Sunday, 21 March 2010

March 21 2010 Lent 5 All Age Worship - A new creation

Isaiah 43.16-21, John 12.1-8

All Age worship at Seal is an interactive, informal experience. This month we started with a "smelly" quiz, passing round pots with various different smells in them - lemon, peppermint, rose, frankincense, lavender and a mystery sixth smell, which no one could identify - very pungent, not really all that pleasant, but unmissable. Eventually I revealed it to be nard, the ointment with which Mary anointed Jesus in today's Gospel reading. The script which follows is just a guideline to the talk during the service - actually it didn't quite come out like this, but it gives an idea of what we were thinking about.

This is a strange story. Mary of Bethany comes to Jesus at dinner and pours out some very precious ointment on his feet, wiping them with her hair. Judas is offended – he thinks it is a waste. Whether the narrator is right to say that he didn’t really care about the poor is something we can’t know, but you notice that none of the other disciples protests, so perhaps they are thinking the same. It is, frankly, all a bit embarrassing for the disciples – an extravagant and passionate gesture. But they can’t avoid it. Even if they shut their eyes so they couldn’t see it, they know it is happening.
Why? Because they can smell it. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
There are lots of things we can say about this story.
It is a sign of Mary’s love for Jesus. She and her sister Martha and her brother Lazarus are great friends of his. He often seems to have found a welcome at their house.
This story takes place in the week leading up to Jesus’ arrest – he knows he is facing danger. This very human gesture of love must be really precious to him at this stage.
But the story is about more than that.

Smells, as we said earlier, can carry powerful messages, and this perfume is no exception. It was scented with something we have smelt this morning – nard, or spikenard. It was a fantastically expensive perfume and it was used medicinally as a sedative, but also to anoint the dead when they were buried.
This household at Bethany know a thing or two about death – the reading told us why.
Lazarus, Mary and Martha’s brother had died, just a short time before this story took place – it is in John Chapter 11. My guess is that this nard was bought for him – that’s why they had it hanging around. But Lazarus didn’t stay dead, because Jesus, as this story tells us raised him from the dead. He’d been buried for several days. His sister, Martha was worried when Jesus wanted to go to the tomb. Even with the nard, she was afraid there would be a horrible smell, but Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, and out he came.

To us this seems utterly unbelievable, but it’s important to know that it wouldn’t have done to the people who first heard this story. We live in a scientific age. We think of life and death in biological terms – nothing can defy the laws of biology. But ancient peoples didn’t think of it that way. To them life and death were in God’s hands. He could give life, and take it away, and give it back again if he chose to. They wouldn’t have seen rising from the dead as impossible at all – it was up to God. When Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb the surprise for them was that God had chosen to do this, something which meant to them that God was working through Jesus and that he was doing something new.

Do you recall the words of that first reading we heard right at the beginning of the service? God, it said, was a God who could do new things, a God who wanted to do new things. Then he was going to take the people who were in exile in Babylon back home – they never expected that. Mary has seen that Jesus is someone through whom God does new things too. He raised her brother from death, so who knows what is going to happen next. All bets are off with this surprising man around. She can see he is facing death, but who knows how things might turn out…everything is changing.

I don’t think it is any accident that John tells us that this incident happened six days before the Passover – six days before Jesus died according to John. Where else in the bible do we hear of something taking six days?
It is the story of Creation in Genesis 1

This story of Mary of Bethany hints at the new creation which is just around the corner. There will be death, but that’s not the end of the story...

If you want to know more, come along next week and during Holy Week, follow the story as it unfolds.

It is a reminder to us that we might think we know what to expect, that everything in the future must be the same as it has been in the past, but we may be wrong.

Maybe we have never got along with someone, and we think it will always be like that – if we think that, it certainly will.
Perhaps we think we haven’t achieved much, and it will be always be like that. If we think that way, it certainly will be so.
Perhaps we look around the world and feel that nothing can change in the conflicts we see around us. If we think that way then that is likely to be what will happen.

Instead God calls us to open our minds to a new creation. To let him do something new in us.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Mothering Sunday - March 14 2010

Mothering Sunday 2010

Luke 8.4-8

A great crowd gathered and people from town after town came to Jesus. He said in a parable: ‘A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.’ As he said this, he called out, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’

(What follows is just a rough idea of the talk, which included quite a bit of conversation and improvisation.)

Mothering Sunday is a day when, traditionally, people give things to their mothers if they can. That might be an expensive gift or something simple and homemade. Perhaps, if your mother isn’t with you any more you might give something in her memory.

But I want to think a bit today of the other side of the coin. What has your mother given you?

Produce gift wrapped box.

Last week some of our children and young people were thinking about this and they made a display of their prayers of thanks for their mothers. There are all sorts of things they mention. Some of their mums give them really wonderful curries, or give them fun times together (read some of the prayers)

But if this box contained the things that your mother gave you, I wonder what might be in it? What has your mother given you?

Responses were shared that included things like “ a listening ear”, “a guide for living” “love”…

These are the gifts we remember today – probably they didn’t come in boxes with gift wrapping on them. They were given day by day as our mothers cared for us.
We’ve thought of lots of things that are positive. But I wonder too whether there are things our mothers have given us that might be harder to think of as gifts. Mothers are human beings. They – we – don’t always get it right. Sometimes mothers give you their anxieties, their hang ups, their prejudices as well as love and support. It can all be there in the bundle, and there’s no avoiding it, whether you like it or not.

Some people may not have known their mothers at all. Their mothers might have died or not been around to look after them. That might make them feel very left out today. But even then there is something precious those mothers have given them, the most basic gift that any mother gives.

Do you want to know what is in this box?

Ask a child to unwrap box . Inside there is a banner with the word “Life” written on it.

Without your mother you wouldn’t be here at all. Whatever else she has given you – whether you think those gifts were good ones or burdens – she gave you the gift of life. And that, in a way, from a mother’s point of view one of the most wonderful and scary too. Whatever you think having a child will be like, no one can prepare you for the amazing reality that you have brought into the world, a whole new human being, someone who will grow up and go on to have an independent existence, someone you can influence, but never own. It’s wonderful because your child will, with any luck, surprise you with their talents and their personality. It’s scary because you may also find that your child does things which cause pain or trouble. Probably both things will be true.

The Bible reading we heard, Jesus’ story about a sower, doesn’t have any mothers in it, nor any children either. But it does have someone who is trying to bring new life into being. The sower goes out to sow. He throws the seed all over the ground, but only some of it turns into fruitful plants. Some is snatched away by the birds before it’s had a chance to germinate, some is choked by weeds, some can’t put down its roots deep enough to survive. But the rest falls on good ground and grows strong and tall, producing 100 times as much again.
It’s not about mothers, as I said, but it seems to me that it is about life, about that precious gift we are each given – by our parents and by God.

Mothering Sunday is a chance to give thanks for that gift in the very best way possible, by living our lives fully. It is easy for us to find that the life we have been given is slipping away – choked by cares and busyness, lived in a shallow way because we don’t put our roots down, we just slide over the surface of life. We look at the days and weeks and years and think “where did that go?”
Instead God calls us to notice the world around us, to notice each other, to be ready to help, to be ready to try new things and guard old things.

That’s why today we are also giving thanks for others who may not be our biological mothers but who care for us and help us to live that life to the full. Adoptive mothers, fathers, grandparents and other relatives, friends who take a motherly interest in us, teachers and mentors. We give thanks for the Church too, for the care and encouragement we receive from others here. And we give thanks to God, our Heavenly Mother and Father, whose care for us is eternal.

Today we may recall all sorts of gifts your mother has given us. We may be able to give her flowers, chocolates, a meal out, to express our thanks, or we may remember her with gratitude if she’s no longer around. But the best thanks we can give to her and to everyone else who cares for us is to live that precious life we are given well.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

March 7 2010 - Lent 3 - The way of the cross - Luke 13.1-9

Lent 3 10

Isaiah 55.1-9, 1 Cor 10.1-13, Luke 13. 1-9

If you were here last Sunday, you may recall Kevin beginning his sermon by sharing with us the struggle he’d had to write it. The readings he had to work with were complicated and difficult to understand and explain. Well, Kevin, I have to tell you – this week’s were no easier!

That’s because they touch on one of the most fraught and complex issues any of us have to deal with, the issue of suffering. It is something theologians from every religion puzzle over, but of course it is something which also comes home to us all personally too, which is why it is so hard to tackle. It’s not just academic. It brings to light big questions, “Why suffering?” “Why me?” ”Why now?”

People have come up with all sorts of answers to those questions. Sometimes we suffer simply because we are human. Our bodies wear out and are vulnerable to diseases that we can do nothing to avoid, but without those bodies, we wouldn’t be here at all. We live in a world where earthquakes and hurricanes cause immense destruction, but they are also vital parts of a natural system which we depend on. If the earth weren’t volcanically active it couldn’t support life.
Sometimes we suffer because of the actions of others, or they suffer through things we do. That’s inevitable too. Until we are all perfect, we are bound to fail each other and cause each other pain, whether we mean to or not.

Sometimes, of course, we know that we have caused our own suffering, if only we have the courage to admit it. There was an unusual funeral reported in the news this week. A Dover man, who had been a heavy smoker for most of his life, and who knew it had caused the lung disease from which he died, made a very unusual request. He asked that his hearse should display on its side in large bold letters the words, “Smoking killed me”. It might have been too late for him, but perhaps, he thought, someone else might heed his message.

You can find all of these explanations for suffering in the Bible, as you would expect, but there is another that crops up from time to time too, and it is the most problematic of the lot. Here and there in the Bible you find people suggesting that suffering is some sort of punishment from God for sin, perhaps entirely unrelated to the disaster that has befallen you. St Paul seems to be saying that in our second reading. But it is an argument which is just as often challenged in the Bible. The Bible isn’t an instruction manual, it is the record of many generations struggling with these big questions, and it doesn’t always agree with itself. Most famously it is contested in the book of Job. Job’s friends tell him that the terrible times he is going through must be a sign that God is angry with him, that he has done something he shouldn’t. Job isn’t having it though – he knows it is nonsense – and God backs him up. Suffering, like the rest of life, is a mystery he isn’t ever going to understand. What matters is that he knows God’s presence with him in it.

It is this sort of thinking though, which Jesus is facing in today’s Gospel reading.
He is heading towards Jerusalem, straight into conflict with the Roman and Jewish authorities, and everybody knows it. Some of those around him try to stop him. We don’t know who they were or why they do this. They might be followers; they might just be bystanders. What is clear is that they think Jesus is mad. “Can’t he see what is coming?” they ask. They remind him of another incident which has recently happened, something obviously famous at the time, something to do with some Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices…”

Fortunately the Jewish historian Josephus, who was a contemporary of Jesus, writes about an incident that sounds as if it could be this one, so we can fill in at least some of the gaps. Pilate, not always a sensitive or sensible man, decided that it would be a good idea to send his Roman troops into the very holiest place in Judaism, the Temple in Jerusalem, to show people who was boss. Great big, hobnail booted soldiers, tramped into its hallowed courtyards. Once in, they proceeded to slaughter the worshippers as they made their sacrifices. Not only was this barbaric, it would also have been regarded as sacrilegious, desecrating the Temple. There was widespread horror and revulsion.

But gradually people started to ask those insidious questions “why were these pilgrims in particular the ones who were killed?” “There but for the grace of God go I” we sometimes say, thoughtlessly, when disaster strikes, as if those who weren’t so lucky must have somehow deserved their fate – God’s grace wasn’t with them as it was with those who survived. They must have committed some sin or other to turn God against them.

Jesus is very quick to refute that idea. The people who were killed were no worse than anyone else, he says – don’t blame the victim.

But he has more to say, and it doesn’t make comfortable hearing, for us or for them. They may have been no worse than anyone else, says Jesus, but “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” It is a rather terrifying and baffling thing to say. What does he mean? It sounds as if he is contradicting himself. Are we responsible for our suffering or not?

The answer is, of course, it all depends which sin and which suffering we are thinking about. His questioners have tied themselves in knots with what is really no more than magical thinking; they have run away with the idea that some infringement of a law, some failure in performing a ritual could cause a completely unrelated disaster. It is superstition, not sense. There is no way that this massacre in Jerusalem can be blamed on that sort of triviality. But it feels tidy to them, and it feels like something they could have some control over – like being careful not to step on the cracks in the pavement or walk under ladders. But all this is distracting them from the real issues they need to face. They are living under brutal Roman occupation. They need to make some real choices about how they respond to the situation they face. It is a time for pulling together, supporting each other, preserving and standing up for those things which really matter, those who are most vulnerable, not nit-picking over the detail of the law. But they are sleepwalking through this time of peril, evidently hoping that if they keep their heads down it will all go away.

I am reminded of the famous words of Pastor Martin Niemöller, who was imprisoned by the Nazis.

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Jesus’ questioners probably want to keep him out of trouble, just as they want to keep themselves out of trouble. They think he is making a ghastly mistake by going to Jerusalem – look what happened to these others who went there. Not only will it lead to his death, but if he dies then any idea that he is the Messiah will die with him. Bad things only happen to bad people, they think to themselves. If he dies it will just go to show that God was never really with him. But Jesus is having none of it. Sometimes, he says, the painful path, the path that leads into trouble is the right path, the path you need to walk. Death and suffering are necessary for him, and inescapable if he is to be true to the message he has been sent to proclaim. To turn back because he will suffer, or because people will think he is cursed when he hangs on the cross will betray all those who have heard his message, that God loves them and wants them to live in freedom and dignity.

The fig tree he talks about in his parable looks like a failure, fit only for burning, but patience and root pruning will reveal that it isn’t so at all. Figs fruit better if their roots are restricted or pruned – that is horticultural fact, and I expect his hearers knew it. It sounds counter-intuitive, just as it is hard to see how the cross could be the gateway to life, but it is so, says Jesus. What he will go through won’t look like the kind of success they expect from their Messiah, but it will, in the end bear fruit. He calls them to accept that, and to walk in that same challenging path too – remember, Luke’s Gospel is written for the early church, a church under persecution, who had to make the same sort of agonising choices Jesus did. Speaking out for justice, sticking with those who suffer; that is the way to life and freedom and true peace, says Jesus to them.

Today’s collect puts it well. “Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it no other than the way of life and peace:”
We don’t have to live with occupation or persecution, but I think Jesus words are just as valid for us; we often face tough choices about our priorities, and the temptation to avoid facing the things we need to face as well. I wonder today what paths we might be avoiding because we can see they will be painful or difficult. Do we try to distract ourselves from the real issues we need to deal with by spending our time and energy on trivialities and abstractions?

God wants us to bear good fruit. Our world, so full of suffering, needs us to bear good fruit. But do we have the courage to let God cut around our roots? Do we have the perseverance to take in the food he gives us? Do we have the patience to stop looking for instant success and wait for his life to well up from deeper places?

Here’s a prayer to end with as we ponder these things.

Show us, good Lord,
the peace we should seek
the peace we must give
the peace we can keep
the peace we must forgo
and the peace you have given in Jesus our Lord.