Monday, 26 February 2018

Lent 2: What does success look like?

Audio version here (N.B. I managed to leave out a vital "not" as I preached this, at about 3mins. 15 seconds . The quote should be  "You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things."Fairly crucial to the meaning! It is correct in the text below!

There’s an item that I put on every agenda of every Parochial Church Council meeting we have at Seal. I call it the Vision Question; it’s designed to help us think about the broader issues of our church life. Otherwise finance and building work discussions swallow us up.  One Vision Question I asked a while back was this, “What are our success criteria as a church? How do we know whether we are doing what we should be doing? “

Success criteria can be fairly easy to come up with in many organisations and businesses. If you own a factory that makes rivets, your success criteria are presumably that you sell lots of them, and that people come back for more. That’s what tells you you’re getting it right. But what does a successful church look like?

The PCC answered the decided that we would know we were  succeeding if those who came here felt loved and welcome, if they were are growing in faith, if we could see that we were making a difference to our community. Much though we like to see the church full, numbers weren’t the key, we felt – these other things mattered far more. It was an important conversation to have because our success criteria set our direction of travel, the paths we walk on as a church. Consciously or unconsciously, they shape our church’s life.  

Being clear about what we think success looks like isn’t just important for churches and businesses, though. It’s important for us as individuals too.  How do I know whether I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing with my life, whether it’s going in a good direction, whether I am treading the right path or being led astray? If we want to know the answer to that, we have to begin by asking where it is we want to get to, and what our lives would look like if we arrived there.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus talks about success and failure and what they look like, and what he says comes as a surprise to those who hear him.  “Jesus began to teach his disciples” says our Gospel reading today, “that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

“Whoa, Jesus!” says Peter. “What are you going on about? It sounds like you’ve really lost the plot! What has all this suffering and rejection and death got to do with being God’s Messiah?” Surely God’s chosen one should have an easy ride, straight to glory!

Jesus doesn’t mince his words when he answers.  “Get behind me, Satan!” You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” He obviously wants to hammer the point home. But what’s the problem? What’s wrong with human things?  After all, God, in Jesus, became human, and he enjoyed the humanness of life – eating, drinking, relaxing with his friends, so he isn’t telling Peter that he should reject the material world, or despise bodily existence. What Jesus is challenging is Peter’s success criteria, his judgement of what success and failure look like. To Peter, at this point in his story, success is all about health, wealth, popularity, the respect of others. But if he truly wants to follow Jesus, if he wants to see God’s kingdom come, “on earth as it is in heaven”, he’s going to have to learn to look at things differently, otherwise he’s going to come badly unstuck and very soon.

Not long after this exchange, Jesus will be arrested and nailed to a cross. At that point, everything about him will scream “failure”. He’ll be mocked. He’ll be suffering. He’ll be alone. The crowds that have followed him, and even his closest friends, people like Peter, will desert him. It’s true that after three days he will rise again, but only after he has gone through this painful and humiliating death – there’s no way around it. Why should this be so?  Peter has always assumed, as most people did, that God wouldn’t let anything bad happen to his Messiah. Why would he, when he could surely prevent it? “If you are God’s Messiah, come down from the cross”  the bystanders shout at Jesus as he dies. But they are just saying what most other people – including Peter – are thinking. By anyone’s success criteria, the crucifixion doesn’t look like success.

Sometime around the beginning of the third century, a bored Roman scratched some graffiti into a wall of a building on the Palatine hill in Rome. It’s a picture of a man with a donkey’s head, nailed to a cross, with the words beneath it “Alexamenos worships his God”. I’ve put a sketch of it on the pew leaflet. It’s now in a museum in Rome. It’s widely regarded as the first representation of the crucifixion we have. We don’t know anything about Alexamenos, but it seems he was Christian, and he was being ridiculed for it.

We’re used to seeing glorious and moving representations of the crucifixion in art and architecture.  We decorate our churches with crucifixes and wear them round our necks, but that can make us blind us to its horror. To those who saw crucifixions happening all the time around them, they were a sign of failure, a deliberately shameful form of execution, handed out especially to traitors and rebels. And that’s how most people at the time saw Jesus - as a traitor, a rebel, and most of all, as a failure. Why would anyone want to worship, let alone follow and emulate, someone like that? The person who scratched that graffito didn’t get it. And yet people like Alexamenos did. Evidently, somehow he’d come to understand that in  dying on the cross, in deliberately embracing it, Jesus had  transformed its shame. Through it, he’d identified with those the world had cast out, the marginalised people he’d befriended in life, those who were crucified daily by prejudice, poverty, hatred, the mess of their society, and their own sense of guilt. Through his innocent death on it, the cross had become a reminder that whoever and wherever you were, whatever you had done and whatever had happened to you had a friend in him.

Peter eventually got his head around this too, but he had to learn the hard way.  When Jesus was arrested, Peter was challenged by some bystanders as he lurked in the shadows near the place of his trial. “Aren’t you one of his followers?” they asked him. But Peter denied it. He knew that he risked losing everything he valued – his status, his self-respect - even his life - if he admitted to being Jesus’ disciple. He was desperate to cling to what he had.  But as soon as he denied Jesus, he realised he’d sacrificed not only his integrity, but also his friendship with the only man who’d ever unswervingly accepted and loved him. Nothing he had was worth the price he’d  just paid. He wept bitterly, thinking there was no way back and it wasn’t until after the resurrection that he found the healing and forgiveness he needed.

Jesus had warned him, as he warns us, about putting too much trust in “human things” – about judging ourselves and others by the success criteria of the world around us – honour, status, wealth and strength. They aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. They often don’t make us as happy as we thought they would,  they bring their own worries and pressures with them and, getting to those goals often means treading pathways that, looking back, we bitterly regret. To paraphrase Jesus’ words here, “What will it profit someone if they have become the CEO, but have abused their power in order to do so? What will it profit someone to win an Olympic Gold medal, but only through doping? ” What value do these prizes have if getting them has corroded our souls by killing our capacity to love and care?

And to cap it all, those things won’t last. If we put our trust in our jobs, our families, our earning potential, what will happen to us when retirement, illness, or simple bad luck take away those markers of achievement?  How will we measure the “success” of our lives then?

It seems to me that Jesus is telling us that, in the end, the only goal that’s really worth giving ourselves to is the goal of knowing that wherever we are, whatever is happening to us, we’re held in the hands of God, who will never leave us. Living or dying, healthy or sick, famous or obscure, rolling in money or without tuppence to rub together, we are his, loved, known, never forsaken. That’s the prize worth giving everything for, the prize that is still there when everything else is lost.

One of the privileges of my work is to take communion to people who can’t get to church easily themselves anymore. Some of those I visit have dementia. They may have achieved all sorts of things in their lives, brought up families, held positions of authority, but gradually even those memories slip away, or survive to taunt them with what they used to do. I wish I had a magic wand to make life easier for them, and those who care for them, but I don’t.  I wonder, what does “success” mean for them? What does it mean for me as I visit them, when they may have forgotten my visit five minutes after I’ve gone? Is it worth going at all?

I’ve never doubted that the answer is yes. Just last week, I visited one man who, at the end of our little home communion, with its familiar words and symbols said, as he always does “Anne, that was wonderful!” And I absolutely believe it was.  
In that twenty minutes or so, as we prayed together, we both knew that we were in the presence of God, right there, right then. It didn’t matter what we remembered or didn’t remember, what we understood or didn’t understand, what we’d achieved or failed at in life. None of that could make God love either of us any more or any less, none of that could change God’s mind about us. A great deal had been lost – memories, skills, purpose – but for that brief time we had the only thing that really mattered, an awareness of the love of God, which nothing could destroy. Whatever we think a successful life might look like, in the end, to loved and to know we are loved, is the only success criterion that really matters.


Sunday, 11 February 2018

Sunday next before Lent : Transfiguration

Mark 9.2-9, 2 Corinthians 4.3-6, 2 Kings 2.1-12


In our Old Testament reading today Elijah seems like he is on a farewell tour, even his own funeral procession, and the company of prophets come out to see him at Bethel, Jericho and the Jordan. They know that Elisha is soon to lose his master, the father of all prophets and insist on telling him. In doing so they are also reinforcing their credentials as prophets.

But Elisha is already aware and seems a bit fed up that they might even think that that he wouldn’t know this. Elisha had ploughed fields before being called as Elijah’s servant so maybe they are reminding him of his previous lowly status and asserting their supposed superiority.

It must have been a stressful and worrying time for Elisha yet Elijah doesn’t seem to be offering much comfort or reassurance as he suggests that he doesn’t journey with him on these final travels, a strange way to treat someone who gave up their work and family to follow you.

Finally Elisha gets his moment alone with Elijah after they cross the Jordan and when asked what he wants as a final gift before he dies Elisha tells him that he also wants to be a prophet, only with ‘a double portion of your spirit’.

Elijah’s importance is reinforced through the dramatic symbolism of a chariot and horses of fire, seen only by Elisha, an incredible affirmation of God’s power, leaving him confirmed as Elijah’s successor. If we were to read on in the second book of Kings we would see that despite these amazing events Elisha doesn’t get stuck in the moment but recognises his calling and is quickly engaged with his work among the people bringing healing and meeting their needs.

Of course the past is important, often full of precious memories we treasure, and events we have learned from but there is also a danger that we can get stuck there if we look back and feel that one great event defines us or that we reached a peak we could never hope to repeat.

We often hear people recounting their sporting prowess, business success or military service in a way that seems to devalue the today.

I recall an American friend of mine who stayed with me for a while. A beer salesman from Seattle, he had an outgoing personality which would become evident as he rose before everyone else each morning with his daily proclamation of ‘Hey guys let’s get going, today is going to be a great day’! We don’t need to be quite so loud about it but the positive sentiment at the beginning of a new day is certainly to be commended.

The opposite can also be true of some people. Fans of ‘Fools and Horses’ will remember Uncle Albert, who only seemed to perk up when events meant he got an opportunity to start telling a story with ‘during the war’. One time when Del Boy and Rodney were moaning about the cold he told them ‘You should have been with me on the Russian convoys, one night it was so cold the flame on my lighter froze’.

Talking of the cold I think of hikes up in the Brecon Beacons, an area not particularly in demand from those seeking long hot days, particularly Pen Y Fan, Welsh for ‘top of this place’. I’ve set off facing rain like stair rods and stumbled through disorientating mist only to reach a high point where suddenly the clouds have parted, the sun has broken through and the majesty of God’s creation is revealed. Sometimes it even lasted 10 minutes before it poured with rain again.

In our Gospel Reading we heard of Peter, James and John as they are taken up a mountain by Jesus, whose ‘clothes became dazzling white’ and they are the only witnesses to Elijah and Moses talking with Jesus. God instructs them to listen to his son. Surely this is a high point for the disciples in every sense of the word leaving them in no doubt as to who Jesus is, only for Peter to put his foot in it by trying to cling onto the moment, make a suggestion that will make the whole experience more earthly, as if God needed his help. As if shelters were required.

Perhaps Peter came out with this just because the experience was so wonderful, terrifying, uplifting and shocking all at once that he couldn’t think straight. I guess we can all look back on times where we wish we hadn’t opened our mouths. Even in the Welsh Mountains it can be hard to find the words for the beauty around you and there’s definitely a time and place just to be still, silent and let your soul be nurtured.

Perhaps there’s a lesson for us, whilst there is a time to speak out when we have good cause to do so there’s also a time not to. Occasionally it’s better to remain silent and risk being thought foolish than to open our mouths and remove all doubt.

Of course, it’s also Peter, James and John who Jesus invites to watch with him in the garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and that doesn’t run too smoothly either with the disciples falling asleep. It’s as if we are invited to think ‘crikey surely these guys should have done better’ and yet at the same time encouraged. Encouraged because if we reflect on our own failures, we realise that Jesus doesn’t give up on them or us despite everything.

So we have Moses representing the Law of the Old Testament and Elijah the prophets, deferring to Jesus. They are indicating that they had pointed to him in all that went before and that he is their fulfillment.

Jesus brings us quickly back to earth as he tells the disciples to keep this to themselves until he had risen from the dead, knowing that there is much work to do. The disciples are far from clear what the future holds but at least 3 of them have no doubt who Jesus is.

Mark’s account is an important one for us as we move from Epiphany towards Lent. It’s a pivotal point as we revel in the fact that Jesus power and authority are revealed and yet know what he must face up to in order to complete his work.

We start to see that for both Elisha and the 3 disciples, whilst Gods powerful messages made matters clear for them it wasn’t the spectacular events which they were to dwell upon, these were a reference point for their work which lay ahead.

It’s a message for us too not to get stuck on mountain tops, whilst the literal interpretation can also be a bad idea hanging onto those times when everything peaks is to be enjoyed in the moment, then treasured in the past, but we are to return to the valley, back into the mess of everyday life as Jesus did to make God’s message real.

As we contemplate what we hope to achieve this Lent once we set our minds on a course of action let’s see it through even if it proves to be a struggle to do so.

It’s so easy to be motivated and have good intentions when we feel inspired by people or events in a great moment and yet the reality is that the outcomes are the personal responsibility of each of us. Let’s just say that there’s a lot more space in gym again now that January is over!

Perhaps the parents among us might consider the joyful imagery of having children versus the reality of getting up in the night to change nappies and feed them. In the long run we wouldn’t change anything but it’s certainly not a constant mountain top experience.

Maybe the thought of freeing yourself from the shackles of employment to be your own boss versus knuckling down to tax, compliance and responsibility, but it’s still worth it.

Paul is aware that our gospel is veiled to many which can make Christianity a challenge at times. Yet he offered encouragement to the church in Corinth as it faced adversity and his personal authority was being undermined. He pointed out that it can be the distractions that we allow to become our gods which have the potential to blind our minds from seeing the light of Christ.

I doubt whether we can ever have the same clarity that was bestowed upon Elisha and yet we choose to keep following Christ without miraculous revelations because we find the love of God made real in each other, in the Bible and in the Spirit. It’s a message of great encouragement and hope for us as people travelling onward together with purpose.

Our past, both good and bad does not define us or constrain us as we move forward, confident that God wants us, loves us and has a future for us.

Lent is a great opportunity to reflect on those things which may get between us and the light of Christ and to decide whether we are going to do anything about them. In doing so we have the potential to be transfigured ourselves.


Kevin Bright

11th February 2018

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Second Sunday before Lent: Becoming Flesh

There are some wonderful words in today’s readings; delight, rejoicing, pleased, glory. And what links them all is that they are all words which are being used in the context of material creation, of physical existence, of the flesh and blood reality of human life.

There’s been a persistent trend in Christian history to shunt the focus of faith from the realm of the physical to the realm of the spiritual, from this earth which we know and inhabit to some sort of hazy ethereal place in a distant heaven, as if the world to come is the only world that really counts. “Pie in the sky when you die”, is the caricature. It’s a temptation that dates right back to the early days of the church, when the Jewish faith of Jesus’ first Galilean followers was embraced by the Greek-speaking and, more importantly, Greek-thinking people of the Eastern Mediterranean nations beyond Israel. Many schools of Greek influenced philosophy at the time of Christ were very ambivalent about bodies and physical stuff generally. Some held that the world was really the botched initiative of a lesser god, others that the material creation was just a shadow of a better, purer ideal which was beyond our grasp. Many ancient Creation myths viewed men and women as a nuisance to the Gods, or as playthings to be used for divine convenience.

And while Greek sculptors gave us some of the most glorious statues of the human body, like those from the Parthenon, they were very definitely of the body at its most beautiful, youthful and strong. We may think that the obsession with body image is a modern one, but if the Greeks had had Photoshop, you can bet they would have used it to the full. The Greeks may have celebrated the body, but only at its best, and let’s face it, for most of us that’s a fairly unreachable ideal.  Perhaps I just speak for myself here, but it seems to me that most people don’t look like Greek Gods and Goddesses. Human bodies sag and bulge and creak and wrinkle. They don’t work the way we want them to. They let us down at vital moments, and ultimately they let us down completely in death.  It’s no wonder that people have so often preferred to believe that we are really just waiting for the moment when we can cast off this clayey prison and waft up into the air as an incorporeal spirit.

But that’s not what the Bible says. It’s not what traditional Jewish theology says. It’s not what our readings today tell us. Instead, they talk about creation, all of it, including our fallible human bodies, as something to delight in, to rejoice in, a glory and a wonder. Material creation, this stuff which we, and everything else around us, is made of isn’t a second-best, botched job, a ghastly mistake on the part of the creator. It is God’s pride and joy.

In the first reading, from the book of Proverbs, the figure of Wisdom works with God to create the world and then rejoices with him in his “inhabited world” “delighting in the human race.”  The Psalm is another joyful celebration of the world its writer lived in. “How manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all.” God meant us to be as we are, saggy bits and wrinkles and all, growing, changing, stumbling, aging, not in some state of static, botoxed perfection.

The Bible doesn’t downplay or ignore the problems of physical living – its pains and struggles – or the reality of the sins we commit which mar and damage the world. It doesn’t pretend that everything is always as we, or God, would like it to be But that doesn’t mean that God has rejected his creation. I have never been able to get my head around a theology that believes that God has withdrawn from us in some kind of divine huff because, in his holiness, he is somehow allergic to human sin and unable to exist in its presence. Nor can I believe that there was an unbridgeable gulf between humanity and God until Jesus came. The reason that’s never made much sense to me is that when I read the Bible, that unbridgeable gulf doesn’t seem to be there. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Again and again in the Old Testament, just at the point when human beings have screwed up completely and when all hope is lost God is there alongside them. He shows himself in a burning bush, in the vision of a ladder set up to heaven, in a still, small voice that comforts the prophet Elijah as he sits in despair in a mountain cave. He is present with slaves in Egypt and exiles in Babylon. They may not notice him. They may have turned their backs on him, but he is right there beside them all the time.

The famous Gospel reading we heard today rams that message home – “the Word became flesh and lived among us”  - among us! The people we meet in the Gospels – even those Jesus chose as his closest followers – weren’t plaster saints. They were vacillating, cowardly, sometimes treacherous people, people who squabbled among themselves and generally blundered around making things worse rather than better much of the time. They lived in an occupied land, often having to collaborate with the powers that oppressed them and make uneasy moral compromises in order to survive. Many of them had distinctly dubious backgrounds. They were tax-collectors and prostitutes, people whose lives were broken, who felt hopeless and helpless. Yet it was precisely to these people that Jesus came, God with us, God in the mess, God in the chaos, God in flesh and blood – real flesh and blood like theirs, like ours, which bleeds and hurts and dies. Why would God want to “become flesh” if this is what being flesh means?  Surely it was in order to convince us that, despite all this, flesh is still blessed, because his was flesh which also held and hugged, which knew the pleasure of a good meal at the end of a long day, which felt the silkiness of oil soothing rough skin. Jesus’ body is, quite literally, a tangible demonstration of what God thinks of human flesh, and of the world it inhabits. It is a place he wants to be.

The physical body of Jesus, born in Bethlehem, walking the roads of Galilee, sharing bread with the hungry, nailed to the cross, tells us that our bodies, all bodies, are God’s best idea, not some awful mistake. “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” said our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. And “through him” – because of his earthly, physical life, his bodily death, his bodily resurrection  – “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or heaven through the blood of his cross.” Human beings often feel estranged - from God, from one another, even from our own bodies - not because God has withdrawn from us but because we are hiding from him. And when we are estranged from our Creator we tend also to lose sight of the blessedness of what he has made, our fellow creatures and ourselves. Through Jesus, God deals with that sense of estrangement. He shows himself to be as close as he can get to us, in a human body. If he has so honoured human flesh and material creation, who are we to curse it, however troublesome or disappointing it can sometimes be?

I’m in the thick of writing our Lent course for this year at the moment. It’s called “Coming to our senses”, and it will focus on each of our five senses in turn over the five weeks of the course. There’ll also be daily reflections encouraging us to be aware of what we see, hear, smell, feel and taste. What I’ve realised as I’ve prepared it, though, is that you can’t think about senses without thinking about bodies. Without a body we’d have no senses. And that brings us up slap-bang against all our complicated feelings about being bodily people.

I’m very aware that for some, a course on the senses may mean thinking about a body which doesn’t work as we would like it to, or as it once did. We may delight in the beauty of the world, but feel frustrated that we can’t see it as well as we used to. We may celebrate the sounds of nature, but be painfully aware that we are missing out on some of them because our hearing has deteriorated. The sense of touch, of physical sensation, may be fraught with difficulty for us because we are in pain, or because we’ve been touched in ways that have hurt or frightened us. Smell and taste, so important to enjoying food, may have deserted us. Our bodies may not be a source of delight to us, but rather of anxiety, regret or shame.

We live in an age in which people seem increasingly anxious about their bodies and their appearance. Young people take endless selfies to share on social media, tyrannised by the need for others to “like” the images they post. Eating disorders and self-harm are rife, evidence of the profound difficulty many people have in being the people they are in the bodies they have. Older people desperately fight the signs of aging, buying into the lie that the only bodies worth having are young bodies. And if that wasn’t complicated enough, there’s the whole business of sex, with all the confusions that brings…No wonder bodies are often seen as problems.

If ever we needed to be reminded that flesh is good and that it is blessed by the presence of its Creator, however imperfect it feels to us, it is now.

God, in Christ, is “making peace”, says Paul to the Colossians. He makes peace between peoples. He makes peace between us and himself. But it seems to me that he also wants to help us make peace with ourselves, with our own bodies, to accept ourselves as we are, warts and all, as our flesh grows and changes, works and loves, hurts and heals, ages and dies.

So today, perhaps we should go home and look in the mirror and ask ourselves “how is my flesh, my fragile, imperfect flesh, blessed by God? How can I find God within this body, a body that isn’t some Greek sculptor’s ideal of beauty, but the only body I’ve got.” And as we look I pray that we will catch a glimpse of the God who dwells in us, who made us and loves us, just as we are, and that we will delight in his creation – ourselves - just as he does.