Bullying

A talk for Black Cat Radio – broadcast 25th May 2019

Comments? Questions? Please add them below!

If we think about our school days, I’m sure we can all remember a child who just didn’t fit in for some reason. Maybe, even, we were that child. And sometimes, sadly, children like that get bullied. Schools try hard these days to stop bullying, I know, but it does still happen because we get scared of people who are different.

And it’s not children who bully either. Adults can be bullied by bosses or co-workers, by partners or people who are supposed to be friends.

We can even be bullied by strangers. One small example that I remember happened to me on a bus. It was pretty full, and I was standing by one empty seat about to sit down on it when a woman pushed me out of the way and sat down in it herself. When I objected, she announced that “we can’t all wait around for you!”.

A big place for bullying though is the internet, where people sometimes shout their opinions and make snap judgements about others without considering that at the other end of their comments is a real person with feelings, and opinions that deserve to be listened to, even if we don’t agree with them. Instead, internet trolls go out of their way to hurt and criticize, safely hidden behind a keyboard.

But this isn’t God’s way. The Bible tells us to love even people we don’t like and don’t agree with. It tells us that God loves us all, without exceptions, and we need to try to follow his example. This is a difficult thing to do, and no-one gets it right all the time. I also don’t mean that we should let people get away with anything – sometimes it’s more loving to hold people to account. But if we can try to make our little corner of the world a bit kinder, a bit gentler, a bit less bitter and angry, that can surely only be a good thing.

A Love Song

Embroidered cross with the words of Song of Solomon chapter 3 verse 4

Song of Solomon 3 / Matthew 28.16-end

A talk for Morning Prayer on Wednesday of Easter Week

Human Love

We don’t hear much about the Song of Solomon in church.

It’s a bit too romantic and passionate; even, if I dare use the word here, sexy.

We hear it read at weddings a lot, and in fact I had some of it at my wedding, although there the reading was from Chapter 4 rather than Chapter 3.

On one level it’s a very human love story, a description of a passionate encounter between two people in love.

Yet it’s here in the Bible, which to my mind suggests two things.

The first is that human love and romantic relationships are, at best, important and beautiful and to be celebrated.

The second is that maybe, as is often the case in puzzling parts of the Bible, other layers of interpretation and meaning are possible.

Divine Love

One level of meaning is that it’s a story about God’s love for his people Israel.

It’s about a God who pursues his beloved people even though they keep turning away from him and a God who is faithful and passionate about those he has chosen, no matter how often they let him down, get things wrong and turn away from him.

God’s people may sometimes be faithless, as we see throughout the story of the Bible, but God is always faithful.

And then this interpretation can be expanded into seeing the Song of Solomon as a story about God’s love for his Church – about his love for us, in fact.

We in the Church also have a history of letting God down, getting things wrong, turning away and being faithless – but God is always faithful.

The strongest evidence of God’s love for us is of course the death and resurrection of Jesus, which we are celebrating right now, and in one sense Chapter 3 reflects that.

It talks about looking for the beloved, who has gone missing, just as Jesus seemed to be gone forever when he died.

But then he’s found and his lover doesn’t want to let go, which may remind us of Mary Magdalene holding on to Jesus in the garden after the Resurrection.

And the chapter talks about the beloved coming triumphantly, crowned and ready for his wedding, as Jesus was raised and glorified by the Father and we, the Church, have become his bride.

For the Easter story is all about how far God will go to show how much he loves us – even to death and back again.

It’s about a passionate God, full of wild love, who won’t let anything stand in the way of reconciliation and mending the broken relationship between God and humanity.

Love for the world

Then, fired up and motivated by God’s love for us, we are called on to show such love to others, to let them know the good news that God is calling for them, and show them the way to him, remembering that our Saviour has promised to be with us always, to the end of the age.

For God is love, and we are his beloved.

Love and St Valentine

St Valentine

Sermon preached at Morning Prayer

We don’t know a lot about Valentine, but he seems to have been a priest or a bishop of Terni, in central Italy.

He was martyred in Rome under the Emperor Claudius in around the year 269, and probably on the 14th February.

It’s actually possible that there were in fact 3 Valentines who were martyrs but to avoid making things too complicated I’m going to stick to just one.

There are also two possible reasons why he’s connected with lovers:

One is that in the Middle Ages it was thought that birds chose their mates on the 14th February.

The other is that it’s connected to a pagan Roman festival which happened at this time and which was designed to promote health and fertility.

He’s not actually officially celebrated by either the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church, but that doesn’t need to stop us thinking about him or what his connection to love might mean for us, outside of the romantic kind celebrated by cards and chocolates.

Valentine, whoever he was, was killed for his faith, which he refused to let go of, despite the dangers it posed, out of his love for Jesus.

Such love for God is our first priority as Christians, and the thing which should inform all our thoughts, words and actions

There’s also a story that while in prison Valentine devoted himself to helping his fellow soon to be martyrs and to teaching the daughter of his jailer.

In this Valentine showed his love for the people around him – both Christians like him and those who could be considered his enemies – the jailer and his daughter.

And we too are called to show such love, to care not only for our friends and families but also for strangers and even enemies.

Then, finally, there is of course God’s love for us, from which all our attempts to love flow.

George Herbert wrote a beautiful and famous poem about this which goes:

LOVE

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,  
      Guilty of dust and sin.  
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack  
      From my first entrance in,  
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning        
      If I lack’d anything.  
 
‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’  
     Love said, ‘You shall be he.’  
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,  
      I cannot look on Thee.’   
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,  
      ‘Who made the eyes but I?’  
 
‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame  
      Go where it doth deserve.’  
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’  
      ‘My dear, then I will serve.’  
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’  
      So I did sit and eat.     So this Valentine’s Day, may we remember that romantic love is not the only, or even the most important, kind of love.   The love we are called to show as children of God is the kind that puts God and others first, and is bold, strong, active and offered to all.

Baptism of Christ

Isaiah 43.1-7 / Luke 3.15-17, 21-2

 

When looking at today’s gospel reading the question that stuck in my mind was: “Why does it matter that Jesus was baptised?”

It’s a very short story here but Luke obviously thought it was important enough to include, so there must be some purpose to it other than just a story about Jesus’s life.

Water is a powerful symbol in the Bible, with contradictory meanings.

In the beginning God is shown bringing creation and order out of watery chaos.

Here water was both the birthplace of creation and a place of danger.

Then water is used to turn bare earth into places full of plants of various – here it is a source of life and renewal.

Then in the story of the Flood water is a cleansing agent to wash away evil and restore the world to how it should’ve been – at least temporarily.

And the sea is described as the home of great monsters like leviathan, symbolising chaos and the world without God.

Even our first reading today refers to this, talking about having to pass through rivers that threaten to overwhelm us.

So water is both chaotic and dangerous, and the place of new life and healing.

And this is where Jesus went in today’s gospel reading.

Jesus is about to start his public ministry, and the first thing that happens to him is that John plunges him fully under the water of a probably not particularly clean river and holds him there for a while.

 

And it’s important that Jesus took this step because it shows us that wherever we go Jesus went there first.

For life isn’t only lived in safe, clean places.

It’s lived in sleepless nights and worry-filled days, and in moments of contentment and joy.

In relationships that are good, bad and something in-between.

It happens in jobs and schools and homes, in times of joy and fulfilment, and in times of boredom and despair.

It happens in hospitals and prisons and attempts to find a better life.

It happens in places of power and wealth, and among those who struggle to make ends meet.

It happens in moments of great triumph and great goodness, and in moments of sin and failure.

Life happens everywhere people exist, and so it can be chaotic or healing, destructive or renewing.

And when the waters of life threaten to overwhelm us the story of Jesus’s baptism teaches us that we aren’t the first ones to pass through a raging river.

Jesus has already gone in ahead of us.

We can’t go anywhere in life that Jesus hasn’t already been.

And there’s nowhere we can end up where he won’t be standing right next to us.

In more technical language, in his baptism Jesus identifies with all of humanity, becoming one with us in all the aspects of our lives – both good and bad.

So, one answer to the question “Why does it matter that Jesus was baptised?” is that it is a clear sign of Jesus becoming one of us, experiencing human life from the inside, and becoming our guide through the waters of life.

 

But there’s a second aspect to this story of Jesus’s baptism.

When Jesus comes out of the water he hears these words from heaven:

“You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased”.

These words don’t come as a result of anything that Jesus has actually done – he hasn’t yet healed a single person, raised anyone from the dead, preached or taught or called anybody to repentance.

These words come to him because he’s God Son and the Father loves him – not for anything he’s done or thought or said but just because.

In this baptism the Father claims Jesus for his own.

Of course, we might think, that applies to Jesus, he’s the Son of God, but does it have anything to do with me?

Well it does because in our own baptisms we enter into the baptism of Jesus.

We are also claimed by God, we are also given the Holy Spirit, and we also are recognised as belonging to God’s family.

We become sons and daughters of God.

God looks at us and says with love and approval “This one is mine! I see my image in her. I’ll send down my Spirit to sustain and guide her”.

This is reflected in the words of the baptism service, where it says, “Christ claims you for his own”.

There’s no need to wonder whether we’ve done enough to be accepted or considered worthy.

We don’t need to worry about whether we’re loved as much as the next person.

We all face struggles at times to be good people, to cope with difficulties, to keep our faith alive, but none of that affects how God sees us for even a second.

For God says, “You see him? I’m so proud of him. He’s not perfect but he’s mine”.

So, Jesus’s baptism matters first because it’s a sign of Jesus becoming one of us.

And secondly it matters because it paves the way for our own baptisms and for our own belonging to God, and it shows us that God’s love and approval don’t depend on who we are but on who he is.

For God says to each one of us “You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased”.

It sounds unlikely but it is the truth.

 

And it’s in the knowledge of our secure place in God’s love and family that we can go out into the world, face its difficulties, strive to live better lives, and share the good news of God’s love with all.

We do all this not to earn love but because we are already loved, and that love prompts us to follow Jesus.

And we do all this to share that love with others who are longing to hear God’s voice saying to them, “You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased”.

Being Rich & The Kingdom of God

Bit late but here is my sermon from yesterday on the grounds of “better late than never”!

 

Mark 10.17-31

When I think about the man in today’s gospel reading I imagine a rather earnest, conscientious person who worries about doing what’s right.

He’s a good Jew who not only knows what he’s supposed to do but strives hard to actually live out his faith.

And as a good 1st century Jew he would’ve been firmly of the opinion that being rich was a sign of God’s blessing.

His friends and neighbours would’ve agreed with him, as well, for everyone knew that if you were a righteous person God would bless you with money and possessions.

This of course also meant that if you were poor you were not so blessed by God and were probably not so righteous.

This is not very far from those who preach the so-called prosperity gospel today, claiming that if only you do what God commands you’ll be blessed with incredible wealth.

But, going back to the rich man in our reading, for all his wealth and his confidence that he keeps God’s law, he seems to feel that there’s something lacking, something that Jesus can supply, so he comes to ask, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’.

 

And Jesus looks at him and loves him.

 

This is the only time in Mark’s gospel when Jesus is said to have loved someone.

Jesus showed his love for many people but in this direct statement Mark is, I think, drawing our attention to the fact that everything Jesus says to the rich man next is out of loving concern for him.

And what Jesus says next is hard and challenging.

He tells the man to sell everything he has and give the money to the poor.

There’s no well, how about if you spend less on luxuries, give some money away, increase your offerings to the Temple.

It’s an uncompromising command that seems to cut to the heart of the rich man because he goes away in a state of shock and grief, and we don’t know if he eventually does what Jesus says or not.

Then, Jesus also confuses and shocks his disciples by telling them that it’s as impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

They, don’t forget, also believe that righteousness and wealth go together, hence their shocked exclamation ‘Then who can be saved?’.

This may also be uncomfortable for us, as the link between being a good person and being wealthy hasn’t disappeared from our society.

Just think about how people on benefits are sometimes portrayed as lazy scroungers who waste their money on cigarettes and big TVs.

We also might be aware that, despite all the years of austerity and recession that we’ve had in this country, most of us are in fact incredibly rich compared to much of the world.

 

The temptation here throughout the centuries has been to try to soften Jesus’s words.

So, for example, in the 9th century someone came up with the idea that the eye of the needle was in fact a gate in Jerusalem that camels could only get through if they were unloaded first.

But sadly there never was such a gate.

Jesus is clear: just as large animals can’t get through tiny gaps, the rich don’t fit in the kingdom of God.

 

But why is this?

Is it because wealth leads to the temptation to believe that we’re self-sufficient, with no need to depend on anyone else, and by extension no need of God?

Wealth can lead to arrogance and a feeling of entitlement, and the temptation to think that anyone less wealthy just isn’t trying hard enough, replacing love for our neighbour with a feeling of superiority.

And wealth can cause us to cut ourselves off from other people, becoming cynical about their motives and thinking we don’t need anyone else, and making us hard and closed to human relationships.

This reminds me of a recent storyline in the soap Neighbours, where a long-lost sister of the doctor turned up who was very rich and was constantly pushing people away, including her children.

This was because she’d become so caught up in her wealth and suspicious of other people’s motives that she thought everyone was only after her money – even her 4-year-old grandchild.

 

Or do the rich not fit in God’s kingdom because they hold on to what they have at the expense of others?

Is it that a focus on always having more and better ignores the need to feed and clothe those in need, to ensure justice for the powerless, to protect the weak and vulnerable, to strive to make sure that everyone has enough to live on?

 

I suspect that it’s a combination of these things: the way wealth cuts us off from those around us, and the way it makes us focused on ourselves at the expense of others.

 

Yet, don’t forget, Jesus looked at the rich man and loved him.

Yes, the man was called to a costly discipleship in which he was to give up what he held most dear.

And he had his ideas about righteousness and blessing turned upside down – but it wasn’t some cruel whim.

Rather, Jesus was aiming to reset his priorities and get him into the kingdom.

And if the rich man had stayed long enough he might’ve been encouraged by Jesus saying that even though in human terms a rich person can’t get into God’s kingdom, for God all things are possible.

For Jesus isn’t in the business of making us feel bad about ourselves and just leaving us to it.

In fact, in the Bible making people feel guilty and doing nothing to help is the devil’s job.

Jesus is instead in the business of rescuing people who can’t save themselves.

We often think of this in terms of obvious sins, and bringing justice and help for the poor and vulnerable, because these are strong themes in the Bible.

But Jesus also loves the rich person who’s trapped by wealth in ways they might not even realise, and he comes to save them, and us, as well.

For Jesus looks at all of us and loves all of us enough to challenge us to our core.

Thanks be to God.

 

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