A selection of sermons ....
October 30 2016
Small boat, Big sea
Today is All Saints Day.
In ‘Exciting Holiness’ we read
From its earliest days, the Church has recognized as its foundation stones those heroes of the faith whose lives have excited others to holiness and has assumed a communion between the Church on earth and the Church in heaven.
Celebrating the feast of All Saints began in the fourth century. At first, it was observed on the Sunday after the feast of Pentecost; this was to link the disciples who received the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the foundation of the Church, with those who were martyrs, giving their lives as witnesses to the faith. In the eighth century, a pope dedicated a chapel to All Saints in St Peter’s at Rome on 1 November. Within a century, this day was observed in Britain and Ireland as All Saints’ Day.
Today’s service is inspired by the Celtic saint Brendan - who possibly was the first to ‘discover’ North America - whatever that means!
I want to suggest that on this day we reflect on this:
that a saint is someone who launches out trusting in God. Small boat, big sea.
The Epistle talks of the saints having Christ as companion on the journey.
The Gospel reading - the beatitudes - talks of the blessing of a journey which takes us away from our comfort zones, even from common sense, being all at sea perhaps.
There is an old Breton Prayer ‘O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small…’
Here is a poem based on that prayer as penned by Winfred Ernest Garrison:
Thy sea, O God, so great,
My boat so small.
It cannot be that any happy fate
Will me befall
Save as Thy goodness opens paths for me
Through the consuming vastness of the sea.
Thy winds, O God, so strong,
So slight my sail.
How could I curb and bit them on the long
And salty trail,
Unless Thy love were mightier than the wrath
Of all the tempests that beset my path?
Thy world, O God, so fierce,
And I so frail.
Yet, though its arrows threaten oft to pierce
My fragile mail,
Cities of refuge rise where dangers cease,
Sweet silences abound, and all is peace.
~Winfred Ernest Garrison
This theme is taken up in a little book called 'At Sea with God' by Margaret Silf.
The metaphor of seafaring can be a helpful way to explore our spiritual journeying.
We can reflect on our lives and circumstances as the "boat" in which we make the voyage of life.
Some questions to ask ourselves.
What are we carrying on board - both precious cargo and excess baggage?
What has moved us forward in our journeying, and how do we navigate our way through the unpredictable seas of life?
What causes the storms, and how might we deal with them?
What about the times when we feel we are simply "going nowhere"?
Where are we going, where do we find our anchor points, and how do we keep moving on?
This is a picture of the faith as movement, the sea voyage as metaphor for the spiritual journey.
In her book Silf asks us to step aboard and to let go of old habits.
We are all in the same boat and share the same apprehensions about being "at sea."
But fear not, God is with us and our conscience is the compass.
Margaret Silf’s book is divided into sections
on the boat,
navigating uncharted waters,
the perils of the deep,
and dropping anchor.
Beginning with boat itself she writes:
"Our life is like a voyage of discovery. Every moment is an opportunity to discover something of the mystery of God and God's desire for our personal living and growing. Every day is a chance to discover new ways of cooperating with the coming of God's kingdom on our planet Earth.
The circumstances of our lives are the vessel, the only vessel, in which we make this voyage of discovery."
She explores our personal boat (a fusion of body, mind, and spirit), our control centre, our energy (with a thought-provoking look at what drains us), and safety on board.
Throughout the author explores various dimensions of the Christian faith.
For example, as part of the cargo aboard our ship are ideals from Jesus such as "food and drink for those who hunger and thirst, shelter for those who are exposed, gentle care and a listening presence for those who are hurting."
Potential stowaways are old hurts and resentments, assumptions and prejudices, and comfort blankets that we have grown out of but can't let go of.
You get the approach; it is very satisfying and brings out fresh meanings in the mystery and adventure of life as a voyage at sea with God.
So saints are those who are prepared to launch out and go with God.
Let’s hear the poem again
Thy sea, O God, so great,
My boat so small.
It cannot be that any happy fate
Will me befall
Save as Thy goodness opens paths for me
Through the consuming vastness of the sea.
Thy winds, O God, so strong,
So slight my sail.
How could I curb and bit them on the long
And salty trail,
Unless Thy love were mightier than the wrath
Of all the tempests that beset my path?
Thy world, O God, so fierce,
And I so frail.
Yet, though its arrows threaten oft to pierce
My fragile mail,
Cities of refuge rise where dangers cease,
Sweet silences abound, and all is peace.-----------------------------------------------------------------
16 October 2016 Prayer and persistence
Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart
Prayer and justice for the poor and oppressed are two great themes running through Luke’s gospel and both these themes appear in this parable about praying always and not losing heart.
We think of the balanced scales of justice today and of course, even then a judge was supposed to be an impartial arbiter but in the law of Judaism more was required: he was also supposed to be a champion of the helpless and down trodden, the widow, the poor, the foreigner. Especially of those who could not offer a bribe of money or influence in high places. Because that is what God is like.
Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. (Ps 68.5)
So we read:
The Just Judge is one ‘who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing’ (Deut 10.18)
learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1.17)
Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.(Jeremiah 22.3)
Against this background we see the widow persisting, being a nuisance, not giving up and finally being vindicated.
Now of course Jesus was not saying God is like this judge who only reluctantly gives in so he can have some peace and quiet. Rather he was saying ‘If persistence prevails with one who only cares for his peace and comfort, how much more will it prevail with one who has compassion on his elect.’
But what or who is this ‘elect’? It sounds a bit like favouritism.
It seems it is a term applied to God’s people when they were downtrodden and in exile, when the world was against them. So if God has a bias to the poor then the poor are the elect. As are those mentioned in the beatitudes. As are those struggling today to hold on to a faith in the face of great pressures not to believe. All of these (and I would include us in the latter!) are to keep on persisting prayer - knowing that one day God’s truth will out!
So what is prayer?
First - what it’s not! It’s not magic, or manipulation of God.
If answers to prayer seem to come its not because of any merit of our own
or because of services rendered by us to God,
its solely and totally through the grace of God.
We have no control over God.
But that doesn’t mean we should not pray, just that we should approach it rightly.
And if answers to prayer do not seem to come its not because God is reluctant to give.
For if we always got what we asked for the result might disastrous:
‘He gave them their request, but it sent leanest to their soul’ (Psalm 106.5)
And some gifts we can only use when we really want them enough,
and God waits till we are ready.
Only God knows what is good for us in the long run.
So, as Jesus said we should never be discouraged in prayer.
Never give up.
Never think it is a waste of time.
It is in a sense the greatest act of faith there can ever be.
God wants us to pray - it shows that we care.
And sometimes we simply have to pray.
Abraham Lincoln one of America’s great presidents - from a bygone era, it has to be said - confessed:
‘I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom, and the wisdom of all around me seemed insufficient for the day’
The poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote: ‘More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of’.
Archbishop William Temple said ‘When I pray coincidences happen. When I don’t they don’t’
Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart
11 September 2016 - God who waits
A few moments watching the news, or few paragraphs of the newspaper are enough to convince us that there is a lostness about the world. And I would hazard a guess that a few moments of self reflection suggest that there are times when somehow or other we do not feel ‘at home’ ourselves either.
The bible attributes this lostness to what it calls sin. The tabloids would have us limit ‘sin’ to the sexual misdemeanours of politicians, celebrities or, especially, church leaders. The advertisers would have have us believe it is the result of eating too many naughty but nice cream cakes. But that misses the point; sin goes much much deeper than that. Basically sin is no more and no less than living outwith the love of God, either by believing that there is no God, or by saying I’m alright thank you very much, I don’t need God, or, on the other hand, living for and promoting a God who is a cruel tyrant who delights in the destruction of those who don’t believe in him.
Authentic Christian belief is founded on the truth that Jesus takes away sin by teaching us that God is love, and by demonstrating us the extent of that love on the cross and its triumph in the resurrection and so restoring the broken relationship. Reconciliation is a two way process.
Today’s gospel reading gives us the heart of Jesus teaching about God. So important is it that one commentator has called chapter 15 ‘the gospel within the gospel’.
It begins with the Pharisees, guardians of Orthodoxy, criticising Jesus for encouraging loose morals by associating too freely with outcastes. They believe that their religious duty is to avoid anything that might contaminate their sanctity. They weren’t actually being entirely selfish. They taught that if a group of people could just manage to live completely according the God’s law, even for a minute, then the Messiah would come and establish the promised Kingdom of God, (which, sadly it must be said, included the utter destruction of God’s enemies which would include most of creation). Be that as it may, the Pharisees were bewildered that a religious teacher like Jesus should deliberately jeopardise such a spiritual security policy.
Jesus justifies his attitude to the outcastes and sinners by claiming that it is God’s attitude and that God’s merciful love does not wait for the penitence of the sinner, but takes the initiative to bring about his or her restoration,
So he tells three parables. The two we heard this morning: the lost sheep and the lost coin; and the third one is the well known story of the prodigal son.
The parables portray a man and woman going to infinite trouble to recover their lost property. The sheep is a gregarious animal which does not wilfully separate itself from the flock but in an unfenced mountainous district it can easily nibble its way to a place of no return, and where, if it is not rescued it will die of starvation. But the shepherd does not let that happen; for him, the arduous search and the risks involved in bringing the exhausted but struggling animal to safety are all in a day’s work. A coin is easily lost in a dark corner of a windowless oriental house, but the careful housewife will not rest until she finds it even if it means turning the house upside down. In each case we are told that the friends and neighbours come to join in the celebration for the recovery of that which had been lost.
Jesus wants us to understand that God is no less persistent than men and women in seeking that which he has lost, nor less jubilant when his search is successful; and those who would be reckoned his friends will always share this jubilation, and wherever possible will want to share his search as well.
To say the people are lost is to pay them a high compliment, for it means that they are precious in the sight of God. And that is worth reflection on for a moment.
David Adam, former vicar of Lindisfarne has written an imaginary letter from God which says it all.
When you awoke I was there, waiting upon you. I wanted to share in your love.
At breakfast you listened to the radio and rushed your food. You had no time to speak to me. I waited but you did not turn to me.
Though you travelled by rail you spent your time on your laptop and reading the the news. You did not once give me a thought. And I waited for you to turn to me.
During your work there were lots of small gaps. There was more time at lunch. But you did other things and had no time for me. Yet still I waited.
At the end of the day you watched the television and played a game. For a while you dozed before you had your last drink of the day. And I waited for you to turn to me.
Now, I thought, you will have time - just before you go to sleep. Instead, you read until you were tired. You worried about tomorrow and at last you fell asleep.
I will surround you with my love this night. I will wait for you tomorrow, and if you do not remember I will be there the day after. And the day after that. I will wait until you turn to me.
All my love
14th August 2016
Let us run the race with perseverance
The Olympics are grabbing the headlines at the moment - and for the right reasons - sport excellence. Team GB, as its called, has achieved 10 gold, 13 silver and 7 bronze medals. Rowing, Cycle Track, Swimming, Canoe slalom and Diving, running. Pretty good these days for a small island off the north west coast of Europe. A great effort. An antidote our perennial underachievement in football.
Of course there have been news stories about the politics and economics of Brazil, and the great doping scandal. But for a while its great to concentrate on the sporting achievements of men and women who have devoted their life to their sport.
Actually, the Olympic games have never been without controversy. There has never been a ‘pure’ Olympics, free from intrigue or cheating.
For example in 1904 the Olympic Marathon was won by the American competitor Thomas Hicks who was fuelled by a mixture of brandy and strychnine sulphate. The medal almost went to another US runner who crossed the line first, but it was decided that his tactic of hitching a lift in a passing car went a bit too far!
A comedian recently quipped that some athletes had an unfair advantage over others because, wait for it, they had spent years practicing their sport! Which would be funny except that in today's age of instant gratification people seem to expect that simply paying some money would bring you success - like the university student who allegedly decided to sue his faculty because he didn’t get a First. He had, after all, paid a lot of money for it!
Joking aside, all this links in a way with this mornings reading.
Hebrews 12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
The writer is encouraging his readers to take note of the athletes who competed in the games. They might model their Christian life on them, he suggested.
Metaphorically and perhaps literally too.
Remember Chariots of Fire and Eric Liddel’s comment:
“I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast!
And when I run I feel his pleasure.”
I don’t know if hot air ballooning around the world counts as a sport but a 64 year old Russian Orthodox priest, Fedor Konyukov has just recently set a world record of 11 days and six hours. Apparently he rested only briefly, holding a spoon between two fingers so it would drop to the floor with clang and wake him if he dozed off.
Obviously, though, the metaphor of the Christian life being like a sporting event, cannot be taken too far - in Olympics, only one person gets the gold. In the Christian life, all who compete win a prize.
But there is much to learn from sport about how we approach the Christian life. So here’s a few observations. You could think of some of your own.
Christianity is more than a spectator sport. It is something that everyone can and should get involved in, at whatever level, in whatever way is appropriate for the individual. If you can’t do anything physical, its still possible to be a pray-er.
Of course it is a kind of spectator sport because the world is watching how Christians behave and we should set a good example. Sometimes we can be the wrong kind of spectacle though when we fall out and become consumed with navel gazing. But there have been and are many Christian saints who have set a great example of sacrifice and love, charity and reconciliation.
Christianity is a team sport, where each plays his or her part. I enjoy watching, but do not entirely understand, the Tour de France. The individual winners get the glory but it's the team who protects and lead him to the point where he can reach his full potential. Of course there are plenty more examples of team sports. The teams which do best are those which play as a team, where individuals are not in it just for their own glory or to justify their personal astronomical salaries.
Christianity is a bit like a relay race. The baton is carried down the years in the race which Christ began. It is passed on to each generation. It is passed on to each of us to make our own contribution and then to pass it on to the next generation.
Christianity takes regular practice. Like any sport. We have to work at it. Muscles grow when they are used, our spiritual life develops as we seek to follow Jesus in word and deed, in compassion and love, in the struggle for justice and care for the outsider.
Christianity requires endurance. Top athletes always have an eye on the prize. Its this which keeps them going through the pain barrier, the failures, the self doubt. It requires picking oneself up when life trips you up, like Mo Farah who went on to win gold.
To try to live the Christian life is hard today. There is so much to take our eye of the ball, as it were. And we do so often feel failures, we feel doubt, we experience pain, we look around and wonder why. The answer is to keep our eye on the promise given by Jesus through his teaching, his death and his resurrection and to hang on in and keep at it and we will get better even if we suffer setbacks. The promise is of a new world, a new creation, a new heaven and earth. Easter Sunday follows Good Friday.
Here’s a challenge. You will never be an olympic champion but God has called you to be a champion at something. Which means there is something you alone can do which no one else can and if you don’t it wont be done and the world (or your little bit of it), or yo, will be the less for it. Once you accept this then life has a meaning and all the failures and doubts and hurts that come along can be put in their proper perspective - of helping you in your spiritual training.
Lots to think about.
Let me conclude with some more words from Eric Liddell. If you don’t remember anything else from this morning then perhaps remember this:
“You will know as much of God, and only as much of God, as you are willing to put into practice.”
19 June 2016
Let’s try and picture the scene. The disciples had just endured a storm on the lake. Jesus had stilled the storm and their fears and anxieties. Possibly blown off course by the storm they landed on the south eastern edge of the lake. Their hopes for a peaceful landing were soon shattered. As Jesus stepped ashore a madman met him.
The man’s mind was in constant turmoil. He had been driven out of the city and had to live among the tombs; banished from the living he made his home among the dead, living alone with his demons. He had been chained but in the strength of his fury he had broken free. Perhaps still attached to his wrists he waved them about like a weapon as he approached Jesus. For the disciples it was another storm. ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?’, he shouted, ‘I beg you, do not torment me’. He may have been mad but he recognised Jesus, and that Jesus had power.
In contrast to the man, Jesus remained quite still. He had stilled the storm. Would he bring peace into this situation. He asked the man his name. ‘Legion’ he replied. Did he think he was possessed by a legion of demons? Or had he suffered trauma brought on by the atrocities of the Roman Legion? The man was aware what Jesus was about to do and he pleaded that his ‘army’ would not be sent to the abyss. Jesus agreed to this and told the man that the demons had entered the nearby herd of pigs which were hurtling towards the sea. Might it be that the loud crying of Legion had frightened the pigs and Jesus used their panic as a way of releasing that which was troubling the man. The man was healed, in his right mind and clothed when the local people appeared. They saw what Jesus had done and were afraid. The asked him to leave them. The man formerly known as Legion wanted to leave the place where he had suffered so much and follow Jesus but Jesus told him ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ He returned the man to the family and community who had given him up for dead.
In this story Luke continues to develop the picture of Jesus as somebody with powers that point to there being something very special about him. More evidence in building up the picture of the former carpenter from Nazareth as God incarnate. The disciples were learning too, and perhaps like the people who asked Jesus to leave, becoming a little afraid of their rabbi; of the people he encountered and his way of dealing with them. Jesus had an agenda that they were struggling to keep up with and wouldn’t fully understand until after the crucifixion and resurrection. We have the benefit of hindsight and perhaps the story does not have the profound effect on us that it had then.
But knowing the rest of the story, as we do, we can still benefit from reflecting on it, for it speaks of the ability of Jesus to bring peace to seemingly uncontrollable situations; to bring life again out of chaos, to give hope. He can still do this but needs our cooperation. Starting with us. Our prayers for the chaos and madness of a world in chains. Doing what is in our power to do. Asking what legion of memories and fears brings the madness of prejudice and exclusion and hatred into the world and perhaps into our hearts. When we look around for meaning where do we find it if not in the story and promise of Jesus. Otherwise there is only chaos and meaninglessness and legion.
20th March 2016
Open the doors and let the King of Glory come in.
Jesus was travelling from Jericho to Jerusalem, a total distance of about 18 miles and uphill all the way. (Fact: Jericho is 825 feet below sea level, Jerusalem is 2500 feet above sea level.) It was a rocky road, and a dangerous road (remember the story of the Good Samaritan). It was all the more dangerous for Jesus because there was by then a price on his head.
Jesus was headed for the Passover Festival in Jerusalem. He had planned it for a long time, nothing was going to stop him. He had already made arrangements for the donkey, and the password ‘the Lord needs it’.
Bethphage and Bethany were not far from Jerusalem. They were favourite places of Jesus and here he was well known and liked.
It was here that Mary had anointed Jesus. Here he had stayed in the house of Lazarus, Mary and Martha. Here he had raised Lazarus from the dead. It was also where he stayed with Simon.
On the nearby hillside was the garden of Gethsemane.
The Palm Sunday events started from here.
Jesus could’ have slipped into Jerusalem unseen but he deliberately wanted to confront the authorities by his action. The donkey was regarded as a noble beast but it was not a beast ridden by kings who were going to war - they would ride great war horses to emphasise their power. It was when they came in peace that they rode on a donkey.
Jesus would enter Jerusalem as the Prince of Peace, the Promised Messiah.
Then and in the days that followed, people would be given the choice to accept him or reject him, as is still the case.
Already groups were polarising for or against Jesus. Jesus refused to be a puppet king who would dance to the whims of the people.
He refused to be a warlord who would lead them into battle.
He refused false dignity and pomp.
He would only rule in the hearts of those who would allow him to.
He knew the way of peace and love and forgiveness was the only way, in the long run, to defeat the destructive force of evil and sinful, selfish human nature. It was this that was the real enemy, not the Roman Army of occupation.
But Jesus knew that his choice would lead to the cross.
At the beginning of our service, after we blessed our palm crosses we turned to face the door. Today we are invited to open anew the doors of our hearts and minds and let Jesus, the king of glory, come in, and we are challenged to stay with him, as he stayed on course for us, through this Holy Week and beyond, on the path which leads to true freedom from all that enslaves us.
Lift up your heads, O gates!
And be lifted up, O ancient doors!
That the King of glory may come in.
13th March 2016
Jesus, Mary and Judas
Today is ‘Passion Sunday’. We recall howJesus began the journey which would reach its inevitable conclusion on the cross. John tells us how, like other pilgrims on the way to the Passover Celebration, Jesus found lodgings in the village of Bethany, a couple of hours from Jerusalem. He stayed at the house of his friends Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus whom he had raised from the dead.
Ever practical Martha got on with preparing the evening meal. Mary’s love was more demonstrative. Sensing that Jesus was about to put himself in danger she anointed his feet with expensive perfume and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume and the fragrance of Mary’s love lingers down the years.
One of the meanings of the Hebrew word ‘Messiah’ is ‘anointed’. The messiah would be the one chosen and anointed by God to be Deliverer King. Here it is noteworthy that Jesus was anointed in advance of his death for it is through his death and resurrection that he would win and claim his kingship. Note also that it is a woman who anoints the anointed, a women from the countryside, from an average family, from the laity. Not a king, governor or High Priest, but a woman, in a patriarchal culture, and a culture where it was taboo for a man to be touched by a woman and where loose hair had certain connotations - as it does still in some cultures. Jesus was not shocked, nor did he reject her action. Compare this with the reaction of Judas.
Jesus knew the value of Mary’s love. Judas was concerned about the cost of the perfume. But there’s more to it than this.
Jesus acceptance of Mary was that she was a human being, not a sexual object or threat, or a child rearing machine. In this he was being hugely countercultural. He saw that what she did, she did as ‘Mary’, not as a ‘woman’. Jesus began a revolution in thinking about gender that has taken 2000 years to surface in again after generations of misogyny often sanctioned by the church, the very institution that arose to keep the gospel alive.
Judas, on the other hand sought to destroy Mary’s action and reputation. He thought he would claim the high moral ground with his talk about the money being better used to help the poor. John comments that Judas used to steal the money from the common purse for himself. That may or may not be true. What is worth reflecting on here, though, is that Judas seemed to be using the poor as a means to an end - his own glory, and the denigration of somebody else. He was using the poor as a weapon. Take that further and consider how throughout history and on television today, the poor have been objects of pity to do fund raising for, to win for heaven, to calm guilty consciences, get publicity, to deduct taxes, to get rid of jumble we don’t want, to feed with alien food.
Have you ever thought of this in the context of Judas’ action?
I hadn’t until I read a commentary of Eliseo Perez-Alvarez, a Puerto Rican theologian. It’s salutary that thinkers from other cultures see the gospel differently, and a gentle warning that the suppositiions of recent western theology are not the only tools that can be used to ascertain what God might be up to.
So we reflect upon the truth that, in God's economy, gender is not a limiting issue. Jesus treated people as people rather than women or, for that matter as Gentiles or slaves or lepers or indeed Refugees.
We reflect upon the truth that charity can sometimes leave a bad smell because it is more about the giver than the recipient.
And we wonder what precious perfume we might have with which to express our faith and love and ‘anoint’ Christ and his continuing here and now.
3rd January 2016 Epiphany Sunday
- Ask the right questions
Today is Epiphany Sunday, the Sunday nearest the feast of the Epiphany, which is 6th January, by which, tradition has it, we must take our Christmas decorations down.
The story of the three kings is traditionally associated with Epiphany - so we have it as our gospel reading this morning.
It's a familiar story, the three kings, visiting Jesus with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And they are a familiar sight in the crib, alongside Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, and the shepherds, with the angels and the star over the stable, and of course the animals.
And woe betide anyone who dares to raise questions about them. Woe betide, if that's such a word, Rowan Williams, when as archbishop of Canterbury, he raised some issues about the legend of the three kings. So outraged was that champion of religious values, the Daily Mail, that it ran a story headed ‘The Wise Men are just a Legend’ says Archbishop of Canterbury. With the implication that he was not a real Christian.
So what did he say?
According to the Mail the Archbishop ‘dismissed the well known version of events as legend, saying: ‘Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t tell us there were three of them, doesn’t tell us they were kings, doesn’t tell us where they came from.’ It simply says they were astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire. They did not have names, and we only assume they travelled on camels. It’s not likely there was snow, and there was no evidence of animals. And we don’t know that Jesus was born in December - Christmas was when it was because it fitted well with the Winter Festival. Incidentally, until the 4th Century, the birth of Jesus was actually celebrated on 6th January - which we call Epiphany. It was the emperor Constantine who changed it to December 25th. The Orthodox church keeps to the tradition of the 6 January - which is when our family in Ukraine have their Christmas.
To give it credit, the Mail does say that ‘Despite this apparent debunking, Dr Williams's views are in fact strictly in line with orthodox Christian teaching, as he is sticking exactly to what the Bible says’.
I was left wondering what was the point of the story, which began with such an outraged headline but ended quite sympathetically.
Perhaps the point was that we need to examine our traditional presuppositions about the Christian story and go back to the source, the bible.
So what can we learn from what Matthew tells us of the visit by the wise men?
The wise men made a mistake by asking where the King of the Jews was to be born, Herod’s secret police soon informed King Herod he had a challenger. Herod asked the visitors to let him know when they found the baby, but they were not wise men for nothing and they left without telling him, having been warned in a dream. However, as we are told, this did not stop Herod slaughtering all the babies in and around Bethlehem. Not the stuff of legend, this!
But I am wondering what next. Did their encounter with Jesus change the wise men? Or did they just revert back to their previous lives, seemingly the experience of many after the Christmas outing to church. I like to think not. I like to think that something did happen to change them and their lives and the lives of those around them.
And what of our encounter with the infant Jesus this Christmas time? Epiphany means a manifestation. Originally the word meant the showing up of the boss for a snap inspection of those under his authority. In the gospels the Epiphany is reinterpreted to mean God showing up to inspect the rich and powerful, religious and secular leaders.
How do we respond to God showing up in our lives? The gospels tell how the people reacted to Jesus then, how do we fit into that story today?
And how might our lives be little Epiphanies of the grace and love and forgiveness of God as shown in Jesus, the light of the world. How could we shine that light?
These are much more meaningful and important questions than what were the names of the three wise men, or whether there were animals in the stable.
29th November 2015 Advent Sunday
Checking the batteries of our spiritual smoke alarms
Do you have a smoke alarm fitted in your house? It could save your life. And if you do have one, have you checked it lately? Has it gone off recently when you’ve burnt the toast? That of course is a good sign, unless it is too sensitive for your culinary enthusiasm and you have turned it off! You can’t ignore a smoke alarm when it goes off, you can’t sleep through it. It will wake you up.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is the season when we are encouraged to ‘Wake up’. Today is the first Sunday of a new liturgical year. We are beginning Year C of the three yearly cycle of readings in The Common Lectionary - a cycle followed by all the main denominations. You might have noticed that during this past year most of our gospel readings have have been taken from Mark. The year before that was Mathew. This year it’s Luke. John’s Gospel is mainly used for the major festivals, especially the weeks after Easter.
The Lectionary, or calendar of readings is a valuable tool in our Christian life and growth because it often brings to our attention those passages from scripture which are difficult, disturbing and challenging, as well as the more well known and comfortable readings. We don’t pick and choose passages to suit our temperament or theology.
This is the case today, as we begin this season of preparation. Our first thought in Advent is of course our practical preparations for Christmas, and of course we are preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus. But the primary theme of Advent is, as I have already indicated, that of waking up. Waking up to reality that one day Christ will come again and waking up to our need to as ready for that as we can be.
Today we hear some words of Jesus about this - as told by Luke. (Mark and Matthew tell them too, in their own ways). They are words which tell of a forthcoming cataclysmic event. Biblical scholars tell us that the immediate import of these words was the prediction of the terrible and final destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and of the temple religion that had been the pride and the foundation of Jewish religious practice for centuries. History tells how that indeed did happen, in AD 70, by Roman forces under Titus. Many of Jesus contemporaries would still have been alive.
But Jesus words are about more than that. They hint, as much prophecy does, at something in the more distant future, to a future ‘Day of the Lord’ when the world as we know it, with its powers and principalities, would be destroyed and recreated in a way in which there would be, could be, no evil. And this is, and is meant to be, a challenge for us to waken out of our complacency. This apocalyptic literature, as it is called, is there to remind us of the bigger cosmic picture, and of our need to return to the God who is our Father and who will make us ready for that day.
Of course this can all seem rather fanciful in this modern age, especially when we think those who with great fanfare have predicted the end of the world on this day or that day … And we are still here! And time and time again people have looked at the awful happenings all over the world and seen them as signs of the end. For some, the situation with so called Islamic state and world wide terrorism lends itself to such an interpretation.
Jesus however told us not to waste time trying to work out when it all might happen. Instead we are to live each day to the full, in the knowledge that the day will come when it comes, and when it does we are look for the familiar face, one whom we will readily recognise, one who has already appeared among us - whose birth we shall soon be celebrating.
This is all on a grand scale, perhaps too grand to really comprehend. So here’s another, more personal, and intimate way of looking at this. Can we learn to be alert to the coming of Christ in everyday life? I mean in the the circumstances that give us joy, and in the things that hurt and disturb. Sometimes things happen which are most definitely little apocalypses, when our lives are turned upside down, when we seem at the mercy of forces over which we have not control and find it hard to cope with; bereavement, accident, illness, relationship breakup and so on.
As we enter into this season of Advent may we, through prayer and reading of the bible, reflection and meditation, sharpen our awareness that each day Christ may come to us, whether it is the end of time as we know it, or in the sudden and unexpected crises that sometimes hit us, or even in the more mundane events of everyday life.
The spiritual equivalent, perhaps, of checking batteries in our smoke alarm.
27th September 2015 Trinity 17
Welcoming those ‘not like us’
The recent and escalating influx of refugees from Syria and elsewhere is provoking talk of a crisis for Europe.
The famous cricketer, W.G. Grace, reputedly said ‘There is no such thing as a crisis, only the next ball’. (The Week 18th September 2015).
Obviously a cricket ball, hurtling towards you, requires a response of some kind, unless you are to be bowled out.
Responses have been,
on the one hand,
‘knee jerk’ opposition to ‘hordes’ of immigrants,
fears of an infiltration of a fifth column of ISIS supporters,
anxiety about economic resources,
fears of cultural disintegration.
and on the other hand, displays of remarkable and sometimes sacrificial kindness.
Many were of course deeply moved by the image of the little boy washed up on the beach. Xenophobia on the one hand compassion on the other.
In today’s gospel reading John the disciple gives expression to a degree of religious xenophobia.
‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’
(background note: In the ancient world there was a universal belief in demons. Everyone believed that physical and mental illness was the work of demons. Anyone who was ill was under a malign influence. The commonest way to exorcise a demon was to find a more powerful spirit and command the demon in that name to come out of the person. The demon could not stand against a more powerful name. John had found a man driving out demons in the name of Jesus and he tried to stop him. The reason he gave was that he was not one them - that is, the little company of men around Jesus.
‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’
All kinds of things might lie behind John’s comment, feelings of exclusivity, pride, fear, possessiveness, perhaps a desire to ingratiate himself with Jesus.
We might picture Jesus rolling his eyes.
His disciples still hadn’t got it.
So he says ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
Like the disciples, we also perhaps need to learn there are more ways than we can understand in which God comes to us and we come to God.
We should not stop anyone because it is not our way. God is far bigger than our little understanding, and works in many ways.We must guard against being exclusive.
‘He / they drew a circle that shut me out -
rebel, heretic, thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win;
We drew a circle that brought him / them in.
(US poet Edwin Markham 1852 - 1940)
Today’s Old Testament reading tells of Moses complaining to God about the Israelites and God telling Moses to share the responsibility. Of course, to share responsibility meant also sharing the power. Moses was no longer the sole channel through which God could work. Yet such sharing must have opened up new possibilities and understandings.
All of this has obvious implications for ecumenical relations between the many and varied Christian Traditions and Denominations at national and local level.
It has implications for the task the Archbishop of Canterbury has set himself in trying to bring together the increasingly disparate provinces of the Anglican Communion.
It has implications for how open we are as individuals to new experiences.
And we might perhaps take it further and apply it to civil society too.
Many in Europe are fearful that their culture is under threat from the large number of refugees who are ‘not like us’. Yet it has been observed that,
in our own case,
British culture (whatever that is) has always been enriched by the influx of other cultures (even the Normans!)
What role does racism play in the current anxieties?
And finally we should not forget our historical contribution to the current situation.
I conclude by referring back to W. G. Grace’s comment and note that when the ball comes towards you you can’t ignore it. You can either simply block it, stop it from hitting yourself or the wicket. Or you can bat it and gain some runs.
5th July 2015 Trinity 5
Familiarity breeds ...
During my ministry I have preached many sermons. Mostly, nobody says anything afterwards. Sometimes people say ‘I enjoyed your sermon’, which is nice but I wonder why they enjoyed it.
No so long ago, in another church in this team someone kindly said how well put together they thought my sermon was. Which was flattering. Style is important, but substance is, too.
Interestingly, sometimes, when people have really listened, they comment on how something has spoken to them, which I had not even thought about when I wrote or delivered it. And that’s good for the soul because it implies that somewhere in what was going on the Holy Spirit has been at work despite my best efforts.
And that is always a humbling experience.
Preachers often wonder what makes a good sermon. Many books and courses have been written on this subject. Some argue that it’s vital to use interesting illustrations to make a sermon relevant. Others say sermons should be fun and advise including a few jokes and entertaining stories. Others debate whether a preacher should use notes or not use notes; move around, or preach from the pulpit; make use of PowerPoint or avoid it at all costs!
Today’s reading, though, does not tell us what words Jesus said in the synagogue or how he presented his teaching, nothing about style or substance. But it does make it clear that Jesus preached a good sermon, for people were amazed by his words. Yet, their initially positive reaction soon changed to antagonism and Jesus’ sermon was not received well at all.
The people “took offence at him”!
The main reason for this seems to be that Jesus was preaching in his home town, Nazareth, where he had lived since childhood and his family were well-known. Even though we might expect this to mean he was received back with warmth and enthusiasm, as a local hero perhaps, their very familiarity with Jesus actually seems to have prejudiced them against him.
In my own case I often wonder how members of my own mainly non churchgoing family regard my words if I go home and take, for example, a family funeral. They knew me as child, before I got ‘religion’, so how do they deal with me - I don’t know, they’re always too polite to say.
But back to Jesus.
For a start, the people of Nazareth knew he was a carpenter - or ‘joiner’ as the Greek is better translated - almost an odd job man, who could turn his hand to most things. How could such an ‘uneducated’ man now consider himself a rabbi, they asked?
Then they knew something about his birth. In their eyes he was the illegitimate son of Mary, the woman who got pregnant out of wedlock. Many think that’s why they called him ‘Mary’s Son’, and not Joseph’s, for even if Joseph had passed away at this point it was usual to still address a boy as the son of his father. If this was the case then their words should be understood as something of an insult.
And they probably would have taken offence at the content of his message, which, as we know from elsewhere in the Gospels, what always rather challenging to the prejudices of his hearers, and threatening to the established order of things, and tradition. So they rejected him and his message.
We are told that Jesus could do no work of power there, although a few were healed by the laying on of his hands.
Its worth spending a few minutes thinking about this in our own context.
An initial point is that for those of us who have been Christians for many years, the words and stories of the bible can become so familiar that they loose their power and effect on us. We think we know them, and so only half listen to them, and so we can miss their impact for us, today - which is not the same as yesterday. Perhaps we could resolve to put our preconceptions aside and ‘listen more attentively’- that the Holy Spirit might move us in new ways through old stories.
Going back to thinking about sermons, and how we listen to them, the story of how Jesus was received in Nazareth says something important.
Sometimes when we consider how effective sermons are we can focus exclusively upon the skill of the preacher, yet this passage makes it clear that the learning process is a two way thing.
Jesus preached well and yet his message was rejected. Indeed, these verses show Jesus preparing his disciples to expect opposition to the Gospel message. They witnessed Christ’s rejection in the synagogue and then, when being sent out immediately afterwards to preach in pairs, were taught how to respond if their preaching was rebuffed (verse 11).
We will all face times when what we share about Christ isn’t received well and this passage reassures us that, when we do, it isn’t necessarily because the message has not been presented adequately: even Jesus’ words did not win people around every time.
What about when we listen to God’s word? It would seem that the effectiveness of preaching and teaching is not just down to the skill of the speaker. It is also down to to the attitude of the hearer. If we don't listen faithfully we risk missing out on experiencing all Christ has for us, as the people of Nazareth did. So the question is how can we be better listeners in our services?
We can simply make sure we all take our services as an opportunity to meet with God. We can prepare for services by praying for God to speak to us and by taking time afterwards to reflect on what we have heard. This is more important than any structural analysis of the sermon!
The great New Testament scholar and preacher William Barclay said he wished congregations would realise that they “preach far more than half the sermon”. He wrote, “in an atmosphere of expectancy the poorest [sermon] can catch fire,” but “in critical coldness or bored indifference, the most Spirit-packed utterance can fall lifeless to the earth.”
Let’s pray that we, unlike the people of Nazareth, may be truly receptive to Christ’s words, and what he has for us.
28th June 2015 Trinity 4
Here is a story of two different people, in very different situations, who come to Jesus as a last resort, when all else has failed.
The story speaks to us in itself - it just needs a little imagining for it to begin to do its work in us. So lets listen, in the present tense, to the notes it plays in our minds and in our hearts.
In Jesus day when a girl reaches the age of 12 years and one day she becomes a woman, and old enough to marry. So the life threatening illness of Jairus daughter is a double tragedy.
Jairus is the ruler of the local synagogue.
He is a respectable man, a pillar of the local community.
Part of a wider community of religious and political leaders who are becoming increasingly suspicious of Jesus.
And Jesus has by now been banned from the synagogues as unorthodox and a trouble maker.
But Jairus thinks of Jesus when his daughter's life is in danger.
He puts aside his prejudices and his good standing in his community and goes himself to Jesus. Normally someone would go for him, important as he is, especially as he might want to stay with his daughter as she is at the point of death. Perhaps his family objects to involving Jesus and wont go, or allow the servants to go. So he goes himself. Probably in the face of opposition.
Jesus sets off with the man, not worrying that here is somebody who in other circumstances would have been hostile towards him. But the journey is interrupted. The people are crowding around him and pushing up against him when suddenly he stops and enquires who has touched him. He knows that power has gone out of him. No work of any value can be achieved without the person being drained of something. Jesus is prepared to give of himself for all, but those receiving need to consciously acknowledge him. He refuses to move on even though time is of the essence.
An older woman has physically touched him this time, not the emotional touch of learning of the illness of a girl. Eventually the woman comes forward. It takes some courage. We are told that she had suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years. The doctors she has consulted have probably made it worse, and the superstitious practices recommended have not helped either. As a consequence of her illness she is considered unclean and shunned and any man she touched would be regarded as religiously polluted. She is not allowed to worship God in the synagogue or temple. Consequently she hopes to get away with it unnoticed. She is thrilled to sense that she is cured but it isn’t going to be as easy as that for her. What has happened has to come out into the open for the cure to be completely effected. We might imagine the relief of confession: difficult, humiliating but utterly liberating.
At the same time Jesus learns that Jairus’ daughter has died. But he travels on to the house and finds the customary mourning taking place - a carefully prescribed public ritual which was perhaps more cathartic than our own often hidden funeral practices. He sends all the professional mourners out of the room, allowing only her father, mother and Peter, James and John; although laughing him to scorn they sense an authority here, and hoping against hope, obey him. He simply commands the girl to get up. Tabitha Cum (Time to get up little girl) is one of the few things to have come to us in the original Aramaic. Is this a hint of the deep impression which all this had on Peter, who remembered it so vividly that he passed it on to Mark. Which she does, to the amazement of those around. Not least to his disciples.
So, there we have it. Two people who seek out Jesus. Two people prepared to go against their peers, the crowd, their culture. Two people, who in different ways reached out to touch Jesus, believing that he could help them. Two people who down the centuries may speak to us. About how faith and trust in Jesus will often cut across social convention and expectation.
14th June 2015 Trinity 2
Soprano, alto, tenor, bass (and a grain of mustard seed)
In a previous parish I sang in the church choir. We had a very patient choir master who also directed the impressive local Choral Society - I think he saw his work with us as a charitable offering. Anyway, he informed me that I had a tenor voice. There was only one other tenor in the small choir - I followed him as I had extreme difficulty reading the tenor music line. If he was away I sang bass (with the bass voice) or just followed the melody line!
Often, Graham, the choir master (who was also organist) would play a chord of four notes and say there’s your note! And the proficient amongst us would immediately identify the right one for them, soprano, alto, tenor, bass. Needless to say I felt like a fish out of water as I hadn’t a clue! Sometimes, seeing the look on my face he would patiently play each note in the chord separately. Of course, then I had to keep the note in my mind. I did get better at it but never proficient.
In today’s gospel reading we hear two of Jesus parables. Much of Jesus teaching was in the form of parables, stories drawing upon everyday occurrences, often with a twist at the end. Parables are a courteous way of teaching because they open up questions for those who hear them. They get us thinking, they don’t beat us around the head with dogmatic pronouncements. They are redemptive stories because they can, if we let them, change us for the better.
So when reading a parable we first need a mind that is open to new possibilities. A parable is a bit like a musical chord comprising a number of different notes. With some attention we can discern the different notes
Lets have a look then, at four of the notes in the parables today.
The first is obvious. For a seed to grow it must be sown. A seed will keep in a sealed packet or tin. But that's all. It's purpose is to be sown, in the ground, out of the safety of the packet. Not all seeds come up. It's a risky business. The miracle is not that some don't germinate but that some do. Of course we can help germination by getting time and place as right as possible but the growth is a product of what is locked up in the seed. So a task, THE task, of the church is the sowing of the seed of the gospel, - the story of Jesus Christ, spoken and lived - which means taking risks, in the soil of our community and culture, being wise about where and when. And then leaving it up to God. Once sown we have to wait.
A second note in the chord is the smallness of the seed. In Palestine a grain of mustard seed was a saying, which meant the smallest thing possible. Every great thing, including the Kingdom of God has its origins in small beginnings. In an age where big is seen as best its worth remembering this. Think of the small moment of the birth of an idea or a vocation, of one or two or three people getting together to pray and plan. Every journey begins with one small step. The smallness of our congregations belies the often as yet unknown potential. And we do not know what invisible spiritual benefits radiate from our fellowship and worship and service out into the community. We do not know and we do not give up. People would have looked down at the small group of unlettered disciples, in a remote region of the Roman world, that Jesus brought together and empowered.
The third note is the size of the tree that grows from the seed. In the Old Testament a common way of describing a great empire was to liken it to a tree, and the nations within it were said to be like birds finding shelter and a place to nest within its branches. In this context the figure of the tree with birds in its branches stands for the Kingdom of God, a kingdom like no earthly kingdom, in which all nations, peoples and creeds will find shelter and peace and prosperity. What a vision for our fragmented and warring world! And this will come from small beginnings – the life and death – and resurrection – of one man and a few of his disciples.
A fourth and final note – the twist at the end if you like, is that of hope and yet it might not at first sound like hope when Jesus talks about the harvest and the sickle. There will be a time of consummation when all the injustices and the perplexities and evils and sins of the world will be brought fully into the light and peace and harmony will be restored. This is a vision of things, which doesn’t sit too easily with the view of inexorable human progress that has recently dominated the western mind set. To use the chord analogy it adds a little dissonance to the sound but as one authority puts it ‘too much consonance in music makes it easy to listen to, but bland. Dissonance adds a powerful tension.’
So, there we are, four notes, which played together produce a creative but not bland sound, and which, maybe, strike a chord for us and for our world.
31st May 2015 Trinity
The Trinity and the Elephant
I have a story here, that I’d like to share with you.
It comes from India.
Its quite well known, possibly you have heard it but it is worth reading again and using it to think about God as Trinity.
Its quite well known, possibly you have heard it but it is worth reading again and using it to think about God as Trinity.
Long ago, at the foot of the tall Himalayan mountains, was a small school.
This school was unusual, because all of the students were blind.
Janak was their wise and gentle teacher.
One day, Janak received a letter, which he read to the class:
Dear cousin., I will be traveling past your village, in a few weeks time, and I would like to visit your school.”
Tell your students, that I will be traveling by elephant.
Now, because all of the students were blind, and couldn’t see the elephant, they wanted to know, what an elephant is like.
They had all lived their lives, in the mountains, and did not know about, the animals that lived below, on the plains.
They asked their teacher Janak to tell them.
“You will find out!” was all Janak would say.
The day Janak’s cousin, arrived on his elephant, the class was too excited to study.
Janak announced, “Today, the elephant will be the teacher.”
The children gathered around the elephant.
Janak led one of the students, to the elephant’s long trunk, and one to the bristly tail.
Then he took two students, to the side of the elephant, and they stretched up tall, to feel the tough skin.
Janak’s cousin, helped two of the blind children, touch the elephant’s strong legs.
Finally, Janak lifted the smallest student, on his shoulders, and the child reached out, to feel the big flapping ears.
All the children, carefully explored, their part of the elephant, describing it all in wonder and delight.
Later, they sat under a tree, and talked about what they had discovered.
“Tell me what an elephant is like,” Janak said.
“An elephant is like a big, long snake!” one student said.
“An elephant is like a tough, bristly rope!”, the first two students explained.
“No! An elephant is like a tall, rough wall that breathes!”
Two other students called out,
“That’s not so!
An elephant is not like any of those.”
Two more argued, that an elephant is like a strong, sturdy tree!”
The smallest student said, with confidence, “You are all wrong.
An elephant is like a large, flapping fan, that stirs the hot air.”
Janak’s cousin could not help laughing, as each student loudly insisted, that what they experienced, of the elephant was right, and all the others were wrong.
Janak let them argue, until the children got tired, of their own voices.
Finally, everyone was quiet, and every face turned toward him.
“You are all correct!” Janak said with a smile.
“And you are all wrong!” he added, still smiling at their puzzled expressions.
“Let’s go back to our teacher, the elephant.”
One by one, Janak and his cousin, led the students around the entire elephant, and they all touched the trunk, that felt like a snake, touched the tail that felt like a rope, they touched the sides of the elephant, that felt like a wall, and the legs that felt like trees.
Then each of them was lifted up, to touch the flapping ears that felt like fans.
The youngest student said, “I think we learned a lot, from our teacher the elephant today!
All of our experiences were true, but none of us knows the whole truth.”
What do you think of, when you hear the word God?
What is God like?
And where do you think God is?
High above the clouds, out there in the galaxy?
In church at this altar?
In your heart?
In the Bible?
Each one of us is unique.
Each one of us has, her or his own experience of the world, that’s different, from everyone else’s experience.
And it makes sense, that each person’s experience of God, will also be unique, different from everyone else’s.
Today is Trinity Sunday.
Two thousand ago, early followers of Jesus , struggled to express the substance, of their faith.
They drew upon their own experiences, and they came up with the concept of a Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as a way to describe God.
Like those early Christians, we in turn can draw on, our experiences of reality, to express our faith, using our words.
When we see the God the Trinity in all variety of creation, we say Father
When we sense God the Trinity as a sacred presence, we say Holy Spirit
When we are move by God the Trinity as the source of inspiration and courage and release, we say Jesus Christ
When we sense God the Trinity as a sacred presence, we say Holy Spirit
When we are move by God the Trinity as the source of inspiration and courage and release, we say Jesus Christ
Three ways to speak of One Real God.
So let us remember that as the elephant is real, Truth is real, and it can be recognized, in many different ways.
Like the students, who discovered an elephant, for the first time, all of our experiences are true, but none of us knows the whole truth.”
The most important thing to remember, is this:
God is everywhere.
God is within everyone.
And we each see God in our own way.
For only together can we overcome our spiritual blindness.
Let us pray.
Eternal God, the Great Mystery that is outside everything and yet at the same time inside, keep alive in each one of us the search for a faith that is real, a faith that helps us to live more joyful and contented lives, a faith that gives us a fuller meaning to life and the events of around us.
Bring us to know the goodness that flows from the heart of the universe and may we be expanded in heart and soul by that goodness.
This is our prayer.
24th May 2015 Pentecost
The 'Comfort' of the Holy Spirit
Last Thursday evening some of us attended a Deanery Synod meeting at West Woodburn.
The archdeacon was the main speaker. He spoke for well over an hour and, using a flip chart, outlined the major changes which were due to happen on 1st January 2017 with regard to the way the Church Commissioners distributed the finances of the Church of England and the not insignificant impact that would have at parish level.
He encouraged us to think and discuss long and hard about the way forward.
He was upbeat about it all but it was something of a reality check – an assertion that things could not continue as they were.
Change was inevitable, but, if properly handled, this would provide an opportunity for new life and growth. For some, though, it seemed nothing but doom and gloom and chickens coming home to roost.
I'll say a little more about this later but let's turn now to our first reading, the passage selected for this Pentecost Sunday. The story of the coming of the Holy Spirit, a story of empowerment.
· How can we express deeply moving spiritual experiences?
· How can we convey in human language that which lies beyond the direct perception of the five senses?
· How can we talk about the continuing presence and immanence of the Divine?
· How can those who experience the Indwelling of God put into words what is going on?
St Luke solves this problem by giving a new meaning to the ancient idea of The Holy Spirit when he tries to convey what happened to Jesus' disciples as they were gathered together in that room at the Feast of Pentecost.
And he uses pictorial language to convey its effect on them.
He talks of tongues of fire on each one of them, and of them speaking in language that all, even those visiting Jerusalem from far away, can understand. Whatever happened something infused and enthused this small band of bewildered men.
The church has long taught and over the past couple of centuries has 'rediscovered' that at the heart of the Christian experience is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God specifically in each person who accepts Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and guide.
I say specifically, because the Holy Spirit of God is always and everywhere at work in different ways throughout the world and in other faiths but can be a specific conscious companion, as it were, of those who accept Jesus. (When talking of the Holy Spirit we generally say 'him' although some say 'her', rather than 'it' for the Holy Spirit is more than an impersonal force or power). Again we are trying to define the spiritual, which as best can only be a partial exercise.
Anyway, this ‘ empowering’ took place at the great Jewish Festival of Pentecost, a time of the gathering of as many Jews as could make it, to celebrate amongst other things,the giving of the Law to Moses.
Here, Luke is saying, has come a new kind of encounter between the divine and human. The law of the indwelling Spirit superseded the written law and wrote it in a new way in people's hearts. So we talk about the Spirit of the Law rather than the letter of the Law.
The Act’s of Apostles might equally be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit. And, maybe we need to rediscover the acts of the Spirit for ourselves. The Spirit is a resource totally independent of the Church Commissioners. The Spirit is for all of us and our churches however rich or poor, financially or numerically. With this resource we are not despondent at the Archdeacon's message. Whatever happens, the will of God will prevail. We just need to ally ourselves with this.
Pentecost is a time when we remind ourselves that there is a supernatural side to our Christian journey and that, thank God, we don't have to rely solely on our own strength and schemes but primarily be open to the possibilities of the Spirit. That is the ultimate value added to the Church, one that is all too often forgotten about.
The Holy Spirit is often described in the New Testament as 'the comforter'. Now this word, comforter, has a different meaning today than it used to have.
The Bayeux Tapestry, commissioned to celebrate William's victory over Harold, contains a scene which is described as 'William comforting his troops.' The scene depicts William 'comforting' his troops by prodding them with point of his spear. That was the older meaning of the word. Perhaps, then, in this sense we might see the Archdeacon's words as offering comfort to us all. I hope you get the point?
I finish with a spiritual ‘equation’.
Adversity + the comfort of the Holy Spirit = Growth.
Growth for us as individuals and growth for us as a Church.
To change those well known words from Star Wars
May the Spirit be with you.
17th May 2015 Easter 7
A comfort and a challenge
Last Thursday was Ascension day, when Christians throughout the world remember the time when the risen Jesus having completed all he had come to do ceased to appear to his disciples and ascended to be with his Father in heaven.
We no longer see that as a physical place above the clouds but as a different dimension which can from time to time be sensed, especially in the so called thin places of this world. Places of pilgrimage like Iona or Lindisfarne. Most of the time though the veil is too thick, and often that's of our own making.
I want to focus on a verse from today's gospel reading.
11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
It's part of a prayer. These words of Jesus, spoken to his disciples before his death, seem to apply to the time after the ascension. 'And now I am no longer in the world'.
He will no longer be with them so he prays to his Father to protect them. Jesus leaves the realm of the physical world but his disciples do not. They still have to face it and endure its trials and tribulations. His followers will not have a magical protection from all that the world can throw at them. They will not be immune from the reality of being frail and vulnerable and tempted human beings. And nor do Jesus followers today. But Jesus gave them to the care and protection of the Father who will be their ultimate security for eternity, not only for the here and now. And what a comfort and indeed a challenge it is to know that Jesus prayed and still prays for his followers. Take some time this week to reflect upon that.
And remember that there were only 11 disciples. (Judas was sadly no longer with them) A small group of ordinary people, nothing particularly special about them, except that they had spent some three years with him. A small group, a long way economically, sociallygeographically from the centre of things. (Ring any bells?) I reckon this should be a great source of encouragement to us all. The thing for us, like the disciples, is to spend time with the spirit of Jesus - walking in the company of the Holy Spirit. That, really, is the only qualification needed. Again, we need to reflect upon how that works for us in our own situations.
The Holy Island of Lindisfarne is not that far away from here. It has a long Christian history stretching back to the time of St Aidan and St Cuthbert in the seventh century. Over the past 50 years or so the island and its story has rekindled the Christian Faith and imagination of many people - often people who are alienated from established religion. The priest and writer David Adam has contributed much to this. When he was living on the island and working as parish priest there he became aware of the effect the tides had on the life of the island. In fact the only real way to experience the atmosphere of the place is to be there when the tide is in and the island cut off from the mainland, and the day trippers and ice cream vans have gone home.
But the real point, he thought, was the rhythm of the tides. For half the time the tide is in and the island is quiet and reflective. For half the time the tide is out and the island is connected to the mainland and there is commerce with the rest of the world. He saw this as a metaphor of the life of a Christian. Times of busyness and work need to be balanced by times of prayer and reflection, so that we can be in the world but not of it. Such a balance is effective like the two blades of a pair of scissors. Work and prayer. Prayer and work. Getting the right pattern can bring spiritual, emotional and even physical healing and wholeness.
This prayer of Jesus, then, raises three questions for us.
What difference does it make to know that we are a people for whom the risen and ascended Jesus prays?
How much of our daily lives are lived in awareness that The Holy Spirit of Jesus walks with us?
Do we take time for prayer and reflection amidst the busyness and many distractions of living today?
The Ascension of Jesus, his departure, is our cue to get on with it. But he does not leave us because he sends his Holy Spirit. And that is our theme for next Sunday - Pentecost (or Whitsun as it used to be known).
10th May 2015 Easter 6
Well, we now know the result of the election. It came as a surprise certainly to all the pollsters and commentators. In our first past the post democracy one person from each constituency is chosen by the electorate. And it is hoped and expected that the successful candidates will do the job for which they are elected and chosen.
One of the themes of today's gospel reading is that of a rather different kind of election or chosen-ness.
Jesus, in his long final discourse to his disciples recorded by John over several chapters of his gospel, emphasises that they have a special calling. In today's gospel Jesus tells them they are his friends, not because they have chosen him but because he has chosen them.
This business of chosen-ness bothers some as it could imply that some are chosen and some are not, some are in and some are out. Historically there have been great and unfortunate debates about predestination – leading some to believe that there is nothing we can do, one way or another if eternal destination is decided by God before hand. All this had unfortunate and sad consequences.
Fortunately we have moved on and can reflect more positively on the idea of being chosen,
an idea which actually conveys three important truths.
Firstly: a reading of the gospel leads to an understanding that God shows no partiality and issues an invitation to everyone to play on his team as it were, regardless of how good they are. The one condition is a willingness to admit that we need some coaching- all of us. So it's a case of realising that we are chosen; realising in two senses – of becoming aware and of making real. I repeat for emphasis: it's important to know that God chooses to invite all, but it's those who respond who make that chosen ness real.
Secondly to be chosen tells us of the value God places on us. An analogy might be the joy of being chosen for the school team after years of rejection. And there's no catch. We all feel we have to prove ourselves to God but that's not possible. None are up to it but nevertheless God chooses to include us - if we want.
Thirdly, to be chosen is to be chosen for a purpose here and now. Not chosen to feel superior or to just to sit back and look forward to eternal life.
We are chosen
for joy – simply by accepting that we are chosen by God, because we know that although a culpable part of sinful humanity, God accepts our repentance, goes on forgiving us and accepting us. So however hard the Christian way can be there is joy in doing the right thing for its own sake, and joy in the promise of resurrection and a new creation. ‘A gloomy Christian is a contradiction in terms, and nothing has done more damage to Christianity than its connection with black clothes and long faces’. (Barclay – who was a Scottish Presbyterian)
for love - not to compete or criticise or dispute or quarrel with one another. Jesus has the right to ask this, as he has shown us the extent of his own love which is God’s love. He practices what he preaches.
for friendship – rather than slavery. Actually, even to be a slave ‘doulos’ of God was a great honour in itself. Moses, Joshua and David were slaves (douloi) of God. Jesus offers something much more. A bit of background might help here – in Roman and other Eastern Courts there were a group of men who were friends of the emperor or friends of the king, who had access to the king even before the generals and statesmen and in whom the king confided.
as partners – through Jesus, God has shared his mind with those who respond and invites them to join in the work, not simply obeying orders as a slave does, but as a full partner in the business.
as ambassadors – to be in the court for a time but also to go out into the world to do his business, to represent God, wherever we are we are an embodiment of the kingdom of God. This is to be the rhythm of the Christian life – prayer and work.
as advertisements – by the way we live our lives. The way to bring others to Christ is to live the Christian life, not to argue or threaten people but to attract. God is never at the end of an argument.
So we await the work of the new government whom the country has chosen. And God awaits each day the work of those whom he has chosen. There is no higher calling.
3rd May 2015 Easter 5
Acts 8.26-40, John 15.1-8
Jesus, the vine.
Here is a photograph of a bunch of grapes.
You may find it hard to believe but I grew these in the greenhouse in the garden of my previous rectory in the North East of Scotland.
The parishioners, were fairly impressed, as, I admit was I.
I had never grown a vine before so I had to read up about the soil and the feeding and most especially how to prune and when to prune. Apparently the vine had to be pruned no later than Christmas Day. I think that was because after that the sap started to flow again. The idea of pruning was to direct the sap to the fruiting spurs that grew along the main vine branches, so the non fruit bearing branches would be cut off. During the growth some of the leaves had to be pruned as well to allow the light to get to the bunches of grapes. The eventual sweetness of the grapes was determined by how much sun there had been during the summer. And experience showed that if the bunches of grapes were not picked before the cold dampness of autumn set in then they would quickly go mouldy. So, all in all it was quite remarkable that we had any grapes at all.
So, for a vine to grow well, the ground needed to be prepared and the plant given regular attention.
The vine was one of the most common plants in Israel. It would grow almost anywhere; it grew on walls, up trellises, around doors of houses; it grew up sticks. It also grew in the wild. But if you wanted to get fruit from them you couldn’t just leave them to the chances of nature.
Jesus saw, in the vine, an illustration of the religious or spiritual life. When he said ‘I am the vine’ he was saying, amongst other things, that we need to give our Christian lives the same attention as a natural vine needed.
There is no one in whom he cannot grow if only the preparation of the soil of human hearts is properly done. Today we expect instant results, instant responses, instant changes in people, instant conversions, instant growth, and these things do not happen because we ignore what is going on at ground level. We tend to ignore the weeds, the poor environment, the lack of sustenance; we want growth without having to make an effort.
But, given the right preparation and conditions, growth can and does happen. For a long time it seems that little is happening and then suddenly growth speeds up. In the first two or three years the vine is not allowed to fruit so that it can conserve its life and energy. And with our faith, it always takes some time to grow and mature and we should not rush it, but neither should we neglect it, and let the weeds grow and the soil dry out.
But ultimately, we are all meant to ‘bear fruit’ in some way or other, that is, be useful to God in this world. It seems a fact of life that sometimes if feels as if we are being pruned by God, and it might not be comfortable at the time but it will have good consequences. Perhaps a better way of understanding this is to accept that life isn’t always a bed of roses, as they say, and things happen that we would rather not happen to us and to those we love. But when such things happen we can either become bitter or we can become better. We can pray that what happens to us will make us better people, people who can empathise with others, people who know what its like, people who can bear the kind of fruit God wants from them.
And a final point: Jesus says we must abide in him. He should be the branch, or the rootstock onto which we are grafted and through him will come the power and energy and everything we need to live fruitful lives. So we shouldn’t rely solely on our own strength, nor should be rely wholly upon our church, because neither can be as reliable as Jesus. After all if and when all else fails, Jesus will still be there.
As St Paul says: For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8.38-39
26th April 2015 Easter 4
Read John 10.11-18
Jesus, the Good Shepherd
Does the name Robert Bertram mean anything to you? He is one of three people nominated as a Farming Hero on the BBC Food and Farming awards this year. He is a Northumbrian Shepherd. He was nominated because of his courage in rescuing neighbouring shepherd Mark, who had a near fatal accident on his quad bike which left him with a smashed back and unable to move or call for help. Mark had his dog, Roy, with him. That evening, concerned that he hadn’t come home, and that the weather was terrible, Mark’s wife Laura went to Robert’s house and Robert set off looking for Mark. It took several hours criss crossing the hills until he saw Mark’s dog Roy, who had rushed out when he heard the sound of Robert’s bike. Asked how he felt on discovering him and that he was alive he said, ‘Well, that was my good deed for the day’. Summing up, Adam Henson, one of the programme’s presenters said to Robert ‘You’re part of these hills aren’t you?’
Our Gospel reading was about Jesus as being Good Shepherd, who would not run away when things got dangerous for his sheep or for himself. In a very modern sense Robert Bertram, too, is a good shepherd, putting his own safety at risk, although I guess with characteristic modesty he would shrug that off, certainly claiming no equality with Jesus.
Of course shepherding with Quad bikes, even with dogs, was not the image Jesus or his hearers had in mind when he likened himself to the Good Shepherd.
Sheep would have been cared for very differently in the Israel of biblical times. With wolves, lions and jackals, and thieves roaming around, sheep needed a shepherd to be watching them day and night. Also, with green grass in short supply, sheep could not be left to fend for themselves but needed to be led to fresh grass daily. The relationship between sheep and shepherd was therefore much closer than we might imagine, and this can be seen even in the Palestine of today.
Ann Spangler, in her book Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, describes three shepherds in modern-day Bethlehem stopping for a chat as they led their separate flocks to fresh pasture. As the shepherds talked, their sheep mingled and soon the three flocks had become completely indistinguishable. To an outsider there would seem to be no way that these shepherds would ever be able to work out which of the sheep belonged to them. Yet these men were completely unfazed! As soon as they had finished talking, they simply called out to their flocks. Each sheep recognised their own shepherd’s voice and immediately they began to separate themselves out into three flocks again and follow their shepherd.
Comprehending how close the bond was between sheep and shepherd will help us better to understand the teaching found in today’s reading.
Jesus contrasted himself with hired hands who were paid to look after sheep. As these hirelings did not actually own the sheep, they cared little about them: they only looked after them for the money. Therefore, it would be very unlikely for such a man to risk his life for the flock or be prepared to fight off wild beasts and defend the sheep as would a shepherd who owned them. They would be more likely to run off and abandon the flock to the wolves.
However, Jesus said that he was like a good shepherd, prepared to die for his sheep, and he emphasised that this was something he did willingly: Christ’s death was a choice made from love, not something he was forced into.
He also brought out his likeness to a good shepherd in the intimate knowledge he has of his sheep and the complete trust they have in him. A good shepherd would know exactly how many sheep he had and be able to identify every one of them. Similarly, the sheep would know the voice of their shepherd and follow him when he called.
And he talked about sheep who were not yet part of the fold. He was probably referring to the Gentiles, or non Jews, and this was quite radical teaching for a Jewish rabbi. It was an early statement of the importance of the inclusivity of the church that would follow him.
How do we view our relationship with God? Is it like the biblical picture of a shepherd and his sheep, or is it more the way most modern urban dwellers would see the role? For instance, do we feel God looks upon us rather as we may look at a flock of sheep, not really being able to tell one animal from another? If we do, then this is unbiblical: Jesus’ picture of a shepherd shows he knows each one of us intimately.
Do we feel like sheep left to wander around a vast field with no sign of the shepherd anywhere in sight? Our reading today shows us the true picture: Jesus is walking alongside us daily. Like a shepherd in biblical times, he is always there to guide us and wants us to follow his voice.
Perhaps we feel in danger and are afraid, that God, like the hireling, has left us alone to fend for ourselves. The biblical picture is very different. It shows us that Jesus will not leave us to face danger alone. His love for us was such that that he was prepared to die to save every single one of his flock.
When times are tough and we are tempted to feel God has deserted us, we need to remind ourselves of this truth and hold on by faith to the picture Jesus presents of a loving shepherd who knows, loves, guides and protects each and everyone one of us. To listen for the voice of him who is ‘part of the hills’ of our lives.
19th April 2015 Easter 3
The name of Jesus
I don't know if it's an age thing but have you ever woken up and for a moment had no idea where you where or what day it is? If you have you will know the relief of the dawning of reality.
Here’s a picture puzzle.
Sometimes you see what it says straight away. They way to see it is to look at the light rather than the dark.
We’ve had a few foggy mornings lately. It's a great moment when the sun breaks through.
All these images help us appreciate the slow yet sudden dawning on the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. The moment when everything changed. In today's gospel reading St Luke records an occasion of Jesus appearing to them and seeking to persuade them that it was really him and not just a ghost that they were seeing. He showed them his wounds and, because they were still wondering, he asked for something to eat.
It was not long before these men (!) were out on the streets of Jerusalem, and beyond, talking about Jesus and finding themselves in the presence of remarkable events. Here is the story of one such event. It was not long after Jesus had ascended and the Holy Spirit had come upon the disciples. Peter and John had been going to the temple as usual for the three o'clock prayers. At the gate of the temple, in his accustomed place, was a lame beggar. He looked up at Peter and John, expecting money. But something moved Peter to say ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’ He then took him by the right hand and raised him up. The man found he could stand and immediately he went into the temple praising God. All the people who recognised him were astonished. What was going on? Peter’s reply to their question is the substance of our first reading. It was not in their own strength that this man had been healed. It was by faith in the name of Jesus of Nazareth that this thing had happened. The same God who had raised Jesus from the dead had healed this man. Peter was talking to the very people who had clamoured for Jesus death a few months previously. What a changed man. What's more he told them that if they were prepared to change and put their trust in this man who they had killed, who was also more than man, they too would be blessed. Peter had remembered how the risen Jesus, when he had appeared to them had said that repentance and forgiveness of sins was to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. ‘You are my witnesses’, he had said.
These men were first hand witnesses and they did remarkable and courageous things, not least challenging the authorities and finding themselves in various degrees of trouble. In all they did and said, they gave the full credit to the God who had raised Jesus from the dead and often talked about the power of his name. It is the power of the name of Jesus that has inspired millions of men and women down the centuries and given them a reason for living and brought a peace and conviction and generosity and hope in the midst of often dire circumstances, persecution and grave danger. And it is in the name of Jesus that our churches exist at all. We must never forget that simple and crucial fact. Indeed we must spend some serious time reflecting upon that, and especially every time we get despondent and every time we imagine we can pull ourselves up by our own bootlaces by this or that strategy or endeavour. And then feel guilty that nothing seems to change.
Peter and John had been on their way to pray when the healing of the lame man occurred. Perhaps as we reflect upon that observation there might be a moment of illumination, a dawning of what is foundational to our church as well as to our lives. Prayer and looking at the light rather than the dark.
12th April 2015 Easter 2
What might a modern day 'Thomas' need to see to believe?
We are in the midst of a general election campaign. Candidates seek our vote by promising to make the country a better place and our lives more secure, comfortable and prosperous. They differ as to how they will do this, and who is to blame for things that are wrong. But in our democratic system today it is assumed that people seek such office do so for the good of all, not to simply feather their own nest, or to solely look after the interests of one group or economic class.
I’ll come back to this later but turn now to our gospel reading.
Jesus had been executed, and despite the rumours he was alive, the disciples were afraid. They feared that they too were on the wanted list. So, with the exception of Thomas they had gathered together in a locked room. A kind of tomb of their own. They were leaderless, powerless and lifeless.
Then suddenly, without any fuss Jesus stood among them. He greeted them as normal ‘Shalom, peace be with you’.
As normal, but not not as normal.
How could it be?
How could it be?
He showed them his hands and his side. ‘Then were they glad when they saw the Lord’ – which must be one of the world’s great understatements.
But that wasn't the end of it.
Rather it was the beginning.
The beginning of the next chapter of God’s work in Christ.
Rather it was the beginning.
The beginning of the next chapter of God’s work in Christ.
As God had sent Jesus, so Jesus was sending them. They were now needed to continue his work. He will continue to work in the world but no longer in person, he will work in them and through them. Jesus had been through death and now was going to his Father and from there would come the Holy Spirit to be Jesus, through and in his disciples.
Teresa of Avila wrote:
Christ has no hands but your hands to do his work today. Christ has no feet but your feet to speed men on his way. Christ has no lips but your lips to tell men why he died. Christ has no love but your love to win men to his side.
We today are charged in the same way to be Christ to others and to see Christ in others. Not just to chosen or special others, who are like us, but to all people. To be healers, reconcilers, peacemakers, truth tellers. To model an alternative and better reality which prefigures the Kingdom of God. John saw this as a new creation breathed into the disciples by Jesus. A new creation which is activated as we 'walk the walk' as well as 'talk the talk'. Which brings me back to our would be politicians!
Those who would legislate on our behalf work on the pragmatic principle that changes in the law result in changes in behaviour which, in turn, can bring about a better society. There is of course an element of truth in this. But the Kingdom of God works on the principle of healed and changed hearts, rather than revised laws.
Thomas said he needed to see for himself in order to believe. A modern day Thomas wants to see the effects of the resurrection on the lives of Christians, wants to see a difference that goes deeper than the promises of politicians.
Our would be legislators offer themselves for election because they believe they can make a difference. We who are called to follow Christ are not often elected into positions of power, but we are given the power of the Holy Spirit to work to make a difference wherever God has put us. Before and after May 7th.
5th April 2015 Easter Sunday
The 'secret' we need to share
and other things we can learn from the Easter Egg.
The surprise of the empty egg.
Recently I took an assembly at Otterburn School.
I asked the children about eggs, whether they preferred chocolate or hens eggs etc.
Then I asked one of the children to come up and break an egg into a bowl.
There was a frisson of excitement around the room, followed by gasps of surprise when nothing came out of the egg.
But there was one - there always is - who shouted, ‘I know how that works’ and proceeded to explain how I had arranged for an apparently unbroken egg to be empty.
I expect you know how this was achieved?
I will explain anyway. …...
But for some, it was a surprise.
The surprise of the empty tomb
We have just heard St John’s story of how Mary Magdelene went to the tomb in which she had, two days previously, seen the body of Jesus placed. She saw that the stone sealing the entrance had been removed. Her surprise was surely greater than the surprise of the children at the empty egg. As was that of Peter and John who she ran to tell the news to. They found no body, the tomb was empty apart from some linen wrappings. They had not believed Mary’s story at first, now they did. John tells us that the men returned to their homes. Why, we don’t know. But Mary stayed, and it was because she stayed that she had another, even bigger surprise. For the man she thought was the gardener was none other than Jesus himself. She did not recognise him at first, it was only when he called her name in his old familiar way that it dawned on her.
The empty tomb did not convince Peter and John, it simply left them perplexed and afraid. It was the presence of the risen Jesus that convinced Mary. And later convinced the others as Jesus, over the next forty days, showed himself to more and more of them.
Sharing the secret
If I might return to the story of the egg with nothing in it. The boy who knew the secret was desperate to share it. He knew why it was empty.
Mary, too, must have been desperate to share the news of the risen Jesus. John writes ‘Mary Magdelene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’.
We have an Easter secret to share. Eggs, and bunnies and so on, give us a hint because they are linked with new life. But the Christian Easter story is one of resurrection, not just nature’s new life each spring. And the hope of the resurrection is not just based on a tomb being empty. It’s based on the appearance of the Risen Jesus. We hear the story of the disciples who ran away when Jesus was arrested suddenly going out on to the streets of Jerusalem to proclaim that the man who had been recently crucified was now alive. Why the change if it wasn’t that they had seen him for themselves. Some down the centuries have had similar experiences - especially at moments of extreme trauma or brokenness, pain or loss. Many have not had such an experience, yet choose to trust in the compelling evidence of those who have. The risen Jesus said to the disciple Thomas, who believed when he finally saw him for himself, '‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
Like the breaking of an egg so that new life can emerge, so at the heart of the Christian faith is the shattering of our preconceptions about what is and what is not possible. For until we can do that we cannot fully embrace the fullness of life that the risen Lord makes possible.
Like the boy who knew the secret of the empty egg, and Mary Magdelen and the disciples, should we be eager to share the Easter secret. The ‘secret’ of why the tomb was empty. The ‘secret’ which lies at the heart of the Christian message, and which makes Christianity more than a set of values. Something which gives Christianity something unique and wonderful to offer the world. That the resurrection of Jesus is the pattern for all who simply accept him, despite the odds.
Sunday 22nd March 2015
"Seeing and believing"
In August last year, on our way home from our son’s wedding in Yorkshire, we drove through Redesdale. This was no accident but part of an exploratory look around and to meet up briefly with Susan. At that time what we saw was just the landscape - hills, valleys, water, forests, houses, churches - and a closed Percy Arms and a derelict petrol station. Despite these last two, it was a beautiful landscape.
But that’s all we saw.
We knew none of its history and none of its people.
Now we are getting to know the history and the people with their hopes and fears, joys and sadness, yearnings and disappointments,
and the country is becoming a living landscape.
When we drove through last August we saw but we didn’t see, if you follow my meaning.
A landscape is more than what you see as you drive through.
But it takes time, commitment and involvment to discover and live this deeper reality.
Last Monday evening we attended a meeting in the Redesdale Arms under the auspices of the Redesdale HLF Landscape Partnership Scheme - at least I think that’s what its called - a number of different organisations were involved. From what I gathered the aim is to improve the environment and habitat through various schemes to do with landscape and built and cultural environment. One of the aims of the Heritage Lottery Fund is to involve local people and develop skills and motivation etc, so it is about more that what we will see on the surface of things.
Of obvious interest to me are the four Anglican churches in the valley. Each are visual gems and are an integral part of the landscape. As the eldest, and most venerable, St Cuthberts is of course the jewel in the crown.
But what do people see when they look at these buildings.
Something of aesthetic beauty?
A place with a history?
As much a part of the English landscape as the topography and flora and fauna?
Or is their interest deeper?
Maybe they will stop and get out of the car and go in. Maybe they will get a deeper, if unconscious sense that here is something numinous, something pointing beyond the everyday and the here and now.
As with the landscape so with the churches.
To really understand is to look at, not the just the history, but what informs and shaped (and shapes) that history.
If you like there are three layers of perception.
First is the seeing for oneself - the knowledge, as it were.
Second is finding out about things, for example reading about the Roman roads and outposts, or the effects of the lawlessness of the border Reivers on buildings, or who built the church and when, or what style it is. That is understanding. So, knowledge and then understanding.
But the third is less definable - and that is wisdom.
Wisdom only comes in time, and to those who dig deep and stay with it. Its not obtained at the click of a computer button. Wisdom is seeing from the inside and is not available to one who drives through. Wisdom digs deeper than the superficial.
Now, after a fairly lengthy preamble let me turn to our bible readings, particularly to St John’s account of some Greeks wanting to see Jesus.
And what did they want to see? What he looked like? What clothes he wore? What accent he spoke in? No. Such things are what people seem to value these days. Like all Greeks these men were seekers; they were curious, they were in search of a philosophy, a way to live, what they called the truth. How true is that of today, I wonder.
Did they get to see him? We assume they did.
We don’t actually know. We are not told directly.
What John does give us, though, is a record of Jesus thinking out loud,
perhaps in their presence,
certainly in the presence of his disciples,
about who he was and what it meant to follow him. They, and we are introduced to the fact that he is going to give up his life, so that others may live. We learn that he is naturally terrified about what he has to do, but that, having accepted his task, he receives affirmation from God.
We readers of the Gospel, along with the Greeks, are granted a picture of Jesus which is deeper than his outward appearance.
And we are invited to respond.
For a deep understanding comes only from a personal kind of engagement with Jesus Christ.
We can drive through or we can stay and settle, as it were.
The church buildings are physical ikons of a community, which has, in the past, and today, engaged with Jesus Christ, the visible expression of the invisible God.
A community which has seen, and reached some understanding and wisdom of the purposes of the Creator of all that is.
A community which knows that in some mysterious way, through the untimely death of Jesus,
came a new life which nothing could overcome.
And this community is one which can number Saint Cuthbert amongst its ancestors, whose day we celebrated on Friday; a particularly Northumbrian community which takes its inspiration from a humble man who was at peace with the natural world and who simply wanted to share as much about the Gospel of Jesus Christ as he could.
A Saint who knew the wisdom of God, who brought the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ to this part of the world, a saint whose cross is reflected in the design of the lights in this church which we will shortly dedicate.
We think of this valley and its history, and its ongoing story today, which can only be truly known through being actively involved in its continuing life. And we think of this church and Jesus Christ, who was and is and must be its inspiration, who can only be truly known through being actively involved in his continuing risen life.
A unique light shines on this valley and a unique light that shines on and in its holy places.
At the beginning of his gospel, Saint John calls Jesus the light of the world and he writes:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Nor will it.
Sunday 8th March 2015
A Spring Clean
Loft, attic, garage, shed, cellar.What might these places have in common?Might it be true to say that every time you go there you say to yourself - it’s time I had a clear out here. I’ll do it when I’ve got a bit more time.Sometimes, though, we have to tackle it.When we move house, for example - something Mari and I have recently done.And then there are the times when we have to empty the house of someone we love who has recently died.There’s a good reason why these things don’t happen until circumstances force us to.Not only are they time consuming and messy but they are also emotional minefields. They represent a moving on, a different phase of life and we always struggle with this. Now we turn to our Gospel reading, a clearing-out with cosmic implications.The story of Jesus cleansing the temple is in all the gospels. It was a seminal moment in Jesus’ ministry and did more than anything else to seal his fate. John places this story near the beginning of Jesus ministry, Matthew, Mark and Luke place it at the end, just before he is arrested and tried. If it’s at the beginning it explains why the religious authorities were keeping such an eye on him throughout his ministry. Either way it happens during the Passover period, a time when the Jews were celebrating their liberation from slavery. And it happens in the temple, the centre of worship and music and tradition, of politics and society, of national celebrating and mourning. It was the place where Israel’s God had promised to live in the midst of his people. It was the focal point of the nation and its way of life.Picture the scene. Jesus makes a whip of cords, he drives into traders, the money changers, knocking over tables, freeing the animals destined for sacrifice. Money clatters everywhere, goods are scattered. He creates a monumental mess! It is a disturbing story for its doesn’t fit into the meek and mild version of Jesus that we were taught at Sunday School. What Jesus did was rude, aggressive and disruptive. It was shocking. It struck at the very heart of the religious establishment. Why was he so angry? People were profiting by religion. Ordinary people were enslaved. Traditions had taken the place of God and his kingdom. God had been confined in the temple and access restricted to those of a certain ethnicity and to those who could pay for the pure animals needed for the sacrifice.John uses the story to set the scene for Jesus death. Jesus says that even if they destroy this temple God will raise it up in three days. At the time neither the authorities nor the disciples themselves fully understood that he was talking about himself.But the story must also speak to us.The bible must be more than history, or poetry, or parable of literary interest - it must engage with us today if it is to be the word of God. If we engage in a conversation with this story then we are obliged to respond to the questions it raises within us. What is your reaction to this story? It is a story that seems to imply that sometimes, before anything new can come something drastic has to happen. Personally speaking, and Mari will confirm this, I don’t like upsetting the apple cart. Its something that troubles me when I reflect upon it. But Jesus did. And the early church did. And so did the Christian saints and martyrs down the centuries. But there have been times when the equilibrium of my life has been upset. Things happen, and I have to deal with it. And often it results in a necessary spiritual clear out and things don’t get put back in the same place but get put back in a better place. Looking back I can see Jesus has been at work in what I had made of the temple of my life. But its not an easy experience to go through, even it is a necessary one.So this bible story encourages us to look back over our own lives and the times we have been upset, or ill, or hurt in any way, or have experienced loss of any kind. How did we deal with it? Can we revisit it in the light of what we have considered this morning. And what might it be saying about the life of our churches, or indeed the church of England? Maybe it leaves us a little uneasy. However we feel maybe we should offer that to God through our Lord Jesus Christ who lived and died and rose again.----------------------------------
Sunday 1st March 2015
n my previous parish of Cruden Bay on the Aberdeenshire coast is a hotel called The Kilmarnock Arms. It's claim to fame is that the author Bram Stoker used to stay there for his summer holidays. Bram Stoker is famous for writing the book 'Dracula'. It so happened that Dracula was the set text for a school English course. The teacher encouraged her class to improvise and act one of the scenes. So, with characteristic teenage reluctance Jack barred his teeth and menacingly approached Danny and Claire who each held a cardboard wooden cross. "O dear", said Danny, rather woodenly. "Here is Dracula. " "What shall I do?" cried Claire, with just a little more realism. "Er, show him your cross? replied Danny. So Claire shouted, crossly, "you stupid brainless vampire!"Of course it's only in the English language that your cross can sound the same as you are cross. Today's gospel reading contains both meanings of the word cross. Jesus was cross when Peter rebuked him for saying that he had to suffer and die on the cross. Why? Well, because it was the devil tempting him again; to take the easy way. Jesus was cross not at Peter but at the temptation being thrown in his path. Jesus needed the support of Peter, and the other disciples, in facing the hugely difficult task ahead of him. And he needed them to proclaim the Gospel after his death. So they needed to understand what this gospel is. And what is this Gospel? It wasn't really until after his death and resurrection that his disciples and the early church came to a fuller understanding of what was happening through Jesus. In his life and in his voluntarily giving of himself to death Jesus as both human and divine somehow restored the balance in the universe as the power of sin was defeated by total love. Jesus brought a new kind of creation into the world which is still working out. His followers were and are to become good yeast in the world, like him, and taking their 'yeastiness' from him. And like yeast it works by mixing with the world, giving ourselves, not creating a holy huddle that separates itself from everybody else. That's what Jesus means when he says we are to take up our cross and follow him. To put him and God's Kingdom at the centre rather than our own egos or even traditions. And being a champion of God's Kingdom can actually mean being cross or angry (which is a stronger word) with what humans are doing to one another and to God's world. Jesus himself was angry on several occasions with the evil men do. And he was angry with hypocrisy, especially religious hypocrisy. When we take up our cross we do get cross .... About injustice, war, exploitation, poverty and the many other things which have and will one day have no place in Gods Kingdom. We need to find ways of changing such righteous anger into action rather than apathy. We can certainly and indeed primarily pray, as Jesus did, using his words 'thy kingdom come'. Every day. So we need to watch the news and read the papers and translate our feelings into prayer. And translate our feelings, whenever its within our power into appropriate action and behaviour. That is taking up our cross, giving ourselves to Gods cause. In small ways, and big, we can turn our righteous anger into action. Believing in Jesus and what he came to do, we can work towards a better world in preparation for God's new creation. It began with Jesus, it continues with us.
Two sides of the same coin
22nd February 2015
have here a print of the painting entitled ‘Christ in the Desert’ by Russian artist, Ivan Kramskoy.
In it Jesus sits alone, hands clasped tightly together, eyes looking at the stony ground in front of him, unfocused and troubled. His feet are bare, his hair matted and uncared for, his shoulders slumped. Somehow the painting manages to suggest that he’s been sitting like that for a long time.It refers to Christ's time of temptation in the wilderness, which Mark briefly describes in today’s gospel reading. But it can also be read as embodying the condition people find themselves in from time to time. But what a contrast this painting offers to the word picture Mark gives us of the baptism of Christ upon whom the Spirit of God descends like a dove; to whom God says ‘you are my Son, the Beloved, Christ, the man in whom God delights and whose calling and ministry is affirmed and blessed.Yet these two experiences in the life of Jesus, his baptism and affirmation ,followed by the wilderness and struggle, are inextricably linked. They are two sides of the same coin, and its only after he has lived through both these experiences that Jesus is ready to begin the work and ministry to which he is called - to proclaim the Good News that ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near’.Mark’s account of the temptations of Jesus is very brief. Matthew and Luke give much more detail. But perhaps this gives us space to spend a moment or two reflecting more deeply on our own experiences of struggle and testing, in the highs and lows of our lives.We may recognise in our own life experiences some stark contrast between times of joy and times of sorrow; times of hope and times of fear; times of health and times of pain and sadness. Sometimes we live through times of when contrasting events and emotions are running side by side and it feels like we are on an emotional roller coaster.The season of Lent offers an opportunity for us to reflect upon our own spiritual journey and how life events are affecting our faith and our relationship with God. We, too, may know contrasts: the ‘mountain top experiences’ when we feel close to God, warmed by his love, and excited about where he is leading us, and then the wilderness experiences when we feel alone, abandoned and afraid because God doesn’t seem to be there and our prayers seem to go unheard.We may feel surrounded by wild beasts of uncertainty, redundancy, serious illness or bereavement and we may be tempted to give up in despair or to give up on God as he seems to have given up on us.Today’s Gospel offers us the knowledge that Jesus, even after being affirmed as God’s Son, had to face a tough personal struggle. It is in the struggles of life that we come to rely on God more than when things are going well. The struggles in life helps to see the good things with a fresh perspective. In his book ‘Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow says, there are some things in life that are 'the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything. ‘Jesus remained faithful to God and he remains faithful to us in our struggle, he is alongside us. Sometimes knowing someone is alongside us in the hard times is like receiving the ministry of an angel. It may be the help of a good friend, it may even be a deep sense of the presence of Jesus. And sometimes we ourselves can be that angel to someone else in distress, helping them through their wilderness experience.
For that is what I came out to do’ (v.38)
14th January 2015
Mark 1 29-39
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus is making a name for himself through his healing and his exorcisms. We are still in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. What a breathless narrative it is. Mark has already told of Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness. He has begun his preaching with the words ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’.He has called his first disciples, Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John and as they follow him they witness remarkable healing and exorcisms. They begin to see that here is someone very special indeed - no ordinary rabbi.They begin to wonder. Has the time indeed come? Is the power and presence of God in Jesus? Is HE the long awaited Messiah? Mark, writing with the benefit of hindsight, and the Holy Spirit, wants us to be sure that in the person of Jesus the kingdom is at hand, for wherever he goes, Jesus can’t seem to help healing people who come in great need. It is a sign, right from the beginning what the fulness of God’s kingdom will be like. Jesus has just caused great astonishment in the synagogue at Capernaum after cleansing a man of an unclean spirit and now he goes to stay at Simon Peter’s house - for it is the Sabbath. While there he heals Simon Peter’s mother in law who was in bed with a fever.Word gets out and at the end of the day at sunset (remember it was the sabbath and the day ended at sunset) people came in their droves to see this wonder worker and seek healing. Jesus heals all who come but does not want word getting around, because he does not want people just coming to see a wonder worker, he wants them to listen to and act upon his MESSAGE, to see him for who he really is. The following morning Jesus goes out to a deserted place to pray alone. His disciples are concerned, perhaps a bit angry. Why will you not stay? There are so many more who need healing. But Jesus will not go back. 'I must move on', he says. 'I have to proclaim the message in other places too'.He cannot stay in the one place, no matter how great the need because he has further healing and further teachings to give but it will all end on the cross because that is the ultimate healing. He has to tackle the cause of the disease of humankind which is sin. This is something we cannot do by ourselves. He has to draw out the poisonous sting of sin and pain and death by taking it all upon himself and when he is lifted up on the cross for us to see we will be totally healed and eternally cured. Jesus message is not just proclaimed in healing and teachings but in what he did on the cross. It is when we look upon the cross that we see. And in some mysterious way all is changed and there is resurrection.Many have prayed to Jesus for healing. Many have been anointed and had hands laid on them. Some have found physical healing. Many have not. Many perhaps feel like those left behind at Capernaum when Jesus moved on. Ours is not to reason why but to know that Jesus had a greater task ahead. Ours is to know that we even if we have not received physical or mental healing Jesus has not forgotten us. He has brought us a greater gift - the gift of eternal life and the beginning of the renewal of creation. Thanks be to God.John 12.20-33