Sunday, 21 November 2021

My kingdom is not from this world

John 18.33-37 & Daniel 7.9-10,13,14

Power crazy people in themselves can be difficult enough but when they come face to face with their opposite number and neither will back down, then it’s often a recipe for disaster. People and physical resources become mere pawns in their games as they seek to destabilise and weaken each other. I’m sure that you can easily call to mind examples currently in the news, Belarus, Afghanistan and the troop build up near Ukraine come to mind.

So today we meet the familiar figure of Pontius Pilate, a powerful man indeed, the Roman Prefect (or Governor) of Judea with great military resources at his disposal. He really is not interested in the people’s squabbles as he sees the concerns of the Jewish leaders, there is a sense that he can’t be bothered to intervene in their dramas unless his rule is threatened. So he wastes no energy investigating what he assumes are false accusations against the man brought before him, this Jesus of Nazareth, and instead comes straight out with ‘ Are you the King of the Jews’?

If you asked a Judean local who was powerful they would tell you of the Roman and Jewish leaders but the way in which Jesus answers Pilate’s question has a sense of power that comes from a deeper authority which isn’t granted through rank or your place in the system.

Jesus’ reply is a challenge that I’ve seen described as ‘slow’, the slow food movement I’m familiar with but slow Kingship is a new way of for seeing things. I guess it’s the sort of challenge to Pilate and many like him which is subtle, rooted in truth and which just won’t go away. It requires a shift in the way we see things, it’s certainly not a Kingship for the war mongers or the vengeful.

Pilate correctly interprets Jesus’ replies to his question as a ‘yes’, a direct threat to his authority, in fact, to all authority. He’s not interested to hear what this type of kingship is all about, how it might differ from people’s expectations, how it’s very strength comes from turning away from the exploitation and violence that temporarily props up earthly rulers nor how it finds enduring power among the weak, the servants and those who seek justice.

Our lectionary labels this Sunday as ‘Christ the King’, the hinge between Ordinary Time and Advent which starts next week. When we think of Jesus’ kingship in the bible we may recall the time the Magi got King Herod worried when they asked ‘where is the child who has been born king of the Jews, or when Jesus was in the wilderness and refused an offer to have all worldly kingdoms if he would worship the devil. Perhaps the easiest image to conjure up is that of Christ riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as the crowds laid cloaks and branches in his path ‘Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey…’ 

These earlier events have already taught Jesus’ followers that this is no normal king but someone who has come to show them what real kingship is about, how things could be so much better for us and all in the world if only we would listen. But even to them it must have been a challenge to recognise Christ’s kingship as he is pushed around and sent before Pilate as a child might be sent to the Headmaster.

In our reading from the book of Daniel we hear an Old Testament description more in line with what we might recognise as earthly power. A great throne to be occupied by ‘an ancient one’, old and wise we assume, in white robes as fire spues out around him and thousands of servants attend him.

It plays into the stereotype that God is an old bloke with white hair, just like in many films and cartoons.

‘An ancient one’ can be an image used both positively and negatively dependant upon one’s agenda.

Age should not be a determining factor in anything much, ageism is often rife along with many other prejudices, and because our world is so technology driven some younger people associate a lack of familiarity with tech as a lack of familiarity with the world when the fact is that each can benefit from the others knowledge.

Admittedly it can sometimes seem that different generations have their own language. I heard of one mum, confused by all the abbreviations used in texting who sent a message her son to asking what does IDK, LY, & TTYL mean? He texted back, I Don't Know, Love You, & Talk To You Later. So she replied, don't worry about it. I'll ask your sister, love you too.

Let’s be honest, we’ve all done it, or at least had to fight hard not to do it. You are sat down in a warm conference room, however important the subject, the presenter may not be the most scintillating, maybe you’ve had lunch and the lights are dimmed. Add in some jetlag and a busy schedule and perhaps you don’t actually have to be that ancient to fall asleep, though if you hold a position of global responsibility you can be sure that your opponents will seize the opportunity to say this proves that you are ‘past it’.

Until very recently a Reader (Lay Minister) upon reaching the age of 70 would automatically trigger the need for Permission To Officiate (PTO) from the Bishop. It’s an interesting thought now that I have several people over 70 working full time in our business, a Building Surveyor of 78 was still happily inspecting lofts and climbing scaffolding when he retired.

It's quite thought provoking this age and power thing, especially when you consider that the boss of the Church of England, Her Majesty the Queen is 95. I doubt that she had any direct influence but now those youngsters in their 70’s can simply seek endorsement from the Vicar for a license extension.

Particularly in the Old Testament the various Kings were always up to something so Daniel’s vision would have caused the ears of those hearing this to prick up.

At this particular time, around 167 BC, the Syrian Emperor Antiochus IV was persecuting the Jews but Daniel speaks of a divine courtroom where God has pure white robes and sits in judgment unaffected by transitory rogue leaders offering a vision of hope.

Our focus should be on helping each other thrive through recognition of our common humanity drawing upon the example of the one who came before the throne to inherit an ‘everlasting dominion’…’that shall never be destroyed.’ Jesus humanity is found here.

As we begin to understand the type of kingship we see in Jesus it helps us recognise a clear mis-match with much of what we passively accept as normal. We need to think afresh about why we are doing certain things and if they seem right to pursue them with a degree of humility.

There is a great deal of difference between those that accept positions of responsibility and service aware of their weaknesses and reliance upon the support of others and those that seek self-importance and power. The real question is whether leaders want to rule over or to live in community with others.

We know that there is a great deal wrong with our world but we ( us here, you and me) also need to be people who can recognise God’s kingdom when we see it in each other. As Christians we remain people of hope, seeking peaceful resolution of our differences and not giving up in our efforts to collaborate with people of all faiths and none where this benefits others. We get a glimpse of Christ’s kingship each time we see kindness and forgiveness in action that seeks no reward, even more so when it is for those we don’t know, find hard to help or even like. In doing these things we are not keeping God’s kingdom to ourselves but allowing others to experience it and share in it. There’s always a possibility that it might catch on and spread further.

We are citizens of God’s kingdom every time we refuse to turn our back on people in need, every time we have the courage to stand up against what we know to be wrong and every time we try to put God’s desires above our own.

So, as we celebrate Jesus as king today, let’s try to take all we have been told out into our world and play our part in building that kingdom which he desires for our entire humanity.

Amen

Kevin Bright                                                                        20th November 2021

Sunday, 7 November 2021

Third Sunday before Advent: Second chances


Jonah 3:11-5, 10, Psalm 62:5-14, Mark 1:14-20

 

I really enjoy watching tv programmes like The Great British Bake Off. I love watching others bake incredible cakes and biscuits each week, or sew beautiful garments. There are several programs that follow this format. My favourite one is still the Pottery Throw Down - for me, it even beats Strictly. It amazes me how creative people can be as they make something wonderful to behold - or maybe not - out of a lump of clay. The bit I don’t enjoy, though, is when someone has to leave the group at the end of the programme. There’s often tears and sadness as someone is eliminated.

 

Don’t get me wrong - I don’t have a problem with people winning. But I have realised that what I don’t like about these programmes is that people don’t get a second chance at things. Wow - second chances are great, aren’t they? There is such relief and joy whenever there is one of those weeks where they don’t send anyone home but give everyone a second chance. You can see a sort of hopefulness in the group in the way their hearts are lighter within them, at this unexpected second chance.

 

The verses from today’s Old Testament reading tell us something about second chances - I wonder what that felt like for both Jonah and the Ninevites. We join Jonah halfway through his story. This is actually the second time that God has spoken to Jonah about Nineveh. When God first speaks to him, he tells Jonah to go immediately to Nineveh and cry out against their wickedness. This is the last thing Jonah wants to do - Nineveh had a fearsome reputation for being cruel and violent. ‘No thanks' - thinks Jonah - ‘that’s not for me! I’ll sail as far away from Nineveh as I can.’

 

Perhaps wickedness isn’t the only way to turn our back on God and go in the opposite direction to what he wants for our lives. Instead of going overland to the East, Jonah sails West. But God brings such a terrible storm on the boat, that Jonah asks to be thrown into the sea. And here’s the bit of the story that you might be familiar with - the whale. God sends a very large fish to swallow Jonah and get him to dry land.

 

Now, whatever we think about how possible it might be for someone to be swallowed by a very large fish and survive, Jonah writes a prayer about the experience. In it, he tells us about God. “Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” says Jonah. He says that when he called out to God in his distress, God answered him and delivered him. God hears Jonah’s anxiety and dispair and God responds with mercy, rescuing Jonah and saving him from death. Jonah doesn’t drown is given a second chance.

 

I wonder what Jonah felt about this second chance. Nineveh was the huge city of the Assyrians and was the largest in the world for a number of years. It was also a place of terrible cruelty. Two of the Old Testament books have stories of the violence that Israel experienced at the hands of the Assyrians. The Assyrians slaughtered and enslaved countless people, using exploitation and abuse to get what they wanted. Archeology shows stone carvings depicting the hideous acts they committed.

 

So it’s easy to see why Jonah didn’t want to go there. God was calling Jonah to have compassion on a city that was a threat to his own people, maybe even a threat to those he loved. God calls Jonah to trust God in a situation that was way out of his comfort zone.

 

And Jonah, this second time around, does what God asks. He walks for 3 days across this vast city, preaching God’s message for the Ninevites. He perseveres in warning the Ninevites about God’s judgement on their wickedness. My goodness, those Ninevites benefitted from Jonah’s second chance, didn’t they - because they get to hear about God, in time to have the opportunity to escape God’s judgement. They get to hear about the deliverance of the Lord by someone who knows what that feels like.

 

At this point in the story, everyone has been offered a chance to act on what they hear, either from God or about God. The effect on the Ninevites is quite unexpected, given their reputation for evil wickedness. There’s a radical change in the Ninevites.

They proclaim a fast, and everyone, whoever they are, takes off their nice clothes and dresses themselves in plain garments made out of sacking material. Rather like wearing hessian - very scratchy I would imagine!

 

And just as Jonah learns that deliverance belongs to the Lord, the Ninevites also discover this. God sees how they turn from their wicked and evil ways, and he changes his mind about  the calamity that he said he would bring upon them. Just as God heard Jonah’s anxiety and distress when Jonah was drowning, so God also hears the anxiety and distress of the Ninevites - and at this particular point he delivers them. 

 

We might find it quite hard to read about how God gives these wicked people the chance to turn to him and escape his judgment. It can be painful to think of wickedness going unpunished. I think that it’s very natural to feel confused and maybe even angry with God at times. But it’s what we do with that confusion that matters, and where we go with our anger. In the following chapter of Jonah, we read that God is big enough for us to take our questions to him. He will listen.

 

In fact in the Psalm we read today, we are encouraged to pour out our hearts before God. The Psalmist says that he has found God to be a refuge when he pours his heart out to him. The Psalm says that there is a robustness and firmness about God that we can trust - always. This is where we find hope. Even in the quiet waiting, as we put our trust in God, we can know that we are held safely and securely in the steadfast love of his power.

 

And just as God didn’t let go of Jonah, so he won’t let go of us. God’s grace and persistence with Jonah gives us such hope - I know how much I don’t want God to give up on me. I’m sure that I’m like most people in being grateful for second chances. I’m so glad that God doesn’t use the same format as all those tv programmes like Bake Off, and eliminate us one by one. Instead, he offers a welcome to everyone and anyone who wants to join in. Anyone who turns to him will find him. It’s the beautiful good news that Jesus brings, isn’t it. For he himself journeys out of his comfort zone to visit a vast place, full of wicked people. He also brings the same message - the need to repent - but he also brings good news with him. The good news is that in Jesus, God will deal with evil and wickedness. The good news, that in Jesus there is forgiveness for all the ways we turn away from God. The good news, that believing in Jesus is about having a relationship with God. It’s a relationship where we can pour out our hearts to him, and find God to be a strong, sure place of safety and refuge.

Amen


Sunday, 24 October 2021

Bible Sunday

 

Bible Sunday 2021

 

Isaiah 55.1-11, John 5.36b-47

 

When my children were at primary school, there was one part of the curriculum which always struck me as particularly humane. “What did you do at school today?” I would ask. Often the answer was “nothing”, of course, but sometimes they would say “oh, we had ERIC today”.

ERIC – who was Eric? Some new teacher? It took me ages to discover that it stood for “Everyone Reading In Class”. It was basically a session where each child got out a book and read silently to themselves. Frankly it would have been my idea of heaven, and I think my children felt the same way.

 

Today is Bible Sunday, and there’s a bit of me that wonders whether, rather than me blathering on, I shouldn’t just declare this to be an ERIC day – Everyone Reading In Church (whether you are in the Church building or sharing in Church online through the podcast). I wonder whether I should tell you to open a Bible and just sit and read it for 10 minutes or so. It would be a lot less work than writing a sermon.

 

But the problem with ERIC is that though it might be my idea of heaven, it’s might be your idea of hell. I know it was for some children, especially those who struggled with reading, or just didn’t like sitting still. And if reading a story book is a challenge, then reading the Bible can feel like a much greater one. It’s not the same as getting lost in a page-turning whodunnit or a romance. It isn’t one book, for a start. It’s a whole library of different sorts of books, written over many hundreds of years by many different people, covering many different genres – history, poetry, prophecy, myth, proverbs, letters. Some of them are far more difficult to get our heads around than others. It was produced in cultures very different from our own by people with different assumptions and agendas. Sometimes it is quite baffling, and brutal. And it doesn’t help that often we just hear little snippets of it in church, without any context. How can we even begin to make sense of it?

 

Another barrier to reading the Bible can be the worry that we might not understand it correctly. After all, it’s holy writ, the word of God, somehow different and sacred, we think. What if we get it wrong? Perhaps we’d better leave it to the experts, just in case.

 

We might worry too, that people will think we’ve turned into religious extremists – Bible bashers – that we’ve surrendered our critical faculties to some Bronze Age mumbo jumbo.

 

As someone who’s had a lifelong love of the Bible, I’m passionate about helping people to get beyond those worries, though. I’m no fundamentalist or Biblical literalist, but I’ve found time and time again that God speaks to me through these ancient words, not necessarily because those who wrote them had a hotline to God, but because they were willing to struggle honestly with their experiences, with themselves, and with God too sometimes. I may not always come to the same conclusions they did, but their stories help me to see my own story more clearly, and so be aware of God’s Holy Spirit at work here and now. Of course, the Bible can be misused, and misunderstood, but the answer to that isn’t to keep it firmly closed and locked away, but to open it up and dive in, letting it become our book, our territory, our pathway into the heart of God.

 

Here at Seal, as well as in Sunday worship and in the private, individual Bible reading we do, we chew over the Bible together in our monthly Good Book Club - a Bible discussion group I run on the first Wednesday morning of each month, and in our Zoom Church sessions, and in home groups - let me know if you’d like to be part of one, or start a new one with some friends. In these groups we aren’t looking to find the “right” answers from an expert. Everyone brings their own insights, and they’re all valuable. Often it’s the questions we ask rather than the answers we give that open up the Bible most effectively, the doubts rather than the faith. It genuinely doesn’t matter whether you are an old hand or coming to it brand new. Some of the most profound insights I’ve had into the Bible have come to me from children; their reactions make me see stories that I am over-familiar with in a completely new way.

It’s when God’s story and our stories intertwine that we really start to hear what we need to hear, as God’s word becomes flesh in us, together.

 

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus makes that point to the religious experts who come to him. It’s all very well reading the ancient words of Moses in their sacred scrolls, but if they can’t recognise the Word of God in flesh and blood, standing in front of them, living out the love that the ancient scriptures call them to, then they haven’t understood what they’re reading, he tells them. If what we read doesn’t lead us to become more loving, more whole, and bring wholeness to others too, then we’re missing the point.

 

So how do we get started, and how do we make sure that we’re reading the Bible in a way that is life-giving, for us and for others?

 

I read a very helpful book earlier this week – I’ll put it at the back of church after this morning’s service. It’s called “How to eat bread”, but don’t worry; I’m not about to give up the day job and go into catering. The bread it refers to is the spiritual food we get from the scriptures. The subtitle is  “21 nourishing ways to read the Bible”. For the author, Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, the Bible is like bread, something essential, a staple food, but it’s endlessly versatile too. Bread comes in many forms; brown , white , wholemeal, granary, French, flatbread, naan, rye… the list goes on and on. And there’s so much you can do with it. You can mop up your gravy with it, toast it, make sandwiches with it… You can even spread Marmite on it, though I can’t imagine why you’d want to… And if it goes stale, well, there’s bread and butter pudding. You get the point.

 

Reading the Bible can be done in just as many ways. Some of those ways are academic, and maybe a bit specialised; reading it in the original languages, investigating its historical and geographical context, pulling it apart and analysing it. Those things are important. We need that sort of scholarship and attention to detail.  But we can also use our imagination to read the Bible, whoever we are. We can imagine we are part of the stories it tells. We can play with it, act it out, mull over individual words and phrases that strike us in it, draw it, paint it, embroider it. We can notice who speaks and who is silent, who’s included and who’s left out of the stories we read. We can look at it from the perspective of people very different from us, too, and be enlightened by that.

 

Miranda Threlfall-Holmes tells the story of a Biblical scholar, Mark Allen Powell, who read Jesus’ well-known parable of the Prodigal Son to three different groups, one in America, one in Russia and one in Tanzania. He asked them all the same question. Why did the prodigal son end up so poor and so desperate, longing to eat the food he was feeding to the pigs? The Americans said that it was because he’d wasted his money; it was his fault. The Russians said that it was because there was a famine in the land; he couldn’t have done anything about it. The Tanzanians said that it was because no one in his new land, where he was a stranger, offered him hospitality or help. The same story; three radically different interpretations, reflecting the backgrounds, the experiences and the unconscious biases of the hearers. Each view was valid, but very revealing, and brought the story to life in a new way.

 

So, on this Bible Sunday, as on every other day of the year, even though I haven’t declared this to be an ERIC day, I hope we’ll find time to open the book, so that we do have “Everyone Reading in Church,” or at home, or on the train, or anywhere else you happen to be, and that we’ll have the confidence to bring ourselves to it, just as we are. If you’d like help in getting started, there’s plenty of it around. The leaflet I’ve given you today has ideas and resources in it. There are more at the back of church and in this week’s newsletter. And there are the home groups and other activities I mentioned earlier too. However we do it, I hope that we’ll continue to open the book, open our minds, open our ears, and open our hearts to the God who still longs to speak to us.  Amen  

Saturday, 23 October 2021

...and again...Trinity 20

 

Trinity 20 2021

 

Two of Jesus’ closest disciples, James and John, come to him asking to sit on thrones on his right and his left when he comes into his kingdom, to be his right- and left-hand men. Jesus tells them that it’s not about thrones; it’s about serving others…

 

If you’ve been following the Gospel readings over recent weeks, all taken from chapters 9 and 10 of Mark’s Gospel, you may have noticed a certain sameness about the messages they’ve contained. They’ve all been stories about greatness and littleness, pride and humility, as Jesus has told his followers time and time again that it’s the “little ones” who are first in the queue in God’s eyes, whether those “little ones” are children or anyone else who is vulnerable and looked down on by the world; but time after time it goes in one ear and out of the other for the disciples.

 

If it all starts to feel a bit repetitive, I think that’s the point. Mark means us to notice the repetition. When will the disciples get it? When will they finally understand? They seem completely unable to imagine a world other than the one they live in, where might is right, and the strong always end up on top.

 

To make it worse, in these chapters Jesus tells them no fewer than three times that he is heading for arrest and crucifixion. He makes it very clear that their fantasies of power and glory are not going to materialise. But the more often he tells them, the more elaborate and entrenched those fantasies become. That’s probably no coincidence. Arguing about who gets the best seats is a great way of taking their mind off the thought of crosses and suffering.  

 

It would be quite understandable if Jesus had washed his hands of them completely at this point, but he doesn’t, and he won’t. Patiently, he explains it all over again. God isn’t playing power games, like the Roman Empire or King Herod. He isn’t planning to replace one set of tyrannical rulers with another. They won’t start really to understand how different God’s view of the world is until after the crucifixion and the resurrection, though, as they try to work out what those events meant.

 

Jesus’ execution should have been the final blow to any idea they might have had that he could be God’s chosen one. It very nearly was. The disciples were terrified and downcast when it happened. They just wanted to slink back to their old lives and forget about it all. But then Jesus rose again, and they started to see that the upside down world he’d been preaching about really was of God. On the cross, Jesus had become one of those humiliated “little ones” himself, helpless and vulnerable, and yet, through his resurrection, God declared that he’d been at work in this brokenness and disgrace. Those who’d condemned him to death, who abused him or colluded with his abuse, treated Jesus as less than nothing, rubbish to be discarded, but in God’s eyes he was everything, the one who opened the gateway to new life for us all.

 

These repeated stories of the disciples’ bumpy road to understanding were vital to Mark’s telling of the story because he knew the people he was writing for needed to hear them. Mark’s Gospel was written a few decades after the events they describe, for an early Christian community which was struggling to live out Jesus’ message in a world full of challenges. Sometimes they got it right; sometimes they got it wrong. It was important for them to know that those first disciples had been just as flawed, but that Jesus had stuck with them anyway.

 

We’re no different. We hurt one another, throw our weight around, collude with the power-hungry world around us. But God sticks with us and still wants to work through us anyway, calling us patiently, repeatedly, to learn and change, to find that resurrection life which transforms us and spills over to those around us. And just as he did with those first disciples, he sticks with us until we get it – probably not perfectly this side of heaven, but at least in part. And as he walks beside us on that bumpy road to growth, Jesus himself shows us how those changes can start to happen.

 

Today’s reading from the letter to the Hebrews isn’t easy to understand,. There are a lot of rabbit holes we could disappear down – who is Melchizedek? What are these Temple rituals the author writes about? But there isn’t really time for that, and I’m not sure you’d thank me for wandering down those byways either. 

 

There’s one verse which it is worth us spending some time on today, though, in the light of today’s Gospel passage. “Although Jesus was a Son,” says the writer of the letter, “he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

 

Please note, before I go any further with this, that it doesn’t say “God sent Jesus suffering to teach him a lesson…” God does not send us suffering to teach us things. If he did, he would be a monster. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn things from the troubles that come our way, just as we can learn from the good things. It doesn’t mean we can’t find gifts within them which we might not have found any other way. We can learn from anything – good or bad – and that is what we are called to do.

 

How do we do that? Hebrews tells us that obedience is the key. “Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered.” That might sound a bit grim. Obedience, to us, often implies mindlessly following orders, doing what you’re told without asking why or answering back. Obedience is what you teach dogs, so they will come when you whistle. We are rightly wary of expecting it from humans, though. But this isn’t really what the Greek word translated obedience here means.  

 

The word is “hupakuo” . “Akuo” means to listen or to hear – we get the word acoustic from it. The “hup” at the beginning of the word means under or beneath. It intensifies the idea. It’s about really listening or hearing. We know what it feels like when someone’s really listening to us. When someone really listens, they take time to receive and ponder what we’re saying, getting under the skin of our words to find out what’s beneath the surface. We probably also know what it feels like when we’re not being listened to, when the listener is full of their own agenda, just using the time to think up their own clever response. They are never going to be affected or changed by what they hear – and maybe they prefer it that way. The good listener, though, knows that what they hear might knock them off course completely, that they might learn something they don’t know.

 

Listening well isn’t just something we need to do to other people, though. We also need to listen to ourselves well, and to the situations around us, not instantly labelling feelings or circumstances good or bad, but looking out for the gifts in them, believing that we might find God at work in them, however unlikely that might look.

 

What happens to that verse from Hebrews, if we substitute “listen well” for the word “obedience”. Let’s try it. “Although Jesus was a Son, he learned to listen well through what he suffered and became the source of eternal salvation for all who listen well to him.” It feels quite different, doesn’t it?

 

In our Gospel reading, and all the others we’ve heard in recent weeks, we meet disciples who were struggling to learn to listen well. They had to learn to listen well to Jesus, to listen well to the things that happened to him, to listen well to themselves and to their own reactions. They had to learn to listen well to the painful things as well as the joyful ones, to listen well for the still, small voice of God in littleness and brokenness and failure, rather than just paying attention to the trumpet calls of worldly power and success. Mark tells us how they got it wrong again and again, until we are fed up with it, because he knew that his community, and those who would come after them – that’s us – would get it wrong just as often. But the good news is that Jesus doesn’t give up on us, any more than he did on them.

 

May we listen well today, to our own hearts, to one another, to all that happens to us and around us, and to God, who faithfully sticks with us, listening well to us, throughout it all.

Amen

Monday, 4 October 2021

Relationships

 

Mark 10.2-16, Genesis 2.18-24

They are great these sort of questions aren’t they, the type that you might expect to hear in parliament or the courtroom. The person asking already knows what reply they are hoping for and in this case it was intended to trap Jesus and catch him out.

‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’

The question about marriage has been carefully composed, if he gives the answer that the Pharisees are hoping for he’ll be in serious trouble with the religious institutions.

As a preacher it would be nice to ignore awkward subjects like divorce and just focus on Jesus telling the disciples off for keeping little children from him.

Yet it’s a subject that has grown in prominence since the Pandemic with divorce rates soaring as couples were confined to each other’s company for unnaturally long periods of time in lockdown and in many cases prevented from returning to their places of work even when they wanted to, due to concerns around spreading the virus.

We probably all know people who are going through divorce, have been divorced or are contemplating divorce and know that it can range from a bitter and painful process to an inevitable failure where surprisingly often the couple get along much better just being friends once they get out from being under each others feet on a daily basis.

Our personal experience of divorce will inevitably affect how we hear and react to this reading and what we may think of the preacher’s comments. Human love for others remains a mysterious concept that can’t be pinned down, sometimes it will last a lifetime and sometimes it struggles to endure.

It’s really not something I feel comfortable or particularly qualified to talk publicly about but then Jesus is good at putting us in the position where we have to wrestle with something to which there are no neat answers, and where there may even be the potential to upset people . As we consider his own comments we might feel that this is something he could also be accused of.

In this case the pharisees are trying to get Jesus into the sort of trouble that John the Baptist had with king Herod who needed his wife to divorce before he could marry her. They weren’t really interested in his wisdom and guidance on the subject at all they just wanted to see whether he would also lose his head over this, in every sense of the phrase.

Out in the open with the crowd Jesus refers the pharisees back to Moses to answer their question, it seems that Moses allows for divorce if necessary. Then he quotes Genesis and explains how the wonderful possibility that two people can come together as one, is a gift from God. He’s clearly careful about what he says in public. He shifts the focus from legalities to encouraging thought about what marriage is supposed to be according to God.

Back in the relative safety of the house he seems harsher, perhaps he feels safe aiming his comments at Herod among those he trusts. No doubt his words about divorce and adultery have been quoted and misused over time to control a partner seeking divorce or to humiliate them when they do so, surely this can never have been Jesus’ intention. We are certain that he could never wish people loved by God to be trapped in abusive, dangerous or unhealthy relationships. Perhaps there is a sad acknowledgement that the Israelites in Moses day struggled to achieve their potential in Gods eyes just as generations have done ever since.

There’s certainly no place for those with long marriages to be smug. Every marriage is imperfect and many seriously malfunction and fail to live up to God’s ideal even when they endure. At their worst some are a microcosm for much that is wrong in our world. We also recognise that many who never formally marry can also have loving, stable and valuable relationships.

It’s really not straightforward at all is it. I heard of one couple which argued so much that they made each other’s life a misery, finally the man told his wife to pack her bags and go. As she was leaving he shouted down the driveway ‘I hope that you suffer for the rest of your life’. The woman turned around confused and said ‘ so you want me to stay now’?

Joking aside we can be confident that Jesus wants us all to look beyond an arrangement that simply complies with the law to something much deeper.  Perhaps he speaks in a harsher tone to his disciples as they know that his is a message of love and forgiveness despite our shortcomings, that he understands mankind’s many weaknesses and that perfection is not achievable this side of God’s kingdom.

Jesus would have been acutely aware of the imbalance of power in first century marriage and we need to guard against seeing what he said through 21st century eyes.

In more recent times many view marriage in terms of legal rights that are created and financial entitlements. One accountant of a certain age even used to encourage his clients to get married at the start of a new financial year in order to maximise the tax benefits of doing so, an incentive long since dispensed with by HMRC ! Then there’s a whole industry in prenuptial agreements, ‘just in case’ you understand darling!

To hear Jesus’ words in context we need to remind ourselves that women were powerless in a marriage, sometimes caught in a legally binding contract with no rights whatsoever and facing absolute destitution should a man choose to divorce her. Unquestionably an incredibly unjust balance of power.

So the fact that Jesus talks of divorce for men and women in an equal way would have been shocking to many hearing his words. What on earth could he be advocating, surely not equality and protection for the vulnerable and powerless when relationships break down?

There’s another point in today’s readings which is really all about thriving alongside others.

Many will know from personal experience that when we lose someone we love we often appreciate more than ever what we have lost and it becomes apparent how much more complete we were with them around. When relationships do work out it’s clear how we often flourish and achieve much more than we can alone.

Genesis reminds us that God wants us to be in relationship with at least one other person we can rely upon and share with to the extent that we are not lonely. Not everyone will want another go at marriage or any form of partnership after a divorce or loss, not everyone will meet a life partner at all, but with real friends, family, people that care about them there’s still the opportunity for us to thrive as God intends.

In our Genesis reading God observes, “It’s not good that the man should be alone”.

So for this single human God creates “a helper as his partner.” Now a lot of men might automatically think well that’s really handy, someone to find his fig leaf when he can’t remember where he’s left it, pick fruit and light a fire maybe. Who knows, one day such a person might even evolve to load dishwashers and use vacuum cleaners!

But again equality is at the heart of God’s actions. In the Old Testament ‘a helper’ could be equal or even superior to the person they are helping. Numerous times God himself is described as a helper, particularly in the Psalms.

Psalm 54.4…But surely, God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life.

I subscribe to the view that the fundamental question that needs to be considered today is, what does God think makes any relationship valuable?

It may be true that you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian but there is certainly a lot to be gained by being part of a church community whether in person or even online. There is more to be learned and achieved together when we are part of a community founded upon the love of God, also it’s a lot easier and more fun to move massive pews around the church together than to leave an individual to struggle alone.

There’s also an increased possibility that the couple, the friends, the group or community start looking beyond themselves. Together they are stronger as they support and care for each other, more interested in and able to look out for those who are not so fortunate. Surely these are exactly the relationships that have real value in God’s eyes and this where our focus should rest.

Amen

Kevin Bright

3rd October 2021

Sunday, 19 September 2021

Who is the greatest?

Audio version here

James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a, Mark 9.30-37

“What were you arguing about on the way?” asks Jesus of his disciples. An awkward silence follows… No one answers.

 

But it turns out that Jesus already knows, and maybe that’s no surprise, because, in a sense, every argument is really about who is the greatest, as theirs has been. It almost defines the difference between a discussion and an argument. In a discussion we may have different views, but we’re open to listen to and learn from each other. It becomes an argument when we feel we just want to win, whether we’re right or wrong.

 

There’s an old folktale told about two villages which stood on opposite sides of a long valley. One day a stranger appeared, going who knows where, who knows why, walking down the length of the valley. He was wearing a coat which was blue on the right side, and red on the left. Later on, one of the people from one village was talking to a villager from the other. “Did you see that chap in the fine blue coat walking down the valley earlier? “, “Blue coat? What do you mean, ‘blue coat’? His coat was red – I saw it with my own eyes.” Neither of them would back down. Each insisted they were right, and pretty soon the squabble had spread to the rest of the people in the villages. One village insisted the coat was blue, the other swore blind it was red, even though most of them hadn’t even seen the stranger. Eventually the argument turned to fighting, and the fighting turned to war, and within months the villages had destroyed each other. Nothing was left but smoking ruins.  Soon afterwards, wherever it was the stranger had been going, for whatever reason, he appeared again, going back the way he had come, along the length of the valley in the other direction, still wearing his coat of blue and red, but this time of course, the red side was facing the village that had insisted the coat was blue, and the blue side was facing the village that had sworn it was red. But no one was around to see it anymore.

 

I don’t know where that powerful, sad little tale originated, but I recognise the dynamics in it. The problem with arguments is that they’re rarely about what they say they’re about. What difference did it make whether the coat was red or blue? None. All that mattered was who won, who came out on top, who got the upper hand – who was the greatest in other words. .

 

It was the same with Jesus’ disciples. He’d been talking about the coming kingdom of God, and they assumed it would just be a bigger, better version of the kingdoms they were familiar with – King Jesus on the throne, with a charmed circle of courtiers around him, his right and left hand men, sharing in the power and privilege. The courts they knew about – of King Herod or the Roman Emperors – were places where people constantly had to jostle for favour and influence, manipulate and manoeuvre, to keep their place. Losing it could mean losing everything, even your life. They couldn’t imagine that the kingdom of God would be any different.

 

Jesus had tried to tell them that it wouldn’t be like that. He’d tried to tell them that very soon the only people on his right and left hand would be a pair of thieves and their thrones would be crosses. But his warnings of betrayal, arrest and death sound like failure and weakness and how can they be part of God’s plan? He tries to tell them that greatness in his kingdom will be defined by service not by power and glory, but they don’t want to hear it. How can a powerless servant be great?.

 

Jesus’ response to their confusion is simply to sit down, and summon a little child to his side, a child who happened to be wandering in or around his house in Capernaum – we don’t know whose child it was. And that’s the point. He chose an anonymous toddler, vulnerable, helpless, needy, with nothing to give.

 

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name”, he says, “welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

 

Welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome – four times Jesus uses that word in this one sentence. But what does welcome have to do with the disciples’ squabble about greatness? Why does Jesus think welcome is so crucial? If it doesn’t seem obvious to you, you’re not alone. I had to ponder long and hard too. I thought about what it felt like to welcome someone else, especially someone needy like a small child. And it occurred to me that if we’re going to welcome someone, into our homes, our hearts, our lives, we need to feel confident first that we have the space and the resources to do so. We don’t invite someone to lunch if we think we haven’t even got enough food for ourselves. We think twice about asking someone how they are if we feel we might not have the time or the emotional energy to listen to the answer. Welcoming people means opening ourselves up to the risk that they might demand something of us, that they might change or challenge us. We won’t want to do that if we’re feeling insecure about ourselves, unsure that there are enough resources to go around. Instead, we put up the barriers, pull up the drawbridge, or come out fighting to defend what we have. We can see this at work in our personal lives, in our families and communities, and on a national and international level.

 

James is spot on in the first reading today. “Where do conflicts and disputes come from?”  he asks. “Do they not come from cravings…within you?” In other words, from our fear that there isn’t enough to go around, that there’s a need for security and love in us which might not be met.

 

James doesn’t just analyse the problem, though. He also suggests the solution. It’s rooted in our attitude to God. “You do not have” he says, “because you do not ask….Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” Most of us will only ask for things if we believe that the person we’re asking has what we need, and cares about us enough to give it to us. It’s the same with God. It’s only when we’ve understood that he really does love us, and that his welcome to us is unconditional and indestructible that we can feel secure in him, able to be ourselves, needs and all. It’s only when we realise that God has unlimited space in his heart to welcome us into, that we can welcome others. We don’t need to compete for his attention, putting others down or driving them away. There is no danger of the well running dry, if the  well is God.

 

Jesus tells many stories about the limitlessness of God’s resources. He’s like a sower who has so much seed that he can afford to scatter it everywhere, even if some of it falls on the path, or among the thorns or rocks. He’s like a shepherd who doesn’t need to think twice about searching for one lost sheep, or do a cost/benefit analysis to find out whether he can justify the risk and trouble. He’s like a father who welcomes back the son who’s wasted his inheritance, without stopping to think that he might do the same all over again with anything else he gives him. There’s no shortage or scarcity in God, so we don’t need to worry about whether we are the greatest in his eyes. We don’t need to compete for his favour. We don’t need to strive for worldly possessions or power or fame to make ourselves feel worthwhile, because we are infinitely worthwhile to him. There’s nothing we can do to earn his love, or to lose it. There is no less for us if he gives it to others too. We don’t need to push others out so there is room for us. Like that small child Jesus takes in his arms, we don’t have to prove our usefulness to him to ensure that we’re safe in his affection.

 

Living in the light of that knowledge transforms our relationship with God, giving us a security which nothing can shake, not even death, but that, in its turn, can also transform our relationship with one another, enabling us to lay down our weapons, make space to listen to each other and, perhaps, find the peace which the whole world needs.

Amen  

Sunday, 12 September 2021

'Who do you say that I am?'

 Mark 8. 27-38, Isaiah 50.4-9


Those of us able to attend Keith Blackburn’s funeral recently heard his son Simon speak of his life and the not inconsiderable achievements.


To many of us Keith was our priest at this church for many years and that is how we knew him and related to him.  Within this role many will have had personal experiences that helped them know him better. Whether developing and articulating their faith through to the many rituals of life in  church. 


Those present at his funeral knew him as grandfather, father, friend, priest, colleague and in other ways.


Sadly, I’m currently working with others to prepare the funeral service of a much loved friend and it’s a reflection of his huge popularity that so many want to make a personal contribution. If we asked the question ‘who do people say I am of him’, his wife would say ‘the love of her life’, others a trusted and valued friend since school days (a real friend with lived out shared experiences not some person off facebook), others my buddy to watch Arsenal FC over the decades, going all the way back to when they used to win major trophies, my son his Godfather, and I could go on.


So far I have 6 people wanting to speak, a similar number wanting to act as pall bearers and many others preparing personal tributes.


I find it interesting to think of people not so much for the context in which we know them, the labels they acquire in society as lawyer, mum, politician, organiser or whatever but by considering what is really at their core, fairness, loyalty, compassion, courage, love.


I hope that it’s helpful to start thinking about our relationships and experiences of those who are important in our lives as we begin reflecting on how we know Jesus. 


The point is that there is a danger of seeing Christ as a far off, heavenly figure and if we do this our relationship with him is all the poorer for it, real friends aren’t afraid to get involved in every aspect of our lives, good and bad.


You may have friends that divide opinion, cause speculation and gossip or even some who just leave others confused as they try to fathom what ‘makes them tick.’


It seems to be similar with Jesus, his disciples have been asked who he is, what is his agenda, some suggesting that he’s a revolutionary, some even accusing him of being demon possessed.


Yet when Jesus asks the disciples ‘who do people say I am’ they seem to answer him with traditional British politeness suggesting only religious figures. Perhaps this comes back to the point about how our true friends reflect something about ourselves and the disciples don’t want others to judge them as people who choose the wrong company.


If their answers are diplomatic at this stage Jesus suddenly makes this all incredibly personal, ‘what about you, who do you say I am?’


You can sense the disciples brains whirring as they consider how to answer, do they risk looking stupid in front of the others? 


It doesn’t say it anywhere but I bet there was an awkward silence before Peter plucked up the courage to say who he hoped and believed Jesus to be and how he identified himself in all this as he blurts out ‘You are the Messiah’.


Peter was confessing Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one, and the one promised by the prophets of old.


Having pushed the disciples for an answer, having received acknowledgment from Peter it’s almost as if Jesus Immediately rows back on the rhetoric, intimating a sort of OK don’t shout about it, before launching into an explanation of the suffering that the Messiah must endure.


Oh dear, this wasn’t the kind of Messiah Peter was thinking of, rejection by religious leaders, suffering and death, what is messianic about that, and where does it leave Peter who saw himself as a leading figure who would be important once Jesus came to power?


If this wasn’t bad enough Peter is embarrassed further when Jesus explains to the crowd how they must take up their cross and follow him. They knew the cross to be a place where criminals were punished and degraded so clearly following Christ wasn’t a soft option. As a friend of mine always says when he hears some grim proposal, ‘mmm you’re not selling it much!’ 


What we don’t hear from Mark’s account is how many people left that day, deciding that this was too much for them. 


As Jesus reveals more and more about his identity and destiny so those who choose to stick with him start to understand  who they are. This is important because for us as individuals and the for the various communities we form as we learn to support and encourage each other with a common purpose.


I guess if we discovered that a friend was thinking what can I get from this relationship, perhaps I can bask in the glow when they succeed, get some favours when they hold power, we wouldn’t consider them a friend at all. What about real relationships that seek nothing, which are prepared to support and accompany those at times of suffering, this is the mark of true friendship, of love and this is the way of Christ.

              

Jesus had already rejected offers of worldly power when he faced temptation in the desert and makes his point strongly, warning against the prioritisation of such things over a faith that is prepared to make sacrifices and value the love of God above all else. 


We heard beautiful words from the Prophet Isaiah, worth reflecting upon and seeking out for ourselves, a picture of what God offers us ‘ He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught’.


Perhaps it would help us to recall these words as we awaken each day, even if we feel low or have worries, if our ears, hearts and minds are open to seeing God in all things, the potential of learning from him greatly increases. God is the great communicator, able to ‘sustain the weary with a word.’


I read Jane Williams said that, ‘In Jesus, God’s spoken word is lived and God’s lived word is spoken, because in God there is never any separation between word and act’.


Like many of us the people of Jesus’ time try to make God’s Word fit comfortably with their lives, their priorities, their sometimes warped values and this is what Jesus came to make clear was simply wrong. ‘Get behind me Satan!’ was language intended to shock and to remind hearers that old priorities need to be left behind if we follow Christ.


When we pull all these things together, our personal experience of life and people, the love for us shown by God in Jesus, his offer of resurrection life and the offer to accompany us day by day we can then attempt to answer the question ‘who do you say I am’ in a personal capacity.


It’s something we can all benefit from doing as it also defines who we are and who we have potential to be.


Amen


Kevin Bright


12th September 2021