Friday, 26 May 2017

Ascension Day: Battered and scarred

Happy Christmas!
You probably think I have had a bit of a brain fade, but there is a sense in which today is really the end of the season of Christmas, not of Easter.
At Christmas we celebrate God coming down to us, in the shape of a baby, vulnerable and helpless, as all babies are, pure and innocent, as all babies are. God comes to us as a clean slate, a new beginning , someone as yet untouched by the world into which he has been born, just as all babies are. But he is born into a maelstrom of hardship, sin and hatred, as all babies are too. His hands will grow calloused in the carpenter’s workshop. His feet will ache from walking the roads of Galilee. And in the end he will hang battered and bloody, on the cross. Even when he rises from death, his body will still bear the scars the world has inflicted on him.
And that is the body which, according to the stories we hear on Ascension Day, rises into heaven. Not the cherubic baby, with silky smooth skin and tiny, perfect, sea-shell ears, but the body marked by the hardships of life and death.
It was shocking – offensive even – to the people of Jesus’ time to imagine that God could be found in the form of a crucified man. Crucifixion was a disgrace, a sign of God’s rejection. Jewish law forbade those who were diseased or disabled entry into the Temple. Mangled bodies were unholy, a sign of God’s rejection, a sign of failure. Gentile Greek thought idealised physical beauty too – there was nothing unusual about this equation between physical and moral beauty. The Greeks even used the same word – kalos – to mean beautiful and morally good; think of all those ancient sculptures which celebrated the perfect body.  Morality and appearance were inextricably linked. That’s something we’ve never entirely shaken off, but at the time of Jesus it was almost unquestioned. How, then,  could Jesus possibly be God’s Messiah?
That’s why the early church set so much store by Ascension Day, why it mattered so much to them. It was the proof to them that you could be battered, mangled, suffering, a complete failure in the world’s eyes, and yet be loved and honoured by God. And that’s why it seems to me that this day is the completion of Christmas, the completion of  Christ’s work of incarnation. At Christmas, Christ came down to us, to be where we are. But on Ascension Day, he took us back with him into heaven, wounds, scars and all. He took into heaven the mess of the world, a world where young men grow up so twisted inside that they think it is a good idea to blow up children and young people enjoying a pop concert. He presented that world to his Father, the world which had torn him apart, whose scars he bore, and his Father didn’t turn away in disgust. Instead, in the beautiful words of Revelation 21, he turned towards it – towards us - and turns towards us still, wiping every tear from our eyes, and making all things new.
It doesn’t matter that today we know that heaven isn’t in the sky, that the “up” and “down” of this story doesn’t really work for us anymore. The message is the same. We are where God is, just as we are. God is where we are, just as God is. There’s no barrier, no wall, nothing that divides us. There’s nothing that we can do, or can have done to us, which keeps us apart from God. We don’t have to hide what is broken or ugly in us. We don’t have to reject what is broken or ugly in others. That means that we are set free to love and to forgive ourselves and others too. In the face of sin and evil such as we have seen this week, we are set free to cry “Lord, have mercy,” instead of “Lord, take vengeance”.
Just as he was, scarred and battered, Jesus was taken into the heart of his Father on Ascension Day. Just as we are, scarred and battered – scarring and battering -we are taken into his heart today too, so that he can make all things new in us.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Easter 6: God's children. Breathing Space Communion sermon

“I will not leave you orphaned” says Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. I wonder what images come to your mind when you hear the word “orphan”. Perhaps Little Orphan Annie, or a character from Charles Dickens – his stories are full of orphans like Oliver Twist or Pip from Great Expectations. Orphans are common in Victorian novels, partly because there were so many of them, in an age when parents died of many things they would now easily survive. I’ve looked back into my family tree, and found my great-great grandfather in a workhouse at the age of 5 with his older sister. His mother had died of cholera, and I've never been able to trace what happened to the father. At 13, he was working as a farm labourer, then became a navvy, and died in his 40’s of pneumonia after an all-too-short life of hardship which would seem unimaginable to most of us. What chance did he have?

Or perhaps when you hear the word “orphan” you think of the many orphans there are around the world now in places where life is still fragile and perilous. Sub-Saharan Africa has a huge population of orphans, many of whom have lost parents to AIDS. 11 million children under the age of 15 in Sub-Saharan Africa have lost one or both parents to the disease; some are being cared for by their wider family, others have no family to support them.

The word “orphan” is a powerful and somewhat terrifying one. It is every parent’s worst nightmare to think of their children having to navigate the world alone, and every small child’s worst nightmare to find themselves alone without a friendly adult to help them.

But of course Jesus isn't speaking to small children when he speaks those words we heard today. He’s speaking to his disciples on the night before he dies. They are grown adults, burly fishermen who've sailed boats through gales, tax-collectors who've had to deal with the Roman political and military machine, women who have lived on the margins of their societies, and had to develop quick wits and courage. Yet he recognises that when they lose him, first to crucifixion and then as he ascends to his Father in heaven, they will feel lost, bereft, uncertain. They will have to make their own decisions, take on the work he has called them to. And it won’t be easy. They will face persecution. They will feel orphaned.

The fact is that, however old we are, however much we’ve been through, we all come to points in our lives when we realise we can’t face life on our own, when we look around for someone who knows what they are doing or who at least looks as if they do. We may be grown up chronologically, but there’s a small child in each of us, looking for help and guidance.

“I will not leave you orphaned” says Jesus. What does he mean? The rest of the reading makes it clear. Through his Holy Spirit, he say, they will feel his presence in an even deeper way than the way they have until then. Up until now, they have had to physically be with him to see him, hear him and feel him. But the Spirit of God will be within them, like the sap that rises through the grapevine, like the blood that circulates through their veins, closer than their own heartbeat. And the Spirit will be known too in their community – the Spirit isn’t some personal possession, but will be in the love that draws them to each other.

In our first reading, from the book of Acts, St Paul stands on a well-known debating place in Athens, the centre of philosophical learning in the ancient world. Athens was home to people of every philosophy, every religion and none. He had walked there past a bewildering array of shrines to this god and that goddess, and had even found one to “the unknown god” – a way of hedging your bets just in case you’d forgotten one. The shrines were mute testaments to the human longing to reach out beyond ourselves, to find support and care in a vast and sometimes lonely universe. But Paul is confident as he talks to these people that he has found the source of the love that is really needed. “We are God’s offspring” he says, his own children, known, loved and held in his safe embrace, children of a God who loved us so much that he came among us himself, served us and died for us.

“I will not leave you orphaned”. Whatever we face, we do not face it alone, but surrounded by love that nothing can destroy.


Sunday, 14 May 2017

In My Father's House...

Audio version here

John 14.1-14, Acts 7.55-60 & 1 Peter 2.2-10

‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places’ we heard Jesus say. My immediate thought was ‘well there’s certainly no shortage of people to fill these spaces. Every day we hear about housing problems, overcrowded households, and unaffordable properties, and even then there are still not enough of them.

Today’s gospel reading follows the foot washing of the disciples by Jesus and his parting speech to them at the Last Supper. The disciples are clearly confused by what he is saying and I’m sure many us of would have been too without the hindsight we now enjoy.

Jesus wasn’t speaking in the context of a housing crisis he was explaining that there will be a place with God for everyone and that the disciples need not fear their imminent separation from him as they would be together again in time to come. He didn’t go on to say of course some are en-suite, some have balconies or a sunny courtyard, and room service will only be for the few. No it’s an equal place with God regardless of whether you currently share a single room or live in a mansion here on earth.

It’s a beautiful demonstration of God’s wild generosity that he effectively flings the doors wide open despite the fact that there was no room at the inn for him when Mary and Joseph sought shelter for Christ’s birth.

Of course for some people the thought of a place with God which offers comfort, love, peace and security sounds so much better than what they have now that the temptation could be to miss out the earthly bit and go direct. It’s no joke when you think of people facing starvation, war, abuse or homelessness who have lost all hope of a better life.

In Acts we heard that Stephen is focussed on his heavenly vision of Jesus beside God as he is stoned to death with Paul, then Saul, watching the process approvingly.

Rabbi Lionel Blue who died late last year recorded his own obituary. (That is pre-recorded!) In it he said that he never really thought of this world as home, more like a departure lounge where you make a few friends and then you’re off. For that reason it was always the people that mattered most.

Peter’s letter is for a diverse group of people in the early stages of the church who are starting to realise that Jesus isn’t going to be taking them to dwell with God just yet. The impact of this is that they will need to find meaningful existence on this earth for longer than they may have planned for and this would include facing up to persecution because of their faith.

We all know that lack of a home and lack of shelter can arise for a multitude of reasons and will usually result in further difficulties including poor personal safety, health problems and unemployment to name but a few.

It’s all very well looking forward to a future with God after this life but in the words of Christian Aid who are collecting this week ‘we believe in life before death’, as well as after. Christian Aid week is highlighting the plight of refugees.

They cite the example of one family forced to flee their home in Afghanistan. After crossing to Greece in a dinghy they were told they would live in a tent for 10 days but are still there 6 months later. No fit dwelling place for a family with so many problems.

Some homeless people build temporary shelters from whatever materials they can collect, some refugees live in mass produced modular buildings which meet basic requirements but are not meant for long term residence, many have nothing. When you actually take time to think about it in the context of God’s time we all live in temporary shelters whether they are made of cardboard or crafted from brick and stone. We can only enjoy their shelter as long as we live and in the longer term no material lasts for ever. Even though we may find it hard to imagine now, one day the places we call home will crumble away or be demolished to make way for something else. Next time you’re at a gathering you could always try shifting the terminology a little when the house price bores start comparing notes, you’ll probably get a strange look if you say ‘Oh darling your temporary shelter must have gone up a lot in value over the past few years.’

Space for all is what God offers and if his kingdom is to come on earth there’s no doubt that he wants us to help those trying to find it. When we have baptism’s here Anne will usually say ‘meet your new family’ and I’m sure some will look at us all and think what a motley crew you lot are. Young and old, different nationalities, different backgrounds but all brought together as a family in God.

Last week I was between meetings in central London and needed a quiet half an hour to do some reading. I decided to sit in the area next to the crypt café under St Martin-in-the-Fields on the corner of Trafalgar Square. Partly due to the work of the church the surrounding area is always busy with people who have no home. When I’d finished reading I took the steps which lead directly into the church to pray for a short while. None of pews were occupied so I knelt in the middle and started praying. As I did so I heard loud snoring and saw movement all around the back of the church, people with no home found shelter here, bare feet poked out from under a blanket, I could work out that there were people from many nationalities around me. It was one of those moments, more focused than usual because of the setting, that I was reminded that these people are my family, my brothers and sisters, a real motley crew to be sure. Of course I’m not so naïve to think that it would be easy to live alongside these people day by day but I do hope to spend eternity with them and when you have such a moment of clarity indifference to their plight is not a possibility.

As we look around us at God’s people we may all appear a little different but we are united in our common humanity and God’s love for us. However dishevelled, no matter what our past failures may be when we start to see each other as family, family that we want to help and share with, God is delighted and through him we are collectively transformed into something majestic. This is what Peter is trying to convey to this rag tag bunch of Christians, their potential to come together as a temple of worship with Jesus as their cornerstone. We know that God loves the world and its people and he has shown us that there is no limit to this. So as long as we are on this earth the way we live our lives gives us an opportunity to respond to his love in the way we relate to each other regardless of our differences.

Jesus was challenging thinking about what his Father’s house really meant. You will be familiar with the time when he overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple telling them’ stop making my Father’s house a market place’. He wants them to cease thinking that the temple is the only place they can meet with God and expand their horizons to consider the possibilities of a new relationship that gives access to God’s house via Jesus.

If we want to be at home with God we may find our security in different ways. It’s a sense of home available to everyone, particularly those who have not been lucky enough to have a safe peaceful home in their lives. When Thomas asks ‘how can we know the way’, the way to God, Jesus replies with those famous words ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’ Effectively he is telling Thomas that if you want to know what God is like, he is like me, and if you want a room in his mansion you will find it through me. If we want to be at home with God we need to be at home with Jesus and we don’t have to wait until we depart this world to move in.

Of course physical shelter is a necessity but thinking of home as a strong loving relationship can also be helpful. In the Old Testament book of Proverbs we find the words ‘by wisdom a house was built, through understanding it is established, through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures’. We can be at home in God. Home is where unconditional love lives, it’s the same place the prodigal son headed for when he came to his senses but for us there is no need to go anywhere because Jesus came to us with God’s message ‘welcome home.’

Kevin Bright
13th May 2017

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Easter 4: Called by God

Today is Vocations’ Sunday, the Sunday in the Church’s year when we are asked especially to pray for all those who feel called by God to ministry of one sort or another, to pray that they will answer that call. It feels very appropriate to me to be thinking about that, today because I will be away for most of next week serving on a Bishops’ Advisory Panel, helping with the process of selecting those who want to be ordained as priests and deacons. It’s an intensive process, for the candidates and advisers, so do hold us all in your prayers. 

But it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that vocation is only about those who get ordained, as Nicky will be in September, and I was 23 years ago, and those who are licensed Readers, like Kevin, those who get up in the pulpit and preach. Maybe we might we might expand it a bit to include Sunday School teachers like Babs, or those who lead home groups. Or perhaps we might go further than that and think of Servers and musicians and choir members and PCC members and Churchwardens and all those who enable the church to run smoothly – they may have a sense of calling to those roles too. Perhaps we might think outside the church, about people called to be missionaries, or those who work in the caring professions or in education – doctors and nurses and teachers. All of these things have been traditionally described as vocations, things people feel called to do, not just for the money, but because they have an intrinsic value.

But even if we included all those people, we would still be missing the point, because the Bible tells us that every one of us is called by God, called to spread the light we have found, called to use our unique gifts for the good of others. God made us as we are. He knows us as we are. He calls us as we are. Every one of us has a vocation.

At confirmation when the Bishop lays hands on the heads of those making their profession of faith, he says “God has called you by name and made you his own.” It’s a powerful statement.  “God has called you by name.”  The world may call us all sorts of names, good or bad. People might call us “Mum” or “Dad” or “Boss” or “Champion”, or they might call us “useless” or “unworthy” or “a waste of space”, but God knows who we really are. He calls us by our true names. He calls us “beloved” because he made us to be loved. He calls us “blessing” because he made us to bless the world.  He has called us, whoever we are, whatever our strengths and weaknesses, whatever our age and ability. And note that he has called us – not he will call us or he might call us if we are good enough. He has called us. It’s already happened. From the moment we are created, we are also called.

That’s what vocation is really about. It’s about hearing our true names, understanding our true identities and living them out.

The word vocation comes from the Latin “vocare” – to call. We get “vocal” and “voice” from it. And right from the beginning in the Bible we find God calling.  

It starts with God’s voice calling creation into being. God calls out into the darkness, “Let there be light” and there is light.
Just a few chapters later, he calls out to Adam and Eve, “where are you?” calling them to him, but finds, to his sadness, that they are hiding because they’ve learned fear from a lying snake. But God’s voice carries on calling out. He calls out to Abraham, an elderly man who thinks his life is over, “Go from your native land and become the father of a multitude” he tells him.
He calls out to Moses, from a burning bush, with the reassurance that he has heard and seen what his people are going through as slaves in Egypt, and that Moses will be the one to lead them to freedom.
He calls out to the prophets, with words of comfort and words of challenge for the times they live in.
He calls out to Mary, through an angel, telling her that she’s to bear a son.
He calls out to fishermen and tax collectors, through Jesus, and to women and children, lepers and outcasts -  to anyone who will hear him - with the words “come and follow me” “let your light shine” “love one another as I have loved you.”

God is a God who calls and keeps calling. He calls everyone – there is no one who is left out.

God calls, but hearing that call is another matter. We may struggle even to hear that true name God knows us by, but it can be even more difficult to hear what God wants us to do, which path he wants us to follow amidst the clamour of all the other voices we her.  In the Gospel reading Jesus didn’t just say “He calls his own sheep by name.” He went on, “and leads them out”. We are called to go places with God. But where, and when, and how? That’s the puzzle.

In that famous Psalm we heard today, Psalm 23, it all sounds quite easy. God leads the Psalmist beside the still waters, he guides him in the right pathways. When the road is tough, God walks beside him, right to the journey’s end, where the table is spread and the cup overflows. Well, that might have been the Psalmist’s experience, at least in hindsight, but mine, and I expect yours, is often rather different. We stumble along, vaguely hoping we’re going in the right direction, but find ourselves up blind alleys or going round and round in circles.

How can we help ourselves hear God’s call, to be aware of God’s guiding presence?

I was talking to someone the other day who reminded me of the Celtic Church’s belief in what are called “thin places”, places where we feel naturally close to God, where the barriers between earth and heaven are dissolved. These might be ancient holy sites like Lindisfarne or Iona, or places of great natural beauty. Churches can be “thin places” too, places where we naturally seek God. But it seems to me that the key to hearing God’s voice day to day, sensing that nudge that shifts us this way or that in the direction he wants us to go, is that we need to make our own “thin places”. The first reading we heard today might give us a clue how we can do that.

It’s from the book of Acts, and it’s probably a rather idealised picture, but it’s an attempt to describe what the author thought a healthy Christian community looked like, and he singled out some interesting features.

What do we find out if we look at it?

He tells us that the first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers”. They came together, in other words - regularly, faithfully, expectantly. They valued each other’s gifts. They knew that they needed each other and could learn something of God from each other. You can be a Christian on your own, but often we hear God’s voice in the voices of our brothers and sisters, so if we don’t come together we miss that.

“They had all things in common” he goes on. “They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”  That’s a tough one, and Christians through the ages have always struggled with it, but at the very least, it tells us that service of others, giving of ourselves, is important if we want to discover God at work among us. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says that we will meet him in those who are hungry and thirsty (Matthew 25). God speaks to us in those who ask for help. If we don’t listen to their voices, we won’t hear his.

“They spent much time together in the Temple,” he says. The Temple was the traditional place of worship, the place where the Jewish people believed they’d meet God. The early Christians didn’t reject their Jewish heritage. They treasured it, as Jesus had done. So they kept on showing up in the place where they knew God might speak to them, letting the words of their ancient scriptures sink into them. them. We do ourselves a favour if we let the words of the Bible, the prayers we say and the hymns we sing become familiar. God often speaks to us through them, and they are always there for us when we can’t come up with words of our own. Tradition matters if we want a healthy faith.

But we are also told that they “broke bread at home”. They took those ancient traditions and words into their everyday experience, made sense of them for themselves, found in them new resonances in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. And because of that, the traditions, and the people who kept them were transformed. They “ate their bread with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of the people. “

Through all these practices, by paying attention to the daily routines of prayer, service and being together, they became attuned to God’s voice, aware of his presence. They made “thin places” for themselves in their everyday lives, places where they knew they’d find God. Many of them had hard lives. Many of them were poor. Many of them were slaves. Many of them had to pay a high price for their faith, losing family and friends. Some of them endured squalid deaths, just as Jesus had done. But because they’d made these “thin places,” places worn thin by the holy habits they’d built up they were able to hear God’s voice, and answer his call, even in the midst of trouble.

God still speaks. I know I’ll be reminded of that this week as I listen to the stories of those who feel called to ordained ministry, as I have done when I’ve served on these panels before,  but the truth is that all of us are called. We’re called by the voice of the one who longs to transform and heal us, and send us out to others in loving service. So I pray that we will all make for ourselves  “thin places” in our lives so we can hear the voice that calls us loud and clear.  Amen 

If you are interested in finding out more about authorised ministry of one kind or another (lay or ordained) within the C of E, these links might help. Whatever you feel called to - inside or outside the church - I'm always happy to chat to you about it.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Easter 2: What kind of seed are you?

Easter 2 17

Last week, on Easter Sunday, I preached about Jesus being mistaken for a gardener by Mary Magdalene, and about how that might not be such a mistake after all. Jesus really is a gardener, a gardener of souls, one who plants and waters and nurtures us, hoping for a harvest of the fruit of the spirit. I gave everyone a runner bean seed, and my guess is that at least some of them are starting to send out roots in a pot of compost in people’s homes. I hope so, anyway. Runner bean seeds are pretty reliable to germinate, and fairly quick at this time of year, given a bit of heat. So long as the slugs don’t get them, they should be up and away in no time.
But this week I wanted to continue the horticultural theme, because runner beans aren’t all that’s growing at the vicarage. I’d like to show you this...

It’s a pot of seedlings – they look a bit like grass, but they aren’t. Last summer I noticed that the Regal Lilies I have in the border had set seed. Normally I snap the old flower heads off when they have finished flowering so their energy goes into building up the bulbs, but I’d forgotten, and they formed big, fat seed heads. I let them ripen, and eventually they split open. They were full of seeds. Now, that’s red rag to a bull if you like growing things. I didn’t know whether they were likely to be viable, but what did I have to lose? I did a bit of research, which told me that lily seeds didn’t need any special cossetting or heat, so I sowed them in this shallow tray of compost, and I left them outside. And there the tray sat. It sat there through the autumn. Nothing happened. The seeds were rained on, snowed on, frozen solid from time to time.  The early spring came. Still nothing happened, and I was about to give up when I noticed a green shoot poking up through the compost, and then another and another. Now I have a whole tray full of lily seedlings, which I will eventually pot on. I don’t expect they’ll flower for years, but here they are.

 The thing about lily seeds, you see, is that they are seeds which need what is called “vernalisation”. Lilies might seem exotic, but their seeds need to be exposed to the cold of winter before they will germinate. It’s a trick some plants have evolved to help make sure that their seeds don’t germinate in the autumn, because then the fragile seedlings would risk being crushed by snow, or blasted by cold winds. Far safer to overwinter as a seed and start growing in the spring. If you don’t want to wait all winter, you have to cheat by putting them in the freezer for a few weeks.

Now, you may be starting to wonder whether this is a sermon or an episode of Gardeners’ Question Time?  But it was the story of Thomas, which we heard in the Gospel reading which reminded me of them. He was the disciple who wasn’t prepared to believe in the resurrection instantly, just because everyone else told him it had happened. He features just a couple of times in the Gospels, and when he does, he often seems to be asking questions. Jesus tells his disciples on the night before he dies that he is going away, but that they know the way to follow him. It’s Thomas who says what they are all thinking. “No, we don’t, Lord! We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”  And now, after the resurrection, he wants proof. He wants to put his hands in the nail marks and spear mark. Then he’ll believe. So Jesus comes to him, and beckons him to do just that. Jesus is happy to appear to Thomas and give him the evidence he felt he needed, so that he could believe and “believing, have life in his name.”

Whatever else this story tells us, it tells us that it’s ok to be different from one another when it comes to faith, just as it is in every other part of our lives. Some people here may have had an intense religious experience, and never had a doubt in their lives afterwards. They may never have felt the need to ask questions, and are rather baffled by those who do. For others, faith has always been tentative and questioning, but maybe all the stronger for it. For some faith is an instant thing. For others it may have taken years of tiptoeing around the edges before they start to trust God. Some have come to faith through the ministry of friends, or something that happens in church. For others it has come out of the blue through something quite unrelated. Some come to faith in hard times. Others lose their faith in those times. Faith may change over the years. In fact, it would be odd if it didn’t. It may be lost and found and lost and found again, and again, and again. It may need nurturing in different ways at different times in our lives.

That’s why these seedlings seemed to have a message to share this week.  Every sort of plant is different. We might be runner beans, needing a bit of warmth to germinate, or we might be lilies, who need to go through a hard winter before our seed coat breaks open. We may be something else completely. Whichever we are is fine. What’s important is that we realise that we are all seeds of some sort, full of life and potential. It’s just that we all need different conditions to grow as we should. God knows those needs, just as he knew Thomas’ needs. He takes us seriously, just as he took Thomas seriously. What we need to do is take ourselves seriously and seek out the nourishment he offers, putting our roots down into the soil in which he plants us.

Thomas, once he’d made his commitment, didn’t look back. There was no stopping him once he’d got started. “My Lord and my God!” he said. Legend has it that he went eastward with the message of the gospel, and ended up in India, where he was eventually martyred, but not before he had started a church there, a church which continues to this day. The Mar Thoma Church of India, a Syrian Orthodox church, traces its origin back to Thomas – it’s there in their name. Mar Thoma – St Thomas. I haven’t counted how many lily seedlings I’ve got here but it’s a lot, but they all came from one flower on one plant. One man, Thomas, nurtured into life a church which has sustained the faith of countless millions of Christians through the ages.

Each one of us can have an effect on the lives of others if we allow God to do his work through us. It may not be as dramatic as Thomas’, but it can be very significant nonetheless.  We don’t have to go to India to have that effect either. It can be as simple as helping a neighbour, getting involved in a campaign for justice, offering to pray for someone who is going through a hard time, inviting them along to something here that you think they’d enjoy – whatever will help them to find the life which they need at that moment.

God calls us as we are, because he needs us as we are. In Thomas, he called someone who would question, because he wanted and needed someone who would question to be part of that team of people who first heard the message of Jesus. He calls us too. Noisy people, quiet people, extraverts and introverts, traditionalists and radicals, people with Ph.D.’s and people who left school with no qualifications at all, people whose faith journey has been straightforward and people who have to wrestle with doubts every day, and who’ll never feel sure of their faith, but keep turning up anyway. You, as you are, can do things for God that no one else can do, because of who you are and where you are. And if you don’t do them, perhaps no one ever will.

God calls us as we are, because he needs us as we are. He nourishes us with what we need, so that we can grow into people who are full of life, and that life can seed itself in others too.

So, what kind of seed are you? What do you need in order to grow? What are you going to do today to put down your roots into God and draw up the nourishment you need?

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Easter Sunday: The Gardener God

“Supposing him to be the gardener, Mary said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away , tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away…”

“Supposing him to be the gardener…”
It just seems like a throwaway line in the Gospel reading today. Mary’s first thought when she encounters the risen Christ is that he’s the gardener. It’s an odd little detail, and it’s easy to think it’s really not important.

But John’s a careful and meditative writer. He always chooses his words very deliberately, so if he tells us that Mary thought Jesus was the gardener – not just a passing stranger or a general labourer - it probably means something beyond the obvious statement of fact.

Israhel van Meckenem (German, ca. 1445–1503),
Noli me tangere, 1460–1500.
Engraving. British Museum, London.
Of course, it’s quite understandable that Mary might expect to see a gardener in a garden, and she certainly didn’t expect to see Jesus, but it’s such a specific description that commentators have been convinced from the earliest times that it was significant, and I’m inclined to agree with them. Artists have often picked up on this detail too. They’ve often painted Jesus with a spade – as the picture in the service sheet shows -  or even in full gardening gear, floppy hat and all. It can look a bit daft, frankly. Why would the risen Christ need a spade? Was he planning on getting a few cabbages in the ground before he went to see the disciples? No, surely not.

John puts in this detail because he wants us to have the image of a gardener in our minds as we listen to what unfolds. He wants to trigger a whole set of associations which, if we know what they are, will bring deeper resonances to this story.

Gardening and gardens are a recurrent and very significant theme in the Bible. It all starts in a garden, after all. Genesis chapter 2 tells us that “The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.”  God planted it. It was a deliberate act. He was the very first and best gardener, and his was the first and best garden.

In the ancient Middle East gardens were highly prized. The ancient Persian word for a garden gives us our word “paradise”, and it’s no accident that heaven was described as a paradise too. The word literally meant an enclosed space, somewhere that could be cultivated and protected, unlike the wilderness outside its walls. It was a place to produce food, but also to relax and to socialise, just as our gardens are now. To plant a garden you needed to learn how to control your environment, how to irrigate, how to sow seeds and nurture what you’d planted. It was a mark of civilisation and status to have a garden, and the skills of the gardener were highly prized too.

The story from Genesis tells us that God, the master gardener, came walking in that first garden, the garden of Eden, in the cool of the evening breeze, just like any earthly gardener might have done. He wanted to enjoy what he’d made, with the people he had made it for. But he couldn’t find them. They were hiding from him, ashamed. It had all gone wrong, and they were driven out of the garden as a result.

You don’t have to believe in a literal Eden in order to understand the sorrow in that story. The people who wrote it weren’t writing science or history. They were writing the story of their own hearts and lives, which were shot through, as all our lives are, with regrets and failures and with an awareness that things weren’t as they ought to be. 

But God, like all good gardeners, wasn’t about to give up on them. Gardening, it seems to me, is an activity that demands hopefulness from us. Every year those of us who like to “grow our own”, sow thousands of seeds. Some never germinate. Those that do are decimated by disease, slugs, rabbits, greenfly, whitefly and a thousand other threats.  If we’re lucky a few make it through to the harvest but there are always a lot of disappointments. Yet each spring we start again, hoping to do better this year.

But our patience and hopefulness is nothing compared to God’s, according to the Bible. He sticks with his people through thick and thin. he rescues them from slavery in Egypt. He goes with them into exile in Babylon. The prophet Isaiah described Israel as a vine, one which God has carefully planted and tended, but which only bears wild grapes, small and sour.  (Isaiah 5) Yet God doesn’t give up on them. Isaiah goes on to say that God “will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord;” (Isaiah 51.3).

In the New Testament too, there’s a lot of gardening going on. Jesus often uses gardening imagery to talk about the kingdom of God. It’s like a sower sowing his seed indiscriminately on both good and bad ground, trusting that some of it, at least, will grow. It is like a tiny seed which grows into a tree big enough to shelter all the birds of the air. Jesus describes himself as a vine. His Father is the vine-dresser who grafts us onto him, so that we can share his life. He says too, just before his crucifixion, that he’s like a grain of wheat that has to fall into the ground and die, so that it can produce an abundant harvest.
And later on, the first Christians describe the Holy Spirit as something that produced fruit in them of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control.  Gardens and gardening is everywhere in the Bible when you start to look for it.

So when John wrote that Mary mistook Jesus for a gardener, I am sure he expected his readers to pick up on some of these associations. Mistaking Jesus for the gardener wasn’t an incidental detail, and, in a sense, it wasn’t really a mistake either. Jesus really is a gardener. He might not grow turnips or tomatoes, but he does grow souls. In his life and death and resurrection, the kingdom of God sprouts up into the world. That’s what this detail in the story is there to remind us of.

Hope pushes its way up through the cold clay of despair. Love finds a crack in the concrete of our hearts.  Joy lodges itself in a cranny in a high wall and breaks it apart by the power of its roots. One Galilean carpenter, dying on a cross because he wouldn’t go back on the message of love and welcome he had preached, started it, but we are given the privilege of continuing it. It only takes a seed or two to get this kingdom started, a small decision on our part, a single act of kindness, a word of welcome, and everything changes. And from those small beginnings, those single seeds, God can change the world.

Resurrection, when it comes on that first Easter morning, isn’t a grand event. The heavens aren’t torn open. There are no trumpets, no golden letters written on the sky. Resurrection is a green shoot of hope for a grief-struck woman who hears a voice call her name, and realises that her dead heart has unfurled into life again. It is a germinating seed of joy for two tired disciples on the road to Emmaus, who discover that the stranger who has walked beside them all the way is the Lord they thought they’d lost. Resurrection becomes real in the lives of those who encounter the risen Christ because their own lives burst into growth again through meeting him. And one by one, seedling by fragile seedling, they in their turn bring new life to the world, and the garden of God’s kingdom grows.

That’s why, today, I wanted to give you a seed to take home. It’s a runner bean seed. You can do what you like with it – just don’t eat it raw, because runner bean seeds are mildly toxic till they are cooked! You can keep it, hold it as you think or pray, or even sow it if you like and see what happens – there are no guarantees that you’ll be eating a crop come the summer, but you’ll never know if you don’t try.  Whatever you do, use it to help you think about your own life.  

Perhaps it will remind you of the seeds you need to sow – the new beginnings you need to make, the dreams you’ve never dared express, the things you always meant to do, but somehow haven’t got round to.

Perhaps it will remind you of the things that are already growing in you, that need feeding and watering, pruning and training, the relationships that need caring for, the bridges that need repairing.

Perhaps it will remind you of the fruits God wants you to share with the world, the gifts you have to give which could nourish and enrich others, but which you have never felt confident enough to offer.

I don’t know what God needs to do in the garden of your life. But what I do know - and I am utterly confident of this - is that we can trust his gardening skills. This Easter morning, the gardener of souls calls our name, as he called Mary’s.  He calls us to life. He calls us to growth. He calls us to abundant fruitfulness.  And nothing can make him give up on us.


Friday, 14 April 2017

Good Friday Afternoon: Home for Easter

I don’t suppose you can have missed the picture here at the front. It’s Rembrandt’s
“Return of the Prodigal Son”. It’s a famous image, of an even more famous story, one which most people know, even if they aren't churchgoers.
The Return of the Prodigal, by Rembrandt c.1667

I’ve used it to accompany a display that’s all about home – the children and adults at Messy Church this morning made some junk-model houses to accompany it -  because it seems to me, that’s what the story is about.   It’s about home – leaving home, returning home, but also about the more subtle sense in which we can feel “at home”, or not, as the case may be.

The younger son’s journey away from home and back is obvious. He asks for his inheritance, which his father gives without comment or judgement, and leaves for a distant country. When the money runs out – and so do the friends and the fun – eventually, in desperation, he comes back, only daring to hope that his father might take him back as a servant.

His father has other ideas, though, and the picture captures the moment when he embraces his son, having run to meet him. He doesn’t just take him back into the heart of the family. He throws a lavish party to celebrate.

But the story isn’t just about the younger son. There’s an older brother, too, who has been dutifully, if rather resentfully, working on the family farm throughout all this. When he hears the noise of the party, he’s furious.  He’s never even been given a goat to feast with his friends, he says to his father, never mind had a fatted calf killed for him. But his father answers, rather bemused, “You are always with me, and all that I have is yours.”  He only had to ask, and he could have had whatever he wanted. He has been at home all the time, but somehow never seems to have felt “at home” able to trust that his father loves him, that he can, in the best sense, take this love for granted and relax into it. The younger son has wasted his inheritance on “loose living” as some translations put it, but the older son wastes it on tight living, because he never dares to call on it at all.

But what, you might be asking, has all this got to do with Good Friday, this day when we remember Christ dying on the cross?

Well, it seems to me that the death and resurrection of Christ also have profound things to say to us about our sense of home. On the cross, Jesus comes to a place where no one would want to find themselves. He comes to a place of suffering and death - the killing fields of Calvary – where he is literally pinned down by hatred. He comes to a place where people are looking for someone to scapegoat, someone to mock and belittle. He comes into the midst of the power struggles and political turmoil of his time and allows himself to become the whipping boy on whom the Roman and Jewish authorities take out their jealousies and fears. He comes into a situation where he is helpless, just as so many were in his day, and still are in ours.

He comes, in other words, to places where we all find ourselves at some point, and which some have to inhabit all the time. He comes to places where we find ourselves estranged from one another, estranged from goodness, estranged from hope, estranged from God.  We may not know not quite know how we got into there, when we are in these places. But what we do know, deep down, is that we are a long way from home, a long way from where we should be, a long way from where we need to be.

“Father of all,” we pray in the Communion service, “we give you thanks and praise that when we were still far off, you met us in your Son and  brought us home.”  Christ comes to these places in which no one wants to be, and brings us home.  Or perhaps, more accurately, he comes to these places and, simply by being there, turns them into home, transforming them – and us - with his love. “Father forgive them” he prays for the soldiers who nail him to the cross. “Today you will be with me in paradise,” he says to the thief who hangs beside him, as if he’s the king of the universe, not just another crucified man – and of course, he is right. He is the king of the universe, and the cross becomes the gateway to his kingdom.

“Be at home in God,” says one anonymous proverb, “and the whole world will be your home.”  Or, as Jesus put it, “The Kingdom of God is among you… within you… close at hand.”  If that is true at all, if the Kingdom really can be right here and right now, it means that God isn’t just at home in the good things of life, in the glorious sunset, or the unfolding bluebells. He’s also at home in the squalor of a refugee camp, or the hopelessness of a prison cell, or the agony of grief. In fact, if God can’t be in these places, can he be anywhere at all?

For Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus is the proof of God’s presence in the worst of human experience, and the darkest of places, transforming them by his presence. Where God is, there is home, a place where we are loved and ultimately safe.

The hymn we are going to sing later in the service reminds us powerfully of this, and even more so when we know the rather convoluted story behind it. If you followed our daily reflections on hymns this Lent you may remember some of that story. The first couple of verses were originally a Swedish poem, written in the late 19th century, which was then translated into German and set to what is probably a Russian tune. The German hymn was in turn translated into Russian, and was discovered in that form in the 1930s by a British missionary, Stuart Hine, when he was working in the Carpathian mountains, on the border between Poland and Ukraine. He translated it into English. But that wasn’t the end of the tale.

When war broke out, Hine and his wife had to come home to England where during and after the war they worked with some of the many thousands of European refugees. The question those refugees often asked  them was “will we ever go home?”
It was this question which prompted Hine to write the fourth verse , the verse which ends the hymn now, as a reminder  to them that wherever they were, their true home was in Christ, and nothing could keep them from it. That’s why I wanted us to sing it today, because that’s just as true for us, not just after death or at the end of time, but here and now, every day, as we discover God’s presence with us.  
 We might feel like the younger son in Jesus’ parable. We might be aware that we have walked away from God, or just drifted away, till he is out of sight, off our radar. One day we wake up and realise we are home-sick. We need to come back. And when we do, God is right there, by our side, welcoming us back to the home we’ve longed for.
Or we might feel like the older son. We have doggedly, perhaps unadventurously, stuck close to God all along, tried to do the right thing, played by the rules, or at least our understanding of them, and insisted others do the same. But we’ve never really felt “at home” with God as he would want us to. We’ve never really felt sure of our place, secure in his love. And as a result our faith has become smaller and smaller, more and more exclusive, more and more fearful and judgemental. We need to find out what it means truly to be “at home” with God, relaxed in his presence, knowing we are infinitely loved, just as we are, not for what we do. And when we do, God is right there, delighted that we have finally decided to trust him. We have come home.

Wherever we are, in Christ, God comes to us and calls us to discover what home really is. It’s not a beautiful building with all the latest gadgets and elegant furniture. It’s not the advertiser’s dream of a happy family, mum and dad and 2.4 children, all smiles and sweet agreement.   It is anywhere where we are in the presence of God, where we know we are loved and secure, precious and treasured, noticed and valued, and anywhere that we make others feel those things too.

Preaching that message – that everyone can be at home with God - cost Jesus his life, but in his death, even death itself was transformed into the home of God, not an end, but a beginning, not a failure, but a triumph, opening the gates of glory to let the love of God flood into the world.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Maundy Thursday: It was night

“And it was night.”

Those words from tonight’s Gospel reading aren’t just an indication of the time of day it took place. They aren’t just a comment on the fact that it had got dark by the time Judas slipped out to betray Jesus. John is telling us something far more profound than that.

Light and darkness are always significant in John’s Gospel. John is the one who starts by telling us that in Jesus, light came into the world which “shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” It is the one who calls Jesus “the light of the world” when he heals a man who has been blind from birth, and challenges those around him who criticise him for doing it on the Sabbath. Who was really in the darkness, he asks, the blind man or those who couldn’t just rejoice at his healing? Light and darkness in John’s Gospel are always about more than physical illumination, and in the reading we heard tonight the darkness is a sign that we have reached a point of no return.

“And it was night.” From this moment, for a while at least, it will look as if the darkness has won. Judas goes out to fetch the soldiers who will arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He goes out to set in motion a chain of events which will lead inexorably to Jesus’ death. Some of the Gospels say that he felt remorse afterwards, and killed himself as a result, flinging back the thirty pieces of silver the High Priests paid him to betray Jesus, but nothing can undo what has been done. This moment, when he slipped out of the room, is the turning point.

We don’t know what he thought would happen. We don’t know why he did what he did. Maybe he was disappointed in Jesus. Maybe he thought he’d be some other kind of Messiah than the one he turned out to be. Maybe he hoped for power and glory for himself and realised he wouldn’t be getting it. Maybe he just thought Jesus was heading for failure and wanted to leave the sinking ship, scuttling it as he did so. We don’t know, but the future was sealed at this point, and there was no going back, even if he had second thoughts.

Judas wasn’t the only one, though, whose actions on this night would reverberate in ways they didn’t anticipate. At this same supper, Peter pledged his support for Jesus – he would never leave him, he said – and yet before the cock had crowed three times in the morning, he had denied knowing him. And if it seems unfair that the focus should be so much on Peter, let’s not forget that the rest of the disciples ran away completely. At least Peter followed Jesus to the High Priest’s house and was there on the fringes. The rest of them were nowhere to be seen at all.

We can only imagine the sense of desolation and failure they must have felt at the time, and maybe crushing doubt too. How could they have thought Jesus was the Messiah? How stupid had they been to hope that the world could be different, that the kingdom of God could be coming, through the life of this carpenter, an ordinary man like them?

In time, after the resurrection, they learned to look again, to think again, but they still had their guilt to deal with, their own failure as friends and disciples.

They would have had every reason to want to suppress their part in the story of this night, and yet they don’t, and the reason for this has to be that they discovered  lessons so precious in their failure, that they needed to pass them on to those who came after them. This devastating experience, and their own, lamentable part in it, shaped their faith in ways they could never have anticipated, and because of that, it shapes our faith too.  

They learned, the hard way, but maybe the only way,  that  you could screw things up completely, fail utterly, and still be forgiven and used by God.

This night was a night which had all sorts of consequences, whether people had foreseen them or not. It was a night which would change the lives of all who were part of it. Whether it destroyed them, as it did Judas, or saved them, as it did the rest of the disciples, really depended on what they did as a result of it. But at the time, all that they could see was the darkness. It was night. They couldn’t see what lay ahead.
Gauguin : The Agony in the Garden
I guess we can all sympathise with that to some extent. We’ve all found ourselves in the dark at some point or other, and if we haven’t then we will. There comes a time in all of our lives when the wheels come off, the rug is pulled out from under our feet, the walls collapse on us, or whatever other image we want to use. We find ourselves in situations we have no control over. It might be our fault or the fault of others, or caused by something completely unknown, but we go, in the blink of an eye, from being capable people who knew where we were going, to being powerless even to help ourselves.

How can we live in those dark times? We may look for easy answers, but the truth is that there are none. People may try to cheer us up, or tell us that if only we did this or that, or prayed more or believed more, it would surely all come right, but we know better. What’s happened has happened. It is out of our hands.

But these our readings, I think, give us some hope, something to cling to, because on this night, as we retell the story of the events that led to Jesus’ death, we are reminded that, however alone we feel in our dark place, actually God has gone into the darkness with us. Christ doesn’t just enter his own darkness as he heads towards the shadows of Gethsemane and the cross. He also enters all our darknesses too.

He isn’t the light at the end of the tunnel – that’s no use to you when you are stuck in the middle of the tunnel and can’t move. He is the one who sits beside us in the inky blackness, who holds out a hand for us to cling to when we stumble, who waits with us in our stone cold tombs as we long for the dawn.

How do we know he is there? Well, sometimes we don’t – we just have to take it on trust. But Jesus also, on this night, told his followers to build up some things we can do which we might call “holy habits”, things which open our eyes to see his presence. Washing one another’s feet is important, he tells us – not necessarily literally, but in practical acts of service which make us look beyond ourselves. As we give – and receive – love we often find ourselves opening up to the possibility of goodness in the midst of evil. Sharing the bread and wine of the Eucharist matters too, the symbol of love which draws us closer to each other and closer to him.  

These things have the advantage of needing no  words, which is great when you find yourself speechless with grief or worry.  You don’t need to explain acts of love and care  - you just have to do them, or receive them. You don’t need to understand bread and wine – you just have to eat and to drink them.  

I called them “holy habits” because they are things which we need to practice doing in the light, so that when we need them most, they are second nature to us.

“And it was night.”

Night falls not just when the sun goes down, but when the things which normally light up our lives are taken away. But God goes into the darkness with us, on this Maundy Thursday night and on every night. And there in the darkness, if we’ll reach out for him, he holds onto us until the morning dawns and the sun rises on a new day.  


Sunday, 2 April 2017

Lent 5: Words of Life

Audio version here

Ezekiel 37.1-14, John 11.1-45

So what do you think of today’s Gospel reading? Does it make it easier or harder for you to be a Christian?
For many people today, in my experience, this story of Jesus raising Lazarus raises more questions than it answers. We know all too well the finality of death, especially if we have lost someone we love.

It raised questions in the minds of those who first told this story too. That’s obvious from the reading itself. Those who saw this happen, it says, were amazed and confounded.  But the questions in their minds wouldn’t have been the same as ours.

We ask “how could this happen?” When people stop breathing, when there is no brain activity, we know that’s it. The end of physical life. The people of Jesus’ time, though, wouldn’t have been thinking like that at all.  They didn’t expect people to rise from the dead, or at least not until the end of time, but they didn’t think it was impossible. Life was a gift of God, after all. He gave it in the first place, so he could give it back again if he chose to. Their concern was whether he would choose to raise people from death, and who he would choose, and through whom this would happen. So their question wouldn’t be “how could this happen?” It would be “why did it happen?”  If we’re going to make any sense of an extraordinary story like this, we have to try to put aside our 21st Century rationalism, and climb back into their minds to see if we can understand what they would be thinking.  

The think that would have astonished them about this story wasn’t just that Lazarus had been raised from death, but that he had been raised as a result of Jesus’ prayers.

For them this wasn’t just an amazing miracle. It was evidence that God was at work in Jesus, evidence that he had been chosen, blessed and used by God. God was the only one who could give life, so how else could Jesus have done this?

Raising Lazarus validated the claim that Jesus was the Messiah, God’s chosen one. Despite the fact that he wasn’t a member of the religious establishment, despite the fact that he hadn’t had the religious training of a scribe or Pharisee, despite the fact that he seemed so often to act unconventionally, keeping company with people who the respectable elites would have shunned, this was the one through whom God was acting.

And if it validated his status as Messiah, it also validated the message he was preaching and living, and the priorities he’d set out. It validated his commitment to the poor and outcast. It validated his criticism of those in power who used that power to oppress others. If God was honouring his prayers, then the other things he said and did were “of God” too.

We’ve had 2000 years to get used to the idea that Jesus was, at the very least, one of the good guys, someone who was obviously holy. But he didn’t actually have a halo. He didn’t glow in the dark. He was a carpenter from Nazareth, nothing outwardly special at all. We shouldn’t be surprised that his contemporaries didn’t all instantly fall at his feet – why should they? The surprise is that any of them did.

By the accepted religious standards of his time, Jesus was, at best, problematic – a troublesome loose cannon from a backwater town in Galilee. At worst, he was a blasphemous heretic. He was teaching and advocating things which respectable society thought were completely wrong. This was the man who called the scribes and Pharisees “whited sepulchres” (Matthew 23.27) – tombs full of decay, just whitewashed on the outside. This was the man who’d declared that prostitutes and tax collectors would get into the kingdom of heaven before the religious professionals (Matthew 21.31). It was hardly likely to endear him to them. We can surely understand why they might have had trouble imagining him as Messiah material.

But the raising of Lazarus challenged them to think again, to look again. God, the giver of life, seemed to be on the side of this strange rebel, using him, listening to him, speaking through him.

This is a story not just about life and death – important though they are - but also, perhaps more importantly, about how God speaks to us, and who he speaks through.  It’s a story about the word of God, God’s message, embodied in Jesus, the Word made flesh, and about the words of God which we hear and speak today. It’s a story that reminds us of how powerful God’s word is. It can bring life out of death. But it also reminds us that it can be difficult sometimes to hear that word and to recognise it as God’s amidst all the other words that crowd in on us.

Today’s Old Testament reading reminds us of that too. The prophet Ezekiel is in exile in Babylon, along with most of the rest of the population of Jerusalem and its surrounding countryside. Jerusalem has been overrun and destroyed by the Babylonians. It’s people think they’ll never go home again, and even if they do, what kind of home will there be to go to? They’ve lost hope, just as, I am sure, many refugees and exiles do today. It’s easy when you are far from home and frightened, to find that the only words that echo in your head are words of despair. “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”

But Ezekiel has a vision, a vision of those dry bones, a valley full of them, perhaps the aftermath of a battle that happened long ago, so long ago that no one could doubt their deadness.  They aren’t even formed into bodies anymore. They’ve been scattered around by animals and the wind. It’s obvious that there’s no future for them. Again and again, though, Ezekiel is told by God to “prophesy to the bones” – to speak to them, to tell them what God is saying to them, to give them his words in place of their own. And Ezekiel does. And the bones come rattling together, and sinews and flesh form on them. And finally they’re filled once again with the life-giving breath of God, and they stand up, “a vast multitude”. Ezekiel’s vision is just that, a vision – not an actual event - but the hope it brought to his exiled people was very real. It kept them going through those tough times until they were indeed able to go home. The words God gave Ezekiel, words of life, words of hope, gave a future to people who thought they had none.  This story tells us that God’s words – if they are God’s words – have an awesome power.

We’re surrounded by words. All around us people are talking, texting, tweeting, facebooking.  We’re bombarded with opinions. Even when we’re alone, with all the electronic devices switched off our minds are full of thoughts, chattering away like demented monkeys. How do we know whether any of what we hear is God’s word? How can we detect, amid the babble of the world the “still, small voice” that is God’s word to us, the voice we really need to listen to? These stories give us a powerful clue.

God’s word, they say, is a word that calls us to life, not just the physical life that Lazarus was given back, but life “in all its fullness,” as Jesus put it just a chapter before this (John 10 .10). What does that kind of life look like? It’s life which has purpose and meaning, life which is marked by the ability to love and to be loved, to wonder and to care.

The word of God is a word that, when we hear it, enables us to get up, to come out of the darkness of the tomb, to face the world, to find a new direction.

But that’s not the end of it. God’s life-giving word isn’t  just for us. It is for everyone. So another test that helps us to decide whether the words we are hearing and speaking are God’s words is the effect they have on others.

The words of God won’t ever call us to live selfishly, to impoverish others so that we can heap up goods or cling to status for ourselves. They won’t ever call us to condemn others or act vengefully towards them. They won’t ever call us to deny others the freedom to love and be loved, to live joyfully in the world, to take the path that brings them fullness of life. That might sound obvious, but Christians have a woeful track record of oppressing others in the name of God, and we are all capable of using words to shut life down for people rather than opening it up.

When Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, he was speaking God’s word, a word of life, and those watching him knew it. When we speak words that bring people to life, generous words, gracious words, words that give hope, those around us will recognise that something holy is happening in us too, that God is at work, and the effect can be just as life-changing.

We may find it hard to get our heads around these ancient tales of resurrection, but our hearts can still respond to them as joyfully, finding in them new life and hope. Strange though they are, we need these stories just as much as the people who first told them did.

As Lent draws to its end, we prepare to walk with Jesus through the darkness of death and despair to the life and hope of Easter Day. As we do so, let’s make time amidst the clamour of the world to really listen, so that we can “hear the word of the Lord” that makes our dry bones live again.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Lent 3: Living water

Water is central to life. We all know that. Without it, life as we know it would never have evolved and couldn’t continue to exist. We tend, in our Western comfort, to forget just how precious water is, but to our ancestors it seemed miraculous. People have always venerated natural springs, and why wouldn’t you? They seem to come from nowhere, welling up through the ground, apparently a free gift from the earth itself.

It’s no surprise that people have tended to regard springs and wells as holy in every religion. Christians quickly started telling stories linking wells and springs with the lives of the saints. St Alban, on his way to martyrdom in the town that now bears his name, started to feel thirsty, the story goes, and right there and then, a spring rose up. When the Welsh saint, Winifred, was beheaded by the suitor she had rejected to become a nun, a well rose up on the spot. Fortunately, her uncle, St Beuno, managed to reunite her head with her body and resurrect her, but that’s another story – and the spring kept going anyway. You can still visit it at Holywell in Flintshire. And of course, just down the road in Kemsing, St Edith’s well marks the spot where the Saxon saint was born and grew up. It was a site of pilgrimage before the Reformation, along with a shrine to her in Kemsing churchyard. Supposedly, the water was good for restoring eyesight, though I wouldn’t advise trying it now.

And of course there are many Biblical stories about springs and wells,  and the significant things that happen at them, like our readings today. God brings water out of solid rock when the Israelites are thirsty in the wilderness. It was the last place they expected to find water, but solid rock is no obstacle for God.  

The well in our Gospel story was a familiar place to the woman who met Jesus there, though. In fact it was probably depressingly familiar. Collecting water was a daily task, and a backbreaking one, usually the job of women or girls, as it still is in many parts of the world. The UN estimates that 90% of the work of collecting water and wood in poorer parts of the world falls to women and girls, which means they miss out on school, and often face danger too. When drought strikes, as it has in East Africa at the moment, the task becomes infinitely worse. That’s why access to clean, safe water is such a game-changer for women in particular. The only positive feature of that daily journey to the well at the time of Jesus – and perhaps for some women today – was that it was often a sociable occasion, a chance for a catch up with your friends.

But the women who comes to this well in Samaria is alone, and it’s noon, the hottest time of the day. Why hasn’t she come in the early morning, as surely her peers did? It seems like she’s be avoiding them, or they have shunned her.

The reason why that might be is soon revealed. She’s been married five times and the man she is with now hasn’t even bothered to marry her. They have either divorced her – women couldn’t initiate divorce themselves – or they’ve died, or maybe a mixture of both. Whichever it was, it would have been seen as her fault, a curse from God. No wonder she can’t face her neighbours. And no wonder she’s so surprised that Jesus welcomes her.  A Jewish man who wants to talk to her, a Samaritan woman? What’s that about? And he  puts himself in her debt by asking for a drink from her. Why would this be? He can’t possibly realise what kind of woman she is, she thinks. But it’s clear from what he says that he knows very well what’s happened to her – he’s the one who brings up her marital history. He knows, but it makes no difference to him. She’s a person of value in her own right, a person he’s happy to talk with, and to talk theology with, something normally reserved for men.  She’s never met anyone else who has spoken to her like this before, giving her such dignity and respect?

It’s utterly transforming, even more transforming than having her own private water supply in her own home would be, which is what she initially thinks Jesus is offering her. It transforms her in her own eyes. It transforms her in the eyes of Jesus’ male disciples, who are astonished to find him talking to her. And it transforms her in the eyes of her community, the community who had judged and shunned her, but who are now drawn to Jesus by her testimony.

“Living water”, water that “gushes up to eternal life”, which slaked her thirst not just for a moment or a day or a week, but forever. This is what Jesus offered her, and it’s what he offers us too.

For one surprised Samaritan woman, the living water of God’s love, released by Jesus into the arid wasteland of her life, brought dignity and a sense of worth. We might thirst for something else – a sense of purpose, forgiveness, freedom, rest -  but whatever it is, the water we really need can only come from God. So what is it that we are thirsting for tonight? What is it that we need? In the silence, let’s imagine ourselves sitting on the edge of that well with Jesus. Let’s ask ourselves that question, and listen for his response.


Sunday, 5 March 2017

Lent 1: Where the Wild Things Are

I’m sure many people here know Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are. Max, a small boy in an animal costume, runs riot round his house until his mother tells him he’s a wild thing and sends him to bed without his supper. But in his room a forest grows, and a boat appears and Max sails away to a distant island “where the wild things are”. They have a wonderful wild rumpus together, until Max starts to feel a bit lonely, and wants to be where “someone loved him best of all”. So he sails home to his room, and there is his supper on the table, where his mother has left it for him – “and it was still hot”, says the story. What seemed like years was really only a short time. But in that time Max had found out a little about his own wildness, and realised that while it might seem like fun for a bit, being with “someone who loved you best of all” was far better in the long term.

I can’t help thinking of that book whenever we come to the beginning of Lent and to the story of Jesus going into the wilderness, because this too is a place “where the wild things are”.

Wilderness” is a word we’re especially familiar with here in Seal, of course, because it is the name of what was once the big estate where the lords of this particular manor lived. It was given that name in the late seventeenth century, probably because it contained a deer park, a place where the wealthy could hunt, without having to cope with the vagaries of real wild places. Wildernesses like this became very fashionable in the century that followed, with artificial lakes and grottoes. Some estates even hired what were called ornamental hermits to live in caves in their grounds to add to the effect. They were paid quite well, on the condition that they didn’t shave and maintained an air of elegant melancholy. It’s an idea if you’re looking for a new job…!

Wildernesses were all the rage, but they were a bit like Disneyland or Center Parcs, places where the wildness was safely contained and domesticated.

By the early nineteenth century, the Romantic movement in art had begun to glamorise wild places. The Lake District and the Scottish Highlands became holiday destinations, places to visit, preferably with a comfortable carriage and some servants to carry your picnic.  It was an antidote to the Industrial Revolution, for those who could afford it, a way of escaping the ever-expanding, dirty cities.  But those who had to scratch a living from the harsh terrain of these wild places all year round knew that they weren’t romantic at all. They were unforgiving places, places of danger, places not to be treated lightly, just as they’d always been.

Romanticising the wilderness is a modern phenomenon, then, in the scale of human history. Our medieval, and more ancient, ancestors would have been baffled at the idea of taking a holiday in the wilderness, or seeing it as a place of beauty and peace. Wilderness, for them was a place of danger, not only physical, but also spiritual. It was a place where wild things were – wild weather, wild animals, and demons too.

So when we hear of Jesus going out into the wilderness it’s really important that we understand that it wasn’t for a bit of quiet reflection and peace.  As the beginning of today’s Gospel reading pointed out, he went to be tempted by the devil,” not to escape what threatened his ministry, but to confront it. You don’t have to believe in a literal devil to understand what Jesus went through. He had to sort out how he was going to carry out his mission, and that meant looking very closely at his own motivation. Was it all going to be about miracles, to make people love him? Did he think God would never let anything bad happen to him? Was his goal going to be secular power and glory? He could have set off on any of those paths, but he rejected them all, and instead took a route that would involve sacrifice, humility and costly love. In the end, the wildest things Jesus wrestled with and defeated weren’t supernatural beings, or savage beasts, or harsh physical conditions, but his own desires and fears, and it would matter that he had done. He went into the unknown, wild territory of the desert to prepare himself for the unknown, wild territory of his ministry and the wildest of all, of his death on the cross.

There are wild things in the other readings we heard today too. Eve comes face to face with a wild animal in the Garden of Eden. All the animals were wild at this point, of course, but this one, the serpent, was particularly crafty, capable of outwitting the trusting, naïve human beings he came across in the Garden. He knew the weak spots of the people God had made, and tapped into what might be seen as their perfectly good and worthy desires. What was wrong with knowing good and evil? What was wrong with wanting to be wise, like God? Eve was out of her depth. Unlike Jesus, she hadn’t got the skill or experience to recognise the trick that was being played on her. There were wild things in her own heart, her desire for knowledge and power, which she hadn’t got to know yet, and the result was disaster.   

In the letter to the Romans, the wild things aren’t animals or demons. They are the power of sin and death, which wreak havoc in us. We are all born into a world which is tangled and scarred. None of us, however good by nature, however lovingly brought up, manages to avoid doing things wrong, being mean, hitting out when we feel threatened, clinging to things we should be sharing, because we grow up in a world that is already bent out of shape and mangled . And we then mangle it in our own way for the generations that come after us. The “wild things” we need saving from are the things which lurk unacknowledged in our hearts, waiting to ambush us when we least expect them. It’s as the life of Jesus takes root in us, says Paul, that these wild things can be recognised, named and known, that we can be straightened out and untangled, made right again.

Lent is a time when, traditionally, we try to go out into the wilderness in some way with Christ, to share some of what he experienced. We give things up, or take things up. We give to charity or go to study groups. But our “wilderness” experiences can very easily be no more real than those eighteenth century ones I talked about earlier, a Disneyland pilgrimage along a carefully pre-planned route that will bring us right round to where we started, unscathed but also unchanged.

Perhaps we’ve given up chocolate, or alcohol, because that’s what we always do during Lent. We know we can manage it. It’s only six weeks, and though there might be some tough times along the way, we know that when we get to Easter Day we can stuff ourselves with Easter eggs or crack open the gin bottle and think, “thank goodness that’s over for another year”. There’s nothing wrong with giving up chocolate or alcohol, of course. Our bodies will probably thank us for it. But if that’s all we do, it probably won’t make much difference to our souls. If we want real change in our lives, we’ll need to ask, “What is it about chocolate, or alcohol, which might get in the way of my relationship with God and with others? Why do I need to give this up?”  We need to go out into the territory in us that isn’t tamed and known. We need to talk to the wild things that lurk there, just as Jesus talks to the wild thing, Satan.   

It might be that chocolate is a comfort food that helps us to endure a difficult situation at work or home. If that’s the case, fasting from it is only really going to help if we also face the “wild thing” in our lives – that situation we’re being worn down by – and see what we can do permanently to change it.
It might be that alcohol is a prop we reach for in social situations, because we don’t feel confident enough to mix with others without it. If that’s the case, fasting from it will only make a difference if we use this time to confront the “wild thing” that is our lack of self-confidence.
It might even be that we discover that giving up things which we know we can do without is really just an easy substitute for giving up something else in our lives which we feel we can’t. The question isn’t just what we should do to observe Lent, but why we should do it, which wild places it will lead us into, which wild things it will bring us face to face with.

Lent is a time of self-discipline, and discipline often has a very negative vibe. We think it’s about punishment.  But in fact discipline really means “learning”. The disciples were learners.  Whatever we give up or take up during Lent should enable us to learn something we didn’t know already, and learning always means going out beyond our comfort zone, into the wild places, where the wild things are, the things we don’t understand about ourselves and so can’t yet control. And if we find something that we can’t deal with on our own, Lent’s a good time to talk to someone else about it. I’m always happy to listen – just ask!

Max, that little boy in the story, went “where the wild things are”, and he learned from his time in his own “wild place” that there was someone who “loved him best of all”, even when she was telling him off. He couldn’t really have learned that any other way. And when he got back, there was his supper, the nourishment he needed, “and it was still hot.”  The promise of Lent is that if we have the courage to face whatever the real wild things are in the real wildernesses of our lives, we too will find ourselves fed with the supper that love provides, the Bread of heaven , the food we really need.