A prayer for Lahore 

  
(Photograph: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty)

Heavenly Father.

Why?

Why does your creation just want to destroy itself?

Why do we use you as our excuse for evil?

Why are families, gathering to celebrate the glorious resurrection of your Son, torn apart by such evil?

Why do you allow such joy to turn to such horror?

Why? Why? Why?

I know that we are a broken, fallen people. I know that battle between good and evil rages within all of us. I know we are all capable of inhumanity.

But I will never get why. 

I sit here in a nice, comfortable chair, in my warm home, surrounded by my family. I sit here knowing that this death and destruction are thousands of miles away. I sit here, detached from the violence and hatred that so many are subjected to on a daily basis.

But I want to forgive.

I have no right, I have not and will probably never be affected by this terror. I haven’t seen my wife, children, friends killed or maimed. I haven’t had my life destroyed by mindless barbarity.

But still, I want to forgive.

I want, on Resurrection Sunday, to demonstrate to those who would carry out these acts what true devotion to you means. I want to tell them that death is not the end for any of us. I want them to know that forgiveness that isn’t just for those of us whose sins are those of greed, or pride or any of the everyday sins I battle against; I want them to know that Jesus died so that even they can be forgiven for the most inhuman, evil, hate filled acts.

I want them to see the Christians they tried to destroy remain strong in their faith. That this and other violent acts will not turn them from you. That the Christian community in Pakistan come together, to help and strengthen each other – and to know that Christians around the world are praying for them and standing with them.

And I want them to forgive. I want them to hear your Son’s words on the cross

“Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.”

And to live his example. For this is where evil is defeated, at the cross and at an empty tomb.

I have no right to ask.

But I know that your grace gives me the opportunity.

So, please. I plead and beg that in all of this evil, death and terror that your will be done.

Forever.

In Jesus name.

Amen.

It is finished

  

“Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

‭‭John‬ ‭19:28-30‬ ‭NIV‬‬

“A jug of sour wine was standing by. Someone put a sponge soaked with the wine on a javelin and lifted it to his mouth. After he took the wine, Jesus said, “It’s done . . . complete.” Bowing his head, he offered up his spirit.”

‭‭John‬ ‭19:29-30‬ ‭MSG‬‬

What was finished? 

What was complete?

What’s so “good” about this Friday?

It’s a story which makes no sense on the face of it. Jesus, the man on whom so many hopes had been pinned, is dead. Just another false dawn in a long list of Jewish “Messiahs”, God’s chosen one who scripture says again and again will deliver Israel from its oppressors. And least the others tried to fight, they raised some sort of army and actually revelled. This guy… well, he talked a lot, but he seemed more interested in upsetting the religious leaders and telling us how to love than in actually fighting.

And now he’s dead. He did nothing to avoid it. His followers did nothing to help him – one even betrayed him. 

He was a great teacher, but Messiah? 

Come on!

Who has he saved?

What has he accomplished?

Well, since you asked…

We need to go back to “the beginning”,

“Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”

‭‭Genesis‬ ‭2:1-3‬ ‭NIV‬‬

“And so the whole universe was completed. By the seventh day God finished what he had been doing and stopped working. He blessed the seventh day and set it apart as a special day, because by that day he had completed his creation and stopped working. And that is how the universe was created.”

‭‭Genesis‬ ‭2:1-4‬a GNT‬‬

God had made the universe. It was finished, complete, so utterly perfect and how he wanted it that he took time to rest and enjoy it.

What had been the finishing touch? Human beings. In his image. Someone to care for his creation and to live in a relationship with him.

Genesis paints a wonderful illustration of this, with Adam and Eve and the garden of Eden. God walks in the garden with these humans, talking, sharing time, having a close and personal relationship.

These humans are the reason it is finished. God has made his creation perfect by having somebody to share it and enjoy it with.

Then it goes wrong.

We all know the story of Eve and the serpent. She eats the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, gives some to Adam and then… all hell breaks loose. Quite literally.

Did this really happen? Well, not like this. The writer of Genesis is a wonderful parable writer, just as Jesus was. He’s trying to show us something about ourselves and how we have ruined God’s creation by breaking that perfect relationship.

The key to how is in the tree and its name; the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God made everything and decided it was “good”. God determines good and evil, as the he maker of all things should do.

Then we decide to rewrite the rules. We decide to define good and evil for ourselves. There was no tree, no fruit, no serpent. But there was a move away from God’s will to our own. We wanted more; more power, more wealth, more food, more land, more status, more sex, more everything. We redefined good and evil in our own interests, not in the perfect way God has done.

Then, we decided that we are God’s equal. We don’t need God. We are the true masters of this world and of how it should be run. So we see wars, poverty, inequality, bigotry, environmental catastrophe, oppression, torture, murder, slavery… all because of the want of humanity. All because we decide what is good, and that is whatever we want it to be.

But there’s still that part of us which knows true goodness. God made us “in his image”, so he included truth and beauty and love in all of us. And a need to be with him. We may spend our time filling that need with other things, things which don’t fill the hole, but that need is there.

So, we come back to him. Or we try to. But we need a way back, because all of the wrong choices we have made lead to death, so we need to do something to reverse that.

This is where the idea of sacrifice came in. Spilling the blood of an animal in place of our blood. It’s a pretty horrible thought, especially in this day and age, but that’s because we don’t need to do it anymore…

So, God’s people would do wrong, then make up for it with a sacrifice. But they couldn’t keep it going, so they needed to sacrifice again and again. Finding animals “without defect”, giving up the very best to make up for our very worst.

Something else, something permanent needed to be done. A sacrifice to end all sacrifice. A way of hitting the reset button on creation so that we have a way of going back to that symbolic garden of Genesis, walking and talking with God each day.

If you need something doing, you have to do it yourself.

I can’t even begin to explain the Trinity in a way which makes sense, even to me. I can make sense of it in my head, it just feels right, but I can’t explain it in words. What I do know is that God the Father sent God the Son (Jesus), both of them God, to finally put things right.

He teaches, heals, loves, calls people to follow him, points the way to the Father. He gives us the simple instructions of loving each other, caring for the poor and sick, putting others before ourselves and going out to tell others the same; always focusing on the Kingdon of God on earth – the garden.

Then, he starts speaking about his death. He knows what he is doing. He knows he’ll be betrayed. He knows he’ll be arrested. He knows he’ll be beaten, whipped, humiliated, condemned and, finally, killed.

God has sacrificed himself so that we finally have that way back.

“It is finished”

“It’s done… complete”

He’s talking of creation. Creation was only complete when God has that companion in humanity, now humanity has that way back to a relationship with him. No more sacrifice is needed, no more death. Jesus didn’t just die, he beat death and returned on the Sunday – the need to make up for walking away from God, for putting ourselves first, is gone. But so is death as the consequence of it.

“It is finished”

“It is done… complete”

Creation is a God intended again. It may not feel like it right now, but the goodness of that Friday was that we can become what we were always meant to be, people enjoying and looking after God’s creation, to love each other, and to walk with God.

Good Friday is about death and sacrifice. It is also about the ultimate love. But more than that, it is about the final completion of creation and the final perfection of God’s finest creation -us.

Don’t waste it.

Not to be served, but to serve

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This is a sermon I preached on 20th March 2016 – Palm Sunday.

In the 1980s TV show, The A-Team… are words which I doubt many sermons have ever started with. However, for those of you who don’t know the show, it centres around four former US commandos who were sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. They escaped and lived on the run as soldiers of fortune (yes, I am using quotes from the opening credits here). They would be hired by people living in towns or villages who were being victimised or oppressed by groups of bad guys. The bad guys would, eventually, capture the A-Team and lock them in some sort of warehouse whilst they carried out the final part of their evil plan. However, the A-Team always seemed to be locked up with enough equipment to create a high powered military vehicle. At the last possible moment they would burst through the doors of the warehouse in a tank created out of a Hillman Imp, some cans of hairspray and a hoard of guns which were also, conveniently, in the warehouse as well. A fight would ensue where, despite hundreds of rounds of ammo being fired, nobody would be shot, and the A-Team would win the day and rescue the little guys from their oppressors.
It sounds, well, not great, but 10 year old me loved this show. Especially that moment where they would burst onto the scene just in time to save the day. The ideas of these guys coming out of nowhere to rescue the oppressed people of the town with their military expertise was amazing in my eyes.
It’s pretty much what the people of Israel were expecting on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Here was a people living under Roman oppression, looking to scriptural prophecy which spoke of a saviour who would rescue them, the Messiah. Then, here is this man who is fulfilling these prophecies left right and centre, riding into Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey, just as Zecharaiah had spoken about,
“See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The people of Jerusalem knew their king had come and treated him as such. Here was the man who would rescue them from Roman occupation. The A-Team had arrived to save them, just in the nick of time.
As Kurt Vonnegut said,
“Trust a crowd to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time.”
I’ll be honest, I would have felt the same as those people spreading their coats and waving palm branches. This is the man who will lead us to a great victory – there have been many false dawns, but this is the time we throw out those who rule us and take back our land for ourselves.
But hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? We can look at this event now and know what it was really all about when we also look at the week which followed; the most momentous week in human history.
You see, this is a triumphant entry, but not of a military leader or earthly king, but of the servant king – a leader whose action are those of obedience to God and service to his people. He knows that he is riding into Jerusalem to die a most painful, humiliating death and he faces this with complete trust in his Father and with complete love for all of humanity.
What Jesus is showing here is how to approach servanthood, he is pointing the way, not to great power or status, but to putting your own will to one side in order to serve the interests of others. The author of the book “Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make”, Hans Finzel, wrote that,
“A leader takes people where they would never go on their own.”
And that is exactly what Jesus is doing here. He is showing us that serving others, laying aside our own ambitions, hopes and plans and following his example, is where true victory and triumph and glory comes from. And he is inviting us to follow him in doing this, knowing that we would never go there on our own.
Paul, when writing to the Philippians, summed up everything Christ did on that day, and in the week that followed, in the wonderful passage we heard earlier. He explains that Jesus,
“being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death –
        even death on a cross!”
We aren’t just talking about a man humbling himself, but God himself, as a man, becoming a servant and being obedient to his death on a cross. And if God himself is willing to do this for us, who are we to put ourselves first ahead of the needs of others? If the one who created everything and gave us all life does this, puts us before him, then we (who are nothing compared to him) have to do the same. Paul tells us the same at the start of this passage,
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus”
The same mindset as Christ Jesus! We need to do this consciously, to make ourselves do it, to ask God for his help and strength in doing it and to make ourselves keep going even when it appears hopeless. Jesus himself was preparing himself to do all those things as he entered Jerusalem, we need to prepare ourselves in the same way.
And I’m not just talking about the big things, of missions to dangerous places, charities for the homeless, foodbanks for the hungry or all of those people who dedicate all of their time and effort to the care of others. These things are amazing and God blesses all of this work, knowing that it reflects his love for us.
I’m also talking about loving the difficult to love person in our workplace, family or, even, church.
I’m talking about being an ear for the person who just needs to talk.
I’m talking about welcoming the stranger in our midst, whoever they are and wherever they have come from.
I’m talking about befriending the lonely.
I’m talking about recognising the need that we all keep hidden and of doing something about that when we see it.
I’m talking about those small acts of kindness and love that can truly make a difference to someone’s day, or week, or life.
We are called to follow Jesus in the big and the small, to forget our own needs and to look outwards and to let our hearts be broken by the needs all around us, and for that heartbreak to spur us into action, whatever that action may be.
Paul wrote that, by lowering himself to the level of servant, Jesus was “exalted to the highest place”. He is calling us to that same glory today by following his example, not to be served, but to serve.
I want to finish with something I found online, which the author (who is unnamed) calls “A Servant’s Pledge”. I want to take these words as a prayer as we face the rest of the day, this Holy Week, and our lives to come.
Let us pray,
Heavenly and gracious Lord
May I become, at all times, both now and forever
A protector for those without protection
A guide for those who have lost their way
A ship for those with oceans to cross
A bridge for those with rivers to cross
A sanctuary for those in danger
A lamp for those without light
A place of refuge for those without shelter
And a servant to all in need
In the words, deeds and name of our saviour, Jesus Christ
Amen

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Back in the Father’s arms

  
This is a sermon I preached on 6th March 2016 – Mothering Sunday.

The picture on the slide up on the screen is called “The Return Of The Prodigal Son”. It was painted by Rembrandt in the final years of his life and depicts the scene at the end of one of Jesus’ best known parables, the one we heard from Luke’s Gospel earlier. The scene is that of a broken, dishevelled young man returning home to seek forgiveness from the father he has wronged, and being embraced by the old man whilst his older brother looks on with a mixture of disapproval and hurt at the warmth his wayward sibling is being greeted with. Three men, all so different, all showing the ways in which our relationship with God can develop.

The artist has captured the moment so beautifully that you can feel the extremes of the emotions emanating from the canvas – or, in this case, PowerPoint slide. But there is one emotion which overrides all others in it; when you look at the face, arms and hands of the father you can sense the intense love burning from him, consuming everything else around it. It is this love, and how we choose to react to it, which is at the centre of Jesus parable – so much so that Henri Nouwen in his wonderful book about the parable, based on this painting and his love for it, suggests that we may have the wrong name for it, that it is really a “Parable of the Father’s Love”.

Mervyn Westfield was a cricketer for my county’s team, Essex. He was a bowler with a promising future in the game when, in 2012, at the age of just 23, it emerged that he had been involved in a betting scam in a match against Durham 3 years earlier. He was offered £6,000 to concede at least 12 runs in the first over he bowled in the match – if that was all foreign to you then I am happy to talk about the laws of cricket, at length, after the service (you may not be so happy with that, though). He was arrested and jailed for four months, as well as being banned for five years from first class cricket.

Westfield’s story is one where a young man’s greed, for a relatively small sum of money (sports betting scams can be worth millions to those involved) sees him lose his livelihood, the game he loved and his liberty. It is a sad tale, but one which didn’t end there. After his release from prison he voluntarily took part in education programmes run by the PCA, the Professional Cricketers Association, teaching players from around England and beyond the dangers of corruption. He is still banned from first class cricket until next year, but as a result of his wholehearted efforts to stop others falling into the trap he did his ban on playing club cricket was reduced to two years. Then, last month, he signed for Minor Counties team Suffolk, the level below first class. The PCA assistant chief executive, Jason Radcliffe, said,

“Mervyn’s done more to try to redeem himself than anybody.”

A young man, blinded by greed, hits rock bottom and realises that the direction he has taken has been totally wrong. The parallels between Mervyn Westfield and the Prodigal Son are plain to see. As are the dangers of falling into the same trap – of thinking we know best. That, like Adam and Eve in Eden, we can define good and evil for ourselves and do what we think is best for us rather than what the father knows is best for us. This is what sin is all about, and it leads us to the depths until, like Prodigal Son eating with the pigs – the most unclean of animals in Jewish eyes – we can’t go any lower.

Then, it’s up to us. Then we realise what we have rejected in our father and we have a choice; do we stay at the bottom or do we allow him to love us in the way which is best for us? Unlike Mervyn Westfield, we do not need to redeem ourselves, it has been done for us – it is our choice whether to look for that redemption, or to keep eating with the pigs.

You see, there is a way back. There is always a way back. Rock bottom now doesn’t mean rock bottom for ever. Once we realise that for ourselves, the way back up should be clear.

Should be, but isn’t always. Especially if you listen to the voices around you telling you how your journey to the bottom was all your fault and you now need to take your punishment. Not if you listen to the voices telling you that you are beyond redemption. Not if you listen to the voices of those who would turn their back on you.

Not if people act like the older son.

Especially for those of us in the church, it feels easy to sit in our pews, singing our hymns in our best clothes and feel utterly righteous. And, as long as we live in faith in Jesus then we have, indeed, been made righteous by him. However, there is a huge difference between righteousness and self-righteousness, a difference which the older son, and many within the church, miss every day.

I once went to a church where, by the sound desk, there was a little light to show you when the side door of the church was opened. By the light was a sign telling you that, if the light was on, you were to see if any “undesirable visitors” were there. Now, I know that the sign really meant that we needed to see if anyone was there to steal things whilst the service was going on, but I always felt incredibly uncomfortable with the wording. How can the church view any visitor as “undesirable”? Have we really become so insular, so satisfied with our own position, that we don’t want to see everybody enter God’s kingdom? Do we really think that we are so much better than those sitting at rock bottom that we can just turn away from them, rather than extending a hand to lift them back up again?

Sometimes, sadly, I think we are. Remember that Jesus addressed this parable to the Pharisees, those viewed as the righteous men of the time. They had become self-righteous in their faith, sneering at Jesus eating with those at rock bottom. The older son was them and, at times, he is us too.

Two sons, two brothers, two very different reactions to their father’s love.

So, we come to the father, and if we look back at Rembrandt’s portrait of him here I want you to focus on his hands. Each hand is different in look and feel. Many observers have commented on the strength and pressure applied by the left hand, holding his son’s shoulder firmly, but gently. It is the hand of a father, holding and protecting.

The right hand, though, looks different. The fingers aren’t spread out, like on the left, and they look almost elegant. It is as if this hand is caressing, stroking and soothing the younger son. This is a mother’s hand.

As Henri Nouwen said in the book I mentioned earlier,

“As soon as I recognised the difference between the two hands of the father, a new world of meaning opened up for me. The Father is not simply a great patriarch. He is mother as well as father. He touches the son with a masculine hand and a feminine hand. He holds, she caresses. He confirms and she consoles. He is, indeed, God, in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood, are fully present.”

Quite a thought to hear on Mothering Sunday. Our God, who we so often hear called our heavenly father, is two parents in one. He is mother and father to us, fulfilling both roles; loving and protecting us, teaching and disciplining us, loving and worrying about us.

The father in Jesus’ parable saw the younger son while he was still a long way off. He had been gone for a long time, he had thrown as big an insult as he could at his father by asking for his inheiritance early, virtually saying he wished his father was dead; yet still the father was looking, scanning the horizon, desperate for a sign or a word from the son who abandoned him, but who he would never abandon.

And, when he saw him he ran to meet him and embraced him. A young man who had done everything wrong in life welcomed back into his father’s, and mother’s, arms.

This is what awaits all of us. There may be people here this morning who feel that they are at, or heading towards rock bottom. That there is no way back for them. There is always a way back, Jesus died and rose again so that we would have that way back from the mud and the pigs. He is calling you now, back to the father and the warm embrace and huge celebration which waits for you.

There may be people here who have a prodigal son, or daughter, or mother, or father, or friend. Someone dear to you who seems so far from you and from God. Keep praying, keep loving and keep watching the horizon. Remember that, no matter who they are, where they are or what they have done, the Father’s arms are open for them, so keep your arms open for them too.

Whoever you are, whatever your situation, when you come back to the father a huge celebration and a warm embrace is waiting for you. If you are already there, then a place at that party is waiting for you, too, every time a prodigal returns home; because that brother or sister of yours was dead and is alive again, they were lost and is found.

Amen.