Sunday, 28 June 2015

Patronal Festival: Living stones

“Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.”

I’ve given you all a stone today. You might like to hold it as you listen. You can take it home with you – in fact, please do! Put it somewhere special. Decorate it if you like, or don’t if you’d rather not.

Let’s ponder these stones for a moment, though. Each one is different – a different shape, colour and size. Some are smooth and round, some have rough edges where they have been broken at some point in their lives. I wonder where your stone came from, and what stories it could tell if it had a voice. Perhaps it was once part of a mountain. Perhaps it is limestone, built out of the shells of tiny sea creatures. Perhaps it has been at the bottom of the ocean, or the middle of a desert at some point in its long life. But now here it is, in your hand.

The Bible is full of stones, like the stony Middle Eastern landscapes which the people who wrote it knew. Of course, there is lush, green, fertile land in Israel, but there is also a great deal of desert, rocky wilderness in which life is tough.
Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that those make their way into so many Biblical stories.

In the Old Testament, Jacob uses a stone for a pillow when he lies down in the middle of nowhere and dreams of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven. He’s on the run from his family, having stolen his twin brother’s birthright, so he is amazed to find that God is still with him. He sets up the stone as a marker at the place he calls “Bethel” literally the “house of God”.

Stones were used as markers in other stories too. When the Israelites crossed the river Jordan into the Promised Land, God told each tribe to bring a stone to make a cairn. In times to come they would see it, and show it to their children and remember the journey – and the God who had rescued them. These weren’t the only stones in that journey.  The Ten Commandments were written by God on tablets of stone – another reminder of what the priorities of their new nation should be.

Stone was a symbol of permanence. It endured. It was solid. It said, “we are here to stay, and so is our God.”

Eventually the Israelites built themselves a stone Temple to worship in, replacing the temporary wooden structures that had gone before it. The altar was of stone too, unhewn stone, like a drystone wall. They weren’t to use chisels on it, presumably so they wouldn’t be tempted to carve images into it.

Of course, stones could also be instruments of death. David killed the Philistine giant Goliath with a sling-stone , and stoning was a common means of execution. Stones could make life tough in other ways too. The stony soil in the parable of the sower couldn’t nourish the seeds which fell on it. They sprang up, but then withered and died.
And stones could be barriers. The stone that was rolled across the mouth of Jesus’ tomb was meant to make sure his body stayed where it was. “Who will roll the stone away?” asked the women who came to the tomb to anoint Jesus. But God, it turned out, had that problem sorted out – stones were no barrier to him, any more than death was. I could go on. When you start looking for stones in the Bible you find them everywhere.

But let’s look at the readings we heard today. There were stones in both of them, but they were of a very different kind to the ones we are holding in our hands, very different from those other Biblical stones  I have been talking about. The stone in the Gospel reading was St Peter, one of our Patron saints. His name was really Simon, but Jesus called him Petros, the rock. The name is a signal that Peter will be part of the foundation of the new community he is building. We find the same idea in the first letter of Peter, which talks about “living stones”. The author almost certainly isn’t St Peter. It is too late and too elegantly written to be the work of a Galilean fisherman. But the person who wrote it might have given it his name because he had known and followed him. He certainly seems to have stones on his mind. He talks about Jesus as the cornerstone of a new building. The cornerstone is the stone all the others are lined up with. It is vital, but it is only the beginning. It isn’t a building on its own. And that’s where we come in, because we are called to be stones too, “living stones”, like Jesus, used by God to build with.

I was struck by this phrase “living stones” this week as I thought about this passage. It’s an odd phrase. I wondered whether it was a common metaphor at the time, or whether this writer had invented it. It seems that he probably did. It’s not used anywhere else in the Bible, and doesn’t seem to be used in this sense in classical literature either.

But his hearers would have understood what he meant, because it grows out of ideas that were very much in people’s minds at the time.

Both the Gospel and the letter were probably written at some point shortly after AD 70, the date when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. It was a huge crisis point for the Jewish people. This massive stone edifice had looked indestructible, as if it would stand forever, but the Romans had other ideas, and razed it to the ground. Today there is just one wall of it left, the Western or wailing wall, where Jewish people go to pray.

The Romans didn’t just destroy a building when they knocked the Temple down, though; they destroyed an entire religious system. Ancient Judaism was based on sacrifice. This was how you drew close to God. Now there was nowhere to sacrifice, so how were you to encounter God, to be strengthened, forgiven , healed? Some turned increasingly to their scriptures and their laws, and focussed on these – the Pharisees - but those who followed Jesus said that they’d met God in him, a flesh and blood person. Once he was no longer physically with them, they believed his presence could still be felt through his Spirit at work in their communities as they learned to love and serve one another. They had met with God within the stone walls of the Temple, now they met him within the living stones of Jesus and the Christian community. They didn’t need monumental marble to mark out their sacred space; they made it themselves whenever they gathered together.

And this is still our calling; to be the “living stones” that make a Temple for our own time, a place where people can find God – not the only place of course, but one we deliberately make together.  

To live up to that calling to be living stones, we need to ask ourselves two questions about ourselves.

First are we “living”? That doesn’t just mean that being physically alive, with breath in our bodies and a steady heartbeat, though that’s a good start! We also need to be spiritually alive, alive with the life of God. That’s a hard thing to describe, but my experience is that we know it when we find it. It’s not about being happy or feeling that your life is all sorted out. It is more to do with knowing that you aren’t alone, whatever it is you are going through God is going through it with you, that you have access to strength beyond your strength. All sorts of things can get in the way of that. Resentment, anxiety and the burdens of unforgiven sin can all deaden us spiritually. But it is often when things are apparently going well for us that we are most at risk of dying spiritually. We get smug and self-satisfied. We think we are fine just as we are, that we have all we need. We close ourselves off to anything beyond us and we stop growing and reflecting. The good news is, though, that God is good at bringing the dead to life – this is the God who raised Jesus from death. He is good at turning stone into flesh. He promised the Prophet Ezekiel that he would take away hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh. The first reading summed it up. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy”. Through loving service, through the Bible, through prayer and worship and through one another God can bring us to life if we let him.

The second question we need to ask is about the stony part of that phrase. When we thought about stones earlier we saw they could be used for a lot of different purposes. A stone is just a stone until it is used for something. The “living stones” which the Bible talks about are very specifically meant to be put to use to build a Temple, joined to others to make a place where people can meet with God. A stone may be very fine, very beautiful, but on its own it can’t make a building. Of course we can live good and holy lives on our own, but we are called to do more than that. The stones God needs are the ones who are prepared to be committed to the wall, set in place next to others – perhaps not of their choosing - so that the whole structure can be strong, more than the sum of its parts. “Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house” says the reading. That’s why it matters that we come together, that we learn together, that we reach out together, because together we can build the generous place of welcome, the safe and holy space that we, and those around us, really need.

I don’t know what you will do with your stones, but I hope they will help you to think about your own calling, to be a living stone, alive with the life of God, part of a Temple that is big enough to welcome all who come to it.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Trinity 3:Stilling the storms

 In this morning’s All Age Worship we talked a bit about a buzz word that seems to be all over the education world at the moment – the word “mastery”. It’s no longer enough, if you want your school to get an outstanding grade, to teach children simply information or skills, you have to get them to the level of mastery of those skills and information, so that they can use them in all sorts of different ways. Mastery is about having that knowledge deep inside yourself, so that it is almost second nature and you hardly have to think about it.

We thought about some of the skills we might have mastered in our lives; the ability to read and write, knitting, cooking, music and so on. We thought about the Medieval master masons and master carpenters who built this church, without power tools or sophisticated computer models. You couldn’t just call yourself a master craftsman in those days. It was a title you earned from your peers in your trade guild after serving a long apprenticeship and demonstrating that you had the skills you needed. You’d have to make something to show what you could do. This was literally your “master piece”. If it was good enough, you earned the right to the title of Master.

In our Gospel reading we meet a bunch people who might today be called Master Mariners. People who had grown up in and around boats, who were deeply familiar with them, able to handle them, knowing the waters of the Sea of Galilee like the back of their hands. It’s no surprise that when they see how tired Jesus is after a long day’s preaching and healing they feel completely confident in taking him into their boat – and that’s what they story said “They took him with them” – it is their initiative, their responsibility. They don’t expect him to do anything. This is their area of expertise. They may not be able to heal or preach, but they can sail, so Jesus can, for once literally sit back and relax. And that’s what he does. For some reason there is a cushion in the boat – this puzzles me for a working boat, so maybe it is an improvised cushion made out of cloaks simply to give Jesus a more comfortable sleep.
He can switch off completely – or at least that is the plan.

But then, as we hear, the wind gets up. Presumably the fishermen do what they would normally do under these circumstances – reef the sails, start baling and so on. But none of the tricks they use works. So they wake Jesus. Why? What do they think he can do? What use is a carpenter, even one who has a good sideline in teaching and healing, going to be? It just feels like he doesn’t care, though, and that seems to be what they want reassurance about. But with just a few words – not addressed to them, but to the storm itself – Jesus does far more than any of them could imagine.  In Greek, the words he says are “Siopa, pefimoso” – literally “Shh, shut up”. And that’s what the storm does.

It’s not so much the fact that the storm has been stilled which astonishes them, as who it is that has done this. In the Jewish scriptures, the sea was a symbol of chaos. In the beginning of the book of Genesis, God’s Spirit hovered over the water, bringing order out of the formlessness of the primeval ocean. God was the one who set bounds beyond which the water couldn’t pass, and who removed those boundaries when the flood swept the world away, all except Noah and his precious cargo. In the Psalm we heard, it is God alone who “stilled the storm to a whisper and quieted the waves of the sea,” God alone who ultimately brings us “to the harbour we are bound for.” Those Galilean fishermen knew their Psalms, and they would have picked up the allusion. If Jesus too could still a storm with a whisper” – siopa pefimoso – then who can he be?  Paul wrote to the Colossians that “in him all the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell.” This is not just a carpenter, or just a healer or teacher, the story tells us, but the one who has mastery over the sea, like God himself, who can bring order out of chaos, peace in the midst of a storm.

The early Christians knew quite well that that didn’t mean he would make all the bad things go away. He went through death on the cross himself after all, and many of them were persecuted and killed for their faith. But this story reminded them that whatever storms raged about them, at the heart of their lives, if they were centred on Christ, there could be a peace that nothing could destroy.

We are – all of us – people of skill and ability, people who can do extraordinary things. But our mastery of the world and of ourselves is always going to be limited and partial. We all, at some point come up against storms which fling all our self-assurance back in our faces. Far too often we beat ourselves up when we come to the end of what we can do, as if, if we only tried harder or were cleverer we could get it sorted. The truth is, though, that these are the times when we need to remember that Christ is there in the boat with us, the one who is master of even the wind and the waves, and who can speak the words that still the storms and bring us to the harbour we are bound for.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Trinity 2: A New Reality - A sermon by Kevin Bright

Mark 4.26-34, 2 Corinthians 5.6-17 & Ezekiel 17.22-24

A horse walks into a bar, on all four legs of course, pulls up a couple of stools and stares at the barman who says to him ‘why the long face’? We’ll come back to this later.

On a different note have you ever considered creating high tech experiences which allow people to escape to a different world? It’s becoming increasingly popular, virtual reality, where everything is virtual except for the bill.

Put on a pair of goggles, go nowhere but be transported anywhere. Throw off the shackles of a mundane existence through a metaphysical transportation to an altered state.

Perhaps a game where you get up every day at 5.30 am put on your goggles and headphones and travel through overcrowded roads and trains to a workplace, or one where you sit in a small room and study all day for exams, maybe a cleaning experience where you move a virtual vacuum cleaner all around a house and clean up dust. I don’t sense much excitement at these ideas. How about a virtual property world where you have to try and buy your first home only to find out they are all too expensive, with an option to rent a room in someone else’s house of course. No, I’ve got it, a game where you age much faster than in real time and have to deal with health problems, surely that would be popular? I guess none of these would have any commercial appeal as they are far too close to many people’s daily reality.
It seems we prefer virtual experiences where we become a rock star, a sports hero, kill evil enemy in battle, build dream homes and alter our appearances so were a bit more like George Clooney or Naomi Campbell.

Of course whilst the technology has moved on a little from 2000 years ago the concept of different forms of reality is certainly nothing new.

Paul was writing to the early church members in the important Greek city of Corinth with the aim of helping them get to grips with a new form of reality and its challenging stuff for both them and us.

Paul wants the church to see that there is a reality which goes beyond what our bodies experience. It’s often hard for us to look beyond our selfish instincts and our yearning for security. In a world that often measures success by material possessions who wants to risk looking like they are losing the race?

But Paul wants the church to discover a reality which goes so much deeper than the superficial, he wants us to have ‘new eyes’ ones that see things differently. He says ‘we walk by faith, not by sight’, the new reality should be God focussed not ‘me’ focussed and this will require us to trust God in a way that goes beyond what we can physically see.

The love of God made known in Christ offers us a wonderful reality and when we try to see the world in that light it starts to look different. It is the only reality which gives us hope that is timeless.

Don’t forget that Paul speaks as a man who was himself stuck in the old reality, he knows what it was like. When left to his own means he was a persecutor of Christians and his idea of what God wanted was very different. He speaks as a man who knows that what he is asking is not easy, he used to think that God was for an exclusive group of people before he came to know that his love is for all.

To live as people who really believe that what God has done makes a difference can be difficult, situations are complex, when someone pushes us our instincts are to push back harder. When we decide to take God’s love out in the world and try to make it real only to have it thrown back in our faces we can become weary, cautious or even it give it up as a bad idea.

If you’ve ever tried to help a wounded animal you will get the idea. You think you know what might help and may be prepared to try but your best intentions are met with aggression as the victim instinctively tries to protect itself.

I can remember trying to help someone who had been in and out of prison but the first time he let me down I was angry and gave up on him. I had naively thought that the natural response to kindness should be gratitude whereas I realise now that it was such a rare event for this person that he really had no idea how to respond. Over a sustained period of time it may have been different but even if it wasn’t this is the sort of difficult path we need to think about which goes beyond most of what passes for reality in our world. It is hard but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try.

Thankfully God doesn’t give up , when we are loveless and sneering he is still available to us if we are prepared to accept him. There are no barriers other than those we choose to make ourselves.

Jesus wants the people hearing him to understand how different the kingdom of God is to their experience of a kingdom where the powerful rule unjustly. Because many who heard his parables made their living from farming or fishing it is no coincidence that aspects of the natural world arise. God’s kingdom in its entirety would be too much for us, literally mind blowing so Jesus gives us parables to demonstrate aspects of the kingdom that we can relate to from every day experiences.

Parables help us discover the truth for ourselves rather than simply being told that something is factual and that we should believe it. They can help us find the new eyes needed to discover a reality beyond the immediate and obvious and are worthy of our attention.

There’s a cheerful sense of mischievousness to the way many parables start. It’s often not what people are expecting to hear, perhaps a bit like some comedians engage you by saying something ridiculous like a horse walked into a bar…it’s not so much that people listening to Jesus expected a joke but they were hooked initially to the extent that they wanted to know how the parable would end, even if they were sometimes left puzzled.
Apparently black mustard grows wild in the Jordan river valley to the height at which a person on horseback can stop under it for shade. Yet when you hold its tiny seed in your hand it can be a leap of imagination to believe in its potential. Yet this tiny seed held similarities to the kingdom of God according to Jesus.

Put your virtual reality goggles on and sit yourself among hundreds gathered to hear Jesus talk at Seal Rec’ as he says the kingdom of God is like an acorn that grew to become a mighty oak, and were hooked.

It seems likely that Jesus is offering a parallel to his own situation. One man in Galilee isn’t exactly the kingdom of God type change that people were expecting. How could God bring the change needed from such apparently tiny resources?

It could also be a source of encouragement for us when we consider giving up because resources are meagre or numbers are small.
If we were trying to tell someone how we think God wants us to live, what it would be like to have heaven on earth where might we begin?

The kingdom of God is like… like what? What might we say based on our experiences, what do we see that we feel gives us even the tiniest glimpse?

The kingdom of God is like…the man that heals the injured dog even though he knows it’s going to attack him when he tends to its injuries.

The kingdom of God is like…the lowly paid immigrant worker who feels unwanted and is looked down upon yet continues to work extra hours unpaid and provide the very best care she can to the people in the nursing home.

The kingdom of God is like…parental love that that refuses to give up on the wayward child and wants only the best for them.

The kingdom of God is like…virtual reality goggles that let you see a world of peace, justice, joy, free from suffering, greed and indifference to the plight of our fellow human beings.

The prophet Ezekiel spoke of a noble cedar tree as a symbol of a great kingdom providing refuge and shelter. Surely our job as kingdom workers is to follow Paul’s encouragement to ‘walk by faith’, keep moving forward confident in the knowledge that every step, every small act that builds the kingdom makes it a reality for many others.


Kevin Bright

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Trinity 1: Living in the Spirit

The family gathering didn’t exactly go to plan in our Gospel reading today.  Jesus had been away for a while, preaching and healing around Galilee, gathering disciples as he went, but finally he came home. The trouble was, everyone else came home with him, a rag-tag crowd who all wanted something from him; healing, deliverance, a wise word or two. And he seemed determined to try to meet their needs. He didn’t even have time to eat.

It wasn’t that which worried his family most, though. It was what he was saying and doing that really bothered them. He’d been healing on the Sabbath, angering the religious authorities. Healing was work, and no one should work on that sacred day. There had been some angry exchanges between him and the scribes, the legal experts. His message seemed dangerously radical to them. He wasn’t respecting the traditions of the Jewish people, and his family, who loved him, could see he was heading for trouble. Was his idealism turning into extremism?

That’s a question many Muslim families in the UK have had to ask themselves recently. We regularly hear on the news about young people going off to Syria to join IS. Often their families say that they had no idea they were going to do this. They thought they were just taking an interest in their religion, and where’s the harm in that? At least they weren’t getting into drink and drugs. But too late they realise that it has all got out of hand. What’s gone wrong? Where was the tipping point? What’s got into their beloved children?

Jesus’ family had the same worries for him. They’d heard along the grapevine that   people were saying “he has gone out of his mind’” Whether they agreed with that view themselves we don’t know, but they could see the danger he was putting himself in, and the shame he was bringing on them as a result. Couldn’t he just go back to being a dutiful son and brother?

They were right to be worried about the consequences of his mission. Very soon the religious authorities turned up and they had even worse allegations to throw at Jesus. They accused him of being in league with Beelzebub, the prince of demons. They believed he’d been radicalised by the forces of evil. This was a world in which demons where thought to be very real, the cause of illness and disaster. As far as these religious leaders were concerned this wasn’t just a man who was out of his mind, but a man who had let something very evil into it. He was possessed. How else could he have the power he seems to have?

Jesus’ answer to them probably didn’t help to calm things down much, but it was perfectly logical. If he was doing good things – and surely healing is a good thing – then how could he be doing them through demonic power? If demons had caused these illnesses, as people assumed at the time, then Satan was hardly going to want to fight against his own troops. That would be civil war – a kingdom divided against itself – the worst and most destructive kind of war there is. If the strong man – Satan – had been defeated, it must have been by someone stronger than Satan, and that meant God himself. End of argument, or at least round one to Jesus.  

But this is the interesting thing. Jesus said that he wasn’t possessed by Satan, but  he didn’t argue that he was acting on his own. He didn’t claim to be some sort of first century Superman, who was single-handedly taking on the forces of evil, a lone hero standing against Satan. What he said, here and throughout the Gospels, was that he was acting in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, doing the work of his Father. His power came from his relationship with God. He was about the family business, doing the things his Father would do, the things his Father cared about. That was why it was so effective.

Today’s collect was very relevant to this, but challenging too. “We can do no good thing without you” it said. Most of us, deep down, like to think of ourselves as the masters or mistresses of our own lives, in a self-contained bubble, at least when we like what we see. We are happy to blame our failings on others, as the Old Testament reading reminds us. Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake… But our achievements, our good deeds, they are the result of our own innate talent or hard work!  We are quick  to claim these as our own. According to today’s Collect though, this isn’t the case; the good in our lives is as much the result of outside influences as the evil – it is the work of God, not something we just manufactured by our own will power..  The Bible doesn’t say we are mere puppets, with no free will, but it does say that we are shaped by forces outside ourselves - for good or for ill – far more than we might like to think. So the really important thing is to to choose carefully, as far as we can, what those influences are – to make sure they are of God, so that we are being shaped in the right way.

In theory it sounds  as if it ought to be straightforward . Why would we choose to reject God’s help? But in practice it is often far more complicated than we expect. Here are two reasons why.
Firstly, it takes humility to admit that we need that shaping in the first place, to admit that we aren’t the rugged, self-sufficient individuals we’d like to think. The collect talks about “the weakness of our mortal nature”, which is not exactly a feel-good phrase, but it is true. There may be some lucky people who lead charmed lives in which they never fall flat on their faces, but most of us eventually find out that we are vulnerable and fallible. “Out of the depths have I called to you,” says the Psalmist. If we haven’t been in those depths yet, then sooner or later illness, family problems, or random disaster will take us there, and when that happens, its important that we don’t believe we have to go it alone.

When Charles Kennedy died this week, his family bravely acknowledged that it was his alcoholism which had caused it. It’s a problem that affects many people, but those who suffer from it often hide it not only from others but from themselves as well. They just can’t admit they need help, so it gets worse and may eventually destroy them.

Then there were those young people so badly hurt in the accident at Alton Towers this week, who will have to live with what have been described as “life-changing” injuries. They were just there for a fun day out, but in a moment the future they thought they had was taken away from them. How will they cope? We don’t know, but we can be certain that they are facing challenges which they won’t be able to handle alone by sheer will-power. They will need all the help they can get, so let’s pray that they have the wisdom and the courage to reach out for it. Whether it is through our own actions or the actions of others, “the weakness of our mortal nature” comes home to each of us at some point.

The second reason why it can be hard to let ourselves be shaped by God is that it takes discernment – we need to know how and why we are choosing the path we do. Jesus talks in this passage about the “unforgiveable sin”. That is something that has worried people endlessly through Christian history. What is this sin? Have they somehow committed it? How can anything be unforgiveable? If we read the passage carefully, though, it is clear what Jesus means. The unforgiveable sin is to do what these religious experts are doing, to call the Spirit of God demonic, to mistake good for evil, light for darkness. Healing the sick was good – but the scribes and Pharisees could only see that Jesus was breaking the law by doing this on the Sabbath. They condemned the work of God by calling it the work of Satan, and because of that they weren’t in a position where they could be forgiven because they weren’t asking for forgiveness. They weren’t asking for it because they didn’t think they needed it.

They genuinely believed they were doing the right thing, protecting the faith of their ancestors, protecting God even. But they couldn’t see the wood for the trees, they had lost sight of God’s priorities to love their neighbours and care for those who were vulnerable amidst the thicket of rules and regulations they had developed. In the same way, Jesus’ family couldn’t see beyond their own interests. Whether he was out of his mind or possessed by Satan, he was bringing shame on them, injuring their family honour. Never mind if he was doing good – he needed to be stopped.
We are not immune from the same blindness, letting narrow self-interest, tradition, the desire to fit in, or sheer prejudice get in the way of love.

These readings invite us to take a closer look at ourselves, to be honest about the forces that shape us and shape our decisions. It’s not enough to resist evil. We need consciously to embrace what is good, and that means what is loving and life-giving. We do that by making sure that our relationship with God is strong, through prayer, through reflecting on his word, through sharing our faith with others so we can see it more clearly for ourselves, through serving and loving others as God calls us to, especially those who we might be inclined to think have little to offer, or whose lives seem very different from our own. It is when we reach beyond the boundaries of what we assumed was “holy ground” that we realise that God is bigger than we thought, and as a result we become bigger too.

Gradually as we do that, the grace of God shapes us. The “inner nature is renewed” as Paul puts it. We start to become the people we were meant to be, people who are indeed possessed , people who are filled with the Spirit of God, truly ourselves because we are connected to the well-spring of God’s love.