Sunday, 8 April 2018

Easter 2 - Darkness, Death and Doubt

John 20.19-31, 1 John 1.1-2.2, Acts 4.32-35

Fellowship. It’s not a word I hear used much outside of church context nowadays. Perhaps it’s heard occasionally in the world of academia or Society but not often now in common conversation.

When John refers to it in his letter he wants his readers to consider that fellowship is something we find together in God, a common way of existing, being and believing. It’s something through which other people might get a glimpse of what God is about , when at its best. In our Acts reading we heard of fellowship lived out in a way that ensured the needs of the entire group were met.

John’s letter is about living an honest life, not wanting those seeing us to think that all is perfect once we choose to enter into fellowship with Christ. He points this out in saying ‘if we say we have fellowship with him when we are walking in darkness, we lie’.

Our shortcomings and weaknesses which we later regret don’t necessarily cease because of our faith but neither do they make a mockery of it if we are honest about them.

I can remember someone telling me Sunday mornings often really cheesed him off, he would be washing his car or mowing the lawn as his neighbours arrived home after church strutting in full of self-righteousness and superiority. I suspect it had more to do with his mistaken idea of what being a Christian means and we certainly suffer from the judgment of many who have made up their mind what Christianity is, and they often don’t like it.

For many, Christians are seen as intolerant of alternative lifestyles, sexual preferences even other faiths, or are dull people who take themselves far too seriously and don’t know how to have a laugh.

It’s for us to challenge that view by simply being ourselves with all our faults and weaknesses yet being people who keep trying to make God’s love known to others through acts of kindness and forgiveness, and even trying to be cheerful along the way.

After all when Jesus appears to the frightened disciples who have locked themselves in a house it’s not to vent his anger at being denied and deserted by those closest to him, leaving him to suffer and die but to say ‘Peace be with you’, it’s the offer of a new relationship with the risen Christ which causes a spontaneous outbreak of joy.

Then there’s Thomas, who was out when all this was happening. He’s such an important figure in that he makes it OK to have doubts. I’m sure that many of us can relate to him. It reminds me a bit of the times when I was at school and didn’t want to ask about something I thought everyone else knew or understood, and then it’s a relief when someone else has the courage to do so.

Of course Thomas already has history with Jesus, back in John 14 we find him asking more questions when Jesus said ‘And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

Perhaps Thomas drew on this and for him the ultimate realisation of ‘the way’ was to be in the presence of his Lord and God.

It may seem a counter intuitive thing to say but his doubts make my faith more real. For me it’s hard to relate to a version of the Christian story which is neat and simple, teaching all taken at face value. We should never feel guilty to say that we cannot find God where others tell us he is, to say this isn’t real for me, to explore and look for God in our own way. I’m with Rev Mark Oakley when he said he remains ‘unconvinced that reality is mirrored neatly in the recitation of any creed’.

We need space and time for our faith to be felt, tested, lived with and ultimately become part of who we are to make it authentic, something that others may find believable.

I wasn’t in a great mood to celebrate Easter last Sunday and I was relieved that Anne’s sermon was sensitive to the fact that this will have been the case for many of us as we remember dearly loved friends and family that we miss sorely. Even when our faith is firm, to do so can still be painful. We heard how, at the end of Mark’s gospel the women fled in terror without answers and reassurance, no neat happy ending, perhaps a bit more typical of our reaction when the reality of loss hits us and dread and fear can take over.

This year Lent for me began with the death of a dearly loved friend, from MS and complications, the wife of my friend since childhood. As many of us do at such times I gave my sincere condolences and then felt quite helpless as I said ‘let me know if I can do anything to help’. He came back to me a few days later and said that the funeral service would have more meaning if led by someone who really knew Amanda and the family. It’s something I’ve not done the training to be licenced for in church but I was able to accept as anyone can perform this role as a Civil Celebrant in an appropriate place.

Whilst Christian prayers and hymns were included in the funeral service I was acutely aware that this was a time to tread very gently with the eternal hope I feel to be real through Christ, a time to focus on the very real love for Amanda and make space for memories and mourning. After all what right do I have to assert my beliefs in such a setting?

I was grateful to be given the opportunity to serve my friends in this way but deeply saddened for myself and them that it was necessary to preside over Amanda’s coffin being lowered to its final resting place.

It was both a stressful and strange experience for me returning to my old Essex stomping ground and having discussions with chums from school days met rarely since.

Chatting with people later in the day I could understand why some, like Thomas did, have doubts, why some don’t believe at all and why some are not quite sure what to believe about death and an afterlife.

Tom Wright, in his book ‘Surprised by Hope’ wrote “Frankly, what we have at the moment isn’t, as the old liturgies used to say, “the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead” but the vague and fuzzy optimism that somehow things may work out in the end.

Most of my lent time this year was spent thinking about death, the physical finality, the pain and separation. I can understand why this can bring a real pressure on an individual’s faith which can seem suffocated by the darkness and angry questions left unanswered, particularly when we may feel no tangible reassurance of life with God continuing in a new way.

Yet despite these dark thoughts, little by little the love of God made real in Jesus Christ proves too powerful for me to lose hope of an eternal future for myself or for others.

We can use words and live lives that demonstrate what we believe but ultimately we cannot prove that God loves us too much to abandon us anymore than we can prove that love for another is real, at some point we have to accept it or reject it.

Coming back to that fellowship in John’s letter, one aspect of this is to create a community where we are able to talk with each other about hopes, fears, sadness and times of reassurance relating to the death of loved ones or anything else we find challenging. I know that to be the case here via individuals or groups and positively encourage it.

It reminds me of the words of George Burns, ‘Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family. In another city’.

Taking today’s readings forward into the weeks ahead the symbolism of Christ saying to Thomas ‘reach out your hand and put it in my side’ is an important one. Jesus is making it very clear that this is still him, the same man who lived with them. He’s saying I came to you in flesh and blood but I’m also your way to the Father.

When we think of the disciples and their sending out by Jesus it has to be to a new more honest interaction with the people. They are aware of their weaknesses and failures, promises to stick with Jesus through anything turned out to be lies and it’s time to rely less on their own strength and more on their response to God’s calling.

It’s a message we can draw upon as we continue our own journey through life, aware of our own weaknesses but also aware of the liberating hope and forgiveness available to us each and every day.

Kevin Bright

8th April 2018

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Easter Sunday: What are you afraid of?

Audio version here

Easter Sunday 18

“And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Well, that’s a bit of a downbeat ending for our Easter Gospel, isn’t it! Where are the Easter bunnies? Where are the spring chickens? Where are the Alleluias? “They were afraid”. That’s it?

And it’s not only the end of the reading we heard today. It’s also the end of Mark’s Gospel completely. Or at least the end of it as we now have it. Scholars believe that it probably lost its last page at some early stage in its history. It was written at a time when books still had to be written out by hand, one by one, so it would have been quite easy to lose a bit of the original, and then have nothing to copy from.

So Mark’s Gospel hasn’t got the stories the other Gospels tell of Jesus appearing to his friends. All we get is these women, running away from the tomb, terrified.

But in a way, I am quite glad of that. Because Easter, in my experience, isn’t always a time when we get all the answers and everything is happy ever after. I like it that we have these frightened women at the end of our Easter Sunday Gospel, because fear is a perfectly natural reaction to what they’ve been through.

We are all afraid sometimes. There may be particular things which scare you. Anyone who knows me will know that I don’t do heights. This pulpit is about as far up as I am comfortable with! I can go up the tower if I really need to, but I’d much rather not, thank you very much, especially not up into the clock room, where you can see down through the cracks in the boards to the tower floor a long way below!  It makes me feel funny even to say it. I don’t know whether it is really full blown acrophobia – that’s the posh name for fear of heights – but it’s quite bad enough. If you are fine with heights you probably don’t know what I’m going on about, but you may be equally scared of something else. There’s a phobia for everyone. Pick your own!

How about anatidaephobia, for example. That, apparently, is a fear of ducks. In particular, it is a fear that ducks are watching you and planning to attack you. Or there is koumpounophobia, which is a fear of buttons – I’m really not sure what could be scary about them, but if that’s your phobia, it must make life quite difficult.

Baffling though some of these phobias seem, they don’t come out of nowhere. A bad experience might trigger them, or just some deep-seated evolutionary impulse which has got out of control. Phobias are often defined as “irrational” fears, but in a way they are very rational – there is always a reason for them. If we had no fear at all, we probably wouldn’t last very long, because life is full of dangers. If we weren’t at least a little scared of heights, we might fall off the first cliff we came to. If we weren’t at least a little scared of snakes we might get bitten by them, and that could be fatal in some parts of the world. I’m still not sure about the ducks and the buttons, but I guess there may be dangers I haven’t thought of…

So what were these women afraid of, when they ran away from the tomb?
It seems to me that there are two things that might scare them. And unlike the ducks, the buttons and my fear of heights, these are fears which we can probably all identify with.

Their first fear is the very basic fear of death. They’ve just watched their friend die a painful and horrific death by crucifixion. That would be enough to traumatise anyone. But they also know that they are putting themselves at great risk by identifying themselves as his supporters. That’s what they’re doing as they come to the tomb in the early morning, and someone is bound to see them, and it might not be someone who is well-disposed to them. They’ve had to screw up all their courage to make this journey.

And when they get there they find the body is gone, and they don’t know how or why. Sure, there’s a young man sitting there – an angel in the other Gospel’s accounts - who says to them “Don’t be alarmed”. Sure, he’s trying to tell them that Jesus has been raised from death, but would you believe it? No wonder they’re scared. We hear this story sitting in a church full of daffodils, with gold altar hangings, and triumphant music echoing in our ears. For them there was just the awful memory of that agonising death, and the knowledge that the soldiers might be coming for them too, at any moment.

So, they are scared of death – and that’s a fear which hits everyone at some point, perhaps when we’ve had a brush with mortality through accident or illness, or when we’ve lost someone we love. No matter how safe we try to make our world, we know that sooner or later, we’ll all die, and that’s a frightening thought. We may be scared of death, or scared of the dying process. We may be scared that those we love will grieve, or scared of our own grief at losing them. Whatever we believe about the afterlife, this life is what we know, and hopefully sometimes at least, enjoy. There would be something wrong with us if we felt happy at the thought of leaving it.

The women who run from the tomb have had more than a brush with death. They’ve seen it up close and personal. They aren’t going to be able to shake their fear off just because some young man claims that Jesus has risen, and if we have come to this Easter moment with a bereavement, or an impending death in the family, we aren’t likely to be able to just because its Easter either. Grief and fear have their own timetable, and it’s ok to sit with them as long as we need to. It’s ok if you haven’t reached Easter in your heart yet, and if that’s the case you’re in good company, because neither have these Gospel women. 

They are scared of death. But I think there is something else they are scared of too. My guess is that they are equally scared of life at this moment.

“Jesus of Nazareth… has been raised” says the young man in the tomb. “Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him as he told you.”

While they’re still trying to get their heads around the past trauma of Jesus’ crucifixion and the present fact that the tomb is empty, this mysterious young man is talking about the future, about going to Galilee, about Jesus being there, about what sounds like a whole new chapter in a book they thought was finished. At least, if Jesus was dead, that was that. They could go back to their old lives, changed, but not too much. It was a shame it had all ended in tears and failure, but you can’t win them all. Their best hope was that they could chalk it up to experience, if they managed to avoid the wrath of the Romans themselves. It was over.

Except that now it isn’t, and sometimes the only thing more frightening than death is life.  What is going to happen next? They have no template for this, no pattern, but already it sounds as if it will make demands of them. All that stuff Jesus  talked about – loving your enemies, welcoming the outcast, being one body with the Gentiles – it’s not going to be theory any more, just a bunch of words he said, it’s going to be something they have to live out. It may be a message that’s full of joy and hope. It may bring them life “in all its fullness” as he promised them, but what is it going to be full of?

For us, too, sometimes life can be even more terrifying than death. We’re offered something good, something we want – love, forgiveness, new life, a new direction – but we quake inwardly, and maybe even turn back to  the old, safe, familiar despair.

That’s what these frightened women are going through. They may be scared of death, but they’re equally scared of the new life Jesus’ resurrection calls them to.  No wonder they run. But, of course, that isn’t the end of the story. Even if Mark had meant to end his Gospel here, it wouldn’t have been the end of the story, and those who read it first knew that, because they wouldn’t have been there to read it if it had been the end. Mark’s Gospel was written around 60 AD, about 30 years after the events it describes, for one of the many groups of early Christians which had come together in the wake of that first Easter Day. Christian faith had spread rapidly, all around the Mediterranean and beyond it. Groups of Christians had been drawn together into new communities, transformed by their encounter with God. 

They understood the terror of those women, because, I am sure, there were often times when they were terrified too, but they also knew what those women hadn’t known; that Jesus had risen, and that he was present with them through his Spirit. They saw the Spirit’s fruit in their lives – love, joy, peace, patience – both in good times and in bad. In a way, it didn’t matter to them that Mark’s Gospel didn’t have an ending. They were its ending. They didn’t  need words on a page to tell them what happened next. They were what happened next.  And so are we, if we can learn to trust that God is bigger than our fears, stronger than anything death, or life, can do to us. It’s ok for us to feel afraid, and to acknowledge our fears, but Easter gives us the power to “feel the fear and do it anyway!”

“Jesus lives! thy terrors now can no more, O death – or life – appal us; Jesus lives! by this we know, thou, O grave, can’st not enthral us. Alleluia!”  

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Maundy Thursday: Words fail us

Maundy Thursday 18

Have you ever come to a point when you have just thrown up your hands and said “words fail me!”? My guess is that most of us have. Perhaps something terrible has happened, something we just can’t get our heads around. Watching the news yesterday I saw those grieving parents in Siberia whose children were killed in a fire in a shopping mall, a fire that they should easily have been able to escape, but couldn’t because the fire alarms had been turned off and the emergency exits were blocked. Whole families had been killed, when they’d just gone out for an afternoon’s shopping or a visit to the cinema. Some of them had phoned loved ones, knowing it would be their last conversation. How could this happen? Words fail us.

Or there was an interview with the parents of three teenage men in London killed by a drunk driver as they walked along the street to a birthday party, with all their lives ahead of them. The reporter asked the usual inane questions about how they felt. One mother said “excuse me, I’ve just got to fetch something,” and returned with a bag containing a plastic jar which I recognised all too easily, because I see those jars often. “This is all we have left of him,” she said “my son’s ashes in this jar.” Words fail us.

Words can fail us sometimes in happier circumstances too. If you’ve ever been in love, if you’ve ever felt enormous gratitude, if you’ve ever been overcome with wonder, words may have failed you.

I love words. I work with words all the time. I love to read and to write. Words matter to me. But sometimes they just can’t say what needs to be said. Words fail us.

It seems to me that that’s what happened on the night before Jesus died. He’d spoken many words to his friends in the three years they’d been together. Sometimes they’d seemed to understand. Sometimes it was clear that they didn’t have a clue what he was going on about. But now the time for words was coming to an end. If they didn’t get it now, if they didn’t realise what his message had been, no matter how clearly he spelled it out then there was no way of explaining it .“Love one another, even your enemies. “ “God is with you, whatever you’ve done.” “I have come that you might have love and have it in abundance…” “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it cannot bear fruit…” If they didn’t understand that it had all been about God’s generosity, God’s inclusive love, then there were no words which could make it any clearer.
The time for words was coming to an end anyway. During Christ’s trial and crucifixion he says very little, not defending himself, not explaining, knowing that what was going to happen was going to happen anyway, whatever he said. The early Christians saw echoes in the words of the prophet Isaiah.  “He did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep before its shearers is silent.” Words were no use. Words failed.
So, at this moment, Jesus abandoned words in favour of actions, abandoned ideas in favour of physical experience, washing feet, sharing bread and wine.

If you’ve been part of our Lent groups this Lent, or have been following the daily Lent reflections online or in print, you’ll know that it’s all been about physical experience, as we’ve explored faith through our five senses. We’ve thought about the woman who reached for Christ’s cloak, thinking that just to touch it would bring her healing. What did it feel like in her hand? We’ve thought about the fragrance of the ointment of nard which Mary of Bethany poured over Jesus’ head, a gentle, tender gesture which said to him, “I’m with you. I get it. You’re going to die, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it, but I can let you know that I’m with you, not trying to fix things, but simply acknowledging them. We’ve looked at the Bible through sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste as they feature in the many stories in it. I don’t know what that has done for you, but it has been a reminder to me of the reality of those stories. It has brought them home to me in a new way. It has got me out of my head, out of the world of ideas, and into flesh and blood experience, which is so much more powerful.

That’s as it should be. After all, John’s Gospel begins by telling us that Jesus is “the Word made Flesh”, God in the reality of everyday life, in a person who you could touch and see and hear and smell and taste too, I suppose, if you were determined! People sometimes joke that God went to great efforts to turn the Word into Flesh, only for theologians and preachers to spend the following two thousand years trying to turn him back into words again. I hope our sensory explorations have helped to set some of that right.

The thing is, you see, that however clever our words are, when it comes to Jesus, when it comes to the love of God, when it comes to understanding his presence in our life words will always fail us, because words tend to get stuck in our heads, and God wants to be more than just an idea to us. He wants to be the smell of new life, the sound of hope, the sight that transforms us, the touch of love, the taste that sustains and delights us. He wants to be known in the whole of our lives, not just in the things we believe in our heads and say with our lips.

That’s good news, because it means you don’t have to have the words to explain God, even to yourself. You don’t have to understand all those complicated ideas in the creed we’ll say in a minute. You don’t have to have explored every opinion on every theological belief Christians have argued about over the centuries.

You just have to be prepared to let Christ wash your dusty feet, gently taking them in his strong, carpenter’s hands. You just have to be prepared to open your mouth and taste the bread and the wine he gives you, letting him nourish you with whatever it is that you need right now to grow strong. There’s nothing clever about any of that. We can all be washed, and eat and drink from the moment we are born to the moment we die. I share communion with small children – we can admit children to communion at any time after baptism here at Seal, if they are hungry for the bread and wine. I share communion with people with dementia, who have forgotten all the words they used to know, but are still aware that this is something that is special and comforting. It doesn’t matter whether we know what it is about. It doesn’t matter whether we agree what it means. All that matters is that we eat and drink. Christ tells his followers to “do this” in remembrance of me, not to “understand this” in remembrance of me.

So tonight, as we go with Christ into the darkness and silence that surround the last night of his earthly life, may the taste of the bread and the wine remind us that when words fail us, God doesn’t fail us. He goes with us into that darkness and silence, still nourishing us with his life and love if we will let him.

I’d like to finish with a poem by Malcolm Guite, called Love’s Choice.

Love’s Choice
by Malcolm Guite

This bread is light, dissolving, almost air,
A little visitation on my tongue,
A wafer-thin sensation, hardly there.
This taste of wine is brief in flavour, flung
A moment to the palate’s roof and fled,
Even its aftertaste a memory.
Yet this is how He comes. Through wine and bread
Love chooses to be emptied into me.
He does not come in unimagined light
Too bright to be denied, too absolute
For consciousness, too strong for sight,
Leaving the seer blind, the poet mute;
Chooses instead to seep into each sense,
To dye himself into experience.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Lent 3: The household of God

I wonder how many different households you’ve lived in during your life. In my case, I grew up in a rather rambling, eccentric house with my mum and dad and older brother, and a succession of lodgers who lived in a flat at the top of the house. They were mostly single, male, post-graduate students, and they were rather indistinguishable one from another. If the phone rang for them, we’d go to the foot of the stairs leading up to the flat and shout out “Dave, Steve, Paul…” until someone responded…
Lots of different households followed though. Student houses, sharing with complete strangers, when I went to university. Family homes when I married and children arrived and grew up.
By the time they were teenagers I was divorced, and lone parenting them. It was just the three of us, and Pickles the cat, who you may remember. When they left home for uni, it was just him and me for a while, but then Philip came along, and the rest you know… Most of the adult households I have lived in have also been vicarages, of course, households where you never quite know who you’ll find on the doorstep, needing to come in for coffee and a chat.  

Households vary enormously in shape, in size and in feel. They often change over time, as mine have done. Sometimes they’re happy places, sometimes not. Sometimes the people in them get along; sometimes they don’t. But whatever they’re like, they matter to us. They give us a sense of identity and belonging . They shape us, for good or ill, and they all have their own rules, spoken and unspoken. Is yours a household where you eat at a table, or on your laps in front of the telly? Is it a “shoes off at the door” household, or not? Is it a quiet household or a riot of noise?  

If we want to understand our readings today we have first to think about households and what they mean to us. In the ancient world, households were often much bigger than ours. They included extended families, several generations and often servants and slaves too. But they mattered just as much to people, and, like ours, they all had their own characters and cultures, just as ours do.  

Households weren’t just about individual families or tribes, though. The nation was seen as one giant household, and it was the Ten Commandments that established and expressed what it was meant to be like. They are the household rules of the household of Israel.  

According to the Bible, they were given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai so that he could pass them on to the rag tag bunch of ex-slaves he’d led out of Egypt, as they headed for the Promised Land. Their forty years of wandering would give them plenty of time to ponder them! “I am the Lord your God” they start. These people  belong to God. Why? Because “I brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” That’s a powerful phrase – the house of slavery – that was what their previous experience of being a household had been. Slavery had shaped their whole lives. It wasn’t just about their outward status, but about the way they saw themselves, their dreams and expectations, or rather their lack of them. What was the point of dreaming if you were someone else’s possession, theirs to do what they liked with? As Moses soon found, taking the people out of slavery wasn’t the same as taking the slavery out of the people. Again and again they looked back to Egypt. “At least there we had food to eat – leeks and garlic and cucumbers and melons. Now there is only manna! If this is freedom, you can keep it !” they said.  Freedom is challenging and difficult. Better the devil you know than the devilyou don’t. Whose household did they belong to now? Who was responsible for them?

The Ten Commandments, told them the answer to that question. They hadn’t been set adrift in the world. They still belonged to a household, but it was the household of God, a new community which would be very different, and far, far better than the house of slavery.

And what would it look like, this new household? Again, the Ten Commandments showed them. They start with the fundamental truth. The head of this household is God. Not Pharaoh, nor any other human ruler. And God was beyond their imagination, the commandments said, bigger than they were. That was why they weren’t to make statues to worship, even statues of God, because when we do that we often end up reducing God to a size we can manage, this big, that wide. He becomes our possession, not we his.

For the same reason, the Israelites are commanded not to “make wrongful use” of his name, using it as a sort of lucky charm or a magic formula, or even as a token of our honesty. When we do that we treat God as if he is our servant, at our beck and call, and it can never be like that. Keeping a Sabbath day matters for the same reason. It reminds us that we’re in God’s hands. It’s easy to get swallowed up in the idea that it’s all down to us, that we need to strive and work endlessly, that if we don’t help ourselves no one will. We try to be big and strong, even when we really aren’t. We forget to rest in God and on God.

The rest of the commandments spell out how people should treat one another in God’s household, but they depend on the first four commandments too. If we are God’s children, members of his household, then so is everyone else; they deserve to be treated with respect and care.

One of the distinctive things about these Jewish commandments was that it didn’t matter whether you were rich or poor, powerful or powerless; the rules applied to everyone equally. In the legal systems of many of the nations around Israel, the punishments for murder or stealing or adultery were different for different social classes. A rich man who killed a poor man might have to pay a fine to his family. A poor man who killed a rich man would be executed. In Israel it wasn’t so. There was one law for everyone. Of course, it often didn’t work out that way, human nature being what it is, but that was what was meant to happen, and when it didn’t the prophets thundered their rebukes to the people. They’d forgotten who they were, and whose they were, and nothing but trouble would come of that.  

When Jesus stormed into the Temple in our Gospel reading, people must have felt as if they were in the presence of one of those ancient prophets. What was he angry about? This was the place which symbolised God’s presence with his people. It was God’s house, the place where his household gathered, the place where you could be sure he would hear you and see you. If people weren’t keeping his household rules in this place, they probably weren’t keeping them anywhere else.

The traders in the Temple had almost certainly set up their stalls in the Court of the Gentiles, the only place where a non-Jewish person could worship. They were robbing people of the possibility of coming close to God. It also may be the case that they were exploiting those who had no other option than to buy the animals they sold, and change their money at the rates they set. You couldn’t easily bring your own animals to sacrifice at the Temple. Imagine dragging a reluctant sheep all the way from Galilee. So you had to buy them when you got there. And you had to change your money from the coins used for ordinary trade, into the coins specified for paying the Temple tax, Tyrian Shekels. It’s highly likely that some, at least, were making the most of the fact that they had a monopoly, that people had to trade with them.

Scholars argue about what, specifically, had so enraged Jesus, but it’s clear that he saw people being treated badly, people being excluded from God’s household. If they weren’t being treated with respect, then God wasn’t being treated with respect either. And the fact that this all took place in the building which symbolised God’s presence with them, the focus of his household life, made it even worse.  

People were shocked when Jesus overturned the tables and scattered the livestock. It must have been pandemonium. But that was nothing compared to what came next. Jesus said that soon people wouldn’t need the Temple to meet with God and to be his household. The old systems would be destroyed . But a new Temple would rise in three days. It was only after his death and resurrection that his followers understood that he was talking about his own body, and his opponents never did, so it’s not surprising that they were horrified.

What Jesus is saying – and it was quite revolutionary – was that in the future, people would meet with God through meeting with him. This had happened in his physical presence, but it would also happen as they shared the bread and wine of the Eucharist, his body and blood, and as they gathered together in the new household of the Church.

Just like those Israelite ex-slaves in the desert, the early Christians discovered that they belonged to the household of God, whoever they were, whatever their backgrounds. As they loved each other, helped each other, prayed together, wept together, rejoiced together, they found God amongst them.

And our great privilege is that each of us is called to be part of that household too, finding God in our midst. Whether we meet in twos or threes, or in hundreds, whether we worship in the splendid medieval building across the road or here in the hall, God shows up when we get together. He shapes us into his household, if we will let him, teaching us to live, not in the house of slavery, not in fear or in condemnation,  but surrounded by his unquenchable, everlasting love. Whatever the other households we belong to are like, the household of God is one in which we can be richly blessed, and through which we can richly bless others.


Monday, 26 February 2018

Lent 2: What does success look like?

Audio version here (N.B. I managed to leave out a vital "not" as I preached this, at about 3mins. 15 seconds . The quote should be  "You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things."Fairly crucial to the meaning! It is correct in the text below!

There’s an item that I put on every agenda of every Parochial Church Council meeting we have at Seal. I call it the Vision Question; it’s designed to help us think about the broader issues of our church life. Otherwise finance and building work discussions swallow us up.  One Vision Question I asked a while back was this, “What are our success criteria as a church? How do we know whether we are doing what we should be doing? “

Success criteria can be fairly easy to come up with in many organisations and businesses. If you own a factory that makes rivets, your success criteria are presumably that you sell lots of them, and that people come back for more. That’s what tells you you’re getting it right. But what does a successful church look like?

The PCC answered the decided that we would know we were  succeeding if those who came here felt loved and welcome, if they were are growing in faith, if we could see that we were making a difference to our community. Much though we like to see the church full, numbers weren’t the key, we felt – these other things mattered far more. It was an important conversation to have because our success criteria set our direction of travel, the paths we walk on as a church. Consciously or unconsciously, they shape our church’s life.  

Being clear about what we think success looks like isn’t just important for churches and businesses, though. It’s important for us as individuals too.  How do I know whether I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing with my life, whether it’s going in a good direction, whether I am treading the right path or being led astray? If we want to know the answer to that, we have to begin by asking where it is we want to get to, and what our lives would look like if we arrived there.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus talks about success and failure and what they look like, and what he says comes as a surprise to those who hear him.  “Jesus began to teach his disciples” says our Gospel reading today, “that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

“Whoa, Jesus!” says Peter. “What are you going on about? It sounds like you’ve really lost the plot! What has all this suffering and rejection and death got to do with being God’s Messiah?” Surely God’s chosen one should have an easy ride, straight to glory!

Jesus doesn’t mince his words when he answers.  “Get behind me, Satan!” You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” He obviously wants to hammer the point home. But what’s the problem? What’s wrong with human things?  After all, God, in Jesus, became human, and he enjoyed the humanness of life – eating, drinking, relaxing with his friends, so he isn’t telling Peter that he should reject the material world, or despise bodily existence. What Jesus is challenging is Peter’s success criteria, his judgement of what success and failure look like. To Peter, at this point in his story, success is all about health, wealth, popularity, the respect of others. But if he truly wants to follow Jesus, if he wants to see God’s kingdom come, “on earth as it is in heaven”, he’s going to have to learn to look at things differently, otherwise he’s going to come badly unstuck and very soon.

Not long after this exchange, Jesus will be arrested and nailed to a cross. At that point, everything about him will scream “failure”. He’ll be mocked. He’ll be suffering. He’ll be alone. The crowds that have followed him, and even his closest friends, people like Peter, will desert him. It’s true that after three days he will rise again, but only after he has gone through this painful and humiliating death – there’s no way around it. Why should this be so?  Peter has always assumed, as most people did, that God wouldn’t let anything bad happen to his Messiah. Why would he, when he could surely prevent it? “If you are God’s Messiah, come down from the cross”  the bystanders shout at Jesus as he dies. But they are just saying what most other people – including Peter – are thinking. By anyone’s success criteria, the crucifixion doesn’t look like success.

Sometime around the beginning of the third century, a bored Roman scratched some graffiti into a wall of a building on the Palatine hill in Rome. It’s a picture of a man with a donkey’s head, nailed to a cross, with the words beneath it “Alexamenos worships his God”. I’ve put a sketch of it on the pew leaflet. It’s now in a museum in Rome. It’s widely regarded as the first representation of the crucifixion we have. We don’t know anything about Alexamenos, but it seems he was Christian, and he was being ridiculed for it.

We’re used to seeing glorious and moving representations of the crucifixion in art and architecture.  We decorate our churches with crucifixes and wear them round our necks, but that can make us blind us to its horror. To those who saw crucifixions happening all the time around them, they were a sign of failure, a deliberately shameful form of execution, handed out especially to traitors and rebels. And that’s how most people at the time saw Jesus - as a traitor, a rebel, and most of all, as a failure. Why would anyone want to worship, let alone follow and emulate, someone like that? The person who scratched that graffito didn’t get it. And yet people like Alexamenos did. Evidently, somehow he’d come to understand that in  dying on the cross, in deliberately embracing it, Jesus had  transformed its shame. Through it, he’d identified with those the world had cast out, the marginalised people he’d befriended in life, those who were crucified daily by prejudice, poverty, hatred, the mess of their society, and their own sense of guilt. Through his innocent death on it, the cross had become a reminder that whoever and wherever you were, whatever you had done and whatever had happened to you had a friend in him.

Peter eventually got his head around this too, but he had to learn the hard way.  When Jesus was arrested, Peter was challenged by some bystanders as he lurked in the shadows near the place of his trial. “Aren’t you one of his followers?” they asked him. But Peter denied it. He knew that he risked losing everything he valued – his status, his self-respect - even his life - if he admitted to being Jesus’ disciple. He was desperate to cling to what he had.  But as soon as he denied Jesus, he realised he’d sacrificed not only his integrity, but also his friendship with the only man who’d ever unswervingly accepted and loved him. Nothing he had was worth the price he’d  just paid. He wept bitterly, thinking there was no way back and it wasn’t until after the resurrection that he found the healing and forgiveness he needed.

Jesus had warned him, as he warns us, about putting too much trust in “human things” – about judging ourselves and others by the success criteria of the world around us – honour, status, wealth and strength. They aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. They often don’t make us as happy as we thought they would,  they bring their own worries and pressures with them and, getting to those goals often means treading pathways that, looking back, we bitterly regret. To paraphrase Jesus’ words here, “What will it profit someone if they have become the CEO, but have abused their power in order to do so? What will it profit someone to win an Olympic Gold medal, but only through doping? ” What value do these prizes have if getting them has corroded our souls by killing our capacity to love and care?

And to cap it all, those things won’t last. If we put our trust in our jobs, our families, our earning potential, what will happen to us when retirement, illness, or simple bad luck take away those markers of achievement?  How will we measure the “success” of our lives then?

It seems to me that Jesus is telling us that, in the end, the only goal that’s really worth giving ourselves to is the goal of knowing that wherever we are, whatever is happening to us, we’re held in the hands of God, who will never leave us. Living or dying, healthy or sick, famous or obscure, rolling in money or without tuppence to rub together, we are his, loved, known, never forsaken. That’s the prize worth giving everything for, the prize that is still there when everything else is lost.

One of the privileges of my work is to take communion to people who can’t get to church easily themselves anymore. Some of those I visit have dementia. They may have achieved all sorts of things in their lives, brought up families, held positions of authority, but gradually even those memories slip away, or survive to taunt them with what they used to do. I wish I had a magic wand to make life easier for them, and those who care for them, but I don’t.  I wonder, what does “success” mean for them? What does it mean for me as I visit them, when they may have forgotten my visit five minutes after I’ve gone? Is it worth going at all?

I’ve never doubted that the answer is yes. Just last week, I visited one man who, at the end of our little home communion, with its familiar words and symbols said, as he always does “Anne, that was wonderful!” And I absolutely believe it was.  
In that twenty minutes or so, as we prayed together, we both knew that we were in the presence of God, right there, right then. It didn’t matter what we remembered or didn’t remember, what we understood or didn’t understand, what we’d achieved or failed at in life. None of that could make God love either of us any more or any less, none of that could change God’s mind about us. A great deal had been lost – memories, skills, purpose – but for that brief time we had the only thing that really mattered, an awareness of the love of God, which nothing could destroy. Whatever we think a successful life might look like, in the end, to loved and to know we are loved, is the only success criterion that really matters.


Sunday, 11 February 2018

Sunday next before Lent : Transfiguration

Mark 9.2-9, 2 Corinthians 4.3-6, 2 Kings 2.1-12


In our Old Testament reading today Elijah seems like he is on a farewell tour, even his own funeral procession, and the company of prophets come out to see him at Bethel, Jericho and the Jordan. They know that Elisha is soon to lose his master, the father of all prophets and insist on telling him. In doing so they are also reinforcing their credentials as prophets.

But Elisha is already aware and seems a bit fed up that they might even think that that he wouldn’t know this. Elisha had ploughed fields before being called as Elijah’s servant so maybe they are reminding him of his previous lowly status and asserting their supposed superiority.

It must have been a stressful and worrying time for Elisha yet Elijah doesn’t seem to be offering much comfort or reassurance as he suggests that he doesn’t journey with him on these final travels, a strange way to treat someone who gave up their work and family to follow you.

Finally Elisha gets his moment alone with Elijah after they cross the Jordan and when asked what he wants as a final gift before he dies Elisha tells him that he also wants to be a prophet, only with ‘a double portion of your spirit’.

Elijah’s importance is reinforced through the dramatic symbolism of a chariot and horses of fire, seen only by Elisha, an incredible affirmation of God’s power, leaving him confirmed as Elijah’s successor. If we were to read on in the second book of Kings we would see that despite these amazing events Elisha doesn’t get stuck in the moment but recognises his calling and is quickly engaged with his work among the people bringing healing and meeting their needs.

Of course the past is important, often full of precious memories we treasure, and events we have learned from but there is also a danger that we can get stuck there if we look back and feel that one great event defines us or that we reached a peak we could never hope to repeat.

We often hear people recounting their sporting prowess, business success or military service in a way that seems to devalue the today.

I recall an American friend of mine who stayed with me for a while. A beer salesman from Seattle, he had an outgoing personality which would become evident as he rose before everyone else each morning with his daily proclamation of ‘Hey guys let’s get going, today is going to be a great day’! We don’t need to be quite so loud about it but the positive sentiment at the beginning of a new day is certainly to be commended.

The opposite can also be true of some people. Fans of ‘Fools and Horses’ will remember Uncle Albert, who only seemed to perk up when events meant he got an opportunity to start telling a story with ‘during the war’. One time when Del Boy and Rodney were moaning about the cold he told them ‘You should have been with me on the Russian convoys, one night it was so cold the flame on my lighter froze’.

Talking of the cold I think of hikes up in the Brecon Beacons, an area not particularly in demand from those seeking long hot days, particularly Pen Y Fan, Welsh for ‘top of this place’. I’ve set off facing rain like stair rods and stumbled through disorientating mist only to reach a high point where suddenly the clouds have parted, the sun has broken through and the majesty of God’s creation is revealed. Sometimes it even lasted 10 minutes before it poured with rain again.

In our Gospel Reading we heard of Peter, James and John as they are taken up a mountain by Jesus, whose ‘clothes became dazzling white’ and they are the only witnesses to Elijah and Moses talking with Jesus. God instructs them to listen to his son. Surely this is a high point for the disciples in every sense of the word leaving them in no doubt as to who Jesus is, only for Peter to put his foot in it by trying to cling onto the moment, make a suggestion that will make the whole experience more earthly, as if God needed his help. As if shelters were required.

Perhaps Peter came out with this just because the experience was so wonderful, terrifying, uplifting and shocking all at once that he couldn’t think straight. I guess we can all look back on times where we wish we hadn’t opened our mouths. Even in the Welsh Mountains it can be hard to find the words for the beauty around you and there’s definitely a time and place just to be still, silent and let your soul be nurtured.

Perhaps there’s a lesson for us, whilst there is a time to speak out when we have good cause to do so there’s also a time not to. Occasionally it’s better to remain silent and risk being thought foolish than to open our mouths and remove all doubt.

Of course, it’s also Peter, James and John who Jesus invites to watch with him in the garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and that doesn’t run too smoothly either with the disciples falling asleep. It’s as if we are invited to think ‘crikey surely these guys should have done better’ and yet at the same time encouraged. Encouraged because if we reflect on our own failures, we realise that Jesus doesn’t give up on them or us despite everything.

So we have Moses representing the Law of the Old Testament and Elijah the prophets, deferring to Jesus. They are indicating that they had pointed to him in all that went before and that he is their fulfillment.

Jesus brings us quickly back to earth as he tells the disciples to keep this to themselves until he had risen from the dead, knowing that there is much work to do. The disciples are far from clear what the future holds but at least 3 of them have no doubt who Jesus is.

Mark’s account is an important one for us as we move from Epiphany towards Lent. It’s a pivotal point as we revel in the fact that Jesus power and authority are revealed and yet know what he must face up to in order to complete his work.

We start to see that for both Elisha and the 3 disciples, whilst Gods powerful messages made matters clear for them it wasn’t the spectacular events which they were to dwell upon, these were a reference point for their work which lay ahead.

It’s a message for us too not to get stuck on mountain tops, whilst the literal interpretation can also be a bad idea hanging onto those times when everything peaks is to be enjoyed in the moment, then treasured in the past, but we are to return to the valley, back into the mess of everyday life as Jesus did to make God’s message real.

As we contemplate what we hope to achieve this Lent once we set our minds on a course of action let’s see it through even if it proves to be a struggle to do so.

It’s so easy to be motivated and have good intentions when we feel inspired by people or events in a great moment and yet the reality is that the outcomes are the personal responsibility of each of us. Let’s just say that there’s a lot more space in gym again now that January is over!

Perhaps the parents among us might consider the joyful imagery of having children versus the reality of getting up in the night to change nappies and feed them. In the long run we wouldn’t change anything but it’s certainly not a constant mountain top experience.

Maybe the thought of freeing yourself from the shackles of employment to be your own boss versus knuckling down to tax, compliance and responsibility, but it’s still worth it.

Paul is aware that our gospel is veiled to many which can make Christianity a challenge at times. Yet he offered encouragement to the church in Corinth as it faced adversity and his personal authority was being undermined. He pointed out that it can be the distractions that we allow to become our gods which have the potential to blind our minds from seeing the light of Christ.

I doubt whether we can ever have the same clarity that was bestowed upon Elisha and yet we choose to keep following Christ without miraculous revelations because we find the love of God made real in each other, in the Bible and in the Spirit. It’s a message of great encouragement and hope for us as people travelling onward together with purpose.

Our past, both good and bad does not define us or constrain us as we move forward, confident that God wants us, loves us and has a future for us.

Lent is a great opportunity to reflect on those things which may get between us and the light of Christ and to decide whether we are going to do anything about them. In doing so we have the potential to be transfigured ourselves.


Kevin Bright

11th February 2018

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Second Sunday before Lent: Becoming Flesh

There are some wonderful words in today’s readings; delight, rejoicing, pleased, glory. And what links them all is that they are all words which are being used in the context of material creation, of physical existence, of the flesh and blood reality of human life.

There’s been a persistent trend in Christian history to shunt the focus of faith from the realm of the physical to the realm of the spiritual, from this earth which we know and inhabit to some sort of hazy ethereal place in a distant heaven, as if the world to come is the only world that really counts. “Pie in the sky when you die”, is the caricature. It’s a temptation that dates right back to the early days of the church, when the Jewish faith of Jesus’ first Galilean followers was embraced by the Greek-speaking and, more importantly, Greek-thinking people of the Eastern Mediterranean nations beyond Israel. Many schools of Greek influenced philosophy at the time of Christ were very ambivalent about bodies and physical stuff generally. Some held that the world was really the botched initiative of a lesser god, others that the material creation was just a shadow of a better, purer ideal which was beyond our grasp. Many ancient Creation myths viewed men and women as a nuisance to the Gods, or as playthings to be used for divine convenience.

And while Greek sculptors gave us some of the most glorious statues of the human body, like those from the Parthenon, they were very definitely of the body at its most beautiful, youthful and strong. We may think that the obsession with body image is a modern one, but if the Greeks had had Photoshop, you can bet they would have used it to the full. The Greeks may have celebrated the body, but only at its best, and let’s face it, for most of us that’s a fairly unreachable ideal.  Perhaps I just speak for myself here, but it seems to me that most people don’t look like Greek Gods and Goddesses. Human bodies sag and bulge and creak and wrinkle. They don’t work the way we want them to. They let us down at vital moments, and ultimately they let us down completely in death.  It’s no wonder that people have so often preferred to believe that we are really just waiting for the moment when we can cast off this clayey prison and waft up into the air as an incorporeal spirit.

But that’s not what the Bible says. It’s not what traditional Jewish theology says. It’s not what our readings today tell us. Instead, they talk about creation, all of it, including our fallible human bodies, as something to delight in, to rejoice in, a glory and a wonder. Material creation, this stuff which we, and everything else around us, is made of isn’t a second-best, botched job, a ghastly mistake on the part of the creator. It is God’s pride and joy.

In the first reading, from the book of Proverbs, the figure of Wisdom works with God to create the world and then rejoices with him in his “inhabited world” “delighting in the human race.”  The Psalm is another joyful celebration of the world its writer lived in. “How manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all.” God meant us to be as we are, saggy bits and wrinkles and all, growing, changing, stumbling, aging, not in some state of static, botoxed perfection.

The Bible doesn’t downplay or ignore the problems of physical living – its pains and struggles – or the reality of the sins we commit which mar and damage the world. It doesn’t pretend that everything is always as we, or God, would like it to be But that doesn’t mean that God has rejected his creation. I have never been able to get my head around a theology that believes that God has withdrawn from us in some kind of divine huff because, in his holiness, he is somehow allergic to human sin and unable to exist in its presence. Nor can I believe that there was an unbridgeable gulf between humanity and God until Jesus came. The reason that’s never made much sense to me is that when I read the Bible, that unbridgeable gulf doesn’t seem to be there. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Again and again in the Old Testament, just at the point when human beings have screwed up completely and when all hope is lost God is there alongside them. He shows himself in a burning bush, in the vision of a ladder set up to heaven, in a still, small voice that comforts the prophet Elijah as he sits in despair in a mountain cave. He is present with slaves in Egypt and exiles in Babylon. They may not notice him. They may have turned their backs on him, but he is right there beside them all the time.

The famous Gospel reading we heard today rams that message home – “the Word became flesh and lived among us”  - among us! The people we meet in the Gospels – even those Jesus chose as his closest followers – weren’t plaster saints. They were vacillating, cowardly, sometimes treacherous people, people who squabbled among themselves and generally blundered around making things worse rather than better much of the time. They lived in an occupied land, often having to collaborate with the powers that oppressed them and make uneasy moral compromises in order to survive. Many of them had distinctly dubious backgrounds. They were tax-collectors and prostitutes, people whose lives were broken, who felt hopeless and helpless. Yet it was precisely to these people that Jesus came, God with us, God in the mess, God in the chaos, God in flesh and blood – real flesh and blood like theirs, like ours, which bleeds and hurts and dies. Why would God want to “become flesh” if this is what being flesh means?  Surely it was in order to convince us that, despite all this, flesh is still blessed, because his was flesh which also held and hugged, which knew the pleasure of a good meal at the end of a long day, which felt the silkiness of oil soothing rough skin. Jesus’ body is, quite literally, a tangible demonstration of what God thinks of human flesh, and of the world it inhabits. It is a place he wants to be.

The physical body of Jesus, born in Bethlehem, walking the roads of Galilee, sharing bread with the hungry, nailed to the cross, tells us that our bodies, all bodies, are God’s best idea, not some awful mistake. “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” said our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. And “through him” – because of his earthly, physical life, his bodily death, his bodily resurrection  – “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or heaven through the blood of his cross.” Human beings often feel estranged - from God, from one another, even from our own bodies - not because God has withdrawn from us but because we are hiding from him. And when we are estranged from our Creator we tend also to lose sight of the blessedness of what he has made, our fellow creatures and ourselves. Through Jesus, God deals with that sense of estrangement. He shows himself to be as close as he can get to us, in a human body. If he has so honoured human flesh and material creation, who are we to curse it, however troublesome or disappointing it can sometimes be?

I’m in the thick of writing our Lent course for this year at the moment. It’s called “Coming to our senses”, and it will focus on each of our five senses in turn over the five weeks of the course. There’ll also be daily reflections encouraging us to be aware of what we see, hear, smell, feel and taste. What I’ve realised as I’ve prepared it, though, is that you can’t think about senses without thinking about bodies. Without a body we’d have no senses. And that brings us up slap-bang against all our complicated feelings about being bodily people.

I’m very aware that for some, a course on the senses may mean thinking about a body which doesn’t work as we would like it to, or as it once did. We may delight in the beauty of the world, but feel frustrated that we can’t see it as well as we used to. We may celebrate the sounds of nature, but be painfully aware that we are missing out on some of them because our hearing has deteriorated. The sense of touch, of physical sensation, may be fraught with difficulty for us because we are in pain, or because we’ve been touched in ways that have hurt or frightened us. Smell and taste, so important to enjoying food, may have deserted us. Our bodies may not be a source of delight to us, but rather of anxiety, regret or shame.

We live in an age in which people seem increasingly anxious about their bodies and their appearance. Young people take endless selfies to share on social media, tyrannised by the need for others to “like” the images they post. Eating disorders and self-harm are rife, evidence of the profound difficulty many people have in being the people they are in the bodies they have. Older people desperately fight the signs of aging, buying into the lie that the only bodies worth having are young bodies. And if that wasn’t complicated enough, there’s the whole business of sex, with all the confusions that brings…No wonder bodies are often seen as problems.

If ever we needed to be reminded that flesh is good and that it is blessed by the presence of its Creator, however imperfect it feels to us, it is now.

God, in Christ, is “making peace”, says Paul to the Colossians. He makes peace between peoples. He makes peace between us and himself. But it seems to me that he also wants to help us make peace with ourselves, with our own bodies, to accept ourselves as we are, warts and all, as our flesh grows and changes, works and loves, hurts and heals, ages and dies.

So today, perhaps we should go home and look in the mirror and ask ourselves “how is my flesh, my fragile, imperfect flesh, blessed by God? How can I find God within this body, a body that isn’t some Greek sculptor’s ideal of beauty, but the only body I’ve got.” And as we look I pray that we will catch a glimpse of the God who dwells in us, who made us and loves us, just as we are, and that we will delight in his creation – ourselves - just as he does.