Monday, 20 August 2018

Stories of King Solomon

We thought about wisdom and what it looks like in our All Age Worship yesterday. No sermon to share, as I improvise at All Age Worship, but here are the two stories I told, from the Jewish oral tradition, about King Solomon, the king most associated with wisdom in the Bible.

King Solomon and the Goldsmith

One morning a goldsmith came to the court of King Solomon, very distraught and asking for help. The king was sitting in judgement in his throne room, with his adviser, Beniah, standing by him, when the man came before him. “Great King Solomon, please help me!” Last night a burglar broke through the door of my workshop and stole all my gold. I don’t know what to do, as my family and I will now be destitute!”

“Do you have any idea who might have done this?” asked Solomon.
“No – we were all asleep at home next door.”
“Did your neighbours see or hear anything?”
“No – they were all asleep too”
“Hmm…” said Solomon, as he thought. “It seems, then as if there is no one we can ask about this, no way of finding out what happened…and yet… there was one witness we might talk to”
“Who is that?” said the goldsmith.
“The door itself, of course,” said Solomon, “the door which let the thief through!”
“The door! But you can’t talk to a door”, said the king’s advisor.
“Of course I can. I am Solomon. God has given me the ability to hear the voices of all his creatures. The door is made of wood, from a tree, so of course I can talk to it. I shall be there in one hour from now”

The king summoned his heralds, and ordered them to go out to the area where the goldsmith lived and announce to all around that in one hour they would see the miracle of the king holding conversation with a door.

When he was ready, Solomon set off in a great procession, walking through the streets of Jerusalem until he came to the goldsmith’s workshop.
A great crowd had gathered, as you might expect, to see this wonder. Every man, woman and child in the area was there.

Solomon went up to the door of the goldsmith’s workshop and in a loud voice addressed it.
“Door! I am the great King Solomon. I am distressed to hear that you have failed in the one task you were given, to guard the goldsmith’s gold from thieves. What have you to say?”
Solomon put his ear to the door and nodded sagely.
“The door says it is sorry, and wants to make amends”.
“I am glad to hear, it, door. It is good to make amends. You can do so by helping us to catch the person who has done this terrible deed. Can you tell me his name? Do you know who he is?”
The king listened to the door again, and then said that the door had said it didn’t know his name.
“Can you describe him at all? No? It was too dark to see him clearly? What a shame.”
“Is there anything at all you can tell us that might help us to catch him?”
The king listened then announced to the crowd, “the door says that there is one thing he knows. Last night a spider spun a web across the door at about the head height of a man. So the man who broke in would have had to walk through it, and will certainly have a cobweb on his hat…”

The king turned to face the crowd, and stretched out his royal arm and pointed into it. “Guards ! Arrest that man! Yes, the one in the red cap, the one who has just put his hand up to take it off!”
And the guards rushed into the crowd and seized the man and brought him before the king. The man fell on his knees and begged for mercy, saying that he was sorry for what he had done and would pay all that he had stolen back twice over. The king ordered him to be taken off to jail where he could ponder his crime while he decided what was to be done with him.

The king and his entourage returned to the palace, where his adviser, Beniah, congratulated him on the clever way he had discovered the thief. “Yes, I am glad it came out so well,” said Solomon, “though I am always sorry when I have to lie!” “But such a clever lie, your majesty, to convince everyone that you were talking to a door, and that the door was talking back to you!”
“Oh, no, that was not the lie!”
“What! You mean you really were talking to the door, and it was really talking to you?”
“Oh yes, of course! God did, after all, give me the power to understand the voices of all his creatures! No, the lie was that, actually the door told me right at the beginning who the thief was, and where he was in the crowd, but I realised that I would need the man to confess if we were ever to bring him to justice.”
“But why, your majesty?”
“Well, besides the fact that it is always better for someone to own up to their own sin, our Law insists that it takes two witnesses to convict someone of a crime. And we only had the testimony of one door!”

King Solomon’s Ring

Beniah, the king’s adviser, knew full well how much power he had, so close to throne, and Solomon had noticed that he was a little inclined to throw it around, so he thought of a way in which he could bring him down to size a bit, so he decided to set him a challenge.

“I want you to find me a ring which will make a happy man sad and a sad man happy. You have one month, and if you do not succeed you will lose your place at court.”
Benaiah was alarmed, but not too alarmed. After all, how difficult could it be? Money was no object, and he had a whole month. He went through Jerusalem, visiting every shop, every workshop, and talked those who made and sold rings. Did they know of any such ring? They all scratched their heads and said that they did not.

So Benaiah went down to the harbour and spoke to the captains of all the ships there and the merchants unloading their goods. Did they know of any such ring? But they did not.

Benaiah sent out messages around the kingdom and beyond, but no one could think of anything which fitted the bill. The days passed and the weeks passed, and soon the month was nearly up, and Benaiah was no nearer finding a ring which would do what Solomon had asked than he had been at the start. 

By the night before the deadline, Benaiah was in despair. What could he do? He would lose his job, and his family would be destitute. Benaiah found himself wandering distractedly through the bazaar, past stalls selling spices and fabric and He came at last to a little stall – not even a stall really, just a pitiful array of  bricabrac, cheap trinkets and household goods spread on a cloth on the pavement, with a small boy watching over them. “Can I sell you something, sir?” said the boy. “Alas I don’t think you have what I am looking for,” said Benaiah. “What is that, sir?” “A ring which can make a happy man sad and a sad man happy. My master has said I must find it for him.”. “ I have never heard of any such thing,” said the boy, “but I will ask my grandfather, who makes these things, and see what he thinks. He lives in this little shack here, behind our stall – this is his workshop.“

The boy dived back through the curtain into the shack. A few moments later he came back. My grandfather has prayed to God and he says he knows exactly what you need, and will bring it to you in a few minutes if you care to wait.

Benaiah waited, and sure enough, a few minutes later a frail old man emerged bearing in his hands a package, all wrapped up in a scrap of fabric. “Take this ring to your master and give it to him, but don’t look at it first – you will just have to trust me that it is what you look for.”

So Benaiah, having no other option took the package, and the next morning gave it to Solomon, explaining where it had come from and how he had found it. It looked so poor in its tattered fabric wrapping, and when Solomon unwrapped it, Benaiah didn’t feel any better about it at all. It was just a plain ring, made of some cheap, base metal. But Solomon looked at it closely, and as he did so, he started to weep – great big tears. Benaiah was worried. What on earth had Solomon seen in this ring to make him so sad? And what would happen to Benaiah as a result?

Solomon wordlessly handed the ring to Benaiah, and Benaiah, full of sorrow and worry, peered intently at it. And then Benaiah began to smile. 

There scratched into its surface were the words, “This too shall pass”. 

And Solomon said to him, “Well done Benaiah, you have done what I thought was impossible. I, a happy man with wealth and power beyond imagining have remembered that it is only mine for a season, that one day I will die and it will all pass from me, that old age and death will rob me of all I have. You have made a happy man sad. But I see from your smile that you have also made a sad man – yourself – happy, because your troubles have evaporated since you have succeeded in this challenge. The man from whom you bought this ring is wiser than both of us, and God is wiser than us all. Earthly joys and sorrows all pass, but the joy we find in God is eternal. I shall wear this ring always”. And he did.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Trinity 12 - Bread for Life

For audio version click -

John 6.35, 41-51, Ephesians 4.25-5.2, 1 Kings 19.4-8

Bread for Life
Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus was probably written during his time under house arrest in Rome between approximately 60—62 AD.  Whilst he wasn’t free to move it seems he was allowed to work, receive visitors and send out letters.
I don’t know the answer to this question but if we were to receive a letter to the church in Seal, aimed at correcting and guiding us, what do you think would be the subject matter? There’s no doubt that a lot of great things happen as a result of us coming together as a church, but we also know that there’s always new things to work on or things we could do better, maybe even things we should stop doing.
As a means of communication letters still have a place today. Apart from novelty value which separates them from emails and texts there’s a sense that greater warmth and consideration goes into them and that the nature of sending a piece of paper doesn’t expect an immediate response. After all we often don’t know the time of delivery and can’t request a read receipt. The pace of a letter often feels right to convey important things.
To receive a letter from someone when forcibly separated, who is caring for their wellbeing when imprisoned must have been humbling for the church members in Ephesus, and yet reassuring.
If we received letters telling us that Seal church gets a bit cold in the winter we’d probably think ‘and what are we supposed to do about it’ so it makes sense that Paul writes about matters he knows the people can change for the better.
Parts of Paul’s letters will have been general in their teaching but part will also have been specific, based upon information received from his sources. We would imagine that there must have been some specific problem for Paul to write ‘thieves must give up stealing’ as surely people already knew this to be wrong. The point is that God given energy and skill is being misused and destroying trust in the community, an obvious better use of energy would be to do an honest day’s work and then share something earnt with those in greater need.
Having preached here regularly for almost 17 years now I often sense that I’m saying the same basic message over and again with little new to add, and this is almost certainly true as we see the love of God in Christ manifest itself in so many ways. Yet, hopefully much that we already know causes us to reflect in different contexts and things we know to be true and good become more easily recognisable in others.
The mutual support, sharing of insights and doubts enables us to learn and move forward but there’s also a time and place simply to say what we already know because it is good to hear it articulated and sometimes just to act in a way we know to be right. Some obvious things insult our intelligence such as a road sign in America which said ‘Caution road may be wet when it rains’ but being told that we are loved by God and that he wants us to love one another does need reinforcement as we don’t seem like we are always responding to this. There’s a sense of some of this in Paul’s letters. Sometimes something needs wholesale correction but often it’s about nudging people back onto the right course, reminding them how they should respond, minimising the words and actions that end up wasting time which could have been spent on far better things.
In a general sense Paul seems to be reminding the church body that they each belong to the other in that they share a common purpose and belief and that this should be reflected in their relationships and behaviour toward each other. One constant of a Christian life is to try and keep heading in the right direction. I’m reminded of this each time Anne asks godparents of those being baptised are you heading in the right direction, basically are you looking for good and light? None of us can ever live up to the standards we would like but as mature Christians it is for us to think about and on occasion even lead as to what that direction is rather than follow others unquestioningly. It’s for us to think whether we are making easy, lazy or even selfish choices at times.
Paul’s shows us that sound advice based upon an understanding of God doesn’t have to be complicated. As someone once said ‘last night I ate at an authentic family restaurant, every table had an argument going on.’ Paul knows that despite our best efforts we will argue and get fed up with each other at times, his advice is not to let these things fester, not to let the sun go down, without reflecting and seeking to resolve these things. Otherwise this makes room for disputes to escalate and plans for vengeance to be formed when God wants to see forgiveness and reconciliation.
When we start to join all these things together they offer potential for every one of us to give a glimpse of God’s grace to others.
Our 1st Kings reading for today will mean most to anyone who has ever felt that they have done all they can, that they are worn down, have reached the point of despair and are unsure whether they can carry on. Elijah is at an all-time low as he sits under a tree and asks God to let him die. He has defeated the false prophets of Baal but has been running for his life after the evil queen Jezebel ordered him to be killed.
God sends an angel to feed him bread baked on a stone and a jar of water, making himself real in Elijah’s time of deepest need. I’ve known it myself and others have told me of their sense that sometimes when we are at our saddest, our lowest there can be a sense that God is suffering with us, the food metaphor seems relevant again as he comes alongside and says ‘take, eat,’ it doesn’t necessarily make everything well again but it may be just enough sustenance at that time to continue on life’s journey when we felt like giving up.
The theme of food and feeding continues in John’s gospel where immediately before today’s reading we would find the account of Jesus feeding 5000 people. So straight after this he is now contrasting literal bread with spiritual nourishment for eternity, pointing out that the same God that provided manna in the wilderness for the Jews ancestors has made himself flesh in Jesus Christ.
Unsurprisingly this doesn’t go down well with the Judeans complaining like their ancestors did in the wilderness, refusing to accept what Jesus says because he is a known quantity to them, nothing like a great Messiah that fits their agenda, just a humble man whose family they know.
It’s the first of Jesus ‘I am ‘sayings “I am the bread of life.” Jesus makes it clear that he is offering eternal life with God as he contrasts bread that sustains us daily though eventually we still die, with bread which if we accept it, we will not die saying that ‘the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’  
When I was young I spent a couple of summers as a labourer and tea maker at the Buckingham Palace Garden Parties. I’d unload thousands of cakes from the lorries and make tea in huge vats which was then decanted into little silver tea pots for the guests on the other side. Sometime later I was invited as a guest and whilst I gratefully accepted I also knew that around 30,000 people attended each year. When I bumped into someone I knew, whilst he didn’t quite say it, I could tell that he wondered how someone like me had managed to secure an invitation, as if it devalued his own. The fact is that a wide spectrum of people attend such events so if anyone has a sense of privilege at being invited they are in for a disappointment.
It’s something we need to consider when we accept the bread of life. The invitation has been thrown out to all and we know full well that Jesus wasn’t too choosy who he ate with, dining with rich , poor, sinners and outcasts. There is no first class lounge or executive dining area. No doubt Paul has some of this in mind in his advice to the Ephesians, aimed at equipping church members to live in community with people they might not otherwise choose, something they had better get used to if they are serious about following Jesus.
Here’s one last thought about something we do often. We understand that Jesus offers us a life with him for eternity which we are already living, here, today, now, even though we may have to remind ourselves sometimes. One such opportunity to do this is as we share communion. It draws together our historical understanding of Jesus with all he has done for us and at the same time, fuses it together with the living presence of Christ crucified, the risen Christ. Christ from the past, Christ for today and Christ for the future, brought together in living bread.

Kevin Bright

12th August 2018

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Trinity 10: Growing up

We were delighted to baptise Emily and Evie during our Sunday morning service this week. Congratulations to them both! This is the sermon I preached at their baptism.

 Audio version here

Ephesians 4.1-16, John 6.24-35

“We must grow up”, says St Paul in the Bible reading we heard. He’s writing to a little group of Christians in the very earliest days of the Church, just a couple of decades after Jesus’ death. They weren’t meeting in a fine building like this, but probably in someone’s house and much of their new found faith felt new and strange. The Gospels hadn’t been written yet, so they only knew whatever stories about Jesus were circulating orally. Most of the time they had to puzzle out what it meant to be a Christian as they went along. And because they all came from different faith backgrounds and cultures – some were originally Jewish, others had grown up worshipping pagan gods and goddesses -  they didn’t all think the same way about it. It must have been very confusing to be pitched into a new situation like this. It must have felt like baby steps all the time.

Anyone who’s ever had to do something new – a new job, new house, new responsibilities, new hobbies, new relationships – will know what that feels like. Being in church can feel fairly strange if you’re new to it. If that’s you today, please relax, no one expects you to know what’s going on. Most of us regulars don’t either…! New things always feel strange. Becoming parents for the first time is one of the strangest and most terrifying of the new things we can do, as I’m sure Emily and Evie’s parents could tell us. Children don’t come with a manual or a help menu you can click on. Why are they crying? What do they want? It’s all guess work for a while. And if the early days of parenthood is sometimes strange, then just imagine what it’s like for the child, born into a world where everything is totally unfamiliar. They’ve never seen grass, trees, sky, never felt the wind blowing. As they grow they constantly experience new things – new sights and sounds, new textures – sand between their toes, waves crashing on a beach – and new people too. One of the joys of being around children is watching those first encounters - you get to see the world as if it was new again – but for the child it can be scary. How do they know what is safe and what is dangerous? No wonder children sometimes baulk at new experiences or won’t try new food.

But St Paul tells his readers that they should “no longer be children”.  They need to develop the wisdom of adulthood to cope with a world in which there are many dangers, many challenges. In particular he wants them to have a grown up faith, one which they own, one which makes sense to them, one which connects with their real lives, not one where they unquestioningly accept things others have told them. They especially need that adult faith in their situation, because it was dangerous to be a Christian at this time. The Romans had crucified Jesus, and they were killing and persecuting his followers too. But we don’t grow up simply by wanting to. Growing is a process. It takes time and work. There’s no way of leapfrogging over the effort of learning new things, the fear that goes with trying new things out and of getting them wrong sometimes too. It’s an exciting process, but there’s no magic about it. That’s why it’s important that we realise that what we are doing for Emily and Evie is just a first step. Baptism – Christening – isn’t the end of the journey. It’s just the beginning.

And to sustain Emily and Evie and all of us who want a grown up faith, our Bible readings today tell us we will need two things. The first is company. St Paul knew that those Ephesian Christians needed each other. They needed to be like a body, knitted together by its ligaments and tendons and muscles.. Each one had gifts to give to the others. Emily and Evie have gifts to give to us, but all  those here have gifts to give to them too, the gift of love, of prayer and wisdom and experience, the gifts we have gained by learning from our mistakes, in the hope that might mean they won’t have to make them too. Here at Seal church there is a whole community of people who care about your children, and about you, their parents. We want to help them, and you. We want to get to know you and support you. Feel free to drop in on us at any time, to join in with anything, to ask for support, to make suggestions, to be part of our family. We need each other – all of us – if we’re to learn and to grow into the people God wants us to be. Christian faith isn’t a faith for rugged individualists, who think they can and should go it alone; it’s for those who are willing to discover the joy of belonging to others and sharing life’s ups and downs with them.

So, we need each other, says St Paul. That’s the first thing.

The second thing we need if we are going to grow up in faith comes in our second reading, from John’s Gospel, which I’ve just read.  It is food. Emily and Evie won’t get far in life if you don’t feed them and you wouldn’t dream of letting them go hungry physically. But as the people in the story find out, physical food isn’t all we need. This passage comes just after a very famous miracle, the feeding of the 5000. Jesus has fed a huge crowd with five barley loaves and two small fish, the packed lunch of a small boy in the crowd who decides to share it with others. Such a small amount ought to go nowhere in feeding such a large number, but according to the story, they are all full up by the end, and there are twelve baskets of leftovers.  Make what you will of that, but the crowd were pretty impressed by it. There was such a thing as a free lunch, it seemed. And if there had been one free lunch, perhaps there would be another one. So when Jesus moves on the crowd trail after him. But Jesus tells them that it’s not just the bread that fills their bellies they need. More important than that is the bread that will nurture their souls, bread from heaven.

And what is this bread from heaven?  It’s the bread that he brings through his life and his teaching, through his death and his resurrection, through the things he says and does, and the way he lives. This is what will truly nourish them. For Christians this whole idea is summed up in the bread we share at Communion , as we will do later in this service. It’s a weekly reminder that we need to feed on Christ. We need bread from heaven too. Those who first followed Jesus were nourished by Jesus’ example. As they followed him and shared his life, they learned to love their enemies, trust God, see themselves more clearly, to serve others rather than grasping for power, just as he had done.  As they saw him crucified and raised from death, they learned that God was with them even when everything seems to be going wrong and falling to pieces, that there could always be new life and a new beginning, however unlikely it seemed, that hatred and suspicion don’t have the final word, the last laugh. These things were like rich food which kept them strong, satisfying hungers far deeper than the hunger of a tummy rumbling for bread and fish. And those who follow Christ today still find that. When we are hungry for meaning and purpose, hungry for resilience to get through tough times, hungry for strength to keep on loving when it is hard to do so, we can turn to Christ and to one another and find the food we need.

Today as we baptise Emily and Evie, we pray that they’ll grow up to be the people God is calling them to be. We pledge our support for them. We offer them our company on the journey, and we pray too that they will be nourished with the food that they truly need – Christ himself – so that they will never go hungry.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Trinity 6: Take Nothing

“Take nothing” says Jesus to his disciples. All they are to have as they go out with his message is the clothes they stand up in and a stout stick to lean on.

It’s a timely message, because this is the time of year when many people, including me, are thinking of packing for holidays or days out. Travelling light sounds like a great idea in theory, but when we actually come to the point, most of us find it very hard in practice.  Books have always been my downfall. God bless the person who invented the Kindle, which has reduced my packing considerably, but I’ll confess that I still pack one “real” book, just in case the batteries fail, and if we’re going by car it will often be my one volume “Complete Works” of Jane Austen! The book addiction is in the genes, I’m afraid. When my brother went on a teenage exchange visit to France his school rang my mother, concerned about his luggage. There were six books in it, they said, taking up most of the space in his suitcase. Mum was baffled at their concern. Six books seemed quite a modest amount to her for a week or two, as it does to me…

Maybe for you it is something else ; clothes or shoes or gadgets perhaps, or, if you have small children the piles of stuff they seem to need, but most of us struggle to whittle down the load to fit the baggage allowance, never mind “taking nothing.”

To make it worse, of course, Jesus isn’t talking about holiday packing here. He’s sending his disciples out on a far more serious and challenging mission, to preach and to heal in his name ; it’s not going to be a holiday!  Jesus has already encountered opposition, and his disciples are likely to encounter it too. But it’s probably going to be just as hard to cope with those who are for him as those against him.  

He’s been healing people.  Miracles have been happening. He’s been besieged by desperate crowds. What if they come to his disciples with the same high expectations?  If I were one of the disciples, I’d be worrying that they would feel they were getting the monkey rather than the organ grinder. What if I couldn’t come up with the goods?

These disciples have no experience, no training. They must feel they need all the help they can get; at the very least a manual and some emergency supplies. But Jesus tells them that even what they have, even the small comforts, the props , the money, the bread, the spare clothes, all have to be left behind.  If it all goes pear-shaped, they won’t even be able to buy a pint to drown their sorrows, or hire a donkey to make a quick getaway... The  things we pack “just in case” are usually there because we are afraid – of boredom, of the humiliation of not having the right clothes, of being stuck somewhere, helpless and alone, of not being able to look after our children and loved ones, of people judging us because of it… The disciples were surely no different.

And maybe that gives us a clue about why Jesus might have thought it was so important for them to leave all that stuff behind – the money and the bread and the spare tunic. It may seem cruel, but if they don’t have the stuff they normally rely on, they will have to rely on God, and open themselves up to the people they encounter too. They’ll have to look beyond themselves for help, and that’s a lesson Jesus knows they need to learn.

“Take nothing”, says Jesus.

I don’t know whether you’ve ever thought about nothing, so to speak, but nothing is an interesting concept, if you get my meaning. It’s also often been a tricky one for people to get their heads around, though. The Greeks and the Romans, didn’t really like the idea of nothing. They struggled with it philosophically. They didn’t have a symbol for it in their mathematical systems and neither did anyone in Western Europe until the Middle Ages. How could nothing be something, said the Greek philosophers? How could you add and subtract and multiply and divide with it if it was nothing? And if you couldn’t why try to write it down?  The symbol for zero actually came to us from India, where, for complicated religious and philosophical reasons, they didn’t seem to worry so much about this, . It came via the Islamic world in the early Middle Ages along with the rest of the Arabic numerals we now take for granted. Zero was only adopted reluctantly though. Medieval Christians were very suspicious of it. After all, God had created the world out of nothing so anything that was still nothing was surely against God’s will. There was a great deal of scepticism about the possibility that there could ever be a complete vacuum, a place where there was nothing – fortunately they got over that, or we wouldn’t have hoovers and thermos flasks. But modern science still has big questions about nothing – apart from anything else for something truly to be nothing it would also have to be nowhere and at no time… 

Anyway, let’s stop before our heads explode thinking about it. Suffice it to say, that Western cultures, those that were shaped by the intellectual world of Greece and Rome, have always tended to prefer presence over absence, activism over passivity, speech over silence, something over nothing. Maybe it is because Greece and Rome were go-getting civilisations, empire builder, with big ideas for themselves, and Christian Europe inherited that. Power was important. Ambition was lauded. Might was right. You couldn’t conquer the world with nothing.

And yet, that is exactly what Jesus is telling his disciples to do here, to take nothing, to go out without the protection of “stuff”, whether that’s the tangible things like  money and spare clothes or the intangible things like experience, skill, knowledge, reputation, status. Leave it all behind, he says. Take nothing. That might seem negative, even cruel, but we can also look at it positively.  What if Jesus is saying, “Instead of carrying stuff, carry space, space to encounter something you haven’t yet thought of, space that lets God get a word in edgeways, space which enables the gifts of others to grow?”  What if Jesus is saying, “as long as you rely on what you have, you can’t be open to the things you don’t have- yet - which may be the very things you most need?”  As long as we think we have it all covered, that we’re prepared for everything, that we can do it all under our own steam, we can’t discover the riches of God’s grace. Empty hands are open hands, hands ready to receive.  

I don’t think it’s an accident that this strange instruction to  “take nothing” comes straight after the story of Jesus attempting to minister in his own home town. It wasn’t a happy experience. Jesus had been teaching and healing to great acclaim elsewhere, but when he comes back home to Nazareth, he is met with disbelief and ridicule. “We’ve known you since you were in short trousers” they cry. To them he’s not the Messiah, just a very naughty boy, to borrow a catchphrase. What’s worse, buried in their response is a darker suspicion about his family. “Is not this the son of Mary…?” they ask. Normally people would have called a man the son of his father, but  Mark never mentions Joseph. There are no birth stories in this, the earliest Gospel. And, whatever people thought later about virgin birth, this reference to Jesus being the son of Mary suggests that in his lifetime, people may have thought he was illegitimate, that he had no known father. Whether that is true or not, it’s clear that though he’s been welcomed and honoured and listened to by crowds in other towns, in his own home town his wisdom and power are dismissed. . The upshot is that, though in other towns he’s been welcomed and honoured and listened to by crowds of people, here he can do very little.  People know what he’s done and said elsewhere, but it  counts for nothing. Even though he does heal people in Nazareth, he is treated as nothing, of no account, a man with no father and no particular standing, maybe not even quite respectable, and who is getting ideas above his station.

In a way, this is the story of his earthly life. He will eventually end up nailed to a cross, alone and humiliated, treated like rubbish to be discarded outside the city walls, someone his executioners think will be wiped from history.  At that point he will truly be able to take nothing, because even what he has will have been been taken from him. He’ll have no power, no followers, no freedom and eventually no life. But God will take his “nothing” and bring out of it the glorious “something” of the resurrection. Where there was no life there will be life everlasting. Where there was no dignity there will be the glory of the kingdom of heaven. Where there were no companions there will be, eventually, a vast army of people embracing his message, trying to live it and to take it out into the world.

“Take nothing”. I wonder what the somethings and nothings in our lives are today?  We may have material riches, achievements we are proud of, abilities we rejoice in, the respect of others, an answer for everything - and there’s nothing wrong with any of that in itself. But if that’s what we rely on for our sense of self-worth, if that’s what we rely on to fulfil our calling, firstly we’ll be on shaky ground, because all that stuff can vanish in an instant, but more importantly, we’ll miss out on the strength and affirmation God wants to give us.  God calls us to learn to be at home with nothing too, to trust him when all we seem to have is weakness and failure, disability, doubt,  need, hunger, when we don’t know what we’re doing, or how to do it. Only then, can he have room to move in us, space that he can fill. Only then can he surprise us with his grace and lead us on a path we haven’t known, into a kingdom that is beyond our imagination.

“Take nothing”, says Jesus, because our “nothings” are often the gateway to God’s blessing, a beautiful gift which those who are cluttered with “somethings” can never receive.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Crossing Over

Audio version here

Mark 4.35-41, 2 Corinthians 6.1-13, Psalm 107.1-3,23-32
You probably know that the Sea of Galilee is Israel’s largest freshwater lake, about 13 miles long and 8 miles wide. So when Jesus said ‘let us go across to the other side’ it’s not like nipping across a lake at Chipstead in a sailing dinghy.

Talking of which I used to race sailing dinghies and my lasting memory is being pleased when the wind picked up as this meant that you could really get moving, but having done so on one occasion I was leaning with an arched back to counter balance the craft when the toe straps snapped and an involuntary backward somersault launched me into the ocean giving me an unnerving view of passing rudders overhead. Luckily I managed to avoid them as I surfaced.

Clearly any open water poses dangers. Weather often changes quickly so if the disciples who fished for a living thought that they were in mortal danger it must have been a pretty serious storm.

Initially it seems odd that Jesus would sleep through this but some people seem to be able to relax in conditions intolerable to others. I can recall a time on a small open passenger boat when the sea was so rough ninety per cent of people were being sick and my son Luke just got his sandwiches out and eat lunch like we were on a mill pond.
We could consider that the disciples may have been happy for Jesus to sleep, to not engage with him when all was calm and well, all blue skies and sunshine, in the same way that many of us may do. Of course the power of God in Jesus doesn’t change whether things are calm or stormy and the symbolism of Christ being unchanged when the storm comes should actually offer us reassurance.

But of course when crisis strikes Jesus’ sleeping appears crazy to the disciples, doesn’t he care what is about to happen to them all? But his apparent indifference is due to his knowledge of God’s power. Contrast this with the time shortly before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, when despite his request to do so, the disciples can’t stay awake in Gethsemane, their sleep doesn’t come from peace of mind but physical weakness. ‘Could you not keep awake one hour?’ he asked them.

It’s understandable that the disciples should be anxious if they thought that they were about to perish on the lake but when Jesus scolds them we have to ask ourselves whether it was for their natural fear of the conditions or because they fear God’s power manifested in him. ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

They have answered Jesus’ call to follow him, seen him perform miracles and healing, and heard his teaching so when Jesus asks the disciples ‘why are you afraid’ is he saying why are you afraid of me? Why do you not trust me and the love I have for you?

Despite the assurances that we have of God’s love for us in Jesus I suspect that most of us can relate to the disciples reactions. As their fear became a point to be challenged by Jesus so we should think what we fear and why. It’s a God given emotion which will protect us at times, we would be right to fear putting our hand in a fire for example. But we can also examine our less rational fears and hold them in prayer before God and explore them with him.

In fact we would do well to take all our emotional extremes good or bad and consider them in the light of our faith, they are important to us and God and an essential element of our relationship with him. They are what make us who we are and above all because we can’t falsify them or control them they are an honest representation of what is real in our hearts.

Paul tells the Corinthians ‘open wide your hearts’. It’s a message we would do well to embrace to offer our thanks, hopes and fears but also be open to God to hear his message of love, to know him more deeply and grow in faith.

All our texts today give us good reason to trust God in the midst of life’s difficulties.  Yet this is still not always an easy thing to do because life sometimes feels unjust, draining or we feel overcome by grief and anger to the point that we don’t leave ourselves time, space and energy to consider how God is still involved.

It’s likely that Psalm 107 which we said today comes from the period when Israel had returned home following her long exile in Babylon. The Psalmist invites the worshippers to give thanks to God for bringing them together again after having been dispersed in all directions.

The Psalmist goes on to describe the challenges that people had overcome in order to return home. We heard that ‘some went down to the sea in ships and plied their trade in deep waters’, likely to be merchants. We heard how they faced winds and storms until they ‘were at their wits end’.  When they cried to the Lord he stilled the storm and brought them safely to the harbour.  Ah, so it’s not such a new thing then, a generous God answering prayer when we realise we are not in control. It seems that he’s been doing it rather a long time and I strongly suspect that if we were to ask each other of our own experiences we would find that he is still doing it today.

The notion of ‘going across to the other side’, setting out on a journey with God is still very much relevant to us .

Every one of us will have things in our life we need to change but it’s so much easier to put them off or ignore them rather than to accept Jesus invitation to journey with him. We may ‘stay on the shore’ and do nothing because we fear the transition, the journey and the gospel reading today assures us that it will not always be smooth or comfortable, fear, danger and pain may be unavoidable.
In his letter to the Corinthians Paul talks of the power of God at work as he and other Christians suffer beatings, imprisonments, hunger, sleeplessness and ridicule just to name a few perks of the job! Paul trusts God to define what power looks like rather than insisting on his own earthly definition and it’s something really worth us pondering for our own lives. Being crucified on a cross didn’t look very powerful at the time either.

‘Let us go across to the other side’ beckons Jesus, what and leave my comfort zone, who knows what we may have to face on the journey. Sometimes we are forced to set off on a journey that we wouldn’t choose. Forced to leave home to find work, forced to face up to a health issue, forced to show leadership because no one else will, not knowing what each journey will entail. We need only the tiniest bit of faith to be sure that Jesus will be there with us. As a forgiving, loving father God only wants us to turn to him in our time of need and trust in his unfathomable generosity.

When all in life is calm and tranquil is easy to delude ourselves that we are in control, even that we understand God. But the disciples had to learn, as we do, that we have to trust a loving God that we can’t fully know or understand, but it is a God that has shown us enough that when our trust grows we draw closer and are safer despite the storms we may have to endure.

As we consider people ‘trying to cross to the other side’ we think of the fear of the settled population which often results in closed borders to people fleeing war and persecution, leaving them in fear on unfit boats, sent to sea by traffickers who don’t give a damn whether they complete their journey or end up drowning. They want to cross over to peace and security, prosperity and stable family life but find themselves caught up in international arguments as to which country, if any, should accept them. They are stuck in a storm of neglect and political argument which at times must leave them feeling that God is asleep and doesn’t care.

There are no easy answers, but to ignore those in dire need of help would mean that we are still stuck on the shore ourselves, unwilling to step out with Christ in seeking just solutions for God’s family.

In one of his books, Cardinal Hume the former monk and Roman Catholic Archbishop wrote of how his understanding of God changed over time. For years he thought of God as being like a strict school teacher or policeman who would know if you sneaked into the larder and took an apple and would make sure you paid for it. As an older man he wrote ‘now, many years later I have an idea that God would have said to the small boy, take two’.

It sounds like the words of a man who has truly come to know God’s grace.

Is it something that we can open our hearts to so that we can grow in faith and share this with others?

Kevin Bright
23 June 2018

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Trinity 2: Mad, bad and dangerous to know?

Audio version here

I was having a conversation with someone the other day about cream teas, as you do. The thorny subject came up of whether you should put the cream or the jam on your scones first. Apparently, cream first is the Devonian way, and jam first is a sure sign you are Cornish. I have to say that, coming from the West Country myself, I don’t ever really recall this being a “thing” when I was growing up, but maybe that is because as a Devonian, it never occurred to me to do anything other than what is quite obviously right – cream first. I hadn’t realised it was a tribal marker until recently, but if it is, then it’s clear which tribe I am in! The person I was talking to said “Oh, I see. So there’s a Devonian way and a Cornish way  “No,” I said, “there’s the Devonian way and there’s the wrong way!”

Tribalism – which I was most certainly guilty of - is at the heart of the Gospel reading we heard today. People around Jesus are puzzling over his words and actions, but for many of them the question isn’t so much about the merits of his message, but whether he is like them or not, one of them or not, part of their tribe or not. Does he do things the way they do, see the world the way they do? If he does, he’s obviously a good thing; if he doesn’t then he is mad or bad and probably dangerous to know as well.

Even his family are behaving like this. Mark’s story is topped and tailed by reports of their concern for him. “He has gone out of his mind,” his family say. This will end in tears. They can see that. And they’d like to spare him, and themselves, the inevitable trouble which will come from annoying those in power.

Still, at least they care about him as a person. The scribes are much more brutal,. They accuse him of being in the pay of Satan.

The local Pharisees already have it in for him because of his apparent disregard of the Sabbath laws, but these religious experts have come all the way from Jerusalm to see what’s going on, and their verdict is damning. “ He’s possessed!”  they say. “He’s a servant of Beelzebub”. They can’t argue with the facts. He has been healing and exorcising. But they argue that he’s been doing it through the devil’s power, because they can’t believe that God would use someone like him, a carpenter from Galilee who mixes with sinners.

They demonize him, quite literally, but that’s something we can all do, even if we don’t believe in actual demons at all.  We demonize people by ascribing dark motives to those we’ve fallen out with or whose political  or religious views we don’t share. We suspect them of hidden agendas. Nothing they can do is right or good, even if it really is right and good.  

Our distrust spreads to things that have nothing to do with the real differences between us. Their dress is the wrong dress. Their football teams are the wrong football teams. The way they eat their scones is wrong, wrong, wrong. We forget what we originally fell out about. Now everything becomes a marker of our difference, and the result is that we can’t see anything good in them any more, or hear what they are really saying above all the clamour of all the stuff we’ve decided to hate about them.   

Demonization poisons communities. That colleague or fellow member of the congregation who we disagreed with about something once, or who hurt us or made us look bad, now can’t open their mouths without putting our backs up. Our hackles rise as soon as we think of them.

Jesus demolishes the scribe’s argument with one blow. They’re saying that he’s casting out demons by the power of Satan. But why would Satan give him power to do that? The demons are Satan’s henchmen. It wouldn’t be in Satan’s interest to have them cast out of anywhere. He’d be fighting against himself, shooting himself in the foot. The scribes haven’t got an answer for that, but his clever logic isn’t going to be enough to convince them that God is with him, because they’ve already made up their minds otherwise. As he discovers, you can’t defeat demonization with logic.

Essentially demonization is what Jesus goes on to describe as the “unforgiveable sin”. It’s the sin of calling good things bad, saying that the work of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, is the work of Satan. It’s unforgiveable not because it’s worse than other sins but because when we commit it we don’t see that we are doing anything wrong. How can God forgive us, Jesus is saying, if we don’t think we need forgiveness, if we’re blind to what we are doing wrong? It’s only when our eyes are opened, as Adam and Eve’s are in our Old Testament reading, when we see that we are naked, that God can start to set us right again.  Until we come to that  painful realisation, God can’t get anywhere with us.

The scribes demonize Jesus, and their demonization of him eventually sends him to the cross. But there’s a real danger when we read Gospel stories like this that we do exactly the same to them. Christians throughout the ages have twisted these Gospel stories, lumping together all Jewish people with the few who opposed Jesus, a Jew himself, of course.  It’s true that scribes, Pharisees and other Jewish groups tend to  get a rather bad press in the Gospels, and it’s understandable too. The Gospels were written in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD70. Bitter arguments broke out within Judaism about why this had happened and who was to blame. Some Jewish groups – the Pharisees in particular – blamed the Christians, still very much part of the Jewish faith, because they said they’d polluted the faith by admitting Gentiles to their fellowship. They expelled the Christians from their synagogues.

Tempers were running high and in the midst of all that, it’s not surprising that the Gospels don’t tell us much about the scribes and Pharisees who supported Jesus, or that those who didn’t weren’t necessarily bad people, and that even when they do, as, for example in the story of Nicodemus, we have often missed those details. In truth, many scribes and Pharisees cared deeply about their nation and their faith and were just concerned that Jesus’ revolutionary ideas would bring down the wrath of Rome on them. They wanted peace, just as the Christians did. They just differed in how they thought it would come about. In the bitterness of the argument, though, the nuances got lost, and what we’re left with is probably far more black and white than it should be.

That’s a pity, because it’s meant that Christians have often done exactly what Jesus warns us against here. Instead of looking at the issues, we look at the tribal markers. Other people are either “our tribe” or “not our tribe” and we declare them “right” or “wrong” as a result. We forget that we’re all, first and foremost, children of God, each of us flawed and failing, but all with something to say that’s worth listening to, part of the truth that we all need.
I’m going to be dashing straight off at the end of this service because I am going to take part in a march in London commemorating the hundredth anniversary of women getting the right to vote. As a woman priest, I know I wouldn’t be here in this pulpit if other women hadn’t lobbied and fought, often at great cost, to win me that very basic right. Looking back now, it seems like a no-brainer. How could people have ever thought it was wrong? But they very genuinely and sincerely did.

I came across a pamphlet written by Lord Curzon, entitled Fifteen Good Reasons against the Grant of Female Suffrage. It sounds very bizarre now. Argument number four, for example, reads:
“Women have not, as a sex, or a class, the calmness of temperament or the balance of mind, nor have they the training, necessary to qualify them to exercise a weighty judgement in political affairs.” It continues in a similar vein through all fifteen dreadful clauses.   [,]

Everything in me recoils from Curzon’s “Good Reasons”, but, but… if I take Jesus words seriously, it matters that I don’t just write off what he says as pompous twaddle, because behind his awful rhetoric, there were concerns that were legitimate have been concerns that were quite legitimate. For example, he thought that giving the vote to women would be the start of the wider emancipation of women, and that this would have an effect on family and community life. And he was right. It has done. Now that most women as well as men do paid work outside the home, the vast army of stay-at-home wives and mothers who once provided childcare, elderly care and all sorts of voluntary community work has shrunk almost to nothing. No wonder voluntary organisations and churches struggle so much for help now.  

Of course, I don’t agree with his solution to this – keeping women chained to the kitchen sink, subservient and silent. The answer lies in men and women together figuring out a pattern of family life that is healthy for them, and all of us together taking responsibility for  sustaining community life , but painful though it is for me to admit it Curzon’s anxieties about this weren’t wrong, even if he didn’t express them in a very helpful way.  Refusing to listen to our opponents, just because they have opposed us, isn’t the way to find the wisdom we all need.

It’s always tempting to think “my family right or wrong”, “my faith, right or wrong”, “my country, right or wrong” but Jesus said “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,” even if it’s someone who we’ve always thought was our bitterest enemy.

Christ calls us to look for the real issues behind the posturing, the real person behind the stereotype, to listen for God’s voice amidst the clamour of our rivalries. It’s a calling to humility, a tough calling, which is why we so often fail at it, but it’s only by doing this that we’ll escape the endless cycles of bitterness which poison our attempts to build the kind of world God wants, and we need. It’s only by doing this that we’ll find that we are all one tribe – his tribe, his beloved people.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Trinity 1: "Stretch out your hand"

Audio version here 

Deut 5.12-15, 2 Cor 4.5-12, Mark 2.23-3.6

“Stretch out your hand”, says Jesus to a man he meets in the Synagogue in Capernaum. That’s what caught my eye and my imagination as I read this Gospel reading. It’s an intriguing detail. There’s no real need for this man to stretch out his hand in order to be healed. Jesus often healed with just a word, or even at a distance. But this man seems to need to stretch out his hand to receive his healing.

As I said, it caught my attention, and it led me to think about this action, this gesture of stretching out a hand and what it might mean.

As it happens there’s another outstretched hand – or rather an arm – in today’s readings.  It is in the Old Testament passage from the book of Deuteronomy. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” The outstretched arm here is held out in a gesture of power, of authority, of agency, the gesture of someone who is going to get something done. There are plenty of other examples, in the Bible or out of it, of outstretched arms wielding power. Moses stretched out his arm, holding his staff, to part hands the waters of the Red Sea. In folklore, wizards stretch out their arms, holding their magic wands, to make a spell. Kings hold out sceptres. Priests hold out their arms in blessing.  

Stretching out a hand or an arm isn’t alway a gesture of power, though. Hungry refugees stretch out their hands for food when the truck bringing supplies comes around. A drowning person stretches out their hands in hopes that someone will pull them from the water. And maybe, in answer, someone stretches out a hand to feed and to save them. 

Whether we are giving help or asking for help, casting a spell or making a command, praying or blessing though, the outstretched hand is a hand that is doing something. We stretch out our hands because we believe, or at least hope, that something will happen as a result.  

“Stretch out your hand” says Jesus to this man, but what is it that he wants to happen? Why does he need this man to make such a public gesture? Why can’t he heal him with a quiet word, or a private meeting?

To understand, I think we have to consider what this disability and its healing would have meant both to the man concerned, and to the rest of those present in that synagogue. 

Let’s start with the individual. 

Just imagine what it might have been like to be him. Daily life with a hand that doesn’t work properly is very difficult. We use our hands for so many things; eating, dressing, washing, as well as the tasks we need to do to earn our living. In the ancient world, without the machines and technology we now have, it was even more important to be able to use your hands. How could you grow your food, cook your food, gather firewood, build, make clothes, look after livestock one handed?  The fact that he can’t use this hand probably cuts off any real possibility for supporting himself, and maybe affects his prospects of becoming a husband and father too. He was probably dependent on others, and most people find that pretty tough. 

And to cap it all, he wouldn’t have been able to take a full part in the religious life of his community either. All adult men were supposed to offer sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem at least three times a year, but no one with a disability was allowed to enter it, because disability was seen as a sign of God’s displeasure, so he couldn’t even worship with everyone else.

What might this disability have done to his sense of himself as a person, as a proper grown-up? We don’t know, but it’s likely that he would have lived with a fairly constant sense of shame and exclusion. And this hand which Jesus is asking him to stretch out, was the cause of it. How difficult must it have been to him to let others see it, the source of his weakness and humiliation? 

So why did Jesus put him through this? Maybe because he needed to acknowledge the problem before he could be healed. As long as we are ashamed, as long as we hide what troubles us, from ourselves as well as others, as I imagine this man might have hidden that withered hand, nothing can change. Sometimes it is making that doctor’s appointment, going to that support group meeting for the first time, picking up the phone to the friend who has offered to help which really matters; that’s the moment , that first step, when change can start to happen.

That may be one reason why, on a personal level this man needs to “stretch out his hand” in this public way before he can be healed. His disability has made him feel helpless, mired him in a completely undeserved sense of shame. When he acts, when he stretches out his hand, he is doing something for himself, taking hold of life and hope and dignity again. It is Jesus who heals him, of course, but his brave, public act is a vital part of the process. 
But it’s not just him who needs healing and change. Equally significant in this story is the change and challenge which Jesus offers to those who witness his healing, because in some ways his society is even more disabled than he is. 

The fact is that the people who should have cared for him, the Pharisees, the so-called religious experts, don’t seem to have seen him as a human being at all. It’s nothing to them that he is struggling and needs help. To them, he is just a lure to trap Jesus. All they seem to care about is their arcane arguments about Sabbath observance. Never mind the miracle, what matters to them is that Jesus has healed on the Sabbath, and that, in their eyes is work.

We’ve already seen them get hot under the collar because his disciples have snacked on grains of wheat as they have walked through a field.  That’s harvesting, as they see it, and harvesting is forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus tries to justify it with an appeal to a rather obscure Old Testament story, but they aren’t having any of it. So when he comes into the synagogue they are just looking around for some way to get him into even more hot water. Whether it is just a convenient coincidence that this man is there, or whether they have set him up we don’t know, but which ever it is, they see him just as an opportunity to advance their interests. Their agenda is the only thing that matters to them, not this man and his problems. 

That’s what makes Jesus so angry. That’s why he is “grieved at their hardness of heart”. They can’t see the wood for the trees, and they aren’t even trying to. They are quite happy with the status quo, in which they have power and respect, and they don’t see what damage it is doing to them as much as to anyone else. They don’t see that they are even sicker than the man whose sufferings they are so ready to exploit. 

The man with the withered hand has been disabled emotionally and spiritually by a world view which puts power on a pedestal, because his physical  problems mean he has very little, but the Pharisees are just as disabled by that way of thinking. When people shame or stigmatise those who are poor or disabled, it is usually a sign that they are terrified of losing the wealth and ability they have. They need to put others down so that they can stay on top. It’s a risky strategy though, because no one is immune to the vagaries of illness and misfortune. That’s why tyrants are so often paranoid and fearful. But we can all behave like this, becoming defensive and prickly when our little empires are threatened, and these Pharisees are a perfect example of this. 

Ironically, though, both their lives and the life of the man with the withered hand might have been made much easier if they had really understood the issue at the centre of the stories we have heard today, the Sabbath and what it was meant to be for. 

God’s command that people should have one day of rest in every seven was meant to be a safeguard against the idolisation of power, a weekly reminder that we don’t need to have it all or do it all in order to keep ourselves safe. Only God can do that anyway. Keeping the Sabbath, choosing not to work every hour there is, dares us to trust that we aren’t on our own in a hostile world, with only ourselves to rely on, but in the hands of God who loves us. It dares us to trust, too, that we are part of a community, in which each is responsible for the others. The Sabbath says “enough is enough”; it was intended to provide a built in safeguard against inequality and injustice, stopping the powerful heaping up money at the expense of those who couldn’t keep up.  It reminded those who observed it that it was God who provided, God who empowered, God who gave to each person, whatever their ability, a dignity that couldn’t be taken away, the dignity of being his children frail and fallible but beloved and precious too.  

We are all clay jars, as St Paul put it, but clay jars can still contain treasure; we don’t have to pretend to be solid gold when we’re not and were never meant to be. That’s what Jesus went to the cross to prove. The clay of his flesh was shattered and torn apart.  Like the man with the withered hand, he was despised and rejected by those who saw him die this humiliating death, and yet, in his powerlessness, as his arms were outstretched on the cross, God declared our powerlessness, our failure, our death to be places that could be fountains of blessing, however unlikely that seems to us when we are in those places.

“Stretch out your hand”, said Jesus, and the man with the withered hand found liberation and life when he did so.  “Stretch out your hand”,, says Jesus to us, and maybe, if we do, we can find the same as we discover the blessing that comes from naming our need and accepting his help.