Sunday, 29 March 2020

Waiting: Lent 5

This is the sermon from our morning worship podcast. You can find an audio version of it in the middle of the service, here. 

My soul waits for the Lord, says the Psalmist
more than the night-watch for the morning,
more than the night-watch for the morning.

If you’ve ever worked nights, or waited by the bedside of a sick relative you’ll understand those words. There’s a point in the wee small hours where you just long for your bed, but know you can’t go to it. The Psalmist was perhaps thinking of a sentinel watching at the city gates, when he wrote these words, or a shepherd watching over his flocks by night. Night watching is often boring, but it’s important. You can’t nod off, because that might be the moment when the enemy attacks or the wolf falls on your sheep. Of course, waiting in the day time can be tough too, but waiting at night, especially in a world where there was very little artificial light, must have been far worse, and somehow it still is – we can’t see what is around us. We can’t find our way. Familiar landmarks are shrouded in darkness.

We are all doing a lot of waiting at the moment, waiting for this virus to pass over our communities. It’s as if we are all on the night-watch, all waiting for the morning, just like the sentinels in the Psalm. 

And there’s not much most of us can do about it except to stay at home and try to keep an eye out for those around us who may be more vulnerable than we are. Even the medical professionals, rushed off their feet trying to care for people, can’t make this thing go away; they can only support those who are sick until they fight the virus off themselves, if they are able to. Many people have told me over this last week or two how powerless they feel. We aren’t just sitting and watching the time tick by as we wait. We are worrying, feeling frustrated and hemmed in. We long to do something – anything - but we know that, in reality, there is little or nothing we can do

There was a lot of waiting like that in today’s Gospel reading too. Jesus’ disciples hear that Lazarus is ill. He’s the brother of Martha and Mary, who often welcomed Jesus to their home in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem. Jesus loves Lazarus and his sisters, so what’s he doing? Why doesn’t he go to him? Why doesn’t he do something instead of just sitting there? The disciples don’t understand it.

Jesus is many miles away from Bethany at this point, on the other side of the river Jordan. He’s escaped there with his disciples from Jerusalem, because the Temple authorities have tried to arrest and stone him. It would be understandable if he might not want to go back into this lion’s den, but that doesn’t seem to be what’s stopping him.  He just doesn’t seem to think Lazarus is sick enough for him to go back. That’s how they interpret his words -  “this illness does not lead to death”.  But then, two days later, he suddenly  announces that they are going after all, despite the fact that by this stage Lazarus has died. They can’t make any sense of it.

Martha and Mary have been waiting anxiously too. “If you had been here, our brother would not have died” each of them says to Jesus in turn. We can imagine them sitting beside Lazarus’ sickbed, waiting for news, getting up again and again to look out of the door or the window, imagining they hear Jesus coming up the road, but nothing, hour after hour, day after day. And when he does show up, it’s too late. Lazarus has been in the tomb four days. Jewish people thought that the soul hung around for three days after death, but that time has now well and truly past. “There will be a stench!” says Martha, baldly – there’s no way of sugar coating this. The time has passed when Jesus could have helped. There’s no hope. It’s all over.

But Jesus sees it differently. He calls out in a loud voice “Lazarus, come out”, and to the astonishment of the watching crowd, Lazarus comes out, is unbound from his grave clothes and restored to his family. It wasn’t too late after all.

Jesus had said that this illness wouldn’t lead to death. And he was right. Death was part of the story – this illness led through death - but it wasn’t the end of the story, its final destination.  Death didn’t have the last word. Life had the last word.

The raising of Lazarus takes place just before Jesus goes into Jerusalem to his own death. That’s why we hear it now. Palm Sunday is next week, and Easter Sunday the week after. This story foreshadows that. Of course, the raising of Lazarus is a bit different to the resurrection of Jesus. Lazarus is brought back to his old life, and he’ll die again eventually. Jesus is raised to a new sort of life, with a body which bears the scars of his crucifixion but which is also somehow different, and eternal. But nonetheless, the parallels are there, and we’re meant to notice them. The crucial message of this story comes in the conversation Jesus has with Martha. “I am the resurrection and the life” he says to her.

Jesus is all about life. His ministry brings life. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, life abounds in his wake. Earlier in the Gospel (John 10.10) he says “I came that people may have life, and have it abundantly” . Some translations describe it as “life in all its fullness” In the famous opening words of John’s Gospel we hear that “what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people”. On this occasion he brings physical life to Lazarus, but on other occasions he brings life “in all its fullness” in other ways;  healing, teaching, loving, accepting, welcoming people in ways that make them feel truly alive again, or for the first time, giving them hope for the future, new beginnings.

Death is part of the human story. Sorrow is part of the human story. Jesus weeps at the grave of Lazarus, at the mess of the world, at the inevitability of suffering, which we can’t avoid and he can’t avoid if we truly human at all. It’s ok if we feel miserable, desperate, frightened, angry, if we want to weep; Jesus did too.

But death and sorrow are not the end of the story. That’s the promise of this story, and the promise of Easter, which it points us towards, and it is something which we really need to hold onto at this time.

This story reminds us too that the resurrection life of Jesus is always present, in everything he does. It doesn’t wait until Easter Day to show itself. He says to Martha “I AM the resurrection and the life” not “I will be the resurrection and the life”.  Just as we see the seeds of Jesus’ own resurrection in the raising of Lazarus, we can see the seeds of the new life we long for now, while we are still waiting for our long night to pass. We can see those seeds in the love and care that people are showing one another, volunteering to help others in their droves. We can see them in the way we are learning to value those who are working so hard on our behalf – the doctors, nurses and paramedics, of course, but also the delivery drivers, supermarket shelf stackers, food producers and all the rest who are so often overlooked. We can see those seeds of life, paradoxically, in what we can’t have and can’t do for the moment; perhaps after all this we’ll be less inclined to take for granted a simple hug from a friend,  or a visit to the places around us that are now out of bounds, and the chance to worship with each other in church. Sometimes it’s only when we are deprived of something that we learn just how life-giving and important it is to us.

“ I wait for the Lord”, said the Psalmist, but he went on “in his word is my hope”. Sometimes we will wait in frustration, in anger, in sorrow for this all to be over – that’s human - but let’s pray that we’ll also learn to wait in hope, to wait for God, to wait - and to watch - for the seeds of a new world, a new beginning right here, right now in the midst of the mess. With God, death and loss don’t have the last word. Life does.

Monday, 23 March 2020

The shepherd king: Lent 4 Morning Worship

There will be no Sunday services in church for the time being, BUT there will be links to the podcasts of morning and evening worship each week - check back the church website on Sunday morning for the links.

Morning Worship Podcast        Morning Worship Service sheet
Evensong Podcast                    Evensong Service sheet
                                                      I've discovered you can't listen to the podcast and look at the service sheet at the same time. I have sorted out a fix, which I will apply to next week's podcast! Sorry about that. In the meantime, you'll need to print out the service sheet, or just listen along!

The church is still open every day at the moment for private prayer so do pop in if you can.

To join in with the daily prayer of the Church of England go to the  website here,
For a simpler form of daily prayer in times of need, check out my page here, or there is a downloadable version of these prayers and the simple order of service here.

Well, these are strange times, and no mistake. I don’t think any of us could have imagined, even a few weeks ago, that we’d be worshipping like this. But mercifully, God isn’t limited by place or time, and, thanks to the marvels of technology, we can still gather, even if it is remotely. In fact, it might even catch on. After all, you can come to this service in your pyjamas if you want to. I’ll never know! You don’t even have to get out of bed for it!

But it is strange, and unsettling dealing with this current crisis. Everyone I’ve spoken to this week has been worried. Some are worried about their own health, or that of family members. Others about their income, suddenly reduced or cut off completely, in the case of those who are self-employed. Some are worried about what they’ll do to occupy their children, or occupy themselves. If you are feeling scared, fed up, frustrated, angry, exhausted, at a loss to know what to do, you aren’t alone.

That’s why I thought it was important that we did what we could to encourage each other, and part of that is hearing, and saying, the familiar words we always say in church, the things that remind us that God is still here, with us wherever we are,. That’s why it matters that we continue to hear and ponder God’s word, too, those stories that nourish us and make us think.

Today’s Bible story was about the first appearance of  the person who’d  one day become King David, the greatest king in the Old Testament. But he’s not a king at this stage. In fact, he nearly gets forgotten about, like some ancient Cinderella who almost misses trying on the glass slipper at all.

The prophet Samuel comes to a little town called Bethlehem – a familiar name to us now, but just an obscure little hill-town, then,  a short distance from Jerusalem. He’s been sent by God to a Bethlehemite called Jesse. Why Jesse? We’re not told. It doesn’t sound as if he is especially holy or devout, but God knows something Jesse doesn’t, sees something Jesse doesn’t, that one of his sons will one day be king in place of the weak king Saul.

Samuel is almost as much in the dark about this as Jesse is.  He knows that one of these boys is the next ruler, but he doesn’t know which one. He naturally assumes it will be the eldest, especially as he is big and strong, but God tells him no. God  “doesn’t look on the outward appearance” , he says, but on the heart, and Eliab doesn’t have what it takes to be a king. Neither does Abinadab, or Shammah, or any other of the seven grown up sons of Jesse. “ Are these all the sons you have?” asks Samuel, at which point Jesse remembers David, little David, the youngest, who’d been sent out, as children often were, to look after the sheep, and probably get out from under everyone else’s feet. David is duly called for, perhaps resentfully, perhaps with bemusement. What has all this grown up stuff got to do with him, his family must be thinking?
But he is the one, the one whom God is calling, the one whom Samuel anoints.

Anointing was widely used in ancient Israel, as a sign of welcome, as a prayer for healing, and as a way of setting people aside for a special job, as priests or as kings. Samuel doesn’t explain what this particular anointing is for. He just anoints David, and then he leaves. I wonder what  Jesse and his family - and David himself – make of this, what they think has happened? It’s not till much later, long after that business with Goliath, the Philistine giant David kills, that it becomes clear that he’s to be the new king, who’ll replace the rather hopeless King Saul.

What was it that God saw in David, I wonder, which made him the right man for the job?  He wasn’t perfect, that’s for sure. When he was king the power sometimes went to his head, as it tends to do, including on one notorious occasion when he had an affair with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his military leaders, which started a disastrous chain of events that resulted in him arranging the murder of her husband. The child he’d conceived with her died too. It was a mess of monumental proportions. But when David was confronted with his guilt, he acknowledged it, changed and made amends. David wasn’t perfect. No one is. But he had an underlying strength of character rooted in a commitment to God which he could never walk away from.

He knew where his strength came from. It wasn’t his to own or control. It came from God. That gave him courage – not the sort of gung-ho disregard for consequences which springs from the need to look heroic, but the courage that runs deep, that doesn’t depend on the vagaries of emotion, that isn’t the result of the need to be admired. He had the kind of courage which comes from knowing we are rooted and anchored in something beyond ourselves, greater than ourselves, which alone can sustain us whatever has happened, whatever is happening, whatever will happen.

For David, that courage was rooted in God, nourished by the experiences he’d had as a shepherd boy. When he said to King Saul that he would take on Goliath, and was ridiculed for it – a small boy! he didn’t stand a chance! – his response was that he’d faced worse than that on the mountainsides, where wild animals roamed, as he tended his sheep. He looked King Saul in the eye, and told him, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine”. 1 Sam 17.37. And when Goliath was equally dismissive of him he said, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel.” 1 Sam 17.45. It’s not his own strength he’s trusting in, but God’s, and that sense of trust never completely deserts him, however off track he sometimes strays.

The psalm I read this morning is traditionally attributed to David, though whether he really wrote it is anyone’s guess. It’s the psalm of someone who knows about shepherding, though and it expresses the same sort of faith he had, the steady awareness that whatever we are going through, God is going through it with us. It’s a psalm about our journey through life, through the landscapes we all come to sooner or later. We don’t have to be shepherds to understand that. It talks about the landscapes we all know; the green pastures and still waters, the places where we feed and rest;
the paths of righteousness, the times when we have to try to work out what is right to do, and do it;
the valley of the shadow of death, the frightening, lonely times that come to us all, when it feels as if it all over.

But at the end of the psalm, it describes the place of welcome, where the table is spread and the feast is prepared, where we discover that the God who’s travelled with us has also gone ahead of us to make everything ready. It’s a place where we can find joy and peace, even “in the presence of those who trouble us”, the situations that we can’t resolve.

Whether it was written by David or not, it sounds like the kind of thing he could have composed, because it’s full of that deep-rooted awareness of the presence of God which he’d learned on the mountainsides, and drew on as he faced the challenges of kingship – sometimes getting it right, sometimes getting it wrong, but always knowing that God was with him.

That’s a great thought for these strange times, when we’re all muddling through, trying to do the right thing in circumstances where there are no easy answers. These readings tell us that we’re not called to be superhuman. We are just called to be the children of God we already are, to know that we are his people, sustained and encouraged by him. We don’t have to do the impossible, and we can’t anyway – it’s not called impossible for nothing. We just need to remember who the shepherd is, and follow his voice, trusting that day by day, as we try to love and care for those around us – and ourselves - God will give us what we need to do so.


Monday, 16 March 2020

The woman at the well: Lent 3

John 4.5-42

Jesus meets an unnamed woman at a well in Samaria in this week’s Gospel reading. It’s a long reading and it’s easy to get distracted by the theological detail, the long conversation about where people are supposed to worship, about the nature of God, about living water that never runs out. But it’s the little details of this story which tell us the most important things about this woman and what this meeting means to her.

The well is in Samaria, a territory between the southern region of Judea, centred on Jerusalem, and the northern province of Galilee. The Samaritans were related to the Jewish people, similar to them, sharing many beliefs and scriptures, but small differences can take on disproportionate significance, and the disagreements between Jews and Samaritans about those differences had become so bitter, that Jewish people would normally take the long route round to avoid going through it. But Jesus didn’t. And here he is sitting by this Samaritan well, while his disciples go off into the nearby town to try to find food.

It is about noon, the story tells us. The sun is high in the sky. It’s hot, a time when anyone who could be in the shade, taking it easy in a cool place, would be. But here is this woman coming to the well, alone. Fetching water was normally a job which you’d do as early in the morning as you could. It was quite a trek from the village to this well, and the jar would be heavy to carry back. You’d normally do it in company too, partly because it was a good opportunity to chat with other women – women at this time and in this area lived very secluded lives, so any chance to meet up with friends was welcome – but also because it was safer to be in company. Lone women were regarded as fair game for men, as they still are in many parts of the world today when doing these tasks. So it’s odd that this woman is there on her own, at the hottest time of the day. There has to be a reason for it. The implication is that she has been cold-shouldered by the other women of the town, that she has no friends.

But what she finds in Jesus is a man who listens to her and respects her, who talks theology with her, answering her questions, debating her ideas. That was probably a very rare occurrence. And it is all the more astonishing when we discover why she is alone. Jesus asks her to call her husband, and when she says she hasn’t got one, he tells her what he already seems to have known, that she has been married five times, and that the man she lives with now won’t marry her. In her society that meant that either she’d been widowed five times, or that five men had divorced her – women couldn’t initiate divorce themselves. Either way, her neighbours would have regarded her with suspicion, assuming she must have offended God in some way for all this to have happened to her. And the man she’s with now can’t be bothered to give her the dignity and security of marriage. Her self-esteem must have been at rock-bottom.

But nowhere does Jesus suggest that any of this is her fault. He doesn’t tell her to “sin no more” as he does to others. He doesn’t forgive her, as he would if she had done something wrong. He just accepts her and more than that, treats her as the intelligent person she obviously is.

That’s what transforms her. She leaves her water jar, that precious water jar that she has trekked all that way to fill, and runs back to her town shouting out to all those neighbours who have shunned her, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done” she calls out to them. Her joy is obvious, because not only has he seen her and known her, he has accepted and respected her too, even after she realised that he knew what her life had been like. That’s something that no one else has done. Her neighbours, obviously captivated by this transformation, come to see for themselves and also believe.

In Western Christianity, this woman is unnamed, just “the woman at the well”, but the Eastern Orthodox churches pondered what might have happened to her next, and either preserved or invented a whole afterlife for her. In a way, I’m not sure it matters which, because their stories are really about what they thought of her, not the biographical reality.

In the ancient legend s, she and her whole family become followers of Jesus, and, after his death and resurrection, they find themselves, somehow in Rome, dragged before the mad emperor, Nero, who had many  Christians killed, including our own saints, Peter and Paul. Her brothers were thrown into jail, but she and her sisters were clad in fine clothes by Nero and made to sit in front of a table piled high with gold and jewels. “All this can be yours,” said Nero, “if you will give up your faith in Jesus.”  But they refused. Nero then sent his own daughter to try to persuade them, but still they refused, and in the process, according to the story, they converted her as well. Eventually, they were killed, but not before they had had a profound effect on everyone they came into contact with.

The Eastern Orthodox churches give this woman a name, and make her a saint, as she surely is. They call her Saint Photini, from the Greek word for light, fos – we get photon and photograph from it. She is called “the luminous one”, or “the shining one” because that’s what she does. She shines for her neighbours in that Samaritan village in the Gospel reading, and she is a light in the darkness of Nero’s cruelty, according to the legend.

That makes her a very good saint for our times too – there’s plenty of darkness around – but each of us is given a light to shine with; ourselves, just as we are, children of God, lit up by his love for us. Where might your light shine this week? Where might mine? Wherever it is, whatever this week brings, let’s pray that the light of Christ shines as bright in us as it did in Photini, so that we can light up the lives of others now as she did then.


Sunday, 8 March 2020

Into the dark: Lent 2

In today’s readings we meet two men who haven’t got the foggiest idea what is going on around them, men who feel as if they are in the dark. That makes them readings which we can all relate to, because I suspect we often feel like that too. Sometimes it’s national and international situations which leave us feeling like that: coronavirus, climate change, Brexit – what’s going to happen? We don’t know. Or it may be family or work situations that we can’t see a way through. Sometimes it’s issues of faith, and doubt, or inner struggles which make us feel we don’t even know ourselves anymore. We’re in the dark.

Nicodemus is literally in the dark in our Gospel reading today. He comes to Jesus, we are told, “by night”. That’s not just a reference to the time he visited. Light and darkness are very important in the Gospel of John. It starts with John telling us that Jesus is “light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” 1.14 Whenever we come across light or darkness in this Gospel we are meant to sit up and take notice.

On one level, Nicodemus probably comes by night so that no one will see him. He’s a respectable religious leader, one of the ruling council, the Sanhedrin, and he doesn’t want people to know he is visiting Jesus, a controversial figure. But John is also telling us that he’s in the dark in other ways. He doesn’t understand what’s going on. He’s obviously fascinated by what he has seen and heard of Jesus, but he can’t work who he really is, or how he should respond to him, and that leaves him stumbling about, unable to see the way ahead.

Nothing quite makes sense to him. He doesn’t fit Nicodemus’ preconceptions of what a holy man ought to be like, let alone the Messiah. He breaks the rules, heals on the Sabbath, associates with all the wrong sorts of people. He isn’t from the religious elite, a member of the, the Sanhedrin, as Nicodemus is. He isn’t a priest. He isn’t synagogue leader. He’s just a carpenter from a backwater town in Galilee. And yet God seems to honour his work. Those he prays for are healed. People are changed. There is an authority about him which is undeniable.
It is all very baffling for someone like Nicodemus, and probably frightening too. He’s used to being in control, knowing what’s what. He’s a leader, after all, and leaders like to feel they’ve got a handle on things.

Jesus tells him that he needs a whole new birth, a new beginning, if he is to have a hope of “entering the kingdom of God”. Jesus isn’t talking about life after death, something in another time and place, by the way. He’s not offering Nicodemus a passport to get him through the pearly gates. Jesus is revealing God at work in the here and now, in daily life, among ordinary people, the Word made flesh who dwells among us. Nicodemus thought he knew where to find God; in the law, in the ancient Scriptures, in the rituals and customs of the Synagogue and Temple, but in Jesus, God seems to be showing up beyond those places, beyond the pale, even among sinners.  He’s going to have to start from scratch if its ever going to make sense, abandon what he thought he knew and work it all out anew from the beginning. That’s why Jesus talks about the need for new birth.

But “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” asks Nicodemus. It’s not just the physical impossibility of getting back into the womb that stumps him but the fact that, as we would say “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. He’s very definitely an old dog, and a top dog too, someone who is, or was, settled in his opinions, confident of his knowledge. He’s spent a lot of time getting where he is. Is he really going to have to start all over again? His society venerated and respected old age and the wisdom it brought. Who would want to be a child again, with all the uncertainties and vulnerability that implied? 

Nicodemus arrives in the dark , and it sounds as if he goes away not much more enlightened. But wonderful  things can happen in dark places. Babies grow in the darkness of the womb, seeds germinate in the dark earth, and in this conversation something is sown, something is conceived, which will, much later, bear fruit. We meet Nicodemus twice more in John’s Gospel. The first time is when the Jewish leaders first start planning to get rid of Jesus. Nicodemus, who is one of them, argues that he should have a fair hearing. Later on, after the crucifixion, he is one of those, alongside Joseph of Arimathea, who arrange for Jesus’ burial. He provides the spices and oils for anointing the body.  The fact that his name and his story have been preserved and passed on in the Gospels suggests that he became a member of the Christian movement after the resurrection, and medieval legend says that he was beaten to death by the Jewish Temple guard after he was baptised by Peter and John, and was buried with St Stephen in the tomb of the Rabbi Gamaliel. 

We don’t know what time of day the Old Testament reading is set in, but Abram might as well be in the pitch black when God’s call comes to him to leave everything he knows in his own native land and set out across the desert to a new land which God doesn’t even name for him. God  promises that he will make a great nation of him, that all the families of the earth will be blessed by him, but how can that be? What this brief reading doesn’t tell us is that Abram and his wife, Sarai, have no children, and by this stage, humanly speaking it is impossible that they will do. Abram is 75 years old when they set out; Sarai is well past child-bearing age.  They are living in Haran in Mesopotamia, and they no doubt expect to die there, and probably not too far in the future.

But God has other ideas.  If you or I heard a message like this, at the age of 75, we would probably politely ignore it, and wonder whether we ought to go a little easier on the booze – it sounds like complete nonsense. There is no way that God can make a great nation of Abram. His line ends with him. And sending him out on a spree like this seems not just daft but cruel. God’s call to Abram makes no sense, and as the years pass (he is 100 years old when his son Isaac is finally born) it doesn’t become any clearer. He has no idea how God will bring any of this about. He is completely in the dark, and it is a long time before any light dawns.

But Abram goes, we are told, stepping out into that darkness without any real idea of what will happen next.

So, Nicodemus and Abram, two men who are in the dark - as we all sometimes are; in the dark about what is happening to them, in the dark about what God is up to, in the dark about how it will all work out. Two men who are told that they will need to give up what they have, to let go of the certainties in their lives, if they want to be part of what God is doing in the world, part of his kingdom. Two men who are told they have to accept that darkness, that unknowing, that bafflement, if they’re going to find the new future God wants for them.

Their stories remind us that doing something new, seeing something new, being someone new, nearly always means stepping out into the darkness, letting go of things that we have clung to, leaving behind things that are familiar, whether that’s the status and knowledge we’ve built up over a life time, like Nicodemus, or the familiarity of our native land, our kindred, the things that have given us security, like Abram. That can be hard to do, but if we are clinging to them, we can’t cling to God, who is our real security. If our hands are full of them, they can’t be open to God and all that he wants to give us. Nicodemus and Abram find the courage to step out into the dark and put their trust in God, but how do they find that courage, how do they know that it’s right?  

Perhaps our second reading, from Paul’s letter to the Romans, gives us a clue. He says that “Abraham believed in the presence of the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” However much Abraham liked his settled life, he heard in God’s voice a call to life. What was the thing that didn’t exist? It was the child he longed for. He literally had no future in Haran. His line, his name, would die with him. His hopes were dead, but he decided to believe that God could give life to those dead hopes. However hard the journey, he decided to take a chance on life. Nicodemus sensed something life-giving in the words and actions of Jesus, even if it wasn’t “life as he knew it” , even if it would require him to start all over again, and it would probably lead to hardship for him. There was something life giving in this man from Nazareth, which – in the end – he couldn’t walk away from. He decided to take a chance on life.

These stories are good news for us when we are in the dark, when we are in a dilemma about the way forward. How do we know what to do? Which way will we go? “Which is the way that leads to life?” they ask us. “Choose that way, follow that way,” because, however strange and different it might seem, that is where you will find God at work, the kingdom of heaven springing up, hope that nothing can destroy.

Sunday, 1 March 2020

Power and its abuse: Lent 1

Today’s Gospel story, for all its strangeness, is one we’ve probably heard many times before. The danger is that it can just go in one ear and out of the other. Jesus in the wilderness, fasting forty days, tempted by the devil, stones into bread and all that stuff. Its impact can be blunted even more by the fact that we know how it’s going to end. It’s a foregone conclusion, isn’t it? Satan will be out-argued and sent packing by Jesus – after all, Jesus is the Son of God, and the rest of the Gospel would be a bit pointless if he fell at the first hurdle.  

But just imagine that you didn’t know how it was going to turn out. Just imagine you were hearing it for the first time. What if Jesus made the wrong choices?

Matthew means us to take this story seriously, to allow ourselves to wonder like that, to let the suspense be real, because he knew that the temptations facing Jesus’ were temptations that face us all. The Christian communities he  was writing for struggled to know what to do in the face of persecution and the challenge of trying to form a united community from the wide variety of backgrounds they came from.  Life was tough, as it can be for any of us. It was tempting to look for an easy way through, an easy way out, even if that meant taking moral shortcuts, turning a blind eye to what was right.
Knowing that Jesus – even Jesus – had struggled as well mattered to them, and it matters to us too.

Jesus was about to begin his ministry.  He’d just been baptised by John the Baptist in the Jordan and, as he’d come up out of the water, he’d heard a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, the beloved” . What does that do to you, to hear something like that?
He’d been given power by his Father. He would also be given power by those he ministered too, as they opened themselves up to him, desperate for hope and healing, guidance and teaching.  He’s being called to use his power, but he knows that power is dangerous. Power can do damage as well as good.

The news these days is full of stories of the abuse of power. Despotic rulers abuse their power over nations. Bullies abuse their power in the workplace, in school, on social media. And of course, day by day we hear an ever-lengthening, doleful litany of stories of the deliberate abuse of children and vulnerable adults. This week Harvey Weinstein was finally convicted of rape, and the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse reported on abuse in Westminster and its cover up. Abuse scandals have emerged in every sphere of society, in sport, in education,  in entertainment  and, of course, in the Church too.

There have been a number of high profile cases. Peter Ball, a former bishop, John Smyth who ran Christian camps for boys from public schools, Jonathan Fletcher, once a leading light in the Evangelical wing of the Church of England. Last week well-founded allegations emerged about Jean Vanier, a Catholic layman who founded the inspirational L’Arche communities where able bodied and disabled people live together. He died last year, and in the wake of his death six women so far have come forward independently of each other to report that he coerced them into unwanted sexual activity over many years. He was widely regarded as a living saint, a spiritual superhero, so it must have been incredibly hard for them to blow the whistle on him, and very brave of them to do so.

As well as the cases that hit the headlines, of course, there are many more which don’t, cases which may never be reported at all. The majority of abuse happens within the family, which ought to be the safest place of all.  

What unites all these cases is power. Abuse can take many forms:  sexual, physical, emotional, spiritual. It may take place in the workplace, in the home, in the church, in schools, in voluntary organisations, but all abuse is rooted in the desire, the all-consuming need, of the abuser to have power over those they abuse. “Look what I can do to you” they say. ”Look what I can make you do. And there’s nothing you can do about it because it’s my word against yours and I am someone people look up to. There’s nothing you can do about it because I am your boss, your leader, your parent, your teacher, your spouse, your priest, someone whose love or support or approval you need, someone you’ve been told to trust, someone you wanted or needed to trust, someone you’ve thrown your lot in with, and you can’t imagine what will happen if you challenge me.” Abusers abuse because it makes them feel powerful, in control, even if it’s all based on lies.

We’d like to suppose, of course, if we are half-decent human beings, that those who can do these awful things are fundamentally different from us – monsters – but the raw truth is that wherever there is power, there is the possibility of its abuse, and power is something that all of us have, even if it is only the power of a cutting word, a snide comment, the threat of the withdrawal of friendship which keeps others down.  Abuse of power doesn’t have to be dramatic to be dangerous. It doesn’t have to reach the level of a criminal act to inflict real damage on others.  We all have power, and that means we can all use it abusively.  

That’s why this story of Jesus’ temptations matters so much, because it reminds us that even he could have abused the power he had. Even he had to take that possibility seriously and wrestle with it. And if he did, then so, surely, should we.
The temptations to abuse power which Jesus faced, are ones that face us all as we contemplate our own power and how we use it.

His first temptation was to turn stones into bread, to use his power to satisfy his own hunger, to meet his own needs, rather than the needs of others, which was what that power had been given for. In pastoral, caring situations we may be tempted to help others because it makes us feel good about ourselves; it feeds us the bread of affirmation, makes us feel worthwhile. But when we do that we treat the people we are helping as if they were just put there to satisfy our hunger, our need to be needed, rather than respecting them as autonomous individuals independent of us, who we should be encouraging to live their own lives.
We can treat the natural world as if it is just there to satisfy our hunger too, rather than respecting it for itself. Stones are, after all, meant to be stones, not bread. We may not be able to change them from one into the other, as Jesus perhaps could, but we can, and do, transform the worlds' natural resources of oil into polluting plastic and aviation fuel. We can, and do, transform Amazonian rainforest into pasture land or palm oil plantations just because we fancy a cheap burger or some cosmetics.  That’s a form of abuse too.

Jesus’ second temptation is to throw himself off the top of the Temple, to prove to himself that he really is who God says he is. God will surely catch you, says Satan “if you’re really his Son!  The normal rules won’t apply to you, not even the law of gravity.”  Those who abuse others often try to argue that they’re special, exceptional, deserving different treatment from the rest of humanity. They often seem to believe that they’re above the law. They’re astonished, as Harvey Weinstein was, when the law disagrees. It might not seem as serious, but if we howl in outrage when someone is mean or insulting to us, but don’t see or acknowledge when we do the same to others, we are doing the same.    

Jesus’ third temptation is to use his power to rule by might and fear. Satan offers him “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour” if he will only worship him. For most of human history empires were won and kept by armies, by terror, by repressive force. Roman rule was certainly like that. Gladiatorial games and public crucifixion reminded people what would happen if they didn’t submit. If Jesus had accepted Satan’s offer, he would just have become another vicious despot like all the others. We may not have armies at our command, but most of us can muster a whole array of petty cruelties, cutting words and subtle threats if we feel we need to, leaving others scared to challenge us. We know what buttons to press to make people do what we want.

Abuse of power isn’t just found in those high profile cases. It’s something we can all be guilty of
That’s why we need to hear this story of Jesus in the wilderness again and again and again. And we need especially, of course, to hear how Jesus resists  the temptation to abuse his power, if we are going to do so as well.

Jesus knows, and acknowledges, his own hunger, but he also trusts that God will give him what he needs, so he doesn’t have to grab anxiously for food.

He doesn’t need to prove that he is special in his Father’s eyes by putting God to the test either. He knows he is, just as he reminds those he meets that they are too.  He knows he’s ultimately safe, that he can’t fall out of God’s hands, even if he falls right into the abyss of death, as he will when he is crucified.

And he doesn’t need to rule the world by might, because he knows that the only rule that really lasts will be the rule of love, which is stronger than any worldly kingdom could be.

In the desert Jesus takes his power seriously. He takes the possibility that he, even he, might abuse it seriously. He hears the devil out; taking seriously the temptations he lays before him. But in the end he resists those temptations, because he’s rooted and grounded in the love of God.

As we begin this season of Lent, with so many reminders of the abusive potential of power, we are called to do as he does; to recognise our power, to know both its gifts and its dangers, and, in response to that, to root and ground ourselves more deeply in the love and wisdom of God, so that we can use it wisely.

If you need help with any abuse you have suffered or witnessed, you can find help and support here. 

Ash Wednesday

As I expect you know, we make the ash we use on Ash Wednesday by burning some of last year’s palm crosses. It’s a reminder that so many of the promises we made to follow Christ last year as we held them up, have come to dust and ashes. We meant well, but actually this is what we have to show for all our efforts. And it’s a small pile of ashes at that. I burned 8 or 9 palm crosses this year. They made quite a sizeable pile, but all that remains is this, a tiny pot of ash. And every year, I have a moment of panic. Will it be enough to ash us all?

But every year I find that, yes, it will be fine, because the truth is that a little ash goes a long way.
Or to put it another way, you don’t need much dirt to make a lot of people of people messy.

Like the Gospel story we heard today.
Here is one woman caught in adultery, one woman in a mess, but actually Jesus sees that the mess is not just located in her. Her mess reflects a mess – in fact is a projection of the mess - that everyone else in the story is caught up in too.  
For a start, where is the man she has been caught in adultery with? It takes two to tango. But she seems to be carrying his guilt as well as her own.
And then there are all those who are accusing her. How did they come to be so vindictive and bitter? Why are they so furious? Jesus realises that here again, they are projecting their own mess onto her. As we discover none of them is “without sin”. When they are challenged, they slip away, the oldest first. The older you get the fewer illusions you can have about your own perfection, maybe.

If we could unpick the motives of those involved in this situation – the woman, her lover, her accusers, we would find vast tangles of hurt, hate and disappointment, which has twisted the lives of those involved to the point that they could do what they have done.

I don’t really buy the idea of original sin, if by that we mean some sort of infection passed down the generations like a genetic disease from Adam and Eve. For a start it depends on their being a literal Adam and Eve, which I think misunderstands the way myths work.
But I do buy the idea that the world we all grow up in is twisted and tangled by pain and fear. It was twisted and tangled long before we arrived in it, and that means that, with the best will in the world, however much we try, however much our parents try, however much anyone tries, we will all end up twisted and tangled too, and that will twist and tangle the world for future generations too.

Like the people in this Gospel story, we get hurt and pass on that hurt to others in our turn.  However much we want to do good and be good, the raw truth is that we will fail, through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault, as the confession says. We will do so because we are human and fallible, and because we live in a world where everyone else is human and fallible too, and has always been so. Our response to that is, often to beat ourselves up, but even more often to beat others up, to scapegoat them and blame them in an attempt to offload our misery and shame somewhere, anywhere, else. Like this ash, a little of which can make a mess of a great many people, the small things we do wrong and get wrong soon spread and make a mess of the whole world.

But what we see Jesus doing here is drawing a line under our scapegoating, our blaming. We don’t know what he writes in the sand, but what happens next suggests that it is something that means, to him at least, “enough”. Enough of this blaming and shaming. Enough of this projecting your guilt onto someone else. Enough.

Later on he will draw that line again, as he goes to the cross, to take the blame the world throws at him even though, as the thief crucified next to him says, he has done nothing to deserve it. Enough, says the cross. It stops here, with me. It’s not fair that it should do, but it does. It’s not God’s wrath that is satisfied on the cross; it is our wrath which is soaked up by Jesus as he dies, saying “enough”. It is finished.

That’s why I have often said that this day, Ash Wednesday, though it might seem a sombre day, is actually the most joyful of all in the calendar, because it’s the day which reminds us that we don’t have to be ok. It’s ok not to be ok. We don’t have to keep anxiously passing the buck, throwing our mess at other people in the hopes that we can get rid of it, because we are frightened it will annihilate us. We can be who we are, mess and all. God can cope with it.

Yes, we are dust and ashes, but we are beloved dust and ashes, dust and ashes that God cherishes, that he can breathe new life into, just like he breathed life into the dust which made Adam. And that is the best news of all. Happy Ash Wednesday! Dust we are and to dust we shall return, and it is ok that it should be so.