Sunday, 10 January 2016

Thin Places: Meeting God in Everyday Life

Sermon preached at Creaton URC on 10th January 2016. Texts: Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-22.

In the ancient Celtic tradition of Christianity, people often talked of thin places, where as George MacLeod said of the island of Iona, there is “a tissue paper separating heaven and earth”. I wonder how many have the experience of being in such a thin place. I’ve been to Iona a number of times and can testify to the peculiar closeness to heaven of that island. But the same is true of other places. Sometimes they mix up the sacred and the secular in most peculiar ways.

Image: National Trust
The village of Heysham, just outside Lancaster, is best known for its ferry port to the Isle of Man and for its very ugly nuclear power station. But it has a thin place of its own, an 8th century ruined chapel of which one wall remains along with a complete archway. I’ve been there a number of times, the last of which was the first day of this millennium, the 1st of January 2000. Through the archway you can see Morecambe Bay and the Lakeland hills beyond. To walk through that archway felt to me like stepping from one reality into another. Especially significant on the start of a new millennium. Except that day I received no vision of the future, no great epiphany. Morecambe Bay was completed shrouded in fog.

But it was this kind of opening up of the tissue paper between heaven and earth that Luke describes at the baptism of Jesus. As I’ve said already, it was a very ordinary place. We think of John’s baptisms, including that of Jesus, happening in a wide and sweeping river. But the place where we think it happened is not the main channel of the Jordan, rather a muddy little pool off to one side.

Image: Dnalor_01, via Wikimedia
(licence CC-BY-SA 3.0)
Yet it was in this ordinary place that the heavens opened, that the Holy Spirit rested upon Jesus in the form of a dove, and that he heard the mighty words of affirmation and calling from God – you are my beloved, in you I am well pleased. In some of the gospels, Jesus is said to have experienced this as he came up from the river. Luke says it happened afterwards, while Jesus was praying.

Because thin places are wonderful, just like churches are wonderful, but you don’t need either of them to experience the Holy Spirit and to hear the voice of God if we’ll listen to it. Luke’s message is that what Jesus needed to experience those things was simple, everyday prayer. What Jesus needed to do was to really listen to God, to be ready for God’s presence to come to him. And that’s a message for us as well.

This is the meaning of Epiphany. In our culture, that word is associated with the coming of the wise men, the visit of the kings to the baby Jesus. However within the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Epiphany has always been more connected with the baptism of Jesus, the revelation of the dove and the voice from heaven. That’s why all the jumping into water and the like happens on that day. The word ‘epiphany’ means revealing or manifestation. It’s about God being made known, being seen. But not only in special places and certainly not only to special people, but about that happening in the everyday messiness of our lives. In some church traditions, there is a whole season given to Epiphany, in others it is the beginning of what is called ordinary time, where ‘ordinary’ simply means the time that is ordered or counted. But it applies to the other meaning of ordinary too. Epiphany is a time when heaven breaks through in the ordinary, if we will only let it.

Thomas Merton, a monk who lived in America for much of his life, writes of an experience of God in the everyday, walking down a street in Kentucky:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut [Street], in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. … I have the immense joy of being human, a member of a race in which God himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Merton lived as a monk, and he remained one. But this experience led him to realise that holiness, that profound experiences of God, push us into the world rather than taking us away from it. He became an activist as well as a mystic, writing and speaking about peace, racial tolerance and social equality. In the same way, Jesus’ experience of being touched by God, quite literally, pushed him into the world rather than away from it. His experience happened in prayer, and he spent the next forty days in the wilderness, but that was the start of his public ministry. It was the start of his life as the messiah whom John had foretold. He was part of the same world which took John away to prison and eventually had him killed. And Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit.

This is important, because I’m conscious that listening to this now, or if any of it stays with you later in the day, you might be thinking something like: well this is all very well, but how does God’s voice come in the midst of suffering? How does it come to somebody whose loved one, or they themselves is slipping into dementia, or suffering from cancer, or troubled by mental health, or is worrying about their job or finances? Isn’t this just pretty talk for the pious for those people? And if here in comfortable Northamptonshire these are very real concerns, how much more is it so in Syria, or for refugees escaping troubled places, or for those caught up in poverty and hopeless? But that is the message from God that Isaiah gives us in the other reading we heard. “Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine.” We are told that when we walk through the waters, through the rivers, through fire and flame, that God will be with us and that we’ll be safe. We are called by our names by God, each one of us. In the dark places, wherever we go, God is with us. And God says that he loves us. That he loves me. That he loves you. And you. And you. Every single one of us fallen and sinful and ridiculous people. An act of generosity and grace. God is with us.

And it’s that message of being loved by God that Jesus heard – “you are my son, my beloved, in you I am well pleased” or as the Message has it, “you are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life”. Many people in the ancient world were referred to as a son of God, but there’s a distinctiveness about the way God calls to Jesus here. We can just hear the pride. I know that pride as a parent myself, watching my children do something amazing that I wouldn’t have thought possible just a short while ago. I’ve only been a parent for ten years, but people tell me it’s a feeling you get throughout your lifetime, of love and pride in your children. And God says the same to each one of us. Just as he calls us by name, he calls us his sons and daughters. He says to each of us “you are my daughter, you are my son, my beloved. In you I am well pleased.” Rest in that love for a moment. Allow it to sweep over you, to feel like a beloved son or daughter of God.

Everywhere can be a thin place, everywhere we can experience the Holy Spirit, everywhere we can see the light of Christ shine upon us. Everyday can be the day of the epiphany, if only we look and allow ourselves to rest in the eternal and all-encompassing love of God.

Let us close with a prayer from the Roman Catholic church:
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created. And you shall renew the face of the earth.
O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy his consolations. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Father Christmas and the encryption backdoors

Image: Pixabay
So it’s the twelfth day of Christmas (that would be drummers drumming), the decorations are down and it’s back to work and school. Just about time for one last Christmas analogy before we pack it all up for another year (unless you live in a Spanish-speaking country in which case Los Reyes are still to come).

I live in a house without a chimney, or at least not a real one – it was built eight years ago with a fake one. This has led to more than one discussion with my children about how Santa Claus was going to find his way into our house to fill those stockings.

My response, of course, was that whenever any lock was made, a special key was produced and sent exclusively to Santa, so that he can get in the door. Or, since that leads to a rather large bunch of keys, perhaps instead he should have a single master-key which can get into any door.

Except that raises the question: what if Santa lost the master-key? Or had it stolen? These things happen. Or what if some clever thief saw the master-key and worked out how to reproduce it?

And so to encryption. Because this is exactly what various national governments, including the UK government through the Investigatory Powers Bill and the National Security Agency in the USA, are seeking. They realise that more and more people live in houses without chimneys (easy entrances) but they still want to get in to those houses to deliver lovely presents in stockings - erm, intercept their data and read their private communications. Hence the plans to introduce backdoors into encryption systems and/or weaken them.

Image: Huffington Post
Because nothing says 'the reason for the season' like reading people's Christmas messages. Or, potentially their messages to would-be terrorists and the like (which is the current justification for the encryption workarounds).

Now, nobody wants terrorists to be able to communicate freely. But there are many problems with the planned schemes: Western governments generally already have the required powers, they will endanger the security of other users, and they open the possibility for repressive regimes to use the same techniques (and the same justification) to read their citizens' communications. So in the process of stopping their communications, who else will have their communications tampered with?

Many people more eloquent than me have written on the subject. Among them is Adam Fish who writes:
We will make no progress by blaming the technology – whatever technology of the day that may be – instead of addressing the root causes of the antagonism that drives people to use it.
But ultimately to me the biggest single problem is the way that backdoors compromise the security of ordinary internet communications - the equivalent of what if Santa loses his master key, or has it copied. Even those of us who have nothing to hide from our governments should worry about attempts to tamper with online encryption.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

A Tale of Two Prophets: a sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Advent

Sermon preached at Paulerspury URC, 6th December 2015. Texts: Luke 1:67-79; Luke 3:1-6

Image: Jonathan Case

I shall never forget the days when I first met my two children – when they came into the world, when I was given the privilege of speaking out loud the names we had already chosen for them, when I held them in my arms for the first time. Not to put too fine a point on it, my part was a lot smaller than my wife’s in the matter. But my goodness it was a powerful experience – and it made me think about the world we were bringing them into. When our daughter was born ten years ago, I had been doing a lot of work with scenario planning, which looks into the distant future, decades hence, to ask the various possible ways the world could turn out – and I thought a lot about the year 2025 when she’d be an adult. Holding this new life in my arms made me think deeply about the future. I think it’s an experience a lot of new parents have had.

And it was the basis of the mighty song of praise and prophecy that Zechariah spoke and which we’ve just heard. Except his experience of being a new parent was even more discombobulating than most people’s. First, both he and his wife were far beyond childbearing age, this was a baby who should never have been. Second, he had spent the past nine months unable to speak because of his lack of trust in the message that the angel gave him. And third, immediately after he wrote that the child’s name was to be John, which means God is gracious, his speech comes back and he’s suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit and given a message from God. Not quite the everyday birth experience.

We’ll talk in a moment about what Zechariah said, but let’s first think about that word prophecy. Zechariah is said to have spoken prophecy. And his son John is later said to be a prophet who prepared people for the arrival of the Messiah. Neither, and this is really important, were soothsayers, foretellers of the future. Rather, they were individuals seized by God, compelled by God, filled with God’s spirit, to convey a message to the people of God. Prophecy is not about the future, it’s about the now. And it’s usually a message of change, for the people of God as a whole.

So I think in some ways it’s helpful to see the two prophets’ words, decades apart and proclaimed in very different settings – the purity of the Temple at Jerusalem where Zechariah was a priest, and the wildness of the desert where John went to preach – as being one. They’re both all about salvation – how the people of God will be saved from the things that oppress and enslave them. From their enemies, from the things they’ve done wrong, from the tyrants which beset them.

Zechariah begins with a theme of favour – that God has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them. Mary talked about God looking in favour on her, in her song of justice that we call the Magnificat. Jesus begins his public ministry by reading from Isaiah about proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour. This is such an important starting-point, especially when we move on to talk about sin and redemption and repentance. God gives his favour to his people. Going back to parenting, it’s an absolute no-no to declare one child a favourite over another. But God is very clear that he shows favour on his people. He is not angry with his people. He is a God of love. Advent is not a time to dwell on the wrath of God, but to bask in the love of God.

But of course a loving God recognises that we live in a dark world. My translation, the NRSV, has the most wonderful phrase near the end of Zechariah’s song, that “the dawn from on high will break upon us”. Light is coming into the world. The people of God needed that light so much in the days of Zechariah and John, and the people of God need it all the more today. And that’s what Zechariah promises us – “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace”.

Our modern Christian understanding of the word ‘salvation’ which go throughout this passage has become coloured by individualism and a theology which is over-focused on atonement. The way the word salvation appears in the gospel of Luke has much more to do with the whole community. It’s the people of God who are to be saved. And what they’re saved from is sitting in darkness and the shadow of death. Imagine God saying these words through his prophet to the people of Syria, and of course they apply there just as much as they did in Palestine two thousand years ago. God’s message was not then, and is not now, “you’re free from your sins, you’ll live in the next life”. God’s message in Syria is: “You are free from the current darkness besetting you. You are free from the abomination of Daesh, and the terrible misrule of Assad, and the bombs falling upon you from warmongers in Western nations, and the perils that your people suffer when they try to flee. You are set free from all that death and darkness.”

It’s a big promise, one that goes against how we see the world. But that is the kind of salvation that Zechariah is offering. And even more strongly, that is the kind of salvation John was prophesying when he was calling out from the wilderness and quoting in turn Isaiah’s prophecy. He said that the low places would be lifted up and the high places brought down. To me that’s a clear message about power – that those in power need to be very afraid indeed. Luke emphasises it by giving us this big long list of really powerful people around at that time, to be really clear when he was talking about and also what a bunch of really horrible rulers were around – and then suddenly out of nowhere appears this wild man from the desert, proclaiming repentance. No wonder the rulers hated him, no wonder Herod had him put to death. John had the audacity to come out of the priestly class of Zechariah, but to be a renegade member of that class who wanted to put down authority. It was a kind of revolution.

There’s one more thing to be said about the kind of revolution John was proclaiming. It wasn’t just for the Jewish people. The Good News Bible has it really clear: “The whole human race will see God's salvation!” The prophecy of Zechariah was aimed at the Jewish people and could be read as just applying to them. But John wasn’t just interested in his own people. He was interested in the whole world. And of course that’s the story we see so often in the gospels, especially in Luke’s gospel – Jesus came to bring salvation to the whole world. And not just the whole world in terms of nations and peoples, but also in terms of people within nations. This is not just a salvation of the elites, of the fortunate ones. This is a salvation also for the people of the margins, the oppressed people, the ones who will be lifted up when the valleys will be raised. They’re the people that Jesus ate with and called his friends – poor people, women, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, refugees. It’s those people that John says will see the salvation of God, that Zechariah says will be given light.

So how do we as individuals and as communities seek that salvation? We do it, says John, by repentance. The Greek word doesn’t just mean give up your past sin, it means a complete transformation in the way you understand the world and the way you act in the world. One commentator describes it as “rethink everything” or “question your assumptions” or even “have a deep turnaround in your thinking and values”.

Because this is what Advent is about. Yes, it’s about getting ready for the incarnation, the enfleshment, of our Lord and Saviour in a stable in Bethlehem. But it’s about being ready for that to happen in our lives. Advent is about preparing the way for the Lord in our own lives. It’s about turning away from the powers of the world, the ones which require us to obey their commands. Those powers demand that we should try to gain material wealth, that we should try to obtain worldly power. They tell us that we’ll be happy if we have the latest gadgets and a big car and holidays of a lifetime, and all the rest of it.

The message of Zechariah and John is altogether different. It calls us to repent of those things, to celebrate the salvation that God brings to all. And it calls us to prepare a way for the Lord in our own souls, to make the paths straight, to fill valleys and bring low hills, to smooth the rough and straighten the crooked. It calls us to build a six-lane highway right into the deepest parts of our hearts and right into our lives, where the living God can march straight in. And then we, and then all peoples everywhere, will see the the dawn from on high breaking upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

May it be this way for us all this Advent season, and for the whole world which needs it so very much. Amen.