Saturday, 28 December 2013

Living out Love

Sunday Gospel - Matthew 2:13-15,19-23 

After the wise men had left, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother with you, and escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod intends to search for the child and do away with him.’ So Joseph got up and, taking the child and his mother with him, left that night for Egypt, where he stayed until Herod was dead. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken through the prophet:
I called my son out of Egypt.
After Herod’s death, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother with you and go back to the land of Israel, for those who wanted to kill the child are dead.’ So Joseph got up and, taking the child and his mother with him, went back to the land of Israel. But when he learnt that Archelaus had succeeded his father Herod as ruler of Judaea he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he left for the region of Galilee. There he settled in a town called Nazareth. In this way the words spoken through the prophets were to be fulfilled:
‘He will be called a Nazarene.’

In the days after a birth - a new reality begins to emerge. The realisation that even if you have planned with military precision how this child will fit into your life - you have already been thwarted.  Life changes life - Love changes it more. 

Love has no desire to live in isolation.Love's desire is you. Love holds your hand if you invite Her or stands watchful in the shadows if you don't. Love is Love. 

The Octave of Christmas teaches us so much about Love - the humility of God's Love; the courage of Mary and Joseph's; the persistence of the Shepherds and the conviction of the Magi. 

On his day Stephen taught us that Love is for others; on his, John told us that there is nothing else. 

Yesterday and today we learn that Love is feared by Power and that, in fear, Power will try to defeat it. 

Many years from now Jesus will stand in chains in front of Pontius Pilate and tell him that he has no Power over him. 

And for that Jesus will die

But Love will live. 


Friday, 27 December 2013

The Innkeeper - morning after the night before

Because, like Luke, I wonder about the back story.

Nathaniel surveyed the morning morass of disheveled rugs and cushions surrounding the tables piled high with breakfast dishes and tide-lined bowls of yoghurt. Stretching his shoulder muscles back and forth until he felt his spine click, he yawned and yawned 'til the last bit of breath came out as a disgruntled harrumph. Then he set to work.

It was the last day of the census and his guests were making the most of the early start. Travelling back into the hill towns was a risky business even by daylight; that shepherds had been in the town had not escaped their notice. They wouldn't want to be meeting up with the likes of them on a lonely road. They had all left at first light, hoping to be back in their own homes well before dusk.

The census, albeit enforced by the Roman authorities, had given families and friends a chance to come together and his guests had made the most of it; sharing stories, songs and dancing into the night. Now it was the morning after the night before and they had had the equal luxury of walking away from the resulting chaos.

'If I had more staff,' Nathaniel thought to himself, 'I'd be walking away from this too.' But there was only one servant girl and a cook who came later in the day. His wife had been the hospitable one; he had never reconciled himself to her death. Never wanted anyone else. Now it was just a matter of taking one day after another.   The inn wasn't much of business either  but it was all he had; a livelihood. 'Not much of a life,' he commented to himself bitterly. 

As he threw all the cushions into a corner he saw the servant girl standing in the doorway, chewing the corner of her veil; she held a basket of peelings, leftovers and stale bread on her hip. 'I don't want to take this; those people might still be there,' she grumbled. Nathaniel had totally forgotten the couple he had sent round to the stable in desperation to get them off his doorstep. 'Give it here then, and get on with sweeping this out. Anyway,they're probably long gone.'

The bells of the goats heralded the coming feast to the rest of the animals and Nathaniel could barely make it through the gate of the small corral before the basket was upended onto the earth and a free-for-all of fur and feathers broke out. The sound of laughter echoed out of the dark of the cave. Not gone, then. Something must be wrong. Nathaniel shouted out 'How goes it, friend?'

The man walked out to meet him with smile and an outstretched hand. 'Our thanks for your hospitality, and a place of safety for the birth of our son.' Nathaniel was taken aback. A baby; and he had sent them to be with the animals. What would his wife had said? 

'Is your wife well?' A bit presumptuous, but the man seemed pleased. 'Miriam...excuse me, I am Joseph and my wife is Miriam. She is well, thank you. Tired... but grateful, as we both are. We'll be on our way as soon as she has a little more strength.' Joseph's words were filled with sincerity. 'Perhaps, in the meantime, I could repay you with some labour of my own? I can work with wood and stone.'

Nathaniel recognised the sense of the pride within Joseph; found his younger self in the strength and optimism of his gaze. Out of the shadows the woman appeared, a shawl wrapped across her shoulder and hip, cradling the newborn; his hand outstretched on her chest. The small hand, perfect to the pearl-like nails,  gleaming with life. 

With the easy sway of motherhood already in her, Miriam moved closer to her husband and turned so that the child rested between them. The baby held his gaze. 'I will tell him of your kindness,' she said without even a touch of reproach. Reaching out, she put her hand on his shoulder in the same gesture his wife would use to get his attention. 'Mr...?'

He had been staring at the child. Strangely it seemed that it was his wife's eyes looking back. Quietly, within him he could feel her loving presence ; her warm heart next to his,  beating a new rhythm into his own heart. 

 'Nathaniel,' he replied,'call me Nathaniel. And, it may be too late but there is a room. A room you'd be welcome to. And something to eat...whatever you need. I'm sorry about last night.  I'm sorry that I did not welcome you properly.'

'Nathaniel,' Joseph nodded,'Gift of the Lord.And so you are. Don't be sorry. Last night, everyone turned their back on us except you.  Whatever your reasons; whatever your regrets; remember, that when you were needed, you said 'yes'.


Thursday, 26 December 2013

The Fourth Shepherd

There are many characters in the story of the Nativity but one that we rarely hear of is the Fourth Shepherd.

When the angels came that night to bring the Good News, they began with the most unlikely. Shepherds were a tough lot, weathered and self-reliant,  who had to survive out on the hills protecting their flock from the weather, the wolves and their own stupidity. 

Once the shepherds had gotten over the shock and wonder of the glory of heaven shining all around them, they immediately wanted to go and find the baby; the lights of Bethlehem beckoned as brightly as the stars – ‘Come and see’. The could barely stop to wrap their cloaks around them. They took hold of  their staffs and each caught a light from the fire.

 All except one. One young shepherd remained seated, looking into the fire. When the others asked him why he wasn’t ready, he replied that he was; he was ready to stay behind and take care of the flock. The other shepherds shook their heads with disbelief but they were too excited to argue and shouted over their shoulders that they would be back as soon as they had seen the Christ Child.

The Fourth Shepherd took his staff and moved to the crest of a hill where he could see clearly across the fields to Bethlehem; he imagined that he could see the very place where the angels had sung of; he imagined the smells of the animals and the hay and the delight of a mother and father as they held their new born baby boy.  His imagining didn’t last long, however, as the sheep gathered round him bleating and huffing for attention. Reminded of his responsibilities, he turned his gaze to the shadows and the horizon.

The shepherds didn’t come back the next day, or the next. In fact, they never came back. The importance of their message had taken them to many far off places. So the Fourth Shepherd took charge of the flock for that year, the next year and for many, many years until he was an old, old man. People talked about him and how he wasn’t like the other shepherds they knew. He took care of them by himself; he birthed them and healed them. He was a thoughtful man who treated his flock like his own children, knowing each of their names – from the grandmothers to the lambs.

One winter’s evening, the Fourth Shepherd was walking along a hillside path, one of the lambs wrapped in his cloak, when a man walked towards him and stopped to ask about the bundle he held. The Fourth Shepherd told him that he had searched all day for this lamb only to find him caught up in some brambles and close to death. ‘He’s warmed up enough now,’ he said and swung the lamb onto his shoulders. 

‘Not much of a flock’, the man smiled.

‘O, there are more troublemakers,’ the Shepherd returned the smile. ‘They number about a hundred. I’ve left them in safe pasture so that I could chase after this little one. I’ve never lost a sheep in all my years and I’m not going to lose one now. Now it’s getting dark; time to get back. 

And you, friend; you’re a long way out yourself? If you’d like a warm fire to sleep by, I’d be glad of the company. And I could tell you a tale of another winter’s night full of stars like this one.’

The man nodded and turned to walk with him. ‘I was born on a night like this,’ he said, ‘and there were shepherds that night too. Perhaps there is more than one story worth telling.’


Saturday, 7 December 2013

A voice cries

GospelMatthew 3:1-12 

In due course John the Baptist appeared; he preached in the wilderness of Judaea and this was his message: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’ This was the man the prophet Isaiah spoke of when he said:
A voice cries in the wilderness:
Prepare a way for the Lord,
make his paths straight.
This man John wore a garment made of camel-hair with a leather belt round his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judaea and the whole Jordan district made their way to him, and as they were baptised by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins. But when he saw a number of Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism he said to them, ‘Brood of vipers, who warned you to fly from the retribution that is coming? But if you are repentant, produce the appropriate fruit, and do not presume to tell yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father,” because, I tell you, God can raise children for Abraham from these stones. Even now the axe is laid to the roots of the trees, so that any tree which fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire. I baptise you in water for repentance, but the one who follows me is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to carry his sandals; he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fan is in his hand; he will clear his threshing-floor and gather his wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out.’

Last week I forgot to wish you a Happy New Year.

The Church chooses these weeks of Advent to begin again;to turn again.  You will notice that the mass books have changed and where we were once in Year C we are now in Year A. The years follow the three Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. 

The Church doesn’t even try to fit all of John into one year but keeps his writings for special occasions. For some feasts we only ever hear John’s voice but the rest of the year we get to hear similar accounts from three different people.  Similar; but not the same. It seems that at no time could the Good News be constrained to a single account; the ministry of Jesus has never been reported through just one set of eyes; between the Gospels, Paul’s writings and the letters we have always heard the Good News in more ways than one.

Is this meant to confuse us; to keep us on our toes? Or does it reveal Jesus in a more human way? If any group of people were asked to talk about a friend there would be differences of opinion; of experience; of sharing.  

Which is what the Gospels give us; which is why they are worth reading; not just listening to on a Sunday when you have missed the rest of the week – like watching a soap opera with missing episodes – but sitting and reading them as full accounts. Or even reading two or three side by side and noticing the nuances in the voices. 

Mark and Matthew seem very alike; perhaps because they are both Jews. Alike, but not the same. The later thoughts of Matthew sometimes tremble with anger and a need for retribution. Matthew’s people are suffering; they are being cast out of the Temple; they are being told that they are no longer Jews.  Matthew puts the words of his frustration into the mouth of the Baptist.  

And I wonder-  are we ever guilty of using Scripture like that? Do we ever hear the Word of God promising forgiveness and grace and think about someone… ‘except for you’? Do we ever use the Good News as a weapon; to justify exclusion or judgement? 

Matthew's words give us an understanding of the early church; its fears and its trials.  He speaks up against those who have tormented them. Now that we are the 'organised church' which side of Matthew are we  standing on.  

At this time of Advent we listen to John calling us to ‘turn again’ –to find our own path that doesn't rely on tradition or expectation. It almost feels like a Lenten message of penance and reconciliation; much as the early church celebrated Advent. 

Matthew's John speaks harshly; questioning our integrity and resolve. Faith isn't a place of safety; it's the decision to undertake the journey into the unknown.  In faith, we face the future knowing that we are in need of God's grace.  

Especially when it seems we walking into the fire. 


Sunday, 1 December 2013

To the good?

First Sunday of Advent - Matthew 24:37-44 

Jesus said to his disciples, 
‘As it was in Noah’s day, so will it be when the
Son of Man comes. For in those days before the Flood people were eating, drinking, taking wives, taking husbands, right up to the day Noah went into the ark, and they suspected nothing till the Flood came and swept all away. It will be like this when the Son of Man comes. Then of two men in the fields one is taken, one left; of two women at the millstone grinding, one is taken, one left.
  ‘So stay awake, because you do not know the day when your master is coming. You may be quite sure of this that if the householder had known at what time of the night the burglar would come, he would have stayed awake and would not have allowed anyone to break through the wall of his house. Therefore, you too must stand ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’

Noah wouldn't think it much of a coincidence that Black Friday (in the United States)  precursors the commercialised mania of the contemporary Advent season. If the credit cards and payday loans aren't already groaning by this first Sunday, the next few weeks will soon see about that. 
For much of the time 'Life' fills our life until almost every thought of freedom has been overwhelmed by the need to conform; to fit in; to have and to hold. In fact we even think we are 'free' - that's how good the sales pitch is -'it's all about you', 'because you're worth it'. We are justified by the media and the image of a life that is perfect as long as it has 'this' or 'that' in it. When we can watch the adverts go by and tick off everything we have achieved, we feel that life is good; we feel that we are good.

One of the Christmas adverts this year has the slogan - 'be good to the people who are good to you'.

 Polite, thoughtful even, but not Christian. 

Before Jesus was even born, the Torah taught that the greatest Commandments were to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

Do we love God when we 'do' our hour in church but have no real Sabbath time?

Do we love God when we are unsatisfied with how God has made us?

Do we love God when we say we judge ourselves by 'stuff'?

Do we love our neighbour when luxury means wastefulness and we overlook the beggar, the homeless and the families living in poverty?

Do we love our neighbour when we expect shops and services to be available night and day and we overlook the exhaustion, the time away from families, the zero hour contracts?

Do we love our neighbour when we fill the coffers of the big brands and overlook the child worker, the long hours and the dangerous working conditions?

Matthew will ask these questions again and again during this year. Jesus asks these questions now near the end of his earthly ministry; he must wonder if we have learnt anything from his teaching. 

We are all people in two minds; as St Paul says - we know what we should do and what we should not do - the problem is making the decision; the 'good' or the 'good enough'.

Advent is 'coming'; Jesus is about to break in our lives yet again. Our readiness is being questioned - the desires of the world or the desires of the Kingdom;the need to spend or the need to let go; the wanting or the waiting?

Which one will be swept away?