Sunday, 12 February 2017

Act faithfully

This is the text of a sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral on Sunday 12th February. The texts were: Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37. It was one of those sermons which involved struggle and hesitancy before the text - and in relation to life and witness of the church in our own generation. 

Having written a chapter for the collection of essays entitled Thinking Again About Marriage theology of marriage has been much on my mind. In view of discussions about marriage and sexuality in the run up to General Synod, what Jesus says about the nature of relationships is felt even more acutely. 

As we think about the 'goods of marriage' - and how we bless commitment and faithfulness - we must also have the courage to name and resist any form of abuse; to walk with the vulnerable and broken-hearted. What follows is concerned with recognising the challenge of an ethic rooted in who Jesus is - which is oriented towards fidelity and flourishing. This is mainly wrestling with text - and the cries our hearts. 

The musical She Loves Me has enjoyed an acclaimed revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory. In many ways, it is as sweet as the venue suggests: delightful witty and full of tender romance and old-school elegance.

Set in a parfumerie, it is a play that weaves together three separate love stories: George and Amalia moving from loathing, liking to loving - unaware that they are each others anonymous lonely hearts admirers; the beautiful and skittish Illona who’s seduced and betrayed time and time again; the faithful romantic, Mr Maraczek whose own marital misfortunes takes us beyond comedy to a place of crushing despair.

We can identify with these characters: loneliness, sexual attraction and the longing for companionship; disappointment, misunderstanding, betrayal; errors of judgement, moments of vulnerability, new beginnings.

All the risks and joys of being in relationship - as a couple, business partners, colleagues and friends - are revealed: there are moments of renewed resolved and changes of heart; words of truth are spoken and gestures of forgiveness embraced.  In this seemingly frivolous world of perfume, face cream and fancy soap - it seems that a seriousness about faithfulness and integrity triumphs over infidelity.

The call to act faithfully is at the heart of our worship: it is more than a moment of theatrical escapism.  In this place, we bring all that we are before God - our shortcomings and hurts, the things we’re thankful for and the burdens that weigh us down.

Honesty about our human nature - expressed in our collect as unruly wills and passions - is met  in worship with honesty about the nature of God. The one who created all things, identifies with us in Jesus Christ.

From infancy to his sermon on the mount, from the feeding of the 5000 to his entry into Jerusalem, from his death on the cross to the new life bursting from the tomb, we see the abundant love of God. We are to fix our hearts on this love - which sustains, challenges, heals and consoles.

That love still reaches out to us as we move through the acts and scenes of our liturgy - of gathering, confessing and being forgiven; of hearing and responding to God’s word; the cries of our hearts and our world are offered in prayer and the gift of peace is shared; broken bread and outpoured wine draw us into deeper communion. A communion of faithfulness.

In this drama, we are in Christ.  We are his body which is blessed and sent out - dispersed in into our homes, workplaces and communities in the power of the Spirit.

Through the lens of worship we hear Jesus’ teaching as good news.  For here, we receive grace to act faithfully - to love what God commands and to desire his promises.

Command and promise aren’t lived out it isolation - we live it together both in our worship and in our lives. We are to act faithfully in accord to a person; not a principle.  All that Jesus says is about relationships.

Relationships between friends and colleagues; about relationships of faithfulness and intimacy. The form of repetition stresses again and again that to love what God commands is a matter for the heart not just action.

Jesus sayings are hard. His illustrations sound extreme and bizarre. He stretches language, subverts complacency, reveals the demands of following him. He is describing a way of life, rooted in him; he invites us to take responsibility not just for our actions, but for our motivations. He is describing a community of hope and healing; humility and forgiveness.

As we confront the loving mercy of God in worship, we increase our capacity to reflect on our own emotional responses; to recognise and address our own anger and jealousy before it spills over to impact on others. If we are to be agents of reconciliation, let us seek to resolve grievances we have with others. Jesus deepens our understanding of these obligations.

Our calling as disciples is profoundly relational, not merely about dignity of our outward duties.  Our relationships ought to be means of honouring one another in the promises we make. There is a fundamental level of integrity which we are called to uphold - epitomised in truthful speech which does not need to hide behind oaths, but which is about keeping our word.

Jesus is primarily concerned with wholesome and flourishing human relationships - he’s alert to the impact of infidelity in the most intimate of relationships. But, says Jesus, look into your hearts: like anger, lust as a reaction, motivation or intent is also something to be kept in check. It opens us to exploitation, manipulation and potentially reduces others to objects of our unruly wills and passions.

In relation to marriage and divorce, Jesus words are about protecting the vulnerable and giving dignity to the dependent. Setting aside differences in social context, life expectancy and legal understandings of marriage, Jesus is being more radical than it sounds to our ears.

He is restoring - or introducing - a balance of power with the marriage relationship. He’s challenging the practice of dismissing wives lightly. Instead he allows space for the couple to enter into a mutual relationship between helpmates or companions. It's the calling of the church to extend this circle of blessing.

The goods of marriage - fidelity, shared endeavour, fruitfulness, stability, kindness, and care - are a cause of blessing; and a microcosm of the goods of life in Christ. Jesus’ words enable us to appropriately grieve for relationships which break down under the pressure of circumstances or disagreement, and to walk with the broken-hearted, extending hope of new life; his words call us to name exploitation, abuse and bullying - to have the courage to end such cycles and bring release; in him, we are to console the anxious and traumatised.

Jesus teaching flowing from the beatitudes calls us to a pattern of life:  together we learn to be a place of blessing - in worship, relationships and tasks. We share all that we are in a diverse community. Regardless of class, health or education, economic or relational status, gender, age or sexuality we are to act faithfully - choosing to fix our hearts on the call to love. As the body of Christ we affirm and encourage one another in that pattern of life.

Paul brings us back to the pragmatic working out of this: he asserts that we are to be guided by the Holy Spirit rather than living by the standards of the world.  And yet, the Corinthians, like us, get caught up in their own quarrels and jealousies; they follow their human inclinations in asserting rival loyalties.

We are to heed his advice too: recognising that we are all servants of God, with particular responsibilities within a common purpose. Paul doesn’t invoke personal authority or individual talent; there is no manipulation or coercion of others. Instead he speaks of nourishing one another - recognising that we work together with the free agency of others in love; trusting God for our growth.

May we choose to keep the commandments of love; may we desire God’s promises; in the drama of our lives, may we be serious about faithfulness and integrity.  Receiving the bread of life in this Eucharist, we are nourished in faith and love by Christ; we receive his grace that we might be Spirit led, breath by breath, as people of blessing and healing.  Amen.

© Julie Gittoes 2017

Monday, 6 February 2017

Alternative facts...

This is the text of a sermon preached at Evensong on 5th February. The texts were Amos 2:4-end and Ephesians 4:17-end. As I read them, I pondered the nature of truth - particularly in the context of the concept of 'alternative facts'. Truth and falsehood shape our behaviour and relationships - the kind of society we want to foster. 

It also struck me - having spent a lot of time reading Dan Hardy's work recently - that we are in danger of losing a sense of what he called 'sociopoiesis' (literally creating the social); that we are facing the fragmentation of aspects of our common life rather than seeing the 'building up' of our social life. How can the church speak of truth - or indeed embody it? We aren't immune from abuses of power either; but we are called to face the 'truth' of God and the 'truth' of our human condition. It means facing the cross - the place of judgement and forgiveness.  

All of which led me to think about the nature of holiness - and the painful process of refinement which enables trust to grow and for lives to reflect the fruit of the Spirit.

Two weeks ago, on 22nd January, the phrase ‘alternative facts’ entered our public discourse.

It’s been widely reported Kellyanne Conway used the words ’alternative facts’ in defence of the White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer. To recap, in his first briefing he accused the media of deliberately underestimating the crowds at the inauguration. 

As photos, figures and counter arguments circulated, the journalist Chuck Todd said Spicer’s claim was ’a provable falsehood’.  In response, Conway called this ‘overly dramatic’; Spicer had given ‘alternative facts’. Todd replied, saying: ‘alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods’.

Alternative facts: it's been described as Orwellian; discussed in newspaper editorials; parodied in Twitter memes. It's begun to filter into our everyday language. We suspect we’re being misled; with a hollow laugh, we call it an ‘alternative fact’. 

Does this latest addition to the repertoire of office banter enable us safeguard truth? Or does it trivialise and unwittingly condone untruthful speech?

Our readings this evening have quite a bit to say about truth and speech: they give us plumb lines - or barometers if you like - in discerning what is good and right and wise. Both Amos and Paul help us to see the disastrous consequences of falsehood; both reveal to us what God desires for human flourishing.  

As prophet and apostle they extend and deeper our understanding of truth. We are invited to look beyond verifiable facts and conformity to evidence; to see truth as rooted in the reality of God; to see that truth reflected in our fidelity to God’s ways.

Amos names the extent of human falsehood: in their rejection of the commandments to love God and neighbour, people have been led astray by lies. In turning away from the love of God, they’ve turned in on themselves in self-interest, exploitation, injustice, delusion and the relentless pursuit of misguided desires. 

Rejection of the truth of God’s love and holiness leads to the dehumanising of the weak and vulnerable. Rejection of the truth of God’s faithfulness and liberty degrades the powerful too; their ill-treatment of others strips away their own dignity. The image of God in them is marred. 

This is not truth: we were made for more than this. 

This is falsehood: an unattractive and corrosive alternative way of life.

Yet God remains faithful. He calls and recalls us that we might be true.

What it means for us to be true to God and true to our human nature is revealed in Jesus Christ: in him we see the intensity of love divine. 

In Ephesians, we are caught up in the abundance of God’s love for creation - finding ourselves energised by its sheer lavishness. Yet Paul always turns his mind back to the practical, to the relational. Love for him is not an abstract principle; rather it is a love which is embodied - in Christ and, by the power of the Spirit, in us.

Like Amos, Paul is pretty direct about the darkness of life lived apart from the truth of God’s love: futility, alienation, greed, hardness of heart, excess and personal gratification. When we are driven by human appetites alone we become desensitised to the needs of others. 

We become numb - seeking pleasure but without pangs of conscience about how we treat others. It’s a world where we hide behind alternative facts; because perhaps the truth is too painful.  

As we have been reminded this week, the church is not immune from the abuses of power; we have failed to protect the vulnerable; we too are continually called to face the truth. That's painful and costly. It's vital to ensure the the well-being of those in our care. In the midst of that we are recalled in love, to bring dignity and grace to others. 

God in Christ meets us in the chaos of this imperfection and draws us back to the truth of love. 

He meets us in the bewilderment, fragmentation and fears of our lives; he meets us in the midst of all that makes us turn in on ourselves. In the Gospels we see in Jesus’ face to face interactions, a move from the delusion of alternative facts to a truth that sets us free.  The good news is the truth about judgement, mercy, forgiveness; challenge, affirmation and new life. It is a thing most wonderful in the words of our anthem [It is a thing most wonderful: Philip Moore]; a great love like fire which burns away sin and death. 
 We were taught this truth in Jesus life, death and resurrection; a flame of love is kindled in our hearts as we learn to lay aside the old self; being clothed instead in what is of God - what is right and holy. To grow into the likeness of Christ - individually and corporately - is a process.

That process of being brought to our senses can be painful. Paul so vividly understands the language of ‘bodies’ in relation to the life of Christian community; perhaps we might think of it like the pain of circulation and warmth returning to cold limbs. It’s no wonder that much biblical talk of holiness describes it as being ‘refined’. In worship, we face the holiness of God; in penitence and faith, our hurts and fragmentations are healed by his love. This is a process of becoming holy as we face the truth - ours and God’s.

Rowan Williams puts it like this: the church ‘is holy… not because it is a gathering of the good and well-behaved, but because it speaks of the triumph of grace in the coming together of strangers and sinners, who, miraculously, trust one another to join in common repentance and common praise… humanly speaking, holiness is always like this: God’s endurance in the middle of our refusal of him, his capacity to meet every refusal with the gift of himself’ [1994, p. 136].

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is an outwork of this hope and practice. Truth builds up the body of Christ - mutual respect, behaving with integrity, disagreeing well and abiding in love. Truth means acknowledging our emotions - but it also means refusing to turn to self-pity or resentment. We will get angry; but let’s not be drawn into a cycle of hurt. We will face frustrations; but let’s not get sucked into a the realm of ‘alternative facts’.

If cumulative acts of falsehood lead to bitterness, blame, recrimination and fear; cumulative acts of truthfulness lead to encouragement, sympathy, concern, affirmation and hope.  In building each other up, we draw others to the compelling love of God.  To do otherwise risks harming our relationships and risks grieving the Holy Spirit. 

Attentive the Spirit at work in this place and in us, let us pray that we may grow in the truth of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ; may we grow in a holy trust which makes that love known in all that lies ahead this week. 

© Julie Gittoes 2017

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Honesty, humility and hope

This a sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral at Evensong 22nd January: the texts were Ecclesiastes 3:1-11 and 1 Peter 1:3-12. Reflecting on wisdom, vanity, a living hope and a new creation - in relation to Trump, Brexit and the kind of communities we want to shape.

From the front page of today’s Observer: ‘Trump, as bullishly self-confident as he is ignorant, will not be easily denied. And the crass nationalism that lay at the heart of Friday’s speech is a powerful force. It appeals to the darker side of human nature, bolstering the insidious claims of jealousy, envy, greed and hubris. It thrives on fear, chauvinism and not always subliminal notions of ethnic, racial and moral superiority. It is a product of our time’.

A product of our time. A time of disorder, fear, and anxiety. A time when we grapple with questions of human flourishing: debates about family life, gender and sexuality; changing patterns of work, longevity, technology and social care; advances in genetics, changes in the climate and sustainable food supplies; the power of the 1%, the dynamics of the market, the role and form of the state.

A product of our time. An unsettled time. A time when, to quote the theologian and ethicist Luke Bretherton, ‘the world is out of control [and] the absurd begins to feel like common sense’.  The rise of President Trump and the vote for Brexit can be read as attempts to make sense of fear and disorder; how can we ensure that  taking back control resists the idolatry of ‘me and mine’ at the expense of others?

A product of our time: a time when we have become sceptical and fearful in the face of seismic shifts; a time when voices of protest rise up in defiance; a time when, in the face of the fragility of goodness, we must pursue the life of the common good.

In this time Ecclesiastes encourages and challenges us. The teacher makes us confront the inevitability of death.  He begins by exposing our ‘vanity’ in seeking lasting fame and the pretentiousness of what we count as achievement or impact: ‘all is vanity and chasing after the wind’.

Yet, he is not a doom-monger; he finds hope in humility.  We are to be humble; to be earthed; to recognise that life is from God; to be enjoyed in ordinary pleasure; to be endured in hope. Like us, this teacher is aware of human limitations and of the complexity of the world; he knows of suffering, loss of control and the workings of principalities and powers - which might be indifferent at best and abusive at worst.

Where do we find meaning and moral security in a world such as this? Does our quest end in the oblivion of death - the great equaliser, even for those whose names are carved in stone?  When we face dislocation - nationally and globally - how can the church offer stability? If we cannot ‘convince’ what might we offer that is authentic and compelling?

Imitating the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, means humility, honesty and hope. We cannot dodge pain and sorrow; we must speak plainly. The teachers adopts a poetic and pithy style - worthy of the 140 character limit of Twitter!  On the one hand he explores the meaning of life, unfairness and death itself.  It is the recognition of life’s brevity which has implications for our conduct now.

The word which we translate as vanity is the Hebrew ‘hevel’ - a word which means ‘breath’. It can express absurdity; but it also speaks of frailty. And in speaking of frailty, it points us to what is most important.

Life as ‘hevel’ shapes our moral life, our choices and ways of being in relation to each other; it shapes our prayers for President Trump, for our government, our diplomats; for our local councillors and the European leaders; it increases our capacity we resist and name as evil those things which deny human dignity; it increases our vision for the things we strive for, not for me and mine, but for the common good. 

Life is short but full of meaning; how we live matters. Breath by breath, the Spirit is at work in us. We need to be wise and humble; not manipulative or selfish. We take on responsibilities for sake of others; living generously within our limitations. We endure, together; we rejoice, together.  

The wisdom of Ecclesiastes resonates with our point in human history; it’s very ‘earthiness’ and humble wisdom prepares us to hear afresh the good news of Jesus Christ because it takes seriously the realm of our daily living as the arena for God’s activity.

In the passage we heard this evening, the basic physical - and emotional - rhythms of our live are set out: birth, death, hate, love, harm and healing. Our social world is named - war and peace, uprooting and planting, breaking down and building up. Reading though the BBC news feed, all of human life is there; just as the teacher of Ecclesiastes sets it out. And we must decide how we respond. How do we inhabit these rhythms of life for the common good?  We must resist futility and despair; dare we discern the pattern of God at work in our lives - and in our world - and strive for the good?

The first step, according to the teacher of Ecclesiastes, is to be attentive: longing for the past and fear of the future can prevent us from trusting God - from finding out what God has done from the beginning to the end. It’s the light of God which gives hope, clarity and purpose; our love of God calls us to be people of light; shining in darkness, resisting evil; turning the shadow of death into morning. Luke Bretherton makes this plea: ‘I beg those who consider themselves Christians to take up forms of politics oriented to faith, hope and love, yet alive to the fragility of ourselves, others and the world around us and to ignore the siren calls of the politics of nostalgia’.

And we can and must do this because the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ compels us to. In him, God reaches out to seek and save the lost; in him time is redeemed; in him nothing of value is lost or forgotten. And by the power of the Spirit at work in us,  new kinds of ways of relating are made possible and a peaceable common life can be nurtured.

It is that vision which is expressed in our second reading: we have a new birth into a living hope. In baptism we are caught up in the new creation. A creation which sows seeds of compassion, hope, kindness. Our inheritance is entrusted to us now - a legacy of light in the face of darkness, truth in the face of lies, humility in the face of the abuse of power.

The letters of Peter, are honest about the suffering and trials of this world; but also secure in the hope of salvation. The power of God is at work in us - in faith, hope and love. We are to be witnesses to a new reality - ambassadors of peace, justice and reconciliation. If President Trump and others play to people’s fears, how can we within the church give voice to people’s hopes? In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we have a role in fostering community and continuing to tell the story of God across Europe and with our brothers and sisters across the Atlantic.

The Roman Catholic theologian Anna Rowlands wrote both of the loss of community in Sunderland and of its aspiration to be a place of real neighbourliness: if a binary question posed in a referendum in June has revealed 'painful fault lines' in our national life, we must pray, struggle and act in such a way that resentments do not become hatreds. How might this cathedral, our schools, our networks be places of 'open-hearted dialogue' - offering space for civic, social and cultural encounter; a community which forms bonds of affection as Rowlands hopes create ‘a sense of shared life across different classes, ethnicity and faiths?’

© Julie Gittoes 2017

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

La la Land!

This evening I was at St Catherine's, Bramley: having seen La La Land last night, that seemed an interesting starting point for a reflection on the nature of 'enduring love'. It's a joyous film on so many levels - the sort of escapism many of us seek in the midst of seismic shifts in the political sphere. However, despite the colour, energy and optimism, this is a film which shifts gear in a profoundly honest and moving way. Human beings live with memories as well as hopes; we carry many stories with us - rooted in the truth of our experiences. Sometimes the intensity of our emotions mean we visual 'what ifs' and 'may bes'. How do we treasure lost loves, live with attention to the present and look towards the future with assurance? Exploring that would have been beyond the realms of a 5 minute homily! Watch the film and see where it takes you - to la-la land or into reality.

La La Land: it’s magnificent spectacle and unashamedly joyous: a movie offering us escapism.

This is a spoiler free zone: but the thing about such fabulous cinematic story telling is that it makes think afresh about love, dreams, sacrifice and purpose.

From the amazing opening sequence to the final scenes, it’s more than a clever homage to Hollywood’s Golden Age. There’s energy, song, dance, fantasy and poignant questions about priorities, choices and relationships. Is there a love that can endure?

It held together by one musical theme: a haunting phrase which draws Mia into a jazz bar. She’s captivated. 

Seb, the pianist, had carefully rehearsed that piece: he listens to it on vinyl - the needle careful lowed only to be raised after a few bars. He sits at piano and plays it back; he listens again; repeats the phrase. That night, he chose to ditch the set playlist of cheesy Christmas music and he plays the jazz he loves tentatively and with increasing confidence and delight.... 

... and as we watch Mia and Seb fall in love, it becomes their theme - the soundtrack to their life; their memories, hopes and feelings

Seb is gifted: he wants to open a jazz club; but he’s so reluctant to compromise on the purity of the tradition that he risks killing the very thing he loves.

Mia is a barista who wants to be actress; or an actress doing a few shifts in a cafe: she goes to audition after audition and wonders if it’s time to abandon her dream.

City of the stars, they sing, are you shining just for me.

City of the stars, just one thing everybody wants.

And that one thing? Love from someone else.

Dreams, disappointment, ambition, hard work, opportunity, compromise, success: that’s all in the mix. But as the song goes on, beyond the dances and rush of romance, we long for a voice that says:  I'll be here; and you'll be alright.

Mia and Seb find in each other someone who understands them: they offer encouragement, stability and reassurance to each other as their seek to achieve their personal goals.  

Their human love is stretched by circumstances, geography and the fulfilment of what they want to achieve. That’s a difficult truth. The love we receive from others - romantically, in families, in friendships and in this community - is precious. It changes us; we want it to last for the long haul; but it is valuable even when life takes us in different directions, and we let go. 

At it’s very best our human love reflects something of God’s love. And that’s the point of our reading.  We love because it is a gift of God. It's a love that endures. 

Not only that, but God loved in a way that we could recognise: in sending his Son Jesus, we learn what love looks like. God loves in being with us. 

In Jesus, love reaches out to us in the depths of failure, frustration and hurt; and to the heights of enjoyment, fulfilment and energy. It’s a love that forgives us when hurt others; a love that heals us when we feel broken; a love that gives us courage to stand up for what is right; a love that strengthens us to be who we’re called to be. 

God is love. 

God is with us. 

God’s love is in us! 

God’s Spirit helps us to express love in kindness, patience and generosity. What might endured in g look like here. And when people see our love for each other - they aren’t in la la land; they glimpse the reality of God’s love. A love that is more real. A love that endures.  A love perfected in us.

© Julie Gittoes 2017

Monday, 9 January 2017

Looking beyond the stars

This is the text of a sermon preached on Epiphany at Guildford Cathedral exploring revelation and incarnation; worship and joy; our ongoing journey of faith. The texts were Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12.

When they saw that that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

Later this month, you’ll have the opportunity to become an amateur star gazer for the evening.  The external lighting will be turned off as Cathedral becomes home to a pop up observatory. Volunteers from our local astronomical society will be on hand to help you use telescopes to explore the night sky.

For a moment, the wonder, curiosity and expertise of the magi might be ours. The depth of space, of time, of light… it is the same sky that they observed.

They watched and calculated and scrutinised not for one night, but for a lifetime. They notice some thing new. A brighter light. A comet, a supernova or a conjunction of the planets?

This cosmic sign revealed to them the birth of the one who is the morning star: the splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness; the love that said ‘let there be light’ is the love birthed in a stable; the love that is all in all, rest in a mother's arms, turning a house into hallowed ground.

The light has come - our light has come - in the midst of darkness: the darkness of the shadow of death, the darkness covering the earth, the thick darkness over the peoples.

This light dawns in the midst of political crisis and the brutal reality of human violence. Jesus’ birth takes place in time. In the time of King Herod. In the time of occupation, empire, threat and displacement; in the time when ruling by fear reveals fragility and creates instability.

It is in a world such as this that Herod finds himself acting as a catalyst. Those who’ve been guided by hope need help. In their desire to worship a new born king,  magi come to a palace, to the place we think power resides. In his desire to retain control of his own kingship, Herod consults experts and points the mysterious strangers beyond the stars to a a place. To a place where the child was.

When they saw that that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

Stefan Lochner, Adoration of the Magi, c. 1440, Cathedral, Cologne

This light dawns in the midst of political crisis and the brutal reality of human violence. Jesus’ birth in time, is the still point in a transforms the world for all time. In our time, with its violence, instability and displacement of people; in our time, God continues to reveal to us his patient and loving response to our impatience and fear.

And it looks like a child with his mother. This is God with us. In the midst of us.

And we pay him homage: this child calls forth joy, yes; but as God’s very self, this child causes us to kneel and to worship.

And treasure-chests are opened.

Gold is offered a sign of Jesus’ kingship, yes; but also placing all of our resources as the disposal of a different kingdom; a setting aside of our desire to control and embracing instead love.

Frankincense is offered as a sign of Jesus’ divinity, yes; an act of putting first the call to prayer and worship; a placing at the heart of our lives the deep attentiveness to God.

Myrrh is offered as a sign of Jesus’ reconciling the world, yes; and this healing means confronting pain, sorrow and despair; here, we glimpse cross, death and resurrection.

The light has come. It shines in darkness. The darkness does not overcome it.

The wise men’s journey continues on another road:  they go, resisting fear and abuse of power; they return, witnesses to love, light and glory.

The Christ child’s journey continues on another road: he goes with Mary and Joseph, and seeks refuge in another land;  he will return, to set us free, revealing God’s love, light and glory.

King Herod’s journey continues on yet another road: his fear turns to fury, fury to violence; his violence becomes lamentation and death.

And yet, love wins.  Still the light shines. In our world.

It is not overcome. It reveals truth to us. We have to decide.

When they saw that that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

We need to take heart from the diligence and joy of the wise; but perhaps we need to embrace their courage too.   For their quest throws up the deepest questions of identity: of who we are, who this child is and how we are to live in the world.

Day by day, we pray that the Holy Spirit might kindle in us the desire to seek and to find; to worship and to rejoice. In the light of the Christ child, not only do we see but we become radiant; our hearts over flow.  In the light of the Christ child, we experience something of God’s grace. The outworking of that grace is challenging; our imaginations our stretched, we live differently embodying God's wisdom in whatever we're doing this time tomorrow.

Such grace is, in the words of Rowan Williams, ‘the mysterious capacity to look in the face the destructive effects of human ignorance’. In saying this, he was reflecting on Shakespeare’s improvisation on the revelation which we celebrate this Epiphany; it’s a reflection on grace in Twelfth Night.

In a play which hovers between comedy and tragedy, we see the a journey of attentiveness and courage; an emotional journey of learning to make acquaintance with storms in order to love.

Shakespeare places us in the tumult of a ship wreck - drawing us into the lives of a rescued twin and a lost brother. He confronts us with the chaos of misrule, the delusion of self love, the cruelty of mockery; intoxicating passions and suffocating grief are played out in a whirlwind of mistaken identities.

The person who knowingly puts on a disguise, is the one person who effectively navigates the complex pathways of love. Viola’s is a love that serves and attends to the other; it is a love which is vulnerable and resilient; a love which is rooted in the assurance of faith and hope; a love which is neither defensive nor manipulative, but utterly authentic. Her maturity brings life, healing; it enables other to let go of their delusions and to interact more truthfully.

The resulting epiphany is of restored relationship as Sebastian looks on his disguised sister and says: Of charity, what kin are you to me? 
What countryman? What name? What parentage?

The revelation we glimpse today answers those same questions too: the mystery of Christ which has been revealed is about our kinship. Because he is God with us - living, dying and rising for us - we are children of God. As Paul puts it, we, the Gentiles, have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

If we are to seek wisdom like the magi and to love like Viola, we do so by entering into a drama which reveals our identity as members of Christ’s body.

The drama we enact today, names the shipwrecks and storms of our human condition: in the Eucharist, our fears, frustrations and desires, our griefs, betrayals and hopes are expressed.

The drama we enact today, names the patient and generous love of God which continues to reach out to us: in the Eucharist, we touch and taste and see grace that does not look away, light that continues to shine, hope that dispels fear and love that increases our capacity to love.

When they saw that that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

Our journey continues on another road: step by step, may the Spirit equip us to witness with boldness to the love of God, revealed in Jesus Christ.

Julie Gittoes © 2017

Thursday, 22 December 2016

The child is the key to it all

This post is based on the text of a sermon written for Evensong on the Second Sunday of Advent. The texts  were 1 Kings 18:17-39 and John 1:19-28, stories of the prophet Elijah and John the Baptist. In the event, the sermon was pulled - because of concern about the overall length of the service and a very cold building (we now have some temporary heating!). However, having seen Fantastic Beasts there were themes I wanted to ponder further - so this piece is longer than the original sermon.

It begins with a case of magical creatures: a case which was opened ‘just a smidgen’.

It begins with an interesting man, a Mr Scamander: a man kicked out of Hogwarts. 

It begins in 1920s New York: a city in the grip of political campaigning.

It begins with an opening sequence of a collapsing building: a population looks for answers.

On a wet and chilly Saturday evening a few weeks ago, stepping into J K Rowling’s wizarding world was an enchanting escape. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them fizzes with energy and humour; exotic and imaginary creatures delight us; there’s a quirky romance, unlikely alliances and Eddie Redmayne excels as the quietly donnish magizoologist. 

But, in tune with the very best fairytales, there is an altogether darker subtext. This reimagined world is in the grip of fear, suspicion and destruction. We see a dark whirlwind of energy smash its way through buildings; it tears up roads, overturns vehicles and leaves chaos in its wake. 

In the realm of cinematic fantasy this is force is called an Obscurus. It’s a narrative device within an imagined universe. The quest is on to 'find the child' so that 'we will all be free'; the child is key to it all. Ultimately, order is restored when the baddies are unmasked and good triumphs. 

And yet, given J K Rowling’s interest in human identity and the use or misuse of power, this film operates at a deeper level.  

There are themes which we must take seriously; themes which our readings also reflect. And as we pay attention to that, we are drawn more deeply into the stuff of God. To be drawn more deeply into God is to understand more fully our humanity - confronting our mortality and embracing hope.

As charming as Fantastic Beasts is, as a film it is a chilling reminder of how swiftly fear can distort our relationships; it can shut out the voices we do not wish to hear; it labels as ‘other’ those who are not like us. In the film we see how that operates at a city level - fragmenting society as people respond to alternative rallying cries. But cinema is reflected the lived reality of our social lives.
Fear - and the abuse of power - also operates at an interpersonal level. In the film, Credence cannot be who he is or fulfil his potential. Instead he is subjected to manipulation, control and actual harm - both physical and spiritual. J K Rowling uses the device of the Obscurus to make visible the impact of abuse: violence is internalised and distress is expressed externally.

We don’t live in a realm of wizardry; there are no magical beasts to distract us from human sorrow. We live in a realm of human agency within which we are to protect the vulnerable from abuse - in homes, workplaces and institutions. We are to be as light in darkness because this is also a realm of divine agency.

Our world is infused by God’s creative and generous love which meets us in the depths of despair.  The voices of prophets cry out against abuse of power and spiritual manipulation. And as Advent edges towards Christmas, we see in Jesus Christ God’s response to all that dehumanises. 

In him, heaven touches earth: not as a romantic idyll but in confronting the violence of which human beings are capable and defusing it.  It is in the cries of a speechless infant that power is confronted. To look on him - to face Christ - is to be disturbed and challenged; it is to be provoked to name bad ideologies. More than that, we must also set out a compelling vision for transformation. We do that not by ‘magic’ but in power of the Spirit which calls us to be reconnected at a deeper level

Let’s take one example of a response to fragmentation: The Bishop of Burnley, Philip North wrote powerfully in the Church Times about the narratives we listen to within our national life. When metropolitan elites are pitted against the voices of the disenfranchised, we all lose. How then does a church speak positively about national identity - about the values we aspire to embody - whilst also being generous in our hospitality? 

There is an urgent task ahead of us - deepening our understanding of what it is to be a citizen, building trust and strengthening community.  In the words of Archbishop Justin ‘we need a narrative that speaks to the world of bright hope and not mere optimism - let alone simple self-interest’. 

We might not have seats in the House of Lords, but we do have the opportunity to act in solidarity with others - regardless of their class, gender, ability, ethnicity or economic worth. 

This is a claim about the God-given dignity of every human being. It’s a claim that demands action in response to the increasing numbers sleeping on our streets; it’s a claim that ought to shape our daily interactions.  Elijah and John the Baptist literally and figuratively point us in the right direction. 

Elijah faced an urgent challenge in terms of the stability of national life: that is the faithfulness of a people to their God; and the well-being of individuals. King Ahab regards him as troublesome. Why? Because he points out the the King that he has abandoned the ways of God. Rather than walking in the ways of the God of Israel, he now followed the Baals. 

He had neglected the commandments of God:  commandments which spoke of love of God and love of neighbour. Such loving was not an abstract philosophy; faithfulness to God was revealed in acts of mercy and wise judgement; in compassion for the widow and foreigner.  

Why might a King forsake the Lord and sit lightly to commandments? Ahab’s wife Jezabel gets much of the blame. Their marriage secured a political alliance; but she was ruthless and manipulative. Her worship of Baal - a god of rain and fertility - might have seemed like an attractive option to a people under threat from other nations. It might have appeared a far less demanding ethical code; perhaps much more suited to the pursuit of one’s own desires. 

Elijah throws down the gauntlet: he sets out the conditions for a competitive religious drama. On the one hand there were elaborate preparations; endless cries to Baal; physical injury to participants. It reads like a corporate act of will which is met by ridicule on the part of Elijah. It’s a noisy charade which is met by silence. There is no answer; no response.

On the other hand, we see a simple declaration of dependence on God. Elijah speaks of God’s faithfulness; he hopes for the restoration of dignity and purpose; he longs for a people to turn back to God’s ways. It’s not flashy; it’s not trying to force God’s hand. It is a longing for God’s presence to be acknowledged. And as in the burning bush, flames of fire serve as a mysterious sign of the divine presence.  

It’s not a fantastical story about the supernatural; it’s actually a story about us. 

It’s about the ways in which we so often seek fulfilment in the transitory; it’s about how we affirm our identity in seeking to control others. It’s about how we want a short cut, because walking in God’s ways is hard. 

But… there’s still that whisper which catches our attention. The honest human cry which is met with the divine assurance of our dignity.

John the Baptist, like Elijah, put God first.  He didn’t keep that to himself. He cried out. He cried out to people to do the same. He poured water on the heads of those who came to him - or, as is more likely, he plunged them into gushing waters of the Jordan.  Such a sign of bubbling new life was accompanied by the demanding call to repent. 

He echoed Elijah in calling them back to God. Turn around. Turn away from all that is selfish, destructive and toxic. Turn around. Turn towards the God who brings mercy. 

The people of Israel were waiting for a prophet to liberate them from occupation - for someone to save them from the Romans as they’d been freed from the Egyptians and so many others. They’d endured abused and subjection. They longed for their dignity - and their identity - to be restored. 

Given John’s vision and stature, it’s no wonder the authorities trekked to the wilderness to see for themselves. Could he be the Messiah? They were expecting perhaps a warrior, one who’d bring unity and victory.  Might John be the one who’d restore them to fulfil their calling as chosen ones; blessed to be a blessing to all.

John is brusk in his denials: I am not. I am not the Messiah. I am not Elijah. I am not one of the prophets.

John is enigmatic in his responses: I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness; make straight the way of the Lord.

His mission is to create a sense of expectation for the coming of the Messiah.
His calling is to prepare hearts and minds to receive him.
He is faithful to God and invites others to rekindle their commitment.
He is alert to the nearness of God and invites us to respond wholeheartedly.

John tells a story which is honest about our human condition: about our capacity to seek our own glory; to manipulate others; to impose our own agendas; to the dark violence of abuse. 

John tells a story which is honest about God; about a love that breaks down barriers of fear, anger and resentment. 

In due course John will declare: ‘Behold, it is he!’  But first, he calls us to prayerful repentance. 

There is no magic; but there is mercy.
There is darkness; but it does not overcome the light.
The child is key: the Christ child sets us all free.

Today, we pray O Rex Gentium
O King of the nations and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.

© Julie Gittoes 2016