Increasing in wisdom

This is a sermon for the first Sunday after Christmas, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Luke 2:41-52.

“Jesus increased in wisdom…”

Wisdom’s a funny thing.  We tend to think of it as being a bit difficult to pin down.  A little bit mystical, maybe, or the preserve of people who are able to spend decades amongst musty books.  (Just think of that great icon of wisdom in popular culture; I refer, of course, to Master Yoda).  And I suspect that for most ordinary people, they kind of feel that wisdom is for other people.  As long as there are great sages on mountaintops or mystics in monasteries, you and I don’t need to worry too much about acquiring wisdom.

But the problem with this, for us, is that the Bible makes a big deal about wisdom as being an important part of the life of faith, and so the idea that we can kind of hand over responsibility for wisdom to other people – even if those people are our leaders and teachers – is very risky.  After all, we all have our weaknesses!

But it’s also the case that wisdom – in Biblical terms – is not the same thing as mysticism or esoteric scholarship.  Put very simply, what the Biblical writings mean by “wisdom” is basically the ability to work out what God wants us to do, and to do it.  And while that’s not always as straightforward as we would like, it’s also not beyond the reach of even the most ordinary people.

It is, however, a big topic; too big for one sermon, and definitely too big for the Sunday after Christmas!  So today I will pick out just one aspect of that, and think with you a little bit about how we come to know what God wants us to do.

And I think the key thing – the secret, if you like, to wisdom in the Christian sense – is being absolutely assured of God’s love for us.  Because we can’t be open to discovering what God wants us to do, if deep down, we’re absolutely terrified that what God wants us to do means that we’re going to be hurt, or humiliated, or struggling with tasks for which we are personally completely unsuited.  If – for example – you grew up in a household where missionaries were talked about as the absolute pinnacle of Christian faithfulness, and in a way which led you to believe that the ultimate thing God could want from anyone is that they should become a missionary, you might not ever ask God what he wants you to do, just in case what he really wants is to send you to darkest Africa.  When in fact, God might have something completely different in mind for you, which you’ll never discover if you’re too afraid to ask.

Now, I realise, of course that most of this congregation are not in a demographic at risk of being called to missionary service.  It’s just an example.  And I don’t want to suggest that God has one perfect plan for each of our lives, with no possibility of flexibility.  But God can still call us beyond our comfort zones, in all sorts of ways – whether it’s taking the effort and risk of making new friends instead of sticking to our comfortable old friendships, or learning about ethical consumption and having to reorganise our pantries – and as long as we’re afraid that having our comfort zones stretched will, in fact, be bad, we’ll be too frightened to be open to what God might have in store for us.

And that’s part of why I’m talking about this, this morning, when Christmas is still so fresh in our minds and hearts.  We’ve only just been reflecting on the very costly, very precious thing that God did in sending the Son to empty himself, take on human flesh and live a human life.  That although he created everything in the universe, and even the universe itself, he has come to reduce himself to a helpless baby, for our sakes.  With that still so close to the surface for us, we should be that little bit more open, at this time of year, to the idea that God really, truly, loves us for who we are, and wants only our good.

So if we, like Jesus, want to increase in wisdom, one question worth pondering is, “What am I afraid of?” And there’s a follow up question as well:  “What would I do if I were not afraid?” That second question, “What would I do if I were not afraid?” is a key question in the little book, Who moved my cheese?  Who moved my cheese? Is really a parable about dealing with the fact that in life, change happens all the time.  It’s not aimed primarily at people’s spiritual lives, but if you can get hold of a copy – and I have one people are welcome to borrow – it’s an easy holiday read and well worth reflecting on.

And that’s the thing about wanting to discover what God wants for us.  It would be extremely rare that the answer would be, “My child, you are doing absolutely perfectly as you are, don’t change a thing.” So the question, What does God want of me? Is scary in part because what it is really asking is, What does God want me to change?  And then, what happens if I don’t want to change?  Which is why being so confident of God’s love is important; so that, even when we’re unsure or frightened of change, we can approach it confident that if it is the change God wants, it will be genuinely good for us.

And let me say that it’s okay to be honest about having these sorts of doubts and hesitations.  God doesn’t beat us up for it, and I’m not going to either (after all, I have my own share of doubts and fears!)  Rather, it’s in honestly facing up to those fears that we give God the opportunity to show us which ones we need to let go.  And sometimes, our fears are there to point us to other matters which need our attention; maybe we are too exhausted, too over committed, to be open to the new things God might want to bring us now.  Maybe, in fact, we need to let go of some other things to make room for that openness!

It’s a process that takes time, and a certain amount of grace, but when our hearts are open to receiving whatever God says, we are in a place where we can wait and listen for a nudge from God.  We can rest in the confidence that we don’t have to figure things out on our own.  We can recognise the presence of the Spirit, at work in us as we grow in love, joy, peace, and the other fruits of the Spirit.

So that’s what I want to encourage you to take away from this morning, for this Christmas season.  Two questions:  What am I afraid of?  And, what would I do if I were not afraid?  And as we reflect together on those questions, we can together increase in wisdom, in our understanding of what God wants of us, and our willingness to do it, just as Jesus did in his life on earth.

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Indispensable

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Luke 1:39-45.

“Why has this happened to me?” Elizabeth asked.  On one level, it’s a surprising question; Elizabeth was heavily pregnant, and it makes sense that some of her female relatives would gather around her and support her.

But on another level, I wonder whether it tells us something very profound about how Elizabeth saw herself.  “Why has this happened to me?  I’m nobody special; not noble, not educated, not particularly wealthy, not a matriarch of a great family; old, worn out with a lifetime of hard physical work, and used to my neighbours sneering at my barrenness.  Why should anyone significant come to spend time with me?”

How ironic, then, that Elizabeth has been remembered as a saint in Christianity, with some of her words becoming incorporated into traditional daily prayers; and as an exemplar of a faithful and wise woman in Islam; two of the world’s great religions holding her life and words in high honour.  Perhaps that, too, would have had her asking, “Why has this happened to me?”

Of course, Elizabeth was caught up in events which were much bigger than she probably understood.  The two unborn babies whom she and Mary were carrying were going to turn the whole known world upside down, and two millennia on the events they set in motion are still working themselves out.

But there’s something else worth noticing about this small part of the story.  Luke writes that Elizabeth was “filled with the Holy Spirit.”  And when the Holy Spirit gets involved in the story, that’s when very ordinary people find themselves doing and saying things which carry much more significance than they might realise.  There are plenty of other examples; think of David facing Goliath, or Paul on the road to Damascus; moments when very ordinary people found something greater than them at work in their lives, and they were never quite the same again.

But here’s the thing.  None of us is going to have a story exactly like Elizabeth’s, or David’s, or Paul’s.  In my last parish, there was a lovely lady – very elderly now, and not very well – I used to spend a lot of time visiting her on her various trips into hospital.  And I always enjoyed those visits because this lady took the time to really listen to me, about things that were happening in the parish, and her conversation was always deeply wise and encouraging.  So I was very surprised, towards the end of my time there, when she talked to my one day about how she felt so useless, as if she had nothing to give, and she was being such a nuisance by being sick again and needing people to care for her, and how she felt she was bothering me unfairly by having me come to visit.  She didn’t recognise, at all, how very much what felt to her like very ordinary conversation meant to me.

The lady I’m remembering had gifts of wisdom and discernment and encouragement; she needed help to see them, but they were part of the Holy Spirit’s gift to her.  And each of us, through our baptism, is filled with the Holy Spirit.  We may not always know it or feel like it, but the same spirit who inspired Elizabeth’s words and David’s courage and Paul’s sheer dynamism and my parishioner’s wisdom is at work in each of us in different ways.

And what that means is that there is no one – not one person in this building this morning – who doesn’t have something valuable to contribute.  It doesn’t matter if, like Elizabeth, or like my former parishioner, you feel as if you’re nobody special.  If you worry that you’re not well off, or particularly educated, or energetic.  If you make who you are, for yourself, available to God, the Holy Spirit can and will work with that to help you do more than you might ever realise.

You see, a healthy church – and certainly a growing church – isn’t a game of superstars and spectators.  God doesn’t have some people who are specially gifted and holy – or even just active – who make it all happen while everyone else is sidelined.  Each of us has different gifts, different passions, different experiences, different personalities, and we need them all – not just mine, not just the vicar’s and maybe the wardens and musicians and so on – but all of us, for this parish to be what it’s meant to be.

You see, some of you are much wiser than me.  Some have more faith.  Some are much better at recognising other people’s struggles and caring for them.  Some will be better at teaching and explaining things.  Some will be much more encouraging or generous.  And a theological degree and an ordination ceremony don’t change that.

And this is true, not because there’s something wrong with me, but because this is how the church works; we all have different strengths, and together, when we each play our part, the whole community is strengthened and built up.

Of course, not all of these gifts are going to be the ones which get lots of attention.  But even Paul said that “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”  Indispensable.  It’s often the quiet contributions which go unseen and unrecognised a lot of the time which have the biggest impact on the life and the health of the church.

So how can we become more aware of what we each bring to this God-given ecology of gifts?  It’s going to sound stupidly obvious, but one of the most important things is feedback from others.  It’s when others around you tell you how much what you did meant, and you start to see a pattern of such feedback, that you start to recognise your own unique contribution.  So the corollary of that is that it’s important that we be willing to give appreciative feedback as well; that we be on the look out for the things we value in one another and quick to express that appreciation.

But the other side of that coin is that we need to be willing to give things a go.  Not sure whether you can pray in a way which will help others connect with God?  Give it a go.  There’s nothing lost if you try it and find that actually, it’s not really your thing.  Similarly, if you can see a need in the church, by all means speak up and talk about it; make suggestions for how things could be different or even just say, “I don’t know what the solution is, but I think this is a problem.”  I mean, for example, the other day someone told me that these pews are really uncomfortable.  I wouldn’t know; I never sit in them!  Even if you’ve only got one piece of the puzzle, it’s encouraging to those in leadership to know that other people are concerned and actively thinking about our life together and how to make it better.  And don’t be afraid to think outside the square or be creative!

Elizabeth’s words which we read this morning have echoed down the centuries in prayers and songs and liturgies.  She has been remembered as a woman of extraordinary faith.  But she saw herself as a very ordinary person with not much to give, who wondered why any honour was being given to her.

But within her, hidden even from herself, the Holy Spirit was at work bringing about the things that God held in trust for the world.

It can be the same for us.  God’s loving concern for the world and desire to reach out to it in compassion is no less now than it was in Elizabeth’s day.  All he needs is people who are willing and open to being part of that work, to open their mouths even when they don’t know the significance of what they’re about to say, and to trust that he will be with them in all that they do.  There’s no one who’s not good enough, not worthy enough, to be part of that.  It belongs to us all.

The Lord be with you.

St. Agnes of Rome, martyr

I have to admit that the story of St. Agnes troubles me.  A young Christian girl of maybe thirteen years old in the Roman Empire, ordered to sacrifice to pagan gods and lose her virginity by rape; threatened and tortured when she would only make the sign of the cross at the temple of Minerva.  Offered a way out through marriage to a Roman young man, she refused and was martyred.

It’s a brutal story, from a brutal time.  But what bothers me about it most, I think, is the way it calls into questions ideas around maturity and adulthood.  Could a thirteen year old really understand the choice in front of her?  Could she have a genuine, living faith enough to let her freely choose martyrdom, or did she choose it out of pressure from family or lack of real alternatives?  What sort of life would she have had, if she had chosen to submit?  And what does it say about the church that a child martyr has been held up as a role model for an adult faith?

I don’t have well-formed answers.  But I find myself reaching in two directions as I ponder these things.  Firstly, Agnes’ story reminds me that our notions of childhood are a cultural construct, and that other cultures in other times have expected much younger people to take on significant adult responsibilities and roles; and that often those young people have risen to and even exceeded expectations.  I wonder whether sometimes we underestimate the young people in our midst?  Do we too easily slip into looking down on them and, instead of seeing their potential, limiting it because of our own notions of maturity?

But on the other hand I wonder about something darker.  I wonder about the tendency the church has sometimes had to see virtue where much more complex psychological forces were in play.  I wonder whether Agnes is an entirely helpful exemplar in the Christian life today.  I wonder whether stories such as hers encourage a view of virtue – especially women’s or children’s virtue – as accepting the violence of others, even to the point of death, rather than challenging the unjust social structures which give rise to and legitimate that violence.

Many questions to which I don’t have answers.  But I am confident that they are questions worth pondering.  I think it is also valuable for us to ponder together, as a church community, and to share our questions, insights and tentative answers, so that we can learn from our history even as we gratefully leave some aspects of it in the past.

Shame into praise

This is a sermon for the third Sunday of Advent, given in the “church up the road.”  The Scripture it references is Zephaniah 3:19.

Let me tell you a story and see whether anything about it seems familiar to you.

Many years ago, when I was a youth leader in another parish, one of the teens – a lovely kid – was going through a phase of experimenting with his appearance.  He went a bit gothic; dying his hair and painting his fingernails black and so forth.

He was still coming to church every Sunday and interested to learn more and grow as a Christian.  But this created a problem for him, because many of the older people in the church couldn’t cope with his changing look, and there were a lot of pointed and quite nasty comments made to him and to his parents about all of this.

Eventually I had had enough, and dyed my own hair (I couldn’t quite cope with going black, so I went for a very deep purple; it didn’t really suit me!), and pointedly went to sit next to him in the pew.  Really I kind of dared the people who had been criticising him to be nasty to both of us at once.

Mature of me?  Maybe not!  Today I might try a different approach.  But I didn’t want to see a young man walk away from the church – and potentially from God – because he was being shamed for how he looked.

Why do I tell you that story this morning?

When I looked at the readings for today, I was struck by the line in Zephaniah that says that God will change the shame of the Israelites into praise.  And that got me thinking about shame and how it functioned in ancient Israelite culture, and what we can learn about that for our own context.

Ancient Israel functioned as what is sometimes called an honour/shame culture.  That is, people’s social interactions were regulated by a kind of system of reward and punishment.  If you did what was expected of you, that was honourable and it was rewarded; if you broke expectations, that was shameful and it was punished.  In this kind of social system, the individual person’s quest is to seek honour and to avoid shame.

In this morning’s reading, the “shame” of the people came about because of their defeat and oppression by an outside culture; they saw this defeat as the result of punishment by God.  The implication of oppression was that the more powerful culture was in some way superior, more honourable, hence its success against its rivals.  For ancient Israel this presented a particular problem, since they believed in a God who was superior to all other gods and who should have been able to prevent all external oppression; so the only way for them to make sense of their oppression was to see it as punishment for their unfaithfulness to God and the covenant they had made with Him.

Zephaniah uses this idea of defeat as shameful punishment to encourage the people to return to God, to renew their commitment to the covenant and thereby to seek to remove their shameful status and receive praise.  And he uses the opportunity to reassure them that despite their current circumstances, and their past misdeeds, God’s love for them is steadfast and will restore and renew them.

For a tribal society surrounded by hostile forces, like ancient Israel, this kind of system promotes shared values and social cohesion; and it can work to build up a healthy society as long as the expected, honoured behaviours protect the vulnerable and generally seek the common good.  And I don’t want to come across as saying that this approach to motivating people to do good is intrinsically wrong.

The problem for us, I think, comes when we take the same kind of approach and let it flow over in our own cultural context, even perhaps telling ourselves that it’s appropriate because, after all, it’s Biblical.  But we have to live in a multicultural society, which does not necessarily have a coherent system of shared values, and where personal identity is much more fluid than it was in the ancient world.  More than that, our culture prioritises the identity and worth of the individual, and the pursuit of personal goals, over group life and interdependence.  In our culture, allowing communal expectations to dictate individual behaviour can often be seen as overbearing and a sign of poor boundaries.

More than that, this kind of system of encouraging conformity by shaming undesired behaviour is very susceptible to abuse.  It’s one thing to limit the ability of an individual to damage the community; it’s quite another to bully a teenager trying to work out who he is in the world.  And these kinds of expectations of conformity can easily tip over from being beneficial for group survival into socially corrosive behaviour like war, or indeed, the kind of church mentality which has brought us to the current royal commission.

It’s also deeply problematic for us to buy into the kind of group dynamics which shame the less privileged or the minorities in our context who might not meet our comfortably middle-class expectations.  While I was preparing this sermon, I went looking for images online which might help portray something of the idea of shame turning to praise.  One website which I found was a compilation of images of Biblical figures, including Jesus and his mother, and angels and saints through the ages; all of them portrayed as black.  Many of the pictures were stunningly beautiful.  Clearly, the person who had compiled these images recognised the need for black people to see themselves reflected in key figures in their faith, in positive terms, as a corrective to the many racist and stereotypical attitudes they would encounter on a daily basis.

And that’s just one example.

So where am I going with all of this?  The church – like ancient Israel – needs a system of shared values and goals.  And more than that, the Biblical view of human relationships pushes us towards a level of mutuality and interdependence rather than individuality as an end in itself (which does make us profoundly countercultural).  But I want to suggest today that we’ve reached the point in our culture where an approach which shames people who don’t happen to conform to my idea of how they should behave needs to be left behind.

Not only for the sake of the people who are here, and our freedom to be truly who we are in Christ, but also for the sake of the many, many people who right now have no interest in coming to church, not because they don’t believe in or care about God, but because their perception is that the church is all about control.  That if they come to church they will be expected to speak in certain ways, to dress in certain ways, to think in certain ways, dare I say to parent in certain ways.  And all too often they are correct.

We need to put that approach to building church unity behind us.  We need to find other ways to pass on our values and to build one another up.  It’s in that way that our shame will truly be turned to praise; not because we will have earned a reward from God, but because we will have chosen to leave behind the dynamics of social reward and punishment and seek for a more loving way to interact with one another.

It is, after all, a season of putting our affairs in order and preparing ourselves to stand before God, is it not?  Surely paying attention to the ways we interact with one another is an important part of that, so that when he comes, we can be truly confident of his praise.

Subconscious messages

I’ve spent part of my afternoon writing Christmas cards with a particular purpose.  Having recently started in a new parish, I thought I would make a point of sending a Christmas card to the people on the parish list whom I had not yet met.  That, I thought, would be a gentle way of making contact and inviting them to return to the parish or get in touch with me, without being pushy.

What struck me, though, as I was writing them was my choice of card.  I had picked out a box of cards with the image of Sandro Botticelli’s The Virgin Teaching the Infant Jesus to Read on the front (see the image below).  And it occurred to me this afternoon that I had chosen a card which in some ways reflected something of who I am; a mother with a young child, but beyond the first stage of infancy and who is, indeed, learning to read.  (And is it just me, or does Mary look tired in that picture…?)

How interesting that in choosing a card to introduce myself, I had subconsciously chosen a card with an image with which I could identify personally!  The mind is subtle and mysterious in its workings.

I wonder what your Christmas cards might say about you?

Christmas card