Sunday, 30 August 2020

When we want to give up: Trinity 12

Audio version here

Jeremiah 15.15-21, Matt 16.21-28

 Poor Jeremiah. I guess that most of us at some point have felt the world was against us, as he seems to do in our first reading. Right now, I am guessing that’s a pretty common feeling, as this Covid epidemic grinds on. The challenge Jeremiah faced was different, but just as tough. God had called him to speak truth to power back in the 6th century BC, when Jerusalem was about to be destroyed by the Babylonians. His job was to warn the people of Judah, and its leaders, that this disaster was coming, so that even if it were too late to avert it, they could at least be better equipped for the challenges it would bring.  

 It ought to have been obvious that there was trouble coming. The Babylonians had already conquered large swathes of the Middle East. But then again, it ought to have been obvious that Covid 19 was going to be massively disruptive and demanding and it ought to be obvious that climate change will be even more devastating, but who wants to listen to bad news, even if doing so would help us cope with it? Most of us prefer to shut our eyes and try to convince ourselves that if we can’t see the monster, it isn’t there. It all feels like too much. It is too frightening, too complicated. And when the inevitable happens, we’re baffled, and often angry too. We fall out with each other, kicking out at anyone within kicking distance.

 Jeremiah’s audience were no different. They thought of themselves as God’s chosen people. God had brought them out of slavery in Egypt many generations before and given them this Promised Land. Why would he let it be taken away? They thought that no matter what they did, God would protect them. Prophets like Jeremiah warned them they couldn’t  treat God like a lucky charm, to be pulled out of the bag and deployed when trouble threatened, but ignored the rest of the time. But they didn’t want to hear that message. First, they ignored him. And when they couldn’t ignore him any longer, they persecuted him, arrested him, even threw him into a dry well to die – anything to shut him up.

 He hadn’t wanted the job of prophet, and in today’s reading, he’s starting to think that God is pulling a fast one on him. “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Truly you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.” He’s exhausted, feeling like he’s on a hiding to nothing, and who can blame him.

 It would have been easy for him to give up, to think that his ministry was a waste, but it wasn’t. The fact that his words were preserved through the cataclysm of the Exile, that we still have them, shows that people did – eventually – see the truth and the wisdom in what he said. Eventually they that his call to them to face reality was a message of hope, not despair, the gateway to a new beginning. They just needed to learn to see it.

 “If you turn back,” says God through Jeremiah,” I will take you back, and you shall stand before me… I am with you to save you and deliver you.” It was during the Exile, pondering words like those of Jeremiah, that the Jewish people began to draw together the stories of their people, stories of God’s faithfulness, his constant presence with them, through thick and thin. They learned to see anew that however many times they had failed him, he’d never failed them. But to discover that, they had to take their fingers out of their ears and open their eyes to the truth.

 Seeing afresh is key to the Gospel story today as well. Peter refuses to accept that Jesus will be arrested and crucified. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God! Peter has just said so in the previous passage, which we thought about last week. How can God let his Messiah die? What would be the point of that?

 Jesus’ response to him is sharp. Peter’s mind, says Jesus, is fixed on human things, not divine things, and as long as that’s the case, he’ll never understand what God is doing. Jesus isn’t saying Peter should go about with his head in the clouds – too heavenly minded to be any earthly use, as they say. This isn’t about cultivating an air of otherworldly piety. In fact it is quite the opposite. It’s the human tendency to wishful thinking which Jesus is warning Peter against, those delusions we have about ourselves, about others, about the world around us, the idea that we can be in control, that we are entitled to have things the way we want them, that there is a pain-free, cost-free fix for everything, that if things go wrong it’s always someone else’s fault. Instead, Peter needs to learn to focus on the heavenly truths - the unchanging faithfulness of God, his presence with us in the darkness as much as the light. As the Psalmist put it in today’s Psalm “Your love is before my eyes. That’s what enables him to “walk faithfully” with God. It’s easy to be distracted by our anxious, angry, divisive impulses in times of trouble, but that’s when it most matters that we learn to look for God’s love around us and within us.

 Covid 19 is presenting us all with challenges we’d rather not face. How wonderful it would be if all this stuff we’re going through would just go away. I’d love to press a cosmic “reboot” button that would start this year all over again without it. But we can’t. What is, is, and it will be for some time to come. And as time goes on, that gets tougher to deal with. The heroic impulse to help, or applaud others who do, fades away. That initial surge of energy, which fuelled our ingenuity, kindness and generosity to others starts to run out. Disillusion and scapegoating set in - trauma can just as easily corrode trust, hope, and love as it can inspire them. We discover that our own resources are shallow, soon exhausted. If we’re going to find the strength for the long haul, it will be because we deliberately, daily, look for God’s presence, reorient ourselves towards what is good, set his love before our eyes, through prayer, through reflection, through sharing the truth about how we feel and what we face through loving others, and through loving ourselves too.

 Working with God to create a world in which all can thrive, especially in challenging times like these, doesn’t come without pain and cost. Often the right thing is not the easy thing, and each day we have to make choices. We can respond to the troubles around us with hope or with despair, with love or with anger, with faith or with fear, with generosity or anxious selfishness. God’s promise to Jeremiah, his promise to Peter, his promise to that Psalmist who “walked faithfully” with him is that, as we do so, he will walk just as faithfully with us, and that the path he guides us on will be one that leads to life and hope.




Sunday, 23 August 2020

Hewn from the rock

Audio version

Isaiah 51.1-6, Matthew 16.13-20

 A few weeks ago, archaeologists announced that they’d finally discovered where the huge upright sarsen stones of Stonehenge had been quarried 4000 years ago. Theories had abounded over the years about their origin, including that they’d been transported magically by Merlin from Ireland where they’d been hewn by giants. The reality turned out to be rather more prosaic. Analysis of an old rock sample revealed that they came from about 15 miles to the north on the Marlborough Downs.

The original builders of Stonehenge knew where to find the stone they needed, and it didn’t take magic. They did import some of the smaller stones, somehow, from Wales, but those huge uprights were local. They knew their land, and they passed on the knowledge of where to quarry the right kind of stone from one generation to another as the monument took shape. We’re more used to getting our building materials from Wickes or Homebase, shipped in from all around the world, but until very recent times, most people just used what they had nearby, stone from quarries on their own doorsteps which they returned to again and again.

“Look to the rock from which you were hewn” says God, through the prophet Isaiah in our Old Testament reading today. “Remember where you come from, who has given you life, where you belong” in other words.

He’s speaking to people in exile in Babylon, where they’d been taken many decades before when the Babylonians conquered and destroyed Jerusalem. Many had given up hope of ever going home, thinking that God had abandoned them, but Isaiah says that it isn’t so. “The Lord will comfort Zion” – that’s another name for Jerusalem – “he will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord”. Again and again, Isaiah hammers it home. Babylon may look all powerful, all controlling, owning you, body and soul, but God sees it differently. It’s the little word “my” which gives it away.  “Listen to me, my people” says God.  “Give heed to me, my nation.” He goes on to talk about my justice, my deliverance, my salvation , my arms that rule. These people don’t belong to Babylon, they belong to God. Who is the rock from which they were hewn, the one who has shaped them? It isn’t Babylon; it is God, who has faithfully loved and supported them from the days of Abraham and Sarah, long in their past.  Babylon’s power may look outwardly impressive, but it’s nothing compared to the eternal and indestructible love of God.  God is the one they should look to if they want to find their true sense of belonging.

In the Gospel, Jesus also talks about belonging and allegiance. He’s walking with his disciples towards Caesarea Philippi, a mainly Gentile town to the north of Galilee, in an area where many Roman troops were stationed. The name of the town tells us a lot about it. It’s called Caesarea after Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor – and Philippi, from Philip, one of the sons of Herod the Great – that’s the Herod who massacred the children of Bethlehem. Philip ruled this area after his father’s death. So Jesus and his disciples aren’t just heading for any old town. They’re heading straight into a vortex where two major powers swirl around each other – Rome and the Herodian dynasty.

So Jesus asks a question to make his disciples think about what they are heading into, and whose voices they should pay attention to in the power-ridden environment of Caesarea Philippi.  “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” he asks. It’s an ambiguous question, in two ways. Firstly who are “people” he’s referring to? Is he talking about the people on the streets, his opponents, friends, strangers? – or is he talking about the disciples themselves?  And what does he mean by “Son of Man”? It was a phrase that could refer to the Messiah, the long-awaited deliverer, sent by God, but it was also a commonly- used, roundabout way of referring to any human being, especially yourself. It could just be used in place of “I”, like we say “muggins”.

The disciples flounder about, throwing out whatever names come to them first; John the Baptist, or one of the Old Testament prophets. They know this is an important question. They know there is something deeply significant and different about Jesus, but they don’t really want to nail their colours to the mast and say what it is.

So Jesus puts it more bluntly. Ok, so let’s be clear - who do you say that I am?  It’s Simon who comes straight back with the answer that’s in his heart. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God! “ There. It’s out. He doesn’t explain exactly what he means by the word Messiah, or the words Son of God – later theologians would have to puzzle over that, and still do – but he recognises that God is at work in Jesus, that Jesus is, somehow, a chip off the old block, if we go back to Isaiah’s image, revealing the essence of the nature of God more perfectly than any of those illustrious names the other disciples have come up with. Simon decides to throw in his lot with Jesus, right there, right then. Jesus is going to be the authority, the influence, the power that will guide him.  

They’re about to enter a town which glorifies the powers of the age by its very name, but this disciple sees that the glory of God, the true source of his life and strength, shines from this carpenter from Nazareth, not from their mighty armies. He has none of the usual trappings of power, but his voice is the only voice Simon wants to listen to.

And Jesus responds by affirming that in saying this, Simon too is showing that he is hewn from the rock of God’s love, reflecting God in his own little way. Jesus nicknames  Petros, Peter in English, which means Rock. Jesus says that Peter will find himself holding the keys of the kingdom, the privilege and responsibility of helping others draw close to God, providing a firm foundation for Jesus’ followers as they deal with the power struggles around them, the pressures that distort and twist their common life.

We may not have to deal with Caesars and Herods, but we’re still surrounded by powerful and destructive forces, within and without, which pull us this way and that. It can often feel like they have the upper hand, the last word on our lives. Political pressure groups, persuasive leaders out for their own glory, social media “influencers” who tell us that we’re only really acceptable if we look a certain way or have certain possessions, friends and family who we go along with because we’re afraid of rejection or ridicule if we don’t. We hear these voices loud and clear, passing judgement on us, telling us who we are and who we should be, naming us as winners or losers in the game of life. It is easy to find ourselves trying to belong somewhere that isn’t our true home, trying to be people other than the true selves God meant us to be.

 But these readings call us to look to the rock from which we are truly hewn, to find our belonging in God, to discover that we’re his children, living stones in his Temple, the place where he dwells. We’re called to believe that truth, to trust it and to live by it, so that God can make our wildernesses like Eden, our deserts like the gardens of the Lord.





Friday, 21 August 2020

What has God put in your hands?

 Audio version here 

Matthew 15. 21-28


There’s a story told of an Irish saint from the sixth century, St Kevin, a man known for his feats of heroic prayerfulness. He was a hermit who lived in a cave by the side of Glendalough, a lake in County Wicklow. According to legend, at the beginning of Lent one year, Kevin settled down to pray. He stretched out his hands, as he always did, and sank deep into prayer. So deep was his prayer, that he didn’t notice when a blackbird landed on his hand. So deep was his prayer that he didn’t notice either when she flew away and came back again with a twig in her mouth. So deep was his prayer, in fact that he didn’t notice her going to and fro for all that day, hour after hour, bringing twig after twig, weaving them together. He didn’t notice her bring dried grass and weave that in too. He didn’t notice until right at the end of the day, when he opened his eyes and realised that there in his hand was a perfectly woven nest, and the blackbird sitting in it. And underneath her were three sky-blue eggs.


“Ah!” thought Kevin. “Now what shall I do? Sister Blackbird has honoured me with her company, trusted me with her young. Hmm! Well, there’s nothing for it but to wait, and while I wait, to pray”. So Kevin did. According to the story, he prayed for days and days, sitting quite still, not stopping to sleep or to eat. One week passed, and two, and in the third week he saw the eggs crack open, and little by little the blackbird chicks emerge. But that didn’t mean he could move. Far from it. Now it was even more important that he stayed still as the parent birds brought food to their chicks. So Kevin just carried on praying. By the time the chicks were ready to fledge and fly the nest, Lent was nearly over, and as Easter Sunday came he celebrated the new life of resurrection, and the new life of the chicks that had grown in the nest of his outstretched hands…


Well, you can believe it if you like, but it’s a good story, whether it happened or not.


I like it because it makes me wonder what unexpected thing God might have put in my hands to deal with. Perhaps it is something which I would rather not handle – maybe St Kevin had at least the odd moment when he wished that blackbird had nested somewhere else. Often in our lives there are situations which seem to us to get in the way of what we really want to be doing with our lives. We could be so much better, holier people if only… If only, we didn’t have that awkward boss at work, that difficult relationship at home, that illness to deal with, these cares and worries, those doubts and fears, this Covid19 pandemic. These things seem to us to be distractions, diverting us from the path we planned to take.


And yet it’s often in facing up to and dealing with these awkward realities that we find the greatest blessing. We find our hearts and lives expanding because of them. Sometimes we may find a solution to them. Sometimes we may end up having to live with them, but what looks like a diversion from the straight road we’d mapped out turns out to be a pathway which leads to life in all its fullness.


The second part of the Gospel reading we heard today reminds me of that too. Jesus is in the territory of Tyre and Sidon, foreign territory. Tyre and Sidon were Canaanite port towns to the north of Israel. What was he doing there? We aren’t told. Not having a seaside holiday, that’s for sure. Tyre and Sidon were a byword in Israel for sin and trouble, rackety towns where all sorts of people came and went, where sailors did what sailors have always done on their runs ashore. Maybe the father of the little girl whose mother comes to Jesus was a sailor. It would certainly have been unusual, a bit disreputable, for a woman to be out on her own like this, and even more so to be taking the initiative in challenging a male leader. Maybe he was a sailor who had gone away to sea and never come back, a sailor with a girl in every port, and this woman just happened to be the girl in this one. We don’t know. But she is obviously a nuisance, even to Jesus.


His disciples beg him to send her away, and he seems inclined to try, but she keeps on at him until he gives her what she wants - her daughter’s healing – and he doesn’t just do this, he also acclaims her faith.


It’s an awkward story. People have puzzled over it ever since it was written. Jesus seems so rude. It’s especially ironic coming after the passage before, when Jesus tells people to beware of what comes out of their mouths, the unguarded words which wound others! Some commentators tried to say that perhaps he doesn’t really mean what he says when he compares this woman to a dog and tries to send her away, or that he is just testing her faith, but I don’t buy either of those explanations. There’s a child’s life at stake after all. I think if the Gospel writers meant us to read it like that they would have said so. I think it is what it seems to be; a story about Jesus learning and growing, in response to the challenge of this brave and desperate woman. I wonder, in fact, whether that’s precisely why he went to Tyre and Sidon – to take himself out of his comfort zone.  He may have realised, in theory, that God’s love included the Gentiles, those who didn’t share his cultural upbringing and background, but encountering that difference in the flesh was another matter. Was God’s love really so broad as to include her. Yes, yes, yes, Jesus discovered.


The Gospel writers didn’t have to include this awkward story in their Gospels. It would have been much easier to leave it out. But they were writing for early Christian communities which also struggled to accept the sheer variety of people who found their way into this new movement, to live together, loving each other, just as we often do. They needed the encouragement of this story. “Even Jesus found this tough,” they might have said “and yet, what a blessing there was in welcoming those who were different”


So I wonder. What is it that God has placed in our hands today, as we stretch them out in prayer, like St Kevin did? What are the inconvenient, awkward, puzzling realities that we struggle to hold onto, the things we wish we could put down and walk away from, but which we know we can’t? Perhaps, like St Kevin, like Jesus himself, if we let them sit there, accept them for what they are, we might find that, in God’s economy, there can be blessing hidden in challenge, new life that hatches in our hands, if we have the patience and the faith to hold still and to watch for it?



Sunday, 9 August 2020

Walking on water: Trinity 9

Audio version here 

Matthew 14.22-33

“It’s all in the timing”, they say. We all know how important it can be to pick your moment, whether you’re delivering the punchline of a joke, or giving some difficult news to a colleague or family member.

 As the book of Ecclesiastes puts it “There is a time for every matter under heaven, a time to be born and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh…” and so on. The problem is knowing which time is which. The ancient Greeks had a word for it, as they so often do - or rather they had two words. There was chronos, chronological time, the kind you can tell by looking at your watch, but there was also Kairos, the right moment, the opportune time, the time to act.  

 We’re all having to find the kairos moments – the right times – in this coronavirus pandemic. When’s the right time to start seeing friends and family, to start going out and about, to start going back to church if we can. It’s not simple, and everyone’s answers will be different. We all need to move at our own pace, judging what’s safe and sensible for us.

 Maybe today’s Gospel might help us, though, because it’s full of careful timing.

 Matthew starts his story with the word “immediately” ; and there are two more “immediatelys” later in the passage. But not everything happens straight away in this tale. Some things – perhaps surprising things - take time; people have to wait.

 As I said, the passage starts with “immediately”. The Greek word doesn’t necessarily indicate haste, but it does mean that there is no delay. Jesus has just fed a vast, hungry crowd with five loaves and two fish, but he doesn’t hang about with his disciples discussing what’s happened afterwards. Instead, he sends them straight back off across the Sea of Galilee in their boat. Maybe he knows that everyone, including him, needs time to themselves at this point. Whatever the reason, there’s no hanging about. They’re sent off in the boat, and as soon as he can, Jesus goes up the mountain to pray.  

As evening falls, though, a storm blows up, and the little boat, far from land, is battered by wind and waves. But this is the interesting thing, because although that word “immediately” comes three times in this passage, it doesn’t come here. In fact, the story tells us that it isn’t until the early morning that Jesus sets off to help his friends. From evening to early morning is a lot of hours to be straining at the oars, rowing against the wind, drenched by the waves, getting nowhere.

 And when Jesus does show up – finally – his first words aren’t to calm the storm. The thing he does “immediately” – there’s the second time the word appears – is to say to them “take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Hold onto that thought, because we’ll come back to it later.

 But Peter still isn’t sure that this really is Jesus. He needs proof, and he devises a rather daft test to get it. “If it is you,” he says to Jesus, “command me to come to you on the water”.  They’re about to sink. Everyone is frantic. But Peter thinks this is the moment to put Jesus to the test. Even if walking on water had always been one of Peter’s life goals, this is hardly the time to be trying it out. But Jesus does as he asks. “Come” he says, and Peter gets out of the boat, and he finds that he’s doing it – walking on water!

 For a few minutes, all is well. But then, suddenly, it dawns on Peter  that the wind is very windy, and the waves are very wavy, and people can’t actually do what he is doing…It’s like that moment in a cartoon when a character runs off the edge of a cliff. For a few seconds they just keep going. But then they look down and realise that this is impossible, and down they fall.

 Peter abruptly begins to sink. If he still had any doubts about Jesus, they seem to vanish. “Lord, save me!” he calls out. And immediately – there is the third one - Jesus reaches out his hand and pulls him to safety and takes him back to the boat.  

 And then, only then, does the storm subside.

 Jesus picks his moments to act in this story. But he also picks his moments to wait. He doesn’t take over. He doesn’t wave a magic wand to still that storm as soon as it blows up, or stop it blowing up in the first place. He doesn’t say to Peter, “this isn’t the time for walking on water. Wouldn’t you rather I stopped the boat from sinking?”  He recognises that the times of waiting and doubting and struggling and failing matter too. They have a meaning and importance of their own – for his disciples and for us - even if we can’t see that at the time, and just want them to be over.

 Many of the disciples in that boat were experienced sailors. They probably thought they could cope with storms. Maybe they needed to get to the point where they knew they couldn’t cope, and had to accept help, if they were to become the kind of people who were any use to others who weren’t coping. And Peter - poor daft Peter - needed this ridiculous experience of trying and failing and needing to be rescued if he was to become the kind of man who’d be able to lead the early Christian movement as it tried and failed, and needed rescuing again and again in its mission to spread the love of Jesus.

 It’s an important message to take hold of. When we’re storm-tossed, battered and overwhelmed by life, we all want a magic wand that will take away our troubles. We want God to put things back the way they were again. Often, often, though, it doesn’t happen like that. Our problems don’t instantly vanish. But instead of stilling the storm, God can help us to find his stillness within it, his peace that passes understanding, his voice that cuts through the howling wind, that says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” And if we need time to doubt and question, like Peter, to test him out, he doesn’t take that as an insult, but as a necessary part of our journey.

 “Truly you are the Son of God” say the disciples. What is it that convinces them? It’s partly the control he’s shown over the waters of the lake. But I wonder whether it’s also the way he seems to know them; what they need, and when they need it – their kairos moments.

 Back in the fourteenth century an anchorite mystic, Julian of Norwich, who lived through the Black Death, said it better than I can. “God did not say; ‘you shall not be storm-tossed, you shall not be work-weary, you shall not be distressed; he said ‘you shall not be overcome.’”  

 God isn’t distracted, as we so often are, by the outward storms that swirl around us. He sees through them to the deeper needs of our heart, and longs to help us become people who can live in the midst of the storm, and help others do so, held securely by the knowledge that we’re not alone in it. Whatever situations we face, however uncertain our times, and our timings, are we can be sure that when we need him Christ will be there, walking towards us even on the most tumultuous waters, to bring us his peace.