Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Problem With Christmas - A Christmas Day Sermon

I have a problem with Christmas.

My problem has to do with religion.

More precisely, it has to do with what religion has become in the last half dozen years or so.

More precisely still it has to do with the rise of fundamentalism in all religions but particularly in Islam and in Christianinty.

Something disturbs me about fundamentalism. Maybe its the rigidity of it, the narrow-mindedness of it, the uneasy feeling there’s too much hate and not enough love. Something about Fundamentalism disturbs me … frightens me. Maybe that’s the thing that’s where the problem lies.

‘One has to understand fundamentalism as a kind of fear,' Terry Eagleton was quoted as saying in an interview in the Observer. 'A theologian friend of mine maintains that the opposite of love is not hate, it is fear. The image of Jesus in the Gospels is of someone who is fearless. People clutching on to their religion or sect are very fearful of what lies beyond, and therefore very dangerous.'

Fundamentalism is driven by fear, it thrives on fear, it breeds fear. It’s not for nothing that it is linked with terrorism. Terror. Fear. That’s the atmosphere of the day.

Maybe the problem I have this Christmas is not so much with religion as with fear.

Fear - the Problem

It’s been a funny old year.

Things have happened that have raised my own ‘fear’ levels.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the use of the phrase talk of the war on terror leaves its toll – it raises those fear levels in me of ‘the other’. People I don’t know. The press vamps up crime stories and generates a fear as often as not a fear that is unfounded, and yet is still there. We have seen first hand in Gloucestershire the change in weather that’s linked to global warming … and there can be a real fear as the rains get heavier and we wonder … is it going to happen again? Northern Rock is in Newcastle but the holiday company that’s gone bust is based in Gloucestershire – financial fears on our own doorstep. What does the future hold. Bereavements, serious illnesses … have lurking somewhere beneath the surface vestiges of fear, intimations of mortality.

Heed the Christmas Story

Maybe I need to heed the Christmas story this year as much as ever.

After all, fear figures large in the Christmas story.

At the news of the coming of the Christ child Luke tells us that Mary was much perplexed by his words’ The angel said to her, Do not be afraid, Mary.

As the shepherds kept watch over their flock by night an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were terrified! But the angel said to them, Do not be afraid.

This is what we need to hear at Christmas.

I want to suggest a double antidote to fear this Christmas.

The First Antidote to Fear

There is a wonderful text in 1 John 4:18.

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.”

Perfect love. That’s what Christmas is all about. The perfect love of God who sent his Son to live alongside us, die for us and rise again to give us life in all its glory. This is the love to set over against those fears.

Fear for myself, fear for someone else, fear of the economic situation, fear of global warming, fear of the rise of fundamentalism.

Whatever the fear that you are aware of … sense anew this Christmas Day the perfect love of Christ taking each of your fears and casting them out one by one.

That’s the first antidote to fear.

The Second Antidote to Fear

The second involves putting something in the place of fear. I want to go back to 1 John 4 verse 7 this time where it says, ‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.

The second antidote to fear is to put love into action … at a personal level in our concern for one another. Hope in our villages, towns and cities is something we are going to be hearing more of in 2008 as we seek to build up active love in our own community in our partnership with St Luke’s and St Michael’s … and in our own lives too.

In the face of the rise of fundamentalism I am resolved not to abandon religion but to make the Christianity I believe in work, by putting love into action.

I believe that involves extending the hand of friendship across the religious divide as an alternative to the confrontation of fundamentalisms. It was great to be invited as guests of Imran and his family at the Eurasia and for twenty five of us to enjoy a Christmas lunch. A small gesture … but a very real gesture of friendship.

Our Christmas Day collection is an expression of our love in action as we contribute to the Lilian Elizabeth Fund bringing better health care to the village of Sika in the Gambia.

Our Gift Sunday not only provided a lovely Christmas meal and Christmas presents for everyone at the Day Centre, staff and clients alike, but also raised enough to purchase solar heating panels for a clinic in Malawi.

And Christmas began early as we wrapped parcels for Operation Christmas Child.

So when fears are in danger of taking a hold and making Christmas problematic there are two things to do …

Perfect Love Casts Out Each Fear ... and leads to Love in Action

Heed the Christmas story and let the perfect love of Christ cast out each one of those fears.

And then put something in the place of future, not just anything, but the love that is at the heart of the Christian faith live a life of love in action -– love one another for love is of God and God is love.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

An Offer and a Task for Christmas

I still have problems with Christmas.

It seems so triumphant.

Words from 2 Corinthians 4 speak of the wonder of Christ's light shining in a world of darkness.

For we do not proclaim ourselves;
we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord
and ourselves as your slaves
for Jesus’ sake.

For it is the God who said,
‘Let light shine out of darkness’,
who has shone in our hearts
to give the light
of the knowledge
of the glory
of God
in the face of Jesus Christ.

This is a wonderful echo of one of the great Christmas prophecies.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

When I look around, however, it’s not quite like that. There’s a lot of darkness in this world of ours. The darkness of loneliness, the darkness of sorrow, the darkness of deprivation, the darkness of war.

The irony of Christmas is that the darkness is too often accentuated.

The genius of Christmas is that it addresses precisely that issue.

A Vulnerable, Flickering Light

Read on in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and you find that this light that we treasure not least at Christmas, is a light that is contained in the most fragile of vessels. We have this treasure in clay jars.

It is not an all-triumphant light that shines into every nook and cranny and takes away the darkness for all time. It is a vulnerable, flickering light, that makes its presence felt in weakness, in frailty, in times of immense difficulty.

We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

It is an extraordinary power … but this extraordinary power belongs to God and is not dependent on everything going right for us. It is a power that is with us when things go wrong, when things are out of sorts, when we are all too conscious of the darkness.

We are afflicted in every way. That’s something that’s a given. That’s not going to go away, suggests Paul. But we are not crushed.

We are perplexed. Given the nature of the world we live in and the lives we lead that’s not going to go away … but, says Paul, we are not driven to despair.

Christmas does not give us the false reassurance that now the light has come there will no longer be darkness.

While we live, says Paul, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake.

Christmas Offers us an Assurance

It offers us the assurance that no matter how dark the darkness may be the light of God’s presence will still be there … it may at times be no more than a flicker, it may be in a very clay-y jar, but it will continue to glow. continue to shine, nothing will put it out.

Something wonderful comes with that commitment we make to believe.

We believe and so we speak … we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us up also with Jesus and will bring us into his presence.

What a wonderful thought.

However dim the light may seem … we do not lose heart. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.

With that sense of blessed assurance, however, goes something more.

Christmas sets us a task to do

We have a task to do. Our task at Christmas and at every other time is to make this light, the light of Christ’s presence, the light that shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ … to make this light visible.

How can we make this light visible? The clue lies in verse 5 and in verse 11.

We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves, your servants for Jesus’ sake.

That’s how we make the life of Jesus visible, that’s how we make the light visible of Christ’s presence visible, that’s how we let the light of Christ shine. While we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake. That’s not just a statement of the realities of the world. It is also a reminder that Christ calls us to take up our cross daily and be his servants. Our task is to serve Christ by serving one another and serving other people.

That’s the commitment we make through our communion collection for County Community Projects. That’s the commitment we make through our Christmas Day Collection for The Lilian Elizabeth Fund bringing health care to the village of Sika in the Gambia. More importantly that’s the commitment we make through our church’s care in the community and our own daily service of others.

While we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake. Taking our up our cross daily in a life of selfless service, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh, in what we do with our lives.

That’s it. In what we do – in our lives – in our mortal flesh – in our day to day living – this is what will make Jesus visible. This is what will enable the light of Christ’s presence to shine in a world of darkness.

Two things then.

Christmas Offers us Assurance and Sets us a Task

Assurance – no matter how dark the world, the light of Christ’s presence shines on, however vulnerable and weak the flickering flame may seem. Hold on to that … sure of an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.

Making the life of Jesus visible, the light of Christ’s presence visible, through the service of Christ, and through the life-time service of others in their need – this is the task we are called to at Christmas.

Here are the words that Paul shared with the Christians of Corinth.

2 Corinthians 4:7 - 5:1

But we have this treasure in clay jars,
so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God
and does not come from us.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not forsaken;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying in the body the death of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.

For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake,
so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.
So death is at work in us, but life in you.

But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—
‘I believed, and so I spoke’—
we also believe, and so we speak,
because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus,
and will bring us with you into his presence.

Yes, everything is for your sake,
so that grace, as it extends to more and more people,
may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

So we do not lose heart.
Even though our outer nature is wasting away,
our inner nature is being renewed day by day.
For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us
for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure,
because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen;
for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed,
we have a building from God,
a house not made with hands,
eternal in the heavens.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sing to the Lord a New Song - Diana Adams

Diana Adams adapted and read this Reflection by Carole Elphick at our Choir Carol Service. It is taken from A Chair Pulled to the Place of Prayer, the prayer handbook for 2008.

Imagine a conversation between people planning an act of worship such as ours this evening –
(and I did say “imagine” - because this did not actually happen!)

“We must include ‘Hark the herald angels sing’
and ‘Silent night’
and ‘Once in royal David’s City’
O yes - begin with ‘Christians awake’
but if we have ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ – do make sure it’s the right tune!
And, if we must get funky, we could include ‘Come and join the celebration’.”

But new songs? At Christmas? Forget it!
People expect to have the old carols.
That’s what they come for.
They want to feel comfortable,
as if we’ve been polishing the cross and baking mince pies since last Christmas,
so they can find everything just as it was before.

But what if, just for once, we had a change, and used some of those carols
about unmarried mothers
overbooked hotel rooms
shepherds so terrified they ran to Bethlehem
wise men so mistaken that babies and toddlers were slaughtered?

What if we even took it further
and sang songs about how God can take our pain and transform it.
How living in the church is hard because we do not agree, and don’t know how to differ.
How everyone’s secret fear of not being good enough,
or of having committed the sin for which there is no forgiveness,
can be taken, soothed, challenged, changed;
and how our lives can be changed –
re-charged, revitalized, re-inspired
simply by knowing that God is with us.

Maybe then we will go on to write the song of our lives
with re-newed hope in our hearts - so that others may sing in their turn.

Richard challenged the evening congregation here last Sunday “to be open to change” –
two thousand years ago John called on the people “to repent and change their ways.”

So, instead of finding everything as it was last year,
what if God’s Christmas guests found a renewed, open, accepting people
ready to change
ready to look within themselves and spot the areas that need to change
people ready to listen
ready to sing the terrifying song of the angels in a new chromatic key
instead of monochrome uniformity.

Change isn’t a bad thing – it’s a way of moving on, on our Christian journey -
so, may the light dawn for each of us,
may we accept the babe of Bethlehem into our lives –
may we move forward on our journey, through Christmas and into the New Year, with re-newed hope in our hearts - Emmanuel – God is with us.

After all, even ‘Silent night’ was a new song once.

Choir: “Change your ways, change your ways, cried the prophet John.
God’s own king is coming soon, so who’s side are you on?
Change your ways, change your ways, cried the prophet John.
God’s own king is coming soon, so who’s side are you on?”

"Sing to the Lord a New Song"
by Carole Elphick
from A Chair Pulled To The Place of Prayer,
the Prayer Handbook for 2008
© The United Reformed Church 2007

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Christmas Hopes - Fantasy or Reality?

I have a problem with Christmas.

We are invited to dream dreams that can never be achieved. We are tempted to live out fantasies that are not attainable. Whether that dream of a white Christmas is realised or not remains to be seen. One suspects that in all too many households the fantasy of the ideal family celebration will not be realised.

It is all too easy to put many of the favourite readings for Christmas that we shall share over the next couple of weeks into the category of dreams that can never be achieved, fantasies that are not attainable.

Will the people who walked in darkness really see a great light? Will there be endless peace? Will there be justice and righteousness from this time onward and forevermore? Will the wolf live with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid? Will a little child really lead them? Will they cease to hurt and destroy on my holy mountain? Will the earth really be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea?

Is all of this no more than a dream … an idle fantasy, lumped in with all the other trappings of Christmas and then to be quickly forgotten?

I believe that what’s going on inside these readings is something very different.

Individually and collectively these readings give us a glimpse of what it is like when God’s rule takes a hold in our hearts, in our homes, in our communities and in our world.

When God’s rule takes a hold then light does come into people’s darkness, there is peace, justice and righteousness do prevail.

Our conviction is that ultimately God’s rule will take a hold and the new heaven and the new earth will come to be.

But our Christian conviction is more than that. It is that in Jesus Christ God’s rule has broken into our world. He calls us to make these things real here and now.

Take today's reading from Isaiah 65:17-25

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice for ever in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people;

no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labour in vain, or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well.
Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.

It is not just a dream, far less a fantasy.

It gives us a glimpse of what it is like when God’s rule takes a hold … and it maps out for us what we must do as we seek to make these things real here and now.

If the sound of weeping or the cry of distress should no longer be heard then our task is to give comfort to those who weep and to alleviate distress.

If an infant should live more than but a few days and an old person live out a lifetime, our task is to care for children and to care for older people with equal commitment.

If people are to dwell in houses they call their home, we cannot turn a blind eye to homelessness.

If people are to eat the fruits of the earth, we cannot turn a blind eye to those who are hungry … neither can we turn a blind eye to issues of unemployment if people are to enjoy the work of their hands.

We are called to be peacemakers and given a ministry of reconciliation because this is what it’s like when God’s rule takes a hold: the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, they shall not hurt or destroy.

The great Christmas readings are not the stuff of dreams or fantasy, they shape what we are to do here and now.

That is why this Christmas we have identified four things that we are supporting:

1. last week’s Gift Sunday focused on the people who come to our Day Centre,
2. and the Present Aid catalogue of Christian Aid.
3. Our Communion Collection is for the work of Cheltenham Community Projects – who incidentally are crying out for food parcels here in Cheltenham at the moment.

4. And our Christmas Day Collection will be for a remarkable project that has been initiated locally and seeks to bring better health care to the villagers of Sika in the Gambia. Jennifer Taylor and Lyn O’Farrell have both been very involved in that project and they are going to tell us something about it now.

It was after visiting the deprived village of Sika in The Gambia, that Jennifer Taylor (founder member of the charity) was inspired to build a medical centre in memory of her late sister Lilian Elizabeth.

Lilian had spent time in the Gambia before her unfortunate premature death and had always enthused about how friendly and warm the people were, despite their hardships.

Jennifer's inspiration came from experiencing this warmth & friendliness first hand and after witnessing the devastating effect that both malaria and the lack of medical treatment is having on the villagers.

Malaria is the biggest cause of death in the Gambia.

The village has no electricity and the living conditions are very basic. To date Jennifer has already improved their standard of living by funding the building of a well. In an attempt to reduce the incidents of malaria and with the aid of generous donations, she has also been able to supply 500 mosquito nets to the families in the village.

The cost of building the medical centre will be around £50k but to maintain it, we will need £5k per annum by way of donations and subscriptions.

The centre itself will be staffed predominantly by locals, as it is important to retain their cultures and beliefs. Occasionally volunteers from the UK will visit and help out in any way they can.

Jennifer also wishes to introduce a feeding programme, as during several months of the year they have little or no food.

Please note. All monies donated go straight to the charity as there are no overheads or wages taken by the volunteers.

For further details on how you can help, for updates on how the medical
centre is progressing and photographs of recent visits please visit the Lilian Elizbeth Fund website

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

A World Waiting for Guidance - Advent Sunday with Mary Michael

Isaiah 2:1-5

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In 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.

The World was Waiting Expectantly

There was a sense that something was about to happen.

The Bible tells us little about the Wise Men who brought gifts to Jesus except that they came from The East. There is much speculation about their origins but the favourites tend to be Arabia, or Babylon or Persia. A few months ago we heard the story of Daniel in the lions den and that is only a small part of his story. He had been chosen for special training because of his intellectual and physical attributes. He was educated into the circle of “wise men” who were the scientists and intelligentsia of their society. We tend to think that magicians today are at best illusionists or at worst, charlatans but these Magi were experts in spiritual and supernatural matters. Daniel’s enemies sought his destruction because of the great influence he exerted. When the period of exile was over not all the Jews returned home. It does not seem unreasonable to me that his influence continued into further generations in Babylon.

Wherever they came from, the Wise Men knew that the star configuration they saw indicated that they should travel to Jerusalem. The children this morning helped Darryl to pack for a journey without knowing the destination. How long did the planning and packing for this journey take? Were the animals ready? Did the party set out even before Mary and Joseph left Nazareth? However well prepared the Wise Men were for their quest what they found was unexpected. Instead of a prince in a palace they found a baby in a stable. It would be fascinating to know how their lives were changed by this experience.

This baby was the longed for Messiah who constantly surprised people. He mixed with the wrong people – those who were socially unacceptable and outcast. Rejecting violence He taught love. Instead of leading an armed uprising he laid down his life. To me it is nonsense to celebrate Christmas if we don’t also remember what happened at Easter when Jesus not only died but also was raised from the dead. How should followers of such a Messiah live? Bernard Thorogood, writing in “Words for Today” says, “what Isaiah glimpses is the rule of God on earth through an obedient people. It is as we learn to live together as the family of God’s children that peace becomes more than a political slogan and in life a reconciling reality. Neither Jews nor Christians can boast that this has come true through their history. The great wars of the last century were fought by nations with a strong Christian heritage, and Israel today uses military force as its national security. Far from beating their swords into mattocks and their spears into pruning knives, Britain, the USA and Germany, with strong Christian churches, still boost the arms trade. Yet there was a cross standing in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. Peace begins in that kind of suffering, that burden-bearing, that self-giving. Peacemakers are the true children of God.”

Reading Two; Romans 13: 8 –14

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Guidance on how we should be living

“Advent” means “The coming, or second coming of Christ”. Are we prepared for a fresh encounter with Christ? The idea that end times are drawing near has been the foundation for many sects. I can remember my own father describing his fear, as a boy, that he might come home one day and find that his parents had been “taken up” whilst he was left behind. I am not interested in being drawn into examination of the Apocalyptic writings. I feel it is more useful to strive to live each day as is right, trying to avoid doing wrong and apologising when it happens.

As a church family we may feel comfortable that there was no drunkenness at our party last Sunday lunchtime. I’m sure there was no inappropriate behaviour at the Barn Dance. But how do we behave at Church Meeting. Do we treat each other with the love and respect that we should?

It sounds poetic to think of Wise Men coming from Arabia and Babylon And Persia but it’s less romantic to think of relations with Saudi Arabia and Iraq and Iran and Israel.

I’ve asked “Are you packed” because some people feel that they have to put everything in order before they are ready to meet with Christ, but life is not orderly. There are people who encounter Christ suddenly and others find that an interest has turned into a relationship. Either way this is a life changing experience. However well we may feel we have “packed” the likelihood is that something in our lives will change significantly. Are we packed for a journey into the unknown?

Christmas will be over in January. What difference will having been in contact with the Christ Child make to our lives? What difference will our desire to follow Christ make to the people we meet or to the wider world?

So much to pass on at Highbury

If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light