Sunday, 28 April 2019

Easter 2: Holy flesh

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.  John 1.1 & 14

You may have wondered whether I have slipped a season or two – those are words which we often hear at Christmas, the final reading at traditional carol services, the reading which opens Midnight Mass, as a tiny light is brought into the darkened church.

They’re the opening words of John’s Gospel. Like all the best opening words they give us a clue about what the rest of the book will be about. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” You don’t need to know the plot of Pride and Prejudice to know that we are in for a story about a rich young man’s journey towards the married state. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities, set during the French Revolution starts with a clear signal that we are in for a roller-coaster ride of triumph and tragedy.

John’s Gospel begins with words that tell us equally clearly what we are going to be hearing about – the key themes he wants us to keep in mind. This is going to be a story about the Word, about God speaking to us. But this word won’t be written on a page; it is going to be expressed through flesh, and in that flesh we will see God’s glory.  God is going to speak through a human being, through the whole of his life, all the physical stuff that all human people go through – being born, growing, eating, sleeping, rejoicing, suffering, dying.

We will see Jesus sharing a wedding feast at Cana,  thirsty at a well in Samaria, asking a woman for a drink because he hasn’t got a bucket, being anointed just before his death. We will see Jesus caring for the flesh of others too, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, washing feet. And, ultimately we will see Jesus’ flesh beaten and crucified, Jesus’ flesh, the flesh of the Word made flesh, dying and being laid in a stone cold tomb, while his disciples, afraid for their own flesh, hide away.

Today’s Gospel reading comes from what was originally the very end of John’s Gospel – another chapter, a sort of extended P.S. was added very early on – but it was meant to end here, with Jesus, standing among this disciples, God’s Word having the last word, a glorious word, stronger than death, but  a word which is still very definitely flesh, the same flesh as they had seen crucified. Jesus still bears the marks of the nails and the wound of the spear in his side. He isn’t some incorporeal ghost, a wispy spirit, or a figment of their imagination. He is a body, a flesh and blood body. I can’t explain that, but it is what the story insists on. His wounds haven’t been airbrushed away. So his resurrection isn’t about transcending the limitations of the flesh. It is a glorification of that flesh, a declaration that - just as it is - wounded and battered, flesh that has literally been to hell and back, this is flesh which is full of God’s glory.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory”. That doesn’t just refer to the baby lying in the manger, shining in the darkness of Christmas nigh – in fact John doesn’t tell any birth stories of Jesus, so it probably doesn’t refer to that at all. It is really about this moment, when a wounded Jesus stands before his friends , in flesh which has suffered and died, and been  raised from death.

Whatever else we might draw from the story of the resurrection we are meant to draw the message that bodies are blessed, that God, in his glory, chose to dwell in them, just as they are, wounded, beaten, scarred. Our bodies are not prisons for our spirits – however much they may sometimes feel like that. They aren’t a second best, from which death will set us free. Our flesh, our day to day bodily existence, just as it is, can be a message of God’s glory, of God’s love.

But to be that, our flesh, like Jesus’, needs to be filled with God’s life. Jesus breathes on the frightened disciples in that locked room. “Receive the Holy Spirit” he says – there’s no waiting for the Day of Pentecost for the coming of the Spirit in John’s story. The Spirit is given right now, to this bunch of stunned disciples , who aren’t ready for it in any sense, who are conscious at this moment only of their own failure and misery. Fine friends they turned out to be, deserting Jesus just when he needed them most. But it is into their frail flesh that God’s Spirit is breathed.

The Gospel writer surely means us to remember the story from the book of Genesis of the creation of Adam. God makes a creature out of mud. It’s fine. It’s God’s handiwork, but it’s lifeless. So God leans over and breathes into it his own breath – his Spirit – the words are interchangeable in Hebrew -  and the creature stirs and sits up and lives. Adam becomes a living being, a “nephesh” in Hebrew, the living being that God intends him to be, a combination of God-created flesh and God-breathed Spirit. Both are essential, both are blessed - and both are holy.

The story of Jesus isn’t the story of a comic book superhero, who swoops down with his special powers to save the day. It is a story of a flesh and blood person, who shows us how much God loves our flesh and blood, in all its wonder and its woundedness, in all the joy and sorrow that comes to it as we are born, grow, grow old and die.

That’s a vital message for us to take in, for ourselves and for others.
The ancient Greeks, whose thought world shaped the thinking of John’s first readers, still shapes our world. In Greek, the word for beautiful – kalos – is the same as the word for good. To be beautiful was to be good; to be good was to be beautiful. We have never really moved on from that; heroes and heroines in films are still rarely ugly. Young people obsessively post selfies online, trying to produce the best version of themselves, anxiously watching for their peers to “like” the pictures they’ve posted. Older people fight the signs of aging. Many of us really don’t much like our bodies.  “Keep young and beautiful; it’s your duty to be beautiful . Keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved,”  says the old song. Well, no, not in God’s eyes. The resurrection shows us that God loves us, wounds and all, warts and all. God uses us wounds and all, warts and all. God’s glory can shine from us, wounds and all, warts and all. In fact, it is the wounds and the warts which are the most powerful testimony of his life at work in us, the times of failure and weakness in which his glory is most powerfully seen.

The Easter story isn’t just about the resurrection of Jesus’ lifeless body from the grave; it is also about the resurrection that comes to his disciples when he appears to them. Jesus isn’t the only one in this story who has known death.   His disciples are stuck in the death of hope, so fearful of what might happen next that they daren’t even stir from the room where they are hiding. Jesus may have been held fast in the tomb by the stone across its entrance, but they have locked themselves in a tomb of their own, in a sort of living death. They need the breath of life to be breathed into them just as much as Jesus did if they are going to get up and go out into the world to become living Words themselves, ways in which God can speak to others and tell them that God loves them.

We often need the same, as we huddle in our own locked rooms – the locked rooms of depression or anxiety or hopelessness. And we pray today especially, of course, for our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka, whose church services have been cancelled, and who have been told to worship at home instead, literally shut in their rooms for fear of those who might harm them. We pray that they will feel the breath of God giving peace to their wounded souls and bodies as they read this story today.

An ancient Christian writer called Irenaeus famously said  “The glory of God is a human being, fully alive.”  The resurrection of Jesus doesn’t just show us God’s glory in him; it shows us the glory that can shine from all our frail and battered flesh if we will let him breathe his life into us and raise us from our deaths.

I started with the beginning of John’s Gospel. I will finish with its original end, the words that end today’s reading, John’s prayer that we may know, and show, the glorious life of God.

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. Amen

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Easter Sunday: An Idle Tale

Audio version here (with some competition from the children!)
And a bonus - our romp through Philip's arrangement of The Seven Joys of Mary

Detail from the Resurrection window
in Seal Church Lady Chapel
Luke 24.1-12

“But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” 

Just imagine for a moment that you were one of those women who had gone in the early dawn, taking spices to anoint the body of Jesus. What are you thinking and feeling as you walk there? How will you roll the stone away? What condition will the body be in by this time, three days after his death? Who might see you? What trouble might you get into? After all, the rest of his disciples are in hiding, afraid that they will be arrested and killed too. 

Imagine what you feel when you find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. Imagine what you feel when two complete strangers – identified as angels in some of the other gospel accounts – tell you that “he is not here” reminding you of his own words that he would rise on the third day. You’re not given any instructions about what to do next. In some of the gospels the women are told to tell the rest of the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee, but not here. You are left in the lurch, with this awesome, baffling news. What a story you have to tell.

But how will you even begin to tell it?
What will your opening words be?

If you’ve ever had to give someone some big news – good or bad – you’ll know how carefully we tend to think out the beginning of the announcement. 
“There’s something I need to tell you…”
“Perhaps you’d like to sit down…”

Imagine you are one of these women, reeling from what you’ve seen, or rather not seen, at that empty tomb, trying to get your heads around what you have heard. What reaction do you expect as you push open the door to the room where the others are gathered and begin to pour out your story? Surprise, joy, fear ?;  but at the very least, surely interest, questions, demands for more detail. 

But that’s not what happens. Your extraordinary, unimaginable news is dismissed as nonsense, “an idle tale”, without so much as a moment’s thought. The Greek word Luke uses, leros, is about as insulting as it could be. It means rubbish, silliness, something too trivial even to bother with. 

You’ve just told these men that Jesus, their closest companion isn’t in his grave, that you’ve heard that he’s been raised from death as he said he would be, and yet they don’t even ask you to tell them more. Eventually Peter, just Peter, goes and looks for himself, but not before you have been humiliated, written off, treated as if you were all just imagining it, as if your brain had gone soft. How does that feel , not even to get a hearing?

I can understand the apostles not believing the story these women tell. They have seen Jesus die. How can he be alive again? It’s really not what you expect. But to dismiss the women? Not even to consider that their story of the empty tomb might be worth investigating? That seems very odd. Why is it only Peter who bothers to go and look for himself?

The main reason, alas, stares us in the face if we know anything about the culture of this time and place. It is the fact that those who bring them this news are women. Women weren’t considered to be credible witnesses in Israel at this time. In a court of law, their testimony couldn’t stand on its own. Essentially their society treated them as perpetual children, always needing to be under the guidance of a man – their father, husband, son, uncle. Jesus had shown his followers a different way, treating women as equals, with dignity and respect; that’s why they followed him. But old habits die hard, and when they come bursting in with their tale of angels and empty tombs, the old responses rise up readily – silly women, telling silly tales, carried away in some collective delusion. What can you expect? Their brains aren’t up to dealing with hard facts, like the fact that the dead stay dead and stones need burly men to shift them.

The women are silenced, waved away by the other disciples, who are too exhausted, fed up and frightened to find the energy to think outside the boxes their culture has created for them. 

It’s a story which ought to make us wonder about the voices we don’t hear or don’t pay attention to. Today, still, women’s voices often go unheard – the shock waves that the #metoo movement has unleashed have shown that. Women across the world have told tales of harassment and violence, so common to us, as women, that we perhaps took it for granted that everyone knew about them, and yet, what most women live with as a daily reality seems to have come as a surprise to many men.

It’s not just about gender, of course. Out of 881 Nobel Prize winners  since 1901, when the awards began, only 15 have been black, and most of those were Peace prize winners – Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and so on. No black scientist, as far as I can see, has ever won a Nobel prize – are there really none who qualify, and if not, why not? Class and economic status often determine whether your voice is heard too. The residents of Grenfell Tower warned repeatedly of the safety problems in their block, but it took the death of 72 of them in that terrible fire before anyone seems to have taken their voices seriously. Would that have happened if they had been living in a luxury development...? And while I was very glad that the BBC wheeled out David Attenborough to front their documentary on Climate Change last week, it is telling that they felt they had to do so, that the voices of Bangladeshi peasants flooded out of their homes repeatedly, or African farmers whose drought-stricken crops had failed again wouldn’t be enough to make us sit up and take notice, despite the fact that they’ve suffered the reality of climate change for years.  

In our world, just as much as in the world of Luke’s Gospel, some voices seem to have a built in loudspeaker, while others are always turned to mute. 

That makes it all the more extraordinary, though, that all four Gospels insist that the first to know about and to announce the resurrection were women. It is one of the most powerful pieces of evidence to say that something really did happen on that first Easter Day, even if we can’t explain or understand it in any rational way.  If you were going to make up this story, you wouldn’t make it up like this, with a bunch of women at its centre. You’d choose reliable, respectable witnesses, and that would have meant male witnesses in the first century, people who would carry some weight with those you were trying to convince or impress.   

But the Gospel writers don’t. They’re clear and unanimous that it was women who stuck with Jesus when he was crucified, women who found his tomb empty and women who heard the news that he had risen and were the first to announce it. It makes no sense to tell the story like this – unless it happens to be true.  

This ending, with women playing centre stage, is also to be entirely in line with the rest of the life and ministry of Jesus, of course. Luke starts his Gospel with the stories of two marginalised women, Mary the mother of Jesus, a virgin who had no business being pregnant and faced disgrace because of it, and her cousin Elizabeth,  the mother of John the Baptist, who’d been shamed by her society for her childlessness, but now, long past childbearing age, found herself expecting.  Two unlikely women turn the world upside down between them. Mary sings of a God who will “lift up the humble and meek” – people like them – and evidently she taught her son to do just this. He ate with tax-collectors and prostitutes, prioritised the least and the lowest, those others rejected and ignored, and eventually was crucified for his commitment to them. Of course the news of the resurrection would be revealed to women first, even if their voices would almost certainly be doubted and rejected – it’s all of a piece with the rest of the story. Mercifully Peter had the courage to risk the ridicule of his fellows to go and check it out.

“He is not here”, say the angels to the women, when they come looking for Jesus. Notice that they don’t tell the women where he is, only where he isn’t. He isn’t in the place of the dead, they say, in the stone-clad certainty of the tomb, in the world that is bounded by their understanding, or anyone else’s understanding. Something has happened which is beyond all that, which defies explanation, which can’t be boxed into any conceptual containers they already have. God is bigger than our imaginations. “He is not here”, if “here” is the place where we think we have him safely pinned down. 

That becomes clear in the rest of this chapter, the last one in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus turns up on the road to Emmaus, but the tired, dispirited disciples he walks alongside don’t recognise him until he breaks bread with them at supper. They then rush back to Jerusalem with the news, but there they’re surprised again, as he appears in that locked room, giving them his peace and his blessing. 

Luke’s Gospel, from beginning to end, is a litany of surprises. It constantly calls us to look beyond our expectations, to think outside the prison of our assumptions and prejudices. It calls us to turn the world upside down ourselves, so that we can see what it looks like from the underside and hear what it sounds like when we listen to the voices we’ve been deaf to. It calls us to dare to wonder whether life could really be different – our lives, everyone’s lives – if we were to trust in the power of resurrection, not just of Jesus, not just in the physical sense, but the resurrection of hope and joy and love when they seem irretrievably to have been lost to us. 

Like those disciples huddled in that locked room in Jerusalem, though, it’s up to us to decide whether we think this talk of resurrection, this possibility of hope, of joy, of love is just an idle tale, or something that might change our lives.  

Friday, 19 April 2019

Good Friday: O Love that wilt not let me go

O Love, that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O Light, that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to Thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in Thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy, that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.

O Cross, that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.                          (scroll down to hear the hymn)

The hymn we have just sung has a story attached to it, as so many hymns do.

It was written by a Church of Scotland minister George Matheson, in the late 19th century. This was a man whom  life had dealt a rough hand. As a child, he had begun to lose his sight, and by the time he was grown up was virtually blind.

He’d been engaged to a woman whom he loved very much, but she’d ended the engagement as his sight worsened, saying that she couldn’t face being married to a blind man. His main support and comfort in life was his beloved sister, but in time she married, and that meant that she had to move from him. The hymn was written, he said, just before her marriage, in a moment of private despair. He never said what exactly had prompted his writing it, but it’s not hard to see how he might have felt alone and afraid, ground down by the losses and challenges of his life.

It’s remained popular ever since, and I think the reason for that it is that it is so honest. It doesn’t try to sugar-coat suffering and misfortune. It doesn’t offer any easy answers. Matheson talks about his “weary soul”, and his “flickering torch” – a reference to his blindness. This is a moment when he is suddenly aware of his own powerlessness.

George Matheson’s life wasn’t easy, but in some ways it isn’t unusual. Day by day I meet people facing heartbreak and loss, fear and regret through illness, untimely bereavement, the collapse of relationships or businesses. Day by day I meet people who feel as if they are lying face down in the mud and every time they start to lift their heads from it, something comes along to push them back down. Some people live their whole lives in tough places like this, but I think it is rare for anyone to go through life knowing only its sunlit uplands.

That’s the reality of human life, the reality which Matheson knew and which those who love this hymn, as I do,  recognise and respond to.

Matheson, as I have said, doesn’t give us any easy answers, and yet, somehow this is a hymn which helps simply by giving dignity to these tough times, affirming that they can be holy places too, places where God can be encountered in a new way. “From the ground there blossoms red, life that shall endless be.”

It’s tempting, on Good Friday, to want to hurry on to Easter.  We don’t like death and pain and loss. This service will never be as popular as Easter Sunday’s rejoicing. We want resurrection and new life. That’s entirely understandable, and of course we know that the cross isn’t the end of the story. Death won’t have the last word. But that is Easter Sunday’s message, and we’re not there yet. Some people won’t be there the day after tomorrow, either. Their pain will continue. The morning won’t dawn bright and clear for them on Sunday, no matter what the calendar says. It’s important for them, for all of us, to hear the message of this hymn. What does it say about enduring those dark times, the Good Fridays and Holy Saturdays of our lives, when, like Jesus’ friends, we can see no sign of hope, to reason to think there will be resurrection?

The hymn reminds us that at those times, it is God who holds us. The hymn doesn’t say “O me, that wilt not let Love go”. It says “O Love that wilt not let me go”. It is God who holds us, not the other way around. He holds us. He just holds us, but that is enough. He is like the earth which holds the germinating seed, the womb which holds the growing child, the egg which holds the developing chick. He is the vital, safe place in which we need to spend as long as it takes for us to be ready to face the world again.

There’s nothing more irritating, when life is collapsing around you, than for well-meaning people to try to cheer you out of it, to talk about “light at the end of the tunnel”. It’s understandable that we say this – it eases our own anxiety. It is often harder to watch others suffering than it is to suffer ourselves. We feel helpless. We feel as if we ought to be able to do something to help. But the strength of Matheson’s hymn is its willingness to sit with those painful feelings, the things we can do nothing about, to accept them and honour them, to discover that pain we endure is not a squalid waste – however much it feels like that - but is also a place which can be made holy by God’s presence.

That’s why it’s important to spend this time at the foot of the cross. There was no shortcut for Jesus, no way around his humiliating and painful death, not without reneging on his message of hope and dignity for those who the powers of the world were determined to crush, as they tried to crush him. There is often no shortcut for us either. The cruelty, betrayal and brutality he endured were real and painful, and they took as long as they took, just as the struggles we may face are real and take as long as they take. But God’s love is “ocean deep” as the hymn puts it, his presence is eternal, and the life that can grow out of this bloodstained soil is endless and blessed.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Love is never wasted: Lent 5

Audio version here

You have to admit that Judas had a point.
A pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, poured out over Jesus’ feet. It is reckoned to have been worth thousands of pounds in today’s money. This was an extravagant gift, an extravagant gesture.

Nard was used to anoint the dead, among other purposes, and it was very pungent stuff, made from the spikenard plant. Maybe it had been bought when Mary’s brother, Lazarus had died. But Jesus had restored him to life, so it wasn’t needed. We don’t know, but, as I said, Judas had a point. The Gospel writer casts doubt on Judas’ motives, suggesting he was stealing from the common purse, and maybe he was, but whether that’s true or not, this does look like a terrible waste.  It could indeed have been sold and the money given to the poor.

But Jesus defends Mary. She’s recognised what none of the rest of them have, that he really is going to die. She’s seen that he knows this, and that he needs this loving, tender gesture, an action which communicates her care for him. Jesus didn’t go to his death with unruffled courage. He wept and prayed and sweated blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. He knew that crucifixion was the inevitable result of sticking to his message – you didn’t challenge the authorities and get away with it in his world – but he didn’t want crucifixion, no sane human being would. Mary saw his struggle and his pain, and she did what she could to give him her support. She gave him what she had, all that she had, that precious jar of ointment, because that’s what he needed at this moment.

As I said, nard is pretty pungent stuff. “The house was filled with the fragrance”, we’re told and my guess is that the smell clung to Jesus for a long time afterwards. Perhaps he could still smell a faint trace of it when he was arrested, beaten, crucified. Perhaps it reminded him that though the cruelty and pain were real, the love he’d been shown was real too.   

Mary gave what she could. It might not have looked like a sensible use of resources to those around her, but she knew that cost/benefit analyses don’t always tell you what you most need to know. Balance sheets are important, but they often can’t measure the things that matter most to us.

Mary’s extravagant gift here reminds me of the story of another gift in John’s Gospel, a few chapters earlier. It might not seem anything like as lavish, but to the person who gave it, it was everything.

It’s in John chapter 6 if you’re interested. A great crowd – thousands and thousands of men, women and children - had followed Jesus out into the wilderness to listen to him preach. The day had drawn on, and suddenly everyone realised they were hungry. Jesus said to his disciple, Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip, ever the realist, answered, “Six months wages wouldn’t be enough to give people even a little”. Jesus had set them an impossible task. Logically speaking there was nothing they can do here ; they would have to send people home hungry. It seemed they had nothing to work with.  Looking around rather desperately for any scrap of hope, though, Andrew announces  “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish” but he then quickly dismisses the thought that that might help, “what are they among so many?”  Five loaves and two fish aren’t even going to scratch the surface of the hunger of this vast crowd; that’s obvious to any rational person.

But Jesus only seems to hear  the first part of  Andrew’s statement. “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish”. Jesus sees what they have, not what they haven’t. He sees that this small boy, in offering his lunch, is giving everything he has. I don’t know about you, but most small boys of my acquaintance are extremely reluctant to be parted from their food, but this boy gives it willingly, his best, his all. That’s what Jesus sees – a generous gift, a loving gesture. And that’s why he knows it will be enough, because in God’s economy, it isn’t the size of the gift that matters, it’s the size of the love with which it is given. In the same way, Mary’s gift of this precious ointment isn’t sensible, logical, practical – you can’t prevent crucifixion by anointing someone’s feet – but it makes all the difference in the world to Jesus. The love with which it is offered makes it priceless, something which sustains Jesus through this terrible time. It might look like a waste, but love is never wasted.

Both these stories encourage us to be aware of the gifts we have to offer, an important thing to do as we come to our Annual Meeting after this service.  Our gifts may not seem great, like those loaves and fishes. Like Andrew, we might say “what are these among so many?” , “What can I do that will be any use?”. We might look at our church and think, “if only we had a spare million pounds or so, or a hundred more people, or a decent heating system and some toilets, just imagine what we could achieve…” But when we think like this we  often miss what we have, the precious treasures God has given us, as individuals and as a church; our personalities, our experiences, our voices, our time and talents, the particular strengths of being who we are. We may not be able to do what others people or churches do, but they can’t do what we can either. We are called to offer what we have, not what we haven’t, to serve as we can, not as we can’t.

Our gifts, like that small boy’s lunch, may not always seem great, but in Jesus hands, they can do much more than we imagine. Our gifts may not always seem practical or sensible, like Mary’s outpoured ointment, but they might make all the difference to others. We may see a sick friend and be aware that all we have to offer is prayer, or a hug, or a cake, when we know that what they really need is a cure for cancer. But that prayer, that hug, that cake may give them the strength to get through it. We could draw up a list of skills we wish we had on tap in our church – I bitterly regret that there was no module on boiler maintenance in my ordination training! – but we are great at loving and welcoming people, and if I had to choose between a cold church and a warm welcome, I go for the warm welcome anytime. Judas complains about the waste of money that Mary’s offering represents. He doesn’t understand that love is never wasted.

At our Diocesan Clergy Conference last autumn, one of our most inspiring speakers was the Director of Social Justice for the Diocese of Liverpool, Canon Ellen Louden. After many years of working in the area of mission and social justice, she’d come up with what she called her 12 rules for Christian Activists – and surely we should all be Christian Activists,  people who act to help the kingdom of God grow in our midst. I won’t go through them all, but there was one which really stuck with me. “Identify the good things” she said, “and give good things away”. Find the best things you do as a church, your treasures, and give them away. It is so tempting to try to hoard and protect and control what we think our treasures are, in the church or as individuals, to be precious about them. It is tempting only to give away what is leftover or doesn’t cost us much to lose – like the pile-it-high-and-sell-it-cheap “loss leaders” you see in supermarkets which aren’t really worth much, but lure you in to buy more of the expensive stuff. Churches do this when they attract people in with a glossy programme of events, but then make people jump through hoops really to belong, insist that they must believe and behave as the existing members of the church do before their voices can be heard. “You can’t just let any Tom, Dick or Harriet in; they might change things!”

Ellen Louden said that she’d learned that the churches that really made a difference in their communities were the ones who were open-handed with the things they did well, who identified the things they were best at, and gave them away freely, the churches which didn’t set barriers around their church life, but let everyone share their gifts and their opinions, whoever they were and however long they’d been there.

One of the reasons we set up our Talking Village initiative was that we recognised that talking is something we’ve got a gift for! We’re a welcoming and inclusive community; that’s one of our strengths. We’ve learned that and proved it over many years; Know Your Neighbours, Friday Group, our new Community Lunch, all those village events we’ve been involved with, often forming the bulk of the organising group. They aren’t the answer to all the world’s ills, but they make life better, and people who needed company and support have found it through them. God has been at work, blessing people and enriching our community. And part of the reason for that is that we have, perhaps unconsciously followed Ellen Louden’s rule, identifying this skill, but then giving it away, involving everyone who wants to be part of running those things whether a part of the church or not,  rather than trying to hold onto and control them ourselves.

Our Annual Meeting, after this service, gives us a chance to celebrate the things we do well – and there are many of them – to identify our good things. We look back, and look forward as we think about our church’s life. As we do, it’s great to be reminded of this Gospel story, of Mary’s extravagance as she gave the best thing she had, poured it out, literally, in a gesture that looked completely wasteful. But love is never wasted. Her story reminds us to notice what we have rather than what we lack, what is most precious to us, not so that we can hoard it protectively for ourselves, but so we can give it away, knowing that as we do, God will bless it and use it for the good of all. Amen

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Scary Mamas: Mothering Sunday

Audio version here 

Exodus 1.8-10,13-22, Luke 1.39-56

On this Mothering Sunday I’ve put some pictures in our service sheets of a very famous mother, probably the mother who has been painted, drawn and sculpted more often than any other mother in history. It’s Mary, the mother of Jesus.

 ‘Taymouth Hours’,c.1325–40: 

But the images I’ve included aren’t , perhaps, the ones we’re most used to. We expect to see Mary humbly receiving the news that she will bear the Son of God from the Angel Gabriel, or tenderly cradling her child in the stable in Bethlehem. We expect her to look serene, gentle, loving, tender. But these images are very different!

In the one on the front of your service sheet, Mary has handed baby Jesus to a convenient angel while she wrestles the devil to the ground. In the one inside the sheet she’s landing a well-aimed punch on his nose. This is one scary mama.

c. 1240
The pictures come from Medieval Books of Hours, ancient collections of prayers which people used for their personal devotions.  Books of Hours were especially popular with women, and maybe that’s why the illustrators have included these particular images – the women who used these books knew how tough mothering was. They wouldn’t be convinced by a Mary who was all sweetness and light!

The reality of motherhood is that is isn’t all about cuddles and kisses. It’s also about protecting your children, standing up for them, being strong for them. Mothering is a demanding job and often quite scary. Often new mothers (and fathers too, of course) will say that having children has woken them up to the dangers of the world, and the fragility of life, not just for their own children, but for other people’s children too. It’s an alarming business, bringing up children, and you soon discover that you need to be strong, fierce, brave, stubborn and cunning, as well as kind and gentle. It often unlocks in people a hunger for justice and for peace in the world, because they know that this is the world their children will have to live in. Of course there are plenty of people who don’t have children who also care passionately about the world, and mothers and fathers who don’t care, but holding a child in your arms, a child that is utterly dependent on you, is often a powerful wake-up call not just to care for your own flesh and blood, but for all those who are vulnerable.

These images of Mary aren’t just about her fighting for her own son. The Bible tells us that her vision was much broader than this, as we heard in our Gospel reading today. In it, Mary sings of the child she is carrying in her womb. It’s a song that is often called the Magnificat, from the Latin version of its opening words “Magnificat anima mea dominum” My soul magnifies the Lord!

She sings about her child, who is going to bring down the powerful from their thrones, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty. He will bring in a kingdom of justice – good news for those who have been oppressed, but challenging for those who have been doing the oppressing. She rejoices not just in what her child will do for her, but in what he will do for others. That’s what inspired these images of Mary the warrior, Mary giving Satan what for.

You don’t have to believe in an actual physical devil, with horns and a tail, to get the message these images convey. The demons she wrestles with stand for all that is wrong in the world – greed, prejudice, injustice, hatred…all the things that sour and twist life, making it less than it ought to be. In saying yes to God when Gabriel asks her to bear God’s son, Mary lands the first punch on those forces of evil, announces the beginning of the end of their power.

Of course, I’m not advocating actual violence, and as far as we know Mary never actually struck anyone in anger, but these images remind us that she faced very real struggles throughout her life - it wasn’t a play-fight . She faced suspicion when she got pregnant. She, Joseph and Jesus became refugees in Egypt to escape the murderous King Herod. The Gospels tell us that she agonised as she watched him court danger and controversy in his ministry, longed for him to shut up and stay safe. Eventually she watched as her son was arrested, beaten and killed, helpless to do anything to protect him. But she stuck with him, and with his rag-tag bunch of followers – she is present with the disciples when the Holy Spirit comes down on them on the Day of Pentecost, after Jesus has ascended into heaven. Everything was against her, but, as the slogan puts it, “nevertheless, she persisted.” The forces of evil weren’t  going to get the better of her! She was a woman with guts and passion.

She stands in a long line of mothers who have been equally strong through the ages, mothers like those who have turned up every week in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires  to protest against the regime that took away their grown up sons and daughters because of their political views – the mothers of the disappeared. The military dictatorship of the 1970s made it illegal for people to gather in groups of more than three, so they marched in pairs, wearing distinctive white headscarves, calling for the government to tell them where their children were. And they kept on marching, week after week after week until the regime fell, and still they march, to expose the injustice that has gone on since then. The ruling elite had military power on their side, but that was no match for bunch of determined, angry middle-aged mothers. Their fierce love for their children was stronger than the evil of the regime.  They found a way.

So did the women we met in our first reading, from the Old Testament book of Genesis. The Egyptian Pharaoh was jealous of the Israelites living in his land, migrants who’d come to Egypt during a famine many generations before. He wanted to get rid of them, so he ordered the midwives who delivered their babies to kill any baby boys as soon as they were born. But those midwives – we have their names, Shiprah and Puah - weren’t having it. How could anyone ask women who had devoted themselves to bringing life into the world, to do that?

Pharaoh seemed all-powerful, but these women were fuelled with righteous anger, and sharp wits. They looked Pharaoh in the eye and told him a barefaced falsehood, that the Hebrew women were stronger than Egyptian women, and had their babies too quickly. By the time they got there, it was too late, they said, shrugging their shoulders. Pharaoh appears to have been stumped by this, at least for a while. They couldn’t save every child, but for those they did save it meant life rather than death. We don’t know if they were mothers themselves, but we see in them the same fierce love and courage that Mary had. And one of those baby boys who escaped death, perhaps because of them, eventually grew up to become the man who delivered the Israelites from slavery, Moses. He owed his life to a bunch of women who decided they were fed up with being oppressed, and weren’t going to stand for it any more. 

Anger can be a bad thing, fuelling violence and hatred. But it can also be the energy that gives us strength to do what is right, to defend those who can’t defend themselves. In the Bible God is often portrayed as fierce in her love, like a mother defending her children, angry at injustice and oppression, like those brave midwives, like Mary. It may not be a comfortable image, but it’s just the image we need when we’re struggling to make the world a better place for our children, and for everyone else’s children too.

So this Mothering Sunday, of course we give thanks for the gentle and tender mothering we receive, from whoever mothers us – female or male, biologically related or not. But we also give thanks for those who stand up for us, fight for us, support us when the going is tough, for the fierce mothers in our lives, whoever they are or have been.

And we pray for the courage to be fierce in our own mothering too when we need to be, that we will stand up for those who are vulnerable, that we will wrestle with evil, and not give up, just as our fiercely loving, passionately tender God does not give up on us.


More about the origins of Mothering Sunday and about these images here.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Lent 3

Luke 13.1-9, Isaiah 55.1-9, 1 Corinthians 10.1-13

Respond, Repent, Renew

I’ve got a cherry tree in my garden which is at least 10 years old. Hopefully it will soon be in beautiful white blossom which is most welcome of course, but the total amount of fruit is has produced since it was planted would be enough to fill, well, a couple of coffee mugs. A bit like the fig tree in the parable, I have thought about cutting it down but live in hope that if I give it one more year there will at least be enough for one cherry pie.

One interpretation of the Fig Tree Parable could be to see God as the landowner, Jesus as the gardener and us as the fig tree. Despite failing to reach fruition Jesus wants to nourish us and give us more time. But like many of Jesus parables people it offers a lot more potential than the obvious.

When I took a moment it occurred to me that actually I have unrealistic expectations for my cherry tree, I just hope as each year passes that the tree will yield a decent crop but I haven’t actually got off my backside to do anything about it. I haven’t given it any fertilizer, any nourishment.

The parable of the fig tree is a great one for us to consider in lent. It’s a time to think deeply about our relationships, with each other and with the wider world community. The best starting point is to consider our relationship with God through Christ. Is it less than it could be because we are guilty of failing to nourish and nurture our faith, or maybe it’s time to try something new in the service of each other. We are reminded that doing nothing will change nothing.

If we take time to reflect on our own lives this lent, we should find encouragement in our gospel reading. After all who can honestly recite the lines of Edith Piaf , singing ‘Non je ne regrette rien’, I regret nothing? Most of us have some ‘baggage’ which we ‘haul around’ sometimes holding us back from achieving our full potential and at its worst mistakenly leading us to believe that life’s great sadnesses and challenges are somehow deserved.

Let’s resolve to be kinder to ourselves as well as each other this lent, God isn’t looking for opportunities to punish us he wants us to thrive and live abundant productive lives in whatever setting we find ourselves.

Many people are distinctly uncomfortable with the suggestion that for many things there simply is no logical explanation. They like to believe that mankind has conquered all, understands all, can explain all when the truth is that our world has layers of complexity which we may never penetrate.

Perhaps we’d be better to consider whether God would prefer us to react emotionally rather than trying to explain away the reason when sad things happen. Perhaps some use attempts at explanation as a barrier to the fact that our turn to suffer will also inevitably come and for them fear is still more real than God’s grace.

Yet most of us know from personal experience that when we do find the courage to sit with the suffering and dying, particularly those known and loved by us, very few regret having done so, however painful the experience may be.  

The question of whether God sends down punishment upon sinners was aired when in 1984 when a fire occurred at York Minster. It happened just two nights after David Jenkins was consecrated as Bishop of Durham there. He had previously caused a stir when he questioned the virgin birth among other things.

Clearly God was annoyed about this and thought to himself ‘How shall I punish such impunity? Mmmm I know I won’t totally destroy one the finest Cathedrals in England, and I don’t feel like killing him, I think I’ll just take out the South Transept roof, that should be enough to teach him a lesson’ so a lightening bolt was suitably despatched. I paraphrase but that’s virtually what some people implied at the time.

The then Archbishop of York, (John Habgood), wrote to the Times as follows: -

I read with astonishment some of the letters in today’s Times (July 11), the first copy I have been able to obtain since reluctantly leaving York Minster at 5am on Monday morning after hearing the reassuring words that the fire was out…
I feel I must point out the disturbing implications of those letters which somehow seek to link the fire with some remarks made by a bishop-elect on a TV discussion programme. What kind of a god do your correspondents believe in?
I grant that if we still lived in biblical times, and if it was customary to treat thunderstorms as some kind of messengers from God, then the connection might seem inevitable…
But to interpret the effect of a thunderstorm as a direct divine punishment pushes us straight back into the kind of world from which the Christian Gospel rescued us. Is illness a divine punishment? Ought we to ask after a car crash whether the car was carrying some outstanding sinner?

It's a more recent update on Jesus reference to the Galileans brutally executed by Pilate or the 18 killed in a freak accident when the tower of Siloam fell on them, or today people killed in the Grenfell fire, people with cancer, those who find themselves as refugees. Whilst we may not be able to explain such tragedies Jesus tells us that these people are mostly just like us with sins and regrets but this isn’t God punishing them, this isn’t how God works, he wants to forgive us, he wants to give us another chance.

It can be a natural reaction to say ‘what have I done to deserve this’ when sadness and tragedy strikes. It’s not always possible to immediately turn to God in strength and faith yet if we will let God travel with us, show his love for us we can begin a journey where his forgiving love and offer of eternal salvation is evident to the point that the question ‘what have I done to deserve this’ shifts from a bewildered cry to one of thankful recognition.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians includes a note of caution, ‘ so if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.’ Really this links with the earlier need to nourish and nurture our faith. To understand the difference between accepting that we are loved and forgiven versus being lazy and complacent to the extent that we no longer want to foster the relationship through prayer, no longer bother involving God in both our happy times and our struggles, and no longer want to learn more of God’s nature through scripture which has more to reveal to us than we have days on earth.

In our reading from Isaiah as we hear of God’s invitation to the banquet, making it clear that we don’t need money to join in, it’s free to share in wine and milk to delight ourselves in rich food. Perhaps some find God’s generosity to be so far from anything they have ever experienced that they think it’s just too good to be true, there must be some catch, though not now those who attended the lunch provided this week by members of our church community. There are those who still insist on buying food when God offers a place at his table without cost where all are welcome without exception.

It seems that there is such a thing as a free lunch after all. Again the sceptical may ask ‘what have I done to deserve this’ and feel unworthy to accept even when it pleases God for us to do so. It’s a sign of trust in him and his love for us.

Sometimes we over complicate God’s invitation, there’s no dress code to worry about, no fiddly cutlery or awkward conversation. Try comparing it to the unconditional love of parents when the relationship with their child is at it’s best. As a hungry child when my mum would call out ‘dinners ready’ I didn’t try to rationalise the situation, I instinctively heard it as good news and came running. When you grow up in a house with 5 kids, 2 parents and 3 dogs I also quickly worked out it was best not to hang around! Grown up children invited back home for a Sunday roast probably don’t think to themselves what’s the catch, they just accept that they are loved and are happy to be nourished, for free, as often as possible.

When the people told Jesus of the Galileans being slaughtered in the temple they didn’t spare him the gory detail of how the blood of those killed mingled with that of sacrificial animals. Perhaps they hoped to rile Jesus to the extent that he would endorse some violent act of retribution against Pilate and his forces. Instead he reminded them of their own mortality and their need to accept God’s love for them while they still had time. In doing this he reinforced the sometimes difficult to hear truth that true change begins with us.


Kevin Bright

24th March 2019

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Lent 1: If...

Audio version here 

Luke 4.1-13

“If you are the Son of God…” says Satan to Jesus in the wilderness. He says it twice, tempting Jesus to turn stones into bread and throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple, but that little word “if” is there in the second temptation too, when Satan promises him all the kingdoms of the world “if” Jesus will worship him.

“If”: it’s such a small word, but it opens up alternative universes, different futures. “If” says that things could be different from the way they are – for better or worse. It opens the doors to new possibilities. If we turn right instead of carrying straight on we might find ourselves in a place we never expected to be.  If we decide to stay at a party instead of going home early, we might meet someone who changes our lives. If we say yes to that job opportunity, instead of no, our lives might change completely. That little word “if” implies that we’ve got a choice to make, that things could turn out differently from the way we thought they would. Nothing is written in stone as long as there’s an “if” around.

Jesus’ experience of temptation in the wilderness is all about confronting the “ifs” in his future. If I do this, believe this, act in this way, then what? He has to make choices between alternative visions of how his ministry might be, which will lead him in very different directions. Satan’s questions force him to weigh up those options, to decide what it might mean for him, and for the world, if he truly is the Son of God.

He’d spent thirty years growing up in Nazareth, playing among the wood shavings in Joseph’s workshop, learning the skills of a carpenter. He’d learned the customs and attitudes of the people around him, their way of life, their assumptions. Most people then, and many now, would have expected that their lives would be much the same as the lives of those who’d gone before them. They didn’t expect to have many choices.  Life was precarious if you were an ordinary first century Jewish person man, living in an occupied country; it was enough  just to get by, to avoid trouble, to  scrape a living. There were no careers advisers telling you that you could “be anything you wanted to be”. A carpenter’s son would become a carpenter. A fisherman’s son would become a fisherman. If you were lucky, you’d get married, have children and begin the whole cycle all over again.

But something was niggling at Jesus, the sense that things could be different, that he was different, called to follow a different path. At the age of twelve, his anxious parent, realising they’ve lost him on the return journey from Jerusalem, find him in the Temple, debating with the religious leaders. “Didn’t you know I would be in my Father’s house?” he asks. He’s realised that, however much he loves and respects Joseph and Mary, there’s a world opening up before him which his parents could never have imagined. His future isn’t going to be about making furniture in Nazareth. 

That’s confirmed dramatically when John baptises him, just before this story we’ve heard today, and a voice from heaven tells him “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. But what does this mean? That’s what the Spirit leads him into the wilderness to find out.  “If you are the Son of God…” Satan says to him, as he offers him some versions of the future that probably look quite appealing. Turning stones into bread – what’s wrong with that? Being kept safe from disaster by God - that sounds fine too! Surely these are the kind of superpowers that any self-respecting God would give to his son. But Satan gives himself away in the second of his temptations. His version of the Jesus’ future depends on Jesus worshipping him. The kingdoms of the world can be his, “if” he worships him.

The future is up for grabs as Jesus struggles with temptation in the wilderness. That what all the “ifs” in it suggest.  His ministry could go in any number of directions. He could create a kingdom like all the other kingdoms of his time, a kingdom where might is right and the weak are left to fend for themselves, where leaders are in it for their own power and glory. That would be the easy way, the way of all the other kingdoms he saw around him. But Jesus, in that wild place, has wild thoughts, “ifs” of his own to counter Satan’s.

What if the poor and the marginalised were given pride of place? What if they came first in the queue instead of last? What if children’s voices were listened to as carefully as adults? What if women were treated with respect, as equals, not as property? What if success wasn’t judged by how much money people had, or how famous they were, but by how much they loved others, how easily they spotted God’s likeness in them, how little they needed, and how thankful they were?

“What if” life was like that? Jesus thought to himself as he sat in the desert. It would probably be painful and costly and frightening, but wouldn’t it be wonderful too? Could he bear that pain? Could he choose this future over the one that Satan offered him?

We who say we follow Jesus are often tempted, as he was, to take the easy route too, to follow the train tracks of the world, trundling along looking for all the usual trappings of power and glory, as if we had no choice. But, praise God, there have been people in every generation ready to as those “what if” questions afresh, uncovering once again the vision of Jesus’ kingdom. St Francis wondered “what if I gave up all the riches I have and lived out Jesus’ message alongside the poorest of the poor? Campaigners for the abolition of slavery like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, William Wilberforce – asked “what if” people of every colour believed that they were sisters and brothers? In this week when we have celebrated  International Women’s Day, we might ask “what if” women throughout the world could be who they are called to be, offer their talents in every field of life, without having to face discrimination, trolling and outright abuse? On a personal level we might ask “what if I could change and grow, think differently about myself, live more simply, more lovingly? What sort of future might that open up for me?

Out in the wilderness, Jesus asks wild questions just like these, as he struggles to choose between alternative futures, alternative visions of who he could be and what he could do.  It all hangs in the balance as Satan tries to convince him to choose the future he offers, but in the end Satan shoots himself in the foot, because he doesn’t seem to realise that Jesus’s relationship with his Father is so close that it’s completely obvious to him that Satan’s suggestions bear no trace of the family likeness, no hint of God’s voice.  He suggests ways forward that are all about self-enrichment, self-aggrandisement, self-protection.  “If you are the Son of God… choose these”, he says to Jesus. But the God whom Jesus has grown up listening to would never call him in this direction, and Jesus knows that too well to be taken in.

My daughter – an inveterate traveller - once told me that she had been about to get on a night bus in some dangerous corner of Central America when she suddenly heard my voice in her head telling her it wasn’t a good idea, so she didn’t. Phew! We know the voices of those we are close to, the way they think, the things they are likely to do. Their voices echo in us, and if we respect them we pay attention to them. Jesus knew his Father’s voice, his Father’s priorities. His ability to resist Satan is rooted in his relationship with his Father.

If we are going to be able to choose life-giving futures for ourselves and for our world, it will be because we have nurtured our relationship with God, our life-giver too. In this season of Lent, we’re also invited out into the desert, into the place where there is space - and provocation - to think, to ask “what if?”, to dare to imagine that the future can be different from the past, different from the way others tell us it will be, different from the way we have convinced ourselves it will be. But to do that safely and wisely, we need to have learned to recognise God’s voice amidst all the clamour of the world, to have nurtured that relationship with him, through prayer, through Bible reading, through service of others, through coming together for worship. It’s not something that happens in an instant. It takes time – the theme of our Lent studies this year. It takes steady commitment day by day if we want to “know him more clearly, love him more dearly, follow him more nearly” as the prayer of St Richard, which the choir will sing later, puts it.

Jesus was given a choice. If he was the Son of God, what would that Sonship look like? We are given a similar decision to make.  If we are children of God, as God says we are, what does that mean for us, how will people know, what difference will it make, how will it shape us and the world we are part of?


Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday can be a bit of a hard sell. It’s easy to attract people to a lovely Christmas carol service, or a joyful Easter service all full of chocolate eggs and spring flowers. Ash Wednesday doesn’t seem to have much to recommend it though. “Come along and remember all the stuff you’ve done wrong, and by the way, we are all going to die! Dust you are and to dust you shall return!”

But here we are. Something draws us here. Perhaps we are the kind of people who are never happy unless we are miserable, the kind of people who like giving ourselves and others a hard time? But no. I know you, and you know me, and that’s not how I would describe us at all.

The truth is that for those who “get” it, Ash Wednesday is rather a relief, because it’s the moment when we remind ourselves that it’s ok to be human, to be mortal, frail and fallible. We don’t have to be superheroes. God loves us as we are. That doesn’t mean that we don’t want to grow, to heal, to be transformed.  But we don’t have to pretend. We don’t have to look happy and shiny if we aren’t.

Ash Wednesday  is a serious day, a day when we can take ourselves seriously, and know God takes us seriously too – we matter to him, and the way we live our lives matters to him – but there is, or ought to be a joy in that seriousness. We can be honest about our failings because we know that God loves us, failings and all. We don’t have to earn his love, and nothing we can do will destroy it. In a world where so many people, so often, feel they have to put on a face, sell themselves, talk themselves up, it is really good news when we can find a place where we can just be as we are.

And if we begin Lent with joyful seriousness, with the real conviction that we are absolutely loved, then when we get to the resurrection morning, Easter Day, we will find that the new life it promises is also more real. If we live Lent with joyful seriousness, when Easter comes we will find in it serious joyfulness, joyfulness which reaches down into the depths of our being.

So it may sound odd to rejoice on Ash Wednesday, but I always find that I do, and I hope that you will too. It’s good news that we are dust, because that dust is beloved dust, precious dust, dust which God in Jesus inhabited and blessed, and blesses still.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Beloved Sons: Sunday before Lent

In today’s Gospel reading we meet two pairs of fathers and sons.

“This is my son, the Chosen; listen to him” – there’s the first pair. God speaks from heaven to Jesus’ baffled disciples.  They don’t get it. They haven’t got a clue what has been going on as they have seen Jesus shining with glory, and Moses and Elijah, figures from Israel’s ancient history, talking with him.

Peter has thoroughly embarrassed himself in his confusion by opening his mouth before his brain is in gear. “Shall I build you some tents?” he blurts out. We’ve probably all been there – not at the Transfiguration, of course, but in some other situation where we didn’t know what to say or do, so we just said or did the first thing that occurred to us, something banal and, on reflection, rather stupid. Faced with the spectacle of heaven breaking through to earth, Peter reaches for something, anything, that is familiar; in his case, a bit of DIY. But as soon as the words are out of his mouth, it’s obvious that he has got it wrong.
I mean… how does he plan to do this anyway? They’re up a mountain. Did he bring a pile of 2 by 4 and a tarpaulin, just in case?

But who can blame him?
Jesus doesn’t appear to. There is no rebuke, no “Now look what you’ve gone and done, Peter”. Although the vision vanishes and the cloud comes down, there’s no sense that this is a punishment, or that it is because of what he has said.  It is just that this was never meant to be an experience that was permanent. It is a spectacular moment, to be wondered at rather than clung to. Peter may feel he’s made a fool of himself. We may wince at his rather crass suggestion, but Jesus doesn’t seem to mind.

There are words of rebuke in the Gospel reading, but they come later, when we meet the second father and son in it. A man has brought his child to Jesus’ disciples to be healed. He’s probably one of many sick children in this needy crowd – sick children and desperate parents were two a penny in this pre-modern society as they still are in many parts of the world. There was very little anyone could do to cure or treat illness.  The child has what would probably be diagnosed as epilepsy today. But, in Jesus’ absence, the disciples haven’t been able to heal him, and they seem to have washed their hands of the situation. Notice that they don’t come to Jesus themselves and say, “we couldn’t help this poor family. Can you do something for them?”  It is left to the man himself to call out from the crowd.

The rebuke Jesus issues is really aimed at his disciples, who have failed this family. “You faithless and perverse generation,” cries Jesus, “how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?”  It is a cry of frustration and pain as much as of anger. It didn’t bother him that Peter, John and James didn’t get what the Transfiguration meant; it does bother him, though, that after all they have seen, his disciples don’t get what  his ministry among the  poor and the sick is about.  

To understand  his rebuke, we need to remember that people at the time of Jesus didn’t have the same problem we would about the possibility of miraculous healing. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have a problem; it was just that their problem was different from ours. We struggle with the biological, scientific possibility of miracles.  They assumed that all healing came from God anyway, and that if he wanted to he could heal anyone he liked – they had no issue with that. The question for them was whether God wanted to heal, and who he wanted to heal. If this boy was sick or demon-possessed, according to their way of thinking, it was because either he or his parents had done something wrong, which had let the demons in. If he wasn’t healed, it must be because God didn’t want him to be. It wasn’t that they didn’t trust God’s ability to heal; they just assumed that if he didn’t it was because the child or his family had deserved their fate . So, when their prayers for this child hadn’t worked, they gave this father and son the brush off. God obviously didn’t want this child to be healed, so why should they waste time on him either?  

But to this child’s father, that wouldn’t do. On the mountain, God had cried out from heaven “This my Son, my Chosen” – this is someone special, someone beloved – “listen to him”; but to this desperate father, his son was just as beloved, just as special, just as precious, and he knew it was just as important that his voice, the voice that shrieked out in his convulsions, was also listened to. He wasn’t having it that there was no hope, and neither was Jesus.

Jesus is angry with his disciples because they were not only saying that they didn’t care about this boy, they were behaving as if God didn’t care either. They were saying that God had rejected him, handed him over to the demons that tormented him.

As you may have noticed, if you followed the reading on your pew leaflet, there was actually an option to leave out this second story this morning. It’s in square brackets. I didn’t because it seems to me that they are meant to go together.

Two fathers, two sons. The first set are famous. Everyone’s heard of them.  . God Almighty and the Word made Flesh, the Saviour of the world, the Messiah, the Chosen One. This Father and Son are enthroned in glory, celebrated in music and art, prayed to, sung about. The other father and son were anonymous, unknown, slipping back into the crowd after this miraculous healing, with no hint about what happened to them next, and yet, if you had been them, this event would have changed your life. Joy had been restored to them. They had been given back their lives and their future, and all because Jesus had seen the beloved child within the cruel distortion of the illness that had held him in its grip for so long.

It is very easy for us to be impressed by the wonder and the glory of the Transfiguration. It’s a big shiny story, quite literally. It’s amazing, stupendous. And yet, on its own, what difference does it make? The disciples who were there didn’t understand it.  “They kept silent, and in those days told no one of any of the things they had seen”, we are told. Much later, they came to see it as evidence for Jesus’ divinity, but at the time, it just baffled them. It was as if the light of God’s glory was so bright that they really couldn’t see it at all, as if the cloud that surrounded them was so thick that they couldn’t find any way of comprehending what it meant. On its own, it is a great story, but it can leave us saying “so what?”

It’s when we see it next to this other story, of this other father and son, that it challenges us as it should. What does the glory of God really look like, it asks us? What does it really mean? Can we see it when it isn’t big and shiny, when it isn’t giving us an emotional high? Do we have the faith to look for God’s glory in the mundane, daily stuff of life, in the plains and the valleys as well as on the mountains? Can we see it in the insistent demands of this troubling father who won’t take no for an answer, in the people and situations that are inconvenient for us? Can we see it in the longing of ordinary people like this pair simply to live with ordinary dignity;  the family that come to the foodbank because they can’t make ends meet, the refugee who just wants his children to be safe, the addict struggling to stay sober and clean, the homeless person who is just trying to get through another night on the streets?  Can we see God’s glory in mess and muddle and pain? Do we have the faith to look for it in failure, in despair, in darkness, in death, in a man executed shamefully on a cross, or lying lifeless in a stone-sealed tomb?

Jesus saw God’s glory in this convulsing child. He saw him as someone made in God’s image, a beloved son, a chosen one, like him, someone who deserved to be valued not only by his father but by everyone else too, a child worth saving, worth helping. His anger was for those who refused even to contemplate the possibility that God might be present and at work in him, the people who took one look, made one failed attempt to heal him, and wrote him off.

The story of the Transfiguration is always the set reading for the Sunday before Lent, at the point when we are about to set out on a journey that should challenge us, if we make it properly. We travel from the hill where Jesus is transfigured, shining, acclaimed by God, to the hill outside Jerusalem where he will die apparently forsake by his father, in shame and agony, overwhelmed by evil, just as this child has been overwhelmed by his illness. But Jesus looks again at him, and sees God at work where no one else but his devoted father has done. Lent invites us to look again - at Christ, at ourselves, at the world around us - to look for God’s glory, to trust in his fatherly love, not only in the bright lights and the sunny uplands, but everywhere, in everything, and everyone.

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Where is your faith? Second Sunday before Lent

Audio here 

Genesis 2.4b-9,15-25, Luke 8. 22-25

“Where is your faith?” says Jesus to his stunned disciples in today’s Gospel story after he has stilled the storm which is about to engulf their little boat. “Where is your faith?”

I was struck by Jesus’ question as I read this story, because it is rather different from the question Matthew and Mark have him asking in their accounts of this strange event. Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospels share a lot of stories in common. They are called “synoptic gospels”. Synoptic means “the same eye”, or perhaps “seeing from the same perspective”. But they aren’t identical, and the little differences in the way they tell the stories matter.

So, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus asks “Why are you afraid – have you still no faith?”  The disciples in Mark often seem completely clueless. Perhaps that’s a bit unfair, but it’s meant as an encouragement to his readers, and to us. If they struggled, no wonder we do!  Matthew gives them a bit more respect in his telling of the story “Why are you afraid, you of little faith”. They have faith, but not much. But Luke takes a different tack completely. As Jesus looks as his terrified followers, the question he asks here is where is your faith?” They have faith, he says, but where is it? What have they placed it in? Why wasn’t it there for them when they needed it, as the wind howled and the waves crashed around them?

We have no way of knowing what Jesus actually said, of course, but I like Luke’s version, because it seems to me that human beings are usually full of faith.  We have to be. There’s precious little we can really be sure of in life. We have faith that the sun will rise in the morning and that it is still there, even when it is hidden by clouds.  We have faith that we will be paid at the end of the month, or whenever we get our wages, otherwise we wouldn’t go to work. We have faith that the food we buy contains what the label says it does. We usually have faith that most people are telling us the truth, as far as they know it. Even if people may have lied to us in the past, and we know that  have lied to others too, we still tend to assume that people basically mean what they say and say what they mean.

Life would be very cumbersome if we had to have proof of everything people tell us. How can we be sure, for example, that those who will serve us coffee at the end of this service haven’t laced it with cyanide? I very much hope they haven’t. They’ve never done so yet. But we can’t be sure. The only way we could prove it was safe would be either to send it off for testing – and then, can we trust the testers? - or to drink it and see if we all keel over. Apologies to the coffee makers for using them as an example…but you get the point. We live by faith, trusting in all sorts of things for which we have no evidence whatsoever, but Jesus question reminds us that we need to think about where we place our faith, and in whom.  

So, where is the faith of Jesus’ disciples? What do they trust in as they begin to face this storm? They’re fishermen. They’ve been sailing these waters all their lives. As the story starts, they surely have faith in their own skills and knowledge.

They probably have faith in each other too.  Maybe, as the storm began to build and each one privately realised that they didn’t know what to do, they consoled themselves with the thought that one of the others did. “Simon’s an old hand, he’ll be able to cope and give us a lead!. Andrew’s resourceful. He’ll come up with something!”

Maybe they believed that God wouldn’t let anything bad happen to them. Maybe their faith was in the religious ideas and cultural assumptions they’d grown up with. They were good people. They went to synagogue. They cared about others… Maybe they thought that ought to protect them against misfortune.

Maybe, like so many of us, they’d put their faith simply in the assumption that “it will never happen to me”. We all tend to think we are immortal until illness or accident hits us or those close to us.

Wherever their faith was, it didn’t seem to be helping them much as they faced the storm in that tiny boat. Their skill and knowledge wasn’t enough to keep them safe. None of them turned out to have a cunning plan, or any plan at all, come to that. All those good things they’d done didn’t seem to be enough magically to protect them against disaster.  This was happening to them. They weren’t immortal.

So eventually they did the only thing that was left to them. They woke Jesus up, and asked for his help.  “Master, Master, we are perishing!”  Finally, they put their faith in the place it really needed to be; in Jesus, and in their relationship with him. They didn’t tell him what to do. They didn’t know what to do, so how could they? They just told it like it was - “we are perishing!” and left it up to him. They decided that they could trust his love for them, that whatever he did, it would be for their good and certainly better than whatever they could do for themselves.

As St Paul put it in his letter to the Romans (14.8) “We do not live to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die we are the Lord’s.”  

This story is an important reminder of what faith really is. It isn’t just or even mainly about a set of intellectual propositions, like those we recite in the Creed. Faith isn’t believing things about God; it is about living in relationship with him, trusting in his care, knowing and showing that we believe our lives are richer and better with him in the picture.  

We know how this works from our human relationships. We don’t decide to trust a partner, a friend, a parent, a child because we believe a long list of things about them. We decide to trust them because we discover that life is better with them in our lives than not. We don’t demand proof of their love every day – that’s usually a sign that something has gone fairly drastically wrong in a relationship. We just come to a point where we have taken enough risks with them to know that we want to take some more.  We trust their love and rest on it. We allow them to have a claim on us, because we recognise that they are “flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone”, as Adam said of Eve, people whose lives are inextricably woven into ours.  

Essentially, faith isn’t a noun, a thing that you’ve either got, or haven’t got, it’s a verb, something you do, something which can only really be known  and seen in action.

We express our faith in our coffee making team by drinking their coffee, without checking it for cyanide first! We express our faith in those we love by opening up to them, assuming they’ll want to know how our day has been, how we’re feeling, what we’re thinking. We express our faith in God by living as if he matters to us and we matter to him, by listening for his voice, by pondering his words, but also by crying out to him in anger and doubt and questioning when we need to. Read the Psalms and you will find plenty of that. Shouting at God is fine. In a sense it is a sign of trust, a sign that we expect something of him, just as we would of anyone who cares about us. We may not know what he will do, what he will call us to do, where he will lead us, but you don’t cry out to someone unless you believe they love you enough to care and to respond.

Where is your faith?” asks Jesus of his disciples. Where is your faith?” he asks of us. What do we put our trust in as we face a stormy world – and is it something which ultimately can bear the load? That’s the question this story raises. There’s nothing wrong with having faith in ourselves, in our skills, in our knowledge and experience. There’s nothing wrong with having faith in those around us. But the message of this story is that if we expect these things and these people to be able to bear all our burdens and solve all our problems we’ll be disappointed.

I watched a little video on Youtube this week . I wish I could show it to you, but we don’t have the technology – I’ll put a link to it when I post this sermon online. It shows one of those little trust exercises that people are so fond on of inflicting on one another on training days. A willing victim – sorry volunteer – is told to stand on a chair and shut his eyes. All he has to do is to fall when he is told to. His friends, he is told, stand ready to catch him. He climbs on the chair. He closes his eyes. We see them gather silently behind him, their arms outstretched ready. “One, two, three…fall” he is told. And he falls, in complete trust, forwards. They had forgotten to tell him which way. They had assumed one thing. He had assumed another. “No! “ they all cry as they watch him fall… but it’s too late. I live in hope that it was staged, but I genuinely don’t know.

We live by faith. We have to. But let’s make sure that faith is placed where it should be, in God. Let’s make sure we are, literally, practicing it, doing it, by listening for his voice day by day, pondering his words, calling out to him in good times and in bad, so that when we fall, as we all must sometimes, we know which way we should fall, and where the arms are that will catch and hold us safely, when no others can.