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Advent: Alert and Waiting (Luke 21:25-36; 1Thess 3:9-13)

Can you think of a time when you were waiting, desperately waiting for someone or something to arrive?  I have vivid memories of waiting for my Grandparents to arrive.  Standing in front of the window in the living room looking out and watching every car go by to see if it was them.

          Another memory of being alert and waiting is my son Michael who was a goal keeper for a football club.  I can still see him when the other team came near the goal.  He would bend down, hands apart, watching the ball intently, waiting for the goal kick to come so he could stop it.  Alert and waiting.
          Today is the first Sunday of Advent.  Advent is taken from the Latin word, adventus, which means ‘coming’.  A modern dictionary defines advent as, ‘the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event’.  In advent we spend four weeks, four Sundays anticipating, expecting, longing for, hoping for the coming of Christ.  We look for his second coming which we believe might happen at any time.  We celebrate his first coming by anticipating and expecting the glory and light of Christmas morning.  Are you waiting?  Are you alert and waiting?
          This morning our scripture readings remind us that God can come and break into our world at any time.  (Jeremiah speaks of the Lord coming to fulfil God’s promises to establish justice and righteousness in all the world.)  In Luke’s gospel we read: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap…Be alert at all times.”  In Paul’s letter he tells them as they wait: And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
          Are you waiting?  Are you alert and waiting? This morning I want to explore two ways we wait and are alert.
First, Jesus tells us as we wait for him to come again, we need to avoid becoming preoccupied with the pleasures and worries of this world.  That line from the song or hymn is apt, ‘this world is not our home, we are just passing through’.  As we wait we keep our eyes upward to the things of God.  Now this does not mean we become so heavenly minded we are no earthly good.  Nor does it mean we cannot be fully human embracing and enjoying this life that God has given us.  But God is in us, drawing us into his ways.  We are children of the kingdom of God so our values and priorities are not of this world or selfishly focused on ourselves.
          St Paul says, ‘strengthen your heart in holiness that you may be blameless’.  What does holiness mean to you?  To be holy means to be set apart for God.  A holy life is a life where we seek to honour God in who we are, what we do and what we say, in private, in our homes, at work, at play, at school, wherever.  The path to holiness is a long and winding road, with ups and downs, barriers to climb over and go through.  But placing our lives within a life of faith, hope and love gives us direction and perseverance.  In Christ we are becoming.  We wait by being his, by a deepening commitment to live God’s love and to reveal the grace that has touched us.
          In Advent take a little extra time to draw near to God.  Are you in an Advent study group?  Go along to a mid-week service and say a prayer or two.  Read a spiritually eye opening book.  Add a little extra time to your prayer time.  Take a few extra moments for devotions.  Contemplate the mystery, the glory, the truth that was revealed in the manger and all that will be revealed when he will come again.  In faith, hope and love, we wait.
          Are you waiting?  Are you alert and waiting?  A second way Paul suggests we wait is to increase and abound in love for one another and for all. Relationships are hard and challenging.  I read a saying this week that I liked:  A perfect marriage is just two imperfect people who refuse to give up on each other.  That is love.  Love does not mean everyone is your best friend and that you even like everyone.  Love means respecting everyone and striving for the best for all you love.  Many churches could use a bit more love.  We show our love by how we talk about others and how we speak to each other.  It is good to share our opinions, but diplomacy is the loving way.  We can even argue in a loving way.  Love is how we conduct and how we end the discussion or argument. 
          And again, learning to love is another long and winding road with its ups and downs, and barriers to cross and go through.  But it is what we seek to be, loving, for love has touched us.  God is love.  If we live in God, we will grow in love.  As you wait, contemplate the ways of love and let it permeate who you are, what you do and what you say.
          Are you waiting? Are you waiting and alert?

In conclusion, we wait by living a life of faith and hope and love. We walk a path in and towards holiness.  We also walk a winding road in and towards love.  When he came the first time he revealed what it means to be holy and what love really is.  He will come again and may he find us a holy people with hearts full of love.
                       Revd Dennis Stamps

Paris – A Sermon Considering our Christian Response

St Nicholas Church Harpenden,
15 November 2015
2ndbefore Advent                                                       
Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25; Mark 13:1-8

The events in Paris have rightly stopped us all in our tracks.  Sadly, we are becoming used to acts of terrorism but the level of atrocity Friday night shocks us.  Partly because it is so close to home.  Partly because so many were killed and injured.  Given these events, what are we to think?  What can we say?

          Reactions to such events vary.  Every immediate reaction is valid as it is our humanity and our personality responding.  But as Christians we have to be thoughtful and prayerful in how we respond in the long term.  We must be thoughtful and prayerful in the theology we use to interpret these events to ourselves and to others.

          Of course an immediate response is to ask why?  There is no easy answer to this and we must avoid any attempt to give a quick, facile answer.  God has given to his creation a measure of freedom.  Human beings use that freedom to do evil as well as good.  God does not ‘stop’ things.  He is not a puppet master controlling all the strings.  Thus, he shares in our pain and sorrow when evil acts.  He has promised that because of Christ’s passion and resurrection, one day, evil will be judged and banished in the new creation.  As Christians we have the confidence that evil will not prevail.

          Another reaction is shock and sadness which is often accompanied by a feeling of helplessness and vulnerability.  It is in some ways a compassionate reaction which identifies with those who were the victims.  But we can not rest in that place.  There is something we can do.  We can turn our sadness and helplessness into loving action, to become a force for good and kindness in the world.

          Another reaction is anger.  Again, this is a valid and understandable response.  But we cannot rest in that anger, for if we nurture that anger we will eventually want and need to direct that anger against something or someone.  In too many cases, anger leads eventually to blaming others and to revenge.  There is in these criminal events a rightful justice which must follow.  We hope and pray that the police and authorities will bring to justice some or all of those involved in committing these atrocities.  But we must not allow ourselves to become agents of anger who become hardened in some way to other humans or groups of humans.  It is common and a very primitive response to seek to protect our communities by becoming tribal.  So often after an event like this, people begin to persecute others.  No doubt many Muslims and even the refugees who themselves fled the ones who have claimed responsibility will face abuse by those whose anger leads to inappropriate revenge or prejudice.

Let me share with you reflections which the former Bishop of St Albans, Christopher Herbert, wrote after the London bombings in 2005.

He said: “We cannot avoid considering the nature of evil in attacks such as these. I will not use the word “sick”, of the perpetrators, because that is not strong enough and in any case is based on the notion that the person is unable to choose what causes the sickness, but to plant a bomb is to make a deliberate and wilful choice – a choice which flies in the face of all normal understandings of what it means to be human. It is to decide to destroy, rather than build up, to fragment rather than to reconcile, to maim rather than heal. Evil and chaos are horribly intertwined.

The question we have to ask is how to defeat evil – and the answer lies not only in the physical sphere in which we have to decide how we shall physically resist it; it also resides in the legal sphere, in which in a democratic society, law has to take its proper and un-corrupt course. It lies in the mental sphere in which we have always to search for and uphold truth with tenacity and humility. It lies in the moral sphere in which we have to commit ourselves to try to live righteously, whilst recognising that we are also very flawed and need to seek God’s mercy and forgiveness when we get things wrong.  It lies in the spiritual sphere when we have to commit ourselves daily to goodness and light, offering ourselves, our souls and bodies to God in Christ, that we may be part of his atoning and healing love for our world.

Evil, ultimately, is overcome by goodness; darkness, ultimately, is overcome by light – but the cost can be, and frequently is, very high. The crucifixion of Christ was the place where all that was evil took chaos to its final destiny, death – but was then transformed by the power and glory of Christ’s resurrection.

We need, as Christian people, to seek God’s strength that we may be courageous; to seek his mercy as we recognise within ourselves our own propensity for sin and evil; to seek his wisdom that we may know how to help change the hearts of all those, terrorists included, who want, out of malice, to cause suffering and despair.

In the end, the only way is the way of Christ and the way to Christ. It is to that way we need during events such as these to commit ourselves afresh – because to do so is in itself a way of combating evil and chaos”. End of quote.

          This leads me back to our readings this morning.  The violence of Jesus’ words in Mark 13 is there.  The Romans would one day destroy that which the Jewish people cherished and even held sacred: the temple.  That destruction would not only destroy the temple; it would involve the bloodshed of many.  It would be a ruthless violent imposition of power.  But Jesus does not call the disciples to arms.  He simply warns that change will come; that evil will have its day.  He puts it into perspective this violence; this change is but the birth pangs of a new age.  A new age will be the triumph of good over evil, of light over darkness, of life over death. 

Jesus’ prediction of the second temple’s destruction is just before the greatest in-breaking of God into our history, the cross and resurrection.  The cross and empty tomb changed it all.  For centuries Jews knew how to relate to God by keeping the Law and making sacrifices in the Temple.  But Jesus was the final sacrifice whose pure love and innocent blood brought redemption for all people for all time.  He made the temple redundant because his righteousness becomes our righteousness through faith.  Because of Jesus we can call God, Our Father.  The cross and empty tomb began a new age. 

This morning we stand in the shadow of darkness and violence.  We cannot be complacent and simply carry on as is if nothing has happened, as if nothing is different.  We must ensure that we are not part of the problem, but part of the solution…as God would have us be.  We must, however, avoid the solutions which are driven by purely primitive emotions and reactions.

          Each day we must recognise that we have God’s presence and power in us, transforming us and leading us.  Yes, as humans we will stumble in his leading.  Sometimes we will do things in our own strength.  But God is there with us and in us.  As we follow the way of the cross in the power of the resurrection we can be instruments of peace and life.  In so doing, we can overcome the tendency toward bitterness and revenge.  We can overcome the darkness and the evil around us.  As we heard from the letter to the Hebrews: Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.  And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the end of days approaching.

Revd Canon Dennis Stamps

Remembering: the lion will lie down with the calf

Evensong – St Nicholas Harpenden, November 8th 2015
Isaiah 10 v 33 – 11 v 9 & John 14 23-29
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Remembering.  Today, and into next week we will spend time remembering all those who have lost their lives or been affected by war.  It is an important act of remembrance, and sadly the process of doing it, doesn’t seem to alter the levels of violence around the world.  The usual aim of remembering something is so that you achieve something, or at least perhaps have the ingredients for dinner.  The act of remembering those who have died though is more mixed.  It can bring happy memories of that person, or perhaps sadness or anger at how they died.  
This evening’s readings seem to me to be focussing on peace, reconciliation and remembering.  Often if we have a loved one who has died from an illness we will focus our emotion on perhaps raising money or awareness of whatever affected them.  For others it might mean raising awareness of personal safety issues, traffic problems, addictions, or bullying.  I am sure you can think of others.
But that act of remembering brings about some emotional response and perhaps a desire to see a change, in order to prevent the same thing happening to someone else.  We remember, often, in order to make things better.
However the act of remembering those who have died during war and conflict, also requires us to recognise our differences, and those things which cause us to begin arguments in the first place.  Those differences which can cause us so much pain, are elements which our Old Testament reading tells us need not be a barrier to peace.
I think there is much hope in this evening’s readings.  They link together some key themes for today, of peace, reconciliation and remembering.  
The passage from Isaiah almost seems like a dream which might be too good to be true.  An ideal in so many ways.  It speaks of a king with all the elements one would wish for in the perfect leader.  Superhuman wisdom, with the natural flair for creating justice in society, bringing about good and preventing evil, while also ensuring his or her own personal integrity.  Not matter what your opinion is of any given world leader or head of state, this is an enormously tall order.  But nevertheless the ideal, the hope, is written there… that this person, who is consumed by – and able to bring about righteousness, is coming.
What follows is the incredible image of absolute opposites living very comfortably side by side with each other.  The wolf shall dwell with the lamb.  The leopard shall lie down with the kid.  The calf, the lion and the fatling together.  And even more remarkably they will be led, shepherded, by a little child.  The state of peace which this brings up is a thing of such beauty, and yet as one commentator wrote, it is really not what our most hopeful personal image is likely to be.  
George Kilpatrick suggested that our ideas about this perfect existence are more likely to revolve around material things.  We don’t expect to deal with wild animals by care and negotiations, but by using weapons.  I read one of his commentaries which was published in 1956.  Even then, nearly 60 years ago, he can see our priorities as being very different to those in Isaiah…
            “The ideal he (man) has set before himself is almost wholly a matter of physical condition, a higher standard of living, social security, old-age pensions, state medicine, unemployment insurance etc.  He has heard, but he does not believe, that to seek “first the kingdom of God” (Matt 6 v33), the kingdom of right relationships, will result in these blessings.  He proposes to seek economic and social reform first, confident that improvement in material circumstances will induce a change of heart and a new spirit among men”
Kilpatrick tops this off by writing, “In all of history there is not a shred of evidence to support that view.  It is in flat contradiction to the wisdom of Jesus Christ.”
Well, that’s us told.  Who hasn’t succumbed to retail therapy to make themselves feel more hopeful and better about life?  And for that short amount of time, it works.  But it doesn’t last.  Kilpatrick pulls no punches pointing out that what we should be striving for is much more based on relationships and living alongside each other peacefully, despite our very clear differences.
I suppose deep down we know this.  It’s just easier to go and buy a pair of shoes.  Shoes don’t argue with us or present us with ideas which question our belief system, moral compass or way of life.  Agreeing to disagree and love someone despite them seeming to be the polar opposite of you is a huge undertaking, and yet wouldn’t the world be more peaceful if we did?  
But for now, I would look great in those shoes so I will start there and worry about peace later.
Today – Remembrance Sunday – should be a time for considering just this.  Of course, wars are started for all sorts of reasons, and on a more domestic level we fall out with people over sometimes the silliest of things, but perhaps if we could all respect each other’s differences, there is a chance this image from Isaiah might actually become something we can see in our own lives.
Eastbourne Pier has recently been bought by a man called Sheikh Abid Gulzar.  Having completed the deal last week, and held meetings with locals to get their ideas about how the pier should be developed, he now plans to have it blessed.  He said,
            I think a blessing of Eastbourne pier before Christmas would be very apt and relevant for the town and indeed the wider community.  I am a Muslim, my operations manager Manas is a Sikh, and other members of staff are Christians – I want to emphasise the importance of diversity and accepting each other’s culture.  We must all respect each other and we should all have the freedom to follow whatever religion one may wish to.  But that doesn’t mean we cannot all come to together as one and join together.  I would like the pier to be blessed with a clear message – to live together and act together. And that is what I would like to do in the next couple of weeks.”  
What struck me about his statement wasn’t that he was supporting one faith over any other, but that he wants everyone to come together and act together, regardless of their background and faith.  
I guess that’s fairly straightforward though, in encouraging people to live alongside each other.  But what happens if you have really deep seated fundamental problems with someone who has wronged you or your loved ones in some way?  How on earth is it possible to try to live with them peaceably?  Buying shoes is so much simpler.
Terry Waite – the envoy for the Archbishop of Canterbury was kidnapped in 1987 and held for five years in Beirut by Islamists, chained to a radiator.  He had gone there to negotiate the release of hostages.  Twenty Five years later he returned to meet with Hezbollah, the terrorist organisation which held him.  He talked before the meeting about how he had no hard feelings.  That “people” focus on individuals like him, the westerners, without thinking about the many Lebanese who had been killed.
The entire exchange is documented on the Telegraph’s website, but essentially Waite suggests they leave the past behind them, and says “I believe that reconciliation between larger groups, political groups, has to begin here with our own personal reconciliation”, adding “ The only way to reconciliation is to grow and not to look back but look to the future.”
He then went on to suggest that Hezbollah could help refugees in the country over the Christmas period as a specific act towards the Christians during the festive Christian period.  Waite was told he was welcome back at any time.
Is this a scenario in which the lion lies down with the calf?  They seem unlikely bedfellows.  Perhaps even more amazingly, Waite was interviewed earlier this year and said he would risk kidnap again to go and talk to ISIS.  We are not all peace negotiators, and perhaps our personal reconciliation is not as dramatic as that of Terry Waite and the officials of Hezbollah, but we all have little steps we can take.
I’ve just started reading a book called The Forgiveness Project by the journalist Marina Cantacuzino.  It’s a remarkable book detailing many people’s true stories about their struggles around forgiveness.  I heard her speak at Greenbelt, and was amazed at people’s capacity to seek reconciliation and attempts to find forgiveness and to forgive.
There stories from all over the world, England, Ireland, Chechnya, US, South Africa, Australia, and Lebanon to name just a few, but I want to tell you the story of Bassam Aramin from Palestine.  He explains about how, while growing up, their homes were invaded and local children killed.  Having watched another boy shot and killed at the age of 12 Bassam, not surprisingly developed deep need for revenge at a very young age.  He considered himself a freedom fighter, but to everyone else he was a terrorist.  Bassam ended up in jail, after throwing a grenade he found, which exploded.  Nobody was injured.  I won’t go into detail here, but his seven years in jail were brutal.  One of the Israeli guards asked him one day how he had become a terrorist, as he seemed so quiet.  An unlikely person to end up in jail.  
Bassam explained he was a freedom fighter, and eventually persuaded the guard that it was the Israelis who were settling on Palestinian land.  Not the other way around.  They became friends….the guard even smuggling some coca cola in for them one day.
Bassam said, “Seeing how this transformation happened through dialogue and without force made me realize that the only way to peace was through non-violence.  Our dialogue enabled us both to see each other’s purity of heart and good intent.”
Bassam was released around the time of the Oslo Accords when there was hope of a two state solution.  This didn’t happen, but instead of letting his resentment grow, he and others who believed in a non violent way forward, began meeting in secret with former Israeli soldiers.  The soldiers were refusing to fight, simply on moral grounds.  They didn’t want their society suffering further.  Bassam says,
            “It was only later that we both came to feel a responsibility for each other’s people”
We’ve heard three stories of people who can recognise, but see beyond their differences, and are trying to live alongside people with other views or opinions….. creating an environment where our differences need not lead to violence.  It sounds idealistic, but they are finding ways to pursue this ideal.
And there are tons more stories like these out there.  I think it might just be possible to learn to live peaceably, and to avoid conflict.  But it needs to be our goal, our ambition, the thing which motivates us more than new shoes to make us feel better.  
If you’re in need of extra inspiration, I can recommend you watch last night’s episode of Doctor Who.  I wish I had seen it before writing this.  A truly thought provoking story about words versus conflict.
Our gospel reading from John has some beautiful words in it.  
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
I do not give to you as the world gives.
Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
But just before that we are told that we must remember.  This instruction is to the disciples to recall the significance of Jesus’ actions after the resurrection.  To remember the importance and relevance of his teachings and actions, while remaining unafraid in the times ahead.  

Today, as we remember all those who have fought in wars, both those who died and the survivors, let us honour their memory by pledging to seek for peace and reconciliation wherever we can.  Let us remember the deeds and words of Jesus, and strive to focus on building a world where we recognise and respect differences and learn to live with each other, peacefully.  Where the lion might lie down with the calf.

Rachel Wakefield