The Spirit of God unseen as the Wind


We are now in what the Church calls ‘Ordinary Time’. That is, the period from Trinity until Advent. For many of us this period of the year is anything but ordinary, as we head into summer, which in our world of changing climate, can mean anything from drought to deluge, heatwave to snow and hail.

At Pentecost, we hear about Disciples staggered about mouthing strange words. Words that are oddly intelligible to people from every nation. This is unfamiliar behaviour and so those around them think and say ‘these people must be drunk’. But Peter points out that it’s only nine in the morning and so that’s not very likely.

It’s out of this scene of exhilarating confusion that Luke records the beginning of the Church. It isn’t the disciples sitting down to soberly consider the merits of Jesus’ teaching or to ponder the meaning of His death, or the minutiae of the Church finances or the meaning of Canon law – important as all of those things may be. The disciples are just carried away on a high, out of which comes preaching and prophesy and it’s this that we in St Andrew’s, St Finnbarr’s and St Maelrubha’s are heir to today. It’s the response to the spirit breathing life into the Church that started it, and it’s this that’s sustained the Church for over two thousand years.

But the Church is not the point. The Church can help to bring people to faith, nuture their faith and resond in ways that individuals can’t. But it’s the Spirit that Jesus sends after his departure, the Spirit that came upon the disciples at Pentecost that is what makes the difference It’s what the Spirit brings into people’s lives that leads to the excitement, and causes the disciples to want to tell everyone about what’s happened; that makes them want to tell anyone and everyone who’ll listen. Is it not the same Spirit that makes us want to share our faith with friends, family and neighbours and through sharing the excitement can become infectious.

At Pentecost, Mary and the other women and disciples believe that the new life welling up in them is the life of God. This feeling is the vitality, the joy, the sheer excitement of God. What happens to them at Pentecost is so unexpected, so unpremeditated, in such contrast to their fear in locking themselves away, that they just feel, they just know, that it couldn’t be anything else but from God.

Whilst many of us may not have such dramatic and overwhelming experience of the Spirit, I suspect that most of us have had unexpected experiences that are just as difficult to account for, that they simply have to be the work of the Holy Spirit. They may be feelings that are fleeting, or last a long time, but we know in our hearts that they’re of God. God breathing life into our lives; at times when we don’t know what to do and need help; at times when someone close to us needs more than we can give them and we don’t know where to turn.

The extraordinary Truth is that the same Spirit that comes to the disciples as a rushing wind and tongues of fire, moves over the chaos of our lives as well, “unceasingly at work, from chaos bringing order and filling emptiness with life.” So enjoy the summer, whatever you are doing, and give the Spirit space and time to work on you and on those that you love and you never know what extraordinary things might happen in this so called Ordinary Time.

Blessings
James

Risen and Ascended

As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?

The Season of Easter is almost over and we are in Ascension-tide, which ends at the Feast of Pentecost. Forgiveness is implicit and explicit in the accounts of the Ascension. The fact that the resurrected Christ appears to his disciples at all is very significant. This bunch who when the going got tough, fled and denied Jesus, usually got things wrong and were a motley crew, aren’t having their noses rubbed in their cowardice and faintness of heart. Rather his first words to them are, “Peace be with you”. Just think about it, He must have forgiven them to even bother to come to see them at all. But He comes to them and in fact to all who open their hearts to Him, in mercy. The Ascension simply underlines this mission of mercy.

The ascended Jesus, who sits at God’s right hand, describes a God who’s vulnerable and approachable. When we turn to God in times of distress or temptation we’re not calling out to a deity who’s aloof and can’t relate to what we’re going through. God is right in there, He’s been there, done it, He’s got the tee-shirt as they say. That being the case He is able to comfort us not only by identifying with our pain but also by assuring us that affliction won’t have the final word. All because the Risen and Ascended Christ is with us and that means that nothing can separate us from his love.

For all of us the Ascension is more about letting go than reaching out and grasping. The question for you and me is not, “How do we Ascend?” That’s already been accomplished, through the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension of Our Lord. The question is: “What’s pulling us down?

What do we need to let go of? Fear, anger, or resentment can weigh us down. The need to be right or in control is a heavy burden to carry. Self-righteousness, jealously, or pride are very effective anchors. Being caught up in perfectionism and the need to prove we’re good enough can become all-consuming. On the other hand it may be indifference or apathy. Many lives are also tethered by addiction.

What is it that holds you down and denies you a share in Jesus’ Ascension?  The gravity that keeps us down is not creation, the world, the circumstances of our lives or other people. The gravity that holds us down lies within us. So we each need to look at our lives and identify the places of gravity, and not despair. The very things that hold us down also point the way to Ascension. So our joining in with Jesus’ Ascension begins not by looking up but by looking within.

Blessings
James

Turn! Turn! Turn!

Next week is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Pete Seeger. For those unfamiliar with the work of this American folk singer/songwriter and social activist, one of his best known songs, written in the sixties, ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ was made popular by many singers and groups including:The Byrds, Judy Collins and The Seekers. What is fascinating about this song is that, apart from the beginning of each verse and a single line at the end, it is more or less a verbatim quote from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. ‘There is a time for … everything under Heaven’.

Easter is the time when we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead on the third day after the horror, despair and finality of His crucifixion. It is a time of joyful celebration in the Church, because seemed lost forever has been found again. But … on Easter day, Sri Lankan Christians celebrating the great mystery of Christ’s Resurrection, were slaughtered by suicide bombers at three Churches, as were foreign tourists at a number of hotels. This follows on from worshippers being gunned down at Friday prayers at two Mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in mid-March. So where is the Resurrection Joy and the Christian Hope in all of that? Where is the Resurrection Joy and the Christian Hope for those who have lost friends or relatives over the last week or two?

After the death of his Mother, Henri Nouwen wrote to his Father:

The best way I can express the meaning death receives in the light of the resurrection of Jesus is to say: “Love is stronger than death” and it’s with this great divine love in our hearts, a love far stronger than death, that our lives can be lived as a promise that the Spirit of Christ can never be destroyed.

In this Easter season the empty tomb of Easter invites us to see life where we expect to see only death. The empty tomb invites us to search for love where there only seems to be hate. The empty tomb invites us to seek peace where violence seems to have the upper hand. The empty tomb invites us to sing a song of redemption when the world sees only sin. The empty tomb invites us to proclaim hope where there seems to be only hopelessness. Because whether we are grieving or joyful, Christ rose again for each and every one of us. Whether we doubt or believe, Love conquered death. Whether we are fearful or hopeful, God’s new creation is here, now, and is all around us.

Leo Tolstoy wrote that he became a Christian “because he saw that the men and women round about him who believed in the faith, received from it a power that enabled them to face life and death with peace and joy”. We can help to shine the Light of Christ in the dark places of our world, in the dark times of our lives and in the darkness of the grief and sadness of those around us, if we: “let our light so shine before others, that they may see our good deeds and glorify our Father who is in Heaven”.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

Blessings
James

A Butterfly Flaps its Wings

There are times in all our lives when, to put it mildly, things aren’t going well. Sickness and accident serve to remind us just how fragile is our health and that of those that we love. Uninvited change can serve to remind us just how fragile our home and family life and all that we’ve taken for granted in the world around us are. Many of us aren’t in our first flush of youth and we can’t manage all that we used to be able to do and many things aren’t as we remember them when we were younger.

There are many things going on around us that seem very much out of kilter with how they should be in a fair and just world. It’s sometimes tempting to believe that things are getting steadily worse and in spite of all our prayers, God either isn’t listening or has given up on us completely. But of course there’s nothing new in any of this. The book of Psalms provides us with ample evidence that people have felt like this for at least the last 3500 years. In psalm 22 the Psalmist writes:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.

Dipping into the Psalms we hear anger, frustration and pleading (as well as the whole gamut of positivity, joy, praise and thanksgiving).

So we offer prayers day by day for our loved ones, our neighbours, ourselves, even our enemies. We pray for the sick, the dying and the bereaved, for the nations and races in conflict, for refugees and the victims of war and oppression. Again nothing new, we hear in Psalm 102:

Hear my prayer, O Lord;
let my cry come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
on the day of my distress.
Incline your ear to me;
answer me speedily on the day when I call.

But “on the day when we call” many of the things that we care about, that trouble us or that we wish would change, stay much the same as before. Where does that leave us in relation to prayer and to the loving God to whom we offer our praise? God’s ways are not our ways and perhaps dealing with the ills of the world doesn’t start with grand plans or schemes, it perhaps starts in the heart of each of us and spreads out from there.

If each day, we set out prayerfully to try to make the life of everyone that we meet just a tiny bit better than it would’ve been had they not met us, then the world will be a slightly better place than it would’ve been. If as a result of one of those encounters someone else makes the life of someone that they meet better, then things are starting to move and in time there could be a chain reaction! The butterfly effect is the name sometimes given to the idea that small causes can have large effects. “If a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, some time later it may cause a tornado in Texas.” The name comes from Chaos theory (that seems strangely appropriate) and the ‘sensitive dependence on initial conditions’ in atmospheric physics and weather prediction, but has become a more widely used metaphor.

It’s through our prayer for the world, for our neighbours, for those around us, those that we love and those that we find it hard to love, that God can give us the strength and will to do our little bit. For the rest, patience and faith are what are required, as in Psalm 40:

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.

So why don’t we all try to start a chain reaction this Lent by flapping our wings and you never know what might happen by Easter? Wait patiently, but in the meantime be the change that you want to see, be that light in the darkness for others:

Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 5.16).

Blessings
James

Christ Light up Our Lives

On the last Tuesday in January every year, the people of Shetland celebrate the Up Helly Aa Festival. This involves a series of marches and visitations, culminating in a torch-lit procession and the burning of a replica Viking galley in Lerwick Harbour.

The festival as we see it today is relatively new, dating back only to about 1870, although it does have earlier roots. On Old Christmas Eve (the 5th January, the eve of what is in our calendar Epiphany) in 1824 a Methodist missionary visiting Lerwick wrote in his diary that: “the whole town was in an uproar: from twelve o’clock last night until late this night blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old tin kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling, fifeing, drinking, fighting. This was the state of the town all the night – the street was as thronged with people as any fair I ever saw in England.

There have long been festivals often involving light and fire during the long winter months. In the Church we have our fair share of these and no more so than during the 40 days of Christmas, from 25th December (Christmas Day) until 2nd February (The Presentation of Christ or Candlemas). Yes 2nd February is the official end of the Christmas Season. It also marks the midway point between the shortest day and the Spring Equinox.

The Christmas Season, is about the revelation of Jesus the Christ as the Messiah, Light of the World – to the Shepherds (representing the Jews) at Christmas, to the Magi (representing the Gentiles) at Epiphany, to the Prophets Simeon and Anna in the temple, to the people (and in particular the followers of John) at His Baptism in the Jordon, to His Mother and early Disciples at the Wedding in Cana, and to the Jewish leaders in the Temple, when He read from the Prophesy of Isaiah.

We mark all of these events over the 40 days of Christmas, but what about the Revelation of Christ to us in our own lives? The longed for Messiah arrived and, apart from those groups mentioned above, the rest probably missed it completely. So for us the fundamental question is: does this annual retelling of the story of Incarnation, of God becoming Human and living amongst us, shine a light in our lives, in yours and mine: “Lighten our darkness we beseech thee O Lord”?

This Season reminds us that God does come among us. Often He does so at unexpected times and in unusual ways. But unless we have some expectation that it might happen, will we be able to discern his presence and be able to respond appropriately? God acting in our lives is unlikely to be accompanied by: “blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old tin kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling or fifeing.” No, our God is a God of surprises, so in 2019 let us be open to all that He seeks to be and all that He seeks to do amongst us – it could be life-transforming.

Blessings
James

The track behind and the road ahead

The period between Christmas Day and the New Year is a time both of looking back over the last year and looking forward to the coming one. It’s no coincidence that the Roman God Janus, God of beginnings and endings, after whom January is named, had two faces, one looking forward and the other back.

As we look back over the past year and reflect on all that has happened, I’m sure that there are many things that we wish had not happened and things that didn’t happen that we wish had. Those who try to live their lives as Christians aren’t plucked away from the hard realities of life into some paradise where we can leave far behind: pain, anguish, tears, anxiety, loss and grief.

Many of us haven’t had a particularly easy year: the loss of close family or friends, difficult relationships, health problems, worry about the future. There are people who talk as if being raised with Christ removes all these things, all doubt, all pain, all difficult responsibilities and trying relationships They’re either fantasising or living in the world of the more sentimental Victorian hymn writers.

When Paul wrote about being raised with Christ, he was talking about a miracle. But that miracle isn’t about being delivered from our present circumstances, it’s about being transformed by them. Transformed by the Christian hope that through having faith and trust in God, all things can be made anew, so that as St Julian of Norwich wrote of a vision in her “Revelations of Divine Love” in which Jesus informed her that: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”.

May all blessings be yours in 2019
James

Xmas and Christmas – C S Lewis

Some of you have enquired about the C S Lewis essay from which came my sermon illustration this morning, so I am posting the whole essay for those who are interested.  For me what is really interesting is that this essay was published, not recently, but nearly 65 years ago!!

Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus

by C. S. Lewis

And beyond this there lies in the ocean, turned towards the west and north, the island of Niatirb which Hecataeus indeed declares to be the same size and shape as Sicily, but it is larger, though in calling it triangular a man would not miss the mark. It is densely inhabited by men who wear clothes not very different from the other barbarians who occupy the north western parts of Europe though they do not agree with them in language. These islanders, surpassing all the men of whom we know in patience and endurance, use the following customs.

In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound they have a great festival which they call Exmas and for fifty days they prepare for it in the fashion I shall describe. First of all, every citizen is obliged to send to each of his friends and relations a square piece of hard paper stamped with a picture, which in their speech is called an Exmas-card. But the pictures represent birds sitting on branches, or trees with a dark green prickly leaf, or else men in such garments as the Niatirbians believe that their ancestors wore two hundred years ago riding in coaches such as their ancestors used, or houses with snow on their roofs. And the Niatirbians are unwilling to say what these pictures have to do with the festival; guarding (as I suppose) some sacred mystery. And because all men must send these cards the marketplace is filled with the crowd of those buying them, so that there is great labour and weariness.

But having bought as many as they suppose to be sufficient, they return to their houses and find there the like cards which others have sent to them. And when they find cards from any to whom they also have sent cards, they throw them away and give thanks to the gods that this labour at least is over for another year. But when they find cards from any to whom they have not sent, then they beat their breasts and wail and utter curses against the sender; and, having sufficiently lamented their misfortune, they put on their boots again and go out into the fog and rain and buy a card for him also. And let this account suffice about Exmas-cards.

They also send gifts to one another, suffering the same things about the gifts as about the cards, or even worse. For every citizen has to guess the value of the gift which every friend will send to him so that he may send one of equal value, whether he can afford it or not. And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, they have been unable to sell throughout the year they now sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.

But during these fifty days the oldest, poorest, and most miserable of the citizens put on false beards and red robes and walk about the market-place; being disguised (in my opinion) as Cronos. And the sellers of gifts no less than the purchaser’s become pale and weary, because of the crowds and the fog, so that any man who came into a Niatirbian city at this season would think some great public calamity had fallen on Niatirb. This fifty days of preparation is called in their barbarian speech the Exmas Rush.

But when the day of the festival comes, then most of the citizens, being exhausted with the Rush, lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much supper as on other days and, crowning themselves with crowns of paper, they become intoxicated. And on the day after Exmas they are very grave, being internally disordered by the supper and the drinking and reckoning how much they have spent on gifts and on the wine. For wine is so dear among the Niatirbians that a man must swallow the worth of a talent before he is well intoxicated.

Such, then, are their customs about the Exmas. But the few among the Niatirbians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, called Crissmas, which is on the same day as Exmas. And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of the Niatirbians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast. And in most of the temples they set out images of a fair woman with a new-born Child on her knees and certain animals and shepherds adoring the Child. (The reason of these images is given in a certain sacred story which I know but do not repeat.)

But I myself conversed with a priest in one of these temples and asked him why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas; for it appeared to me inconvenient. But the priest replied, “It is not lawful, O stranger, for us to change the date of Chrissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatirbians to keep Exmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Exmas and the Rush distract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left.” And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, “It is, O Stranger, a racket”; using (as I suppose) the words of some oracle and speaking unintelligibly to me (for a racket is an instrument which the barbarians use in a game called tennis).

But what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not credible. For first, the pictures which are stamped on the Exmas-cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell about Crissmas. And secondly, the most part of the Niatirbians, not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and participate in the Rush and drink, wearing paper caps. But it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in. And now, enough about Niatirb.