SERMONS

NORTH TYNE AND REDESDALE TEAM PARISH

Redesdale Group of Churches

13th August 2017

Matthew 14.22-33


Jesus walking on the water.

A well known story.

But we would miss the point if we became fixated on how it happened. Many commentators have come up with explanations.

  • Jesus was walking on a sandbank.
  • Jesus, walking on the higher ground on the northern side of the Sea of Galilee, saw the disciples in trouble, and, the wind having blown the disciples back up against the shore without them realising, were shocked by his sudden appearance.

However we view it, this is a story which grew from the fertile soil of the unique and charismatic character of Jesus, the faith or lack of faith of the disciples, and the very special relationship they had.

Rather than speculate on what actually happened, I prefer to move on to reflecting on what God might be saying to us, today in this story. Where might we fit in?  

Galilee is well known for its storms which can come suddenly out of the blue. It seems the disciples were unable to make any headway. This is all the more striking considering they were professional fishermen, they had experience, wisdom, skill. There is a sense in which we are like the disciples in the boat.  We too in our world have experience, wisdom, skill. We have discovered so much, learned so much, invented so much, and yet are still without power to do many of the things that really matter. We have invented wonderful machines for making war, but nobody yet has found one that will make peace. We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t put food into hungry stomachs. We can listen to the songs the whales sing on the ocean floor, but we can’t hear the crying of human souls in the next street.[1] We are stuck, struggling against contrary winds at every level. We need help.

And there is this strange ghostly figure, a mirage or fantasy, from another world it seems.  Some find him frightening, others wish he would go away and leave them alone, others dismiss him as wishful thinking.

‘Don’t be afraid’, says the figure. Strangely familiar, the disciples begin to wonder if it is Jesus.

6th August 2017

TRANSFIGURATION SUNDAY

Luke 9.28b-36


Mountains attract clouds. Living where we do we know this. Sometimes they come out of the blue, obscuring everything. And then perhaps for a moment, a bright beam of an invisible sun lights up the gloom.

Today’s gospel reading tells of Jesus taking Peter, James and John up a mountain. There they have an unforgettable experience. They see Jesus in a new light.

In the Hebrew scriptures mountains were seen as holy places. Moses received the ten commandment on Mount Sinai, Elijah heard the voice of God on Mount Horeb. Seeing Jesus, on the mountain top, in the company of Moses the Lawgiver and Elijah the Prophet brought it home to the disciples that Jesus must be someone special - and this was confirmed when the voice from the cloud said ‘This is my own dear Son, listen to him.

For the disciples, for a moment, it was perfectly clear who Jesus was - rather like when at night a flash of lightning brilliantly illuminates the darkness. This episode was a ‘trailer’ of the resurrection, given just for a moment.

This is a story about ‘transfiguration’. We’ve heard the expression ‘Go figure it out’. That’s a good way of beginning to understand this story. Many a time at school I struggle to figure out a maths problem but suddenly it would come like a revelation and I understood it. There are other instances when you suddenly see something. Like when a random pattern of high clouds assume the shape of a dog, or a fish or whatever - just for a moment. Or like this image

Or this

Transfiguration is not the same as transformation. Transformation is when something changes. Transfiguration is when something ordinary is suddenly seen in a new light and given extraordinary significance; a new meaning.

Being a Christian is to begin to see creation- all that is - transfigured, with new eyes, as having something to to with God, as having been created, redeemed and sustained through God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Might it be our prayer that the world and all that happens be transfigured each day - that we might have a new vision of the so called ordinary or mundane things.

Such moments of transfiguration can happen at any time and any place and they can turn us into better human beings - people more in tune with God’s vision. And that in turn can transform us, and others, and like ripples on a pond can spread out into the world around us, and make a difference.

As a short post script I want to take us back to the curious statement of Peter, who wanted to build shelters, or tents, or ‘tabernacles’ - for them to dwell.  But such moments of transfiguration cannot be contained in Church buildings or structures. They happen anywhere and everywhere, especially, when we accept the invitation of Jesus to walk with him.

C.S. Lewis wrote a book about his conversion to Christianity. He called it ‘Surprised by Joy’. Angela Ashwin wrote a book called ‘Heaven in Ordinary’. Both are about transfiguration. Both are worth a read.

I end with a prayer which draws upon these two ideas”

‘Heavenly Father, may we be granted visions of heaven in ordinary and may we be surprised by joy. And my we and our world be transfigured and transformed, from glory to glory.’ Amen.

30th July 2017

TRINITY 7

Matthew 13.1-9,18-23


This is a story about inclusion, compassion, hospitality and  generosity.

About how Jesus modelled these things

especially to those who were excluded and rejected.

He seemed to make a point of engaging with those outlawed by the respectable and religious guardians of behaviour.

Like Zaccheus.

Who was a tax collector -

collecting money from his own people

and giving it to his people's enemy, the Romans.

And keeping a share of it himself.

He was hated and despised by just about everyone, and quite possibly had a low view of himself, and when Jesus spoke with him and stayed with him the people were jealous, angry and uncomprehending.

Zacchaeus was also short in stature.  

Both how he looked

and what he did

caused him to feel like he didn’t fit in or belong

And he was tired of being an outsider.

Which is why he climbed a tree to see Jesus.

If he was ever going to belong again, Jesus was the one who might help him with belonging.

And what happened when Jesus saw Zacchaeus?

Jesus invited himself to Zaccheus’ house.

It was a simple way of saying: “You belong, Zacchaeus.”

By doing that, Jesus reminded not just Zacchaeus, but everyone, including his critics, that Zacchaeus was a child of God and belonged to God.

And Zacchaeus was so touched, that he then gave away half of what he owned. And offered to repay any he had cheated.

And this is the good news for today

 

All of us belong to God.

No matter what we look like

or what work we do or don't do

or where we were born.

And when we know that

when we trust it

and live it,

then we treat each other better

and share what we have more freely.

Which, then, helps those around us know that they are loved and belong as well.

The people  who seek, open up to and accept the companionship of Jesus become, in turn, people who themselves are inclusive and compassionate, generous and hospitable.

May we be people like that.

16th July 2017

TRINITY 5

Matthew 13.1-9,18-23


Jesus told his parable of the sower out in the countryside, not in the synagogue. This was because he was becoming increasingly unwelcome and would soon be banned by the authorities.

The consequence of this was that his teaching reached many more people. The parable of the sower perhaps came about as a way of explaining the resistance to his teaching which was emerging in the synagogue; why some refused to listen to him or believe his message. And why others often unexpectedly did.

It’s a well known parable and Matthew records Jesus detailed explanation of it to his disciples.

His disciples would need to know that even though they would, in future, sow the seed of the gospel of Jesus, not everyone would respond. But they were to be profligate, even wasteful in their sharing of the story of Jesus because who knows when the seed might take? They were not to judge who might and who might not respond.

For us it's an encouragement to keep on witnessing to our faith, by coming to church, and by not being afraid to talk about why we do so. By continuing to live the life of Jesus in an increasingly hostile or indifferent world. By showing love and compassion and forgiveness in a cynical and judgmental world

We may not see much in the way of conversion or church growth but it's up to God, who gives the growth. Who knows what the future might hold for someone you spoke with, or listened to, or helped in some way, perhaps only briefly, as a servant of Christ.

But of course not a lot will happen if the seed is not sown.

The parable of sower is also about our own spiritual growth; our readiness and willingness to be open to the seed that is sown in the words and stories of the bible. And, I might add, being open to the day to day situations, encounters and emotions we experience and through which God can enable us to grow. It is about the receptiveness of our hearts, souls and minds to what God might be sowing in us.

It is through the generosity and openness of his people that the kingdom of God will come amongst us. So let us strive in every way to be generous people and open people. And so we will fulfill the work of Jesus whether within or beyond the church.

9th July 2017

TRINITY 4

Matthew 11.16-19,25-30


Many many years ago, more by luck than judgement I obtained an O level pass in Physics. I can’t remember that much about the subject but for some reason can still remember the different orders of levers. The first order looks like this (demonstrate). This makes it possible to lift something which we ordinarily could not, so long as the object is nearer the fulcrum than the effort.

Many of us have different kinds of burdens to lift and carry. It may be a physical handicap, unemployment, poverty, ridicule, prejudice, serious physical or mental illness, anxiety, an uneasy relationship, a memory that will not go away, a grief that persists.

Much of the time we try to handle them ourselves but sometimes it all becomes too much.

Jesus said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest." There is no reason for you to struggle with burdens that are too heavy for you.

God's Word is full of promises to help us in times of trouble. Here are just a few: "Don't be afraid, I am with you." (Gen.26:24) "I'll give you strength." (Psalm 28:7) "I'm with you in times of trouble." (Psalm 34:6) These words of encouragement are just what we need to face the hard times that may come our way.

Does that mean that if we will ask him, God will take all of our troubles away? No, but he will help us. In fact, some of our struggles may help us to grow and become stronger. They may also help us to learn to trust in Jesus. But when the load is too heavy, he will help us to carry it -- and there is no burden that is too heavy for Jesus.

One way of looking at it is Jesus is the fulcrum and as long as we stand in the right place we find we have the strength we need.

Prayer can help us stand in the right place. But sometimes we need others to help us push down on the lever as it were. It is so important to be mindful of the needs of others and also not to be too proud to ask for help. Saint Paul said ‘Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6.2)

We can do this in two ways - by helping carry the load, or by making the load lighter. Part of our Christian identity is to help each other in those places where it hurts but also to offer practical support and sometimes advocacy help for those left behind in our society which places heavy burdens on many.

Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the world. —Archimedes

25 th June 2017

TRINITY 2

Jeremiah 20. 7-13


We usually look at the gospel reading in our sermons. Today, for a change, I want to refer to our Old Testament reading - from the Book of Jeremiah.

It is the longest book in the bible and it was compiled between BC 587 and 538, that is, during the exile in Babylon. It contains many of the remembered words of Jeremiah himself, but also writings of his scribe Baruch, who wrote the bibliographical bits, and there are additional writings by an unknown editor who brought it all together and added his own comments.

Jeremiah was from a clergy family living in the small town of Anathoth, a few miles north of Jerusalem. Born around 645 BCE, Jeremiah was about 18 when he was called to be a prophet in 627, the thirteenth year of King Josiah's administration (Jer 1:1-3).  He lived through great political turmoil, including the downfall of Judah, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and the deportation most of the population to Babylon. Most of his prophetic utterances were warnings and lamentations predicting these catastrophic events if the people did not repent of their ways.

The book of Jeremiah is special in the sense that we learn about the prophet himself, not just what he said. We get an honest insight his into internal state of mind.

Jeremiah believed that he had received his words from God and it pained this shy and sensitive young man who was obliged to proclaim the message which burned in him like fire.  But the people denounced him (see 20:10). Jeremiah felt caught in the middle, squeezed between a God who had insisted that he preach this difficult word of warning and a people who refused to believe him. He was stuck between an insistent God and a resistant people and he faced a vocational crisis.

In the midst of this crisis, he voices six laments (Jeremiah 11-20). In essence: God, I’m doing your bidding, so what’s with all this trouble I have to endure; the people are engaged in a whispering campaign against me. Why did you get me into this mess? You didn’t tell me it would be this difficult. It would have been better had I not been born than have to live through this. ...  Why is my pain unceasing, my wounds incurable, refusing to be healed? Truly, you [God] are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.”

Such words are echoed in many of the psalms, and in the book of Job, as well as in the Book of Lamentations.

It seems that Old Testament characters were more bold in their prayers than we are today. In this respect they set us an example, and given the many difficult times and personal crises we may face these kinds of prayers are a genuine gift.

When thinking about prayer and God, or any other important matter of faith, one of the most important things to keep in mind is that God has established a genuine relationship with us. This is the biblical message. Think for a minute about a person with whom you are closely related. If that relationship is to be genuine, what is necessary for it to be so?

Certainly a key factor would be healthy communication, being able to speak openly and honestly with each other. God understands that for our relationship with God to be genuine, our voice counts, too. God is not the only one who has something important to say. And so God gives us the gift of  prayer, including speaking our mind to God about whatever we may endure. God values what we have to say; God honors what we bring to the table.

Such honest  prayers are a God-given way for us to open up a situation more fully to God; to give God more room to work in our lives. God has our best interests at heart and will work with our prayers to create the best possible future.

God’s steadfast love and faithfulness is never changing. God keeps his promises even when, perhaps especially when, we struggle honestly with living the Christian life in our world

18th June 2017

TRINITY 1

Matthew 3.13-17


A short sermon about baptism

Jesus was in his late 20s when he was baptised. So it's never too late!

When he was a baby he had been taken to the Temple and blessed.

He was baptised by his cousin John.

And a voice from heaven was heard saying, 'You are my beloved son. With you I am well pleased.

Jesus knew he was loved by God.

His life's work was to express that love to everyone he met.

He knew that love was the only way
to defeat evil,
to heal all kinds of hurt,
to make life worth living.

He loved to the bitter end,
through betrayal,
desertion,
Death on the cross.

But love triumphed,
was raised from the dead
and is the most powerful force for good in the world
shining light into dark places.

To be baptised is to join in
with the light
against the darkness.

Parents and godparents you must learn that love
and teach it by what you do and say to your child in God.

This is the simple but profound way of all Christians.

11th June 2017

TRINITY SUNDAY

Isaiah 40.12-17,27-31

2 Corinthians 13.11-13

Matthew 28.16-20


Trinity Sunday - a challenge to preachers everywhere.

Lots of ways of understanding this revealed nature of God have been suggested down the centuries.

Christians believe in three divine persons who are jointly one divine personal being.

St Patrick talked on the three leaves of the shamrock.

If we were to use maths, it would not be, 1+1+1=3. It would be 1x1x1=1.

Some have tried to give human illustrations for the Trinity, such as H2O being water, ice and steam (all different forms, but all are H2O). Another illustration would be the sun. From it we receive light, heat and radiation. Three distinct aspects, but only one sun.

No illustration is going to be perfect.

From the very beginning we see God as a Trinity. In the book of Genesis, the first book in the Bible, God says, "Let us make man in our image…male and female God created them."1 We could have a whole sermon on the implications of this short verse!

When all is said and done we will never be able to logically depict the trinity as we might describe a physical object. We simply need to get on with it. The Trinity expresses the active, dynamic nature of God, so when it comes to the Trinity, we perhaps need to focus on orthopraxis (right action) rather than grind to a halt with orthodoxy (right belief). Having said that though, it is important not to believe utter foolishness.

Trinity Sunday brings to an end the long weeks of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost and  is the first of the Sundays of so called ordinary time and during this ordinary time we are encouraged to be caught up ourselves in the dance of Trinity in the world, in joy, love, compassion, creation, reconciliation and peace. To worship the Father in word and deed, in the name of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

As he prepared to leave the disciples Jesus said:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”

I want to share with you a piece of writing by Malcolm Guite poet, singer-songwriter, Anglican priest, and academic. I don’t normally fill my sermons with quotes but I hope you will understand why when you hear it.

It invites us to participate  in the Divine Dance in contrast to the ways of the world.

 And it is hugely relevant.

It’s entitled: “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea”

“MY Saturday began amid the lush green hills of Herefordshire, where, as Chesterton says:

The soft feet of the blessed go
In the soft western vales,
The road the silent saints accord,
The road from Heaven to Hereford,
Where the apple wood of Hereford
Goes all the way to Wales.

 I had been invited to speak at the Traherne festival, and started my day gazing from the church porch at Credenhill across to the Hay Bluff, utterly open to all that Thomas Traherne had seen when he stood there and glimpsed “the orient and immortal wheat . . . and young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty” — the eternal, for that immortal poet, always and everywhere translucent through time.

But my day did not end there. It ended in Southwark. For that evening I travelled from Hereford to Paddington and thence to London Bridge, and walked through the Borough Market, minutes before the terrorist attacks.

I made my way to the Dean’s house in readiness for a Pentecost sermon. It was never preached. I had just been welcomed into that lovely house by the Globe Theatre when suddenly the phones buzzed, the texts came through, the sirens sounded outside as police boats sped up the river, and the emergency was upon us.

As soon as he grasped what was happening, the Dean left the house and walked back towards danger to see if he could open the cathedral. But he was held back by the police and returned, bringing a distressed Muslim friend with him, and all we could do was pray.

As the first shaky footage from mobile phones came through on the news, I found myself as utterly open to the shock and horror of those woundings I had missed by minutes as I had been to the lucent beauty of Credenhill. Its hard to hold these things together.

 

How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O! how shall summer’s honey breath hold out,
Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days?

 

Shakespeare’s words had been haunting me since the Manchester bombing, and now this. Was the frailty of poetry, the gossamer web of vision, simply to be blown away by these battering days?

Somehow the opposite happened: beauty’s action, in every blossom, in every gesture of grace, seemed stronger than ever. The rage in me surged and went.

In the morning, when, the cathedral still out of bounds, I checked my phone to see what route I might take home, I saw the blocked ways: the bridge, Borough High Street, the Thames-side roads to left and right, picked out on the screen in red, forming a distinct cross, a cross at whose heart was the hurt, and I remembered Traherne’s lovely words to Christ: “I will not by the noise of bloody wars and the dethroning of kings advance you to glory: but by the gentle ways of peace and love.’’

4 June 2017

PENTECOST

Acts 2.1-21,  John 20.19-23


Church buildings. Those of us charged with their maintenance might be forgiven for regarding them as a bit of drain on our time and finances.

But we are blessed with some wonderful buildings, even in this little valley in the borderlands. Tourists, and those who come for pastoral offices (baptisms, weddings, funerals) are quick to comment on how beautiful, atmospheric, peaceful, spiritual they are -

and they don’t seem to notice the things we do;  the crumbling stonework and plaster, the damp and mould, the evidence left by the odd wee beastie .  

What they do sense is  a quality often described as ‘numinous’.

The dictionary defines numinous as appealing to the higher emotions or to the aesthetic sense, and filled with a sense of the presence of divinity.

Whatever we do to our buildings we must never destroy that sense of the numinous, indeed we should seek to enhance it because that is what makes them special, different, a sign of something beyond the ordinary and the mundane.

Our Rural Dean, Steve Wilkinson, suggests that no visitor should leave the church without a real sense of blessing.

Our buildings, especially St Cuthbert Elsdon go back a long way. But let’s travel back even further, nearly 3000 years,  to 950 BC when King Solomon oversaw the building of the great Temple in Jerusalem.

Solomon’s temple was the most numinous and holy of all religious buildings, God was present in a very real and powerful way. We read in the Book of Chronicles that when the temple was dedicated the Glory of God came down in fire and smoke.[2] 

The Hebrews called it the Shekinah of God, God’s Glory and Presence.

This first temple stood for 400 years before being destroyed by the Babylonians. The bible account tells us that the Babylonians were permitted to destroy it because the Shekinah had departed because the people had forgotten God and broken the covenant.

The Jews were taken into exile.

Forty years later they returned to Jerusalem and a second temple was built, and during Jesus’ time it was being enlarged by King Herod. However in AD 70 this too was destroyed, by the Romans. It was never rebuilt and all that is left is the Wailing Wall.

But the second temple was a poor imitation and never again did the Shekinah of God return to it.

Now at the time of Jesus the Jews were still waiting for the Glory of God to return to the Temple and they hoped that this would drive out the Roman occupiers of their land and reestablish their nation as a people chosen by God, as in King David and Solomon’s time.

The Glory of God, the Shekinah, did come. But not everyone recognised it. Many hoped and expected it to come come in power and violent overthrow of the unbelievers. That was not, and is not God's way. It came in the person of Jesus. And it bypassed the old Temple completely. It was completely revolutionary.

After Jesus was taken into God’s presence the Shekinah returned and dwelt not in the temple  of stone but in peace and vulnerability in the disciples, and all who followed Jesus down the ages.

Today is the Day of Pentecost.

St Luke tells the story in a typical dramatic visual way.

Fire came down from heaven as it did when the First Temple was consecrated. It came not to consume but to give a new life to Jesus followers. God created a new temple, of living stones, of people in which his Glory would dwell forever, which nothing would now be able to destroy.

And what has all this to do with us?

Simply this. Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to all who seek to follow him. The Holy Spirit is present wherever Christ’s work is intentionally continued, in love, forgiveness, compassion, healing, justice. The Holy Spirit is the Shekinah, the glory of God, alive and well in the temple of the people.

Visitors are overwhelmed by the numinous quality of our buildings. How wonderful it will be when people are overwhelmed by the quality, vitality, forgiveness, inclusion, healing, peace and compassion, above all, the love of the people of God.  And we can do that if we let the Shekinah, the glory of God inhabit us, no matter how flawed or crumbling we think we are because love covers a multitude of sins.

It is in this that the glory of God abides; not in white vans driven into people, or in knives or in bombs.

Amen

28th May 2017

EASTER 7

Acts 1.6-14


Did you know that last Thursday the church celebrated Ascension day? It has been described as the poor relation amongst Church festivals. Yet in some ways it’s one of the more important festivals.  St Luke tells it twice, at the end of his gospel and the beginning of his history of the early church, which we read this morning. It is not a public holiday in the UK although it is in many other countries.

Perhaps the problem lies in the way Luke simply tells the story, without any theological comment. It all seems a bit Peter Pannish!  And some of the paintings reinforce a rather literalistic interpretation, with Jesus feet disappearing into the cloud. Luke’s readers would have understood that he was not talking about some ‘heavenly elevator’ but rather was referring to Jesus being welcomed into God’s presence. The cloud was a regular way of depicting the glory of God. In the Exodus story, God led his people by the pillar of cloud[3]. It was in the cloud on the mountain that Moses received the Ten Commandments. When Jesus was transfigured before his disciples on the mountain God spoke from the cloud.[4]  And it is ‘on the clouds of heaven’ that the Son of Man will appear on the Last Day[5] . In fact there are 177 references to cloud in the bible and almost all refer to the presence (often hidden) of God.[6] 

The ascension marked the end of the sporadic and unpredictable but physical appearances of the risen Christ to the disciples.  It marked the beginning of something new. That’s why Luke tells it twice; to end his gospel of Jesus, and to begin his account of the church. The ascension is the pivotal point, in one sense marking the beginning of the era in which we now try to live out our faith.

The ascension is important in that it confirms that Jesus is Lord, having been exalted to God’s right hand. As Lord he will claim first loyalty of his people, over and above Caesar or any earthly power, monarch, political party, or global corporation - which is a political, as well as a personal spiritual matter.

As Risen Lord, at God’s right hand,  he will pour out the gift of the Holy Spirit[7], as we shall see next Sunday. The Ascension sets the stage for something new - for which the disciples must wait. This new thing is not a return to the ‘good ole days’ but the beginning of the as yet unrealized goal of being a light to the world. Not a return to the old style kingdom based on the temple in Jerusalem but the beginning of a mission to all nations.

The ascension is also about the absence of Jesus. The disciples have to be called away from staring at where Jesus used to be. The story of the ascension says that to us too. We are called away from looking at where it used to be - whether in history, our own life experiences, or in supposedly settled opinions and interpretations. But is also about the new reality that the living Christ can be be encountered anywhere and everywhere for he is not bound to place and time. Jesus is encountered in word and in sacrament, in prayer and praise,in the fellowship of the church, in ministry with the poor and oppressed.

And finally, the Ascension conveys the truth that none of the departures we experience in life - of relationships, health, life itself - can now rob us of God’s good promise.

All of these reasons tells us th at we can and should celebrate the Ascension.

Thanks be to God.

21 May 2017

EASTER 6

John 14.15-21


I hear the word ‘mindful’ used a lot.

The other day I read an article on ‘mindful eating’ - something which is supposed to help us lose weight. Mindful eating is when you concentrate on, savour and enjoy whatever it is you are eating. It is the opposite of watching TV, reading the paper or a book, tapping on your phone or tablet whilst absently shoving stuff into your mouth.

The closest I have come to that was on retreat at Pluscarden Abbey in the north of Scotland when we ate in silence with the brothers in the refectory. I’ll come back to this idea of mindfulness later.

***************

A question

What does it mean to be a Christian?

Some say they are Christian because they are English, and not a Moslem or a Sikh or a Jew or a Buddhist or atheist. But they do not go to church.

Others attend church from time to time, and maybe support the fundraising activities of their local church which they see as their church, and they are respectable as best they can be, and have a vague belief in God and Jesus and heaven, but it doesn’t much affect how they look at the world or what they do with their time and money.

And who is to judge? Certainly not me, for I believe that everyone is God’s child.

But I also believe that to make the most out of being a child of God requires a bit of an effort on our part - as do all good and worthwhile things.

According to Saint John, Jesus said that he had come bring life in all its fullness - now and in eternity. He also said that to obtain - or make real - that life in all its fullness, we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength - and we should love our neighbour as ourselves. (Jesus saw our neighbour as anyone - especially those in need). And these two commandments sum up the Christian life.

Saint Augustine simplified it even more, saying ‘love God and do what you like’. Because if you love God you will not do anything that would damage that love.

However, in the bible, and in Jesus’ teaching, love is more than a nice warm feeling about God or our neighbour. St John wrote ‘God is love and he who abides in love abides in God and God abides in him.  But he went to write ‘if anyone says I love God and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.’[8] Again the word ‘brother’ means much more than my mother’s son.

This love that Jesus taught is about real attentiveness to one another's needs; it is about practical care, acceptance, forgiveness, encouragement, support, comfort, prayer  and every way of promoting life in all its fulness.  

This love that Jesus taught is about challenging injustice, oppression, cruelty, indifference, prejudice and all those things which deny life in all its fulness.

And it is about, to use a phrase I heard not long ago, keeping on loving even when its hurts.

All these things are what it means to be a Christian.

Of course none of this is particularly easy for most of us. So, before he ascended to heaven, (which we celebrate this coming Thursday), Jesus promised he would provide help.  He said to his disciples, ‘If you love me you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father and he will give you another advocate, to be with you forever … the Spirit of Truth .. who will abide with you, and he will be with you. This is the Holy Spirit who Jesus promised would walk with those who sought to obey his command to love; who would lead, guide, challenge, comfort and support them on their journey through life.

***********

Now back to ‘mindfulness’.

In baptism - and this is affirmed in confirmation - Christians are given the gift of the Holy Spirit; a personal, indwelling living fragment of the Holy Trinity. But so often the Holy Spirit gets put away in a little room, deep within us, and the door is shut, and we get on with our lives.

But that door can be opened.

And the key is mindfulness.

I explained at the beginning what mindful eating is. Now I suggest that we apply that principle to our day to day lives and try some ‘mindful’ living.

How can we do this?

It’s quite simple really but requires a bit of self discipline.

Take the time and begin to develop the habit of looking at what’s happening, what’s going on, in a new way, through the eyes of the Holy Spirit as it were. And looking in a similar way at our choices, our actions and our words. As look in this way so the Holy Spirit will begin to energise us.

And the more mindful we become

the more we will become aware of the Holy Spirit with us,

and the more we will find ourselves living and sharing life in all its fullness.

And that actually is what it means to be a Christian.

7 May 2017

EASTER 4

John 10.1-10


I begin with two images.

The first image is of a church in this diocese, quite a large church, with a noticeboard which reads as follows:

Holy Communion 8.00 am

Parish Communion 9.30 am

Evensong 6.30 pm

For times of other services see the noticeboard in the north porch.

There is a small, flat wooden cross pinned in the bottom left hand corner and at the bottom of the noticeboard are the words:

No Public Right of Way.

I know what it’s meant to mean but it seems also to mean, perhaps subliminally, something else.

The Church that likes to say No!

We don’t welcome the public here  (but you are welcome if you join our club)

The second image. To visit Mrs Percy you have to stop at the gate at the end of the road. A man in a uniform approaches you. He asks you your name and who you are visiting. He calls here in his phone, speaks to her and presses a button which opens the gate, sending you on your way with ‘have a nice day’.  You have entered one of the growing number of gated communities that are springing up everywhere.

Whatever the pros and cons of such communities they reflect a trend towards withdrawal, isolation and protectionism which not only affects local communities but national politics too.

All of this leads me on to thinking about the idea of a gatekeeper.

A gatekeeper decides who or what comes in and who or what goes out. A big part of a gatekeeper’s job is to protect, and it is this kind of gatekeeper that we come across in today’s gospel.

The story is set in a culture very different to ours. Jesus likens himself to a shepherd who, amongst other things, acts as a gatekeeper for his sheep. In those days the sheep would be penned into the fold at night and the shepherd would lie across the gate. No one could pass except through him. And more; during the day his sheep, knowing his voice, would follow him as he led them to good pastures and protected them from thieves and wild animals.

Jesus said ‘Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I come that they may have life and have it abundantly’.

So, today, is the church expected to be like Jesus - a spiritually gated community? Or society’s gatekeeper?

Yes, to a degree but we must be careful because that could lead us to being, or feeling, a bit exclusive and isolated from the rest of the world with ‘No Public Right of Way’, or with rules about who can come in.

So perhaps it’s better to ask who is the gatekeeper of our hearts and whose voice do we listen to; for there are many, like the thieves who climb in over the wall, that clamour for our attention and lead us astray. The voice to listen to, the one that has our best interests at heart is that of the Good Shepherd, Jesus, the only voice, incidentally that leads us on a journey that we can be sure will lead us through and beyond this life. This is the voice that encourages us when the going gets tough (as it will), and also which leads us out of the safety of fold into the world. This is the voice of one who gives life in all its abundance and then asks us to take that abundance to all. Who asks us to be such a caring, loving and compassionate community that others will see a new sign at the entrance which reads ‘Public right of way’ and where the gate is always open.

23 April 2017

EASTER 2

John 20.19-31


Thomas said unless I see ….. I will not believe.

We cannot see as Thomas was allowed to see. But we do have some good evidence of the real and actual existence of Jesus which is both long-established and widespread. Within a few decades of his supposed lifetime, he is mentioned by Jewish and Roman historians, as well as by dozens of Christian writings.

Compare that with, for example, King Arthur, who supposedly lived around AD500. Historical sources for events of that time do not mention Arthur, and he is first referred to 300 or 400 years after he is supposed to have lived. The evidence for Jesus is not limited to later folklore, as are accounts of Arthur.

Written evidence about Jesus is both early and detailed. The first Christian writings to talk about Jesus are the epistles of St Paul, and scholars agree that the earliest of these letters were written within 25 years of Jesus’s death at the very latest, while the detailed biographical accounts of Jesus in the New Testament gospels date from around 40 years after he died. These all appeared within the lifetimes of numerous eyewitnesses, and provide descriptions that correspond  with the culture and geography of first-century Palestine. It is also difficult to imagine why Christian writers would invent such a thoroughly Jewish saviour figure in a time and place – under the aegis of the Roman empire – where there was strong suspicion of Judaism.

Written evidence also comes from the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who wrote a history of Judaism around AD93. He has two references to Jesus. One of these is controversial because it is thought to be corrupted by Christian scribes (probably turning Josephus’s negative account into a more positive one), but the other is not suspicious – a reference to James, the brother of “Jesus, the so-called Christ”.

About 20 years after Josephus we have the Roman politicians Pliny and Tacitus, at the beginning of the second century AD. Neither of them liked Christians.  From Tacitus we learn that Jesus was executed while Pontius Pilate was the Roman prefect in charge of Judaea (AD26-36) and Tiberius was emperor (AD14-37) – reports that fit with the timeframe of the gospels. Pliny contributes the information that, where he was governor in northern Turkey, Christians worshipped Christ as a god.

Nor was there any debate in the ancient world about whether Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure. In the earliest literature of the Jewish Rabbis, Jesus was denounced as the illegitimate child of Mary and a sorcerer. Among pagans, the satirist Lucian and philosopher Celsus dismissed Jesus as a scoundrel, but we know of no one in the ancient world who questioned whether Jesus lived.

In a recent book, the French philosopher Michel Onfray talks of Jesus as a mere hypothesis, his existence as an idea rather than as a historical figure. This was taken up by the so called Jesus Project set up in the US. One of its main questions for discussion was that of whether Jesus existed. However critics of the Jesus Project, including several self proclaimed atheists have cast doubt on its so called findings and called it pseudo scholarship.  But despite the significant body of respectable opinion that Jesus did actually exist it is reckoned that about 40% of the population believe he is a made up figure. Still, that shouldn’t surprise us considering how scant regard is paid to evidence these days!

These abundant written historical references leave us with little reasonable doubt that Jesus lived and died. The more interesting question – which goes beyond history and objective fact – is whether Jesus died and lived.

The heart of faith is not did Jesus exist but who was he, who is he? Christians, like Thomas, say of this historical figure, ‘My Lord and my God’, and try to live their lives in accordance with this profession.

16 April 2017

EASTER SUNDAY

Matthew 28:1-10

Mari Mander


What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make and end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from.......

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot

When reading a story how keen are we to get to the end? Children especially if they know a familiar story. It's easy to think that after a busy holy week that finally we are at Easter Sunday and it's here the story ends, not so...

Not one of the Gospels can really end the story of Jesus.  The whole point is that it continues--and that its significance continues.  Christ's resurrection means that the story of Jesus is "to be continued" in you, and in me, and in every life that is touched by the power of the good news that, "He is risen."

The two Marys approached the tomb, expecting to see the final resting place of Christ. Instead, a message greets them.

First, they feel a message--in a great earthquake.   They see a message--quite literally,  an angel. Finally, they hear a message:  "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; he has been raised, as he said."   This good news is only the start of a chain of messages.  The messenger commands, "Go quickly and tell his disciples".

Jesus himself appeared to them and repeated that command, "Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."

Matthew's resurrection narrative is about the first announcement in what was to become a continuous chain of announcements, with one messenger repeating t

the message to the next, down through the ages that, "He has been raised from the dead."

The good news of Jesus' resurrection is announced.  The command is given to go and spread the word.  The Gospel of Matthew, perhaps aware that all the words in the world could not explain the meaning of the resurrection, simply announces:  He has been raised.

Jesus is full of surprises.  Old skins cannot contain the new wine.  He will not be found by our human traditions; even death has no final power over him.  The end only marks a new beginning--a beginning of the good news that Jesus, is the one who becomes the source of life.

He is not bound, he continues into the future God has in store for all creation. We can only trust that God will one day finish the story, as God has promised.

What's true of this Easter narrative  is seeing how the story will continue...

Imagine a scene of desolation...a stale, stinking canal, broken lamp-posts, flats boarded up, no grass, no trees, graffiti everywhere. For 30 years the site had been empty since an explosion killed a couple, asleep in their bed. No bodies were found. Nothing grew there, until one autumn a seed took root. Nobody noticed the plant for weeks, but you can't miss a sunflower. It stood, 5 or 6 feet tall, with its heavy golden head. Most locals had never seen a sunflower. Some were changed by its beauty, no longer having a tired, dejected stoop. Most though we're bewildered- it was so out of place. People left the sunflower alone, they thought they'd get used to it but they couldn't. It showed up the drabness, the desolation for what it was...empty, ugly and dead. So people grew bitter about it, it became intolerable. A great crowd trampled on the flower, danced on it, beat the fibres of its leaves and stem and crushed its petals. Then they went away in silence. They destroyed the plant in high summer, when it was full of ripe seed. In their dance of death the seed was scattered over the entire site. Next spring the scene was covered with sunflowers, flowers at last on the couple's grave. *

Let us remember that the ultimate sign of joy on Easter morning the empty tomb;  but a tomb filled with hope, an emptiness that can only be maintained in a sharing the message of that continual pouring out of God's love and compassion.

The story that continues in each one of us...

*Speaking of God by Trevor Dennis.

13 April 2017

MAUNDY THURSDAY

John 13.1-17,31b-35

A tale of two cities.


The way of the world

The way of God.  

The way of the world

Politicians and their friends in the press and social media trumpeting their opinions and justifying their actions.

CEOs and bankers squirrelling away huge sums whilst benefits are cut so a penny can be saved on tax. And the gap between rich and poor growing all the time.

Celebrities being famous simply for being famous.

Turning a blind eye to the needy.

Inhospitality to the refugee.

Conspicuous Consumption highlighting the poverty of others

Tribalism. Racial prejudice. Fear and dislike of people who are different.

I guess I could go on.

The way of God

Taught and lived by Jesus.

Who did not see equality with God as thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. (Phil 2.6)

Who said to his disciples that he who would be greatest must be least.

Who on the eve of his crucifixion took a towel and washed his disciples feet.

Who came to serve, to heal, to include the poor, the outcast, the foreigner and to hold fast to God's way even when it meant rejection, pain and death.

And who held out his hand for us to grasp and follow.

To follow his way. God's Way.

To care, to welcome, to love, to affirm not just one another, not just those like us, but all who need caring for, welcoming, loving, affirming.

That's the Christian way. That's the properly human way. Not the way of the world.

And there are many who follow this way without really knowing it. Think of those who care for loved ones in ways more intimate than washing feet. They too are following God's way. They too may walk the road that Jesus walked and they too will know the resurrection. And if you are not sure about this the read what Jesus said in the parable of the sheep and goats that what you do for the least you do for him. Thanks be to God.

In Jesus and his way of life, you have given us an example that is in sharp contrast to the ways of the world. In the grace and power of your Spirit may we be empowered to reach out in compassion and love. May we know that the space between us and others is filled with a towel. Amen.

2nd April 2017

John 11.1-45

The Resurrection and the Life  - here and now.


Many years ago at school we would sometimes read plays. First we would look at the cast  of characters; some in the class were happy to take on the leading roles, others desperately hoped for the bit parts.

Let’s look at the cast of characters in our gospel today. Jesus, naturally; the disciples; Thomas; Martha; Mary; the mourners; the Pharisees and Lazarus. I do not ask the question, which part would you like to play in this drama; I merely observe that sometimes events lead us into one or other of the roles in real life. We may know the fearful courage of Thomas, the grief of Martha and Mary, and ultimately we will know as our own the part of Lazarus.

So much for the characters. Now for the plot.  It begins with Jesus receiving the news that his good friend Lazarus is gravely ill. But Jesus delays going to Bethany for a few days. When he eventually decides to set off, Thomas gives voice to the fear of the disciples. Bethany is too close to Jerusalem, which is where Jesus main enemies are - a place of great danger. Nevertheless they go with him. Jesus knows what they suspect, that the time of confrontation with the authorities will soon become inevitable. As they approach the village they are met by Martha who asks why Jesus had not come sooner.

There then follows a conversation, and a statement by Martha that is the fulcrum point on which the whole of St John’s Gospel is balanced. A profession which lies at the foundation of the Christian faith. It is literally at the centre of the gospel story.

Jesus says to Martha, ‘Your brother will rise again’. She replies that she knows he will rise again, at the resurrection at the last day. And Jesus replies; ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this? Martha replies, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world’.

And there we have it. The great proclamation of what is to become the Christian Faith down the ages - and note this -  from the mouth of a woman.

Martha goes and gets  her sister Mary. Jesus weeps at the tomb; a rare show of deeply human and divine grief and lament. But it is not a hopeless cry of desolation for he then proves what Martha has just said about him, and draws Lazarus back to life and tells them to unbind him take him home.

All this proves too much for the watching Pharisees. Now they are more determined than ever to put a stop to this man. They are increasingly threatened and fearful that the crowds will flock to follow Jesus as the Messiah, who they think will lead them in a rebellion against the Roman Occupying forces, which they know will unleash terrible retribution.

So we enter into the two weeks Passiontide, travelling with Jesus as he starts his journey to his own death, from which he will choose not to save himself but out of which will emerge the hope of all humankind - the assurance of sins forgiven, and the promise of new life.

QUESTIONS

  • Can you identify with any of the characters in the story?
  • What does Jesus mean when he says ‘I am the resurrection and the life? What does this mean to you personally?

PRAYER

Lord Jesus Christ, we believe that you are the resurrection and the life and that eternal life begins right now as we enter intentionally into your presence. Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother, may we know you more clearly, love you more dearly and follow you more nearly, day by day. And may we know that nothing can separate us from your love, not even death itself.

26th March 2017

John 9.1-41

“Do you remember Glen Hoddle?”


Do you remember Glen Hoddle? He was, apparently, quite a good manager of England’s football team. Like so many managers before and after him he was sacked but do you remember why? It wasn’t because he lost too many matches. It was because of his spiritual views - that people who suffered from illness or disability were being punished for sins committed in a previous life. Such a view is shared by the traditional Hindu belief in Karma - that our actions have consequences in this and our future lives.

It seems that a variation of this kind of thinking lay behind the disciples’ question to Jesus about the man born blind. There was at that time a commonly held view that illness and disability were inflicted as a punishment from God, perhaps for some sin or other committed by one’s parents.

Jesus was very clear about this. Neither blindness nor any other illness or disability was a direct punishment from God.

The causal link, for example, between smoking and lung cancer is a biological one, not a punishment sent by God. The same might be said of many other behavioural, social or environmentally caused illnesses. The same might be said about any illness or disability actually for they arise out of simply being human in a world that is as it is. As we learnt from John Bell at last week’s Lent conversation, no one has any guarantees in this life, and neither are Christians exempt from these things.  The view that going to church (or even being a nice, kind person) should result in a charmed and protected life has resulted in many a person walking away from God when a loved one becomes ill or dies in tragic circumstances.

Illness and tragedy are a fact of life. However Jesus does not passively accept suffering of any kind. Nor does he shrug a fatalistic shoulder when he encounters it. Most certainly he does not seem to counsel acceptance of suffering as intentionally sent by God as a test of character or an opportunity for sacrificial care. Noble and selfless actions can arise from suffering and can redeem it to an extent and there can, therefore, arise from suffering, something good that otherwise would not have been. But suffering is not intentionally sent for that purpose.

I wondered about the translation of a particular phrase. “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (NRSV). It doesn't say God deliberately created him blind so that his works might be revealed in him. The Contemporary English Version says “because of his blindness, you will see God work a miracle for him”. The paraphrased “Message’ puts it thus: ‘There is no cause and effect here. Look instead for what God can do’.

Wherever and whenever Jesus encountered suffering he healed it. Period. And he did it without enquiring about the soundness or otherwise of the person’s faith or doctrine or life. He could not help it. Health and wholeness are part of the kingdom of God. And wherever Jesus was, there was the kingdom of God. Sometimes healing was unlocked by the recipient’s trust, sometimes it was pure gratuitous gift.

No one has the gift of healing which Jesus had. But we can follow his example in not condemning those who suffer as deserving it. And we can do all we can to alleviate such suffering, whatever it is, and to care gratuitously, with no strings attached.

QUESTIONS

  • Are the terms illness, disability and suffering solely to do with physical ailments or might they include psychological, social, economic circumstances?
  • How does your belief in God colour your attitude to suffering, illness and tragedy? Has that view changed over the years? If so, how?

19th March 2017

John 4.5-42

“Breaking with tradition”


Jesus is facing hostility from the Pharisees in Judea. It is too early in his ministry for confrontation so he decides to leave for Galilee, travelling through Samaria. In the heat of the noonday sun Jesus rests by Jacob’s well. The disciples have gone into Sychar, a village about half an hour away to buy food. Jesus is thirsty but the well is 100 feet deep and he has nothing to draw water with.

Then, from the direction of Sychar comes a woman. What is she doing out in the midday sun during siesta time? Perhaps she is disorganised or disorientated. The usual time for women to come and draw water would be early morning or late evening, so perhaps she is shunned by the other women and is trying to avoid them.

Here then is a Samaritan, a woman and someone probably marginalised in the community. Jesus was a Jew, and Jews were supposed to have no dealings with Samaritans who they regarded as the worst kind of foreigners. Jesus was a rabbi, a respected teacher, and rabbis were not meant to speak with women outside. The rabbis had also declared that it was not worth teaching women.

Jesus breaks all of these traditions and speaks to the ostracised Samaritan woman. Not only that, he makes himself vulnerable by asking her to give him a drink. She is surprised by responds generously - wonder ing that a Jewish man would deign to speak to her a Samaritan woman.

They get into conversation and it seems that she has a thirst she cannot quench. She has had five husbands and the one she is now living with is not her husband - perhaps that is why she is shunned by the community. Was her thirst for love, or was it for acceptance? Was it needed to fill an inner emptiness? Maybe nothing and no one can give her what she wants.

Jesus says he can satisfy her thirst, can give her living water. ‘Those who drink of the water I will give them, will never be thirsty’ he says. The woman decides to humour him at first. If that was so then she would never need to come to the well again.  

As they talk it begins to dawn on the woman that she is speaking with a true prophet - indeed the Messiah himself - imagine that - who tells her that true worship of God is not restricted to one or another particular place but is ‘in Spirit’ and ‘in Truth’ wherever and whoever you are.

When the disciple return they are shocked to find Jesus in deep conversation with this Samaritan woman with a reputation. She leaves and goes back to Sychr and - very bravely, considering who she is - tells them about Jesus and how she has found the Messiah. She has become an apostle, and many Samaritans came to believe in Jesus because of her words.

QUESTIONS

  • Who would be the equivalent of the Samaritan woman today? What does Jesus behaviour towards her teach us?
  • What does it mean to worship in spirit and in truth in the world today? To what extent is our worship in Spirit and in truth?
  • The woman at the well became an apostle - taking Jesus to others. It was women who first witnessed the empty tomb and encountered the risen Christ and then went to tell the disciples. In the light of this why do you think the church has historically placed restrictions on the ministry of women?

12 March 2017

John 3.1-17 

“Born from on high”


Nicodemus was a wealthy and powerful man.

He was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin of which there were only 70 members.  The Sanhedrin was the supreme court of the Jews. It had religious jurisdiction over all the Jews in the world. One of its important functions was to check out the credentials of anyone who set himself up as a teacher or prophet.

When Nicodemus came to see Jesus it was at night.

He did not come in any official capacity and he was taking a risk.

It must be remembered that John’s Gospel, from which this story comes, is full of symbolism. So the night might also be a symbol of Nicodemus’ own darkness and unanswered questions about life, and God, and where things were going. Perhaps we might be led to speculate that religion and law abiding and respect and power were not enough for Nicodemus who was coming to believe that something more was needed.

Jesus, of course, knew who Nicodemus was and what he stood for.

He did not turn him away but willingly accepted him and gave him a hearing.

Then he gently swept aside Nicodemus’s well meant compliments and came to his real need. He needed, said Jesus, to be born from above; to be born again, or born for a second time (which I prefer because born again now has political implications).

Nicodemus, apparently taking this literally, wondered how such a thing was possible for an old man. Jesus pointed out the additional need to be born of the Spirit.  

We are not only earthly beings but also children of God.

To be born of the Spirit is, no more and no less, to become fully aware, not just in our heads but also in our hearts - in the inner most secret depths of our being -  that God is our Father.

Such knowing begins to disperse the darkness which is part of all of our lives and experiences. Such awareness flows from knowing Jesus who is the face of God; Jesus of whom John says ‘in him was life and life was the light of all people.’

We do not hear of Nicodemus again until after the crucifixion.

Joseph of Arimathea, another member of the Sanhedrin who was a secret disciple of Jesus, asked to be allowed to take away the body of Jesus for burial in his own tomb.

Nicodemus was also there.

He had brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about 100 pounds to prepare the body.

Two members of the Sanhedrin showing their love and respect for Jesus.

The gift was a costly one and this time it was in the light of day, and not so secret.

QUESTIONS

  1. Do you think there are people like Nicodemus today who are searching for something more? How might they be helped? What puts them off coming to Jesus today?
  2. There are some who say the church needs to be born from on high. Do you agree? What might this mean and how might it happen?

PRAYER        

Let us pray for all those who are, or who have to be ‘secret’ followers of Jesus. And for those who take the risk to show their love and respect for Jesus openly, and in intentional practical and compassionate ways

5th March 2017

Matthew 4.1-11

What is Lent really about?


There is a tradition that we give something up for Lent.

Have you given anything up?

Chocolate seems to be a favourite.

Or alcohol.

Why?

And have you been successful?

Whatever the case I don't wish to interrogate you on this for we are not supposed to let anyone know (last week’s reading)

Instead of being a spiritual journey with Christ to Jerusalem Lent has become a bit of a lifestyle choice - about having a detox - so that we can be fitter and feel better. I’m surprised the commercial world hasn’t cashed in on it. Perhaps it has, and I haven’t noticed.

So we all feel better for a bit but soon realise how difficult it is, a bit like new year’s resolutions, and give in and invent all kinds of justifications for having that glass of wine or chocolate biscuit. We come to realise we need help even on the smallest of things.

But, and here you might think I am a heretic, I think all this giving something up or lent is a red herring, a distraction. And before you write to the bishop let me explain.

The clue lies in today’s gospel reading, about Jesus temptations, and how he resisted them. They weren’t about chocolate or alcohol or giving up swearing or taking up exercise.

They were about which voice he was going to listen to; God’s voice, or the tempter's voice.

In all three temptations, to satisfy his hunger, to put God to the test, to use the ways of the world to achieve his purpose, he affirmed that he was going to follow God’s voice, wherever it led him.

So maybe instead of worrying about our failure to meet personal goals concerning chocolate or alcohol perhaps this Lent we might take time to notice the many different voices which clamour for our attention and seek to distract us from doing what is right, what is God’s will and what is best for us and those around us.

Take a moment to consider the voices which clamour for your attention and which can, consciously or unconsciously cause you to make wrong choices, say wrong things, do wrong or hurtful things. There’s the media, traditional or social. There’s the desires which arise from us being physical beings. There’s the ego, which may carry all sorts of memories, some of hurt. Often we don’t even notice that these are distinct voices, we just unconsciously follow their agendas.

At our parish quiet day yesterday we explored the value of sitting for a while in silence to make space to hear the still small voice of God.

What we all discovered was that when we try to still our minds the opposite happens - so many other thoughts and voices come crowding in.

We were taught ways of trying to deal with these voices. But trying silence does at least provide an insight into the voices that clamour. I once read that what happens when we try to be silent is that we open our minds to a whole troupe of chattering monkeys, and sometimes there is a great big gorilla jumping up and down which seems to drown out all else.

Monkeys or gorilla. Or the quiet yet courteous voice of God. Which voice do we listen to? This Lent let us try to turn away from those voices which take us away from God, from our true selves, and to find a transforming peace which ripples out to the world around us. And makes a difference.

26th February 2017

Matthew 17.1-9

“Charged with the grandeur of God”


The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is one of the key pivotal moments in the Gospels. It follows on from Peter's profession that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus subsequent words to his disciples that they must take up their cross if they are to follow him.

So where does the transfiguration take place?

On a mountain,

significantly,  -

as did the giving of the Commandments to Moses, and the encounter of Elijah with the 'still, small voice' of God.

Mountains were traditionally places of encounter with God.

And the cloud, which obscured Jesus and his celestial companions from the disciples was traditionally a manifestation of God's presence, shining yet concealing his glory.

No one knows for sure which mountain hosted the transfiguration.

Traditionally it was thought to be Mount Tabor and that is where the modern day church of the transfiguration is built.

Others have doubted this because at that time there was a great fortress at the top of Tabor. They suggest that it was Mount Hermon, a high mountain near Caesarea Philippi where the preceding events had taken place.

A nineteenth century traveller wrote: ‘There is apparently a curious and characteristic phenomenon connected with Mount Hermon which is the extreme rapidity of the formation of cloud upon the summit. In a few minutes a thick cap forms over the top of the mountain and as quickly disperses and entirely disappears.

So perhaps when this happened the disciples thought nothing of it.

But something else happened; the cloud became luminous and mysterious and out of it came the voice of the divine majesty, setting God's seal of approval on Jesus -

something already hinted at by the presence of Moses and Elijah -

the Lawgiver and the Prophet of Israel's history.

From now on Jesus knew beyond doubt that it was right for him to go on to Jerusalem.

And what of the disciples? Peter, never one for sitting around, suggests they build three 'dwellings' (shelters NIV, tabernacles KJV) when perhaps he would be better employed observing the injunction to 'be still and know that I am God' (Psalm 46.10). Not unnaturally he wants to create something that will preserve the moment forever. This he cannot do, for they have to accompany Jesus back down to earth, albeit invigorated and sustained by a life giving memory (which they are asked to keep silent about until after the resurrection).

The wish for spiritual highs must be matched with a recognition of the requirement for earthly and very human encounters with the needs of the world.

I suggest, following the gospels in particular and the bible in general, that moments of transfiguration may happen anywhere at any time. The one condition is that we have to be open to the - open to seeing God's glory shining through the so called ordinary.

 Lets remind ourselves of a famous poem written by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed.

Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man's smudge |&| shares man's smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs --

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast |&| with ah! bright wings.

The disciples were constantly with Jesus and more than anything else this opened up transfiguration for them, not only on the mountain, but also in the healings, exorcisms, miracles, the challenging of tradition, as well the rejections, the betrayals and the crucifixion and resurrection. They perceived what others could not.

Encounter with God, through the Spirit of the Risen Christ had, and has, the potential for transfiguration and transformation of individuals, nations, the world.

We conclude with a prayer which draws upon C.S Lewis being 'Surprised by Joy' and Angela Ashwin finding 'Heaven in Ordinary' (both books worth reading by the way)

Heavenly Father, may we be granted visions of heaven in ordinary, and be surprised by Joy. And may we and our world be transformed from glory to glory. Amen.

12th February 2017

Matthew 6.25-34
“Fake news”


Tim Cook is the head of Apple, one of the biggest technology firms in the world. Recently he has spoken out about what has become known as ‘Fake News’ (also astonishingly spun as ‘alternative facts’ - is that an oxymoron?)

Fake news is, put simply, lies - broadcast or tweeted  loudly and often, in order to get the most clicks and the most votes. Fake news preys on prejudice and ignorance. People hear and believe what they want to hear and believe. Fake news was very much in evidence last year in both the UK and the United States.

Tim Cook said fake news is “killing people’s minds”.

Actually I believe  its killing more than that.

Its killing the very basis of civilisation - fake news enabled the rise of the Nazi’s in Germany, it kept and keeps dictators and demagogues in power. It casts aside the poor, the needy, the alien.

Cook is of the opinion that the technology which encourages fake news to proliferate can also counter it. "All of us technology companies need to create some tools that help diminish the volume of fake news. We must try to squeeze this without stepping on freedom of speech and of the press, but we must also help the reader. Too many of us are just in the ‘complain’ category right now and haven’t figured out what to do.”

I think he is being naive and overly optimistic.  Technology cannot unpick the hardwiring of the selfish ego. And the internal compass of authentic faith, which once was a characteristic of political and social discourse has long ceased to work and has, it seems, been replace with ‘we’ll try anything to get and hold on to power and influence. The ends justify the means.’

What can unpick or mend this?

Well,

and I would say this wouldn’t I,

it is the presence of Jesus Christ.

Not the Jesus who has been hijacked to fit political agendas but the authentic, sometimes challenging Jesus of the gospels and inspiration of the Holy Spirit which he promised.

To connect with Jesus Christ in whatever way we can is

 - to use a term borrowed from modern technology -

 to download an alternative operating system which equips us with a filter to sniff out fake news and alternative facts.

Our Old Testament reading asks us to choose.  To choose life over death. The truth over falsehood.

The Christian Way asks us to choose Jesus and to take note of his teaching and his life and follow it as far as it is in our power

and once we realise it’s impossible in our own strength

to ask for the help of the Holy Spirit.

Today’s Gospel is difficult

and it must be set in its time,

and we must remember that we have here Matthew’s words

and his intention to present Jesus as the new Moses.  

But that does not excuse us from wrestling with what these words mean for us today.

First and foremost these words teach us about reverence and respect,

for God

for ourselves

And, crucially,

For others.

In the Jewish synagogue the scrolls of the Law were carried around the congregation at the beginning of each service so that all might show reverence for the law.

Jesus extends that Reverence for all people.

Today’s section of the Sermon on the Mount begins to turn the perspective of the disciples outside of themselves. They are not disciples for their own personal salvation only, but for the sake of those around them as well. There is an accountability, a responsibility to the other for the sake of good of the community.

 When we remember that God is with us, not just that God is with me, we begin to realize we are not simply individual Christians but primarily members of a community and called to be shapers of a wider community, - all of which tells a critical theological truth— God is a God of community.

And fake news destroys true community.

So let us pray for the triumph of truth, in our personal lives, in our community, in our nation and in our world.

O God make speed to save us.

O Lord, make haste to help us.

5th February 2017

Matthew 5.13-20

Salt and Light


Table salt or common salt is a mineral composed primarily of sodium chloride. It is present in vast quantities in seawater, where it is the main mineral constituent. The open ocean has about 35 grams (1.2 oz) of solids per litre, a salinity of 3.5%.

Salt is essential for life in general, and saltiness is one of the basic human tastes. Salt is one of the oldest and most ubiquitous food seasonings, and salting is an important method of food preservation.

Some of the earliest evidence of salt processing dates to around 8,000 years ago, when people living in an area in what is now known as the country of Romania were boiling spring water to extract the salts; a salt-works in China dates to approximately the same period. Salt was also prized by the ancient Hebrews, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Hittites, Egyptians, and the Indians. Salt became an important article of trade and was transported by boat across the Mediterranean Sea, along specially built salt roads, and across the Sahara in camel caravans. The scarcity and universal need for salt has led nations to go to war over it and use it to raise tax revenues. Salt is used in religious ceremonies and has other cultural significance. Sometimes it was used to pay Roman soldiers their wages - hence the word salary.

And so on

Light is electromagnetic radiation within a certain portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. The word usually refers to visible light, which is usually defined as having wavelengths in the range of 400–700 nanometres (nm). The main source of light on Earth is the Sun. Sunlight provides the energy that green plants use to create sugars mostly in the form of starches, which release energy into the living things that digest them.

And so on

Biblical scholars believe that Matthew seeks to show Jesus as a second Moses. The flight into Egypt echoes Moses’ flight into the desert; the killing of the Holy Innocents echoes the infant Moses in danger from Pharaoh. Jesus tempted in the wilderness is like Moses in the wilderness. Moses went up to Mount Sinai to convey the Law to the people; Jesus ascends a mountain to teach the people. Jesus says ‘Do not think I have come to abolish the Law and prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

And so on

Three items of interesting information. All well and good but our focus today is on what we do with the information we have.

So we can know that Matthew’s slant was to show Jesus as the new and ultimate Moses.

And we read that Jesus says we are to be salt and light - and we can research salt and light to our heart and mind’s content but all this would be to miss the point which is not knowledge for knowledge’s sake but knowledge for God’s sake, for our sake for the world’s sake..

We have a lot of information about Jesus, about God, about the Holy Spirit; about the Bible, the Tradition of the Church  to share, but that’s sometimes as far as it goes. We sometimes tend to amass information for information’s sake and not for the sake of the difference it might actually make.

In the section of the Sermon on the Mount which comprises the Gospel for today, Jesus reminds us that knowledge about God cannot exist as simply knowledge. Knowledge about God, theology, if you will, is God’s very presence in the world. It is not enough to know about God. As disciples, we have to be the activity of God in the world. We are called to live out our given Christian identity as salt and light.

Last week at the feast of Candlemas we rejoiced that Jesus is our light and our salvation. This week we hear Jesus asking us to be the light of the world, asking us to share in his light and in his ministry.  He asks us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. For all. Not exclusively to one group or another. Light is light and salt is salt for everyone. Such is their very nature.

Salt is a preservative, it stops food going bad. The Christian is asked to be an example: to work to prevent evil and to stop society from going bad. As this might sound negative, we must remember that salt gives taste and zest to food, it brings out the flavour and stops things being insipid. Such is our calling.

And we are to be lights to the world. In the ancient world to keep a light burning somewhere was of utmost importance. If your light went out you had to go and borrow a light from someone else. All lights receive their light from somewhere. We receive our light from Jesus. The light we give our is a reflected light, a light we have received from Jesus.

A final point, more pertinent than ever in today’s political and cultural climate is that salt and light might also be seen as metaphors for vigilance. They are rarely, if ever, not present. And if they are absent, something is drastically wrong. Both are necessary -- for health, for life in all its manifestations.

Let your light so shine before others, that they my see your good works and glorify your father in heaven (Matthew 5.16)

PS   I’d rather attend church with messed up people seeking after God than religious people who think they are his enforcers. In today’s climate how can we be salt and light with this view in mind?

15th January 2017

John 1.29-42

It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon”


It was Tuesday 11th September 2001. I remember hearing a short report on the radio, around 2 pm,  news about a plane crashing into the world trade centre in New York. Initial reports were confused but eventually the full horror emerged.

Some things we remember clearly, down to the smallest detail. Good things as well as bad things.

One of my favourite Abba songs is ‘The Day before you came’. The song recounts in great detail what happened the day before the singer met someone who obviously changed everything.

It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon when Andrew and another disciple encountered Jesus and asked where he was staying. So says John the Evangelist, the author of the fourth gospel from which came today’s reading. An educated guess would be that the other disciple in this story was  the author, John himself - who clearly remembered the circumstances of that day and was able to add this touch of personal detail about an event which changed his life.

‘Where are you staying. It was a strange question,  from two men perhaps tongue tied in the presence of the one whom their rabbi John the Baptist had announced as the Lamb of God, the long awaited Messiah.  ‘where are you staying?’ Jesus gave a simple answer - ‘Come and see’.  To elaborate that answer: Come and see for yourselves. Spend time with me. You are welcome. All I know about you is that that you are seeking. So come and see. Abide with me for a while and stay for as long as you like. I will never turn you away. See where I am staying, how I abide in the presence of my Father. And if you practice and learn to stay with me, to abide with me, then you will also abide with my Father who is in heaven.

They stayed, and they brought others to Jesus too. They left their former teacher, John the Baptist, and he bore them no grudge because he knew it was to Jesus that he wanted to point people. They stayed. They stood in awe of him yet grew to love this strange, gentle, enigmatic, perplexing, courageous, challenging, healing, unconventionally religious  man who welcomed outsiders and took on the religious and political prejudices of his day. They followed him to Jerusalem until that terrible Friday when they faltered for a while and then they followed him afterwards when he came to them again anew and still loved them even though they had deserted him. And they came to see that he was indeed the Lamb of God, only not in the way they or their first teacher John the Baptist had envisaged.

To all seekers today Jesus still says ‘Come and See’ and the task of the church, it seems to me, is be like John the Baptist, and point people to Jesus. Perhaps to point ourselves back to Jesus too, to learn again to abide in him. For what matters is not the Church as an institution but Jesus and the Kingdom of God which he brings. It is Jesus, not the church who will draw people and transform people. We must repent of seeing our church as a club to which we invite people to come and pay their dues; we must repent of sitting in judgment on people who are not like us, or don’t speak like us, or look like us, or behave like us, or lamenting that so few ‘come to church’. Rather we must be a people who seek to encounter the living Christ and having known him, simply want to bring others to him and so begin the transformation of the world which stands so much in need of the real presence of Christ.

Then, incidentally, the church will grow.

1st January 2017

 Christmas 1

Innocence lost?

Let me tell you about one of the minor challenges I face each week.

Choosing hymns.

Because you can't please all of the people all of the time.  Although folk here are very accommodating. Not so in some previous parishes.

Carols present a bit of a problem, as you might imagine. I love the tunes but struggle with some of the Victorian sentimentality of some of them, though I do like 'It came upon a midnight clear'.

The one carol which cuts through the sentimentality of this time of year is 'Unto is a boy is born'. It strikes a discordant note. It refers to the slaughter of the innocents, which as we see forms part of Matthews story about the magi. Should I choose it for the traditional 'public' carol services? Would it interrupt the search for the Christmas feel good factor. Or should I challenge it?

Because life is not all feel good factor. Sometimes it's the opposite. Looking back over 2016 we might justifiably be anxious about where 2017 will take us.

But there is hope in Matthew's story. If we think we are caught up in a world full of cruelty sadness and pain, so was Jesus and his family.

The promise of Matthew’s story is

the presence of God and the power of God

when the powers of this world -- sin and death -- try so very hard to convince us of God’s absence.

Mary and Joseph knew better, and so do we.

From a manger, to the respite found in Egypt, the land that once enslaved, to a quiet town in Galilee, there God will be. Promise.

So the promise for us as we face a rather unpredictable future is the eternal promise of God’s presence, even when the world seems to be conspiring against the justice, peace and healing of his kingdom.

Let us face 2017, then, with a hope which the world does not give. A hope which comes from the total story of Jesus, not just his birth in a manger.


[1] Wright, Tom. Matthew for Everyone Part 1: Pt. 1 (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 190). SPCK. Kindle Edition.

[2] 2 Chronicles 7 Now when Solomon had finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the house. 2 The priests could not enter into the house of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled the Lord’s house. 3 All the sons of Israel, seeing the fire come down and the glory of the Lord upon the house, bowed down on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave praise to the Lord, saying, “Truly He is good, truly His lovingkindness is everlasting.

[3] The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day (Exodus 13.21)

[4] While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved;* with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ (Matthew 17.5)

[5] Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” with power and great glory. (Matthew 24.30)

[6] Oremus Bible Browser (NRSV)

[7] Acts 2.23

[8] 1 John 4.16,20