Sunday, 9 May 2021

Abiding love: Easter 6

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Acts 10. 44-end, John 15.9-17

‘Abide in my love’ says Jesus to his disciples on the night before he dies. Last week we heard the passage before this, when Jesus used the image of himself as the vine, and us as branches grafted into it, with God’s life flowing through the whole. Now he goes on to talk about what that life, lived close to God, is like. It’s a life, he says, that is marked most of all by love. We don’t just abide in God, we abide in love, because love is God’s deepest nature. ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you: abide in my love’.

That little word ‘abide’ is a powerful one. It means to stay put, to stick with, to remain. An abode is an old-fashioned word for a home, a place we live in, not just visit. We have ‘abiding’ memories of things, memories which endure. And there may be things we ‘can’t abide’, things we recoil from. Jesus doesn’t just tell his followers to love here. He tells them to ‘abide in love’ to stick with it, to keep on loving, until love is second nature, a basic attitude. 

It’s one thing to do something kind now and then when we happen to feel like it or when we think someone might be watching. It’s quite another to keep on seeking the best for someone when it’s inconvenient or costly, day after day, week after week, year after year. We’ll usually only do that for people who are very special to us, our ‘loved ones’ as we call them. And that’s what Jesus calls his disciples – and us - here. The translation says ‘I have called you friends’ but ‘loved ones’ is really more accurate. ‘Friend’ can mean anything from a casual acquaintance to a bosom buddy, but to call someone a ‘loved one’ implies that our lives are bound together, that we couldn’t forget each other even if we tried. ‘I would walk 500 miles’ sang the Proclaimers. Who would you walk 500 miles for? Who would you let your life be turned upside down for? Who would you not be able to sleep for worrying about? Who would make your own heart swell with pride because of something they’d achieved? Those people are our ‘loved ones’. We breathe more easily when we know that they are ok. 

And in this Gospel passage, that’s what Jesus calls us, his ‘loved ones’, the ones he’d do anything for, even lay down his life, the ones he can’t forget or walk away from. He sticks with us, remains with us, let’s his life be bound up with ours. Our sorrows are his sorrows. Our joys are his joys. And as we abide in that love, letting it sink in, learning to trust it, we should start to find that our own lives and attitudes come to be shaped by it, so that we naturally want to share it with others.  

What does that look like in practice when we do that? Perhaps our first reading can give us an illustration. It’s the tail end of a much longer story from the earliest days of the Church. Jesus’ first followers were Jewish, of course, like Jesus, but they’d begun to embrace his message that the Kingdom of God was open on equal terms to everyone, Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, saint or sinner, male or female.  On the Day of Pentecost, filled with the Holy Spirit, his followers had spilled out onto the streets of Jerusalem, speaking of Jesus in languages they didn’t know, but which the crowd, from every corner of the world, could understand. God was at home – abiding - everywhere, with every person, whatever their culture or native language. 

But it was one thing to preach that, and another thing to live it. Inclusivity is easy until we have to include someone who presses all the wrong buttons for us, who feels that bit too different, alien, ‘other’. The beginning of Acts 10 tells the story of St Peter praying on the rooftop of a house in Joppa where he’s staying. As he prays, he has a vision of something like a sheet, lowered from heaven, filled with all sorts of animals his faith forbade him to eat - pigs, shellfish and the rest - things that felt viscerally yucky to him, because he’d been schooled to call them unclean. And there they all are, squirming away on this sheet. And then Peter hears a voice from heaven, the voice of God, saying ‘Kill and eat these, Peter’. ‘ But I can’t!’ says Peter. ‘Why not?’ says God. ‘Because you’ve told us not to!’ ‘’Hmm’ says God, ‘but this is me speaking to you, and telling you different…’

While Peter tries to get his head around that, some messengers arrive, sent by Cornelius, a Roman centurion, a Gentile, a member of the occupying army. He’d heard about Jesus and the message he had preached, and he wanted Peter to come and tell him more. But Peter knew what that meant. If you went to visit someone, they would be sure to offer you something to eat. Hospitality was a sacred duty. But the equivalent duty of the guest was to accept what you were given, and it almost certainly wouldn’t be kosher, in keeping with those Jewish food laws he’d been brought up with. It might be any of those things he’d in that vision of the sheet full of unclean animals. Even to go into this Gentile house would have made him unclean in many people’s eyes. What should he do? 

It was hard, strange, disturbing, but Peter went anyway - into another culture, another world. He chose to ‘abide in love’, to stick with his conviction that God’s call was for all people, rather than recoil and run away from it, to trust that God had this situation in hand, that he knew what he was doing, that somehow, it would be ok. And so he discovered that Cornelius, and all those Gentiles he’d been so wary of, were also God’s ‘loved ones’ just like him. God was already in residence, abiding with them through his Holy Spirit, so Peter could abide with them too. 

Diversity and the challenges it brings are often in the news these days. However inclusive we like to think we are, all of us can discover that we have unconscious biases, deep-rooted, unthinking prejudices about people based on a whole host of things that are just part of who they are – race, gender, sexuality, disability, age, social class. Inclusivity is fine in theory, but then we come up against that one issue, that one person, which triggers something deep in us that makes us want to avoid them. But when that feeling sweeps over us, God calls us to abide in love, to stay where we are, to breathe in and out, to look, listen and wait, because if we do we’ll discover that the God who is present everywhere is present in those people who seem strange to us too – and maybe they will be equally surprised and delighted to find the same about us. 

That’s an especially important message for the beginning of Christian Aid week, when we’re reminded that we are all one family, whether we know it or not, whether it feels comfortable or not. Jesus calls us to ‘abide in love’, to stick with it and make it a habit, so that little by little, strangers – however strange they are -become ‘loved ones’,  and we come to recognise that they are part of the one vine, sharing with us in the life and goodness of God. Amen 


Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Water & Fruit - Easter 5

 

John 15.1-8, Acts 8.26-40

They are familiar words and images to many aren’t they, the vine, the vine grower and the pruning to bear more fruit.

I expect your thinking ‘here we go again, we’ll be listening to him spouting on like an episode of Gardener’s World’.

It is difficult to talk of these words and not feel a real affinity with the life that surges through plants, I’m sure Jesus intended that, but I promise to avoid an excess of agriculture.

What Jesus was aiming to do was to draw upon this familiar imagery and enable the listeners to feel and understand holistically what he was explaining.

The life giving sap runs into the branches as the spirit runs from Jesus to us.

When the prophet Isaiah spoke of the vine as an image of Israel he said that it produced wild grapes and needed re-establishing. So when Jesus says ‘I am the true vine’ it’s clear that he is the way to God and his followers are now God’s people.

As God’s people, abiding in him, grafted to him and dependent upon his grace for our very existence we are then able to bear fruit. Some will judge our dependence as weakness yet we know it to be life giving.

There will be a wide range of ideas what this ‘fruit’ might look like and how we would recognise this in each other but it will include acts of kindness, generosity, self-sacrifice and service.

This year I resolved to use the lockdown period that coincided with lent in a positive way and engage in course with people I don’t know from a different region, as after all it wasn’t as if I would be travelling to any meetings in person so I may as well have discussions with some different talking heads on screens! I thought I’d found any interesting course in the USA but then worked out that the sessions would start at one o’clock in the morning. I therefore decided upon a course run by Leeds diocese.

One of the most distinctive impressions from this was to hear an elderly and unassuming chap, when pushed for a contribution about his faith share how he was going for long walks over the Yorkshire moors with ex-offenders. He found that given time and space to talk without judgment that most were looking for something better than they had found thus far, more meaning, more belonging, and he was prepared to help.

The spirit had found the Ethiopian man before we heard that Philip found him.  It’s one of the earliest times we learn of someone outside the Hebrew community being baptised into the Christian faith.

The man was clearly seeking out God and had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to pursue this, but as a eunuch, Hebrew law, set out in the book of Deuteronomy, forbade his participation in temple worship.

As a court official of the Queen’s Treasury the man has the means to travel and possess a scroll of Isaiah as well as being educated enough to read and ponder its meaning. Despite this he sits outside the accepted norms of the time by appearance, background and sexuality.

Perhaps in the lamb led to the slaughter, humiliated and denied justice the man recognises enough of himself to seek out the true meaning of these words and in his yearning finds the humility to accept help.

Philip meets the man where he is and brings the words to life as he tells him this is the story of Jesus.

An American theologian, Willie James Jennings says of this story: “Faith found the water.  Faith will always find the water.” 

People looking for God are wanted by God and sometimes we could be privileged to be used as the facilitator, directing people to the open door they need push only very gently.

Tentatively push that door and it will open to a warm welcome, come on in.

Where we are able to help others deepen their relationship with God we should follow Philip’s example, even if “Do you understand what you are reading” is a question for the right place and time.

It’s a reminder that we can’t sit back and wait for people to find God alongside us in our place of worship but have to help others find him wherever our lives take us.

If Philip were to ask us “Do you understand what you are reading?” our answer is likely to range from ‘I haven’t got a clue to…I could always do with some help. Of course we have a few more resources now. If Tesla had made chariots they would probably have large touch screens and we could just do a search on Isaiah but it still wouldn’t come near to a first hand experience with one of Jesus’ disciples!

Do these words seem familiar to you?

Whoever you are, you'll find a warm welcome at our services and activities.  We believe that everyone is loved by God and is part of his family. Whatever your background, age, ability, disability, gender or sexuality, whatever your level of faith or doubt, whatever the story of your life, we'll be glad to see you.

We’ll also be glad to find you, glad to help you in whatever setting we find ourselves.

They are on the website for this, our church. It’s affirming to think that we aspire to live the same spirit led openness Philip demonstrated not only because we know that this is right and is Jesus’ teaching but also because in doing so there is the potential for our own faith to be enriched.

In his actions Philip showed that he understood how the true vine has changed everything. This is a reflection of who Jesus is and that his invitation is for all. Jewish rules which previously could exclude people ,had become and remain unacceptable to followers of Christ. His eyes were opened to what this looked like in reality.

Thanks to the wonders of technology I was able to watch a live stream of Colin Brown’s funeral this week. A school teacher, lecturer at Spurgeons Theological College after retiring from school and 12 years director of Reader training in Rochester Diocese I was privileged to benefit from his significant wisdom, alongside many others.

He had the ability to encourage and criticise in a way that was hard hitting. You would take the, sometimes quite blunt criticism, because you knew he was on your side, trying to help you be the best you could become.

His written feedback to me included ‘I suggest that you rethink the final two paragraphs, it seems that in comparison to the rest of the sermon they are fairly mundane’. Cheers Colin, it’s never good to end with the mundane!

His daughter made clear the fact that he knew life was a muddle, often a compromise with unresolved grey areas. He didn’t think that he could put everything right but he could point people in the right direction and equip them to help others do so.

I looked back on my notes from Colin and found this ‘ the life of a minister of the Word can only be lived in temptation and chaos. (That’s a relief to hear). Simple, slick answers indicate an escape from the complications of life.’

Words that have rung true over the 20 or so years since I first read them and which are true for all of us on our Christian journey in the sense that we know we are not offered slick solutions but a relationship with the living God.

After his baptism was life a bed of roses for the Ethiopian man?

More than even before the various lockdowns we need to reconsider what service, faith and love look like, not always seeking neat definitions that reassure and comfort us.

If we will only be happy when pews are filled, previous ways sustained and the coffers overflow then I suspect that we are headed for disappointment.

If a core of people find God’s love, space for worship, learning, contemplation and reenergising in this church, If we take this out into the world and make it real for others, then we will truly be people who have borne fruit.

Amen

Kevin Bright        

2nd May 2021

Sunday, 25 April 2021

Shepherding in the wilderness: Easter 4

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Acts 4.5-12, Psalm 23, John 10.11-18

 “The Lord is my Shepherd”, says the familiar Psalm we heard just now. “he leads me beside still waters.” I’m reading a book about leadership at the moment. It been highly recommended by other vicars during this pandemic. It’s called ,,,“How to lead when you don’t know where you’re going”  It was written by Susan Beaumont just before the pandemic struck, but it’s certainly found its moment! I am sure many of us can identify with that title. What should we do, what decisions should we make, when we don’t know what the future holds?

 It’s a question that’s relevant to everyone.  You don’t have to be the CEO of a big company, or the Archbishop of Canterbury, or even the local vicar to find yourself having to take a lead sometimes, at work, at home or in the community. If you have a caring responsibility for children or other vulnerable family members, you’re a leader. If you take the initiative in supporting a friend in need, you’re a leader. Leadership comes in many forms. There’s a sense in which we are all leaders of our own lives, even if we don’t feel we lead anyone else.  We have to make decisions for ourselves; prod ourselves into action when we’d rather just stay in bed, set ourselves on one course or another. But, as the book’s title puts it, how do you lead, “when you don’t know where you’re going?

 The book calls those times of confusion “liminal” times. Limen is the Latin word for a threshold, the place you have to step over as you go in and out, from one place to another.  Liminal times are times of change, times when we find ourselves stepping into a new situations, whether we wanted to or not. Life is full of them; the first day at school or college, starting a career, moving house, the beginning - or the end - of a relationship. A time of serious illness can be a liminal moment, and so can retirement and bereavement …  I’m sure we can all think of plenty of examples from our own lives.  Even if the change is a happy one like getting married or starting a dream job, liminal times can be very unsettling. For a while everything seems different, but eventually, if we hang on, we get used to the new routines, the new shape of the world around us. What seemed alien becomes familiar. It might feel better. It might feel worse, than what we had before, but eventually it at least stops feeling so strange.  

 Often liminal times are personal, just affecting us and our family, but over this last year we’ve been going through a collective liminal time, or perhaps more accurately, a prolonged series of liminal times. We’ve been locked down, opened up, put into tiers, encouraged to stay at home, go to work, eat out to help out, allowed to travel, banned from travelling… We hardly have time to take in one set of rules before we get another one. No wonder our heads are spinning. No wonder we feel so disorientated. No wonder we feel like we don’t know where we’re going, or how we can hope to lead others for whom we may be responsible.

 And that brings to today’s Gospel reading, a passage with leadership at its heart, which was written by and for people who knew all about liminal times, times of change and disruption, times when they didn’t know where they were going.

 Like much of the Bible, the Gospels were written against a backdrop of trouble and uncertainty. Israel was often at the mercy of the powerful nations round about it, struggling for control over this strategically important country at the meeting point of Asia, Africa and Europe, as it still is. At the time of Jesus and the early Church, it was the Romans who were top dogs. Their rule was often brutal, and they cracked down ruthlessly on anyone who threatened their power or refused to fit in. Jesus and his followers, like so many others, lived with constant uncertainty, powerlessness, the knowledge that everything they relied on could be swept away in an instant if Rome decided they were in the way. Many of the first Christians had embraced huge changes when they decided to follow Christ too, losing family, friends and security. All the old certainties were gone. They lived in a constant state of liminality. But somehow, they hung on to their message, the message of God’s love, shown in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And that message took root, and still nourishes people today.  How did they keep going? How did they not give up in despair? It wasn’t because they had some secret knowledge of the future, a road map or a compass or a crystal ball. They didn’t know where they were going any more than we do, but they knew who was going with them - God himself - and they knew that it was safe to trust him because the resurrection of Jesus showed that even death couldn’t destroy his love. Jesus was the shepherd who didn’t run away when he saw the wolf of his crucifixion coming.

 To understand the images Jesus uses in this passage we need to know that in Jesus’ time and place sheep weren’t kept in nice, neat fields. They lived on the open hillsides, in wild terrain. Their shepherds, often young boys, would lead them from one pasture to another, to find food and water, just as the familiar words of Psalm 23 describe. But how do you get a flock of sheep to follow you in a vast wilderness? A lone shepherd can’t round them up and drive them. They have to want to come with you. The theologian, Paula Gooder, describes this way of life still in action in modern Israel. ‘I will never forget the sight of four or five Bedouin shepherd boys, early in the morning, she says, calling to their flock; nor how, when this happened, the large flock split into groups to gather in front of their own shepherd. Each shepherd knew which sheep would follow them and each sheep knew which was their shepherd.” (Parables p.56)

 Or, as Jesus puts it, “I know my own and my own know me just as the Father knows me and I know the Father… [my sheep] will listen to my voice. It’s all rooted in relationships; Jesus relationship with his Father, and our relationship with Jesus. That relationship is shaped by  time spent with God in prayer, in reading the Bible, in serving others, in doing the things he calls us to do. When we don’t know where we are, or where we are going, when our hearts are disoriented, the answer isn’t to look for the certainty of a detailed itinerary, even if that were possible, it is to orient ourselves towards God, towards good, towards love, towards hope. We don’t know what’s around the next corner, over the horizon, but we can know the one who walks ahead of us, who is faithful in his love of us, and when we know that, we shall not be in want, there is nothing we lack, as the Psalm says.

 How do we lead when we don’t know where we’re going, in liminal times, whether we are leading a nation, a business, a church, a family, or just ourselves? The answer, it seems to me, is that we first need to follow, listening for the voice of the Shepherd who loves us more than we can imagine, so much that he even lays down his life for us.

Amen

 

Sunday, 18 April 2021

Broiled Fish: Easter 3

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 Acts 3.12-19, Luke 24.36-48

We’re in a locked room in Jerusalem, with the disciples and their companions in today’s Gospel reading. Their world has been turned upside down not once, but twice. First they’d lost Jesus, when he was dragged away to be crucified and, when he was dead, some of them had seen him buried in a stone tomb. But now rumours are spreading that he is alive again. People are saying they’ve seen him, that the tomb is empty. Two of his followers have come rushing in saying he’d walked with them to their home village of Emmaus, but that it was only when he broke bread that they recognised him. And then, suddenly, there he is in the room in front of them. It was all completely beyond them, overwhelming and surreal.

They stand there, stunned into silence, while Jesus tries to talk to them. In the end he gives up trying to make them understand, and says…“Have you got anything to eat?” They have, as it happens, broiled fish, so that’s what they give him. It’s as if he showed up in our own front rooms today, standing among us in all his shimmering glory, and announced “You know, I could murder a nice cup of tea…” 

It all sounds a bit banal. What’s broiled fish got to do with the vanquishing of death, the opening of the gates of glory, the life everlasting and the new creation? Broiled fish are so mundane.  But I think that is just the point. Resurrection is mundane; mundane literally means to do with this world, with the reality we see and know. 

Our first reading was all about the real and the physical too. It’s an account of the aftermath of the healing of a man who had been lame from birth. Peter and John had come across him begging at the gate of the Temple. He asked them for money, but they had none. Instead, they offered him healing, something which would liberate him from his dependency on the charity of others as well as relieving his physical pain and disability. Straightaway he jumped to his feet, praising God. We don’t know what happened to him after his healing – did he join the disciples, or just melt back into the crowd? – but in real physical terms his life was transformed, and that seems to have been what mattered most to Peter. The life of Jesus, who he calls the Author of Life, life itself, had overflowed into this man’s life and brought about a change that was real and tangible. 

Of course, we tend to come to stories like these – of resurrection and miraculous healing – with a lot of sceptical baggage. With our post-Enlightenment understanding, we often get completely stuck on their impossibility and can go no further with them. But we need to recognise that our viewpoint – and our problems – wouldn’t have been shared by those who first heard and told these stories. People of the first century, and many centuries before and after didn’t think resurrection or miraculous healing were intrinsically impossible, even if these weren’t things they expected to see happening. They believed the world was ruled by the will of God. If he wanted to heal or raise from the dead, he could. I don’t know what we would have seen if we had been there on Easter Day or at the Temple gates with a video camera. The people who wrote these accounts weren’t trying to answer our questions. They were just trying to express their own experience, that somehow Jesus was alive, and that his resurrection changed everything. God was at work in their midst, not trying to scoop them up out of the physical world, but within it, redeeming and transforming it.    

We often think of Christmas as the great feast of the incarnation – God becomes flesh in the child of Bethlehem. But actually, for the early Christians Easter was just as much about incarnation as Christmas, and perhaps even more so. It too was all about a body; a body that lived and breathed, when no one would expect it to, a body that bore the scars of what had happened to it, a body that ate and drank.  “You shall call his name Emmanuel” says the Angel Gabriel to Mary before he is born – God with us, in Hebrew. It is a fitting title for the baby in the manger, but in some ways, it’s even more appropriate for the risen Christ. God is with us, says the Resurrection, even though we have tried so hard to send him away into the shadows of death. God is with us, in the person of Jesus, raised from death, different in some ways, but unmistakeably flesh and blood too as he eats that piece of broiled fish, something you could smell and taste, with bones you had to pick out from between your teeth, and juices you had to lick off your fingers, as real as it gets. God is with us, and at work in the nitty-gritty things of life, just as committed to his world , in all its messy physicality, as he had always been. 

The resurrection, just like Jesus’ birth, is a message that our vulnerable, fallible bodies aren’t some kind of prison for the far more noble spiritual material of our souls, prisons which we should look to rise above and long to be delivered from. They are a gift from God, who made the world and all that was in it, who looked at it and called it good, and not only came into it once as a baby in a manger, but came back to it in the risen Jesus, to bless and heal it.

That mattered to the early Christians, whose words we are reading when we read the New Testament. They didn’t have the physical presence of Jesus among them anymore, but they were still convinced that he was very much there. They believed that they met him first and foremost in one another, as they formed new communities, drawing together Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women. They were the body of Christ.  Living as that body wasn’t about mysterious rituals or complex liturgy or abstract theological ideas, but about serving those around them in tangible, physical ways; washing feet, sharing their possessions, feeding the hungry, giving dignity to those who were most vulnerable.

The Bible says very little about life after death, and a great deal about life before it, about everyday justice, everyday hope, everyday acts of loving kindness. If our faith doesn’t touch our lives on Monday mornings, in daily work, in friendships, in family life, in the way we speak to the person at the supermarket checkout, then it is not a faith worth having, not a faith that will ever convince anyone else that it is worth seeking. We discover and proclaim Jesus in the “broiled fish” of life. It is the small things, things which might not seem important, which usually turn out to change everything. Who knew, when they bought that fish at the market, and built the fire over which it was cooked, what a role it would play, that it would be the sign that God really was present and at work?

So this week, I wonder what the “broiled fish” will be for us, the places where God will suddenly appear, if we have eyes to see him, the ways in which we will discover, and proclaim, the love of God, still with us, still at work, still bringing the hope and healing we all need?  

Amen



Sunday, 4 April 2021

Easter Sunday: The middle of the story

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Mark 16.1-8

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I love a good story, whether I am telling it or listening to it. The satisfying thing about stories, especially traditional ones is that, by and large, they tend to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and at the end there is some resolution. The criminal is unmasked, the lovers get together, things are rounded off, if not neatly then at least enough to feel it had been worth ploughing through the rest of it. 

By that reckoning, Mark’s Gospel is a bit of a failure, to be honest. The passage we just heard was the end of it. “Terror and amazement seized [the women]; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid…”  And that’s it

I mean, it’s a bit rubbish isn’t it?. As an ending. It doesn’t even really make sense, because if they said nothing to anyone, how did anyone find out that the tomb was empty, that Christ had risen? How did the story of the resurrection - the whole Christian faith - ever get off the ground?

If you’re beginning to smell a rat, you wouldn’t be the only one. Biblical scholars are pretty convinced that at a very early stage in the transmission of Mark’s Gospel, within 50 years or so of its composition, the last page simply got lost. We have to remember that this was long before printing, let alone the kind of digital technology we take for granted. When documents were hand written, there wouldn’t have been lots of copies around, especially at the beginning of their life. If a page got lost, that was probably it. There was no 2autosave function to come to the rescue.

The early church wasn’t a big organisation, just small groups of Christians dotted around the Mediterranean. It had no power or wealth, and its members were intermittently persecuted. It didn’t have libraries or archives to carefully store the writings of its early leaders, so it’s perfectly possible to believe that the last page of a loosely bound pile of papers, or the last part of a scroll, might have been damaged or torn, or just left behind somewhere. 

Attempts were made to put things right early on by adding endings, based on the other Gospels, but the original is what it is, a document that finishes with fear and amazement and silence. 

And maybe that’s no bad thing. 

I suspect that the reason we like stories with beginnings, middles and ends is that, in reality, life isn’t like that. We can’t remember our beginnings. We don’t know our ends. We are stuck in a perpetual middle. Even if we think we have got life sorted we soon discover that there are more problems to be solved, new developments – good or bad – we hadn’t anticipated. We don’t know what’s around the next corner. 

This last year has shown us that, even if we didn’t realise it before. Whatever any of us thought 2020 would contain, I doubt we had a pandemic on our radar. Yet here we are, picking our way through a landscape that has often felt completely alien, learning new skills, facing new challenges, bearing new burdens, but also, sometimes, finding new joys as well, strengthened bonds with one another, a deeper appreciation of what we have. In truth, disaster planners had long put pandemic disease right at the top of the list of likely threats to the world, but I’m guessing that most of us didn’t see it coming, or, if we did, we didn’t know how it would affect us or what it would involve. 

And, of course, it isn’t over. We are still in the middle of this part of our story, not knowing how long it will last, or what the world will look like when the tide of disease finally retreats, what flotsam and jetsam will be left behind.

Real life isn’t like the stories of which we are so fond, at least not from our point of view. Easter Sunday isn’t a happy-ever-after ending. It isn’t an ending at all in fact. The women who fled in terror from the tomb and the angel’s message knew that. According to the other Gospels, they did indeed do what the angel told them to – they went and told the other disciples what they had heard and seen. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here now, still telling the story. But I’m not surprised that they were terrified. They knew that this message, for all its joy, would bring them unimaginable challenges.  Maybe, as Jesus lay in the tomb, they had started to resign themselves to slinking off home, hoping people would forget they had been followers of this apparently failed Messiah – a good man perhaps, but someone who’d never stood a chance, like all the others who’d stood up to the might of Rome. But the resurrection proclaimed that Jesus hadn’t failed, and that his way was the way they should still be following. It proclaimed that hope, love and life had triumphed over despair, hatred and death. It called them, and all who still follow the risen Christ, to live life in the light of Easter, daring to expect that tombs which appear to be sealed shut can be opened, that injustice that seems entrenched can be remedied, that divisions that seem to be unbridgeable can be bridged. 

“Do not be alarmed” said the white-robed messenger who greeted them at the tomb. Angels are always saying that “ Fear not, don’t be afraid!” It’s their trademark opening line. But whenever an angel says that, we know that it’s because people are alarmed and afraid, usually with good reason, and so would we be. Good news can be just as challenging as bad news,  even if it turns out to be a lot more exciting and fruitful in the end than bad news. 

So, although I do like a good story, I also really like the fact that Mark’s Gospel has this unfinished ending. It’s a reminder that each of us is called to be part of this story, the Easter story, the Resurrection story, taking up the thread of it in our own lives, letting it open our eyes to the hope, love and life that our world needs, living out that story in the places God has called us to. 

Easter isn’t a moment when we close the book, with a sigh of pleasure, and think to ourselves “that was good…now what shall I read next?”. It’s the moment when a new world dawns, when we are invited to step out on a new journey with the God who lived, died and rose again for us.

Amen 


Friday, 2 April 2021

Nobody knows the trouble I've seen? A sermon for Good Friday

To listen to the sermon, click here

Mark 15.1-41

Each of the Gospels tells the story of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and resurrection in a slightly different way, shaping it and giving it their own slant, as you would expect. 

This year, we heard Mark’s telling, the earliest of the four, and the thing that strikes me about it is how alone Jesus is. From the moment he’s arrested he’s on his own, without a friend in the world.
His disciples run away. Peter denies knowing him. There is no story of Mary and John standing at the foot of the cross being entrusted into one another’s keeping – that’s in John’s Gospel. There isn’t even a penitent thief on the cross next to him, defending Jesus from the verbal abuse of the other man being crucified – only Luke tells that story. In Mark’s version, they both taunt him. There are bystanders, but they mock Jesus, treating him like a curiosity. There are women watching from afar, some of those who had followed him from Galilee, but they’re too far away to be any comfort. Where are the crowds that greeted Jesus when he rode into Jerusalem just a few days before? They are nowhere to be seen – or they’ve changed their minds about him. It is a terribly lonely picture. Yes, there is physical pain of course, but it’s the mental and emotional torture of feeling he has been utterly forgotten that strikes me. Even God seems to be absent. Jesus cries out as he dies, “My God, my God” why have you forsaken me?” Of course, as it turns out God hasn’t forsaken him, but that’s how it feels. 

Loneliness is a terrible scourge. All of us feel it sometimes. Some feel it often. It has been one of the hardest things for many people to cope with during this pandemic. Some people haven’t felt the touch of another human hand for over a year. Children have missed their friends. People have had to bear the sorrow of losing someone they love, without anyone being able to be with them, give them a hug, even share a cup of tea. Family members who would normally have been in and out of each other’s houses have been reduced to a brief conversation on the doorstep, or a Skype, a Zoom or a phone call. I know that there are many people who have missed the get-togethers they usually had at church and in our community; Friday group, the community lunch, Talking Village drop ins, choir, Messy Church. Even if they’ve been able to come to church when we’ve been open for worship, we haven’t been able to linger for a cup of coffee and a natter, a vital moment of connection for some people. And it’s not just those who live alone who might feel like that - many people are perfectly happy with their own company. You can feel just as lonely in a crowd, or with family around you who don’t understand you, don’t really see you. 

That’s the key to it; being seen. Whether we live alone or with others, we need to know that there are people who see us as we are, and accept us as we are, people to whom we matter, and who matter to us. On Good Friday Jesus was surrounded by people, but they were people who meant him ill, or just didn’t care at all.  He was nothing to them, less than nothing to them.

“Nobody knows the trouble, I’ve seen. Nobody knows my sorrow”, goes the African American spiritual we’re going to hear in a moment (see below), sung by Paul Robeson, a man who knew more than his fair share of grief. It’s a song which came out the times of slavery, a song written by people whose suffering was there in plain sight of the white people who enslaved them, but who managed not to see it, not to care about it. Like those who crucified Jesus, they developed a way of blanking it out. We may think that we would do better, but we can still fail to see those around us, especially if it would challenge us to do so.  Injustice of all kinds - racism, sexism, modern slavery, child abuse, poverty - is there all the time; it’s happening right under our noses, but if it doesn’t affect us directly, we can very easily turn away and not let it register. Perhaps it all feels too much. It’s hard enough living our own lives, without taking on someone else’s pain too. But if we’ve ever felt unseen, unheard, ourselves – and who hasn’t? - we should surely recognise how lonely it is when others treat us as if we are invisible. 

As we focus on the cross today, and on one brutal, unjust death two thousand years ago, we aren’t just looking back at something that happened long ago and far away, as if this is the only death that really matters. This death, and the physical, emotional, and spiritual torture that led up to it, stands for all the other suffering around us right now. Jesus embodies it for us, presents it to us, says to us “look – just for a minute, look!” Good Friday challenges us to see not just that one precious body on the cross, but all of those precious people who today feel invisible to others, or are looked on only with hatred or disgust. It invites us to acknowledge our own loneliness too, the times when we feel unseen adn unloved. Jesus has been there, it tells us. Jesus knows what that’s like. 

That’s the message whoever originally wrote that spiritual wanted to convey. Indeed, some versions of it run “Nobody knows the trouble, I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus”, but whether it’s spelt out or not, it’s clear that this song is a prayer. It came out of the experience of people who knew that even if no one else saw them or heard them, God did. Even if no one else regarded them as human beings, with the dignity that every human deserves, God did. And that made all the difference. Glory, Hallelujah, as the song says.

At the heart of each of us maybe there’ll always be a place which will be unseen by others – no one is seen and known perfectly in this life, and sometimes we can’t even bear to look at ourselves properly. But the cross proclaims that Jesus sees and knows that place because he has been there. “Our lives are hid with Christ in God”, said St Paul to the Colossians (3.3). Jesus entered into the depths of the human heart, he came to the depths of us and endured the worst loneliness there ever could be, the sense that even God had abandoned him. But, confronting that loneliness, he discovered that even when he was hidden in the darkness of death, he hadn’t been forgotten. He was carried through death into new life by the Father who had never for a moment taken his eyes off him, as he never takes his eyes off us. 

Let’s hope - please God - that we’ll be able to get together and enjoy each other’s company again very soon, but the message of Good Friday is that, pandemic or no pandemic, visible or invisible to others, we are seen, and known and loved by the God who never abandons us. 
Amen  



Maundy Thursday: Blessed bodies


The sermon and music from the service for Maundy Thursday.


1 Cor 11.23-26, John 13.1-35

 

 

One of the things I have been particularly aware of this Holy Week is just how physical our observance of it usually is. It is full of material things - Palm Crosses, service sheets, candles, Messy Church paint and glue and tinsel. Hot cross buns and Easter eggs shared in church, interactive prayer stations which people can gather around and perhaps stick things to or write on, singing, processing, and of course the bread and wine of communion. We’ve never gone in for ritual foot-washing here at Seal, and perhaps that’s just as well because that’s one thing I haven’t had to try to rethink or scrap this year – everything else has had to be risk assessed, adapted or abandoned. We’re doing our best, but there’s no denying that without all those physical things, Holy Week feels a bit anaemic, a bit thin. Here we are celebrating the gift of the Eucharist, the wine and the bread which symbolise Christ’s presence with us, but I can’t give you the wine, and the bread will be delivered with tongs, an awkward process at best… Of course, for many people even being in church at all is impossible at the moment. All they are getting is worship through a screen or a disembodied voice on a podcast, or even just printed words on a page. It’s not how we’d want it to be. The Word became flesh, but it feels we’re having to turn it back into words again at the moment.

 

But that is because this year we have had to recognise that physical matter – including our own bodies - can be problematic as well as a gift. The virus that has given us so much grief is a part of the physical matter of the universe, just as much as the beauty of the sunrise, the hand of a friend, the food we eat. It is the fact that we are physical that causes the problem. Physicality brings pain as well as delight.

 

And yet, the Word became flesh – not just in an adorable baby in a manger at Christmas time, but also on a cross, suffering and dying. God didn’t send an idea to redeem and rescue us. He sent a flesh and blood person, into the mess of the world, a bodily being among the rest of us bodily beings. He did that because our God is a God who loves bodies and the physical stuff they are made of.

 

At the time of Jesus there was a school of thought which regarded the body as a prison, something to be denied, subdued until it could be cast off and the spark of light that was trapped inside us, the true self, could fly free. Those who held ideas like that were often called Gnostics, though there wasn’t ever an organised movement that bore that name.  It’s a very persistent idea, though, which has lurked about throughout history, and still does. People often think that Christians believe in  disembodied soul, imagining it as a wifty-wafty thing floating up to heaven when we die. It’s understandable that we think like that. Our all-too-solid flesh (I speak for myself) can be a trial at times, with its aches and pains, and its tendency to start falling apart and generally deteriorating after a while. But the Bible reminds us from beginning to end that this mortal flesh, this temporal life, this here and now, is God’s gift. When he created it, God looked at it and said “that’s good – I like it”, and when things all went wrong, he didn’t abandon it. He came, as flesh and blood himself, to be part of it. He didn’t scoop us up out of the physical world; he came into it. He was hungry and thirsty, tired and in pain. He eventually died, and was raised, a physical being. That’s why it is so important in the stories of the resurrection that Jesus eats with his friends, and shows them the wounds in his hands and feet and side.

 

It would be quite understandable if we were fed up with flesh and blood this year, with having to protect it by wearing facemasks and keeping our distance and not being able to do the things we want, but it is because we recognise that it is blessed and precious that we do this. Our care in the way we have used our bodies this year – all that “hands, face, space” stuff – is an act of thanksgiving for the gift of bodies, our own and others. It’s a statement this life matters, that matter matters.

 

It’s no accident, then, that Jesus’ tells his disciples on the night before he dies that something as basic and physical as eating and drinking will be the place where they’ll encounter him in the future. And he doesn’t say that it should be some sort of special ritual meal. Any meal will do. The God who was present with his disciples in the flesh and blood of Jesus is still present with us in the stuff of the world around us, blessing it and declaring it to be good, if we have our eyes open to see him. The God who was present with his disciples as he washed their feet is still with us in the practical care we give to one another, even if it has to be rather “hands-off” at the moment. As the choir will sing later in a recording Philip has edited together from our separate voices and instruments, “Where love and loving-kindness are, there is God”. It’s a quote from the first letter of John. “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est”, as it is in Latin.

 

We may not be able to touch each other today. We may not be able to do many of the physical things we would like to, but God is present in the love we show and share, including the loving act of protecting each other’s bodies by not touching or getting too close to each other so we don’t pass on the virus. Whether we are able physically to receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist at the moment, everything around us, everything that is us reminds us that matter matters to God, and so it should to us. It is blest. God loves it.  

 

Amen