A doubtful reputation

Lent 4c – Sunday 10th March 2013
Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32

The credibility and moral authority of the Catholic Church in Scotland has been damaged, according to the man who has replaced Cardinal Keith O’Brien.
Archbishop Philip Tartaglia took over temporarily as administrator of the Archdiocese of Edinburgh and St Andrews after the cardinal’s resignation.
The cardinal has since apologised for his sexual conduct.
Archbishop Tartaglia told an evening mass that: “This is a sad moment for the church in our country.”
Cardinal O’Brien was Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric until he stood down last Monday after three priests and a former priest had made allegations of “improper behaviour” against him dating back to the 80s.
Initially, he said he would contest the allegations but on Sunday issued an apology, saying that his behaviour had “fallen beneath the standards expected of me”. [Taken from BBC News Scotland]

There’s no show like the spectacular-fall-from-grace show. We love tuning in to watch it. It has the ability to cheer us up, make us feel better, stops the rain from falling on our parade for a short while. We love the sneering contempt, the snorting I’m-better-than-them attitude. Oh yes, it’s made my day.

That is until I remember what I intoned last week:

Then I read my Bible and it says:
Do you think those murdered Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Not at all. Unless you turn to God, you, too, will die.

Yes, I’m no better. And if he turns out to be a dyed in the wool sinner I guess I am too. And as if to further reinforce this point the first few words of this weeks lectionary reading say:

By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently.

The cynical might say that they were hanging around Jesus waiting for a get-out clause for their doubtful reputation. But the truth of the matter is that they discovered that Jesus offered hope, love, forgiveness, healing and grace for people like themselves – sinners. Luke 15 is a wonderful passage for people like Archbishop Tartaglia, Cardinal O’Brien and me. In fact, it’s a wonderful passage for everybody. Because it shares the loving heart of God, the waiting Parent, the caring and compassionate Father, the graceful Friend, the rejoicing God.

And what makes this passage even more amazing is that the Prodigal Son isn’t thrown on the scrapheap, isn’t cast aside. He deserves nothing. He blew his inheritance on wild living. He should get his just deserts. He should get nothing.

We love to kick someone when they’re down, don’t we? Precisely because of this there are now so many media commentators and social experts pouring scorn and sneering contempt on Cardinal O’Brien and his actions. We shouldn’t be surprised by this because for so many years the church has poured scorn and sneering contempt on the world and its sinners. There’s been so little humility, so little grace, no wonderful examples and role models. How many Mother Theresa’s have there been? How many Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s? Not enough.

I know I could stand alongside Cardinal O’Brien – and those disreputable characters from Luke 15 – and say with all sincerity and true humility, “I have all fallen beneath the standards expected of me.” Could you?

And for some reason there’s a very excitable person on the horizon. They’re jumping up and down, doing a little jig, whooping and hollering something. What was it? Did I catch that right? Did they say, “My son is here — given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!” Wonderful. Amazing.

Happy days

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God’s little blue eyed boy

Lent 3c – Sunday 3rd March 2013
Luke 13: 1-9

Hey guys, you’ve not been watching out for me. All I ask is you pay me a bit of attention. Help stop me making a fool out of myself every now and again (I know that’s a bigger task than I realise, but hey, give it a go). For the past eight weeks I’ve labelled every one of my blogs in the wrong year! And you’ve not noticed! How do you know this wasn’t a test I was setting you? How do you know there wasn’t a big prize awaiting the first person to point it out? (There wasn’t, but I was just saying.)

Now please don’t go getting a complex about this little telling off I’ve given you. You’re no worse a blog reader than anyone else. You’re no worse a blogosphere citizen than anyone else who finds their way here. I’m willing to forgive, to give you another chance, let bygones be bygones. We’ll speak of it no more.

Do you think I’m getting ideas above my station? Am I taking this Christ-like thing too far? After all, that’s exactly what our reading says today. And for me, whenever I’m getting a little too big for my boots, this reading brings me back down to earth. Do you ever feel a little smug? A little too satisfied with how life is going? Do you ever cast a roving eye over that person sat next to you on the tram and think yourself just a little better than them? A bit more stylish. A bit more trendy. A bit more good. A bit more holy. A bit more authentic. A bit more, well, Christian.

Wait a minute that’s not right. That didn’t come out like I meant it to. Let me rephrase that paragraph. I don’t think of myself as a good person. But do you ever sit opposite someone on the bus and think they’re a worse person than you? They’d never give up their seat for anyone else. They never smile. They never acknowledge you. They look, frankly, shifty. Not 100 per cent trustworthy. The things they do are bound to be way worse than anything you’ve ever contemplated.

Then I read my Bible and it says:
Do you think those murdered Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Not at all. Unless you turn to God, you, too, will die.

I reread my words and I do indeed die. I’m no blue eyed boy. I’m no better than anyone else. We all stand accused, we are all found guilty. We are sinners. And sin is sin is sin. There’s no better kind of sin. There’s no grades or levels of sinfulness. There’s just sin. We need to turn to God (I love that phrase). We need to turn around. To shift ourselves. To take action. To do something. To recognise our failing. To turn to God.

And I’m glad that God’s a considerate gardener. Me? I’m a useless gardener. I pull up the things that need to stay and leave the things that should be in the compost heap. I’m glad God is prepared to give me another chance, to let me mature, to do what I should have done a long time ago.

But the sting is in the tale here:
“The gardener said, ‘Let’s give it another year. I’ll dig around it and fertilise, and maybe it will produce next year; if it doesn’t, then chop it down.’”

We are not just ornaments in the kingdom of God. Our lives should bear fruit.

Lent is often seen as a very spiritual and personal journey we undertake. This passage reminds us that our lives should be blossoming. This week do something practical, something that overflows from the richness of your life. Go and visit someone who’s having it rough lately. Volunteer to listen to the children read in your local primary school. Litter pick your street. You can make a difference. God lives in you.

Me? I’m just going to proof read this blog one more time looking for typo’s!

Happy days

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Size of a hen

Lent 2c – Sunday 24th February 2012
Luke 13: 31-35

Dominus Flavit There was horror in the news 10 days ago, when a story was reported about how a fox stole into a house in South London and attacked a 4 week old baby. The fox pulled the baby out of its cot and in the ensuing struggle inflicted very serious injuries. Authorities were quick to reassure people that fox attacks on humans were very rare, nevertheless the family and local community were left deeply shocked.

Dominus FlavitWhen Jesus labelled Herod “that fox”, he obviously wasn’t just referring to the cunning qualities of the animal. No doubt he was referring to the ruthless or even the vicious acts that foxes are capable of. So, when Jesus comes up against the fox, how does he see God’s affirmative action? What does he become?

Dominus FlavitI remember as a child watching a programme in which one of the cartoon heroes had the ability to turn himself into any given animal. I think it was The Arabian Nights. At one moment he would be a mouse so he could escape from confined quarters, at another a mighty elephant to crush the opposition. All he needed to do was say, “Size of an ostrich”, clap his hands and the deed was done. Many a happy childhood hour was spent watching this programme.

So it amazes me that Jesus didn’t do something similar. Why, of all the animals in the animal kingdom, did Jesus choose to put a hen up against a fox? Barbara Brown Taylor explores this question in her article As a Hen Gathers Her Brood.

She says:
Given the number of animals available, it is curious that Jesus chooses a hen. Where is the biblical precedent for that? What about the mighty eagle of Exodus, or Hosea’s stealthy leopard? What about the proud lion of Judah, mowing down his enemies with a roar? Compared to any of those, a mother hen does not inspire much confidence. No wonder some of the chicks decided to go with the fox.

Barbara Brown Taylor begins her article by describing the small chapel situated on the slopes of the Mount of Olives called Domunis Flevit. This is supposed to be the place where Jesus wept over Jerusalem. The current chapel was constructed in the 1950’s, built in the shape of a teardrop, it has a magnificent view over the Temple Mount of Jerusalem. On the altar is a mosaic that is said to date from the 7th century, a mosaic of a hen and her chicks, with the words from Luke 13 around its edge. In the mosaic the hen has its wings spread wide to protect its chicks. Naturally, spreading wings wide puffs the chest out making the hen appear so vulnerable.

And that is the way of Jesus. Turning every single one of our ideas and conceptions about him upside down. Which will he choose? Lion or hen? First or last? Vulnerable or victorious? Throne or cross? He surprises me every day of my life.

As Barbara Brown Taylor says in conclusion:
Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.

And that’s the amazing God who has claimed me. The amazing God who laid down his life for me. The amazing God who told Herod: “Tell that fox that I’ve no time for him right now. Today and tomorrow I’m busy clearing out the demons and healing the sick; the third day I’m wrapping things up.” Not distracted from his tasks, diverted from his aims, but serving, serving, serving. Giving, giving, giving.

What a wonderful example and inspiration to us all. Next time I’m out in the park recreating an episode from The Arabian Nights, I’m going to shout out at the top of my voice: “Size of a hen!” There’s no greater superhero.

Happy days

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A Quiet Walk along Via Devana

Lent 1c – Sunday 17th February 2012
Luke 4: 1-13

Car Park KingLeicester is a wonderful city. Sitting at the heart of the East Midlands it truly is an English gem of a city and a county. I feel very proud to have my roots in this city and I will always have a fond place in my heart for it.

Leicester is also a very historic city. It seemed that every which way you turned when I was a child it had a historical connection!

I remember when I was a young lad I used to go on cycle rides that would take me out on the old Roman road that today is named Gartree Road. This road traced the old Colchester to Chester route of Via Devana … and I used to walk along Devana Road to go to school every morning.

At the same time I used to go to concerts put on by the Leicester Philharmonic Choir, of which my dad was a member. More often than not, they used to take place in the quite wonderful De Montfort Hall, a venue whose name was inspired with a historical connection that Leicester had with the De Montfort family that originated in 12th Century France.

In fact, my dad used to work at Montfort Knitting Mills, which was situated on Tudor Road. The Hosiery industry was a very large presence in Leicester, and one of the most famous brands was Wolsey Socks. Of course, this was named after Leicester’s association with Cardinal Wolsey … Henry VIII’s right hand fixer … who died at Leicester Abbey in 1530.

To get to where my dad worked you had to drive down King Richards Road, which was not far from the bridge over the river Soar where, my dad confidently assured me, it was said that King Richard’s body had been slung following the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Dad’s! Never believe a word they say!

My reason for wandering down this particular avenue of history is because of the announcement last week that King Richard III wasn’t actually unceremoniously dumped over the side of a bridge but in actual fact was buried in the Greyfriars Church. In modern day Leicester, he was found underneath a Council owned car park and with the historical connection ratified it became one of the feature news stories of last week.

One of most popular misconceptions about King Richard III arises from Shakespeare’s portrayal of him as a despotic hunchback tyrant. The temptation to follow in the Bards footsteps is an easy one to make … and approaching the season of Lent and the question of temptation it’s a good link to follow.

What do we make of Lent? Is it just about fasting, temptation and what we can give up? For me, Lent should be a thoughtful and provocative journey, an examination of our faith and where we’re headed. It should allow us to see how we’re equipped to deal with the demands of kingdom life, how we’re being shaped and moulded. And at the heart of this quest is the Bible, God’s word. How should we use it? What should we take from it?

David Lose over at WorkingPreacher.org, in an article entitled Trust and Temptation, makes a very interesting point with regard to this:

In each case Jesus replies with Scripture. Over the years people have made a great deal about that, inviting us to respond to life’s challenges by remembering or quoting Bible verses. And while there may be something to that, I wonder if it’s not so much that Jesus quotes Scripture to deflect temptation as it is that Jesus finds in Scripture the words to give voice to his trust. Because at the heart of each reply is Jesus’ absolute trust in – and dependence on – God for his identity and future.

There is a crucial link between trust and temptation. To the degree that we trust God for our daily needs, for a sense of purpose, for our identity as a child of God, the temptations of the world have, frankly, little appeal. But to the degree that we allow our natural insecurity to lead us to mistrust God, we are open to the possibility, appeal, and temptation of the proposition that it is all up to us, that God is not able to provide and so we’d better take matters into our own hands.

But of course it’s not enough just to say that. Indeed, just saying that can make people feel worse, precisely we know we do not trust God as we should. So after talking about this, I’d invite us also to practice it. Because trust, like anything else, is strengthened through practice.

Perhaps that would be a good exercise for all of us this Lent. Trust. What do we trust to God? What do we trust to our own strength? In fact, should there be anything that we don’t trust to God? And do we see trust as an active or passive act? Quite often I feel the temptation just to sit back and trust God. But on many occasions trusting God comes with a task attached, an action required. There’s a great depth of wisdom and understanding that goes hand in hand with trust, and I feel it’s a mighty lesson I need to learn.

Happy days

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Sound of the voice

Last Epiphany/Transfiguration – Sunday 10th February 2012
Luke 9: 28-36

The Transfiguration … Bit of a challenging passage … What’s it all about? … The Good News Instant reaction Bible.

The Transfiguration … A very challenging passage … What’s there not to like about it? … More measured The Message response Bible.

I’ve always struggled with the account of The Transfiguration. In the list of most random happening, not-quite-sure-where-it’s-going, head-scratching passages of the Bible it’s certainly in the top three.

I mean, how did they know they were Moses and Elijah … and what did they precisely have to natter about with Jesus. Comparing exodus’s? What’s that all about? And just when it’s getting interesting (says he trying to stifle a yawn) Peter says let’s build a memorial, the antiquity version of a Blue Plaque Ceremony. Then in the mists of an enveloping cloud God’s voice makes an appearance … and before you know it … poof … it all disappears.

If I was Peter, John or James I’d certainly be checking the provenance of those mushrooms served with breakfast.

Wowser. Preach a sermon on that.

But the more I think about it, the more I like the final verse and the way it brings the whole passage into focus … especially Eugene Petersen’s translation of it:

When the sound of the voice died away, they saw Jesus there alone. They were speechless. And they continued speechless, said not one thing to anyone during those days of what they had seen.

When the sound of the voice died away … I particularly like that phrase. Because first off, it gives a calm, serene feeling to this momentous moment the disciples were experiencing. I know that feeling. I often have that moment when I’ve felt God speaking to me and it’s left me with a deep calm and reassurance. Or not necessarily calm, sometimes it leaves me feeling very excited, and it’s like the voice hasn’t died away but is still ringing loud and clear. To know God … that is what this passage is all about for me. And yet …

To NOT know God … They were speechless … There is a way in which God just completely confounds you. I cannot explain his majesty, his wonder, his way of thinking, his way of working. There is so much that happens to my life that defies explanation and logic. It leaves me speechless. Speechless in a good way … and speechless in a bad way too … in equal measure.

But as George Michael sings … You’ve gotta have faith. And faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see (Hebrews 11:1).

The Transfiguration … An impossible passage … Fits right in with everything else in The Bible … The Slow Burning Authorised Version comeback Bible.

Happy days

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Alexander the (Passionate) Corrector

Epiphany 4c – Sunday 3rd February 2012
Luke 4: 21-30

Alexander CrudenI have just finished reading an excellent book. I don’t know why it caught my eye. It wasn’t recommended to me, nor was it about anyone I knew. I don’t usually go for biographies, but I did on this occasion and I’m glad I did.

The book was Alexander the Corrector by Julia Keay, and I suppose it was the subtitle that hooked me in: “The tormented genius who unwrote the Bible”.

The book told the story of Alexander Cruden, the man who wrote the monumental Concordance to the Bible, a book published in 1737 and yet one that has never been out of print since. Born in Aberdeen in 1699, he was educated to a very high standard at Marischall College – the forerunner of the University of Aberdeen, and the fourth oldest University in Scotland. He excelled at Latin, Greek and French, was very accomplished at history and geography, but his passion lay in the study of Scripture. Having started Grammar School at the age of 8, he was in the equivalent of University at 13, and was a college tutor by the age of 18. He would have gone on to become a very fine Presbyterian Minister if it hadn’t been for the fact that at the age of 21 he was locked up in the Aberdeen Tollbooth – confined in the lunatic asylum.

In 1724 Cruden left Aberdeen for London where he became a personal tutor, then a proof reader for the flourishing publishing business, eventually becoming a publisher himself. Alongside this he spent over 10 years putting his Concordance together, a colossal undertaking that displayed his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Scriptures, a book that has been universally acknowledged ever since by those who study the Bible as an invaluable aid. By the time he died in 1770 he had spent another 3 occasions in ‘private madhouses’ and yet had become a very well respected man in London academic, publishing, political, religious and Royal circles.

It really is a fascinating story and I won’t give away any more of the plot, but instead commend you to read it yourself. What I found amazing about his story was that, despite coming from a very loving and caring family background in Aberdeen, Alexander Cruden never returned to his hometown for 45 years. It reminded me immediately of the gospel reading for this week:

Well, let me tell you something: No prophet is ever welcomed in his hometown.
(Luke 4: 24 – The Message)

After reading from the book of Isaiah the people were very impressed with Jesus. But when he explained that the message of the Messiah would not be welcomed in his home town the people were outraged and made to throw him off some local cliff. But Jesus just released himself from them and went about his way.

I recently read a blog that talked about the qualities needed for Bible inspired leaders. Effective leaders, like Jesus and Paul, are those who have figured out what they stand for, it said. It must have impressed me because I printed out and stuck right above my desk the following words:

They have identified their purpose and pursue it with a passion.

That’s the image that sticks with me from this Bible reading. Jesus was a man on a mission. He knew where he was headed in life. And everything he did, he did with passion. That’s exactly what I liked about Alexander Cruden – he had a real passion in his life for God’s word. He wanted to tell others the good news message, he was passionate about observing the Lord’s day, he wanted to change the lives of those around him. He was compassionate and enthusiastic, he had a real zeal for God’s work.

I hope the same can be said about me and you.

Happy days

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This is God’s year to act!

Epiphany 3c – Sunday 27th January 2012
Luke 4: 14-21

If you get a sense of depression whilst reading this I do apologise. You see I’m writing this on Blue Monday. The third Monday in the New Year has become known as Blue Monday … well, mainly to those who want to rant about it not being a depressing day and those who want to sell you something to help ease you through Blue Monday. They say that the hopes and dreams of a new year have passed, the winter blues of coughs, colds and bad weather have built up and everything else is going down the pan … making this the most depressing day of the year.

The media is full of articles discussing whether this is a valid use of our time or not. The Telegraph suggests that if you’re depressed buy a puppy. The Guardian says it’s a complete waste of time, “…gibberish, bilge, rubbish, stupid, and any other polite way of saying utter garbage that you can think of.” The Daily Mail blames the European Parliament for Blue Monday – mind you the Daily Mail blames the European Parliament for everything!

If you do need cheering up read this passage from Luke’s gospel:
God’s Spirit is on me; he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor,
Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind,
To set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is God’s year to act!”

Without a doubt these words (here taken from The Message) have a rejuvenating effect. They make me want to shout out from the rooftops “Come, Lord Jesus, Come!”

You see 9 times out of 10 I do feel burdened and battered. Not just on Blue Monday. But on Monday 21st, Tuesday 22nd, Wednesday 23rd, etc, etc. There always seems so much to do and so little time to do it. There seems to be so few workers in the harvest field. I don’t know if I have the necessary gifts and talents, and the get-up-and-go to make a dint in this kingdom building job I’ve been called to. And besides which, I get knocked down so many times I really feel the exhaustion of it all. So to hear once again those liberating words of Jesus that he’s coming to set the burdened and battered free is like a breath of fresh air. I’m burdened. I’m battered. I’m out for the count. I need rescuing. I need salvation. And would you believe it, there he stands … hands outstretched … just for me. He truly is an amazing God. It’s not what I deserve … but he does it anyway. He lifts me up, he dust me down, he walks with me. He forgives my sin, he clears my vision, he renews my call, he provides. Amazing.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

That’s enough to shake off the blues any day of the week.

But more than that, here’s an invitation to take part. “This is God’s year to act!” God wants me as a good news teller, a compassion giver, a kingdom builder, a prayer maker, a worship singer. Amazing.

He can’t do it on his own. He needs me. I’m the one who usually says that … “Lord, I can’t do this on my own.” But in this mission he calls me to be his hands, his voice, his feet, his heart.

I pray that God will send his Holy Spirit to fill us all to do this good work for the kingdom. May our vision be compelling, may our tiredness be lifted, may our depression be deflated, may our fears be defeated, may our hearts be spirit-filled and may God’s kingdom be victorious.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

Happy days

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