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  • Unreconciled?: Exploring Mission in an Imperfect World
    Unreconciled?: Exploring Mission in an Imperfect World
    by Ann Richards, Mission Theology Advisory Group

    This book is the reference resource for the 2012 Lent courses at All Saints Ealing and St Martins West Acton. The focus is about making our theology of reconcilaition personal not just a matter of Christian duty. It is all too easy to pray for reconciliation for war torn countries "out there". But what about the reconciliation needed "in here"? What about the Unreconciled in our homes or on our doorsteps who feel left out, unheard, wounded or ignored? How can the local church offer the gift of Christ's reconciliation to those whose problems we are not even aware of?

  • Why Sacraments?
    Why Sacraments?
    by Andrew Davison

    A very thorough overview of the 7 sacraments and their relationship to the doctrine of the incarnation. Davison's writing is accessible, scholarly and succinct. 

  • Elements of Rite: A Handbook of Liturgical Style
    Elements of Rite: A Handbook of Liturgical Style
    by Aidan Kavanagh

    Essential source book for any liturgist. Kavanagh unpacks basic very profound principles informing healthy Echaristic worship.

  • Why Go to Church?: The Drama of the Eucharist
    Why Go to Church?: The Drama of the Eucharist
    by Timothy Radcliffe

    How the Eucharist brings us into slow work of faith, hope and love.

  • Creating Uncommon Worship: Transforming the Liturgy of the Eucharist
    Creating Uncommon Worship: Transforming the Liturgy of the Eucharist
    by Richard Giles

    This book highlights the great richness, variety and imaginitive potential of modern sacramental worship. A must read for liturgists.

  • The Art of Worship: Paintings, Prayers, and Readings for Meditation (National Gallery London)
    The Art of Worship: Paintings, Prayers, and Readings for Meditation (National Gallery London)
    by Nicholas Holtam

    An excellent collection of spiritual reflecions on selected artwork in the National Gallery. This is Nicholas Holtam (one time Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields and now Bishop Salisbury) at his best.

  • Difficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams
    Difficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams
    by Mike Higton

    A must-read for anyone who wants to understand the fundamental principles behind Rowan Williams' theology.

  • The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger
    The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger
    by Richard Wilkinson, Kate Pickett

    A compelling statistical study about equal societies and the broad based social benefits enjoyed in these nations. The numbers are easy and so is the read; but the implications are hard to swallow.

  • The Shattered Lantern: Rediscovering a Felt Presence of God
    The Shattered Lantern: Rediscovering a Felt Presence of God
    by Ronald Rolheiser

    What does authentic Christian spirituality look and feel like? This book explores these very relevant themes and will leave you deeply enriched.

  • Tradition and Imagination: Revelation and Change
    Tradition and Imagination: Revelation and Change
    by David Brown
  • Discipleship and Imagination: Christian Tradition and Truth
    Discipleship and Imagination: Christian Tradition and Truth
    by David Brown
  • God and Enchantment of Place: Reclaiming Human Experience
    God and Enchantment of Place: Reclaiming Human Experience
    by David Brown
  • God and Grace of Body: Sacrament in Ordinary
    God and Grace of Body: Sacrament in Ordinary
    by David Brown
  • God and Mystery in Words: Experience through Metaphor and Drama
    God and Mystery in Words: Experience through Metaphor and Drama
    by David Brown
  • Poet and Peasant: Literary-cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke
    Poet and Peasant: Literary-cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke
    by Kenneth E. Bailey

    An outstanding study of the parables. Kenneth Bailey's profound insights into the Middle-Eastern culture of Jesus' day will revolutionise the way you see the parables. 


Hosting the Wild Word of God - Centenary 2016

St Barnabas, Ealing. Centenary Jazz Mass, Sunday 5 June, 2016. Readings.


"Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you." (1 Kings 17:9)

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Writing to the parish on the Golden Jubilee in June 1966, the third vicar of St Barnabas Church, Fr Nevill Hetherington, points out: "It has often been said that it takes 100 years to build a ‘Parish’.“

Well, I wonder what the "Rev Nev", as he was affectionately known, would make of us today. We have, of course, officially already turned 100. The church was consecrated on 3 June 1916. Looking around, I don't think we look too bad for centenarians. But, can we now at last claim to be a proper "parish"? 

It does seem appropriate to reflect on our calling as the parish church in Pitshanger Lane on this most important birthday. What does it mean to the church, the people of God, in this place and time? And what then of the next 100 years? I'm sure we will all agree with Father Hetherington's later observation in that same letter when he says "…building is still going on and progress will, I pray, never cease". 

It just so happens that the story of the prophet Elijah and the widow of Zarephath offers us plenty of rich material with which to reflect on the call and work of God's people. So, turn with me to that reading from 1 Kings in your service books and let's unpack something of what it offers.

I’d like to make just two preliminary remarks before we look more closely at the text:

  1. We find the prophet Elijah in the wilderness in this story. In Scripture, the wilderness signifies a time of testing and unexpected gift. Moses, Abraham, Elijah, John the Baptist and, indeed, Jesus enter the wilderness to be tested, to be stretched, to meet God.
  2. In 2 Kings 1:8 we are told that Elijah emerges from the wilderness as a wild man. In the storytelling of ancient cultures, the wild man is the embodiment of a threat to civilized culture and the status quo. He is dangerous. Some of the theological implications of the wild prophet Elijah is that the prophetic word of God cannot be tamed, it presents a risk to those who will play host to it. We return to this point a little later.

Turning then to the text. The word of the Lord comes to Elijah telling him to go to Zarephath – "I commanded a widow there to feed you." From this we expect that he will be openly welcomed and graciously hosted by the widow God has commanded. What transpires is quite different to that. At the gate of Zarephath the prophet encounters destitution and dejection. The widow of Zarephath is not primed to be the instrument of the Lord as we would have thought. She says in verse 12:

"As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die."

This moment of tension is actually just as miraculous as the events in the rest of the narrative. The widow in her destitution, against all common sense and reason, takes the risk to show hospitality to a wild man of the desert. In so doing, she inadvertently becomes the host of the untamed prophetic word of God. And it is in this way, through risk and vulnerability, that she ultimately responds to the command of God to fulfill her calling. The consequence is the miracle of abundant provision for all of them. The presence of the untamed prophetic word brings transformation and life. In verse 16 we read: "the jar of meal was not empty, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah." 

But does this mean that there is to be no more suffering, no further crisis to endure? No, disease and death come among them. Now the widow regrets her willingness to host the wild man of God. Has the untamed word of the Lord come to bring judgment and punishment for her sins? After all, is this not what we all sometimes expect of God’s presence?

But the prophet refuses to leave or to let God off the hook. In a moment of beautiful poignancy, Elijah asks her to hand him her son "from her bosom" and he lays him on his bed. And then he has words with God. Verse 20: "He cried out to the Lord, ‘Oh Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I'm staying, by killing her son?’" And then he holds God to account. Verse 21 “O Lord my God let this child's life come into him again."

Once more the prophetic word of the Lord brings the miracle of life. However, we should not be too distracted by the wonder of the risen dead or indeed the bottomless jars of meal and oil. The most profound work of the powerful word of God is that in both cases communion is restored; relationships are forged or healed. In both cases the prophet holds the covenant word, the God who is relationship, to account. In the first miracle this holding to account is implicit: "I have commanded a widow than to feed you," – the prophet expects this promise to be fulfilled. And then the holding to account is explicit in the second miracle, when Elijah practically insists that God restore the life the widow’s son in order that relationships may be healed.

The story of the prophet, the widow and the resurrected son, reminds us that the work of God's people is the risky and frequently demanding business of learning to build communion with seemingly scarce resources.  The presence of the untamed prophetic word asks us to open the gates of our hearts, like the widow, to become the host of the wild man from the desert. The theologian Carolyn J Sharp says:

"When we dare to a host the prophetic word, we are transformed. For we encounter a God who delivers the powerless, a God whose word yields inexhaustible abundance, a God whose compassion is stronger than death."

But of course for us, the wild man from the desert is much more than a prophet. He is the saviour himself, the untamed Word made flesh. Just like every generation of Christians, the first question we must ask ourselves is this: are we prepared to take the risk to host the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ? By instinct and through study of the scriptures we know that responding to this question with our very lives is neither pain, nor risk free. In fact, quite the opposite, a lot of the time it can be difficult, cumbersome and even heartbreaking. And yet, our deepest longing is to cry out “Yes! Yes, come and make your home with us. You, the wild man from the desert who is God, who eats with sinners and heals on the Sabbath, we will be your hosts even though we are terrified! Come restore us to our true selves.” 

You see, when we welcome the prophetic word of love into the most vulnerable places and spaces of our lives, we realize just like the widow of Zarephath, that God's power has come among us not for judgment but for life. And we make that gift most visceral, when standing with the neighbour and, most importantly, with the stranger in the midst of their suffering, just like the prophet Elijah and Christ himself. That’s the work of learning to be in communion. When we allow God to speak through our own desperation and suffering, when we find in the devastation, the untamed presence of love. That’s the work of being in communion, building relationships. And that is how we become much more than people who just memorialize the meal of Christ, the Eucharist, every week. We become people who live the Eucharist, who are swept up in the current of Christ’s unexpected hospitality every day. Broken bread, wine outpoured, for each other and the world – a living sacrifice. That’s the good news.    

There's a wonderful scene in the movie The Way. A bereaved father played by Martin Sheen arrives at a bed and breakfast on his pilgrimage along the Camino Way. A group of people are enjoying lunch on the verandah. As he is walking past a man stands up and says brightly "We have been expecting you!" The father is taken by surprise. He says "But you didn't know I was coming." The man responds "You are a pilgrim no? We are always expecting you. We are all pilgrims here."

As we look to the next 100 years, can we keep saying yes to the untamable word made flesh again and again?  I think we can, we are and we will. And because this movement of God is ongoing and uncontainable; because it is risky, cumbersome and even painful at times, the work of being "parish church" – a place of communion that exists for others as much is itself – will, to quote Father Hetherington again, "never cease". We say “yes” to the unpredictable, untamed Word made flesh so that we our lives may say to the neighbour and the stranger "Yes, we have been expecting you. We are all pilgrims here."

Some final words from the theologian Carolyn J Sharp: 

"Elijah's prophetic word points to the One who is the way, the truth and the life. Host that word, know the truth and live." 

"Go now to Zarepath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have come commanded a widow there to feed you." (1 Kings 17:9)

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen


Introducing the 7 Sacraments

St Barnabas Ealing, 12th Sunday after Trinity. Readings can be found here

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.  

You may be wondering why I have chosen the reading of the prodigal son to introduce a sermon series on the Sacraments. “Is this not about forgiveness and restoration?” you might be asking yourself. Well, yes it. But it is also much more than that. In fact, I want to draw attention to what many biblical theologians would consider to be the two fundamental movements conveyed in this powerful parable - that of free will and grace.  

The movement of grace seems evident here but the two clues to the extraordinary depth of the father’s forgiveness can easily be missed. In verse 20b it says “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” The biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey argues that In Middle-Eastern culture it would have been unthinkable for a father to run towards a son who had effectively treated him like he was dead by demanding an early inheritance. The very idea that this same father might even be looking for a traitor son would have been considered both mad and foolish. The point is that the father is on the look out despite being rejected by his son in almost every way possible. He is eagerly awaiting his return and when he sees him coming rushes towards him, setting his own dignity aside. 

The movement of free will is also clear in the parable but it is worth emphasising. Whilst the reprobate son decides to take his inheritance early, abandon his father and then squander his wealth, he also decides to return to his father. Granted, his motives may still have been largely self-serving but he does exercise his free will in returning.

And so it is through the remarkable meeting of grace and free will that we see the purposes of God revealed or what Jesus otherwise calls “the kingdom”. What flows from it is the restoration of relationships, dignity and a peace which passes all human understanding.  

This then, is where I want to begin as we unpack the meaning of the sacraments. As the theologian Andrew Davison suggests in his book Why Sacraments?  “the sacraments are occasions in which we encounter Christ. Or, since the emphasis should rest on him, not on us, the sacraments are occasions when Christ reaches out to us.” In light of our parable this morning, we might say they are occasions in which Christ sees us coming and runs towards us. We, for our part, exercise our free will to respond to or at the very least make ourselves present for these gifts.  Fundamentally then, Christians of the West and East believe that the sacraments are the means through which the transforming power of God’s grace is encountered, particularly in the context of the church. You will note that I said thee Church - that is when two or three are gathered in Christ’s name - not the church building. 

The Book of Common Prayer defines a sacrament “as the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.” This well-known phrase highlights two key components of the Church’s understanding of the sacraments: the material or outward dimension and the spiritual or inward dimension. This is very important to get right. Like the incarnation of Christ himself, the material and spiritual aspects of the sacraments cannot be separated. Throughout the history of the Church many questioned the need for the physical aspect of the sacraments - particularly in the reformation. Is this not about being ‘ritualistic’ rather than an authentic follower of Christ? Worst still, why do we need this stuff to mediate between us and Christ when the faith is really about a very personal, direct and internal experience? 

The answer to these questions come from scripture and the ministry of Christ himself. The roots are to be found throughout the Old Testament. Faith in the one true God is played out in the interaction with physical things: the sacrifice of a lamb on an altar, the painting of door frames with blood, the circumcision of first born males, the dividing of a sea. But in particular, as Christians we believe that Jesus is Emmanuel - God among us. Jesus is constantly demonstrating the nature and purposes of God not least of which is his own messianic calling through interactions and metaphors that make use of the tangible. He heals lepers and the dead by touching them. To heal the blind he spat on the ground to make a muddy paste. He turned water into wine. He draws in the sand to psychologically disarm an angry mob. He rode on a donkey. He compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed, a pearl of great price and yeast. He calls on his followers to be salt and light. He ate, slept, laughed, cried and died on a brutal instrument of torture. When he rose from the dead on the third day the heavy stone in front of his tomb is physically rolled away. Mary Magdalene does not encounter a ‘spiritually’ resurrected Jesus, but a physical one. And indeed, in our parable today, the father calls for his estranged son to be dressed in the fine things of a nobleman - a ring, a robe and new sandals. The fattened calf is slaughtered and a feast prepared. The unseen reconciliation of father and son is made visible through the signs of favour and celebration. More than that, it is actually facilitated or mediated through it. Remember, it is not the return of the prodigal son that scandalises the older brother but his father’s lavish celebration of his return. 

On the other end of the spectrum is the claim that we don’t need the sacraments of the church because God is in all of creation. We simply have to take a walk in nature or enjoy a good meal to encounter God. This conviction emerges from a good place. As Christians we hold dear to the idea that creation is holy and wholesome. However, this general sacramental awareness is grounded and nurtured through the specific sacraments of the church. If we choose to dispense with these rites, we are effectively abandoning the way Christians have collectively shaped communal experience for thousands of years.

In addition, there is a streetwise toughness to the 7 sacraments. They direct us into the awe-inspiring recognition that God is in the present moment and then beyond it to the hopefulness that is promised through the suffering and resurrection of Jesus. God isn’t just with us in the here and now, he is constantly redeeming us in this moment and our future. The incarnation is not an end in itself, it is the means of God’s saving work.  

So the sacraments recruit the material and spiritual in a way that actually prevents sharp distinction. Andrew Davison explains it in these terms:

The Christian tradition will not let the ‘spiritual’ be simply spiritual or the ‘material’ be simply material. It shows this by constantly taking material things and dragging them into church (babies, love and marriage, bread and wine, the dead) and by constantly taking spiritual things and enacting them materially.

Attentiveness to the human condition with all of it’s messiness and wonder is at the heart of Christ’s life, teaching and very being. This is why the profound spiritual questions of sin, suffering, forgiveness, freedom, well-being and eternal life are infused with the seemingly mundane substance of the sacraments - actions, bread, wine, water, oil, ash, songs and words.    

This of course echoes what I highlighted at the beginning about the parable of the prodigal son and the sacraments. Christ rushing to meet us, harnessing the very stuff of our existence. Above all the sacraments demonstrate to us over and over again that the one almighty God, maker of heaven and earth, shapes salvation in terms we understand by sending us Jesus Christ - to live with us and like us, to suffer as we do, to die as we one day all will and then to rise again. Through the power of his sacrifice we believe that we will too.   

So important are the 7 sacraments to the Church that we believe that some give indelible shape to our souls and others sustain or repair that identity. In fact, there is nothing in the joy and suffering of the human condition that the sacraments do not transform, heal or nourish.  

Of the 7, we believe 4 impart a particular character (or imprint) of Christ. Baptism incorporates us into the people of God - the body of Christ. It cannot be undone or redone. Confirmation, as its name implies confirms the work of the Holy Spirit begun at our baptism. We are given the mark of an adult member of God’s household. In marriage two individuals are grafted together through the Holy Spirit. In ordination, the call to serve the people of God is recognised and that character consecrated by the people of God through the bishop. In all 4 of these sacraments the Church holds that our identities are changed for good. The remaining 3 sacraments nourish or repair us. Principally through Holy Communion we are forgiven, fed, watered and sent out for mission. In anointing we became available for the healing of mind, body and spirit according to God’s purposes. In confession, we speak the things that hold us back from accepting the grace of God and then are restored to our heavenly father.  

In the meeting of grace and free will we experience the sacramental provision of God who is running to meet us in his son Jesus Christ. He is constantly reaching out to us in ways we understand, through signs that affirm, transform and repair the deepest realities of our hidden selves. 

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him… “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen. 


"Choose life."

St Barnabas Ealing, the 3rd Sunday before Lent, 16 February 2014.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Please turn with me to Deuteronomy  30:15-20 on your reading sheets. Let’s read through this one more time:

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.

If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.

But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them,

I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

This is part of God’s final word to Moses which he in turn delivers to the Israelites. The word of God comes to the people at a critical crossroads. They are standing on the plain as Moses prepares to die and the Israelites prepare to enter the promised land. Behind them is the bondage of Egyptian oppression and the painful and unpredictable journey in the desert. The covenant, or special relationship of trust, that they entered with God, governed by divine law remains remarkably intact. There were a number of close calls. It seemed at times that they would not or could not uphold their end of the bargain. The journey out of slavery in Egypt towards a new life felt like another type of bondage. It was much longer than anyone had expected, spanning generations. It was much harder than they ever could have known, trudging through a harsh and uncompromising terrain, which boiled the blood by day and froze the nerves by night.

But the promise of security and peace was now actually within their reach. They had survived. For the last time Moses rises to speak to them. What he says would have been familiar by then. He reminds them, once again, that they have a choice. The choice concerns obedience and relationship. It is matter of life or death. If they choose to love God and keep the way of life commanded by him they will live and prosper in the land. But if they choose to turn from God’s ways, to choose a life that is self-serving, their prosperity will run dry and their future in the land will be cut short.

For these ancient Israelites, the power of God and the land itself were almost inseparable. They believed that their God, the one true God, did not have sovereignty beyond the borders of their terrain. So to choose for Yahweh, meant that all human activity would be infused with the protection of the divine. To choose against Yahweh would result in an existence devoid of the divine presence. A barren spirituality would soon lead to a barren life.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him. Isaiah 30:20

Looking back over the recent past you may feel, as the people of God in this place, that you have come through a journey of adversity. You have had to survive many challenges and the harsh conditions of a wilderness experience during which you longed for security, prosperity and peace. As we start the approach to my first Lent and Easter at St Barnabas, the holiest of the seasons in the Church’s calendar, you could suggest that we too are approaching an important cross roads. But this chapter in the life of St Barnabas is no longer new.  Believe it or not, I have been with you for almost 6 months. You have already crossed the Jordon and entered the so-called promised land of new vicardom. And yet, I am sure you are starting to discover, just as the ancient Israelites did, that the fundamental choice between spiritual life and spiritual death is still very much before us.

You see, the journey of the sacred people of St Barnabas, just like any other community of God, is never over. That is, not on this side of Christ’s second coming. One phase has ended but in it’s place another has began. And once the excitement of a new vicar (or anything new for that matter) begins to fade and fade it will, we are left with the uncomfortable knowledge that there is a long journey ahead. There is much work to be done.

We remain the people we were before we crossed our River Jordon. Each of us carrying an unseen world of past wounds and joys, victories and defeats. Each of us living from within a perspective of particular priorities, preferences and needs. All of us bound together in a kaleidoscope of relationships; some that are nourishing, others that are challenging and others still that are just beginning.

When Moses directs the Israelites towards choosing life, he emphasises that this can only be realised through obedience to the one true God.  However, he is not making the case for mindless compliance with the law, cold and dispassionate. He is reminding them that they are in a living relationship with the divine and that obedience in this context is a faithful response to that covenant. So much more than compliance, they are called into communion and cooperation with Yahweh their faithful provider. The deeper meaning of obedience, to listen, is at heart of the Deutronomic law.

We too, the people of God at St Barnabas are called to choose life, to embrace again and again communion with God our faithful provider. In practical terms this means building lives that become ever more fine-tuned to the presence and ways of God. And of course we believe that we have been given the promised land in actual flesh and blood. We have been sent a man called Jesus who through his life, death and resurrection has secured an invitation to participate not only in life, but life in all its fullness.

Our lent study course this year is aptly named Pilgrim. We will be doing the first part of it called “Turning to Christ”. It could well have been called “Choosing Life”. The course should be seen as one of many way stations in our ongoing pilgrimage.  It’s structured in a way that is reflective and conversational. No one will force the pace.  In other words, it provides plenty of space and oxygen to explore the deeper things of God and to refuel our obedience to the law of love.  You may feel you never really understood what it means to be a Christian. Perhaps you are concerned that your spirituality has gone stale. You may just want to share in the experience of discussing ideas about Christianity. In all these cases Pilgrim is for you.

Come and join in as we rediscover that God’s sovereignty is made complete in a man called Jesus. That Christ’s reign of love is not limited to a specific religious code or a specific people or even a specific terrain. Through Christ the divine rule of law and the absolute provision of God has been fulfilled and is on offer to anyone wants a seat at the banquet.

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.

If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. Deuteronomy  30:15-18

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen



Salt and Light

St Barnabas Ealing, the 4th Sunday Before Lent, 9 February 2014.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

When I was in advertising we would judge creative ideas by with this adage – don’t tell me, show me. Don’t just tell me that an ice cold Guinness is the reward for those who wait, show me. Show me the transcendent rewards of waiting. Show me patient surfers on a pristine beach in iconic black and white videography. Show me the tension of waiting and watching build to a cathartic moment in which the surfers rush across the sand and dive into the spray. Show me this moment of exhilaration as they are joined by a troop of white stallions in the towering and tumultuous waves. Then show me the joy on their faces as they celebrate the reward of waiting. I’m sure many of you remember this TV commercial. That’s probably because it was created by an ad agency that understood there is always more power in showing than in straight-up telling.

A teacher gives her class a “show and tell” assignment of bringing something to represent their religion.The first child got in front of the class and said, “My name is Benjamin and I am Jewish and this is the Star of David.” The second child got in front of her class and said, “My name is Mary, I am Catholic and this is the Crucifix.” The third child got up in front of his class and said, “My name is Frederick and I am Anglican and this is a quiche.”

The Gospel reading we have today uses simple images of salt and light to evoke the power of showing and I want to explore that a little more deeply with you. But before we address the reading itself we must look at its place within the broader context of this Gospel.

Our reading from the Gospel of Matthew comes immediately after Jesus has preached the Beatitudes. Now the Beatitudes describe the “what” of Christian discipleship if you like. That is to say, they are the consequences for those who choose the hard path of following Jesus and living against the grain of societies dominant values. Jesus is preaching to a people who are under the ruthless efficiency of Roman control. What’s more, these foreign occupiers have the local religious authorities in their pay.  The Judaism of the second temple tended to be legalistic and quite mechanistic – the purity of religious ritual and practice had taken the ascendance. This created a segregated world in which some people where clean and some people where unclean with nothing much in between. Social redemption was near impossible. So the value system of this culture was a heady cocktail of imperialism, wealth, privilege and self-interest blended together with blind religious legalism and prejudice. The most vulnerable – the widow, the orphan, the poor, the mentally and physically ill – were largely perceived with suspicion. “If this is what has befallen them, then it must be what they deserve. God has punished them in this way.”

So really, the “what” of God’s kingdom outlined in the beatitudes is a revolution, a revolution that overturns almost every sacred cow of the near middle-eastern culture  – those who are poor by virtue of their poverty alone shall become rich, those who are peaceful rather than the powerful will be exalted, those who truly love God will be favoured rather than those who observe faultless but empty religious practice. In preaching the beatitudes Jesus knew full well that he was laying out a manifesto that would threaten both the power of Empire and the Jewish religious authorities. This is a sermon with immediate consequences for the social order.

But if the Beautitudes are the “what”, where do we find the “how” of God’s kingdom? This is where our reading from the Gospel has its place.

The first thing to note is that the tone changes. In these lines Jesus goes from using 3rd person descriptions “Blessed are the poor”, “Blessed are the meek”, “Blessed are they” and so on, to first person injunctionsYou are the salt of the earth”, “Let your light shine” etc… With this gear change, the listener is given the signal that this is what we are to do, this is how we are to be, to live.

The second thing to note is the choice of metaphors. They are chosen probably because of their prevalence and relevance. Salt would have been an essential part of survival, used to provide flavour to food (especially bread) as well as to preserve it. The images of a city’s lights on a hill or a lamp on its stand pushing back the darkness would have been conjured quite vividly in the minds of Jesus’ listeners. Light like salt is a daily necessity.

Finally, the third thing to note is the order of the metaphors. Jesus begins with the image of salt and then progresses to the image of light. Salt was a very precious thing in the near Middle East. It was at times used as currency and it was common practice in Jewish culture to rub a newborn child in salt as a sign of purity. And yet, for salt to be of any value it needs to combine with what it flavours or preserves. In other words, its work occurs in an invisible but tangible way. It’s tangible because its saltiness is experienced even though it cannot be seen. So it transforms its context for the better, helping to enhance subdued virtues or to preserve existing ones. This is a fitting description of love, the spontaneous but overwhelming desire to invest in the best interests of the other without diminishing anything of one’s own identity.

Jesus directly calls on his listeners to be salt first, a modest but indispensible presence in their context steadily transforming it for the better. But he then directly calls on them to be light. Is this not a contradiction in terms? How can you be both like the self-effacing presence of salt and a city lit-up on a hill drawing attention to itself?

Well, we are called first to be salt and then to be light, in that order. You see, a people who are a presence of transforming love in their context cannot but help manifest God’s goodness. Jesus is pointing out here, once again, that the intention must not be to try and shine with our own generosity and talents but to hand them over to God in ways that resemble the working of salt so that the glory of love shines through us: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

We will of course get this wrong. And we also need our work, talents and efforts to be recognised in order to be healthy and fulfilled human beings. But if our highest goal is to be recognised for what we have or what we can do rather than who we are in the lavish love of God, we risk losing our saltiness and worst still obscuring the potential light of our God-given humanity.  To coin a phrase: we must show in order that we may tell.  

Drawing these three characteristics of the reading together I’m suggesting that we are given the “how” of the God’s kingdom in the beatitudes.  The metaphors of salt and light are not just descriptions for us to meditate upon they are instructions to which we are called to respond. The meaning of these metaphors – the everyday extraordinariness of salt and light - should urge us to reconsider how we live and the real nature of our motivations. And the order in which Jesus gives them as well as the unspoken connection that he makes between them should remind us to steer our daily Christian pilgrimage towards the priority of ‘do’ first and ‘speak’ later. Better still, ‘do’ in order that God himself may speak through us.  

The connection between this reading and the beatitudes is incredibly important. The dispensation of justice and peace that Jesus proclaims in the beatitudes is very often reduced to a set of platitudes in Churches. You see, as the followers of Jesus we are called to be his revolutionaries of love. We too live in a world of inequality, injustice, despair and suffering. And am I not just talking here about places abroad like Syria or communities in our own country that are less affluent and seemingly less stable. I am talking about our very own parish. Our neighbourhood. Our street. Our schools. Our lane.  Christ commands us to be salt and light in these places.

Let’s remind ourselves of today’s lesson from Isaiah 58:7: 

Is (this the time) to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

I think the bottom line is this: we are the foot soldiers of Christ’s revolution of love. And in this famous sermon Jesus is saying don’t stand on the Lane proclaiming that the kingdom of God is at hand if you are not first living it yourself. Are we being salt and light to our neighbours, to the people who we look down upon, whose plight in life we may secretly consider justly deserved?

Who are the widows and the orphans and the poor and the lame and the sick on our doorsteps? It might be a neighbour who you have never met but you know they’ve just lost their spouse. You arrive, unprompted, with a meal. You are being salt and light. A friend who needs a lift to the hospital for eye surgery. You are being salt and light, a revolutionary of love for Jesus Christ. You make way for a slow person on crutches on the E2 bus. You are being salt and light. The revolution of love is seldom, if ever, televised.

Every person sitting in this church has what is needed to respond to Christ’s direct injunction: “You are the salt of the earth,” “You are the light of the world…let your light shine before others.”

But you may be asking where to start. Well, after the service today there will be a reunion of the newly renamed St Barnabas Pastoral Network. If you are not already in a group please find Felicity, Angela or myself and we will arrange for you to join one. As the name suggests these groups are networks – a means of being connected with other people in the St Barnabas household rather than only on Sundays at Church. They are what you make of them: a forum to pray for one another, to offer simple acts of support to one another or to simply be at the end of the phone line for someone. Your group leaders role is to keep the group connected, beyond that, everyone is called to be salt and light to one another and very importantly to their local neighbourhood.

If it’s really our dream to see this church overflowing with people, a vital hub of spirituality, support and creativity in Pitshanger and beyond, start by simply offering random acts of kindness to one another and those who we would ignore.     That is how we co-operate with God in building a kingdom in which love usurps the throne of self-interest and the tyranny of loneliness and exhaustion so pervasive in London life and where compassion wins the day rather than social or financial privilege.  We can be salt and light. We can live out the radical power of our Gospel values rather than reducing them to polite platitudes we tell ourselves on Sundays.

Some final words from Mother Teresa:

Give Jesus not only your hands to serve, but your heart to love. Pray with absolute trust in God’s loving care for you. Let Him use you without consulting you. Let Jesus fill you with joy that you may preach without preaching.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen


Enriching the Liturgy at All Saints Ealing: A Manifesto from Pentecost

The following explanation of some liturgical reform at All Saints Ealing was given before the start of the Eucharist on Pentecost Sunday 2013. For pastoral reasons the actual details of the changes are ommitted. But do go along to All Saints Ealing to experience the Eucharist, 10:30 am on Sunday mornings.

There is an ancient Latin dictum lex orandi lex credendi. Roughly translated it means the law of prayer is the law of belief. It is often referenced to make plain the principle that how we worship shapes what we believe. Our liturgies, creeds, hymns and doctrines are not an accident of history. They are the outworking of a careful and prayerful tradition which has sought to illuminate the truth of the Christian faith through the beauty and transforming power of words, symbols and rituals in worship.    

However, there are two dangers with sacramental worship. The first is that we can assume that the process of discovery and creativity has come to an end. We are particularly sure that the Victorians really finished-off the job. This is, of course, a complete betrayal of the scriptures which remind us that God is constantly at work transforming his world and us. Our worship should never be held hostage to the grave misconception that the status quo is somehow a divine edict or the perfection of the Christian tradition. A cursory survey of church history should disabuse us of our desire to blindly cling to the familiar. One generation's revolution is another's straitjacket.

The second very serious danger of sacramental worship is the risk of apathy or liturgical spectatorship. This may be defined as the habit of coming to divine worship as consumers rather than participants. Worshippers caught in this attitude expect that they will mostly receive or remain passive during Sunday service. The liturgy is reduced to a performance and an empty ritual, the very thing that sparks the wrath of God against the ancient kingdom of Israel.

The word liturgy means the work of the people. When we come to Eucharist our first priority should be to offer ourselves into the act of worship. There can be no true worship, no transforming encounter with God if our hearts, minds and bodies remain disengaged from the collective work of praising God. Aidan Kavanagh expresses the point very effectively in his book the Elements of Rite "The not a plaything for the faithful assembly but its sustained summons home to God."

The clergy, choir and other attendants are here to serve you in worship and you are here to serve them. Authentic sacramental worship is a three-way conversation between the assembly, the leaders and the divine. It is predicated on a willingness to offer ourselves anew at every service, to make the sacrifice of time and energy to God within the ritual that reunites us to the great sacrifice of our saviour.

The culpability for these two dangers, stale ritual and apathetic worship, rest with both the clergy and the congregation. We need to be vigilant and faithful together so that we don’t fall into patterns of worship that result in the extremes of bland familiarity or confusing messyness.

Today is Pentecost, the birthday of the Church and the festival in which we recall the coming of the Holy Spirit. As we will shortly hear, the consequence of the radical outpouring of God's love is powerful, authentic, unifying and transforming worship. Language, culture and location become irrelevant as the disciples and those around them are caught up in a vivid experience of God. Openness, willingness and enthusiastic participation characterise the encounter that would ignite the spread of Christianity around the world.

Today also marks the first of my final 10 Sundays with you. I think it is fitting to introduce some adjustments to the way we worship in order to enable us to offer ourselves to God in a more unified and intentional way. Through our actions, words and songs we need to be reminded that the worshipping assembly is the primary minister of God’s transforming grace in the Eucharist.

Authentic and transforming worship is not about perfection or performance. It isn't an X Factor style singing competition. Our willingness to offer service and our attentiveness to the Spirit and one another should be our only concerns. As Jesus says to his disciples in the great commission "Do not be afraid, I am with you until the end of the age." I hope that these few changes will help us to grow in even greater confidence as the worshipping people of God here at All Saints.