Sunday, 23 September 2012

Trinity 16: a sermon by Kevin Bright

Those here last week will recall that we looked at the stained glass window showing Jesus Transfiguration and Peter putting his foot in it when he tried to prolong the event suggesting that shelters were built for Moses, Elijah and Jesus just as God confirmed his love for his Son. After healing a sick child Jesus talks to the disciples of his forthcoming death and resurrection which is where Mark’s gospel continues the story today.
It seems amazing that Peter, James and John witness the Transfiguration and yet we are told that the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus meant when he spoke of forthcoming betrayal and rising again 3 days after his death.
Maybe the clue lies in the fact that they ‘were afraid to ask him’. Perhaps what Jesus was telling them simply too much to take in? Possibly it was a bit like one of those situations where you don’t like to ask because you know that you’re not going to like the answer because you suspect that the future will involve you in a way you’re not yet ready to face up to.
When you think of it in those terms it becomes easier for us to see ourselves in the story. After all I’ve already glibly referred to Jesus death and resurrection but even though we have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight to reinforce the facts most of us still behave like the disciples, perhaps for similar reasons, that we find this much love, this much sacrifice too much to take in, we just can’t face up to it right now.
When did we last have a serious conversation about what Jesus really means to us, how he shapes our values, our lives. If not recently then perhaps it’s time to ask really deep questions of God and his plans for our future through prayer, reflection or with someone we trust.
Part of the problem is that everyday things get in the way, then we get tired, fall asleep and do it all again.
It’s a bit like this when Jesus asks the disciples what they have been squabbling about on the road. He’s been telling them of God’s plan for the future and they’ve been arguing about which one of them is the greatest. They keep quiet, surely because they feel foolish for getting caught up worrying about such earthly things as status, position and power rather than wrestling with what Jesus is telling them.
We should ask ourselves honestly whether we expend a disproportionate amount of energy pursuing similar goals. I am sure that we will all know people for whom status, titles, qualifications and demonstrations of wealth are all that seem to matter. Such people can be fascinating, entertaining and depressing all in one go.

The TV programme ‘Dragon’s Den’ offers almost a pantomime style lesson about humility and respect. You have people whose bank accounts are so full that they have to pile up cash on the table next to them looking disdainfully upon desperate people with business ideas as they parade fearfully in front of them only to be told ‘that’s ludicrous, it will never work’.
Being very careful to protect the identity of the subjects involved I can share the story of one man who was so proud of his mansion and high quality fittings throughout that he carried a glossy brochure with photos of all the best bits in order that he could share it with all he acquainted himself with for more than 10 minutes. His identity was clearly tied to it. He was quite young and wealth was new to him so let’s hope he grew up.
At one of my old employers we had a mild mannered orthodox Jewish client whose clothes always looked like they had seen better days and who drove the oldest Volvo I had ever seen, probably still does. Naturally I found out later that he was personally worth tens of millions.
The point is that it’s not money that corrupts people’s values though it does of course have that potential.
I found an Arabian proverb this week which seemed to make sense - “Arrogance diminishes wisdom.”
Jesus does the equivalent of saying to the disciples ‘we need to have a serious talk’. So he sits down, adopting what the disciples would have recognised as the formal position of a Rabbi teaching his pupils. ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last and the servant of all’ he tells them.
A challenging and radical message of course but not as difficult to engage with as it can first seem as we will we never run out of opportunities to serve each other.
Jesus then tells the disciples that it’s important how we treat each other and accept each other warning that those with the least say, the lowest status need to be cared for, valued and listened to. He took the example of a child because they had little status in society and are of no use to a person seeking advancement or influence more likely to be in need than able to give.
It’s interesting that this very week we appear to have had a news story involving the  issues of status and how we treat each other. I am, of course, referring to Andrew Mitchell who is reported to have told a police officer something along the lines that he should know his place when told to get off his bike. Maybe he got so upset because he belongs to the party that is famous for telling people to ‘get on their bike’.

In James’s letter he urges people to find true wisdom explaining that envy and selfish ambition will be obstacles to this.
We shouldn’t misunderstand today’s messages and be left feeling lethargic as there is no question that Jesus wants us to have ambition, just not misplaced ambition.
To strive to achieve the best possible education, to provide for our families, to find work or progress in our work are all natural ambitions which approached in the right way will offer opportunities to share, to welcome and encourage those others may shun and to serve each other along the way.
It may help to consider how we would answer if asked by Jesus a similar question to when he asked the disciples what they had been squabbling about. What if at the end of each evening we sat with Jesus and explained what had been the most important thing to us that day?
Thinking like this we may discover new opportunities to find real purpose and meaning in our everyday tasks. We don’t have to join a monastery, wear hair shirts and live on berries its more about opening our eyes to what is already around us and then making the effort to include the unpopular child in class and taking delight in surprising the person who lacks self-esteem by treating them as well or even better than the person of great influence.
I’m pretty sure that very little that I’ve said is news to anyone, we’ve got a good idea of what Jesus wants us to do but consistently putting it into action is not easy is it.
We have to keep trying to make enough time to confront the issues that are stopping us realising the full potential we have to be people of God.
 A starting point can be reminding ourselves that God loves us as we are regardless of our achievements. It follows that giving up the desire for self importance and the need to be at the centre of everything can be enormously liberating. When you next meet an arrogant person why not urge them to give it a try!
We should also take encouragement from the fact that even small acts of service, kindness and respect can have a huge effect on others and it’s surprising how quickly they can become infectious. We know this is true from our own experience when such kindness seems to come out of the blue. Such things are achievable for us whoever we are and will enable us to get the conversation going with Jesus if we allow him to ask ‘have you been squabbling over nonsense again or have you done something important today’?

Sunday, 16 September 2012

In the fisherman's net: a story for all age worship

Part 1: Follow me…

There was once a fisherman called Simon, who lived with his wife, her mother and his brother Andrew in a town by the sea of Galilee[1]. Day by day, Simon and Andrew cast their nets and brought in their catch. They weren’t rich, but they weren't poor either; they got by well enough.
Then, one day Simon bumped into a travelling preacher, a healer by the name of Jesus. How did this happen? Well it depends on who you talk to – everyone tells a different story. Some say he and Andrew were just fishing by the lakeside when Jesus came along and called them[2]. Follow me! he said, and they followed him. Others though, tell a different tale. Some say he met Jesus first when he came to him for help. His mother-in-law was ill, and wasn’t Jesus a healer? [3] Perhaps it was his wife who sent him, perhaps it was his idea. But either way, Jesus came and sat down by her bedside and in no time at all her fever had left her and she got up and set about making them all a meal. No wonder Simon was impressed – not only had he met her needs, he’d met his for an end to his rumbling stomach too.
(This story can be found in one of our stained glass windows. Peter is shown with his wife, who we hear about much later, travelling with him in the early days of the church, sharing in his ministry[4]. I suspect she was a woman of great faith and patience – she probably had to be to put up with him!)

Some, though, say it was his brother Andrew who first drew him to Jesus.[5] Andrew was a follower of John the Baptist, but John had started to tell his disciples that he wasn’t really the one they should be following – his story was coming to an end. One day Jesus had come to him – to John – for baptism, and straight away John knew that this was the Messiah. Follow him, not me, he had said, and Andrew took him literally – he set off in his footsteps, trailing him through the streets and pathways until Jesus noticed him and invited him home. All that day Andrew listened and talked and listened some more. This man was like no one he had ever known before! At the end of the day he hurried home and burst into the house.
“I’ve found the Messiah,” he shouted! “Come and see!”
Simon didn’t know what to make of this. Was it just one of Andrew’s enthusiasms ( a bit of a religious fanatic perhaps?) or maybe there was something in it?
There was only one way to find out. He went with him to Jesus’ house and walked in. Jesus looked at Simon. He looked at him as if he had known him all his life, as if he had loved him all his life, as if he was looking right into him. “Simon”, he said, “that’s your name now. But you will be called Peter… “Peter” – Petros, that was Greek for a rock . No one had ever thought of Simon as a rock before, not unless it was in the sense that it was something that would have hurt a lot if you dropped it on your foot… But here was Jesus, seeing in him something he’d never seen in himself, having faith in him that he’d never had in himself, and hope for his future too. Simon, Peter – Cephas in his own Aramaic language – was convinced. Whatever this Jesus was about, he wanted to be part of it.
Who knows which of those stories was the true first meeting – maybe all of them, or none of them? But the Gospels tell them because everyone starts somewhere. Why are you here today? Why did you start coming to church? What drew you to faith, to God, in the first place? Maybe you think of yourself as a card-carrying, signed up, committed Christian, or maybe you are just curious, but the fact is you are here…Like Peter it might have been a sense that you were called to do something, or it might be because you had a need, something that needed healing, or it could be that someone else brought you, someone you loved and trusted, or maybe it was just that hope that there was more to you than you had thought, more to life than you had thought.

Somehow each of us must have seen a glimpse of something that has attracted us, just as Peter did, something that matters enough to bring us here.

Part 2: Getting it right, getting it wrong

So, however it happened Peter had begun to follow Jesus. And when we say follow, we mean follow. Everywhere, at his heels, like a large and very devoted dog… And he was full of questions and challenges. “What did that parable mean, Jesus?”[6] “Lord, we’ve left everything to follow you – doesn’t that count for something…?”[7] “How many times should I forgive someone who sins against me?”[8] Sometimes Peter got it right, as we heard in today’s Gospel reading,[9] “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”, but sometimes, often, he got it wrong, spectacularly wrong, as we also heard. “Don’t go to Jerusalem, Jesus, don’t even think about it, and certainly don’t talk about it…It’s bad for morale…”

On one occasion Jesus had had a busy day. He wanted some time alone, to pray. So he sent Peter and the others back across the lake in their boat.[10] They were at home on the water, fishermen through and through, but soon it turned rough. The waves swept the boat and the wind was against them. they were rowing with all their might, but getting nowhere. Where was Jesus when you needed him? But then Peter, peering into the darkness and the spray, saw a figure, walking on the water towards them. “It’s a ghost,” they all said . It must be – it’s walking on the water. But the ghost called out, “Don’t be afraid, it is me.” It was Jesus’ voice. “Is that you, Lord?” called Peter “If it is, tell me to come to you on the water…” “Come on then,” said the figure, and with not a thought in his head, Peter jumped out of the boat and started walking towards Jesus on the water. Like you do. Except that you don’t, of course. You can’t walk on water – I can’t walk on water, you can’t walk on water -  and as Peter looked around at this rough, wild sea, he suddenly remembered that he couldn’t walk on water either, and he started to sink. “Save me, Lord” In a moment, Jesus was there, holding out his hand, pulling him up, taking him safely – across the water – to the boat.
This story features in one of our stained glass windows, as does the next.

And while I’m here at the back of the church, here he is again, getting it right and getting it wrong at the transfiguration[11]. One day Jesus took him, and James and John – the inner circle – up a mountain to pray. They didn’t know what would happen, but they knew it would be important. Suddenly, says the story, Jesus seemed to be all aglow, gleaming white, and beside him, two men – Elijah, and Moses, here with the Ten Commandments. Peter, James and John fell to their knees in astonishment as they watched the three men talking together. It was a wonderful sight, and suddenly Peter couldn’t bear the thought of it ending… “Lord! I tell you what! I’ve got an idea! Why don’t I make some shelters for the three of you, then you can stay here for ever…” and at that a cloud came down and when it lifted, all was as it had been before. Vision gone. Game over. Well done Peter…

But there’s another window in our church (over the altar) where we are reminded of the time when he got it right, and got it wrong in the most spectacular way of all. Jesus knew he was going to die. He told his disciples it was bound to happen. You don’t criticise Rome and get away with it for long, especially if you are criticising the Jewish Temple elite, who might have protected you, at the same time.
On the night before he died, gathering his disciples around them, Jesus told them that this was the moment.[12] “You will all desert me when I am taken,” he said. “Oh no we won’t “said Peter. “At least, I won’t anyway – I’d never leave you. This is me, Peter, remember…!” But Jesus told him that before the morning came and the cock crowed he would have denied him three times. Peter was determined it wouldn’t be so, and when Jesus called him and James and John to stay with him while he prayed out in the garden of Gethsemane, they were glad to be with him. But, the night was dark, the wine had flowed, and soon their eyelids drooped and they fell asleep. Once, twice Jesus came back and woke them. “Couldn’t you just watch with me one hour?” But no, again they fell asleep. And then the soldiers came, and seized Jesus and began to take him away.
Peter sprang up and started to fight. He pulled out his sword and cut off the ear of one of those taking Jesus away. “That’s not the way, Peter – not my way,” said Jesus and he reached out and healed the man’s ear.
So Jesus was taken, off into the dark, as his disciples ran away. Only Peter remained there in the darkness, as his Lord was led away, watching from the shadows. And after a while he followed, picking his way through the dark streets to the High Priest’s house where Jesus had been taken -  his heart was in the right place, and no one else had even the courage he had. When he got there, he found a few people gathered outside the door and he could see Jesus inside. Pretty soon the others gathered there noticed him, though. “Don’t I recognise you’? Weren’t you one of Jesus’ disciples?” Peter thought quickly. “Me, no not me – you must have mistaken me for someone else?” “Are you sure – you sound like a Galilean…” “No, not me…” And then the cock crowed, and Peter remembered, and Jesus, inside the house, turned and looked at Peter outside, and Peter wept. And he went away and hid. He hid as Jesus was crucified. He hid as he was buried. He hid, because he thought it was all over for him. Some rock he turned out to be!

Peter is everyman, everywoman, everychristian. He meant well. His heart was in the right place, but sometimes it just didn’t work out as he meant it to. He failed. He didn’t mean to, and he bitterly regretted it, but he failed. And so do we.

Part 3.
And then what…?

So, there was Peter, hiding, afraid, thinking it was all over for Jesus and all over for him. But it wasn’t so. Three days later, some of the women who’d followed Jesus came to say that they’d seen him, alive and well.[13] Peter couldn’t believe it, but being Peter, he had to check it out for himself. He set out at a run for the tomb, and when he got there, sure enough, it was empty. And soon, he and the other disciples seemed to be seeing Jesus, or hearing from others who had all over the place. Go back to Galilee, Jesus told them, so that’s what they did. But Peter couldn’t quite shake the memory of his denial. Could Jesus really forgive him? One day Peter decided to go fishing on the sea of Galilee[14]. The others came with him, but all that night they caught nothing.  But just as they were giving up they saw a figure on the lakeside. Throw your nets on the other side, he called. So they did, and their nets were filled with so many fish the nets looked likely to break. It could only be Jesus. Peter jumped out of the boat and swum to the shore. After they had had breakfast with Jesus, Jesus looked at Peter. “Do you love me, Peter?” Here it was – the moment of reckoning. After all denying him wasn’t exactly an act of devotion was it? “Yes, Lord” said Peter. “Are you sure you love me?” “ Yes, Lord!” “Really sure?” “Yes Lord – why do you keep asking” Peter was miserable, sure that Jesus would never trust him again. “Then feed my sheep, look after my people for me. I’m trusting them to you, Peter, the Rock”. And Peter knew he was forgiven, and more than forgiven. He was trusted with the most precious thing Jesus had, the people he had called to him, the people he had tried to help. (This story features in the window by the font)

And according to the book of Acts, which tells the story of the early church, Peter lived up to his promise. Time and again he spoke out when it was needed, no matter what the risk.[15] Once he was thrown into prison, and was convinced he would die.[16] James, his friend – one of those three - had already been killed. But that night an angel appeared before him and told him to get up. The chains that bound him fell off, and the door opened before him. There was no one to stop him. He just walked right out. He thought he was dreaming, but when he got outside, it was real. He was free. He went back to the house where the other disciples were gathered, praying for him, and knocked on the door. A maid in the household – Rhoda was her name, and she was a believer too – came to the door and hearing Peter’s voice ran back in, so excited that she left him there, and it wasn’t till he knocked again that they realised that the guest of honour was still outside in the street.

He was determined to get the message out – God loves you, God accepts you, no matter who you are or what you’ve done… Sometimes it was a struggle.[17] When God asked him to go to a Gentile house, all he could think of was all the disgusting unclean things he might have to eat there, but if that was what it took, he’d go. And pretty soon he found that, indeed, people looked to him for a lead, leant on him for support. Simon had become Peter, the rock.

Legend says that in the end he was executed by the Emperor Nero in Rome, and perhaps he was. What is certain is that he didn’t just inspire a generation, he inspired two thousand years of generations. He did that, not by being some kind of hero, but by being like us, faithful and faithless, brave and fearful, right and wrong, a miserable failure, and a man who knew what it was like to be forgiven and loved again.
My guess is that we can all recognise ourselves in his story somewhere, and perhaps in many places. We are all caught up in the net of this story, and just like Peter we can discover the love of God that carries us through our lives and is with us no matter what.

To read all the passages below, go to this link

[1] probably Capernaum – Luke 4.31-39, or Bethsaida.Jn1.44
[2] Matt 4.18
[3] Luke 4.38
[4] 1 Cor 9.5
[5] Jn 1.40
[6] Mt 15.15
[7] Mt 19.27
[8] Mt 18.21
[9] Mark 8.27-38
[10] Mt 14.28
[11] Luke 9.28
[12] Luke 22.31-62
[13] Luke 24.12
[14] Jn 21
[15] Acts 4
[16] Acts 12
[17] Acts10

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Trinity 14: Speaking plainly

“And immediately the deaf man’s ears were opened,” says our Gospel reading “his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.”

The Bible is a big book with many words in it. You’d think that there wasn’t much left unsaid in it, and yet it is often the things which are left out which are most intriguing. Today’s Gospel is a case in point.

A deaf man with an impediment in his speech is healed by Jesus, and, we are told “he spoke plainly”. The thing that I wonder, when I hear this is, “what did he say?” Just imagine if it were you. You have been deaf all your life, and unable to make yourself understood to those around you. You have had your own thoughts and opinions but you’ve never been able to express them. You haven’t been able to tell people what you needed or wanted. You haven’t been able to complain if you were treated badly. Probably many people have assumed you are stupid, and many in this culture would also have assumed that your disability was a punishment from God. Those with disabilities were often judged as sinners or unclean, and were excluded from worship.  So you haven’t just been physically disadvantaged, but socially and spiritually disadvantaged too, and you haven’t been able to say a word about it.

But now, finally, you have your own voice, for the first time, and a whole lifetime of things to talk about. What are you going to say?

I am sure that there will be words of rejoicing and of amazement at what Jesus has done. The rest of the crowd seems to be full of excitement so perhaps you join in with this. I expect there will be words of love for those who have been true friends to you during his long and lonely silence, and an outpouring of stories to share properly with them for the first time.
But you will have other things to say too, things which some people won’t want to hear. Probably other children teased you about your speech impediment when you were growing up: children can be cruel. I should think they might be wondering what you will have to say about that now. The things they thought would always be a secret, because you couldn’t tell anyone, are going to be brought out into the open. And what about those people who thought you were a sinner, and have told you so, again and again… There are going to be some distinctly uncomfortable conversations happening in the near future…

This man now “speaks plainly” we are told. The Greek word translated here as “plainly” is “orthos” – the word from which we get orthodox and orthopaedic. It really means right or straight. Orthopaedic surgeons make your bones straight. This man’s healing isn’t just about him being able to enunciate his words clearly, it is about him being able to speak straight for the first time, to speak the truth, to tell it like it is from his perspective to those around him. Whether that brings joy or unease to his neighbours depends on how they have treated him, but the chickens are coming home to roost. It isn’t just his voice he has found but his power too.

Those who have no voice are easy to abuse; they can’t speak out. We’ve recently seen some terrible cases of abuse in residential homes for people with learning disabilities. How did the perpetrators get away with such brutal treatment for so long? It was because the residents found it difficult to speak for themselves.
Children are always vulnerable, of course. The word “infant” literally means “unable to speak”, from the Latin, “infans”.  Children often don’t have the words they need to express themselves, so they can’t speak out if things are wrong.

It’s not just youth or disability which silences people though. Poverty can also mean that people’s voices aren’t heard. Take the people James writes about in his letter, a letter written to an early Christian community he was responsible for. Rich and poor came together to worship, but when the rich come in, in fine clothes and gold jewellery, they are ushered to the best seats and people, says James, “take notice ” of them. They are noticed. They are heard. That’s what it means to take notice - to listen to someone. The poor are told to stand aside, or sit on the floor. Disciples sat on the floor at the feet of their teachers; sitting on the floor implies that you are in some way inferior, literally lower down, looking up to someone who is assumed to know more than you. James is horrified. What are they thinking of? Surely they know that this isn’t the way they should be, “Has not God chosen the poor to be rich in faith, heirs of the kingdom?” he says. They have their own wisdom and the community needs to hear it, not relegate it to the floor. They aren’t just passive recipients, but ministers of the Gospel with their own stories to tell.

Tales like the first one we heard in the Gospel, of Jesus’s meeting with the Syrophonecian woman, should have underlined this for them. Even Jesus, says this story, sometimes had to struggle properly to hear people, but the fact that he did meant that his followers were supposed to as well. He was way out of his comfort zone – quite literally – in the region of Tyre and Sidon, foreign seaport towns with notoriously bad reputations. Commentators argue about what he might be doing there, but it almost seems as if he was deliberately putting himself in a situation which would root out any lingering prejudice he might have. If that is the case it certainly works. He seems ready to reject this woman’s plea for help – a foreign, insistent, disturbing woman - what has she got to do with him? But she persists, and he changes his mind. It’s a puzzling story if you want Jesus to be an all knowing, plaster saint, but if we really believe he is fully human then surely learning and growing have to be part of that humanity, just as they are for all of us. Clearly the early church thought that was the case, or they would never have included this story in the Gospels, and the fact that they did emphasizes the importance of the message it proclaims; that everyone’s voice counts, and that even the best of us need to learn this, because some people are harder for us to hear than others.

It’s not just the poor or the outcast who might struggle to speak, though. I don’t know whether you have seen the film about George VI, “The King’s Speech”. It is a very moving account of his battle to overcome his stammer. Here was a man who had all the power and wealth you could imagine, who everyone was listening to, but he couldn’t get the words out. “The nation believes that when I speak, I speak for them,” he says, “but I can’t speak.”  He found his voice in the end with the help of a rather unorthodox speech therapist, who insisted that within their consulting room he was just an ordinary person, not a king, not someone who had to be deferred to, but simply a man. He helped him discover the human being inside the monarch, to come to terms with the rather authoritarian and repressive upbringing he had had and in doing so he allowed him to be himself, and the result was that he found he could speak plainly.

So, people are rendered voiceless in many ways through poverty or illness, through the preconceived ideas that they or others have of who they are, because others have made them feel they have nothing to say that is worth hearing, or made them feel afraid to speak. Many people, for all sorts of reasons, have stories they feel they can’t tell, they don’t even know where to start, or stories no one will hear if they do tell them. Often the healing people need starts with the telling of those stories. Indeed often that is all that is needed for their healing.

Part of the privilege of my job is listening to people, hearing things they may be telling for the first time – even to themselves. I hear stumbling accounts of the beginnings of religious faith, sometimes including strange experiences which start with an apology “this is going to sound daft, but…” I hear stories of old hurts and traumas, long buried under mountains of shame or guilt, stories of ancient feuds, endlessly rehashed but somehow never really told in a way that enables them to be dealt with. People can shout at each other at full volume, but never really hear what the other is saying. The first step to healing, growth and life is nearly always to “tell it like it is” to yourself, to someone you trust, to God, and yet, very often people feel just as tongue tied as this man in the Gospel. It can take a long time for us to learn to speak our own truth, and a long time too to hear the voices of others truly, but in the eyes of God each person is precious, with a voice that needs hearing, a voice that can enrich us all.

Ephphtha, says Jesus. Be opened. The deaf man spoke plainly. The Syrophonecian woman got her message across. The poor, if James’ letter had any effect, got up off the floor and had their say too.
Ephthatha, says Jesus to us. Be opened. That might mean learning to speak and to hear our own truths, to tell it like it is for us in ways that heal and help ourselves and those around us, or it might mean learning to hear the truths of others, helping them to speak out. Probably it is a bit of both.   What matters is that we treasure the voices God has given to all his children so that we don’t miss the riches of faith he has given to us to share.