My messy roomphoto © 2007 Lee Bolgatz | more info (via: Wylio)Our youngest child is home from University right now. Perhaps some of you know what that feels like; a clean and well-kept home that had seemed somehow empty just a short while ago has now lost its sense of order. Chaos appears to have supplanted the neatness and tidiness that had reigned supreme for just a few short weeks since the Easter break. Piles of books, discarded bags of washing, dirty crockery and half-empty glasses, yes, our little boy is home again. And we are delighted that he is.

In a strange way, I get that feeling of déjà vu when the time comes to trundle up to Hull and collect him, for we were doing the same thing for his elder brother just five years ago. Choosing to read the same subject at the same university as one’s elder brother seems pretty unlikely, but that’s exactly what our youngest decided to do.

Déjà vu indeed. Those who know about these things tell us that it is frequently our sense of smell that creates within us a feeling of familiarity with what is otherwise a strange place.

I remember, as an eleven year-old, walking down a corridor at Emanuel School and having a very real sense that I’d been there before.

black catphoto © 2010 Ed Schipul | more info (via: Wylio)Perhaps you too have experienced that strange sensation of déjà vu? Just like the black cat in the film ‘The Matrix’ that Neo sees walking by, immediately before he sees what appears to be the same black cat walking by. “Whoa,” he says. “Déjà vu” causing everyone to freeze, right in their tracks as they suddenly become afraid.

If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know that Trinity explains to Neo that “a déjà vu is usually a glitch in the Matrix. It happens when they change something.

I certainly had a déjà vu moment when preparing for this evening’s service. It came as I turned in the Bible to this evening’s second lesson. “Hang on a mo,” I thought to myself, “haven’t I just read that?” My next thought was “what an amazing coincidence that this evening’s second lesson contains a quotation from the first lesson. The odds against that happening must be enormous!” And, for a moment, in my mind’s eye, I saw a bookmakers shop and there was I, in the bookies, collecting my winnings, having placed a bet on the chance of such an unlikely event occurring.

Ah, if only…

But, of course, it wasn’t chance that resulted in these two readings coinciding. When those charged with creating the Common Worship lectionary put their heads together, they made the deliberate decision that these two passages should be read consecutively this evening in churches up and down the country.

Which bring us to the next question: why did they do this? To attempt to answer that question let’s look at the two passages of scripture.

In the first lesson (Joel 2:21-end), we heard how the prophet Joel, who apparently lived in post-exilic times after the rebuilding of the temple in 515BC and before the destruction of Sidon in 343BC, brought a message of hope based upon experience:

Stawell Locusts - Second Wavephoto © 2011 Andrew Kneebone | more info (via: Wylio)We are asked to imagine a terrifying plague of locusts and its horrifying impact upon society and the natural environment created by the human society. Then the locusts become a mighty army sent by the Lord against Judah.

If we read Joel’s entire prophecy, as it is recorded here for us, we can sense that human society and culture in Judah were on the brink of obliteration.

The devastation visited upon Israel by the locusts and drought was immense; much more serious than the drought situation recently announced by our own Government.

At that moment Joel’s prophetic voice rings out: “Do not fear! God has not abandoned you; God is still in your midst.

Now not a lot of people know this, but my home church in Battersea is that of St Barnabas, on the north side Clapham Common. And yesterday was the day in the church’s year when we remember Barnabas the Apostle. As I’m sure you’ll know, Barnabas’ gift was one of encouragement and, at this point, perhaps your mind will wander to the Bayeux Tapestry and the scene where we see the Bishop of Bayeux encouraging the troops.

Bayeux Tapestry
Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, holding a club.

There he stands, way back from the front line, a massive man in simple dress, holding a huge club which he brings to bear on any soldier he finds running away from the battle.

If you haven’t seen the tapestry, you weren’t expecting that description of encouragement were you? And yet, that is exactly what encouragement is: it’s turning around those who act as if defeat is inevitable.

And so we are encouraged as listen to the prophetic words of encouragement: words that end with a great promise: “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved;

(pause)

Now, jump forward some three centuries. You’re in Jerusalem, and what a multi-cultural city it was, with people there from just about the whole of the then-known world. Perhaps the nearest thing we’ve got to that hereabouts is Lincoln Cathedral, where you hear a vast array of dialects and languages spoken by visitors to what was, for some centuries, the tallest building in the world?

Let’s set the scene. Imagine if one of the cathedral guides started telling visitors the key message of Christianity, how Jesus Christ had come to bring the offer of new life to all and, instead of then having to repeat what they had just said first in French and then in German and then possibly other languages, depending upon the extent of the guide’s linguistic skills; what would happen if all the visitors heard a simultaneous translation coming from the guide’s lips? How fantastic that would be!

But what about those English visitors who had little or no exposure to foreign languages. Might they complain, thinking perhaps the guide had spent too much time in the Wig and Mitre before coming on duty that day?

It is at this point that our second lesson begins with the first part of Peter’s speech (Acts 2.14-21) in which he answers the unvoiced question ‘what does it mean?’

The group cannot be drunk, Peter explains, because it’s only breakfast time. On the contrary, this is something predicted in scripture.

And so he goes on to repeat the words of the Prophet Joel, clarifying the apostolic proclamation.

  1. First, Peter identifies the phenomenon that people have just witnessed with the biblical gift of prophecy, which was generally accepted to be the work of the Spirit of God;
  2. Next, he identifies the phenomenon with “the last days” that herald the time before the “final day of the Lord”.
  3. Finally he makes it clear that the promise of salvation is inclusive of age, gender and social class; the spirit is poured out on “all flesh” (v.17) and salvation is offered to “whoever calls on the name of the Lord” (v.21).

You may feel this is very much a message for today. At a time when the broad, inclusive nature of the Church of England and, indeed the wider Anglican Communion, is coming under threat from certain affluent and fundamentalist elements who wish to exclude everyone who doesn’t fit their mould. Such people appear to be saying that salvation in Jesus Christ is not intended for everyone; it is only available to a select group of people who share certain characteristics (such as heterosexuality) and a common culture (of male authority).

May I please suggest to you that such people are going directly against Peter’s teaching and the words of Joel’s prophecy?

And so we come back to our original question, “why place these two readings alongside each other on the Feast of Pentecost?” I hope by now, you can see that one answer to that question is to emphasise how God has always intended to make salvation freely available to everyone upon request.

Let us therefore end on this glorious promise of inclusivity: “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved!

As a child, my parents allowed me to go to Sunday School with my best friend (I think they were glad to have a peaceful Sunday morning).

de violet _MAKE EXPLOREphoto © 2009
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One of my earliest recollections of this dates from when I was probably seven years old. It was March and we children had been told to come early the following week as there was to be a special service for Mothering Sunday and, before the service, we would be tying bunches of violets to present to our mothers during the service. I was so excited!

On returning home, I immediately told mum that I wanted her to come to church with me next Sunday, for Mothering Sunday, fully expecting her to be as joyful as myself. I was therefore totally unprepared for her reaction. With a face as dark as thunder she said, “I will not have flowers from that church in my house. In fact, Graham, I shall never set foot in that church again as long as I live.” With tears streaming down my face, I ran upstairs and buried my head in my pillow. Never before had I heard my mother speak like that. Never before had I felt such bitterness, such seething anger, such rejection from anyone, let alone my mum. It broke my heart.

Of course, that all happened almost 50 years ago. And now I think I understand why my mother felt like that. But the pain of feeling rejection from my very own mother still remains with me.

You see, my father was a bastard. And a Yorkshireman. He’d married young, possibly in order to get out of a home where he’d been the eldest child, but never “one of the family”. In an attempt to build friends and escape the bullying that came with not having a father of his own, he’d taken on all sorts of voluntary roles as secretary of this and organiser of that. And then came the second world war. Dad was in a protected occupation, and so once again all thoughts of evenings and Sundays with his wife and son vanished with him becoming a member of the Home Guard. I suppose it was no surprise, therefore, to those who knew him, to discover that his wife took up with another man at the end of the war; an Italian prisoner-of-war, to boot.

Shamed by folk who made fun of his manhood and compared him unfavourably with his wife’s new lover, Dad left his beloved Yorkshire and moved to London, where he stayed with an aunt. A divorce followed.

From what I understand, mum and dad fell in love the first time they met, at Streatham’s Locarno Ballroom, where they danced and danced and danced…

My mum was then in her thirties, so it wasn’t long before wedding bells were ringing.

Holy Archangels Church bellphoto © 2004 JovanStojan | more info (via: Wylio)Only, of course, there were to be no bells. I don’t know exactly what was said when she turned up at the Vicar’s door with dad in tow. But it left my mother devastated. Like Monica (in the TV series Friends), my mum had probably spent years of her life planning her big day. And now, the rejection she began to feel bored deep into her very soul, bringing with it a festering mess of bitterness.

In the event, mum and dad were married in a registry office many miles away. And theirs was a contented marriage that lasted to the end of their days.

But the pain of rejection brought on by the church that refused marriage never really left her.

Why am I telling you all this, now?

Well, I’ve read in local and national newspapers how gritting lorries, buildings, football pitches, childrens’ pets, university graduates, freshly-appointed schoolteachers, soldiers on their way to Iraq (a war that was surely unwise, unnecessary and possibly unlawful?) and football teams – yes, (if I recall correctly) even a team that numbers Ryan Giggs amongst its number – have all been welcomed and blessed by anglican clergy in various public ceremonies. Yet why, I ask myself, when two people of the same-sex are very much in love and desire to make a lifelong commitment to faithfulness, does the Church of England withhold from them the opportunity to bear public witness before God to that fact?

As I write this, the Government is currently consulting on whether civil partnerships can take place on religious premises.

I just long for the day when friends of mine, who don’t share the same gender orientation as myself, can also come into church and there make a public commitment to be faithful to each other, for as long as they both shall live.

How wonderful it would be if the Archbishop of Canterbury were to give a lead to the rest of the Anglican Communion in the matter of celebrating faithfulness between all adults who wish to make such a commitment, by telling the General Synod it’s about time they recognised that God’s love extends to all. Put that alongside there being no distinction between male and female, Jews and Greeks, slaves and freemen, black and white, heterosexual, homosexual, transsexual and the rest and you have an amazing opportunity for the proposed Anglican Covenant to pull discriminatory provinces forward into the kingdom of heaven, as together we model Jesus’ love for the whole world in our own lives.

In closing, I pray that this story may touch the hearts of those who read it and that they, like myself, will always look for the positives in any relationship, encourage those positives and freely pronounce God’s blessing on anyone and everyone who exhibits elements of his character (such as love and faithfulness). I never, ever, again want to see anyone turn their back on God in the way my mum did, because of a church culture too bound up with evangelical dogmatism and pharaseeic behaviour to offer unconditional love, acceptance and support to all.

new wedding ringsphoto © 2007 dennis and aimee jonez | more info (via: Wylio)And yet, I fear that as an ordained priest I may one day open my front door to find a gay couple standing there, asking me if they can celebrate their partnership in church. As I invite them in for a cup of tea, how will I explain that I am simply not allowed to grant them their wish? Just like my seven year-old self, I feel my heart starting to break once again…

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