Sunday, 8 May 2022

The fabric of life: Easter 4

 

There’s an odd little detail in today’s first reading which I really love. It’s the reaction of those weeping widows in Joppa, when their friend Tabitha dies. Peter gets an urgent summons to come to her house, and when he gets there, he is met by her friends, clutching the clothes she has made. That’s the bit that gets me. The first thing they want to do is show him her needlework. We aren’t told what they said, but I can imagine it. “She can’t be dead – look at the beautiful clothes she makes!! Who’s going to knit baby clothes for the children without parents to care for them? Who’s going to make warm blankets for those who are living rough? Who’s going to rustle up something new, or mend something old for someone that only has rags to wear? Who’s going to do all that if Tabitha isn’t here?”

 

Tabitha is their go-to person for “make do and mend”, and in a society where there was no such thing as fast fashion, that mattered. It’s no surprise that all sorts of crafts have had a resurgence during the pandemic, and that desire to recycle, repair and reuse will be even more important as the cost of living and environmental crises really start to bite. We need our Tabithas, people who can make and remake things not just for themselves but for others who may be more in need. We need our Tabithas to pass on those skills to the next generation too. We need our Tabithas – and so did her first century friends.

 

Maybe it’s because I like to sew and knit, and make a lot of my own clothes, that Tabitha has a special place in my heart. I can understand how precious those clothes she had made would have been to those who’d received them, and how they would, in a sense, have felt like an extension of Tabitha herself, a sign of her love. Whether we make things for ourselves or not, though, clothing can carry powerful memories, reminding us of special people, places and times. We may remember something we wore many years ago. We may even have clothes tucked away somewhere which we don’t want to throw away, even when they are well beyond wearing or we have no chance of fitting into anymore; the clothes we dressed our new-born children in – yes, I still have the little Babygro I brought both of mine home from hospital in – or an old jumper, knitted with love, and worn for comfort even when it’s grown baggy and the moths have been at it; or the ancestral Christening Gown, or the wedding dress that we only wore for a few hours. Clothes speak to us and of us. People often keep clothes belonging to those they’ve loved who have died too. They hold the smell and the shape of the person who wore them.  

 

This week there’s been a furore over Kim Kardashian wearing to the Met Gala the evening gown Marilyn Monroe wore to sing Happy Birthday to John F Kennedy 60 years ago. Conservators of historical clothing were appalled at the potential damage this historical artefact might suffer, but whether it was a good idea or not, it showed the power of a piece of cloth to stir up memories and debate. Would it have mattered if it was just a replica? It would seem so, at least to Kim Kardashian.

 

The clothes Tabitha made were, I suspect, far less costly than that dress, but they were priceless to those who received them. The Bible tells us that Tabitha “was devoted to good works and charity” and clothing people was obviously at the heart of this for her. This is what she was famous for, if only among her friends. It was unthinkable that she was gone.

 

They don’t actually ask for her to be restored to life, and I am sure they are as surprised as we would be when that happens, and of course, one day Tabitha will die again; death is a part of life, and this story isn’t about avoiding it. But in restoring Tabitha to life, even if only for a while, God affirms the value of an apparently ordinary woman, who would otherwise have been forgotten by history. He brings her into the spotlight for probably the first and only time in her life.

 

The early Christian community was disproportionately made up of people who were marginalised – enslaved or poor people, women and children, people without status or value in the eyes of their society, people who would normally expect to live largely anonymous, unrecorded lives. Most would have no memorial, other than in the hearts of those who they loved and who loved them. But the message this story gives us is that we are all known and loved by God, of infinite value to him. Tabitha may be invisible to the world, but God sees her, knows her, and values her. She stands for all those who, like most of us, will never do great things, but are called to do small things with great love. Tabitha’s gift to the world was to pay attention to that call, to hear the voice of God and to recognise his presence in those who needed the kind of undramatic everyday help that came in the form of a length of fabric, a needle and thread.  

 

In the Gospel reading, Jesus also celebrates those who listen to God faithfully. He uses the imagery of sheep and shepherds. In his world, sheep weren’t penned in fields. They roamed free across the wilderness. It was easy for them to get lost. But the shepherds – often young children like the shepherd boy, David, who grew up from obscurity to become a great king – roamed with them, looking out for good pasture and water, as well as guarding them against danger. The shepherds knew the sheep and cared for them. And because of that the sheep came to know and trust their shepherds too. They might not have known where they were going, but they knew who they were going with, whose voice they needed to listen out for, and that was what really mattered.

 

There’s a lovely verse in Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians, (3.3), which says “your life is hid with Christ in God.” I’ve always rather treasured that. Whether anyone else see or notices us, God does. If everyone else forgets us God will not.  We may even forget ourselves, if dementia takes hold of us, but God won’t lose track of us or value us any less. I suspect that this was what Tabitha’s friends most needed to know, that she mattered to God as much as she mattered to them, that she was loved by the shepherd who had always known her, named her and called her.  And that if she mattered, so do we all.

Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, 1 May 2022

The untorn net: Easter 3

 

John 21.1-19

 

Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.

 

153 fish. It’s one of those details in the Bible that makes you sit up and take notice. What is so special about 153? It’s not an approximation. It’s not a round number. But it hardly seems likely, either, that anyone would have sat down on the beach and counted, and then felt it important enough to keep a record of exactly how large this catch was. Yet the Bible is specific. 153 fish.

 

St Jerome, in the fourth century, suggested that this was the total number of species of fish known to exist at the time, and so it symbolised the completeness of this catch, though there’s no foundation for it in ancient literature. Other people have pointed out that if you add up all the numbers from 1 to 17 you get 153 – I’ve tried it; it works – and 17, as these theorists say, is the sum of 10 and 7, both numbers which in the ancient world also suggested perfection and wholeness. The truth is that we don’t know where this number comes from. I am sure that Dan Brown could make a blockbuster novel out of it. But in the Gospel writer’s mind it probably does have something to do with totality. We can tell that not only from the context, but also from other references in the Bible to nets and fishing. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells a sort of mini-parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind,” he says (Matthew 13.47). In the Old Testament too, the prophet Ezekiel has a vision of his nation as God wants it to be. Central to that vision is a great river, flowing down to the sea, making stagnant waters fresh, bringing life to all that is in it. “People will stand fishing beside the sea* from En-gedi to En-eglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea.”

 

John echoes that vision in this story. Here is God’s kingdom, coming to birth among you, he says, a vision of abundance and plenty, a kingdom which is for all.  That fits with everything else we see Jesus saying.

 

The early church struggled with that, just as we still do. We set limits. We make conditions. For the early church the tensions were between Jews and Gentiles. For us they may be different. We might find ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, saying “you’re welcome if you think like I do, if you worship like I do, if you behave in ways that I approve of, if you are prepared to fit in to the way we already do things, if you go through the right rituals.”

 

But I don’t think this is just about the boundaries we set between people – those who are in and those who are out. It’s also about the inner boundaries we create as we try to keep parts of ourselves from God. The disciples in this story – and Simon Peter especially – knew that they had failed Jesus when they ran from him as he was arrested. They couldn’t turn the clock back. That failure is a part of them, a part of their life stories. What are they going to do with it? They go fishing to remind themselves that this, at least, they can do – to try to kid themselves that that bad stuff never really happened. But even in this, they fail. There are no fish - until Jesus comes along.  It is only then that they get the point. They are accepted as they are, in their wholeness, good and bad.

 

I think that is a message most people need to hear. We often expend a great deal of effort covering up those things we are ashamed of in our lives. We try to look good, but in order to do so we have to cut off bits of ourselves, leave them at the door of the church. But God wants us to come to him as whole people. If we don’t come like that, we might as well not come at all. 

 

There were 153 fish in the net, and the net was not torn, says the Gospel. How far do we think we can stretch the love of God before it breaks? Are we anxiously trying to protect him from being overloaded, cautiously sidling up to him, and trying to stop others doing things which we fear will offend his delicate sensibilities. It sounds daft when I put it like that, but I think that is sometimes what we are trying to do. Of course, it is daft. God can cope with us, and with others. The net of his love, the net of his kingdom is big and strong enough for the whole catch, for whatever we put into it. It won’t break. Whoever we are, and whatever we’ve done, he can hold us securely. 

Amen

Sunday, 24 April 2022

Doubt & Hope

 

John 20.19 – end, Acts 5.27-32

Welcome to the week after Easter, Christ is risen, death has been defeated, we have celebrated, the chocolate eggs have been eaten, and the Priest deserves a rest. Now the disciple Thomas calls us to reflect and consider what this all really means to us.

In our Acts reading we get an insight into the lasting effect that Jesus’ appearance to the disciples has had. We heard that when he appeared ‘the doors were locked for fear of the Jews,’ yet in front of the Jewish Council and the High Priest the disciples seem to have found a new clarity of understanding about who Jesus is and this is reflected in their assertive and blunt replies.

It’s often an unwelcome surprise to those who believe themselves to be all powerful when the little people they feel they can control dare to quote a higher power, a greater and more enduring wisdom.

Is this the same Peter who denied knowing Jesus, confidently proclaiming what he now knows and understands to be true? He tells the Council that it is God who must be obeyed no matter how much power and suffering you can inflict upon us, you’re the ones who should be worried for killing his Son, I paraphrase on behalf of Peter.

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

Sadly, we still don’t need to look far to see the inhumanity of mankind in our world today, and fear of terrible suffering is all too real for so many, a situation the disciples could relate to. Understandably they were frightened. So scared, in fact, that, they hid behind locked doors. And who can blame them? They had just witnessed the one they confessed to be the Messiah betrayed by one of his own, tried and convicted by both religious and civil authorities, and then brutally executed. Little wonder they were afraid, assuming that the next step would be to round up Jesus’ followers. But when Jesus comes on the scene, their fear falls away and is replaced by joy.

What does it mean for us that Jesus showed the disciples ‘his hands and his side’? Perhaps there’s a message to all who obsess over physical appearance that even a resurrected Christ was prepared to share his scars and his wounds. Or maybe, it made the resurrection all the more believable that this is not some sanitised version of victory but one which has involved suffering, pain and sorrow.

But what about Thomas, who was out when all this was happening. Do you ever wonder where or why? Perhaps he was just getting bread or oil but it can’t have been easy to hear the others say something like…you’ll never guess who came to see us while you were out! Put in that way it’s not surprising that he wants to see and feel Jesus for himself, he’s missed out massively.  I’m sure that many of us can relate to him. He wants his own resurrection experience, his own living encounter with Christ, not a second-hand version.

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

Perhaps Thomas drew on this and for him the ultimate realisation of ‘the way’ was to be in the physical presence of his Lord and God once more. After all an empty tomb means little without a body.

In being this way Thomas slows everything down, helps us to linger, reflect and remember that his grief was real , he wasn’t ready to let go, he was still in deep mourning. All of us who have lost someone we love can relate to this. We have have yearned for just one more interaction with the person who has died, to know them again as we knew them before, please God we may ask, just one more time.

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

When we think of how Jesus responded to Thomas’ doubts it seems to be an open invitation for us to bring our own questions to him, question time with Jesus if you like.

There’s nothing off the agenda, one person I heard of is keen to find out why God made mosquitoes, but we may have bigger questions or doubts to bring to Jesus like why does evil and injustice seem to thrive in some parts of the world or is my loved one now safe in your keeping.

A week could have felt like an eternity for Thomas, maybe he was just becoming resigned to a future where he would have to live with doubt when Jesus arrived and said ‘peace be with you’ and ‘do not doubt but believe.’

We shouldn’t expect instant answers either but be open to hearing Christ’s voice in different ways, sometimes unexpected people or situations may enlighten us or reassure us of God’s love.

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

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

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

I can really relate to that, there are so many aspects of God that we don’t know, yet I remain optimistic that our relationship with him will work out eventually, not because we deserve it or fully understand it but because he loves us. I’d happily have that proclaimed at my funeral ‘In the vague and fuzzy understanding that kept alive his optimism that it will all work out OK in the end’ , could it catch on as a new liturgy?

When we think of the disciples and their sending out by Jesus it has to be to a new more honest interaction with the people. They are aware of their weaknesses and failures, promises to stick with Jesus through anything turned out to be lies, lies for which Jesus doesn’t even demand an apology. He understands their human fallibility and wants to restore them to go out and serve the people once again. It’s time to rely less on their own strength and more on their response to God’s calling.

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

It’s for us to live out our lives to the full by being ourselves, carrying our mental and physical scars in the knowledge that they are shared with Christ.

Amen

Kevin Bright

23rd April 2022

Sunday, 17 April 2022

Easter Sunday: Witnesses

 

Acts 10.34-43, Luke 24.1-12

 

“We are witnesses to all that Jesus did both in Judea and in Jerusalem”. That’s what Peter says in our first reading. “We are witnesses”. That’s partly just a statement of fact, of course. Peter had seen Jesus at work. He’d travelled with him, lived with him, eaten with him, had his feet washed by him. He’d seen Jesus speaking to the crowds, healing the sick, and he’d seen him exhausted, asleep in Peter’s boat, frightened in the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter had been with Jesus almost till the end. He was the only disciple who’d followed Jesus when he was arrested, but his nerve had failed him at the last minute as he stood in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house. When people started asking him if he knew Jesus, he denied it all and hid as Jesus was led away to be crucified. But after the crucifixion, Peter was one of the first to see Jesus again – in a locked upper room, on the lakeside in Galilee welcoming his disciples to a breakfast of barbequed fish.

 

He wasn’t the only witness we hear about in today’s Bible stories though. The first to see the Risen Christ were a group of women, who had supported Jesus’ ministry. They had watched Jesus die and seen him buried in a borrowed tomb. That’s why they knew where to go with their spices and ointments. That’s why they were the ones who discovered that there was no body to anoint that the tomb was empty, that Jesus was risen.

 

At first the other disciples didn’t believe them. They were women. Women’s testimony didn’t count in a court of law in their culture. Nor, it would seem, did it count in the court of the disciples’ opinion – their words were dismissed as “idle tales”. But Peter decided that he ought at least to go and check it out for himself, rather than writing it off, and he found that it was just as they had said.

 

“We are witnesses” he said. He spoke of what he knew, and that was what gave him and the other disciples of Christ authority when they talked about the resurrection of Jesus. No one would have believed it otherwise. You couldn’t make it up, and you wouldn’t want to either. After all, many of these same disciples ended up being persecuted and killed themselves because of what they said they’d seen. There was nothing in it for them – no power, no glory, no status. If they knew it was a lie, if they knew they hadn’t seen it, there would be no conceivable reason to make it up. People may choose to die for a mistaken idea, but if we don’t die proclaiming a deliberate falsehood about an event which we know is untrue.

 

They could have followed the way of Jesus as a dead hero, a wise man whose teachings brought wisdom to the world – history is full of them, people whose stories inspire others. There would have been nothing wrong with that. But these people, who had been there, insisted, even at the cost of their own lives, that he wasn’t a dead hero, but a living friend. I can’t explain it, and I have long ago given up trying to. I don’t know what we would have seen if we had been there in first century Jerusalem with a video camera, but I know that these witnesses were sure that Jesus, who had died, was now alive. To them that was the proof that God hadn’t deserted him when he died on the cross, that he really was who he said he was, God’s chosen one, doing God’s work, and because of that, the message he had proclaimed, about God’s love being for everyone, really was true.

 

“We are witnesses” says Peter.

 

Of course, we can’t say the same thing, at least in the sense that Peter meant it. We haven’t seen the risen Jesus appearing in a locked room or on a lakeside, or trudging along the road with us on the long road to Emmaus.

 

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t bear witness to the resurrection. Those of us who call ourselves Christians today do so because in some way we have discovered the power of the resurrection in our own lives. It’s a different sort of witness, but just as important – perhaps more so. A former bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, once got into a lot of trouble in the press for saying that the resurrection was “more than a conjuring trick with bones”. But he was right, despite the furore. If the resurrection was only about something that happened  2000 years ago, thousands of miles away, seen by people who are now long dead, it would be an amazing story, but nothing more than that. Christian faith proclaims, though, that the resurrection of Jesus is a living event, happening in our lives day by day, for us to discover anew.

 

Peter is talking, in the first reading we heard, to a Roman centurion called Cornelius and his household. Cornelius has heard about Jesus and his message, and wants to know more. Think about that for a moment. He is a Roman centurion. It was the Romans who had crucified Jesus, Roman soldiers who had driven the nails into his hands, who had hoisted the cross up, with the weight of Jesus’ body on it, who had watched and sneered, gambling for his robe at the foot of the cross, until he died. Roman soldiers were the enemy. To be fair, Peter had really struggled when Cornelius had asked him to come to him, as I expect any of us would. It had taken some pretty heavyweight intervention from God to get him to go. But Peter knew that Jesus had proclaimed that God’s love was for everyone. He knew that even as those Roman soldiers were driving the nails in Jesus had prayed “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing”, and he knew that by raising him from death, God had affirmed that message, had proclaimed that love was stronger than hatred, so in the end, he found the courage he needed, went to Cornelius, and, to cut a long story short, Cornelius his whole household were baptised and became followers of the way of Jesus in their own lives. Peter was a witness to the physical resurrection of Jesus, but Cornelius became a witness to the power of that resurrection to break down the barriers of suspicion and hatred which ought to have made Peter run a mile from him.

 

That’s what the resurrection is about – not an event that happened to Jesus and to those lucky enough to have been there and seen it two thousand years ago, but something which enables resurrection to happen daily in the hearts of those who follow him, people like Cornelius, who discovered a new way to live, love and forgiveness that should have been unimaginable

 

It's the same for us. We can’t witness that first resurrection in a graveyard in Jerusalem, but we can witness the resurrecting power of God’s love in the graveyard of our own hopes and dreams, in the situations where we feel that all is lost, as we discover that love is still stronger than hatred, and life stronger than death today.

 

It can be hard to discover and hold onto that on our own, which is why we need each other. We need to gather as a church, however we do that. Hearing the witness of others can be vital when our own faith falters.  But when we’ve found the good news for ourselves, it will spill out to those around us who need to hear it too, spreading through our words, our actions, our attitude to life.  It’s not about denying the reality of death or suffering – far from it; It is about declaring that they are not the whole of the story or the end of the story. All around us we see death at work – as the bombs rain down on Ukraine, as our planet faces the threat of climate change, as people are ground down by poverty and injustice, as well as in the personal threats and sorrows we face. Death is obvious, but we are called to bear witness to the possibility of life, where no life ought to be, which brings hope to places where despair seems to rule.

 

“We are witnesses”, says Peter, and that is what makes all the difference to him. He has discovered the power of God’s love for himself.  This Easter, God calls each of us to do the same, because if Christ has been raised from death, then we can be raised from death too.

Amen  

Saturday, 16 April 2022

The Kindness of Strangers

 

Good Friday 2022

 

A couple of nights ago, on the BBC Ten o’clock news, Clive Myrie commented in a report from Ukraine that it was very wearing to begin almost every film he introduced with the warning that “viewers may find some scenes distressing”. The strain of reporting from a war zone was obviously taking its toll on him, because, distressing though it is for us to see these things on our television screens day after day, it must be far worse to be witnessing them in person, to see the bits that are blurred out for viewers, to hear the stories which the editorial team cuts out, knowing they are too grim to broadcast. And, of course, it is even worse for those for whom these things are not stories in a news broadcast, but lived experience, those who have buried their loved ones in their own back gardens with their own bare hands, because there is nowhere else to put them, those who have suffered rape or torture, and seen all they have and all they love destroyed.

 

We have the luxury of being able to turn off the TV, and I suspect that sometimes we may be wise to do so, but the suffering doesn’t stop because we can’t see it.

 

It really does seem at the moment as if there is nothing but bad news; as well as the war in Ukraine there is a pandemic still raging, a cost of living crisis, and a climate emergency which is ticking down to the point of no return.

 

And here we are on the solemnest day of Holy Week, piling on top of all that a story which is just as grim as anything we might hear on the news. An innocent man, arrested on trumped up charges, deserted by his friends, mocked and beaten and subjected to an horrific death. Telling this story year after year might seem like a perverse thing to do, deliberately depressing us even further than we are by the realities of our world – wouldn’t it be better for our mental health just to avoid it, think of something pleasant instead – bunnies and chocolate and fluffy chicks?

 

And yet, for two thousand years we have circled back to this story, telling it again, looking at it from every angle. Why would we do this to ourselves?

 

Perhaps it gives us a lens, a framework, to look also at the suffering around us now, and the suffering we go through with new eyes. People often ask why we call this day Good Friday – how can it be good? But we proclaim that it is, and that somehow it strengthens us.

 

As I looked at the story again this year, in preparation for Holy Week, one of the things that struck me was that, for all the cruelty and hatred in it, there are also acts  of love and kindness too, often from people who are either right on the fringes of Jesus’ world or even complete strangers to him. I’ve explored some of those stories in the display in front of the Lady Chapel, which I have called “the Kindness of Strangers”. There are the stories of people like the person who owned the donkey and gave it gladly to Jesus to ride into Jerusalem – I hope you like the Donkey we made at Messy Church this morning -  or the penitent thief on the cross, who defends Jesus when the other thief crucified with them rails at him. There’s Simon of Cyrene too, who is forced to help Jesus carry his cross, but is evidently changed by the experience and becomes a disciple. We wouldn’t know his name or where he comes from if he hadn’t. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea feature as well, stepping out of the shadows after Jesus’ death for the first time and helping with his burial, a gesture that must have seemed to them too little, too late, until the resurrection changed everything. And then there are the women who watch the crucifixion and the burial, when all Jesus’ male disciples have run away. They witness, and bear witness to his crucifixion, and later to his resurrection too. They may not be able to do anything to prevent it, but it makes a difference to us when others see and take notice of our suffering, and I’m sure it did to Jesus too.

 

What did it feel like to be one of those bit-part players in the story? They probably felt that what they were doing was pointless, but they knew they had to do it. Somehow, this man Jesus had drawn out of them love and courage they didn’t know they were capable of.  And as it turned out, their kindness wasn’t pointless after all. It has been remembered and celebrated in the words of Scripture ever since, to inspire us to love and courage too.

 

When you look at this terrible story, you find golden threads of kindness woven through it. They don’t negate the suffering and hatred, but they are every bit as important as them. They remind us that evil is not the whole of any story, that, if we have eyes to see, there is always hope and love, like those stubborn weeds that force their way up through the toughest concrete.

 

The kindness of strangers is as precious now as it was then.  It counts. It matters. It makes a difference. And we can see it all around us if we have eyes to look, in those who helped their neighbours through the lockdowns, stepping forward in their thousands to offer support, in those who have offered to host Ukrainian refugees or have given generously, in those who have protested about the treatment of refugees from other parts of the world – protest can be an act of kindness too. In every small gesture of love, even if it seems pointless, especially if it seems pointless, we proclaim the power of God, the God who doesn’t let hatred have the last word, ever.

 

Ultimately, all our kindnesses are rooted in the greatest kindness of all, the love of God, for us. God who didn’t  have to come and live and die with us in Christ, but he chose to do so, because we needed him, even if we didn’t know it. It is sometimes hard to see the good in Good Friday, just as it is hard to see the good in the world around us now, but that is what we are called to do, today and everyday, to see it and to be it, for friends and strangers, and even enemies, because that’s what God did for us.

Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, 20 March 2022

Bearing Fruit : Lent 3

 

Luke 13.1-9, 1 Corinthians 10.1-13

You are probably aware that our Lectionary, the scheduled bible readings for each week, repeats on a 3 yearly cycle.

Three years ago, in connection with today’s readings I said…’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.’

I bet you are bursting to know what has happened since, in fact I expect that you’ve thought of little else! I gave the cherry tree one more year, I fed it, I pruned it and.. then I chopped it down due to lack of fruit. You’ve had time and several chances I told it before wielding the saw. The space is now occupied by a productive Bramley apple tree.

One interpretation of Jesus’ Fig Tree Parable could be to see God as the landowner coming to Israel for many years seeking fruit, Jesus as the gardener and elements of humanity 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 it offers a lot more potential than that which is immediately obvious.

Many people are distinctly uncomfortable with the suggestion that for many things there simply is no logical explanation, accidents, illness, suffering, persecution. 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.

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.

As we see horrors unfold in Ukraine there is a depressing reminder today that mad men have been prepared to kill innocent people without hesitation throughout history. Our Gospel reading begins with some people, probably on a pilgrimage from Galilee, offering sacrifices in the temple when they are slaughtered upon the orders of Pilate. Perhaps he saw them as a threat. We are told that the blood of the people mingled with those of their sacrifices.

It's against the backdrop of this that Jesus chose to go to Jerusalem. I draw hope and comfort from this, there’s a sense that despite the occupying Roman army and all the dangers they pose, God’s agenda, his message of love, keeps grinding forward regardless of obstacles and opposition. Despite whatever challenges we face, whatever evidence we see of humanities lack of, well humanity, God wants those who choose him to keep bearing fruit in the world.

Perhaps the Jews in Jerusalem are telling Jesus about the slaughter of the Galilean Jews because they considered them less faithful than themselves and were hoping that Jesus might affirm their prejudice and say that they got what they deserved. Throughout the bible Jesus is invited to comment by people who already know what answer they are hoping for and they are regularly disappointed.

Perhaps they also hoped that Jesus would condemn Pilate for a sacrilegious act and be drawn into the political situation. Perhaps they hoped to rile Jesus to the extent that he would endorse some violent act of retribution against Pilate and his forces.

Jesus simply directs those drawing him into the subject to look inward, examine themselves and change their own ways. It’s so easy to say that bad things happen, that so much is wrong around us, because of other people when the greatest difference we can make to this is to consider how we can further God’s agenda for humanity. Time spent judging others is time we could be investing positively.

The people slaughtered at the Temple the others crushed when the tower of Siloam fell on them, Jesus wants us to know that they are likely to be no better or worse than most of us. Life can be unexpectedly short for inexplicable reasons and we need to choose whether we are fruit bearers now and turn to God, repent, turn away from the things we know to be wrong and choose life.

Most of Jesus’ energy goes into positive reasons for following him. He’s not big on criticism and negativity but he is very clear that those with the privilege of power should not exploit, destroy and poison the lives of others but serve them and their interests.

It’s not difficult to find excuses that suggest our efforts to improve an apparently failing world are futile and for this reason to give up and fall into lazy patterns focussed solely on our ourselves. We often can be guilty of a similar approach to the Jews trying to trick Jesus into saying things that make them feel better about themselves, seeking excuses if you like. Yet it is clear that through Christ, God aligns a functioning and fruit bearing world, one where nature flourishes, with one where we also would flourish. To see the opposite of this it’s easy to bring to mind split and charred trees in Ukraine which show humanity at its worst, depriving opportunity for new growth and poisoning the environment in every sense.

Only this week someone suggested that it’s ridiculous that we worry about things like energy conservation when millions of tonnes of munitions are destroying cities and people and the threat of nuclear contamination looms large.

Yet we have to make choices, are we going to be pushed from what we know to be right because of the evidence of evil or press on with even greater determination.

We are and wish to continue being a religious community that bears fruit, what would be the point otherwise?

We would be a community that doesn’t contribute beauty to our world, which is out of touch with the wider population, their needs and interests. Our coming together would only be self-serving, trying to make ourselves feel better, engage in a theological system which exists solely to perpetuate itself and sticking our heads in the sand to problems which cannot be ignored be they near or far.

In short we would be sucking nutrients from the soil, using resources without any intention of bearing fruit, fruit which has the potential to delight and nourish. It would  be as if we are deliberately violating God’s nature.

I can almost hear you reaching for the saw, sharpening the axe, ready to pass it to God so he can remove this waste of space and replace it with something productive.

It’s worth us each reflecting upon what it really means to flourish and realise at least some of our potential.

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 obvious need to nourish and nurture our faith. To understand the difference between accepting that we are loved and forgiven versus being lazy even 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 short don’t let our faith become complacent, keep seeking opportunities to make God’s love known.

When the people told Jesus of the Galileans being slaughtered in the temple they didn’t spare him the gory detail. As horrific as this was then and other events are today we must note that 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 meaningful change begins with us.

It feels that now, during Lent, we should make time to reflect honestly about the fact that if we accept that the love of God can be found in the wonder of nature thriving, feeding the earths people literally and in other forms of wellbeing what is the danger for us if we continue to inhibit its potential to bear fruit?

Amen

Kevin Bright

20th March 2022

Sunday, 13 March 2022

The stars and the darkness: Lent 2

 Genesis 15.1-12,17-18, Luke 13.31-end

 

“Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them… So shall your descendants be!”

 

Many of us these days never see a starry sky like the one Abraham looked up into. There’s usually too much light pollution for us to see any but the brightest stars here in South East England. But an ancient Middle Eastern nomad like Abraham, whose only artificial light was the glow of a camp-fire or a flickering oil lamp, would have seen thousands sparkling in the night sky, with the Milky Way spilling across the darkness. Counting them would have been impossible.

 

And that’s the point God is making to Abraham. He will have more descendants than he could ever count.

 

But that’s something that seems more than a bit unlikely to Abraham, because right now he has no descendants at all, and he’s already in his eighties. His wife Sarah is well beyond child-bearing age too. If he doesn’t even have one child, that starry crowd of descendants is impossible. Reason tells him that he and Sarah will be the end of their family line.

 

This isn’t the first time God has made this promise, though. More than a decade before, God had called him to leave his home town of Haran in southern Mesopotamia, where he was living a comfortable and prosperous life, to head out across the desert to a new home. And the only incentive that could have led him to set out on this crazy expedition is that God has told him, “I will make of you a great nation… “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. “ The prospect that he might finally  have an heir to carry on his family name outweighs the uncertainty and danger of the journey ahead of him. He and Sarah set off, with their nephew, Lot and whatever possessions they could carry between them, into the unknown. When they get to the land of Canaan, God renews his promise. “To your offspring I will give this land”, but the years pass, and still the promised child is nowhere to be seen, and Abraham and Sarah are getting older and older.

 

That’s the background to the reading we heard. Look towards heaven and count the stars? So shall your descendants be? By this point it’s all starting to sound like a cruel joke.

 

Abraham still seems to believe that God might come through with a miracle, but understandably, he’s starting to feel he’s entitled to some proof. “How am I to know that I shall possess this land?” he asks. How can I be sure that the “great nation” God has promised will come into being?.

 

And this is the point where an already weird story gets a whole lot weirder. God tells Abraham to make a sacrifice. There’s nothing unusual in that; it was a standard form of worship. But when Abraham lays the carcasses out, a “deep and terrifying darkness” descends. The starry sky is gone. The only light there is comes from a fire pot and a flaming torch, carried by invisible hands, between the sacrifices.

 

“A deep and terrifying darkness”. How does any of this answer Abraham’s question? How does it explain how a nation will come from this childless couple? It doesn’t, is the obvious response. What it does tell Abraham, though, is that God is still with him, and that God is in the darkness as much as the light. Just because Abraham can’t see a way forward doesn’t mean there isn’t a way forward. Just because Abraham can’t see what the future looks like doesn’t mean there isn’t a future.

 

In time, as it turns out, Abraham and Sarah do have a child, Isaac, and from him a tribe grows, until there really are too many to count. God keeps his promise. Those who first told this story saw themselves as Abraham’s descendants. This was their origin story. If Isaac hadn’t been born, they wouldn’t have been either. But I don’t think that is, or ever was the most important message of the story.  

 

Much of the Hebrew Bible, which we often call the Old Testament, was drawn together when the people of Judah were exiled in Babylon, and its stories are deeply shaped by that experience. The Jewish people thought they were facing the end of their nation, their culture, and their faith. Just like those fleeing from Ukraine, they didn’t know when or even if they would return to their homes, and what they’d find if they did. They’d lost everything, maybe forever. So, what had it all been for, they asked themselves - their history, their achievements, their struggles?  It felt as if the stars were being swept from the sky, those stars which represented their legacy to the world, their impact on the world, not just physical children, but all they had done. They thought they would be forgotten.

 

When their storytellers told them this story of Abraham they were inviting them to stand with him in the desert, to look up into that starry sky and to go through that “deep and terrifying darkness” with him.  That’s what stories do for us. They enable us to step inside them, try them out for size, and by doing that to find ourselves within them. “The heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus” said Abraham – Eliezer was actually Abraham’s servant, but he was going to inherit all his master’s belongings, because there was no one else who could. In the same way, it seemed to the exiles that their land was being left to anyone who wanted to move in and take it.  As Abraham wondered what God was playing at, they were reminded of their own doubts and questions, their fear that it was all over for them. But the Biblical storytellers knew that if they could identify with Abraham’s despair, maybe they might also be able to find his hope and his faith, and dare to trust God in their own “deep and terrifying darkness” as they faced an unknown and unknowable future.

 

This story told them that God wasn’t only present in what seemed bright and shiny, in triumph and glory, but also in confusion, pain and doubt. That was a comfort and an inspiration for the exiles, but also for many who came after them, including Jesus’ first followers. Abraham’s walk with God had involved long years of waiting, and deep darkness, so the fact that Jesus had lain helpless in the darkness of the tomb didn’t mean that God had deserted him, or that he was a fraud or a failure. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus foretells the trouble ahead of him, as he heads for Jerusalem, “the city that kills the prophets”.  But that wouldn’t be the end of the story, he said. “On the third day I finish my work” – and of course that is meant to remind us of the resurrection. God’s faithful presence with Abraham through the tough times he faced, and with Jesus in the stillness of the tomb, inspired them to believe  that he could be with them as they faced persecution and hardship for the sake of the Gospel.

 

And perhaps it can inspire us to believe that God can be with us too in our times.  After all, there’s no shortage of “deep and terrifying darkness” around us. We’ve lived through two long years of pandemic – who could have imagined what this has been like - and now the war in Ukraine threatens the peace of the whole world. If we’re not feeling just a bit frightened, we’re probably not paying enough attention.   We don’t know what’s around the corner, how it will end, what it will lead to, or how we will cope. Glib reassurance that it will all turn out ok just won’t wash. There’s no magic wand, no easy answer.

 

We’re living in a time when it can feel like there’s no certainty about anything. But faith isn’t the same as certainty; it doesn’t drive away our questions. What faith does is far more powerful. It enables us to live in the darkness, to walk through it lovingly and with integrity. Faith is the act of reaching out into it, trusting that the living God will be there to take our hand. And why should he not be? After all, life begins in the darkness of the womb. Seeds germinate in the darkness of the earth. Resurrection happens in the darkness of the grave, so maybe the “deep and terrifying darkness” can be the holiest place of all.

Amen