Sunday, 25 December 2016

Christmas Day 2016

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

I was pondering the nature of God this week.
          I think it's my job, so I let my mind run with it.

And I found myself asking:
          Can God be known in the midst of human life?
          Who is this God of whom we speak?

What does it mean to confess faith in God,
          in the face of our experience of what it means to be human?

From Berlin to Aleppo,
          to the many and hidden sufferings and sorrows of our own lives;
where and who is this God of whom we speak?

The stories of Christmas Day are not always a helpful thing to us here.
          Improbable stories of divinely ordained parthenogenesis,
          inherited traditions of god-babies, wise men, and shepherds.
          Medieval mysticism and Victorian sentimentality.

And yet, maybe, somewhere in the midst of all this;
          maybe, indeed, through all this,
we catch a glimpse of something deeply profound.

Where is God? Who is God?

God is there, in the manger, blinking unseeing through baby eyes.
          A tiny, helpless, hopeless scrap of life,
                   which nonetheless speaks uniquely
                   of the commitment of God to human frailty.

Part of the problem with speaking of belief in God,
          is that there are so many definitions of God
                   that we are invited to believe in.

          God who intervenes directly in human affairs,
          God who judges the unrighteousness,
          God who punishes the wicked.

And the problem with these invitations to belief
          is that they are, for some of us at least,
                   unsustainable in the light of our knowledge of science,
                   or our experience of the depth of human suffering,
                   or our beliefs about mercy and love.

And I am, so to speak, atheist with regard to some of these Gods,
          and agnostic about others.

So where, then, might we seek a God in whom we may have faith?
          Where do we find a God who faces unflinchingly the darkness of the world;
          a God of love and mercy as well as justice?

Well, today, we are invited to seek God in the baby.

This is God whose intervention in human history
          is very far from the offering of easy solutions
                   to the petty or pressing problems of our lives.
This is God found in human form, from baby to adult;
          God immersed in humanity to transform it from the inside out,
                   not from the outside-in.

This is God vulnerable, God impoverished, God-forsaken.
          This is God in the manger.

Bad things happen to good people,
          and good things happen to bad people;
this last I know to be true because good things happen to me.

And this is where we find God.
          In the midst of life.

The miracle of Christmas is not that an absent and distant God
          miraculously intervenes in human history.

Rather, it is in an invitation to us all
          to experience the miraculous moment of recognition
                    that God is found in human form, from birth to death.

'God is here and God is now', to quote the hymn we sometimes sing.

God is love, God is life,
          God is hope, God is peace,
God is here.

Immanuel, God with us.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

A poem for 21 December

Long night ahead?
Nah, just a short day.

It's not the hours of darkness
that bother me,
but the passing of the day:

'Life's little day',
ebbing swiftly to its close.
Too soon, too soon.

The light of new life
in a baby's eyes.
Then years flicker past,
and light dims to dark.

But the baby, ah, the baby.
The eternal baby.
Every year crucified,
every year reborn.

New life in the cycle of life,
death undone
and robbed.

Longest night.
shortest day.

And from today, 
light returns.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Keeping the Rumour of God Alive

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
11 December 2016

Isaiah 2.1-5  
Matthew 5.14-16   
Today’s service is structured around a series of stories of hope,
          and our hope is that, as we draw nearer to Christmas,
                   these stories will speak to us and through us
                   of the hope that comes into the world in Jesus,
          and which shines through us to lighten the darkness
                   of a world that so often seems bleak and depressing.

When I was a child, I remember being told the little rhyme:
          ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’.

And whilst I think we all know what it’s trying to say,
          to children facing teasing and verbal bullying,
I also think it seriously underestimates the power of words.

The writer of the Psalms knows something of the capacity of words to hurt a person:
          and says in Psalm 42:10
          ‘As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me’.

And words continue to have a power to destroy and break down,
          which we experience in many ways in our own lives.
From the devastation of ‘I don’t love you anymore’,
          to the heartbreak brought by the bearer of tragic news,
words have an enduring capacity to change the world for the worse.

In one memorable scene in a Dr Who Christmas episode a few years ago,
          the Doctor is speaking to the Prime Minister,
                   played by the wonderful Penelope Wilton,
          and he tells her that he can bring her down with just six words.

She dares him to do his worst,
          so he leans in to one of her aides, and whispers in his ear:
          ‘Don't you think she looks tired?’

By the end of the episode, the previously strong Prime Minister
          is seen to be battling rumours of ill-health,
          and is facing a vote of no confidence in the House.

The similarities with some of the personal attacks launched at Hillary Clinton
          in the recent US presidential election are striking.

Words can indeed destroy worlds.
          But they can also create them.

The power of words can construct hope in the face of hopelessness,
          they can bring comfort where there is distress,
          and faith where there is doubt.

It’s one of the reasons I still stand up here on Sundays
          to present my words for the congregation…
Hoping that in some way the dreams, ideas, and faith that underlies them
          will come into being in the lives of those who hear them.

One of the former ministers of this church, Brian Haymes,
          speaks of the role of the minister
          as being that of ‘keeping the rumour of God alive’.

And I want to offer this idea to all of us this morning.
          Because maybe this is not just the mission of the minister, or the preacher.
Maybe the task before each of us
          is that of ‘keeping the rumour of God alive’.

Here, the power of words is used to keep alive the story of faith,
          to keep telling the tales of grace,
          to keep spinning narratives of hope into being.

This was certainly the understanding of Isaiah,
          in the story of a new world
          found near the beginning of the book that bears his name.

The setting of these words, spoken to the ancient Israelites,
          was one of impending disaster.
The Babylonians were soon to march into the land,
          destroy the temple, and carry the people of God into exile.

Their understanding of themselves as God’s chosen and loved people
          was about to be tested to the limits,
          as they faced war and deportation

And with them into the darkness of the decades to come,
          they took, preserved, and treasured,
the oracle of Isaiah,
          that one day, one day…, things would be different.

Isaiah’s vision offered people hope, that a time was coming
          when the law of the Lord would be pre-eminent,
                   over the laws of all other lordships.

And whilst these verses are developed,
                   within the Jewish and Christian tradition,
          to become a hope for a distant future, or an afterlife,
                   where wrongs will be righted, and sins forgiven,
in Isaiah’s own time and context
          it is likely that what he meant when he spoke of ‘the days to come’
                   was not some distant future,
          but a particular time of the year,
                   probably one of the festivals linked to harvest-time,
          when people could celebrate the annual move from a time of patient waiting
                             to a time of fruitfulness and harvest,
          before the world turned again
                   and the season moved inexorably to winter.

In Isaiah’s context,
          the security of the Temple and the Land
                   was about to be disrupted by a season of bitterness and displacement
                   at the hands of the Babylonians,
          and he offered those facing the darkness of the future
                   a vision of hope that one day, as surely as the seasons turn,
                   so their future would also turn once again to hope.

As we hear the words of Isaiah’s vision in the run-up to Christmas,
          our own annual festival of hope in the depth of cold and darkness,
                   when we remember the coming of Jesus into this world of sin,
          we can hear this story of hope
                   inviting us too to resist the stories of defeat, darkness, and despair,
          and instead to live and breathe into life
                   our own stories of hope, faith, and love.

Words, you see, don’t just describe the world,
          they have the capacity to create the world.

Have you ever noticed that in the Genesis creation story,
          God speaks the world into being.

The truth of this story is that words create worlds,
          and can do so for good or for evil.

We all love to hear stories, and we all tell stories;
          with our voices we tell them,
                   but also by our lives,
                   the things we say and the things we do.

And I wonder, this morning,
          what kind of a story are we telling with our lives?
          What kind of a story am I telling?

We hear stories in the news,
          stories of war, pessimism, hurt, pain, and despair.
And sometimes it can seem too much to bear.
          Sometimes I just have to turn it off
          because I can’t bear to hear those stories any more.

But then these stories of darkness enter into us, and shape us,
          and not always in helpful ways.
We end up repeating in our own lives the despair we have heard,
          and if we are not careful we magnify them,
          and glorify in the retelling of them.

And whilst certainly I would not want to advocate a Pollyanna approach to life,
          where we close our ears to stories of tragedy,
          and adopt a forced optimism,
neither should we aim for a Chicken Licken approach,
          forever retelling the story that the sky is falling.

Rather, Isaiah invites us to rewrite the story of our lives,
          according to God’s perspective.

Just as he encouraged the ancient Jews
          to take a realistic approach to the disaster that lay before them,
          but also to not lose their hope in the future,
so we should not seek to minimize bad news,
          but also we should learn to not let go of the story of hope
          that our faith in a God of love revealed in Christ Jesus gives us.

Despite what Peter our train-driver-deacon may like to tell us sometimes,
          the light at the end of the tunnel is not always a train coming towards you.

It was Martin Luther King Jr. who said
          that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it tends towards justice’.

And the prophet Isaiah tell us that
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.  3 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.  4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.  5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

This is our story of hope,
          and if we tell it faithfully, we create a world in which it becomes true.

So let’s commit ourselves again, today,

          to keeping the rumour of God alive.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Building a vision for the common good

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
20th November 2016 11.00am

Revelation 21.1-11, 22-26; 22.17
Jeremiah 29.1-14

Listen to this sermon here:

The question I’d like us to hold before us this morning,
          and which I hope our engagement with scripture will shed some light on,
is the question of:
          ‘what, in the world, are we here for?’

‘What, in the world, are we here for?’

And as with all interesting and important questions,
          I think it bears a little unpacking.

Specifically, I wonder who we think is the ‘we’ here?
          Do we hear this as applying to us as a collection of individuals?
                   Perhaps asking us why we are here, at this church, this morning?
          Or do we hear it as applying to us as a congregation,
                   asking us collectively why we exist here,
                   in this building, in this city?
          Or maybe we should hear it in a wider sense than this,
                   perhaps as applicable to the church universal,
                   asking us what the point of Christian churches are in general?
          Or maybe we should hear it at an existential level,
                   applying to all of humanity,
                   asking us what, if anything, is the point of human life itself?

All of which are valid questions,
          and subsumed within them we have whole disciplines
                   of philosophy, ethics, ecclesiology, and theology.
So perhaps we might need to narrow it down,
          for our focus of enquiry this morning?

I’m going to suggest that we hear it as being directed
          primarily at the church in its universal sense
                   – why is there a church in the world? –
          and then secondarily as applying to us as a congregation.

We may need to put aside our own existential anxieties
          for another sermon on another day.

So, ‘what, in the world, are we here for?’

We’re coming to the end of our series of sermons on biblical buildings,
          which we’ve been working our way through over the last month or so.

We started with the Tower of Babel,
          and then we looked at the tabernacle,
                   then the temples of Solomon and Ezra,
          then Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the temple,
and in today’s sermon we come to the vision of the new Jerusalem
          from the end of the Bible.

It’s often said that the Bible starts with a vision of a garden,
          and ends with a vision of a city,
and this can be a helpful way to think of the trajectory
          that scripture take us on
with its rollercoaster journey
          from a one vision of perfection to another,
encompassing the vast sweep of human experience along the way.

But another way of thinking about the Bible
          is that it is an attempt to explore,
                   through story and history, through poetry and parable,
          what the purpose might be
                   for God having called some people to be his people.

It’s there, of course,
          in the moment of revelation given to Abraham,
                   the father of the Jewish people,
                   and the spiritual ancestor of Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

The covenant that God made with Abraham,
          was that his descendants would be the people of God,
          and that they would be a blessing to the whole earth.

The purpose of calling one group of humans
          into a relationship with God
has always been that the blessing will go beyond that group.

The outworking of this, then, is that any form of religion
          that seeks to keep the blessings of their relationship with God
                   to themselves and those like them
          is a betrayal of the covenant that God made with Abraham.

So, the first part of an answer
          to our question of, ‘What, in the world, are we here for?’,
surely has to be that, at the very least,
          we are here to be good news
          to those who live beyond our own community.

We are here to be good news
          to the lost, the lonely, and the least,
to be good news to those who not like us.

And here we come to my main point for this morning,
          which I’ll give away now so that we can think about it as we go through.

It’s this: I think we’re here, in this world,
          to build a vision for the common good.

Those who built the Tower of Babel
          were trying to build their way to heaven,
while those who built the tabernacle
          were trying to build a home for God on earth.

Solomon built his temple
          to keep God close to the seat of royal power,
and Ezra rebuilt it as a symbol of ethnic exclusivity.

But all these attempts to build the kingdom of God on earth ultimately failed,
          because God cannot be reached by human efforts,
          and neither can he be contained by human buildings.

The good news of the New Testament witness
          is that God is encountered on earth,
                   not through a sacred building or a tower of strength,
          but through the person of Jesus himself,
                   as he is revealed by his Spirit
                   through the people that bear his name.

And I want to suggest that if we are those people,
          then the reason we’re here
                   is not to build God a house,
                   or to build power or strength,
          but to build a vision for the common good.

We’re here to be a blessing to those who are not part of us,
          we’re here to be good news to all people.

And so we come to the fascinating vision of the church on the earth,
          which we meet in the biblical image of the New Jerusalem.

Many readers of this image take it as a vision of the future,
          something that will happen at some point far from now
                   as a mysterious celestial city bangs down from the heavens
                   and settles on the earth.
          I have to say that this approach has never seemed all that persuasive to me,
                   after all, what earthly use today is a vision of the distant future?
          I think it’s much more likely
                   that what we’ve got going on here is a metaphor,
                   a compelling picture which invites further reflection
                             as to what it might mean for us to be the church
                             in our own time and place.

So, in this way, I think that the New Jerusalem
          is one of the images that the Bible uses
          for the church in the here-and-now.
It’s a picture of the people of God on the earth.

And I think it helps us address our question
          of what, on earth, we are here for.

Bear with me for a moment on this,
          but I’d like us to think about the utility supplies in the New Jerusalem.
Specifically, the supply of light and water.

The text clearly tells us that the city has no need
          for either the natural lights of the sun and the moon,
          or for the artificial light that comes from lamps.
Rather, the glory of God is its light,
          and its lamp is the Lamb of God.
In fact, it has so much light
          that it shines brightly enough for all the nations to walk by its light.

And similarly, it seems to have a never-ending supply of fresh water,
          enough not only for its own citizens,
but to quench the thirst of anyone who wishes to come
          and take the water of life as a gift.

And this super-abundance of light and water
          is in stark contrast to all other human cities.

The city of Jerusalem itself, the one that still sits on a hill in Israel,
          actually has no natural water supply at all;
                   until very recent times, it was entirely dependent on a water tunnel
                   bringing water in from outside the city.

And the supply of light to keep city streets safe at night was,
          until the invention of electricity and gas supplies,
dependent on lamps and oil,
          as we see reflected in Jesus’ famous parable
          about the virgins and their oil lamps.

And here, considering light and water,
          we find ourselves in the world
          of the economics of the common good.

In any city, and in any society,
          there are certain things that it makes more sense to enact collectively.

The lighting of the streets is a great example,
          although the principle can be extrapolated
          across many areas of need and provision.

The thing about street lights is that
          no one street light exclusively benefits any one individual.
The system only works
          when all the lights are working
          for the benefit of all the inhabitants.

It makes no sense for someone to arrange to light
          only for the part of the pavement that they are walking along.
This, in a nutshell, is the economics of the common good.

The same is true of water supplies,
          sewage systems, public transport, and health care provision.

From the Roman aqueducts, to the National Health Service, to Obamacare,
          enlightened rulers have sought to implement policies
          for the common good.

And I think the image of the New Jerusalem
          as the city with enough light to shine across all the nations,
          and with enough water to supply the thirst of any who need it,
invites us to reflect on a vision of the church:
          in the world, for the common good.

What, in the world, are we here for?
          We’re here for the good of all;
          in fulfilment of the covenant between God and Abraham.

This is a spiritual vision,
          but it is a vision with some very practical out-workings.

All too often churches have come to see themselves
          as existing in the world for their own benefit,
with the church in effect functioning as a closed-set club,
          with admission upon request.

The purpose of such club-churches varies,
          from the basic Christian social club church,
                   to groups drawn together around a particular understanding
                             of a theological issue,
          to single-issue churches focusing on anything
                   from a specific style of music to a distinctive architectural style.

And at one level there’s nothing wrong with any of these;
          social interaction is a gift of grace,
                   theological issues do matter,
                   as do music and architecture.
But the problem with closed-set club churches
          is that they primarily exist for the benefit of their own members.
They build for themselves,
          rather than for the common good.

Many of the buildings that house churches today
          are there because churches decided to build themselves a home.
They offer somewhere for the people of God
          to come and worship their God.
We think of them as ‘our church’, where we come to meet with God,
          encountering him in the sanctuary we have built for him.

However, this is not true of all church buildings.

Think of the great Methodist Mission churches of the London suburbs,
          built to offer transformation in the poorest
                   and most deprived areas of the Victorian city;
          promoting the temperance movement
                   in the face of the evils of alcohol addiction,
          and supporting the suffragette cause for the emancipation of women.

They were built for the common good.

And I want to say, also, think of this building in which we now sit,
          built not just to house a congregation
                   who come to worship God on the Lord’s day,
          but to be a place of Baptist mission to the centre of the city,
                   strategically placed on the boundary between wealth and poverty
                   with the express intention of bringing the two together
                   in ways that transform the city for good.

We are the heirs of a vision to build for the common good,
          just as we are the spiritual descendants of Abraham
                   and his vision of the people of God in the world
                   for the blessing of all peoples.
We are called to be the new Jerusalem,
          offering light and water to the city outside those doors.

The question, of course, is what offering light and water
          might look like in our complex, technological, 24 hour city?
What does it mean for us to build a vision for the common good?
          Where is the need in our city?

What would it mean for us, as the people of God,
          to shine light into the darkest corners of London,
                   exposing the oppressive systems and practices
                   that enslave people’s souls and bodies?

What would it mean for us, as the people of God,
          to offer refreshing water to those who are being poisoned
          by the polluted atmosphere of hatred and cynicism and despair?

Here, I think, we need to hear the word of Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon.

You may remember the story:
          The Babylonians invaded Jerusalem,
                   about six hundred years before the time of Jesus,
          sacked the city and destroyed the temple,
                   before carrying a swathe of the Jewish population into exile in Babylon.

It was to these exiles, far from home,
          with no buildings of their own and no temple in which to worship,
that Jeremiah wrote:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel,
          to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
5 Build houses and live in them;
          plant gardens and eat what they produce. 
6 Take wives and have sons and daughters;
          take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage,
          that they may bear sons and daughters;
                   multiply there, and do not decrease. 
7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile,
          and pray to the LORD on its behalf,
          for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

The call of God to those in exile in Babylon
          is to seek the welfare of the city of Babylon.

In the book of Revelation, where we meet our image
          of the church as the New Jerusalem,
the name Babylon is used as a codename for the Roman empire,
          and the picture it paints is of the people of God
                   there, in the midst of the empire, for good, and for the common good.

The gates of the new Jerusalem are open,
          its light shines brightly beyond its own walls,
          and its pure water is available for all.

This is not a vision of the church battened down,
          defensively protecting itself while entering survival mode.
It is a vision of the church militant,
          in the world for the good of all,
          courageously seeking the welfare of the city.

For Babylon, read Rome, read London.

We are not here to build a temple in which we can worship our God.
          We are not here to build a tower of strength.
                   We are not here to build political power.
          We are not here to build walls around our communities.

We are here, in the world, to throw open the doors,
          to shine brightly, and to build a vision for the common good,
          to seek the welfare of the city to which we have been sent.

We’re not building a building,
          we’re building a new world.

We’re here to learn, together, to see the world differently,
          to see the world as God sees it,
and to speak and live into being
          an alternative way of being human before God
          which is light and water
                   to those whose lives are in darkness
                   and whose souls are parched.

Pope Francis has said,

“Indifference to our neighbor and to God …
          represents a real temptation for us Christians.
Usually, when we are healthy and comfortable,
          we forget about others (something God the Father never does):
we are unconcerned with their problems,
          their sufferings and the injustices they endure…
Our heart grows cold.
As long as I am relatively healthy and comfortable,
          I don’t think about those less well off.
Today, this selfish attitude of indifference has taken on global proportions,
          to the extent that we can speak of a globalization of indifference.
It is a problem which we, as Christians, need to confront.”

We are here, on the earth, to be good news for all,
          to build a vision for the common good,
because if we don’t articulate Heaven’s perspective on the earthly situation,
          who on earth is going to do it?

So as we live in a world of growing fear,
          with the whiff of fascism in the air,
          with growing suspicion of the other,
                   and fear of the foreigner,
          with poverty and homelessness literally on our doorstep
          with mental health services in crisis
                   at the very point where they are most needed
          with social care and security facing cuts of catastrophic levels…

Maybe this is what, in the world, we’re here for.

And so we are called to look beyond ourselves,
          to take into action our conviction that in Christ every life matters,
                   and that Christ always has a bias
                   to the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized.
We are called to build alliances with others,
          and to speak truth to power,
          as we hold to account those who hold power.
We are called to engage politics and charity,
          to build communities of reciprocity,
to run night shelters and day centres,
          to use our resources to see the marginalized included,
          the poor lifted up,
          and the vulnerable made strong.

We are called to build a vision for the common good,
          where the absolute love of God for each and every person
          is at the heart of all that we do.

Because it will be in and through us
                   that utopian religion finds its pragmatic reality,
          we are where dreams become real and visions get built.
We are the outpost on the earth of the new world that that is coming.
          As we live into being in our midst the reality for which we pray:
                   That the kingdom will come,
                   on earth as it is in heaven.