Sermon for All Age Eucharist on Low Sunday 2014: John 20.19-end

Poor Thomas. All the other disciples had seen Jesus, but he’d missed out. No wonder he wanted to see for himself. After all, it’s not easy to believe in something you haven’t seen for yourself. It’s not easy to know about something you can’t see.

I wonder what you can know about something you haven’t seen. Let’s try an experiment to find out.

[blindfold child and give them an object]

What can you tell us about it? What shape is it? What texture? Heavy or light? Hot or cold? There are some things you can know without seeing. But what colour is it? Is it plain or stripey? There are some things you can’t.

Other children [not blindfolded]: What colour is it? Plain or patterned? You know more about it when you can see it. But there are still some things you can’t know. How old is it? Who does it belong to? What will happen to it after the service today?

There are some things we can know about an object without seeing it, some we know when we see it, and some we still don’t know even when we have seen it. And it’s much the same with Jesus.

There are some things we can know about Jesus without encountering him ourselves. Other people can tell us about Jesus. We can read about him in the Bible. We can see pictures of him. And we can learn a lot from all those things. Thomas could know some things about the risen Jesus too before he saw for himself. He could know what his friends told him. But that wasn’t enough.

And it isn’t enough for us either. We need to move beyond what we are told about Jesus, to encounter him ourselves. We need to move, like Thomas, from the place of hearing others say “we have seen the Lord” to being able to say for ourselves “my Lord and my God”. There are some things we can’t know about Jesus from the words of others – we each need that real encounter with the living, risen Christ.

That personal encounter with Jesus is something that comes only by God’s grace, we can’t make it happen. But we can invite it. By prayer and, like Thomas, by asking. Thomas is often described as doubting, but I prefer to think of him as wondering. He had heard that Jesus was risen, but that wasn’t enough. He wanted to know more, wanted to experience for himself the presence of Jesus.

And we should all want more. More of God, more knowledge, more closeness, more depth of encounter with the risen Jesus. We shouldn’t be content with what we are told. John tells us at the end of today’s gospel that what he writes about Jesus isn’t all there is to know. It’s a good starting point, but there is more to be had, if only we will ask, and pray, and wait in expectation.

And like Thomas, we should be ready to make up our own minds, and ready to have our minds changed. You are never too young to have our own opinions about God, to know how God is at work in your life. And you are never too old to learn something new and surprising about how God is working.

Beware of anyone who tells you they have all the answers. Beware of anyone who starts a sentence “the Bible clearly says…” Scripture is not a how-to book or a manual for life. It’s an invitation to go deeper with God, to learn more about what it means to walk with Jesus, to ask the Holy Spirit to lead us more and more into all truth.

May we, like Thomas, dare to ask more of God, dare to want to experience and know for ourselves the truth of Christ’s resurrection. May we dare to invite the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts. And may we not be surprised when our encounter with the living God changes everything forever.

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A little Good Friday miracle

“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?”

This morning in a quiet moment before the first service of the day, I sat on a step looking across the church and out through the glass double doors. People were walking past in the sunshine outside: strolling, hurrying, carrying shopping bags, pushing pushchairs. And I realised that no, to many who pass by, it is nothing. To many today is a bank holiday and nothing more. 

And so I sat in that place where this day has been marked for a thousand years, with the cross towering over me yards away, and prayed. Lord, open their hearts, their eyes. Lord, show us how to be better at sharing your story, our story, with the world. Lord, bring into this place, to the foot of your cross, those whom you are calling. Change something, Lord, transform this place afresh.

And in they came. Not many – fewer than two dozen in a circle for our Godly Play style service, telling the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. But of those, less than half were known to me. And some were quite literally ‘those who pass by’. One woman, who came with her two children, had been literally walking past and “I just felt we ought to come in”. How wonderful!

I dared to ask, and God answered. But how much more often do I not even dare to ask in the first place? Not even bring myself to expect what seems impossible? It’s a form of self-preservation, I suppose: if I don’t set my expectations too high I won’t be disappointed. But with God, our expectations should be high, and still God will exceed them. Nothing is beyond the scope and scale of God’s love in Christ on the cross, and even death is transformed.

We ought to dare, to dream, to ask, to hope. To ask the impossible. Because Christ died so that everything – everyone – could be transformed by God’s love. To set our sights lower than that is to deny the power of Christ crucified.

And that’s what brought me to tears at the foot of the cross today. The times I have failed to expect and pray for God’s transformation of the world, and in so doing minimised the enormity of what Christ has done for us. The times I have failed to trust that God can redeem every life and situation, the times I have given in to hopelessness, and in so doing brushed aside too lightly the great hope we have been given in love that is stronger than death. 

Good Friday is about the transforming power of self-emptying love. It is about sorrow too painful to contemplate. It is about the unlimited power and generosity of God humbling Godself even to death on the cross. And because of this great act of salvation, this greatest of miracles, we can and must pray for and wait expectantly for those little miracles which will transform the world, until this can never again be nothing to those who pass by.

On Liturgy and Literacy

…or: do you have to read to go to church?

I vividly remember the first time I went to church of my own accord. On arrival, I was given a heap of books and papers, with no explanation about what any of them was for. I had never heard of an order of service or a hymn book (we’d had hymns at school, but they were on the overhead projector) so the titles of the books in my hand gave me no clue about how they should be used. Throughout the service, the vicar said things like “we now sing hymn 234 in the green book” and “we say the post-communion prayer at the bottom of page 9” but he might just as well have been speaking gibberish. What do you mean, “hymn number”? Page 9 of what? I had no idea what was going on, and I very nearly never went back.

Now, as someone who is planning and leading worship myself, I often recall this first experience, which was one of complete alienation, and ask myself: am I in danger of doing this to people? Am I using too much church jargon, making too many assumptions about what people know when they walk through the door for the first time? Probably.

One of the things we assume in most churches, even unconsciously, is that those who come in can read. This is not true. It is most obviously not true of children who have not yet learned to read. But it’s also not true of some older children and adults. So how do we make church accessible to those who can’t read, or can’t read fluently?

I think this is an issue which affects all churches, but I do think it’s a particular problem for churches with a strong liturgical tradition, the sort of church where there’s likely to be an order of service, with responses and formal prayers to join in with, as well as words of hymns. There may also be written instructions about sitting down and standing up, etc, which are not always given verbally as well. Imagine trying to engage with that sort of service if you can’t read. I imagine it would be very similar to my first, very off-putting, experience of church.

I freely admit that I love liturgy. In fact, I’m something of a liturgy geek. So I certainly don’t think the answer is to discard the liturgy so as not to “confuse” people. I have no desire to dumb down, nor to imply that those who don’t read, including young children, can’t engage with good liturgy. In fact, quite the reverse. I think there is huge potential to develop creative ways of using and communicating liturgy to include and engage everyone.

To give an example, we had our first ever Ash Wednesday family service at All Saints this year. I decided not to produce an order of service, in fact not to give the congregation anything to read at all. Which is not to say that it was in any sense not “liturgical”. It followed the usual structure of a Common Worship service of the word (albeit with more climbing on furniture and drawing around hands than you might expect!). And it included formal prayers with the traditional response “Holy God, Holy and strong, Holy and immortal one, Have mercy on us”. At the start of the service, I taught the response, with an action to go with each line, and we used it throughout the service without further prompting.

That’s just one example, but it shows that good liturgy is possible without assuming universal literacy. And guess what, without a service sheet in their hands people looked up, made eye contact, really engaged!

This isn’t just about children. It’s also about people with learning difficulties, visual impairments or dyslexia, and those who have just never learned to read. It’s about people like me all those years ago, setting foot in the alien environment that is church for the first time. And it’s about finding new ways to make our liturgy come alive for everyone. Inclusive liturgy matters because it reflects the perfectly inclusive nature of God.

This Holy Week, I’m leading family worship every day, and will be taking this opportunity to experiment further with liturgy which doesn’t require literacy. I’ll let you know how I get on! I would be very interested to hear about anyone else’s experiences of trying to make church inclusive for those who don’t read.

Dazzling Darkness

Every now and then I read a book which makes me feel like I’ll never be quite the same again. Every now and then I read a book which makes me want to repeatedly yell “Yes!” in recognition of my own innermost thoughts expressed much more clearly than I could ever put them myself. Very occasionally I come across a book which does both of these things – “Dazzling Darkness” by Rachel Mann is one such book.

I devoured it in a single sitting on my day off, and have been thinking about it ever since. This isn’t a book review, and I wouldn’t even attempt to summarise it – I couldn’t possibly do it justice. Just read it. Seriously. Even if you don’t think you’re interested in issues of gender or sexuality. Even if you’ve no desire to read about chronic illness. Even if you couldn’t care less about God. Just read it. You won’t regret it.

What I do want to do is share some of the thoughts “Dazzling Darkness” triggered in me, some of the ways it both confirmed and extended my own thinking about God and what God is like. For as long as I can remember, the idea of God in the darkness has been important to me. A God who is present in the pain and sadness and illness and grief which is an intrinsic part of human existence, seems to me the only sort of God worth knowing. What has dawned on me this week, partly as a result of reading “Dazzling Darkness”, is this: for God, darkness is not second-best.

Let me explain. I very frequently say things like “God is there even in the pain”. Dealing with bereavements in school recently, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said “Even when we are sad, God is with us.” But actually, that isn’t quite right. In that formulation of “even if”, “even when”, I am unintentionally implying that, while God is definitely there with us in the darkness, God would rather be with us in the light. That’s the implication of much of our language about God and suffering, God and pain, God on the margins. And I don’t believe it’s true. I don’t believe God is in the darkness in a way that is reluctant or half-hearted or in any way less than the way in which God is in the light. In both darkness and light, God is.

And that has implications for how we relate to God, and perhaps more importantly for how we relate to those people with whom God walks in darkness, including when we ourselves are among those people. We are fond of talking, in some parts of the church at least, about God being with the least, last, and lost. And indeed God is. But the implication is often that God is with them even though they are least, last or lost, even though they are on the margins, even though they are damaged and flawed. But if God is in darkness as much as in light, those “even though”s are not the right way to describe what’s going on when God meets with people in darkness. The way we speak betrays an assumption that God, although present with people in the darkness of the margins, would prefer to walk with them in the light. And that isn’t true either.

“Darkness and light are the same to you” we read in Psalm 139. And if that is true. then darkness is not second-best. The people who walk in darkness are not second-best. God does not come near to people in spite of their grief and pain and brokenness, God simply draws near. God does not walk with people in spite of them being on the margins, God simply walks with people. God does not love in spite of the darkness, God simply loves. Because love is all that God is. 

Once we accept that God in darkness is not less than God in light, I think we must accept this: the people we perceive as being in darkness are not less than the people we perceive as being in light. And, perhaps harder, this: we ourselves are not less when we feel ourselves to be in darkness than when we are in light. God makes no such distinctions, so how can we?

These are my initial, rather unformed, thoughts on first reading. I will no doubt return to it at some point. I would be very interested to hear what others think, particularly those who have read “Dazzling Darkness” (which I hope will soon be all of you!).