Friday, 1 April 2016

Save our steel

Who knows whether the steel works at Port Talbot will be saved? I hope so not only for those working there but also for the wider community. Because if the works close the impact will be huge.

Let me tell you a story and share a couple photos I've found on the internet.

I grew up in a village in the South Wales valleys called Crosskeys. It was a former mining village - though the mine closed in the early 1960s. Most men worked in other mines, or the steel works at Llanwern or Ebbw Vale. Though there were other employers and factories in the area.

My grandfather worked in Ebbw Vale works for 25 years having worked in the mines for 30 years. (He went down the pit aged 13!) He retired in 1973.

My grandfather lived in a town called Tredegar.
Tredegar is "over the mountain" from Ebbw Vale. (In the summer months my grandfather would often walk to work as he enjoyed walking.) It was a thriving town. The town had lots of shops. It had a cinema. A beautiful park. A small hospital. The first photo dates from that era. As a kid in the 60s and 70s I loved visiting Tredegar. In the school holidays I'd often go and stay with my grandparents for a few days. I used to be put on the 156 bus at Crosskeys and met by my grandparents in Tredegar.

My grandfather died over 10 years ago and I have not been to Tredegar since. But by the late 1990s (the time of the second photo)
it was a shadow of itself. Most shops were boarded up. The town had collapsed following the closure of the Ebbw Vale works in the 90s. (And to a lesser extent the mines in the 80s.) This is what happens to communities when a large local employer closes and nothing replaces it. A drive round the South Wales valleys tells you the same tale.

This is what will happen to the town of Port Talbot and nearby communities if the steel works is allowed to close. Of course some will find work in time. But will it be worthwhile employment? And in the meantime what happens to the shops and service industries reliant on the income generated by the steel works?

I know saving Port Talbot is a huge undertaking. But I just wanted to show the impact on a community if it goes down.

I hope that the government just doesn't let the market decide. People in South Wales know only too well what happens when governments listen to markets and not people.

Photo acknowledgements:

Sunday, 27 March 2016

The Easter Roller Coaster

Easter weekend is traditionally the start of the tourist season. And I imagine therefore that there will be many people going to the various theme parks around the country such as Alton Towers.

I’ve never really got theme parks. I don’t understand why people pay a lot money to queue up to go on a ride that will last perhaps only a couple of minutes and in the process scare themselves witless. And they get off and go and do the same thing again! I suppose people ride roller coasters and such like for the thrill. The sheer excitement of being scared. People get a “buzz” from it. They enjoy the mixture of terror and thrills.

There’s a saying isn’t there? “Life is a roller coaster”. I suppose it means that like a roller coaster in our lives we have the highs and the lows. We have excitement but we also have moments when we are frightened too.

It seems to me that had roller coasters been invented at the time of Jesus Mary Magdalene would have related to that saying. Her life was a roller coaster and on that first Easter morning the roller coaster of her life was about to take on a whole new dimension.

Before I go on, just a few words about Mary Magdalene. Magdalene describes where she was from – the town of Magdala. Magdala was an important agricultural, fishing and trade centre in Galilee. We are told both in Mark’s Gospel and Luke’s Gospel that Mary Magdalene was possessed by seven demons and that Jesus healed her. Today we take this to mean that she was suffering from mental illness. But in ancient times “demon possession” was a term used to describe physical or mental illness.

Of course we all know that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute don’t we? Wrong! There is nothing to suggest this in the Gospels. Over time it seems as if the early church confused Mary Magdalene with the unnamed woman in Luke who anointed Jesus and dried her tears with her hair. This woman was a prostitute and therefore Mary Magdalene became labelled as a prostitute herself which is very unfair.

Mary Magdalene became part of the inner circle of Jesus’ supporters.

Mary Magdalene’s life was a roller coaster then but for different reasons from those we may have thought
Come Easter morning Mary has been through the high of Palm Sunday and the gradual plunge of Holy Week leading to the full horror of God Friday. And now, at rock bottom she comes to the garden to visit the tomb where Jesus was buried hastily on Friday. She couldn’t visit on Saturday as it was the Jewish Sabbath.

And of course she still has another scare – worthy of the fastest roller coaster – the tomb is empty.

Given how frightened she is when Mary Magdalene encounters Jesus, her natural reaction is to want to cling to him. She needs the security Jesus offers. She doesn’t want to get back on the roller coaster once more.

But she is in for another surprise because Jesus says to her “Do not hold on to me”. Jesus tells her she needs to let go of him. She won’t find security by holding on to him or by trying to hold on to how things were. Rather she needs to trust in God for her onwards journey. A roller coaster journey but a journey that will be more secure by placing herself in God’s hands.

I’ve only been on a roller coaster or a scary theme park ride two or three times. (I don’t count The Water Chute at Porthcawl!) The most memorable was once on a visit to Germany. I was persuaded to go on something called a Pirate Ship. You are strapped in to the “vessel” and then it gradually swings like a pendulum.

It doesn’t quite go upside down but near enough. At the widest swing a number of the people around me raised their hands in the air. We were all strapped in of course. But I clung on tightly to the bar in front of me. I didn’t have the confidence they did. To me letting go was far too risky.

When we feel there is a risk or something feels unsafe we want to cling on. This is the way of things in church too. But Jesus comes to us and says

‘Do not hold on to me’

We can be unsure of our ability to trust in God especially when letting go seems risky or we feel unsafe or when we are unsure of the future. Yet the reality is that God’s love is always there for us. The Easter story shows us as much.

One of the reasons I don’t like roller coasters or the Pirate Ship is that I really don’t like heights. Somewhere at my parents’ house is a photograph of me taken at the top of the Eiffel Tower on a school trip in 1980. It was a glorious summer’s day but all I could do was cling to wall. I couldn’t bring myself to cross the viewing platform to take in the spectacular view of Paris. By holding on to the wall I felt – relatively – safe. But by being safe I missed out on the opportunity to see a wonderful view of Paris.

Not being prepared to let go; clinging on to what is safe means we miss out on the opportunities Jesus presents to us. We need to let go to enjoy the new things Jesus leads us to.

Mary’s encounter with Jesus meant that she was told by Jesus to go and witness to what she had seen and encountered:

17 Jesus said, ‘Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’ John 20:17

We forget that Easter is a time of action after the waiting time of Lent. Often we forget this. In Lent we frequently get called to take action whether by giving something up or doing something. Yet it is Easter that should be the time of action.

If the disciples who encountered the risen Jesus hadn’t taken action by bearing witness to him, we wouldn’t be here today.

Imagine what difference it would make if we responded to the resurrection by committing ourselves to witnessing to the risen Jesus in the way Mary Magdalene did. And imagine what difference it would make if we made a commitment to witness for 50 days - in the same way many of us take on an action for Lent. Imagine if we heard those words of Jesus speaking to us saying:

“Do not hold on to me. Go instead to my brothers and sisters and tell them the Good News.”

Mary’s encounter with Jesus and his direction to her to GO! came after a time of waiting – albeit a brief time.

Simon Peter and John the beloved disciple left her in the garden as they went back to where they were staying after seeing the empty tomb. Mary waited. And in this waiting she encountered Jesus.

There is a need for action. But sometimes there is a need for waiting too. Our actions as Christians need to follow on from times of waiting for God; Waiting for, and looking for, our own encounters with him.

That waiting may be long or it may be brief. But waiting is important. Sometimes we can be tempted to dive into something. But we need to wait to hear God’s word. Telling us what we need to do.

Even though Mary Magdalene doesn’t understand what is happening in Jesus’ death, she remains faithful to him throughout everything. She remains faithful. She comes to the tomb the faithful servant when others are hiding behind closed doors or have fled.

Mary doesn’t have the great theological insights that Paul will have. Mary isn’t destined to be a preacher and evangelist like Peter. She doesn’t write one of the Gospels. But she has faith. She is one of the everyday ordinary Christians serving their Lord. Day in day out. Week in week out. Christians like you and me. Christians who continue to serve faithfully even though our understanding of faith or our sense of God’s calling might be limited.

But knowledge and understanding is not the same as faith. Faithful actions can speak much more of our belief, our theology, than many learned books or great minds.

There’s a story told about Albert Einstein. Einstein was traveling from Princeton University in America on a train. When the guard came down the aisle to check the passengers’ tickets, Einstein couldn’t find his. He looked everywhere but there was no ticket. The guard was gracious; “Not to worry, Dr. Einstein, I know who you are, we all know who you are, and I’m sure you bought a ticket.”

As the guard moved down the aisle, he looked back and noticed Einstein on his hands and knees, searching under the seat for his ticket. The guard returned to Einstein; “Dr. Einstein, Dr. Einstein, don’t worry. I know who you are. You don’t need a ticket, I’m sure you bought one.” Einstein arose and said “Young man, I too know who I am; what I don’t know is where I am going.”

We may wonder where we are being led. At times we may wonder whether we have done the right thing. We may wonder what on earth we are doing sat in the front seat of the roller coaster! But the good news of Easter is that we do know where we are going. We have been told by the Saviour that his life and death has promised us life eternal. Nothing can change that. Whatever else we do is immaterial. As Paul puts it in Romans

We may be certain of this: neither death, nor life, no angel, no ruler, nothing that exists, nothing still to come, not any power, or height or depth, nor anything created, can ever separate us from the love God which we have seen in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Romans 8: 38 – 39 (amended)

Nothing changes that promise. Unemployment doesn’t change that promise. Neither does divorce, or bankruptcy, or cancer, or depression, or felony, or failure. Through elation and deflation and every emotion in between, this truth remains; we know whose we are and we know where we are going, because the Son of God has promised. And this, my friends, is faith.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Music Never Dies

This is the (slightly adapted) text of a sermon preached at the funeral of an elderly gentleman – Joe - who was a highly regarded music teacher. (Joe is a pseudonym.)

Music has a way of moving most people unlike anything else.

An American psychologist called Anne Rosenfeld has called music "the beautiful disturber" She comments,

"Music can move us to tears or to dance, to fight or make love. It can inspire our most exalted religious feelings and ease our anxious and lonely moments. Its pleasures are many, but it can also be alien, irksome, almost maddening."
(Psychology Today, December 1985, p. 48)

Best of all, music is a channel for the grace of God. Music can be a way for us to feel the presence of God. In listening to music we can be transported to somewhere else. A place where we sense God.

The German theologian Martin Luther once said:

“I have no pleasure in any man who despises music. It is no invention of ours: it is a gift of God. I place it next to theology. Satan hates music: he knows how it drives the evil spirit out of us.” Martin Luther

I have to disagree slightly with Luther. Firstly, the music of the bagpipes has more to do with Satan than God in my opinion! And while I agree that music is God given, I would argue that theology and music aren’t side by side as Luther suggests. Rather they are interlinked.

Of course when we think of all the different types of music there are in the world, depending on our own personal tastes we may find some music less conducive to contemplating God than others. But it seems to me if the music we listen to gives us pleasure, and puts us in a better frame of mind, then the music is God given.

During one of the conversations I had with Joe, I asked him what kinds of music he liked. He said “I like all kinds of music as long as it is good.” Though as Joe’s son said to me when we met “What Dad meant was ‘I like all kinds of music as long as I tell you what is good!

Joe was I gather a great lover of Bach and most German classical music. I’ve heard him say “I don’t like that French stuff!” With this in mind I’m sure Joe would approve of something the great Johann Sebastian Bach himself said:

“Music is an agreeable harmony for the honour of God and the permissible delights of the soul.”

I don’t know if Joe liked jazz. There is a story that the great American jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis was playing in a small jazz club in New York in 2001. He was playing a soulful, mournful ballad called "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You.”

At the song's most heart-rending point, a mobile phone rang completely spoiling the mood. Marsalis froze. This rude interruption could have ended the concert. Marsalis could have walked off stage in disgust.
After a few seconds, however, Marsalis did something amazing. Without missing a beat, he picked up on the tune of the phone's ring and incorporated it into the song he was playing. He performed variations on it - blending it with what he'd planned to play - and then drew the whole ballad back to the original theme.

The stunning result brought down the house. Wynton Marsalis transformed a rude interruption into a moment of glory. He didn't allow an unexpected shock to stun or silence him. Instead, he turned this setback into a comeback.


That's what good musicians do.

We gather today because life has been interrupted. The discordant, shrill ring of death has seemingly overcome the music and melody of life. Hearing and experiencing death's ring makes us angry and frustrated. We want to know who's responsible for this interruption. Death makes us wonder whether we'll ever have a "ghost of a chance" of understanding, of getting back in tune with life, of feeling the music once again.

But we need to recognize that God improvises a different tune, a variation on a theme. Somehow God, the master Musician, is able to take the discordant ring of death, the interruption and turn it into something beautiful. That's really what resurrection is about. Jesus walked out of the tomb, showing us that even death doesn't stop the music. The song goes on, perhaps a bit differently, more improvised, more subtly beautiful, but it goes on.

The death of someone close to us can force us to walk away, or it can be an opportunity for improvisation - to find new ways of celebrating life amid tragedy. In Romans 8:28, the apostle Paul put it this way:

Romans 8:28 Good News Translation (GNT)

28 We know that in all things God works for good with those who love him,[a] those whom he has called according to his purpose.

That's a powerful image. No matter how hurtful, how tragic, how unfair or how out of tune we might feel, God can work variations on the theme of life within us and turn it into something beautiful.

God's direction for us today is to follow his lead, to improvise, to start something new.

Music never dies. And because of God's promise of the Resurrection, neither do the people we care about. That is our hope for Joe and it is our hope for ourselves too. Amen.

Acknowledgement: Photograph of Wynton Marsalis from The Guardian web site.

Friday, 11 March 2016

It's not my problem

I wonder how often you hear someone moaning about some issue. It might be the NHS. It might be the fact that the roads are in a state. Or a problem with litter. We're always wonderful about moaning about it. And it's always "Why don't they do something about it?"

H.G. Wells once wrote an essay on that tribe of people he called the "goodness sakers." These are the people who see something that needs doing, or see some social evil, or detect some moral shortcoming, and they stand and wring their hands, and say, "For goodness sake, why doesn't someone do something about this?"

It is WE who have been called to do something. We cannot answer the question why there should be hunger in the world, but we can do our part to see that some of the hungry are fed. We can't answer the question why sometimes healthy adults with families are struck down in midlife, but we can be there to bring comfort and to supply both material and emotional support.

A young university student once visited the German writer and poet Wolfgang von Goethe. The student asked Goethe to sign a copy of a book. Goethe signed the book, thought a moment, and then wrote: "Let each person sweep in front of his own door, and then the whole world will be clean." Each person doing his best, linked to other persons exerting their best efforts, can accomplish great things. That is our calling. We cannot solve all the world's problems but we must do what we can.

There was huge cynicism (and I think much of it justified) when a few years back David Cameron trumpeted "The Big Society". His grandiose idea that if everyone in society mucked in a great deal would be achieved. And not long after cuts to public services happened. In some areas people stepped in e.g. to run public libraries. But "The Big Society" couldn't ever hope to replace public services that have been culled.

That said we all can make a difference and we all should be prepared to play our part.

When I was a child, I dreaded the annual Sunday School Anniversary. I'd be made to perform a "Recitation". A piece of worthless doggerel with a corny moral. The trouble is some have stuck such as this:

A simpleton went in to a bank
And said with the greatest of ease
I'd like to draw out fifty pounds
In Ten Shilling notes if you please

The cashier replied "Ah well, well, well.
You must pardon me sir if I grin.
But you cannot take anything out
If you haven't put anything in"

The moral is easy to see
You've seen it already no doubt
If you put little into each day
I'm afraid you won't get a lot out!

It's hardly Keats or Wordsworth is it?

That said we cannot moan if we won't try and do something about the situation we live in. We all have our part to play.

And the same is true in prayer for we are constantly asking God to solve the world's problems in our prayers. Meanwhile He is asking us to do the same thing. We need the spirit that Winston Churchill embodied so memorably. As Great Britain was fighting for its life during World War II before America's entry into the war, Churchill wrote to President Roosevelt, "Give us the tools and we will finish the job."

That ought to be our approach to prayer too. Rather than praying for peace in the world, we need to pray that God would make us peacemakers. Rather than asking God for special favours, we need to pray that He show us someone less fortunate than ourselves who needs our assistance. Is your faith mere superstition or is it authentic Christian faith? Do you attempt to use God or are you willing to be used by Him?

A politician was trying to convince the electorate that he was open and accessible. He told the audience at a rally once that he would be pleased to speak with them any hour of the day or night. "In fact," he said, "here's the telephone number..." and proceeded to recite it. There was a sudden outcry from one of his assistants. "Hey!That's my number you're giving out!"

Isn't it true that if God needs something done, we really hope that He will call Mother Teresa's number or Billy Graham's number or at least someone else in church’s number! We hope He calls anyone but us. When really we should be waiting for God to call us.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Faith or superstition?

Why do bad things happen to good people? It is a question all of us ask from time to time. Some of Jesus' listeners asked him this same question. They brought up two stories. Firstly, there was an incident where Pilate slaughtered a group of Galileans who were in the temple so that their blood mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. Then there was the news of an incident in which 18 people died in Siloam in the southern part of Jerusalem when a tower collapsed.

There was a commonly held view at the time of Jesus, that if something like the slaughter in the temple happened, or the collapse of the tower happened, those who died deserved what they got. They clearly were sinners otherwise they would have been spared. But Jesus challenges this belief.

Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! Luke 13: 2 - 5

Jesus consistently condemned the notion that human tragedy is punishment for sin. In the Sermon on the Mount he established this sacred principle once and for all:

"[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust." Matthew 5:45

In other words, God does not reward us according to our virtues or punish us for our transgressions. There are some things in this world that just happen as a consequence of the physical laws which govern this universe. And sometimes they happen to the best of people. Some things just happen. Somebody was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some things in life we cannot control.

But we want to control them and that is what superstition is all about. We carry around a rabbit's foot or hang a horseshoe or consult a horoscope to try and control that small area of life that is unknowable and uncontrollable.

Do you remember the TV series Blackadder goes forth? In one episde Captain Blackadder asks Baldrick what he is doing.

“I’m carving my name on a bullet sir. You know how they say that somewhere there's a bullet with your name on it? Well I thought that if I owned the bullet with my name on it, I'll never get hit by it. Cause I'll never shoot myself...”

When we attempt to control our fate by the use of a charm or a ritual or trust in fate or the stars or whatever, this is superstition. Most superstitions are harmless. Sometimes, if they give us confidence, they can even be helpful. Many sportsmen (and I suspect it is men!) have certain "lucky" pre match rituals. If Wales' number 10 Dan Biggar has to do his strange pre kicking ritual so what if he scores the penalty? If that helps them then that isn't a problem.

However, when Christians use superstitions as a substitute for helping ourselves or trusting God, they can be destructive. We need to understand the difference between superstition and authentic Christian faith.

Superstition is an attempt to manipulate that part of our lives that are beyond our control. If I carry a rabbit's foot with me, I am trying to control my luck. I may do this as a substitute for hard work. What poorly prepared student has not hoped that a particular topic will come up in an exam as they’ve not prepared as well as they should? “Fingers crossed!” That is superstition trying to control the uncontrollable.

Authentic Christian faith is something else. Christian faith, when at its best, is not an attempt to use God, but a willingness to surrender control of our lives to God.

Analyse your prayers sometime. Many of us use our prayers to manipulate God. We want Him to adjust the weather to our liking. Or to change our boss' attitude or to help us win the lottery. We try to advise God as to what we think is best for us. Rather than trusting that He in His omnipotence and omniscience knows best, we seek to guide Him, to control Him, to use Him.

It is the rare Christian who has the spiritual maturity to truly pray, "Not my will, but yours be done."

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Street Pastors commissioning

This is the text of a sermon I preached at the Chippenham Street Pastors Commissioning service on 16th January 2016

As well as having the honour of being Chair of Trustees for Chippenham Street Pastors, I also am the volunteer chaplain to the police in Chippenham. And prior to moving to Chippenham 2 years ago, I’d been one of the volunteer chaplains for Swindon Police.

One night in Swindon I was sat in a very nice 5 series BMW traffic police car. The officer I was with was called in to the Centre of Swindon to provide some assistance as a disturbance was taking place outside a night club. As we got nearer to the incident the officer got a call telling us that he wasn’t needed and then he said to me “Are you anything to do with those Street Pastors?” I wasn’t – though I said I knew a few including my wife.

“You let your wife go out down the bottom of town as a Street Pastor? You wouldn’t catch me doing what they do! I don’t get why they would want to go out with the idiots down town on a Saturday night!”

I’ve edited this for language!

I explained that the reason for Street Pastors doing what they do is about serving others - just like police officers do. The Police officer I was with that night, like all I’ve encountered, had a strong sense of public service and he sort of understood why Street Pastors serve others. But although I didn’t say this to the officer, I feel Street Pastors do what they do not just out of service but also because Street Pastors are evangelists too.

And this sets Street Pastors apart from other people who just serve their neighbours. There are many good people who serve others – whether they are public servants such as police officers, nurses, doctors, and so on. Or whether they serve other people in some other way. But just because you’re prepared to serve others doesn’t make you an evangelist. To be an evangelist then is more than just serving others – though that is part of it.

Now let me make something clear. The words “Evangelist” and “Evangelism” have got a bad press. More often than not when we hear these words we think of the right wing Christians in the USA. Or we think of those who stand on street corners and not so much preach as rant.

And yes those are forms of evangelism because put simply evangelism means to bring or announce Good News. Good News being the Gospel of Jesus. Evangelism is the preaching of the Gospel. Communicating God’s message of mercy to sinners.

We tend to think of Evangelists as one particular type of Christian because we tend to associate evangelism with preaching. But all Christians are called to be evangelists – sharers of the Good News and sharers of Christ’s love. Some may do so through preaching and others will do so in other ways.

Evangelism is much more than preaching the gospel. I think it is better to think of evangelism as communication of the Gospel by word and deed. You may have heard the saying attributed to St Francis of Assisi “Preach the Gospel at all times. And if necessary use words.”

And if you think of it, Jesus evangelised through words and deed. Yes, he preached but he also put his words into actions.

For example, in the healing of the blind man Bartimaeus Mark 10: 46 - 52

46 Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
48 Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
49 Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”
So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.”50 Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.
51 “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.
The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”
52 “Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.

Jesus tells Bartimaeus the Gospel – “Your faith has healed you” and then demonstrates the Gospel by healing Bartimaeus. In this short story, we see both kinds of evangelism at work. Preaching and doing.

So to answer that police officer’s question why do Street Pastors do what they do? Or perhaps more precisely what makes Street Pastors able to do what they do?

I believe what makes Street Pastors do what you do is the Holy Spirit. And when you are a Street Pastor you show the fruits of the Holy Spirit. And through showing the fruits of the Holy Spirit you are evangelising. Not by preaching but by showing what it means for you to have Christ in your lives and by offering the Night Time Economy of Chippenham the Fruits of the Spirit.

22 God’s Spirit makes us loving, happy, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful,23 gentle, and self-controlled. Galatians 5: 22 - 23

As I said earlier, all followers of Jesus should be evangelists. But the Holy Spirit has given Street Pastors the gift to be evangelists, in a place and a time where most of us would rather be tucked up in bed! The Holy Spirit has called you to show and tell the Good News of Jesus, by being alongside the night clubbers, the door staff, the police officers, the taxi drivers, the people serving in the Kebab shop or Subway, on a Saturday night.

In the words of one of the Promises Street Pastors make

You walk the streets as a public, prayerful presence representing
Jesus and his Church to all you meet.

That is evangelism.

I’m sure at 3.30 am on a cold wet January night it will be a real challenge to be
loving, happy, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful,23 gentle, and self-controlled
But be assured the Holy Spirit is with you always.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

The kindness of strangers

If I asked you to tell someone the Christmas story – briefly! – it would probably go a bit like this.

There was a young woman called Mary. She was engaged to be married to Joseph. One day an Angel appeared to Mary and told her she would be having a baby who was the Son of God. God was the father not Joseph. Mary told Joseph this and he accepted this.

A little while later the Romans said that all the people were to be taxed or entered on to a census. And to do this they had to go their home town. As Joseph was from Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph set out for that town. Mary rode on a donkey.

When they arrived, all the rooms in the inns were taken. But a kindly innkeeper said they could use a stable. And that’s where the baby – Jesus - was born. Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.

Meanwhile, in the fields outside Bethlehem angels appeared to shepherds. The angels told the shepherds to go to Bethlehem and worship the baby. Which they did.

At the same time 3 wisemen from the East followed a star to where the baby was lying. They had to stop and ask for directions from Herod in Jerusalem. Herod wanted to know all about the baby and asked them to tell him where he was on their return journey. But they didn’t tell him.

In just over 200 words that is the Christmas story.

The Christmas story as we think of it is in Luke’s Gospel and Matthew’s Gospel. We get the whole story from them both. But they don’t contain all the same information.

The shepherds are in Luke but not Matthew.

The wisemen are in Matthew but not Luke.

In Luke Mary and Joseph were living in Nazareth and had to travel to Bethlehem. Whereas in Matthew we are told that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. There is no mention of travelling from Nazareth. Maybe they were living in Bethlehem all the time.

If we were so inclined, we could get hung up on these differences. But I don’t think we need worry. The important thing is both versions give us a picture of what was happening at that time. Jesus was born in a country under occupation of a foreign power – Rome. And he was born into a territory over which a despot – Herod – had sway.

And what is clear from both stories is that the turbulent times in which Jesus was born meant that his parents were on the move. They had to move from Nazareth to Bethlehem according to Luke or, if we take Matthew’s Gospel, they had to flee from Bethlehem and their homeland to Egypt.

I stopped my recap of the Christmas story with the departure of the wisemen. And let’s face it, that is usually where we stop the story. But in fact after the wisemen leave, Herod realises they have tricked him and orders that all boys aged 2 and under must be killed in the Bethlehem area. Matthew tells us Joseph was warned of this in a dream and consequently, Joseph, Mary and the baby flee to Egypt.

A wonderful children’s story called “Refuge” has recently been published. It is written by Anne Booth and Sam Usher. It is an imaging of that journey as seen through the eyes of their faithful donkey. Proceeds from the sale of the book go to the charity War Child – a charity that helps children whose lives are disrupted by war. And of course many such children are refugees.

As Christians, we believe that Jesus was the Son of God. We believe that Jesus was in fact fully human as we are but was also fully God. And as Jesus was fully God he was without sin. But as he was fully human he experienced the kind of things humans experience – including the experience some humans have of being refugees.

Matthew doesn’t tell us how long the family lived in Egypt. All he tells us is that after Herod died – and the hunt for the baby was called off or forgotten – an angel appeared to Joseph and told him it was safe to return.

22 But when he heard that Achelous was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth.

Bethlehem is in Judea. And they way Matthew words this suggests that Bethlehem was really home. But it was not safe to return there so instead they went to Nazareth in the north of the country.

In the latter part of the Christmas story then, we get a glimpse of what it means to be a refugee. To have to leave one’s home and go to a foreign land where, presumably you don’t speak the language, where, presumably you are reliant on the kindness of strangers to offer you somewhere to live etc.

Whenever I see the images of the refugees fleeing Syria I cannot help but think of how Jesus would understand what they are going through. According to a report in The Guardian in September 2015, more than 4 million refugees have fled Syria since the war there began in 2011. According to the UN’s refugee agency, almost 1.8 million have gone to Turkey, more than 600,000 to Jordan and 1 million to Lebanon – a country whose population is just 4 million.

And as a follower of Jesus, I wonder what the response of Christians should be. I know of course it is a huge issue and a hugely complex issue. We know that immigration is such a hot topic in this country. And following the Paris shootings where – apparently – some of the terrorists posed as Syrian refugees to get in to Europe, there is an even greater reluctance to welcome in the stranger.

Yet always in the back of my mind – and I hope in some of yours too – are the words of Jesus. Jesus is talking of himself as King

34 ‘Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
37 ‘Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you ill or in prison and go to visit you?”
40 ‘The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Refuge ends with these words:

And I kept walking, carrying my precious load, and the woman held the baby close to her heart, and she and the man talked about journeys, and dreams and warnings, and the love of a baby, and the kindness of strangers.
And when we rested , ad they were frightened, they took hope from each other, and from the baby’s first smile.
And we entered Egypt and found refuge.

Refuge Anne Booth & Sam Usher 2015 Nosy Crow Ltd London