. Share the burden with him; he’s more than ready to carry it away. Hold out your hand to receive the bread, and with it receive God’s forgiveness and God’s strength. Tomorrow can be different from today. God can make that happen. So let’s trust in him and not be afraid.

A few thoughts on clergy self-care (mainly directed to myself!)

A couple of things have happened in the last few weeks have made me think about self-care, and why we clergy are often not very good at it.

First, I had the opportunity on January 5th to sit in the congregation at St. Margaret’s while my honorary assistant, Susan, led the service. This is something I haven’t done before. I was on holiday, and usually when I’m on holiday I don’t go to church at St. Margaret’s, because try as they might, people find it difficult not to treat me as the rector. Or at least, in my mind, they find it difficult.

Turns out I was mostly wrong about that. Mainly, they were very good about it. It was my Mum’s last day with us (she was flying home to England mid-afternoon), and some of our kids came to St. Margaret’s, too, so we took up a whole row in the church. Susan did an excellent job of leading the service and preaching; she’s highly competent, as well as being relaxed and natural, and it was a wonderful experience to receive communion at someone else’s hands, rather than being the one who gave it to everyone. And for the most part, people treated us as ordinary members of the congregation. It felt incredibly peaceful.

The second thing that happened was that I had a conversation with someone who reads my sermons online. This person is part of a parish far from here where there isn’t a particularly good or consistent preaching ministry, and she was expressing appreciation for the fact that, through reading my sermons, she ‘got fed’ spiritually in a way she didn’t experience at her own church. And I found myself thinking, “I know exactly how you feel, because week by week, I’m the one that does the feeding.” Very rarely do I get to listen while someone else opens up the Bible for me and applies it to our daily lives. That was something else I really appreciated about January 5th.

Which leads me to ask: why do I feel guilty when I take an hour to read a good theological book (even though my to-do list isn’t getting any shorter), or do some self-directed Bible study that’s not aimed at producing a sermon? And why do I so very rarely give others the chance to lead? After all, I have an honorary assistant who’s very willing, and six lay readers as well. It’s not as if I couldn’t give them more scope for ministry. So why don’t I let them do more? Is it something to do with ego, or the need to be needed? Surely I’m not that immature, am I?

I’ll let you be the judge of that. Meanwhile, it turns out I need to have a talk with someone about being accountable for my own self-care. I suspect I’m not alone in that!

Where Do You Start? (a sermon for the feast of the Baptism of Jesus)

When someone walks into a church for the first time, or when they first encounter Christian faith in some other way, it can seem like a confusing mass of ideas and images. Actually, I think it can seem that way for those of us who’ve been around for a long time, too! Bread and wine, commandments and services, God and Jesus, helping the poor, loving your neighbour, trying to love your enemy, giving to support the church and asking for God’s help when you need it: so many ideas! Or maybe we think of all the stories in the Bible: Noah and his ark, Daniel and the lion’s den, Jonah and the whale, the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus on the Cross, Moses crossing the Red Sea with the Israelites and all that. What’s it all about? What’s the plot of the story? What’s the big picture, and what’s the starting point?

There are two things I want to share with you this morning, on this feast day of the Baptism of Jesus. Let me tell you what they are right from the start, and then we can explore them together. First, the big picture is the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Kingdom of God. Second, the starting point is baptism.

First, the big picture is the Kingdom of Heaven. To get this big picture we have to go back a few verses from our gospel for today. Matthew chapter three starts with the story of John the Baptist and what he was up to, proclaiming God’s message and baptizing people in the river Jordan. From there we go on to read about Jesus coming down to join John’s movement and being baptized by him, which was our gospel story for today. But at the beginning of chapter three we read these words:

‘In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”’ (Matthew 3:2).

Let’s be clear that when Matthew uses the language of ‘the kingdom of heaven’, he’s not talking about ‘dying and going to heaven’. ‘Kingdom of heaven’ is a phrase Matthew uses when Mark and Luke say ‘Kingdom of God’, but all three writers mean exactly the same thing: God’s power coming into this world, to set wrongs right, to fix broken things, to heal wounded things, to end injustice, and to restore all things to the way he originally intended. It wasn’t just about saving souls; it was about fixing a broken world.

Let me give you an example of what Matthew’s Jewish hearers would have thought about when they heard John’s message. Listen to these words from Isaiah:

‘In the days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths”.
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of the Lord!’ (Isaiah 2:2-5).

That’s the Kingdom of Heaven: God working in the world, inviting all people to come to him and learn the ways of justice and peace. And the result is the healing of the world.

When I ask people what they think the central message of Jesus was, they often say “Love thy neighbour”, and of course it’s true that Jesus taught us to love one another. But the thing that got him up in the morning, the thing that fired him up and motivated him to keep on with his mission of preaching and healing, was the Kingdom of God. Almost all his parables are about the Kingdom: it’s like a treasure hidden in a field, he said, or like a tiny seed you plant in the ground that grows up to be the largest of plants, or like some yeast that a woman took and mixed in with flour until all of it was leavened. The prayer he taught his disciples to pray was “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earthas it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10), and he told us that we should “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). The kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, was right at the heart of Jesus’ message.

And right at the heart of the kingdom message was the experience of forgiveness and reconciliation. God comes among us in Jesus, and what do we do? More to the point, what do our best and our brightest do—our political leaders, our priests, our religious teachers? They find God a threat to their power, as we all do. Why does God have to interfere so much? Why can’t he mind his own business? And so, like them, we reject him, we mock him, we whip him, we nail him to a cross and we leave him there to die. Maybe then he’ll leave us alone.

Any self-respecting god from the ancient world would have known how to respond to an act like that. Zeus would have scorched the earth with thunderbolts. Thor and Odin would have wiped out their enemies in a river of blood. But what about this God who came to us in Jesus? What does he do? He does exactly what he had taught his disciples to do: love their enemies and pray for those who hate them. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). This is how reconciliation begins: someone decides not to strike back, but to respond with forgiveness instead. And in Jesus, God decides to be that someone. In Jesus, God reaches out and offers forgiveness to the whole world.

In Matthew 24:14 Jesus calls his message ‘the good news of the kingdom’. It’s good news because it tells us that God has not given up on this world; that God intends to keep on working until the whole world reflects his original vision of justice and compassion and peace. And it’s also good news because everyone is invited, no matter who they are and what they’ve done; everyone can experience this reconciliation with God. You can be forgiven, and you can be welcomed into this movement of nonviolent revolution by which God is at work transforming the whole world. You can know God as your Father and the people of Jesus as your sisters and brothers. No one is left out unless they choose to count themselves out. Everyone is invited to come in.

This is the big picture. Now, how do we come in? What’s the starting point?The starting point is baptism.

But it sometimes seems like such a strange starting point! It seemed strange to John the Baptist that Jesus should ask for it; after all, Jesus was the Messiah, the one John had been talking about:

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).

Imagine how great this person must be! John could take his hearers and plunge them into the Jordan River in the act of baptism, but the one who was coming could do a far greater thing: he could take people and plunge them into the power of God’s Holy Spirit, so that the Holy Spirit would fill them and surround them and empower them to do the will of God. How could someone like that need water baptism from John? ‘“I need to be baptized by you”, he said, “and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness”’ – or, as the New Living Translation helpfully puts it, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires” (vv.14-15).

This is counter-intuitive. Surely if we’re looking for the starting point in God’s kingdom, it should be something wedo – giving our money to the poor, or reading the Bible and praying, or helping someone beside the road who’s been beaten up. All these are good things, and I don’t want to discourage anyone from doing them. But they aren’t the way we start as disciples of Jesus. Jesus himself said to his followers, “Go therefore and make all nations my disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a). In other words, the way you become a disciple is by being baptized; after that, you start learning to put the teaching of Jesus into practice.

Baptism is something God does for us. It isn’t something we do for ourselves. It’s a sign of being washed from sin and evil, a sign of being filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit, and a sign of adoption into the family of God: as God says after Jesus is baptized, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Notice that he says this befor eJesus does any ministry. Jesus has yet to heal a single sick person, preach a single sermon or cast out a single unclean spirit. In other words, this saying comes to Jesus as a gift of the Father’s love. “You’re my boy, and I’m proud of you”.

What a wonderful thing for a child to hear their father say! You and I need to receive that gift too, because words of love like that are a rarity in our world. And most of them are based on achievement: we do a good job, and we get praised for it. But the love of God for us isn’t based on our achievement; it’s based on nothing but God’s own mercy and grace.

So the big picture is the Kingdom of Heaven: God healing the world of evil and sin and restoring it to his original intention. That’s what the work of Jesus is all about. And the starting point for those who want to be a part of that is baptism; it’s how we become disciples of Jesus. Of course, those of us who were baptized as babies have to make our own decision about that, as we get older and come to grasp for ourselves what it is that Jesus is up to. We all have come to the point where our parents’ faith becomes our faith—not something second-hand, but something we experience for ourselves. But it’s still not based on our achievement; it’s based on God’s steadfast love for us.

It needs to be said, of course, that baptism is the starting point, not the ending point! Some people argue against infant baptism because they’ve seen too many cases where it isthe ending point: parents bring children to church to be baptized, but then make no effort to continue to be part of the community of followers of Jesus. They don’t teach their kids about the gospel or help them grow a faith of their own. They’ve been baptized, and that’s the end of it.

We’ve already seen that that’s not what Jesus had in mind. Jesus told his disciples not only to ‘baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’, but then to go on to ‘teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you’. We baptized Christians commit ourselves to a life of discipleship: learning to put the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in our daily lives. This is how we ‘strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness’ (Matthew 6:33). And we can’t do this alone. Jesus never called people to follow him alone; he called them to be part of a community of disciples. That’s what the church is meant to be: a community of people learning together how to follow Jesus.

So the big picture is the work of the Kingdom of God in the world, and the starting place for us is baptism. Let me close with a few brief words of further application.

First, many of us Christians need a bigger perspective. We’ve lost our sense of what Christianity is all about. We’ve gotten caught up in little details: whether we should use old hymns or modern worship songs, or whether or not ministers should wear robes, or whether or not women should preside at Holy Communion, or whether we should call God ‘thee’ or ‘you’—none of them subjects on which Jesus seems to have had an opinion. We very much need to remind ourselves of the big picture: The Kingdom of God. And one way of focusing this vision is to ask ourselves: if God were to answer our prayer “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven?” what would that look like? What would be different in our lives, and in the world around us? When we can imagine an answer to that question, we can then learn to live into it ourselves, and work toward it in the world.

Second, we need to pay attention to the right voices. I suspect many of you here today have heard negative messages all your life. You’ve been told you don’t fit in. You’ve been told you’re the wrong body shape. You’ve been told your work doesn’t measure up. You’ve been told you’re a bad person. You’ve been told it’s your fault, you’re to blame, you’re the guilty one. You’ve been told you’re not important enough for people to care about. And so the list it goes on.

What I want to say is that the most important thing, the thing we should really be paying attention to, is what God says about us. In Jesus’ baptism, God said “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17). And that’s what he says to you in your baptism as well. I really like the way Mark phrases it in his version of this story: it’s addressed to Jesus in the second person. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased” (Mark 1:11).

Imagine the power of hearing God say that to you! If you really believe it – if you believe that’s what God says to you in your baptism—then you can walk out of this building today with your head held high. You won’t need to worry about what other people say about you. You won’t need to define yourselves by other people’s opinions of you. You’ll know, deep down inside, that this is the most fundamental truth about you: you are a child of God, adopted into God’s family, gifted with the gift of God’s Holy Spirit. None of this is earned. None of it needsto be earned. It doesn’t come to you as a reward; it comes to you as a gift of God’s grace—not because you’re lovable, but because God is love.

When you know that, you can go from this place today in the strength of God’s love, to strive first for God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, knowing that nothing in all of heaven and earth can separate you from God’s love. May it be so for you and me, brothers and sisters, today and every day. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

‘I must’ or ‘I choose’

I’ve been reading and reflecting on Brené Brown’s excellent book The Gifts of Imperfection, which is subtitled Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. A big theme of the book is authenticity—which I as a Christian would define as ‘taking the risk of being the person God designed me to be, not the person I think I should be or the person other people want me to be.’

It has reminded me of something C.S. Lewis wrote to a god-daughter on the day of her confirmation service. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it’s something like this: ‘Always remember that there are only three things anyone must do: (1) duties, (2) necessities, and (3) things we take pleasure in.’

‘Duties’ means moral imperatives: commands of God, given to guide us in wise, loving and holy living (eg. ‘Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself’). ‘Necessities’ means things we have to do to live and be healthy and well (go to work, eat sensibly and get good exercise, brush your teeth etc.). ‘Things we take pleasure in’—well, that of course will vary widely, depending on our tastes.

The problem is, so many people have added fourth and fifth categories: (4) ‘things other people want me to do’, and (5) ‘things I think I should do because I think they’re what other people expect.’

Of course, ‘things other people want me to do’ can be duties and/or necessities—for instance, if they’re part of my job. If I’ve taken a job that includes certain responsibilities, I can’t then turn around and say ‘I don’t want to fulfil some of those responsibilities because I don’t enjoy them.’ They’re job requirements, and if I want to draw a pay cheque, I’m obligated to fulfil them.

But in so many cases, (4) and (5) aren’t job requirements; they’re things I feel compelled to do, so that other people will like me and approve of me. Many of us are so insecure that we bend ourselves into pretzel shapes, trying to be who we’re not and do what we’re not suited to do, in the desperate attempt to win people’s liking and approval. And it’s all an empty quest, because even if we succeed, the person they like and approve of is not the real me; it’s a fake persona I’ve created to impress them.

I’ve noticed that some people seem bound by the language of compulsion: ‘We’ve got to do such and such’. I often feel like saying, ‘No, we don’t. We live in a free country, and we can choose what we do. But every choice we make leads to consequences, so we get to choose which set of consequences are important to us.’

I’m commanded by Jesus to love my neighbour as myself. But that doesn’t mean I have to do everything my neighbour wants me to do or asks me to do. Some of my neighbour’s expectations of me may well be unreasonable and/or impossible. Some will be things my neighbour can and should do for herself. And some of them are legitimate needs, but better suited to the expertise of others. For instance, my neighbour may need some repairs to his vinyl plank flooring, but I’d be foolish to offer that help; I’d just make the problem worse!

As I look back over my life, one of the things I regret the most is the amount of time and energy I’ve wasted on being a people-pleaser, rather than a person who relaxes in the certainty of God’s love for me, and chooses freely to love people appropriately and wisely, not out of a sense of compulsion. The Gifts of Imperfection is helping me reflect on that problem, and find a better way forward. As I go into this new year, I look forward to the next steps on that journey of freedom.

Hands Down My Favourite New Christmas CD This Year…

Xmas-CD-Banner…was Megson’s brilliant ‘A Yuletide Carol’!

The blurb says: ‘It features a sparkling mix of traditional carols, Elizabethan yuletide songs as well as two Megson original tracks all arranged for mandolas, guitars, banjos and Megson’s trademark soaring vocal harmonies.’ And sparkling is truly the right word!

Here‘s the link to the page about it on their website. Here’s the link to the CD in their shop. OR you can get it from Bandcamp and get both the CD and digital downloads (which is what I did).

Find out more about Megson on their website here.

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