Sunday, 11 July 2021

God and the plumb line: Trinity 6

 

Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark6.14-29

 

“John, whom I beheaded, has been raised”


When King Herod hears of Jesus’ ministry, it is as if all his worst nightmares have come at once. He’s convinced that John the Baptist, that inconvenient truth-teller, is back, raised from death – a death for which Herod was responsible. Suddenly he feels as if his life is unravelling before his eyes.

 

Herod’s problem was like that of most dictators. He had too much power for his own good – far more than he can handle - and yet he didn’t have the absolute power he thought he really needed. Herod had the power to imprison John and to have him killed for daring to challenge his incestuous marriage to Herodias, but killing the man didn’t kill the message, and that was the power he longed for. Not only was John’s call to repentance still out there being preached to the crowds by Jesus, it was also still inside Herod’s head. He couldn’t forget what John had said to him, however hard he tried. That is what really troubles him when he hears of another teacher and miracle worker who seemed eerily similar to John.

 

Later on in the Gospels we hear of Herod plotting against Jesus and colluding in the decision to have him executed. Herod was desperate to take control of this situation too, desperate still to silence this challenging, disturbing message. But mighty as he was, that was something he just couldn’t do, because John and Jesus had the power of the truth behind them, the power of God, and that, in the end can’t be resisted. 

A few weeks ago, Philip and I were on one of our regular day-off Tuesday walks, when we came across the church of St Mary the Virgin, Westwell near Ashford. It’s a lovely old church built in the mid 13th century, and clearly much loved, but the first thing you notice when you walk in is that all the pillars down the South Aisle are leaning outwards at an alarming angle. It’s very disconcerting. It made me feel slightly sea-sick. And it’s obviously been like that for a very long time because there are ancient looking buttresses inside and outside the church, plainly added at different periods to try to shore the building up. It’s still standing, but I’m sure the churchwardens see those wonky columns in their nightmares…

 

I’m no surveyor or builder, so who am I to know, but my best guess is that this 800-year-old problem was there right from the outset; a small miscalculation, dodgy foundations, a bit of shoddy workmanship, a poor choice of materials, a false economy…  I am eternally grateful that whoever built our church, around the same time, didn’t employ the same builders…

 

It might not have seemed important at the time; but 800 years on, the problem is all too evident. The truth will out. There’s nothing hidden that won’t someday, somehow be made known, and I can just imagine the moment, maybe not too long after the church was built when someone said to the churchwardens “Those pillars there…do they look straight to you?” And maybe, at that point, someone went and got a plumb line to check it out.

 

When the prophet Amos, in our Old Testament reading, saw a vision of God standing with a plumb line in his hand, he knew what it meant. A plumb line, a simple lead weight on the end of a string, was one of the most basic building tools in the ancient world, and they are still used today – Screwfix will sell you one for under a fiver. It tells you whether you are building straight or not. It alerts you to the problems early if there’s something going wrong with the foundations. Amos knew that the leaders of Israel hadn’t been building the nation straight and true. They’d been lining their own pockets, bolstering their own power by making dodgy deals with the nations around them and it was starting to show.

 

But just like Herod, five centuries or so later, they didn’t want to know about it. “Go and prophesy somewhere else!” was the message. Not long afterwards, the Assyrians swept Israel away, deporting its people across their empire. The nation fell, but the prophecy endured, and it still speaks to us today. Pay attention, it says, especially to the things you’d rather not pay attention to, the things that feel uncomfortable, challenging, difficult.

 

When Herod heard that Jesus, who had been baptised by John, was healing people  and performing miracles, he knew that the truths he had wanted to ignore were coming back to bite him. Herod’s tragedy was that it didn’t have to be so. He could have changed. He could have heeded John’s message, but he was so anxious to cling to the life he had that he didn’t dare believe that any other life – a life lived honestly and lovingly – could be worth living. He’d always been a devious manipulator, and he wasn’t prepared to try living or ruling any other way. He lost his power in the end anyway, for all his cunning. He ended his life in Gaul, banished by the mad emperor Caligula when he rashly asked to be given the title of King of the Jews, egged on, once again, by Herodias. Herod overreached himself once too often in his desire to have absolute control of his world, and it all came crashing down around him. But it didn’t need to be so – he had a choice, as we all do. He just didn’t have the courage to take it, and very often, I suspect, neither do we.

 

So where do we find that courage, when we are faced with difficult decisions, when we are afraid to get out the moral plumbline and hold it up against our lives or the world around us? Perhaps, oddly, Herod’s words, the words I began with, might give us a clue. “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised” says Herod. Of course it wasn’t literally true, but resurrection is the key to this story. John may not have been raised, but Jesus, whose death Herod also connived in, would be. That was the proof for the early Christians, by and for whom this Gospel story was written, that however many people were killed, God’s life and God’s goodness couldn’t be snuffed out. They lived in the light of that resurrection, and they saw it at work in themselves and one another too. St Paul let go of his hatred and prejudice, and discovered the transforming power of love. St Peter let go of his self-aggrandisement and machismo, and discovered that Jesus still loved him, God still called him even after he had denied knowing him and run away in terror.  People who looked like hopeless cases, with no chance of redemption, found that they  could be and do things they never imagined.

 

Every week we begin our worship with confession – a moment when we ask God to  hold his plumb line alongside our lives and show us what he sees. Sometimes people think it’s a rather downbeat, depressing way to start the liturgy, that we are just dragging ourselves down and beating ourselves up, but actually, the opposite is true. It is, or should be, a moment of pure joy, because it’s only when we can see and say what has gone awry that God’s resurrection power can begin to open up a new way for us, a way that leads to life, hope, healing, reconciliation. Only then can he rebuild us on foundations that are firm and true.

Amen.


Sunday, 4 July 2021

More than enough of contempt: Trinity 5

 Psalm 123, Ezekiel 2.1-5, Mark 6.1-13

 

“We have had more than enough of contempt, too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud.”

 

Powerful words from our Psalm today. Ancient words, but words which I think could have been written at any point in history, by a destitute Victorian forced into the workhouse, by a refugee who’s escaped war with only the clothes on their back, or by someone who finds themselves dependent on the help of a foodbank. It is hard work to be poor, and depressing, and tiring and complicated. But to add to all that you often also have to contend with the attitudes of those who’ve never been there, or who’ve managed to scramble out of poverty. It’s all too easy for others to sit in judgement, to assume that those who  have less are less; less valuable, less hard-working, less careful, less conscientious. The contempt, scorn and derision the Psalmist complained of 2500 years ago are just as prevalent today as they ever were.

 

It was interesting to read that Psalm today alongside the Gospel reading today, which is also, in its way, about poverty and our attitudes to it. Jesus deliberately sends his followers out on their first mission with nothing but the clothes on their backs and a stout stick. No bag, no money, no bread. No back up if they find themselves homeless, nothing to smooth their way if it all goes wrong and they want to buy themselves out of trouble. It may only be a temporary thing, but he’s sending them out with nothing to fall back on or to offer to others, nothing to tempt people to join them. And it will be obvious to others. They will look poor as well as being poor. It’s partly about them learning to trust God, not themselves, but it will also help to break that deep rooted assumption that material success is a sign of God’s blessing, a reward for virtue or hard work.

 

There’s nothing wrong with virtue or hard work in themselves, of course, but the truth is that  material success often has far more to do with the family we are born into, the people we encounter on the way, and just plain good luck than we would like to think. The good weather that ripens a vital crop or the bad weather that destroys it, political instability, war, unjust trading practices, or, as we have seen this year, pandemic disease – things beyond our power to control - all tilt the playing field, so that some have it easier than others. Billions of people around the world who work harder than most of us could ever imagine, yet still live their whole lives in dire poverty. The fact that some manage to pull themselves up by their bootstraps doesn’t mean that everyone can – you have to have some bootstraps, for a start. 

 

It isn’t fair that it should be so, and we are all called to right injustice where we can, but there will always be some who fall between the gaps; it might be others, it might be us, now or in the future. So it’s also important that we learn to talk and think about poverty in ways which don’t demonise or reject those who find themselves stuck in it.

 

It has to have been tough for Jesus’ disciples to be sent out like beggars, dependent on the good will of those who welcomed them, or didn’t. Most of them weren’t particularly wealthy,  but they weren’t destitute either. They owned boats to fish from, homes to live in. They had jobs and families and positions in their communities. Going out with nothing forced them to look at themselves afresh, to discover how much of their sense of self-worth was tied up with what they had rather than who they were – children of God. The fact that Jesus tells them what to do if they aren’t welcomed shows that this would sometimes be the case. This isn’t a test of faith that there would be a bed and a square meal if they believed hard enough. This was a confrontation with reality, with the insecurity and fear that stalks human life and which we all, sooner or later, have to deal with.

 

They needed to face that because many of them, like Jesus himself, would face opposition and persecution. Some of them would lose family, home or even their lives because they followed him and the new communities they created would be disproportionately filled with those who came from the lowest rungs of society. They wouldn’t look or feel successful, to others or to themselves. If they thought that was the sign they were in God’s good books, they’d be in for a shock. They needed to know what it felt like to have nothing, and to know that it didn’t mean that they were nothing. This mission was part of that steep learning curve.   

 

It was, I suspect, something that Jesus had learned early, and there’s a hint of that in the first part of the Gospel story. The crowd who take offense at Jesus when he preaches in his home town of Nazareth do so because they’ve known him all his life, and his family too. They call him “the son of Mary”. People in that patriarchal culture would usually have referred to people as sons of their father, not their mother, even if the father was dead. To call him the son of Mary implies that they believed there was something dodgy about his parentage. Mark’s Gospel, the earliest one to have been written, doesn’t have any stories about Jesus’ conception or birth. It doesn’t mention Joseph at all - or any other father.  Mark doesn’t seem to know anything about a Virgin Birth. If he did, surely he’d have said so. It’s only Matthew and Luke who tell that story, a decade or so after Mark. Whatever had actually happened, Mark implies that people thought Jesus had been conceived out of wedlock, a cause of stigma at the time. No wonder they didn’t want to listen to him, didn’t even think he had the right to speak.

 

“Blessed are the poor,” said Jesus – not just the financially poor, but all who were despised by others. We’ve heard those words many times, but they were new and life changing to those who heard them for the first time, the poor, enslaved, disabled and disadvantaged people, the vulnerable women and children who flocked to Jesus. They knew good news when they heard it, that they – even they - especially they – were blessed and loved by God. It was like water in a desert. They found new dignity in following Jesus. They discovered a truth that set them free, that they were of infinite worth to God, however much contempt, scorn and derision the world heaped on them.

 

It’s a message which is as important now as it was then. It is important whether we think of ourselves as poor or rich in the world’s terms because the truth is that we may all find ourselves in either camp at some stage. Sooner or later we all have to face situations in which we don’t have what we need, whether that’s money, health or status. However charmed a life we’ve led none of us is invulnerable, but whatever our circumstances, God never looks on us with contempt, scorn or derision, so we shouldn’t look on ourselves or others like that either.  

Instead, we are called to open our hands and hearts to one another, in our poverty and in our riches, in our weakness and in our strength, so that together we can discover and share the limitless generosity and grace of God. Amen

 

Sunday, 20 June 2021

Do you not care? Trinity 3

 Audio version here

Trinity 3 2021

Job 38.1-11, Psalm107.1-3,23-32, Mark 4.35-end

 “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

 That’s the intriguing question the disciples cry out as the storm batters their little boat. Intriguing because it’s hardly the obvious thing to say to Jesus at that moment.

“Wake up and help us bale out!” would be much more appropriate. In a situation of danger, this isn’t a sensible time to launch into a discussion about Jesus’ feelings for his disciples.

 It reminds me of those crucial scenes in disaster movies. The building is collapsing. The lava flow is advancing. The timer on the bomb is ticking down. And the hero and heroine are wasting precious seconds having a heart to heart and a final lingering kiss. It’s great for heightening the dramatic tension, but it’s not a good use of time if you want to live to tell the tale. I’m always sitting there thinking “Stop talking and run!”

 

But this Gospel story isn’t a chapter in a sailing manual, any more than those movies are about buildings, volcanoes or bomb disposal techniques. They are about human beings, human hearts, how we relate to one another and, in this case, to God. The disaster, the crisis, is just being used to reveal what’s happening under the surface.

 

Everything had seemed fine when the disciples first set out on their voyage. Jesus was exhausted after a long day preaching. His friends probably encouraged him to go to sleep. After all, many of them were experienced fishermen. They’d been sailing these waters all their lives. They knew how to handle a boat, and maybe they felt proud that they could do something for their friend at last, rather than just following him around asking dumb questions. “You get your head down, Jesus. We’ve got this!”

 

But as the storm worsens, they realise that they haven’t got it after all. They may have always coped before, but they can’t cope now. They remember just how dangerous this lake is. People drown here all the time, and tonight it looks like it’s their turn. But Jesus is still asleep. On a cushion, we’re told, as if to rub in just how comfortable he is, while they struggle on, terrified and alone.

 

Suddenly they realise that they do need him, not for any sailing expertise he might have, but for himself. They need him to see their plight, to hear their cries, and most of all, to care. Even if they’re going to sink, they’d rather sink knowing they are loved, than feeling abandoned.

 

It’s the same for Job, in our Old Testament reading. The book of Job tells a story which is probably based on an existing Middle Eastern folk tale, but transformed into an extended meditation on suffering and how we deal with it. Job is a righteous and successful man, but suddenly his life hits the rocks. His children all die, his flocks are stolen, his house falls down, and he himself is afflicted with dreadful diseases. But why? And what will he do about it? Will he reject God?

 

His so-called friends come and offer well-meaning advice, but it turns out to be useless, and sometimes offensively damaging. It really must be his fault, they tell him. Everything happens for a reason, they tell him. He must have done something wrong, even if no one, including him, knows what it is… But Job stands his ground. He may not be perfect, but he’s a good man and he doesn’t deserve this.  

 

But that doesn’t mean he’s ok with what is happening. He rails at God, and demands that God explain himself, and eventually, in the passage we heard, God does. His explanation might not sound very satisfactory – basically that God is God, and Job is not – but it’s the only explanation that Job is going to be able to grasp.  We are all stuck in the moment, only seeing a tiny sliver of reality, a tiny slice of time. Bad things do happen to good people, and good things to bad, and it doesn’t seem fair, because it isn’t fair. But that doesn’t mean that God’s punishing us, or that what is, always will be.

 

That’s enough for Job, and as the story ends, his fortunes are restored - and we like to hope his friends have learned a lesson. It’s always tempting to try to explain away messy and perplexing situations, as they do, however far-fetched our explanations are. It’s always tempting to try to do something – anything - rather than accepting that there’s nothing we can do, even if we make things worse in the process. It gives us the illusion of being in control. That’s how superstitions start. Avoiding black cats or touching wood won’t keep us safe, because life is inherently dangerous, and ultimately always ends in death, but faced with that terrifying reality, we’ll seize at  anything that might convince us we have some power. Even blaming ourselves is easier than accepting that there is no way we can avoid it.

 

Ultimately, as Job discovers, what gets us through difficult times, whether we live or die, succeed or fail in worldly terms, is knowing we aren’t alone, that someone sees us, hears us and cares for us. God, the creator of the universe, turns up to talk to Job, and even if he didn’t understand any more at the end than at the beginning, he knows he matters enough to God for him to do this.

 

The poet Raymond Carver, who struggled most of his life with alcoholism, which caused immense pain to him and those around him, eventually managed to stop drinking and find some measure of peace and wholeness late in his short life - he died at the age of 50. But the epitaph he wrote for his gravestone, the final poem, Late Fragment, in his final collection, says this.

 

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.

 

Over this past year or so, we’ve all been discovering what we’ve “wanted from this life”, what really matters to us, and how we cope in the face of trouble. We’ve realised the value of the little things we once took for granted, the touch of a hand, a shared song, the presence of friends and family, things which help us to “feel ourselves beloved on the earth”.

Many people have found themselves reaching out for strength beyond their own, too. Like the disciples in that storm-tossed boat, we now know, even if we didn’t before, that we can’t do this alone. People have connected with churches, including this one, in much larger numbers than before, looking for sustenance, comfort and a sense of belonging, and some at least have found what they were looking for. I don’t know what will happen when the pandemic is over, what sort of ‘normal’ we will find ourselves in, but I hope we’ll remember the raging of this storm, and the moments when we cried out to God “don’t you care that we are perishing?”, and the moments, even if they were just moments, when we heard his voice replying “peace, be still,” in the depths of our hearts, in the words of the Bible, in the glory of nature, in the kindness of others, in new discoveries about ourselves. Because the good news is that the God who’s with us in the storms is with us always, calling us to discover life in all its fulness in the good times as well as the bad.

Amen

 

 

Sunday, 13 June 2021

Small things Trinity 2

 Audio version here

Trinity 2 2021 – A sermon by Kevin Bright

Ezekiel 17.22-24 , Mark 4.26-34

You might judge what I’m about to say as a bunch of random thoughts about parables, stories, context and stuff spoken around, rather than about, because it’s too hard to fathom.

If you were hoping for a neat explanation of how parables work feel free to switch off now. Oh, and for me the readings made me think about how we actually hear and take stuff in as well as whether we are actually listening to each other at all!

A woman walks into a bar after a hard work shift on a hot day, orders that cold beer she’s been thinking about for the last hour, hands over her cash and downs it there and then.

That would have been a perfectly reasonable little introduction a couple of years ago but anyone who has bothered to buy a pint recently knows that it doesn’t work like that anymore.

A man makes a booking two days in advance, walks up to a bar wearing a mask, scans the QR code, enters his details for track and trace, sits at his designated table and orders a pint of beer using an app on his mobile device citing his table number, is served on a tray by someone wearing gloves and a mask and he pays via contactless card! It’s so dull that you’ve already given up waiting to hear what follows.

The point of this isn’t to illustrate why our pubs are struggling but just how in a short period of time people hearing a story either can immediately relate to it or have to use their imagination a bit because it’s not their immediate reality. Anyone aged about 19 and a quarter hasn’t (or shouldn’t have) known anything different.

We heard the ‘Parable of the Mustard Seed’ and how ‘with many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it;  he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.’

Because many who heard his parables made their living from farming or fishing it is no coincidence that aspects of the natural world arise. God’s kingdom in its entirety would be too much for us, literally mind blowing so Jesus gives us parables to demonstrate aspects of the kingdom that we can relate to from everyday experiences.

Parables have the potential to help us discover the truth for ourselves rather than simply being told that something is factual and that we should believe it. They might open the new eyes needed to discover a reality beyond the immediate and obvious and are worthy of our attention. They can also easily be dismissed as irrelevant or too obtuse to wrestle with.

Parables were often told in a way that would particularly resonate with the needs, even yearnings of those hearing them, yet in a way that wasn’t too much to bear in one go.

There’s a cheerful sense of mischievousness to the way many parables start. It’s often not what people are expecting to hear, perhaps a bit like some comedians engage you by saying something ridiculous like a horse walked into a bar…it’s not so much that people listening to Jesus expected a joke but they were hooked initially to the extent that they wanted to know how the parable would end, even if they were sometimes left puzzled.

‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground’, what?

Is it too much of a leap to expect those listening to think about a seed time for God’s harvest? Perhaps there might not be much to see yet but keep the faith because God is at work.

It’s also like a tiny mustard seed, did those hearing think - is this guy for real, I’ve got to hear where he goes with this.

Apparently black mustard grows wild in the Jordan river valley to the height at which a person on horseback can stop under it for shade. Of course when you hold its tiny seed in your hand it can be a leap of imagination to believe in its potential. Yet this tiny seed held similarities to the kingdom of God according to Jesus.

Those hearing of a small seed could have found resonance with Ezekiel’s times of suffering in exile . In both cases God talks of taking action to provide shade and shelter, a refuge in God.

Here’s a big question. With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what would help us explore it?

Imagine yourself among hundreds gathered to hear Jesus talk as he says the kingdom of God is like an acorn that grew to become a mighty oak. I bet like me some of you have got oak seedlings which are just a few inches in height, we can walk on them without even noticing at times yet given the right environment they can grow to around 100 ft tall.

The kingdom of God packs as much power as one of those chilli seeds you touch when preparing a meal, small and insignificant you can even forget about them for a while, and then you rub your eye!

It seems likely that Jesus is challenging his listeners to explore a parallel to his own situation. One man in Galilee isn’t exactly the kingdom of God type change that people were expecting. How could God bring the change needed from such apparently tiny resources? Jesus wants the people hearing him to consider how different the kingdom of God is to their experience of a kingdom where the powerful rule unjustly.

There are aspects about our lives, God included, that only make sense in parables or non-factual descriptions. No one has ever bottled love, given it a scientific formula or defined it in words. Yet we make songs, films, stories about it that help us absorb its reality. We witness great courage and sacrifice motivated by love that help us feel its power.

Parables are often thrown in alongside a situation or a problem but not as the neat direct solution which we often crave. Perhaps they run parallel in a way that we need to cross over to explore yet there is no logic which can unlock their meaning absolutely. Its all part of their intrigue, not a code to be cracked but something to be felt, not something that will always reveal itself in a timescale we find acceptable. Parables can be frustrating, painful, enlightening and delightful.

What if we were trying to tell someone how we think God wants us to live, what it would be like to have heaven on earth where might we begin? Perhaps by listening to each other, perhaps by being open to multiple ways of discovering this truth.

I was walking by the River Thames on Friday and there was bunch of guys listening to urban poetry on a big speaker like the one Philip wheels out to accompany our hymns. It’s an interesting thought that they were determined to share this with all passers-by within a few hundred yards. When I say urban poetry, they would call it rap but it’s still just issues they can relate to in a format they find acceptable. Whilst I didn’t raise this with them I thought that it could do with a few less expletives but the poetry was actually superb and I slowed down my walk to listen a bit longer.

There I am, one of those people who pretends not to listen but actually is drinking it in. We can be sure that whenever anyone talks about God there’s always some like this.

A lot of us would give their material a wide berth yet there’s a creative sense of lament about a lot of life’s sadness and problems if anyone can be bothered to listen. One of Eminem’s collaborations with Ed Sheeran speaks of moving from the darkness pain and regrets of the past leading to rivers of tears…

Been a lover, been a cheat

All my sins need holy water, feel it washing over me

Well little one I don’t want to admit to something

If all it’s gonna cause is pain

Truth and lies right now are falling like the rain

So let the river run

 

Jesus gave us a hint of how to get people intrigued enough to explore further. Perhaps a bit of a hook, an opening line might get their attention.

The opening line in Norman MacLean’s book, ‘A River Runs Through It’ is…

‘In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.’

People will quickly find their own twist on the fly-fishing part, whatever their passion is football, music, cooking, or you never know they might actually be obsessed with fly fishing.

The hard way in would be telling them in a believable way that if they really knew what the kingdom of God was like that their other passion might be put in perspective. But what if they were to start by recognising God in the very things already most important to them?

It may be unrealistic think that we can find ways to give everyone a hook or a theme that resonates for them as a route to ponder God’s kingdom. Once the words have left our mouths we have no further control over how they fall upon people’s ears.

Yet we’re all here or listening on a Podcast because we are people who want to know the kingdom of God. Like those hearing Jesus’ parables it might prove beneficial to consider how we find creative and surprising ways to explore this in a deeper sense.

Just in case we need reminding, it’s OK to start with something really small.

Amen

Sunday, 30 May 2021

Holy Fear: Trinity Sunday

 

Isaiah 6.1-8, John 3.1-17

 

“Be afraid. Be very afraid!”

That line came into my head as I read our readings for today, but I couldn’t remember where it came from. It turns out it’s from David Croenenburg’s 1986 film The Fly, which is based on a short story by George Langelaan about a man who is half turned into a fly in a botched scientific experiment. At which point it all came back to me…I’ve never seen the film, but I did read the story, many years ago, and have always wished I hadn’t…  I was, indeed afraid, very afraid.

 

Fear is a strange thing. Logically you’d think we’d all want to avoid it, and yet we seem to be drawn to scary experiences whether it’s reading or watching a horror story or going on a scary ride in a theme park. Of course, in those situations, the fear is tamed by the knowledge that the story is made up and the scary ride has – we hope – been thoroughly inspected by the Health and Safety officials. Perhaps we need to play-act our fears so we are ready for the real thing, but perhaps also we know that sometimes frightening experiences can be important, a gateway to something new, a moment of growth.

 

In our readings today we meet two frightened men who discover exactly that. The prophet Isaiah stands in the Temple in Jerusalem, where God was believed to be symbolically present in the heart of Israel. It was a very familiar place to Isaiah, but on this day, something very strange was happening there. Isaiah had a vision of God “high and lofty, and the hem of his robe filled the temple.” Around him were mysterious beings, seraphim, flying with their six wings and singing to one another “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts”. It wasn’t just a cry of worship, it was also a warning. The Israelites believed that getting too close to real holiness was dangerous, not because God meant anyone evil, but simply because encountering him was lifechanging. Isaiah was rightly terrified, realising how small he was in comparison to this mighty God. What business had he to even be there, in this place where heaven seemed to have invaded earth? But as he wonderfully discovered, not only does God want him there, God even seems to need him. “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” cries God, and Isaiah answers “Here I am, send me!”

 

The Hebrew scriptures said that no one could see God and live, and although there were those like Isaiah and Moses who did, they were never the same again. They found themselves on pathways they could never have imagined, so maybe there was death of a sort going on.

 

The fear in the Gospel reading is less obvious, but I think it’s just as real. Nicodemus is afraid of what others will think of him, a respected, senior religious leader, who’s supposed to know what’s what. That’s why he comes ‘by night’ as the story tells us. Why would he want to talk to this radical preacher, just a carpenter from Nazareth whose been upsetting the traditional order? But I think he’s even more afraid of himself and his own feelings. He senses that there is something about Jesus that feels like the presence of God, something of the holiness which so frightened Isaiah. Nicodemus can’t understand or explain it; Jesus has no training, no background, no standing in society. But he can’t deny it either, and he knows that if Jesus really is from God, of God, maybe even the Messiah, it will have huge consequences for him, upending his life.

 

We’re not told what happens at the end of his conversation with Jesus, but it’s clear that he doesn’t drop everything and follow Jesus, not yet at any rate. He seems just to slip back into the darkness he arrived in. It’s all too scary. He isn’t mentioned again until after the crucifixion when he finally steps out of the shadows and helps to bury Jesus’ body. But I think we can assume that he must then have become a disciple, and part of the early church, otherwise his name and his story wouldn’t ever have been known or recorded.

 

Fear, as I said earlier, is a strange thing. It can be a horrible experience, something dark and destructive, which crushes our spirits and makes us shrink from life, but there are also times when we feel the kind of holy fear which Isaiah and Nicodemus felt, times when our fear is a sign that something is happening that really matters, when we realise we are encountering something bigger and more mysterious than we are, when we discover that we are standing on holy ground, being drawn into the life of God, into his holy work.

 

I recall coming home from hospital with my first child, and finding myself entirely alone with this tiny, fragile, brand new human being, knowing that his safety and happiness lay in my hands. And he didn’t even seem to have come with a manual… A small child, but a huge responsibility and a huge privilege, which I knew I didn’t have the resources to handle, because none of us does. I was, rightly, afraid but looking back I can see that it was a holy fear, a good fear, and I’m glad to have felt it.

 

I recall the time when I battled with the sense that I was being called to ordained ministry, something which felt impossible to walk away from. I knew that saying yes to God would have consequences for me and for those around me, and I knew that I couldn’t possibly do it in my own strength. In the ordination service, priests are told that “the treasure now to be entrusted to you is Christ’s own flock, bought by the shedding of his blood on the cross”. There was no way that I felt I was up to such a precious job, and that’s still the case. It is only by the grace of God that I’m here. The day I stop being aware of that holy fear, the privilege that has been entrusted to me, is the day I need to give up.

 

I’m sure there have been moments in all our lives like that, when we quake, knowing that we are doing something, making some decision that really matters.  

I’ve often stood at the top of the chancel steps and watched couples tremble as they say their marriage vows, as the nerves about the practicalities of the day give way to the proper, holy fear at the scale of the promises they are making, to love and to cherish, till death us do part. If they weren’t at least a bit frightened at that point, I think I’d be worried for them.

 

Chronic anxiety is a terrible thing and needs professional help to address, but a life in which there is no fear is no life at all, because it means there is no growth, no challenge, no point at which we are called out beyond our comfort zone, knowing that we are doing something that really matters simply by being ourselves. What those callings look like will be different for each of us, and they will change through our lives. Our fears will be different too, but if we can face them and acknowledge them to God, we too can find ourself in the Holy of Holies, as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, weave themselves into our lives and lead us into true joy.   

 

Amen

Sunday, 16 May 2021

Called to be apostles: Easter 7

Yesterday in Rochester Cathedral, Jess Heeb was licensed as a Lay Minister – an LLM for short.
It’s the term that now covers all those who have some authorised ministry within the Church of England but aren’t ordained – Readers like Kevin, and those who used to be called Parish Evangelists and Pastoral Assistants.  Their ministries are all different, depending on their gifts and enthusiasms and the context they are in, but they are all selected, trained, and eventually authorised by the Bishop in the same way, as Jess was yesterday. It was a lovely day, a great celebration, even if numbers were very limited in the Cathedral. I know some people watched online too, and you still can do at the Diocesan Facebook page. 

I have no doubt, though, that Jess will have felt a bit daunted at times – I would be worried if she didn’t, and I know she very much appreciates our prayers and support. Maybe, too, she is quite surprised to find herself in this position – it wasn’t something she’d envisaged, and yet, here she is, a gift and a blessing to us. It’s fortuitous, then that today we heard the story from the Acts of the Apostles of Matthias, who unexpectedly found himself chosen for ministry – in his case as an Apostle - and of Joseph Barsabbas, who wasn’t chosen.

I have often wondered about Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas. We meet them for the first and only time in today’s reading from Acts.  The Bible doesn’t tell us anything about them except this. They were both, presumably, part of the crowd of men and women who had followed Jesus during his ministry, but they weren’t part of that inner circle which the Gospels often just call “the twelve”.. When Judas’ committed suicide after betraying Jesus, they felt that someone had to take his place. Twelve was a very important number to Jewish people. There were twelve tribes of Israel – descended from the sons of Jacob - so twelve meant “all” to them, the whole people of God. Jesus came to announce a new kingdom, a new people of God which was open to all and in which everyone had a home, so of course, the new people of God had to have twelve leaders, just like the old one had. So here they are, trying to find someone to fill the gap. Their method might seem strange to us, whittling it down to a shortlist of two and then casting lots, but it didn’t seem strange to them. The assumption was that God, who controlled everything could control the way the lots fell so that he would have the final word and the right person would be selected. Jess might be a bit envious of that – no interviews, no essays to write!

In this case, Matthias was chosen, Joseph was rejected. But I wonder how these two men felt when the result was announced. Was Joseph gutted – had he always wanted to be an apostle? Or was he secretly relieved? Did Matthias rejoice, or did his heart sink at the responsibility that was being thrust upon him? There’s no mention of either of them being asked whether they actually wanted the job. It makes me wonder how I would have felt – probably completely overawed, and absolutely unready, full of doubts about whether I would be up to the task. And I’m sure I would have wondered whether I might find myself sharing the same fate as Jesus had – not an appealing thought. 

I expect that many of us would rather be Joseph than Matthias, left in comfortable obscurity rather than being thrust into the frontline. But let’s not be too quick to heave our sighs of relief, because the truth is that we are all chosen, all called to bear witness to God’s love. The word “apostle” literally means someone who is “sent out” and that means all of us are apostles, because we are sent out “to love and serve the Lord”, as the communion service puts it, in whatever situations we find ourselves. We say in the creed that we believe in an apostolic church, a church that is outgoing. We might not be asked to be great leaders, or stand on street corners sharing our faith or go to the ends of the earth or do something that seems grand and noble, but we are all placed daily in situations where we find ourselves challenged, “sent out” beyond our comfort zones. That might be at work or at home, as parents, children, neighbours or friends.  Are we able, when push comes to shove to do the loving and good thing, despite the fact that the selfish thing might be infinitely easier? The small choices we make in those situations often have a far deeper and wider impact on those around us than some heroic gesture would. We all notice and appreciate those around us who act with integrity and trustworthiness, those who show us genuine love and care, those who go the extra mile. We wonder what inspires and strengthens them. There is nothing that speaks more powerfully of the love of God than the loving lives of those who claim to follow him. 

So we are all called to be apostles. The lot has fallen on us. But if we feel daunted we would do well to remember the words of Jesus in the Gospel reading, because he seems to have a great deal more confidence in our ability to live lovingly than we probably do ourselves. This Gospel reading is part of his final words, his farewell message on the night before he died. He prays for his disciples, and for those who will follow him in the future too –us in other words. “The words that you gave to me,” he says, “I have given to them”. His message is that whether we know it or not, whether we dare to believe it or not, we have what we need, the word of God, working deeply within us. 

That should be an encouragement for Jess, but also an encouragement for the rest of us, if we can take in and ponder Jesus’ promise. Do we feel that we have what we need to deal with the situations we face? If we don’t, Jesus’ words invite us to turn to God, to turn to his word, to turn to one another, and find the wisdom and strength we need to do what he has called us to. 

Amen