Thursday, 23 February 2012

Beloved dust: a sermon for Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday 2012

Ash Wednesday is good news – in some ways it is the service in the Church’s year which I think is the most hopeful of all. I know it might not seem like it on the surface.  It’s not a cheerful occasion, to be sure. We are reminded in no uncertain terms in our readings and in our prayers of the darkest realities of human life – our vulnerability and fallibility, the sheer scale and complexity of the mess we can get ourselves, each other and our world into, and how hard it is to get ourselves out of those messes on our own.  We are reminded of our own mortality too. “Dust you are and to dust you shall return” are the traditional words that accompany the imposition of ashes.

So why is it good news?

It is good news because when we accept those truths we discover that there are a whole lot of other truths which come with them. 

When I accept the truth that I have done wrong, I can also discover the truth of God’s reaction to my sin  – not condemnation and abandonment, but love and forgiveness and healing. There’s no way to know that while I am still pretending to be perfect and hoping no one will spot what I am hiding.

When I accept the truth that I don’t know it all and can’t do it all, I can discover the truth that, actually, I never needed to. I don’t need to be superhuman. I don’t need to be God. Someone else has that covered.

And when I accept the truth that I am dust, and will come in the end to dust, I can discover that I am part of the earth, part of creation. That is good news, because, when we look at the Bible we discover that this creation of his is God’s delight. He declared it to be good, he loved it so much that he sent his son to be part of it, alongside us in our vulnerability and frailty, to suffer and to die with  us.  I may be dust, but I am beloved dust, dust that God breathed his own life into.

This week we have all been reminded in the starkest way of the fragility of life as we have heard of Malcolm Fox’s sudden and unexpected death. When such a thing happens it tends to make us all feel a bit more insecure than usual, if we are honest. We like to feel powerful and in control – immortal and above the vagaries of disease and injury - but the truth is that we aren’t. Ash Wednesday reminds us, though, that in our powerlessness, in our weakness, even in death, we are held by the hands of God in absolute and ultimate safety. Yes, we are dust, with all its limitations, but we are beloved dust and that is truly liberating.

Monday, 20 February 2012

A glimpse of glory

Sunday before Lent 2012          Breathing Space

Today’s Gospel story, the story of the Transfiguration is always read on this Sunday in the year. It is the last Sunday before Lent begins. For the next six weeks or so, the Church’s mood is reflective and penitential – a time when we let ourselves become aware of what needs to change in us and in the world. Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem, but just before he does so his followers have this vision of glory. It is the calm before the storm, the glimpse of heaven before the horror of the abyss. But we might very reasonably ask what good it is does. When Jesus hangs on the cross what difference will it make to Peter, James and John to have seen this?

The answer to that question is, apparently, none at all. It certainly doesn’t seem to have any effect on the way they respond. They all run and hide. They are in despair. It is not until after the resurrection that they talk about this episode, that it starts to make any sense to them. It doesn’t sustain them through the tough times at all – they don’t even mention it. When they most need it seems to have been wiped from their memories.

So what is the point of it at all? It doesn’t even seem to advance the plot.

To understand this tale we have to remember is that Mark isn’t just telling a story in his Gospel. He is telling a story for a particular group of people in a particular setting at a particular moment. The Gospels are not like books we might buy from a bookshop now, written for anyone to read, aimed at anyone who is prepared to pay for them, an unknown audience. They are very specific messages for very specific people. Mark knew the community or communities for which he was writing – he may have even been part of them – and that shaped what he said and how he said it. So when we hear the stories of the Gospel, we are hearing a story within a story. We shouldn’t just imagine the people and events that are described in them – Peter, James and John - we should also imagine that first audience sitting listening to them.

Let’s imagine that they are here with us too – sitting in these empty seats, an invisible congregation. They are living in the late 60’s AD, against a backdrop of considerable chaos and suffering. Some of them were originally Jewish, but now they are being expelled from the synagogues and from the communities they have grown up in. It’s a time of great tension for Judaism. Rebellions against Roman rule are breaking out, which will eventually lead to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Boundaries around the faith are being drawn ever more tightly, and these Jewish Christians are now beyond the pale. Others in this audience have Gentile backgrounds, but their lives are no easier. Under the Emperor Nero Christians are being persecuted. He blames them for the great fire of Rome in AD64 and many are being arrested and killed, burned alive to light up his evening entertainments. It is dangerous being a Christian. All the time our invisible audience is thinking “is it worth it?” “Am I risking my life, my family, my future for a lie?” They probably don’t feel noble or heroic, just confused and uncertain, mired in the squalor of fear. They easily forget what it was that drew them to this faith in the first place, and often feel like turning their backs on it.

So Mark tells them this story, a story about people who also felt like that – Peter, James and John – the first leaders of their church, so they will know they aren’t alone in that. When they saw Jesus arrested and killed, it made no sense to them, despite the fact that they had also seen the glory of God, not just in this vision on the mountaintop but also as Jesus had healed and taught. They had seen his love and his power, but still they fled in the opposite direction as fast as their legs would carry them when things started to go wrong, and felt that it had all been a waste. Only later, when they experienced the risen Christ did they start to see things in a new light. They discovered that death and disgrace don’t have the last word. They just seem to because they shout so loud.

We may not suffer the kind of persecution those early Christians suffered, but my guess is that all of us sometimes ask their questions when we struggle. “Is it worth me trying to act with integrity in a world which often seems to prefer to reward dodgy dealing and selfishness? Is it worth me trying to bring reconciliation between those who are at loggerheads? Is it worth me putting myself in the firing line, when I’ll probably get no thanks for it? Is it worth me trying to build up my community when the vast majority of people would rather just slump in front of the telly?”

Doing right doesn’t always feel right, but it always is right, and this story reminds us that though pain and sorrow have the loudest voices, they do not always tell the truth. It is God whose truth we really need to hear: “this is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” In the silence tonight, let’s ponder the times when we have found it hard to know that, and pray for those who may be struggling to hear it today. Amen

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Second Sunday before Lent 2012: Words of God

John 1.1-14, Proverbs 8.1, 22-31

I wonder what Jasper’s first words were. Can you remember? A wise midwife once told me to make sure my children’s first word was “Daddy”, so that that was what they would call out in the middle of the night…

It is exciting for parents when their children start to talk, whatever they say. Those early words are an important clue to their personalities, to their likes and dislikes, to what they are thinking. Actions matter too, of course, but words help to explain those actions. I know that Jasper is chattering away very well now, and that means you are getting to know him in a different way. If children aren’t able to communicate for some reason, it can be intensely frustrating for them. Not being able to talk, whatever age you are, can make you feel isolated. It’s much harder for people to know you if you can’t express yourself. Words matter.

Our Gospel reading today had a lot to say about words, or rather about the Word. It’s a reading we are more used to hearing at Christmas: it’s traditionally the final reading at Carol services, and it’s read at Midnight Mass too. That’s because it is John’s account of the coming of Jesus into the world. He doesn’t give us stories of shepherds and angels, or wise men and stars. He launches straight in with a piece of poetic theology in an attempt to capture what this man Jesus meant to those who had lived alongside him.

And John describes Jesus first and foremost as God’s Word. As I’ve said, words are ways of expressing ourselves, so John is telling us that Jesus was God’s expression of himself. In what he said and did, he showed what God was like, what mattered to him, what he cared about. John is saying here, “if you want to know God, look at Jesus – the word that sums him up.”

It is an extraordinarily powerful thing to say, especially as actually, there wasn’t anything very obviously special about Jesus. He wasn’t some kind of superhero, just a first Century Palestinian Jew from an artisan family in an ordinary village. There was no halo. There were no choirs of angels or processions of trumpets going before him. But John seems very convinced that God was speaking very powerfully through Jesus, and he gets that certainty from the fact that he was drawing on the stories of those who had been Jesus’ first followers, those who had lived alongside him and travelled with him. We don’t think John knew Jesus himself, but he would have had contact with those who had known him, and they could testify to the fact that knowing Jesus had transformed their lives. Many of them went on to face persecution and death because of their determination to live out and pass on the message they had learned from Jesus, so we can see how deep an impact he’d on them. You don’t take those risks for something you aren’t convinced of. In this flesh and blood, vulnerable human being, they’d had seen a love that they had never imagined, an acceptance which healed them. They had been drawn together into a community where it didn’t matter whether you were rich or poor, male or female, what you had done, or who you were – you belonged. They’d had a glimpse of the divine, something utterly beyond them, and they knew it. They didn’t understand it and they couldn’t explain it. But they knew it.

In Jesus they had seen God’s priorities – the priorities expressed in the Old Testament – lived out. There was a passion for justice, loving care and respect for those whom life had trodden down. That’s what brought Jesus into conflict with the authorities and got him crucified. In an age when might was right a Word that spoke out for the voiceless – the poor, the disabled, the outcast – wasn’t going to be one that those in power would want to hear. 

So here was God, they felt, embodied in human form. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

And the first reading we heard, from the book of Proverbs, essentially says the same thing in a slightly different way. It introduces us to Wisdom, personified as a woman, present with God from the beginning, sharing in his work of creation, present among human beings, close to them - “delighting in the human race”. God isn’t sitting on a cloud in the sky looking down on the world with disapproving judgement, says Lady Wisdom. He, and she, are right there in the thick of the world, rejoicing in it.

Now, all this is very well – lovely images, beautiful words – but what has it got to do with Jasper and his family today? What has it got to do with the rest of us, come to that?

It is this.
The God who spoke through Lady Wisdom, the God who spoke through Jesus, the Word made flesh, has not fallen silent now. He still speaks. A medieval mystical writer called Meister Eckhart once said “All creatures are words of God.”* Each of our lives can speak of God, passing on something of his love to others if we let that happen.  “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,” said John. Translated into plain English that means, if we want to be a part of what God is doing we can be. We can live as part of God’s family. We can show his family likeness in the things we do. When we love others, when we speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves, as Jesus did, we are being words of God to the world.

Today, as we bring Jasper for baptism, we are asking not just that God would bless him, but that through him God would bless us too. That he will be God’s word, that his life will count for something and make a difference.

To do that, though, he is going to need all the support he can get, so that his life can speak loud and clear of love and justice. He needs people to talk to him in order for him to learn to speak in the ordinary sense, people to tell him stories and read him books, talk to him about the world around him and build up his vocabulary. He also needs to hear the words of God before he can be a word of God himself. That involves all of us playing our part – his parents, his godparents, his family and friends, and the church too. We need to make sure he hears that he is loved and welcomed, so he can grow up to love and welcome others. He needs to hear that what he does matters, so he can grow up to act with integrity. He needs to hear that when he gets things wrong it isn’t the end of the world, that he can be forgiven, so he can learn to forgive others too.

The Bible says that Jesus was, supremely, God’s Word to us, but it also says that each of us is a word that speaks loud and clear too. Let us pray that the story our lives tell is one that helps Jasper and all God’s children to grow as they should.

*German sermons DW53

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Third Sunday before Lent: That hunted feeling...

“Simon and his companions hunted for Jesus…”

I don’t know what your reaction was when you heard those words from our Gospel this morning, but mine was a feeling of tremendous sympathy. There’s something very poignant about this story. Jesus has begun his ministry in a whirlwind of activity in Capernaum. It all starts with Simon Peter’s mother in law, laid up with a fever. Jesus heals her, lifting her up not just physically but spiritually and emotionally too, giving her back her life. It’s a very personal favour, helping out a friend. But of course, everyone else gets to hear of it, and Jesus is besieged. By evening “The whole city was gathered around the door” says Mark. That has to be an exaggeration, but that’s how it feels. In Jesus’ world, what help was there for those who were sick or troubled? Precious little. Life was precarious, especially for those who were poor to start with. When word got out that here was a healer who could raise a woman from her sick bed just like that, no wonder people flocked to Jesus. And he responded. “He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.”

Finally, when the last patient went away healed, Jesus could rest. And then, in the early morning, we are told, while it was still dark, he crept out of the town to find some space to pray, some time to be with God. It was still dark, and no one saw him go. But as soon as dawn came, so did the next wave of sick people wanting his help. The disciples didn’t know what to do, but they knew that Jesus would. They were riding high on a wave of excitement. So out they go, and they hunt him down. The Greek word Mark uses is the same one you would use of hunting an animal, pursuing it until you catch and kill it. They don’t just look for him; they hunt for him, without any apparent thought for what his needs might be. And when they find him they tell him everyone is searching for you…” Who is this “everyone”? Didn’t he have the “whole city” at his door the day before? Didn’t he work his way through every disease this town could throw at him then? Where have these people come from?

The fact is that human need was endless then, just as it is now. Anyone who works in any sort of public service – teachers, medical staff, social workers, emergency services - will know that. The job is never done. You can help one person, but there will be another and another and another coming along behind them. If you do something well, you can be sure that you will be expected to repeat the miracle, and do it better, and faster, and probably for less money next time…If you fail, it won’t escape attention. Everyone has an opinion on what you are doing. We’ve all been to school, so we think we are all experts on education. We’ve all been ill, so we know how the NHS should be run. We feel free to sit on the side lines, to criticise and demand. Today is Education Sunday, a day when we are asked especially to pray for those who work in that particular part of our public service – if you are a teacher or work in a school, thank you for all you do. We do know how hard it can sometimes be.

Those in other jobs are also hounded by the demands of work, of course, especially in the current financial climate. There is always pressure to do more with less, to work ever faster and smarter. It is easy to find yourself looking constantly over your shoulder, having to stay ahead of the competition all the time.  And whatever we are doing, if we have a conscience we want to be doing it well, not letting others down, working with integrity.

For those who have no work the pressures can be just as bad; despite what the tabloid press says, life on benefits, for the vast majority of people, is extremely tough. It can be frightening, humiliating and depressing.
And working or not, any of us can find ourselves beset with family struggles, health problems and a host of other worries which drive us to despair.

Sometimes we all feel hounded by our responsibilities, hunted down.  A pack of demands bays at our heels, and we don’t know where to turn to get away from them. All we want to do is sit and rest for a while. And that is where we find Jesus at this very human moment, hunted down by people who want one more healing, one more word of advice, just a minute of his time…

We could just stop there, and this story would have given us something precious to take away. Sometimes it is enough simply to recognise that Jesus has been where we are. We can see his footprints in our own human lives. But if we read on we discover that as well as sharing our exhaustion, Jesus’ example can also help us to deal with it, because somehow, from somewhere, he finds the strength not only to continue with his work, but also to broaden it. “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns,” he says “so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”  When I hear that response I think to myself, “Whatever Jesus was on, I need some of it too…!”

The clue, I think, is in what Jesus is doing when he is discovered by Simon. He hasn’t got up in the early morning to worry, or to plan, or to get some other jobs out of the way. He has got up in the morning to pray. It is prayer which is the key to the way he copes with pressure. That probably doesn’t sound very exciting or revolutionary, but it is true.

My experience is that churchgoers often have a very ambivalent attitude to prayer. Many people feel it is something they ought to do – like going to the gym or cutting down on cakes – but somehow they don’t get around to it. Praying at services is one thing, or in desperate situations, but regular prayer is really for the professionals – “say one for me, vicar!” People are often rather coy about prayer, as if it is an odd thing to do. And does it really matter that much? Will it really make such a difference?

According to Jesus, and looking at his example, yes, it will. Not because it will magically solve our problems, but because it will help us to see them in a new light, to set them in a new context. When we are feeling hunted, in particular, it seems to me that prayer can do two things which nothing else quite achieves.

Firstly it reminds us, quite simply, that God is there. When Jesus prays he re-discovers again and again that he doesn’t have to fight singlehanded against the powers of darkness. He gives himself permission to need help, and to ask for that help. When we pray we do the same, and that’s tremendously liberating. I don’t have to save the world. I don’t have to have all the answers. I don’t have to know what to do. I can acknowledge my limits with great gratitude and relief.  Prayer helps us to cut ourselves some slack. Our hands can only hold so much – that’s how it should be – so we put ourselves, and those things which are hounding us, into the hands of a God who has no limits.

The second thing that happens when Jesus prays is that he draws on the strength of a whole community of faith. I say that because at this time the normal practice of prayer, which I am sure Jesus followed, was to pray seven times a day, using words from the Bible, Psalms and set prayers. Of course people also simply poured out their hearts to God in extemporary prayer too, but the backbone of private devotion were these common prayers that were laid down and shared. Christians carried on with that pattern, and they still do. In monasteries there is a daily round of prayer, starting with Matins in the early hours and going through to Compline, which finished – completed - the day’s prayer.

You don’t have to be a monk or nun to pray in this way, though, and there are countless simplified and shortened versions of these daily forms of prayer around. I’ve included some in the leaflets on prayer on the table at the front.  So long as whatever you do suits you, becomes familiar - and you don’t beat yourself up if you don’t always stick to it - it will do fine.  Praying this way - leaning on an inheritance of faith and using words that reflect the struggles and the wisdom of those who have gone before you – reminds you that you aren’t ploughing a lonely furrow. You are slipping into a tide of prayer, like a river which flows on taking you with it. It isn’t the only way of praying – prayer can take many forms – but it is particularly valuable in those hunted moments, when you have nothing left of yourself to give.

If you have been watching the Sunday evening drama “Call the Midwife” you’ll have seen this sort of prayer in action. The programme is about a young and not particularly religiously minded midwife in the 1950’s who finds herself, more or less by accident, working in a nursing order of Anglican nuns in the slums of the East End of London. Time and again she comes to the end of her tether, weighed down by the pain and squalor she encounters. How can these nuns have endured it for decades, delivering babies through the Blitz, facing the suffering around them day after day? The answer gradually becomes clear to her. Punctuating each day, there is prayer, come what may. If they can gather together they do, but if not they pray alone, in the words they know their sisters in the convent are also using. It is an anchor that holds them, a context into which to put all the burdens of the day, a reminder that, whatever has happened, God is still there, and so are others.

In prayer we tell ourselves the truth; that we are not alone, that it isn’t all down to us. When the hounds of overwork, unrealistic expectation, failure or fear have hunted us down and got us cornered, alone and afraid, it is prayer that holds us steady, and prayer that will put us back on our feet again.
“Call The Midwife: A True Story Of The East End In The 1950s” by Jennifer Worth.