Sunday, 20 June 2021

Do you not care? Trinity 3

 Audio version here

Trinity 3 2021

Job 38.1-11, Psalm107.1-3,23-32, Mark 4.35-end

 “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

 That’s the intriguing question the disciples cry out as the storm batters their little boat. Intriguing because it’s hardly the obvious thing to say to Jesus at that moment.

“Wake up and help us bale out!” would be much more appropriate. In a situation of danger, this isn’t a sensible time to launch into a discussion about Jesus’ feelings for his disciples.

 It reminds me of those crucial scenes in disaster movies. The building is collapsing. The lava flow is advancing. The timer on the bomb is ticking down. And the hero and heroine are wasting precious seconds having a heart to heart and a final lingering kiss. It’s great for heightening the dramatic tension, but it’s not a good use of time if you want to live to tell the tale. I’m always sitting there thinking “Stop talking and run!”


But this Gospel story isn’t a chapter in a sailing manual, any more than those movies are about buildings, volcanoes or bomb disposal techniques. They are about human beings, human hearts, how we relate to one another and, in this case, to God. The disaster, the crisis, is just being used to reveal what’s happening under the surface.


Everything had seemed fine when the disciples first set out on their voyage. Jesus was exhausted after a long day preaching. His friends probably encouraged him to go to sleep. After all, many of them were experienced fishermen. They’d been sailing these waters all their lives. They knew how to handle a boat, and maybe they felt proud that they could do something for their friend at last, rather than just following him around asking dumb questions. “You get your head down, Jesus. We’ve got this!”


But as the storm worsens, they realise that they haven’t got it after all. They may have always coped before, but they can’t cope now. They remember just how dangerous this lake is. People drown here all the time, and tonight it looks like it’s their turn. But Jesus is still asleep. On a cushion, we’re told, as if to rub in just how comfortable he is, while they struggle on, terrified and alone.


Suddenly they realise that they do need him, not for any sailing expertise he might have, but for himself. They need him to see their plight, to hear their cries, and most of all, to care. Even if they’re going to sink, they’d rather sink knowing they are loved, than feeling abandoned.


It’s the same for Job, in our Old Testament reading. The book of Job tells a story which is probably based on an existing Middle Eastern folk tale, but transformed into an extended meditation on suffering and how we deal with it. Job is a righteous and successful man, but suddenly his life hits the rocks. His children all die, his flocks are stolen, his house falls down, and he himself is afflicted with dreadful diseases. But why? And what will he do about it? Will he reject God?


His so-called friends come and offer well-meaning advice, but it turns out to be useless, and sometimes offensively damaging. It really must be his fault, they tell him. Everything happens for a reason, they tell him. He must have done something wrong, even if no one, including him, knows what it is… But Job stands his ground. He may not be perfect, but he’s a good man and he doesn’t deserve this.  


But that doesn’t mean he’s ok with what is happening. He rails at God, and demands that God explain himself, and eventually, in the passage we heard, God does. His explanation might not sound very satisfactory – basically that God is God, and Job is not – but it’s the only explanation that Job is going to be able to grasp.  We are all stuck in the moment, only seeing a tiny sliver of reality, a tiny slice of time. Bad things do happen to good people, and good things to bad, and it doesn’t seem fair, because it isn’t fair. But that doesn’t mean that God’s punishing us, or that what is, always will be.


That’s enough for Job, and as the story ends, his fortunes are restored - and we like to hope his friends have learned a lesson. It’s always tempting to try to explain away messy and perplexing situations, as they do, however far-fetched our explanations are. It’s always tempting to try to do something – anything - rather than accepting that there’s nothing we can do, even if we make things worse in the process. It gives us the illusion of being in control. That’s how superstitions start. Avoiding black cats or touching wood won’t keep us safe, because life is inherently dangerous, and ultimately always ends in death, but faced with that terrifying reality, we’ll seize at  anything that might convince us we have some power. Even blaming ourselves is easier than accepting that there is no way we can avoid it.


Ultimately, as Job discovers, what gets us through difficult times, whether we live or die, succeed or fail in worldly terms, is knowing we aren’t alone, that someone sees us, hears us and cares for us. God, the creator of the universe, turns up to talk to Job, and even if he didn’t understand any more at the end than at the beginning, he knows he matters enough to God for him to do this.


The poet Raymond Carver, who struggled most of his life with alcoholism, which caused immense pain to him and those around him, eventually managed to stop drinking and find some measure of peace and wholeness late in his short life - he died at the age of 50. But the epitaph he wrote for his gravestone, the final poem, Late Fragment, in his final collection, says this.


And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.


Over this past year or so, we’ve all been discovering what we’ve “wanted from this life”, what really matters to us, and how we cope in the face of trouble. We’ve realised the value of the little things we once took for granted, the touch of a hand, a shared song, the presence of friends and family, things which help us to “feel ourselves beloved on the earth”.

Many people have found themselves reaching out for strength beyond their own, too. Like the disciples in that storm-tossed boat, we now know, even if we didn’t before, that we can’t do this alone. People have connected with churches, including this one, in much larger numbers than before, looking for sustenance, comfort and a sense of belonging, and some at least have found what they were looking for. I don’t know what will happen when the pandemic is over, what sort of ‘normal’ we will find ourselves in, but I hope we’ll remember the raging of this storm, and the moments when we cried out to God “don’t you care that we are perishing?”, and the moments, even if they were just moments, when we heard his voice replying “peace, be still,” in the depths of our hearts, in the words of the Bible, in the glory of nature, in the kindness of others, in new discoveries about ourselves. Because the good news is that the God who’s with us in the storms is with us always, calling us to discover life in all its fulness in the good times as well as the bad.




Sunday, 13 June 2021

Small things Trinity 2

 Audio version here

Trinity 2 2021 – A sermon by Kevin Bright

Ezekiel 17.22-24 , Mark 4.26-34

You might judge what I’m about to say as a bunch of random thoughts about parables, stories, context and stuff spoken around, rather than about, because it’s too hard to fathom.

If you were hoping for a neat explanation of how parables work feel free to switch off now. Oh, and for me the readings made me think about how we actually hear and take stuff in as well as whether we are actually listening to each other at all!

A woman walks into a bar after a hard work shift on a hot day, orders that cold beer she’s been thinking about for the last hour, hands over her cash and downs it there and then.

That would have been a perfectly reasonable little introduction a couple of years ago but anyone who has bothered to buy a pint recently knows that it doesn’t work like that anymore.

A man makes a booking two days in advance, walks up to a bar wearing a mask, scans the QR code, enters his details for track and trace, sits at his designated table and orders a pint of beer using an app on his mobile device citing his table number, is served on a tray by someone wearing gloves and a mask and he pays via contactless card! It’s so dull that you’ve already given up waiting to hear what follows.

The point of this isn’t to illustrate why our pubs are struggling but just how in a short period of time people hearing a story either can immediately relate to it or have to use their imagination a bit because it’s not their immediate reality. Anyone aged about 19 and a quarter hasn’t (or shouldn’t have) known anything different.

We heard the ‘Parable of the Mustard Seed’ and how ‘with many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it;  he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.’

Because many who heard his parables made their living from farming or fishing it is no coincidence that aspects of the natural world arise. God’s kingdom in its entirety would be too much for us, literally mind blowing so Jesus gives us parables to demonstrate aspects of the kingdom that we can relate to from everyday experiences.

Parables have the potential to help us discover the truth for ourselves rather than simply being told that something is factual and that we should believe it. They might open the new eyes needed to discover a reality beyond the immediate and obvious and are worthy of our attention. They can also easily be dismissed as irrelevant or too obtuse to wrestle with.

Parables were often told in a way that would particularly resonate with the needs, even yearnings of those hearing them, yet in a way that wasn’t too much to bear in one go.

There’s a cheerful sense of mischievousness to the way many parables start. It’s often not what people are expecting to hear, perhaps a bit like some comedians engage you by saying something ridiculous like a horse walked into a bar…it’s not so much that people listening to Jesus expected a joke but they were hooked initially to the extent that they wanted to know how the parable would end, even if they were sometimes left puzzled.

‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground’, what?

Is it too much of a leap to expect those listening to think about a seed time for God’s harvest? Perhaps there might not be much to see yet but keep the faith because God is at work.

It’s also like a tiny mustard seed, did those hearing think - is this guy for real, I’ve got to hear where he goes with this.

Apparently black mustard grows wild in the Jordan river valley to the height at which a person on horseback can stop under it for shade. Of course when you hold its tiny seed in your hand it can be a leap of imagination to believe in its potential. Yet this tiny seed held similarities to the kingdom of God according to Jesus.

Those hearing of a small seed could have found resonance with Ezekiel’s times of suffering in exile . In both cases God talks of taking action to provide shade and shelter, a refuge in God.

Here’s a big question. With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what would help us explore it?

Imagine yourself among hundreds gathered to hear Jesus talk as he says the kingdom of God is like an acorn that grew to become a mighty oak. I bet like me some of you have got oak seedlings which are just a few inches in height, we can walk on them without even noticing at times yet given the right environment they can grow to around 100 ft tall.

The kingdom of God packs as much power as one of those chilli seeds you touch when preparing a meal, small and insignificant you can even forget about them for a while, and then you rub your eye!

It seems likely that Jesus is challenging his listeners to explore a parallel to his own situation. One man in Galilee isn’t exactly the kingdom of God type change that people were expecting. How could God bring the change needed from such apparently tiny resources? Jesus wants the people hearing him to consider how different the kingdom of God is to their experience of a kingdom where the powerful rule unjustly.

There are aspects about our lives, God included, that only make sense in parables or non-factual descriptions. No one has ever bottled love, given it a scientific formula or defined it in words. Yet we make songs, films, stories about it that help us absorb its reality. We witness great courage and sacrifice motivated by love that help us feel its power.

Parables are often thrown in alongside a situation or a problem but not as the neat direct solution which we often crave. Perhaps they run parallel in a way that we need to cross over to explore yet there is no logic which can unlock their meaning absolutely. Its all part of their intrigue, not a code to be cracked but something to be felt, not something that will always reveal itself in a timescale we find acceptable. Parables can be frustrating, painful, enlightening and delightful.

What if we were trying to tell someone how we think God wants us to live, what it would be like to have heaven on earth where might we begin? Perhaps by listening to each other, perhaps by being open to multiple ways of discovering this truth.

I was walking by the River Thames on Friday and there was bunch of guys listening to urban poetry on a big speaker like the one Philip wheels out to accompany our hymns. It’s an interesting thought that they were determined to share this with all passers-by within a few hundred yards. When I say urban poetry, they would call it rap but it’s still just issues they can relate to in a format they find acceptable. Whilst I didn’t raise this with them I thought that it could do with a few less expletives but the poetry was actually superb and I slowed down my walk to listen a bit longer.

There I am, one of those people who pretends not to listen but actually is drinking it in. We can be sure that whenever anyone talks about God there’s always some like this.

A lot of us would give their material a wide berth yet there’s a creative sense of lament about a lot of life’s sadness and problems if anyone can be bothered to listen. One of Eminem’s collaborations with Ed Sheeran speaks of moving from the darkness pain and regrets of the past leading to rivers of tears…

Been a lover, been a cheat

All my sins need holy water, feel it washing over me

Well little one I don’t want to admit to something

If all it’s gonna cause is pain

Truth and lies right now are falling like the rain

So let the river run


Jesus gave us a hint of how to get people intrigued enough to explore further. Perhaps a bit of a hook, an opening line might get their attention.

The opening line in Norman MacLean’s book, ‘A River Runs Through It’ is…

‘In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.’

People will quickly find their own twist on the fly-fishing part, whatever their passion is football, music, cooking, or you never know they might actually be obsessed with fly fishing.

The hard way in would be telling them in a believable way that if they really knew what the kingdom of God was like that their other passion might be put in perspective. But what if they were to start by recognising God in the very things already most important to them?

It may be unrealistic think that we can find ways to give everyone a hook or a theme that resonates for them as a route to ponder God’s kingdom. Once the words have left our mouths we have no further control over how they fall upon people’s ears.

Yet we’re all here or listening on a Podcast because we are people who want to know the kingdom of God. Like those hearing Jesus’ parables it might prove beneficial to consider how we find creative and surprising ways to explore this in a deeper sense.

Just in case we need reminding, it’s OK to start with something really small.