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.