Sunday, 26 February 2017

Sunday before Lent: The touch of God

There’s an odd little detail in Matthew’s telling of the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, the story we’ve just heard. It’s only Matthew’s Gospel which includes it. Mark and Luke don’t mention it. When the Gospel writers do something different with the same stories, it’s always worth asking why, because what they put in or leave out is usually significant, something they particularly want us to notice.

What is it? It is what Jesus does when his disciples cower on the ground, bewildered by the sight of him shining in glory, terrified by the voice of God which has acclaimed him as his beloved Son.  Jesus comes to them and, we are told, he touches them. He touches them. Why? Matthew wants to tell us something, to put his own slant on this story, and the key, I think, is in Jesus’ touch.

Touch matters to us. We all know that. There is a lot of scientific evidence that children deprived of touch can often fail to thrive physically as well as emotionally (, and that need continues throughout our lives. I am sure there are times in all of our lives when a hug, or a hand holding ours, has meant far more than words could, soothing, comforting, reassuring us that we are touchable.

Touch can be problematic too, though. We can feel awkward touching and being touched by others. Some people need more personal space than others; even shaking hands can feel difficult, never mind the bear hug that others might give without a second thought. Giving or receiving personal care in times of illness or long- term disability can be a particular problem, sometimes so excruciatingly embarrassing that it prevents people getting the help they need.

Touch can be abusive and hurtful too. When a friend or lover puts an arm around our shoulders it feels good, but when it’s someone who is trying to manipulate or patronise us we shrink from it. For some, their response to touch will have been coloured by bad experiences in the past that they can’t forget.

It is the intimacy of touch that makes it potentially both joyful and difficult. Flesh and blood contact makes us real to each other in ways that words never entirely can, but it also makes us vulnerable to each other too. When someone is close enough to touch us, they’re also close enough to hurt us.

Touch was very important in Jesus’ ministry and life, and it’s often mentioned. On many occasions he healed people with a touch. He took a little girl who everyone thought was dead by the hand and lifted her up (Mark 5.41). He touched Peter’s mother in law, and the fever she was suffering from left her (Matthew 8.15). He touched the eyes of the blind, and they saw. (Matthew 9.29). He touched those who others wouldn’t touch – the lepers whose diseases rendered them ritually unclean.(Mark 1.41).

Touch could be a sign of Jesus’ blessing too. When children were brought to him, much to the dismay of his disciples who had tried to send them packing, Jesus  “took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.” (Mark 10.16) It is a very physical description.

Jesus didn’t just touch others though. He also let them touch him. He got himself into a lot of trouble when he let a woman with a reputation as a sinner touch him while he was at dinner with some prominent local men. (Mark 7.38) She didn’t just touch him, in fact. She bathed his feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. She kissed them and anointed them with ointment. I think that would cause quite a stir now, never mind then. On another occasion, a woman touched him – or at least his cloak – surreptitiously in the midst of a crowd, hoping he wouldn’t notice. (Mark 5.30) She suffered from constant bleeding and that made her, and anyone she touched, unclean. She didn’t want to put Jesus in a difficult position, but she was desperate. But as soon as she touched him, he knew it. “Who touched me?” he asked. The disciples were confused. He was in the midst of a crowd, pressing in on him – loads of people were touching him. But he knew that for one person in the crowd that touch hadn’t just been accidental; it had meant something, something really important. “Power has gone out of me”, he said. The woman came forward, and far from the rebuke or shaming she might have expected, he affirmed her and declared to all those around her that she was accepted, loved and healed.

Jesus could have healed and blessed all these people perfectly well without physical contact, and he sometimes did in other cases,  but for these people, touch was part of their healing. They didn’t just need their physical ailments cured, they needed to come into contact – literally – with the power and the presence of God, skin to skin, flesh to flesh, reality to reality. They needed to know that God was with them and for them, to literally be “in touch” with him.  

That brings us back to the touch in today’s Gospel story. Why does this touch matter? Let’s put ourselves into the minds of Peter, James and John if we can.  They’d just had a stupendous and bewildering experience. Jesus, their Jesus, their mate, had stood on a mountainside glowing with the glory of God, with Moses on one side of him and Elijah on the other. They’d seen some extraordinary things in their time with him – healings and other miracles – but they had never seen this. And when they did, as good Jewish men, they would have been instantly reminded of what their scriptures told them about looking on the glory of God, namely that it was horribly dangerous. No wonder they fell to the ground in terror. They were probably specifically remembering the story we heard in our first reading today, of Moses going up the mountain to meet with God. Before that happened God had told Moses to warn the Israelites not even to touch the mountain while he was gone, let alone try to go up it and look at God themselves.

That attitude was enshrined in the bricks and mortar of the Temple by the time of Jesus. It was made up of concentric courtyards, and only certain people were allowed entry to them. The outer one was for Gentiles, then there was one for Jewish women, then one for Jewish men, then a courtyard for the priests, but at the heart of that was the Holy of Holies. Only the High Priest went there, and only once a year, on the Day of Atonement, and only after very careful preparation. Getting close to God was a risky business.

But here on this mountain, Peter, James and John had been ambushed by God’s glory, shining in their friend, transfiguring him.   No wonder they were confused and terrified. What were they going to do now? Were they ever going to be able to go down the pub with him again?

Jesus’ touch says “yes” to them. It says, “I’m here. This transfigured person, the beloved Son of God is me, your familiar friend. The person you’ve fished with, eaten with, walked with, laughed with, cried with. This is my hand touching you, the hand that’s hauled in the nets with you, broken bread with you, maybe even made the boats you sailed in, the hand that’s calloused from hard work in the carpenter’s shop, the hand you know as well your own. I am the same person you have always known.”

That’s the whole point of Jesus’ incarnation, of course, his coming as the Word made flesh, God with us. The God of majesty, the God of shining glory is present in this carpenter from Galilee, and if he can be there, he can be anywhere.

In the sweep of the story of the Gospel this revelation comes at a crucial moment. After this, Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem where he would be crucified. Then, once again, his disciples found themselves confused and bewildered. But it wasn’t the dazzling light of the transfiguration that was the problem; it was the awful darkness of the crucifixion. Could this man dying in agony really be the Messiah?  Wasn’t this a sign of God’s rejection, a sign of Jesus’ failure? That’s what the popular theology of the time said. If they struggled to get their heads around the idea that their carpenter friend could be God’s anointed one during his ministry, they’d struggle even more to accept it when he was being crucified like a criminal.

Only after the resurrection would it start to make sense. Only then would they realise that through Jesus, every part of human experience had been touched by God; life and death, work and play, joy and suffering. The hands that held the hammer and the plane in the carpenter’s workshop were God’s. The hands that healed lepers were God’s. The hands that embraced grubby, noisy children were God’s. And the hands that were nailed to the cross were God’s too.

We’re about to enter the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is this Wednesday. People mark Lent in many ways, by giving things up, or taking things up, in prayer, in service, in learning about their faith. But central to everything we do in Lent should be the desire to let God touch us, to be aware of his presence in our world, to hear him saying, “Here I am. This is me, with you – in the midst of your anxieties about your job, or your children or your health, in the darkness of loneliness with you when you feel that no one else really sees you or knows you, in the stranger that comes to you for help, and the stranger who comes to help you. This is me, with you.”

We live in a world which is deeply confused about touch. People are often hungry for human contact – loneliness is modern epidemic – and yet we’re also afraid of it, wary of others. We may have good reason to be afraid if we have been touched in a hurtful way.  But we never need to be afraid of the touch of God, because his touch can only bring healing, hope and life. So, this Lent, let’s ask God to help us feel his touch, his hand on our shoulder to comfort us, his hand on our heads to bless and heal us, his hand taking ours to lift us up and lead us out into the world in his service.


Sunday, 19 February 2017

2nd before Lent: Do not worry (Breathing Space Communion)

“Do not worry,” says Jesus. Well – easier said than done. If we were to stop and share at this point all the things we have worried about in the last week, I expect the list would be quite a long one. Some of the worries might have been fleeting ones – whether we would make the train we were aiming for, or whether we’d have time to fit in the things we needed to do. There’s a time limit on those sort of worries – once their moment has gone, it’s gone.
Other worries might be more persistent; worries about a family member, fears for our health, financial concerns. Then there is that that sort of generalised anxiety that convinces us that the world is going to the dogs, and that we are doomed with it – the political situation in Europe and the US doesn’t help us to feel at ease.

So when Jesus says “don’t worry” it is easy to write off his words as naivety. But let’s remember that this was a man who lived in an occupied country, and who was deliberately going head to head with both the Jewish and Roman authorities. He was asking for trouble, and he knew that he would be very likely to find it. After all, his cousin, John the Baptist, had just been arrested, and was languishing in Herod’s prison for preaching much the same message as him.

So what does Jesus mean? How can his words help us in the midst of our very real anxieties? How can we reclaim them from the rather sentimental images with which they have often been illustrated –chirruping birds singing sweetly in blossom-laden trees and sunlit meadows full of flowers? It can’t just be a matter of distracting ourselves from harsh realities with pictures of baskets of kittens, can it?

Perhaps it helps if we read this Gospel passage in the light of the first reading, from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul was convinced that God was going to intervene dramatically in history at any moment, that Christ was going to return to wrap up the whole sorry mess of the world. He may have got the detail wrong – that literal second coming didn’t happen – but I think his instincts were spot on. Something different was happening, something new, because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He had seen it in his own life. A dedicated, ruthless opponent of Jesus and his movement, he had committed his life to rooting out what he saw as the dangerous heresy that he had brought. But after Jesus had spoken to him in a vision on the road to Damascus, his life had been turned around. And it wasn’t just the change in his own heart that had bowled him over, but the reaction of the Christians he had been hell-bent on persecuting. Instead of hating him, they had welcomed him, sheltered him, cared for him. Whatever they had, he wanted; that capacity to love, no matter what the cost. No wonder he writes so often of love – love that does not keep score of wrongs, that endures, that heals, that extends to enemies just as much as to friends. He had been on the receiving end of it. Something new had happened in his life, and through his ministry it was happening to others too. A new world was being born.

The imagery he uses in his letter to the Church in Rome is of that new birth. “The whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now” he says, but look, the birth is happening. He has seen the “first fruits of the Spirit”, like that moment when the baby’s head crowns, the moment when, even if you are the mother in labour, you really do feel that it is nearly all over, and the child you long for is really going to arrive.

We thought this morning at our All Age Worship about God at work, God who works to bring about his creation, labouring six days for something he acclaimed as “very good” as it says in the opening chapters of Genesis. Our epistle today echoes that first creation. God is still at work, it says, making a new creation out of the mess we have made.
We thought about our own work this morning, our daily realities, with all their delights and their pressures, and we tried to look for God at work in them, because if we can’t find him there, we won’t find him anywhere.

And that is where it seems to me that this reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans – and that Genesis account of creation – touch on and enlighten Jesus’ words to his followers. Don’t worry, he says. Don’t worry, not because there is nothing to worry about, not because everything is fine and dandy, but because God is at work, in us, in our lives, in our world. That doesn't mean that nothing will hurt, or fail, or die – Jesus himself dies – but that whatever happens is not the end of all our hopes. In and through the things that seem to have gone wrong, God can bring to birth a new creation.  That’s the good news. Tomorrow is in God’s hands. We are in God’s hands. Whatever goes wrong – and whatever goes right – is in God’s hands. God is at work, and that means that, ultimately, there is nothing to worry about.


Sunday, 12 February 2017

Third Sunday before Lent: Tough statements

It’s a tough Gospel passage we’ve heard today. If we didn’t wince or feel uncomfortable at some point in it, we probably weren’t listening. Jesus presents his disciples with a long list of challenges. He doesn’t pull his punches, and the spread of those challenges is so wide that something in it must have hit home to all of them, just as it probably did to us. What does he say? “You may not be murderers or adulterers but that doesn’t mean that you have got it all sorted out, that you are off the hook, that nothing needs to change in your life”. I mean, who hasn’t called someone else a fool at some stage? If that’s the level at which we should start to worry, then we’d all better pay attention.

It’s all a bit depressing. How can we ever meet God’s standards if they’re so high? We might as well all give up, do as we please, eat, drink and be merry, because we are never going to be good enough.

That’s so at odds with the general drift of Jesus’ message in the Gospels  that we ought to be wary of leaping to conclusions, though. It’s always important to know the context of what we read, and it’s doubly important here.

This is part of a much longer passage, which we now call the “Sermon on the Mount”.  Matthew groups together all sorts of sayings of Jesus, probably not all delivered at the same time, because he wants to spark comparisons in people’s minds with another “sermon on the mount” from the Old Testament. He wants his hearers to be reminded of Moses, coming down Mount Sinai with the laws of God inscribed on stone tablets, the laws which would shape their lives in the Promised Land they were going to. Jesus is leading his followers into another Promised Land, the kingdom of God. His words here give them a flavour of what that will be like, and how they can help to make it “on earth as it is in heaven”.

Again and again he repeats words which hammer that home. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… but I say to you.” God is doing something new, says Jesus, something utterly different, and we will need to change from the inside out if we want to be part of it.  

Jesus isn’t just substituting a new set of rules for the old ones, but Christians have often struggled to see that. Let’s face it; we like rules, so long as we think we are on the right side of them. They make life simpler and more predictable. Keep them and you can convince yourself you’re ok.

You mustn’t get angry. You mustn’t call anyone a fool. You mustn’t look at a woman lustfully. You mustn’t divorce your wife, except for adultery, and you mustn’t marry a divorced woman. (Please note that this is framed through a man’s view point). Finally, you mustn’t swear oaths.

It sounds tough, but maybe it’s doable, we think, if we try hard enough. But in practice these rules present us with a whole new set of difficulties. How literally are we meant to take them, for example?

If you can’t call someone a fool, can you insult them in some other way. Does any insult or criticism matter, or is it just this one? And what about the prohibition on getting angry? There are no exceptions given here, yet Jesus himself gets angry, driving the money changers out of the temple for example. Has he broken his own rule?

Some Christians, like the Quakers, have refused to swear oaths in court because of this passage. That’s why you can make an affirmation instead – it was a concession to their consciences. But is Jesus really just talking about what form of words we use?

People haven’t very often cut off their hands or plucked out their eyes in obedience to these verses, but they have done all sorts of other things to “mortify the flesh”. They’ve worn hair shirts, whipped themselves, gone without food, drink and warmth in an attempt to tame what were seen as unruly desires because of this passage. That  isn’t a healthy attitude at any level, but it has also created an environment in which abuse thrives. Perpetrators can argue that they are only acting for the good of those they abuse. Just this week we’ve seen a shocking example of this surface, in the abuse committed by John Smyth. One victim, Andrew Watson, now the Bishop of Guildford, commented that John Smyth, “tragically play[ed] on the longing of his young victims to live godly lives.”

These may seem like extreme examples, and most of us wouldn’t dream of taking these statements of Jesus at face value now, but there’s one passage which, until very recently, was read as an absolute and unchanging prohibition by large swathes of society, and was enshrined in civil as well as religious law. It’s the prohibition on divorce and remarriage. As a divorced and remarried woman myself, I know what it feels like, even in the 21st century, to have to face the accusation that those who challenge the literal interpretation of this passage are going soft on scripture.   

But this passage too, needs to be understood in context. Jesus’ words were very much rooted in his own culture, a culture in which men could divorce women on a whim. They would be left destitute, since they couldn’t support themselves independently. They often had to resort to prostitution, or marry any man who would take them in order to survive. The lot of a divorced woman was desperate – and Jesus’ demand that they not be put in that situation makes a lot of sense.  But later generations have used his words as a chain to bind people – often those same vulnerable women – instead of letting them find freedom and hope. People have been forced to stay in abusive or loveless marriages because there was no option to do otherwise, and many parts of the church still refuse to allow them to marry again, even if the new marriage is clearly full of healing and hope.

When we rip his words out of their context, we do the exact opposite of what Jesus meant us to do. Jesus challenges us throughout this passage  to see beyond the letter of the law to its spirit, to have the courage to ask, “what’s the loving thing to do, the thing that will bring freedom and life?” even if it’s not what “we have heard said in ancient times”. He challenges us to be prepared to think new thoughts and go in new directions if love demands it. When we turn those challenges into rules that oppress people we pervert his intentions completely.

It seems to me that we are doing just that in much of our current debate about homosexuality – something Jesus doesn’t mention here, or anywhere else for that matter. It’s on the agenda again for next week’s General Synod meeting, following the publication of a paper from the House of Bishops. The C of E has been having what were called “Shared Conversations” between people with all sorts of views on homosexuality, including gay, lesbian and transgendered Christians, who paid a considerable emotional cost in taking part. The report calls for a change in “tone and culture”, but as it doesn’t give any indication that policy or practice might change, it’s hard to see how that can happen. The sticking point is, as always, a handful of Bible verses from a culture entirely alien to our own, with meanings we can’t even fully understand, which condemn anything other than heterosexual expressions of love. Like the majority in UK society now, I have no problem with people loving other people. It seems to me that it’s the quality of our relationships that matters, not the gender of the people in them. I long to see a time when all people can live lovingly and faithfully in the relationships to which God calls them, relationships which sustain them, and enrich the rest of us too. But here we are again, going over the same ground. Please pray for the Synod, whatever your views, and for all who are feeling bruised and battered by this ongoing struggle.

“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses” said Moses in our first reading. His blueprint for life in the Promised Land included some things we’d still recognise and affirm – treating widows, orphans and strangers fairly, for example. It also included things which we’d now think very odd, though; not eating shellfish, or wearing clothes of mixed fibres, or sowing the seeds of two different crops together. There’s nothing new in having to revisit what seemed like rules set in stone for eternity. Slavery can be, and was, justified from the Bible, well into the 19th century by some Christians. Polygamy was never outlawed in the Bible, and was still very much accepted and acceptable in the Palestine of Jesus’ day, but I doubt you’ll hear calls for its return in General Synod any time soon, however biblical a pattern of marriage it is!

“You have heard it said… but I say to you…” said Jesus to his disciples. But what is it that he says to us? Perhaps, “look again at your own hearts, your own motivations, your unexamined prejudices and assumptions before you sit in judgement on the lives of others.”

If we find ourselves insisting on the enforcement of rules that crush others so that we can stay on the safe side of a punitive and wrathful God, I am sure we have missed the heart of the Gospel. “Those who live in love, live in God and God lives in them.” says the Bible.  God calls us to treat all people with respect – that’s the underlying message of this Gospel passage - to call no one worthless, to treat no one as a sexual object or a possession, to be people of integrity, whose inner motivations match up with our outer behaviour, letting our “yes be yes” and our “no be no”. That might look different in 2017 than it did in the time of Jesus, but the calling is the same.

Jesus’ words are challenging. They may make us feel uncomfortable, but let’s make sure that is for the right reasons, so that they can guide us into the path that leads to fullness of life, not just for us, but for everyone.


Sunday, 5 February 2017

Goat Couture or Haute Couture, does it matter?

Matthew 5.13-20, 1 Corinthians 2.1-16, Isaiah 58.1-12 The words in our Candlemas service last week reminded us that we have moved away from Christmas and now look towards Lent, today being the 4th Sunday before Lent and, of course, the first Sunday of February. I don’t know about you but I’m pleased to see the back of January, I find it the most difficult month of the year. Short on light and cold, often something to just get through. It’s not a very politically correct thing to say, and everything hereafter has the caveat that the Church of England encourages responsible drinking, but I can’t relate to those who do ‘dry January’ when a glass of ‘bottled sunshine’ from the previous year helps lift the mood on a dark evening. Even worse, the same people who were drinking for England before Christmas are now so sanctimonious as they tell all how much weight they’ve lost and how they haven’t had an alcoholic drink for a whole month. Of course I dare not say to anyone that ‘God is tired of meaningless fasts and empty rituals.’ Forget dry January have a glass of wine and give some money to charity to help someone and you’ll probably feel much happier as a result of both. It wouldn’t really have been fair when the closest I came to a dry January was sticking with the dry white wine for an evening. I know that I’m being a bit unkind here but I have to admit that this type of behaviour came to mind as I read the words of the Prophet Isaiah. The people are fasting and denying themselves in a religious manner, and making sure everyone knows about it but they are getting pretty fed up because God doesn’t seem to be taking much notice, look at us with our itchy goat’s hair sack cloth and ashes piled on our heads. My interpretation of God’s response is ‘I don’t care whether you wear goat couture or haute couture; you’re totally missing the point of this fasting business’. Isaiah’s words of gentle sarcasm on God’s part are far more subtle. They indicate where the people are going wrong. He says ...’day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness’. AS IF. The sort of thing a teenage child says to a parent when they say ‘of course I’m still faster than you over a hundred metres’, without looking up from their mobile device they utter ‘yea as if’. It’s a tough thought to face but for most of us God must sometimes think why do you do all this praying and worshipping AS IF you’re serious about it and then slip back into your old ways? We really need to think more about why we do stuff and what it means to God. Isaiah tells the people observing strict religious practices that they need to widen their horizons until they start to see the world through God’s eyes rather than setting up systems of elaborate worship and hoping that God starts to see it through our eyes. Formal worship at its best can connect us with God, make us aware of his love and forgiveness, energise and equip us for each week. Formal worship at its worst can be a routine we fall into that makes us lazily assume that we are Christians without ever really stopping to challenge ourselves. The Prophet is pretty clear about where God’s priorities lie. The people have failed to notice or perhaps care about those suffering injustice, oppression, hunger, homelessness and poverty in their midst. Most of us can pick up and drop our fasting at will but God cares about those who don’t have that choice. What is the point of it? It can bring focus and self-discipline into our relationship with God but it’s not a task to be undertaken competitively or as a means of impressing others. Surely an element of true fasting means giving up a portion of what we have to share with those who do not? It’s worth keeping this in mind as Lent approaches. Giving something up may well be good for us but sharing the benefits of doing so could be good for many others. This could take the form of money, time, or practical help to those in need. If we share in God’s vision to include all we can’t help but act and speak when we see injustice. It’s so easy to get frustrated or feel down about some global matters but as Christians we need to be actively looking for the opportunities where we can make things better, to remain optimistic about the changes we can bring to other people’s lives by the way we live ours day in and day out.. God wants us to create systems of justice, free the oppressed, feed the hungry, house the homeless and clothe the poor. Opportunities to help do these things are plentiful if we open our eyes and when we do, we are told, ‘your light shall rise in the darkness’. We are probably familiar with the concepts of salt and light from the Sermon on the Mount. Well-worn words can sometimes be hard to interpret afresh but it’s worth considering whether we relate to salt in the same way that those who heard Jesus say ‘you are the salt of the earth’ would have done at the time. I read this week that it’s likely that Palestinians from the 1st century placed flat plates of salt on the bottom of their earthen ovens to activate the fire, this had a catalytic-like effect on the fuel, causing it to burn. The most readily available fuel was animal dung. After some years, the salt plates in the earthen oven underwent a chemical reaction due to the heat. The result was that the salt no longer facilitated the fire, but stifled the burning of the dung. It is in this sense that salt used for this purpose lost its saltiness, its ability to facilitate a fire. Would the people hearing Jesus actually thought we are the salt of the earthen-oven; but if salt has lost its saltiness, its ability to facilitate the burning of dung, it’s no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot. In this way Jesus language is finely tuned to the people’s culture, a culture familiar with conflict. In some respects it’s not that different from us now but without journalists and social media to endorse or put people down publicly spoken words in front of crowds performed a similar function. Insults and honours, their delivery and timing became an art form followed by many who loved the theatre of it all. People’s ears would have pricked up as Jesus spoke, after all who wouldn’t love to receive such a positive endorsement ‘you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world’. Not words spoken to pious religious leaders but to common people who had become disciples. The message is that we don’t have to do something to become salt and light that is how God created us, that’s what Jesus wants to remind us. We each have great potential for good but it’s up to us whether we obscure or lose that. It follows that each one of us is called to live today in a way that recognises that Jesus came to show us that we have a future with him which we can start living straight away, that his light can shine through us like that which passes through our stained glass windows. We are left to consider where this is and isn’t true for us both corporately as a church and individually. We will fall short but when we do so we are reminded that God’s doesn’t want us to focus on sackcloth and ashes but delights in seeing us refocus on the things that matter, his love for us all reflected as real love for each other. Amen Kevin Bright 5th February 2017