Friday, 25 December 2015

‘God is the distilled essence of love made absolute.’

Reflection for Christmas Eve Midnight Communion Service,
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 2015.

Sometimes, and I recognise that this may be an occupational hazard,
            I find myself pondering the nature of God.

And late at night, as the world turns beneath
                        and the stars wheel above,
            the veil between my frail understanding
                        and the infinite beyond
            can sometimes begin to lift,
                        and the ineffable other can seem intangibly close.

And so we arrive at my thought for tonight,
            as the day of Christ's coming dawns imperceptibly upon us.

And my thought, this night, is this:

God is the distilled essence of love made absolute.

We use many ways to describe God,
            many ways to try and put human finite words
            around the infinite other,
with the Bible itself offering us many options,
            and Christian history, tradition, and theology
            adding further to our list…

God is father, God is mother, God is Spirit,
            God is justice, righteousness, and peace.
God is our rock and our redeemer,
            God is our ever present help in times of trouble.

God is… God is… God is…

But tonight, as we await the coming of God into the world:
            God is love.

Not love as we might ordinarily understand it,
            not love as between two people,
but the distilled essence of love;
            love that is strong enough to transcend time,
            love that is tender enough to surpass mortality.

God is love.

But this is no unearthly abstraction of love,
            this isn’t just some ethereal force of love
            that permeates the fabric of the universe
            and with which we can intertwine our lives.

This is love made flesh,
            this is love made absolute.

In the baby of Christmas morning
            we meet the God who is all love
            becoming real in human time and earthly place.

In the baby Jesus we meet the God
            who is the distilled essence of love, made absolute.

This is where the otherworldly meets the world,
            this is where blood and water and flesh
            become infinitely more than the sum of their parts.

In that one moment of the birth of the baby to Mary,
            each moment, of each human life, throughout all of human history
                        is transformed by love;
            because this birth is the absolute moment.

If it happens once, it happens eternally.
            If God is made flesh in Jesus Christ,
            then God is made flesh.

And so we gather to greet the Christ-child,
            and we gather to share bread, and wine;
                        we gather to remember broken bodies, and shed blood;
            and we gather to bring our own frail bodies
                        into the presence of the divine.

Our bodies break, they grow old, they fail us and betray us.
            And yet God becomes flesh.

In Christ, the God of love is made absolute,
            and the distilled essence of love
            takes each moment, of each frail human life,
                        from cradle to grave,
            and encompasses it in love that never fails,
                        love that never passes,
                        love that never fades.

So as we come to meet the newborn Christ,
            we bring our own frailty to the manger,
            as we bring our own bodies to the communion table.

And as we share bread and wine, we meet with Christ,

            and we are made whole in love.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

A prayer for the longest night

Loving God of the dawn and the sunset,
            we come before you this day,
            when night is longest and day is shortest,
to offer our prayers
            for those whose experience of life
            is more of darkness than it is of light.

We stand with those who live under a long shadow,
            and we join ourselves to those who struggle to see daylight.

And as we pray for others,
            we recognise that we too carry in our souls the burden of darkness.

We know that it can be true for us, as it is for others,
            that the days of brightness imperceptibly shorten
            while the nights of obscurity inexorably lengthen.

And so we pray for those who are bereaved,
            for those who have lost loved ones this year.
We feel within us the shapes of those who have gone from us,
            and we mourn their passing from our lives.

In quiet hope offered in the face of despair,
            we offer to your loving embrace all those whom we can no longer touch.
And we ask that you will give comfort
            where long nights of mourning seem never to come to an end.

Loving God of the dawn and the sunset,
            may darkness not overwhelm us.

We pray for those who are lonely
            for those who long for touch, for conversation, for friendship, for intimacy.
And we recognise in ourselves the desperate drive for companionship
            that haunts our relationships and stifles our friendships.

We ask that you will draw near to those who draw away,
            and that you will hold all who are alone in your loving embrace.

Loving God of the dawn and the sunset,
            may darkness not overwhelm us.

We pray for those who are far from home
            for those who have lost country and security
            through war, famine, or the effects of climate change.

We pray for refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants,
            and all who greet the new day
            in a country that they do not recognise as home.

May they know that you are the God of the exiles and enslaved
            and that your welcome knows no boundaries.

Loving God of the dawn and the sunset,
            may darkness not overwhelm us.

We pray for those who are lost in memories,
            for those who are trapped in the past
            and unable to engage the present.
We pray also for those whose memories have faded,
            and whose experience of dementia has diminished their capacity to live the day.

For all those who dream of the past,
            we ask for healing of past hurts.
And we offer all that we are
            to your eternal remembering.

Loving God of the dawn and the sunset,
            may darkness not overwhelm us.

We pray for all that is broken in life,
            for people, for relationships, for bodies, for objects.

And in the face of brokenness
            we pray for healing and wholeness.

May that which is broken find its completeness in you,
            as you bring all things to good
            and redeem all that is damaged.

Loving God of the dawn and the sunset,
            may darkness not overwhelm us.

And finally we pray into the darkness,
            and we offer the hope of our voices and our hearts
            that however long the night may be, there is a new day dawning.

And we know that as the days have shortened to get us to this place,
            so they will lengthen again to take us somewhere new.

Loving God of the dawn and the sunset,
            may darkness not overwhelm us.


Sunday, 20 December 2015

The Nativity According to Gabriel

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
20 December 2015

Opening Prayer
Loving Jesus, who comes to us each day, we ask that you will come to us this day and meet us through the story of your coming to the earth. As we hear and experience the story of your birth to Mary and Joseph, we ask that you will be born in us by the power of your Holy Spirit. As we hear and experience the story the shepherds we ask that you will draw us to worship you. As we hear and experience the story of the wise men, we ask that you will reveal yourself to us in the daily stuff of our lives, through our work and study and play. As we hear and experience the story of the angels we ask that you will fill us with the mystery of your presence, and that you will help us to learn to not be afraid. Loving Jesus, who comes to us each day, we offer you this day. Amen.

The Nativity According to Gabriel
It was a busy year for Gabriel and the other angels.

Mary (Luke 1.26-38)
It all started one afternoon in Nazareth, when Gabriel was sent to bring a message to Mary. But how to introduce oneself? ‘Hello’ seems rather informal. How about ‘Greetings, favoured one’? Nope, that just left the young woman confused, and looking terrified. Try again. ‘Do not be afraid, you have found favour with God’. Better. But then the kicker, as they say, ‘You’re going to have a child, and I’d like you to call him Jesus. He’s going to be great – trust me on this.’ Well, she looked a bit less scared, but no less confused. ‘How…???’ she stuttered. ‘Um’, Gabriel replied, ‘let’s just say the Holy Spirit will take care of things’. Mary, not having had any kind of answer, really, said ‘yes’.

The Angel Gabriel from heaven came,
his wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame;
'All hail', said he, 'thou lowly maiden Mary,
most highly favoured lady.'

Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head,
'To me be as it pleaseth God', she said,
'My soul shall laud and magnify his holy name':
most highly favoured lady.

Joseph (Matthew 1.18-25)
Gabriel thought his job was over having got a ‘yes’ from Mary, but then mission number two came his way, and this time he had an angry and fired up man to deal with. Joseph, Mary’s fiancĂ©, apparently wasn’t taking her happy news very well at all. He was planning to break things off. If they’d had messaging apps in those days, he’d have done it straight away, but the Angel got in there first. ‘Um,’ he began, about to launch straight in but then he remembered the scared look on Mary’s face, ‘don’t be afraid!’ he said, trying to begin a bit more gently. ‘Joseph, I’d like you to take Mary as your wife, take on her child, and call him Jesus. He’s going to be great – trust me on this.’ Joseph, being a man of few words who also knew what was good for him, woke up from his dream, took his courage in both hands, and did as the angel had commanded him.

God it was who said to Joseph,
“Down your tools and take your wife!”
God it was who said to Mary,
“In your womb I’ll start my life!”
Carpenter and country maiden
Leaving town and trade and skills -
This is how God calls his people,
Moving them through what he wills.

Bethlehem (Luke 2.1-7)
By this point, Gabriel decided that he was due a day off, so he let the Holy Spirit take the lead in the next part of the story. Joseph and Mary had to make a journey to the town of Bethlehem to be registered for the big census, and arrived there just in time for Mary to have her baby. It all seemed like something of a mess, what with there being no room at the inn and ending up in a stable. But thankfully the innkeeper had an ear open to the creative stirring of the clever Spirit, and sometimes there’s more to life’s chaos than meets the eye, and so the Baby who’s going to be great was born in the same town as the great king David of old, and the Holy Spirit went home dusting his hands with satisfaction at a job well done.

O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by:
yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee to-night.

For Christ is born of Mary;
and, gathered all above,
while mortals sleep, the angels keep
their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars, together
proclaim the holy birth,
and praises sing to God the King,
and peace to men on earth.

Shepherds (Luke 2.8-19)
And now it was the turn of the cynical shepherds, out in the fields looking after their sheep, and Gabriel set off once again, this time to try and to convince them that there was something special going on in a stable in town, and that they really shouldn’t miss it! By now he knew how to begin, ‘Do not be afraid’ he said, as they cowered in terror at the sight of one of God’s messengers hovering in the sky in front of them. ‘I’m serious’, said Gabriel, ‘you won’t want to miss this one – there’s a baby just been born, and he’s going to be great. You really should go and take a look’. But the Shepherds decided they weren’t going anywhere, so Gabriel decided it was time for some reinforcements. One angel might have done for a young woman, or an angry man, but shepherds needed overkill. Anyway, one heavenly multitude later, the skies still ringing with the deafening chorus of the angelic host, and the shepherds were off the hillside as fast as their legs could carry them, making their way to the stable, to see the little baby. And they all agreed the he was going to be great.

Infant Holy, infant lowly,
For his bed a cattle stall;
Oxen lowing, little knowing,
Christ the babe is Lord of all.
Swift are winging, angels singing,
Nowells ringing, tidings bringing.
Christ the babe is Lord of all
Christ the babe is Lord of all.

Flocks were sleeping, shepherds keeping
Vigil till the morning new,
Saw the glory, heard the story,
Tidings of a gospel true.
Thus rejoicing, free from sorrow,
Praises voicing, greet the morrow
Christ the babe is born for you!
Christ the babe is born for you!

Wise Men (Matthew 2.1-12)
Well, thought Gabriel, I’ve taken care of the Mother, and the Father, and the Shepherds, and the Holy Spirit did the whole Stable in Bethlehem thing. What’s next on the angelic to-do list? Ah, yes, the wise men. They might not listen to angels – far to mystical – but being wise men, I bet they’d listen to science and reason. So Gabriel popped back to the beginning of the universe to have a word with the lord of the cosmos, and between them they arranged for a conjunction of planets, or was it some kind of star, or maybe a comet, who knows how these things happen…? Anyway, it was enough for the wise men, who followed their wisdom and their science all the way to where the baby lay. And they said to his mother, ‘we think he’s going to be great’, and they gave him gifts of gold, and spices, and precious oils, and were about to go back to visit King Herod and wreck the whole thing when Gabriel, panic stricken that it was all going to go wrong at the last minute, decided that it was time for one last angelic visitation. And the wise men who followed the signs were confronted with the angel after all. ‘Don’t go back to Herod’, said Gabriel, ‘he wants to kill the baby who’s going to be great. Go home by another route.’ And to Gabriel’s huge surprise, the wise men said ‘yes’, and everything turned out OK, at least for now.

The first Nowell the angel did say,
was to certain poor shepherd in fields as they lay;
In fields as they lay, lay a-keeping their sheep,
On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.
          Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell,
          Born is the King of Israel

And by the light of shining star,
Three wise men came from country far
To seek for a king was their intent,
And to follow the star wherever it went.
          Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell,
          Born is the King of Israel

May the blessing of the Christ who comes to us, the Spirit who stirs and inspires us to action, and the God who enfolds us in love, be with us today and always. Amen.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Bethlehem in a War Zone

Bloomsbury Carol Celebration
18 December 2015

You can watch me give part of this talk here
Sadly, the video only started recording part of the way through.

Bethlehem, famous throughout the world as Royal David's City,
            the little still town of silent stars and bleak midwinters,
or at least that's the way a thousand nativity scenes would have us picture it.

However, the reality of this border town,
            trapped in a conflict about territory
            that stretches back to long before the time of Jesus,
is very different from the Victorian fantasy
            of a  peaceful stable surrounded by lowing oxen and reverent shepherds.

One of our church members, Jean,
            who gave our Bible reading for us just now,
                        has been there recently,
            and has seen the present day reality of Bethlehem in a war zone.

The pictures showing behind me were taken by her over the last few weeks
            and speak more than words could
                        about the situation facing those
                        who live in the militarised zone around the wall.

But there is still hope in the war zone.

The Christmas tree is up in manger square,
            and both locals and visitors continue to bear witness
                        to the hope for peace and reconciliation
                        that lies at the heart of the Christmas story.

Just as Jesus brought the hope of God to Bethlehem of old,
            so there are followers of Jesus today
                        who still seek to being the hope of God
                        to a world that is often dark and bleak and cold.

And so people like Jean,
                        together with Christians from many different traditions,
            go to Bethlehem, and other occupied territories,
                        to offer an international human rights presence
                        to help people step away from violence and war,
                        and move towards peace and reconciliation and justice.

And of course it's not just in Bethlehem,
            and it's not only overseas.

Our own great city has its fair share of dark corners,
            and London too needs the 'everlasting light'
                        to shine a beacon of hope to those lost or trapped
                        in the streets and slums of our own part of the world.

And this, in a nutshell, is what this church is about.

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church is a place
            where the homeless and vulnerable find shelter,
            we are a community where the excluded find welcome,
                        and where people can experience transformation in the name of Jesus.

We believe that following the path and example of Jesus
            means that we cannot ignore the needs of our world,
                        whether they are on our doorstep,
                        or on the other side of the world.

For nearly 170 years, this building has stood as a beacon of hope,
            and those who come here, whether  as worshippers on a Sunday
                        or as volunteers with us in other ways,
            find it to be a place of transformation and hope.

I'd like to invite everyone here tonight to get to know us a bit better
            - details of how to find us online are on your order of service.

I've often said that no-one comes to Bloomsbury by accident,
            so if you're here tonight,
            maybe it could be the start of something new.

And my prayer is that this Christmas
            we all will know the peace of Christ,
            both in our own lives, and in our world.

As a symbolic act of prayer, I'm going to light this candle,
                        which Jean brought back for us
                        from The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem,
            and place it on our Peace flag.

As it burns through the rest of the service,
            I'd like to invite us all to take a moment to pray for peace.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Leaving Herod Waiting

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 13/12/2015

Whitelands College Carol Service 13/12/16

Matthew 2:1-16  
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.

What do you do when confronted by a murderous tyrant
            intent on killing innocent members of his own population?

This is neither an ancient nor a rhetorical question.

‘Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
            they left for their own country by another road’

…and so, Luke tells us, the great Herod was left waiting.

And here we meet the wisdom of the wise men,
            echoing down the centuries to us.

There’s always a different route.
            There’s always an alternative path.
            There’s. Always. Another. Way.

Especially when you’re dealing with a murderous,
            self-aggrandizing, self-important ruler
                        who is intent on protecting his own power, whatever the cost.

When the wise men arrived in Jerusalem
            asking where the new-born king of the Jews was to be found.
They could hardly have asked a more worrying question of Herod…
            In a superstitious age, to a paranoid man,
            their quest must have made it seem like even the universe
                        was conspiring against him.

And they nearly fell for Herod’s quickly-hatched cunning plan:
            let the wise men find the child,
            and then arrange to have him killed.

From the point of view of the wise men,
            the obvious course of action would have been to return to Herod,
            make their report, and be on their way.

But as we know, an angel warned them to return by another route,
            and so they just left Herod waiting.

Predictably, perhaps, he reacted badly,
            and Matthew tells us the terrible story of the massacre of the innocents,
                        based on the story of Moses in the book of Exodus,
            helping us understand that Herod is just another Pharaoh,
                        just one more psychotic paranoid ruler
                                    in a long line of tyrants,
            and also that Jesus, like Moses,
                        would lead people from slavery to freedom,
            by pointing them to another way, another path,
                        by offering a new route out of the seemingly endless spirals
                        of violence and intimidation and retribution.

And so the wise men,
            in their encounter the infant Christ,
            heard the wisdom to take another route.

They discovered what we need to discover in our world;
            that sometimes, the wise route is not the obvious one,
                        sometimes, the wise route is not the expected one.
            Sometimes, the wise route is walking in the opposite direction
                        from the way the world is pointing.
            Sometimes, the wise route is refusing to engage
                        the systems of oppression that so desperately seek conflict
                        in order to legitimate their own position.
            Sometimes, the wise route is robbing the tyrant of his power
                        by walking away from the fight that the bully so desperately craves.

And this is a tough path,
            because it flies in the face of common sense.

Common sense tells us that if we meet a tyrant
            we must engage him and defeat him.

‘You can’t let the bullies win, you know!’

But the wisdom of the angel to the wise men
            was that while we may not be able to stop the murderous regime
                        from killing its own population’s innocent children,
            taking the 'other way' offers us an act
                        which denies the regime its power
                        by undermining its legitimacy.

And this is more, far more, than symbolic action.
            The departure of the wise men by ‘another route’
                        re-wrote the story of Herod definitively;
            it left him nowhere to go
                        but further into his own depravity,
            and as he acted to kill the children,
                        he revealed himself to be just another Pharaoh,
            and so the mythology of ‘the great Herod’ took a fatal blow.

By taking the other path,
            the wise men not only avoided complicity in Herod’s sins,
            they also acted to set in place the downfall of his carefully constructed ideology.

And here’s the point:
            when faced with a murderous tyrant,
            there is always another way.

The wise men who followed the star that led to Jesus
            found an alternative path through violence
                        that not only disempowered the mighty Herod,
                        but which effectively re-wrote history’s verdict his life.

He wanted to be remembered as ‘Herod the great’,
            and he could have done it.
But, as they say, history is written by the victors,
            and the unfavourable association of Herod with Pharaoh,
            through the parallel stories
                        of the massacre of the innocents
                        and the killing of the Israelite children,
            has become history’s verdict on his life.

Whether it happened or not is not really the point
            – it’s a story that summarises his life,
                        inviting eternal judgment on him, and all those like him,
                                    who would seek to impede the coming
                                    of the prince of peace in this world of sin.

The ‘other way’ of the wise men is the ‘other way’ of Jesus,
            it is the path of nonviolent resistance,
                        it is the route of subversion,
                        it is the path which, once taken by the few, becomes open for the many.

Mary and Joseph in their turn followed the ‘other way’ of the wise men
                        on their flight to Egypt
            as they too sought a path out of Herod’s murderous clutches.

And so we come to today,
            and what the ‘other way’ of the wise men might look like
            in our own world of sin and violence.

The reality of our world is that now, as then, in so many ways
            Herod still reigns.
And so now, as then,
            Herod must be resisted.

Just as the wise men returned to their own country by another route,
            so those who would be wise in our time,
            need to find ways of bypassing the scheming Herods of our world.

Herod, and those like him, all too readily embrace violence:
            it is how they deal with their enemies:
                        they kill or co-opt, by force if necessary.

We have too many deal-makers in positions of power
            who would do a deal with the devil himself
            if it ensured their ongoing appearance of success.

But, what the path of violence does not know how to deal with
            is a movement, a kingdom,
            whose citizens refuse to believe
                        that violence will determine the meaning of history.

The rise of the alt-right ideology in America,
            and other far right groups in Europe,
will mean that the need is very great for us, in our own time, to discern what it means
            to non-violently disarm and disable powers of oppression.

In this, we will need the alternative wisdom of the kingdom of God,
            and those who embrace this wisdom
                        will become those who bear witness to the new way of being human
            that comes into being in the Christ-child in the manger.

There is always another way.
            Violence does not get to write the rules we must follow.

It's easy for those in favour of a military solution to the Herods of our world
            to characterise those who take a stand of principled nonviolence
            as fuzzy peacenik cowards who go weak at the very thought of danger.

And compared to a man with a gun in his hand,
            the unarmed man will always look vulnerable.
But the 'other way' of Jesus teaches us that this is a false dichotomy,
            it's not a straight choice between 'hero' and 'coward'
             - there is, as the wise men discovered, always another way.

And here’s the thing.

Being nonviolent isn't about doing nothing.
            It is the world of the aid worker, the military chaplain, the journalist,
                        the international observer, the International Accompanist;
            not cowards, but heroes to the cause of peace.

Carrying a gun does not automatically make someone a hero,
            and neither, if I may say so, does being injured on active service.
When we designate our combatants as heroes,
            we end up inferring our peace workers are cowards.

Our society constructs narratives that sanctify violence,
            and we learn to live with casualties, deaths, and collateral damage,
                        and we do so them by telling ourselves
                        that it's all a necessary sacrifice because the end justifies the means.

In other words, we walk straight into Herod’s trap.
            But what if there is another way?

What if the way to hell is indeed paved with good intentions,
            and the road taken by the many is indeed wide and broad enough to take a tank?
And what if the way of Christ is truly narrow and steep,
            and taken only by some, who have the courage to speak out
                        and act against a prevailing ideology
                        of violent retribution and intervention?

When I was a child, I developed a philosophy of game-playing,
            and it was this: if you can’t play to win, don’t play the game.
It’s why I don’t play rugby, or football, or tennis, or cricket…
            well, you get the picture.

But I wonder if we might rephrase this philosophy slightly,
            in the light of the wise men, to:
                        If you can’t change the game, don’t play it.

We may not be able to stop ISIS in its tracks,
            we may not be in a position to prevent the Herods of our world
                        from killing their own innocent people.
But we can take action to de-legitimise their ideology,
            we can work to subversively undermine their power,
            we can re-write the narrative of history
                        away from retribution and towards peace.
            We can, in other words, refuse to play their game.

We can, as the wise men discovered, take another path.

It remains to be seen whether President Elect Trump
            will carry through on some of his more potent and extreme election promises.
But the fact that he made them, and that they won him votes rather than lost them,
            tells us much about the culture of Western liberal democracy,
                        and our enslavement to spiritual powers
                        that are ultimately destructive of peace and stability.

And so we’re back to the wise men.
            And the world has never needed their ‘other way’
                        more than it does today.
            We are still playing our games with rules set by Herod, and we need to stop.

And as the wise men discovered, there’s always another way,
            and in the name of Christ we need to discover this path of Christ.

As Martin Luther King Jr. put it,
            ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’

We need to learn what it is to walk away from the games of violence,
            and do something different.

And what we will discover, of course,
            is what Martin Luther King, Ghandi, and so many others
                        have discovered before us,
            which is that walking the different path
                        undermines the power
                        that was legitimating the game of violence in the first place.

The game-changer will not be Brimstone missiles in Syria,
            nor will it be boots on the ground in Raqqa.

The game-changer is the way of Christ,
            and the wise need to listen and act
            or we all continue on the path to hell.

It is my firm belief that the eternal hope
            made flesh in the baby who comes to us at Christmas
is the only path through death and violence
            to resurrection and new life.

And it is our calling as the people of Christ,
            to live that eternal hope into being in our midst,
as we learn to be wise,
            and to read the signs,

            and to have the courage to tread the ‘other path’ as Christ leads us.