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Easter 3, 11th April 2021

John 20:19-31: Resurrection

These things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

Our gospel passage today starts on Easter Sunday, late in the evening of the first day of the Jewish week, two days after Jesus’ crucifixion.  The previous day had been Saturday, the Sabbath, when journeys and work were forbidden, so Jesus’ body had been left in the tomb as it was.  [Picture 1 The Resurrection, William Blake, www.christian.art.]  Then came Easter morning, Easter Sunday.  [2 The Holy Women at the Tomb, George Minne.] The women had been to the tomb early in the morning, and seen angels telling them that Jesus was risen (Mt 28:5, Mk 16:5, Lk 24:4).  Soon after Jesus had appeared to Mary Magdalene (Mt 28:9, Mk 16:9, Jn 20:10).  Then Cleopas and another disciple had seen Jesus in the afternoon on the road to Emmaus (Mk 16:12, Lk 24:13).  [3 Friends of the Humble (Supper at Emmaus), Léon-Augustin L’Hermitte.]  At the end of day, he had stopped for a meal with them, revealed to them who he was, and disappeared.  The two disciples had hurried back to Jerusalem to tell the others, to find Peter had also seen Jesus (v34, 1 Cor 15:5).  Then here Jesus appears to the disciples inside the house where they are staying (also Mk 16, Lk 24:36, 1 Cor 15:5).  (The accounts in the 4 gospels and 1 Corinthians are slightly different, though similar; I have put the references in the written version of the sermon, which will be on the church website.)

 

 

There is something different about Jesus: he appeared in a different form (Mk 16:12).  Even those who knew him well do not always recognise him –they were kept from recognising him (Luke 24:16).  And he ‘appears’, inside rooms, in different places.  Here Jesus appears inside a locked house.  But Jesus is real, a person with a body.  He lets people touch him, he eats.  In Acts it says he gave many convincing proofs that he was alive (1:3).

 

The doors to the house were locked because, although some of them had already seen Jesus, the disciples were confused, and afraid.  They wanted to believe, but were unsure.  And the Jewish authorities had just had Jesus killed, and would want to silence the disciples too.

 

So, perhaps not surprisingly, his first words are Peace be with you!  They had had their world shattered, the rabbi they had given up everything to follow, who they thought was the messiah, had been killed.  They were grieving, disappointed, thinking that they had got it all wrong, had even been misled.  No!  They had just misunderstood.  Be at peace!  Or rather, receive peace, peace from God, peace from Jesus, the peace of the Holy Spirit.  And he gives them the Holy Spirit, Receive the Holy Spirit.  Fully understood only a couple of months later, at Pentecost, but this was to be the underpinning of the church.

 

This is where the church starts: As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.  It would be this small number of disciples that took the gospel out to the world, to billions of people, so that now there are hundreds of millions of Christians, and about a third of the world are in Christian countries.

 

Jesus’ words on his appearance are part of his commission to his disciples, like the Great Commission at the end of Matthew, but in the other gospels too.  I think this is where the rather odd words about forgiveness of sins fit in: If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.  It seems out of tune with other parts of scripture to say that that God delegates his judgement to fallible humans, even the apostles, though more high-church people may say this is the basis of priestly forgiveness after confession.  There are apparently some complex tenses here (those whose sins you forgive have already been forgiven – note in NIV).  Christ’s death and resurrection is the means by which we receive forgiveness of sins, through which we can come to God.  In this resurrection appearance, Jesus is declaring that this forgiveness is available.

 

Which is why the resurrection is so important.  It shows who Jesus really was.  This is why the early Christians preached the resurrection.  In our first reading from Acts 2 it said With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.  Later on, when Paul was preaching to the Greeks, his hearers thought he was talking about multiple gods, Jesus and Anastasis (Acts 17:18 – resurrection in Greek is Anastasis, from which we get the name Anastasia).

 

[4 Doubting Thomas.]  Thomas was not there.  Doubting Thomas would not believe the others; it was too incredible.  Then, a week later, Jesus appears again, and Thomas is present this time.  I am a little surprised that Thomas does not get a ticking off for his unbelief.  The two disciples on the road to Emmaus were told How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken (Lk 24:25).  But no, Jesus gently lets Thomas see and touch him, and come to accept what he thought was too good to be true.  It is a kind response, presumably what Thomas needed.

 

[1] Resurrection.  It is the heart of the gospel.  It is in all the creeds.  Christianity is not just a philosophy, good ideas to live by.  It is God’s incarnation as a human, his death for us, attested by this as a real historical event.  Jesus’ words, teaching, his life, show us God, but faith is rooted in one event: Jesus was raised from the dead.  Through this comes forgiveness.  Through this God gives us his peace.  Through this comes the Holy Spirit to be in us and with us.  Through Jesus’ new life comes our new life.

 

These things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

 

Jeremy Thake

St. John & St. Stephen.

 

 

Acts 2

32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

 

John 20

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

 

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

 

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27 Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28 Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29 Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

 

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

New Revised Standard Version, Anglicized

 

 

donkey

Sermon Palm Sunday 2021

Mark 11.1-11

I couldn’t help but notice parallels between the events of Palm Sunday and our return to our church building this morning.  Just like those Jews entering Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, eager to celebrate their most important festival, the Passover, here we are at the start of Holy Week anticipating the celebration of our most important festival.  The crowd would have been looking forward to worshipping in the temple in Jerusalem, just as we have been looking forward to being in our church again.  Perhaps, too, we may note resonances between recent events in this country around crowds meeting for public demonstrations in London and Bristol, with the arrival of a noisy and possibly disruptive crowd in the capital city of Israel. Would the authorities have viewed this crowd as causing an ‘annoyance’ to use the language of the new Police and Crime Bill?  The ‘authorities’ in Jesus’ day would have been the Sadducees who were in charge of the temple and religious business generally in the city, and the Roman governor and his soldiers.  Then there were the Pharisees, the legal experts.

All these groups, and the crowd following Jesus, and his disciples would have been viewing the events of Palm Sunday from their own particular standpoint.  I want to suggest, however, that they all had one thing in common, and that was how they understood power and authority.  I went into Boots recently to buy a face mask, and couldn’t see any.  So I asked one of the staff to show me.  Leading me right to the back of the store she pointed to a stand labelled ‘Face Masks’.  I was puzzled by the variety – some were strawberry flavoured, others melon or rose and yet another ‘Easy peel’.  Then I realized I was looking at a different kind of face mask – a beauty product! -We’d used the same words but with different meanings.

There’s something of that going on in Mark’s account of Palm Sunday and the events of Holy Week. Jesus had spoken a great deal about the kingdom of God – ‘the kingdom of God is near’ are the first words of his ministry according to Mark and the kingdom of God runs like a thread through his teaching.  Jesus tries to explain through parables and other ways that this kingdom is different from how they might usually understand the term; kingdom of God is a kind of shorthand for naming God’s way of doing things, a way that’s different from ours.  However, rather as with face masks, the word kingdom triggered a different response in the disciples and the crowd. Just before entering Jerusalem James and John had asked Jesus if they could have the top jobs in his kingdom when it finally arrived.  They were obviously anticipating some kind of political coup.  All the disciples had failed to understand when Jesus had warned them that he would suffer and die in Jerusalem. Even arriving on a donkey and so indicating that his entry was not that of a conquering hero didn’t shift this misconception.

The Sadducees and Pharisees who appear later in the week in Mark’s narrative may also have been anticipating some show of power as Jesus appears with a whole crowd of followers.  The Sadducees would have been alarmed at his presence in the temple; the heart of Jewish religious practice, this was their domain.  A symbol of God’s presence and power.  The only place where Passover could be properly celebrated.   A fanatical mob (as they might have seen it) appearing there might result in a clampdown by the Roman authorities as well as a challenge to their own position as guardians of Israel’s most sacred place.

The Pharisees were probably nervous about Jesus’ authoritative interpretation of the whole body of Jewish teaching contained in the Torah.  With his popular following he could easily undermine the control they had over what constituted orthodox belief and practice.

So, the disciples, the crowd, the Sadducees, the Pharisees – they all had a similar understanding of power, of authority and of how it was most likely to be exercised.  They had failed to grasp Jesus’ own understanding.  Nevertheless, ironically, they were right in anticipating, in the case of the crowd and the disciples, some kind of imminent victory and in the case of the Sadducees and Pharisees an overturning of traditions they were jealously guarding.

Mark conveys this irony in his tightly woven account of the Passion and events leading up to it.

He couldn’t make any clearer Jesus’ own understanding of kingdom, authority and power than in the choice of encounters he includes in the section before his account of Palm Sunday (Mark 10.13-end) – Jesus blessing children and saying ‘The Kingdom of God belongs to such as these, the words to the rich and very godly young ruler, ‘One thing you lack, go sell everything you have and come, follow me, the prediction to the twelve of his betrayal, arrest, being handed over, his death and resurrection, his quiet reproof to James and John and the others that he is a leader who has come to serve and give his life rather than lord it over others, and then finally the encounter with Bartimaeus, a beggar who knows he is blind and seeks healing; the implication being that it would be good if the  disciples could do the same and see well enough, like Bartimaeus, to follow Jesus in the Way – a way that exercises power and authority through sacrifice and service, rather than by lording it over others.  A way that is ultimately vindicated by the events of Easter morning.

When Jesus gets into the city of Jerusalem he goes straight to the temple, straight for the jugular, we might say; and of course the next day he drives out those buying and selling there.  It’s perhaps worth noting that Jesus’ harshest words are directed towards those exercising religious power, rather than political power like the Romans.

Let’s imagine for a moment Jesus entering our temple, our church here, and looking round.  What would he see? A group of people who, as Hamish pointed out last week, have entered more fully into the truth that church is much more than a holy building.  We’ve continued to be a body of believers in spite of physical separation from our sacred space and from one another.  Unlike the Sadducees, we’ve subverted any idea that the temple, the sacred building, is the only holy place where true worship can be offered.  We’ve done it through Zoom, papers through letter boxes, doorstep conversations, Facebook, phone calls, WhatsApp….  Jesus had referred to the temple being destroyed and later being raised up – meaning his own body rather than the building.  So as he looks round at us this morning I wonder what he anticipates might be raised up in us, the church as his Body in this place, as we continue through this pandemic?

I hope he might anticipate fruitfulness because we’ve had to die to whole lot of ways of doing things.  Our gospel last week was about a seed needing to fall into the ground and die before it can bear fruit.  Unless it dies, Jesus says, it remains alone, and Jesus’ own death and resurrection bears witness to that truth. As he had been explaining earlier, he was offering his life as a ransom for many.  So, for us too, whatever new life is emerging for our church is a gift not only to those within our current membership but to the many well outside it.  How might we look out for more ways of sharing that gift with others?

When Jesus cleanses the temple he says that the temple is to be a house of prayer for all nations; it’s as though Jesus breaks open those jealously guarded traditions or boundaries or habits we religious people maintain that can make joining in hard for those not in the loop.  We may be invited to sit more lightly to some of these things in order to make space for others. Sacrifices may be required.  Being a house of prayer for all nations doesn’t come easily.

Our palm crosses remind us of sacrifice.  We know, though, that sacrifice is not the last word.  After the cross comes resurrection. Jesus’ way of exercising power, his death on the cross, releases a huge source of energy leading to life in all its fulness, a life intended for the many, not just for the special few.  I invite you, as we enter Holy Week to enter more deeply into the wisdom of the cross.  Stick close to Jesus each day.  Perhaps hold your palm cross to remind you to do this.  It may help to read straight through Mark chapters 11 to 15 and then work through a short section of the same narrative each day this week, saving chapter 16 for Easter Day.  Reading aloud can help and for some people picturing whatever is happening can also deepen our understanding.

Let us pray

Lord Jesus, may we follow your way, the way of the cross, and bear fruit that will be a source of life for many.  Amen

 

Christine Bainbridge                                         28 March 2021

waiting

Sunday 21st March 2021

A year on – waiting and hope

 

I thought I would begin this morning by sharing an inspiring message from the Methuselah Tower of Prayer Baptist Church….

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYP1mXqiwqc

 

That ‘sermon’ was actually from the American comedy series Saturday Night Live. I don’t think we have ever had as many problems as encountered there, but what a  technical journey we’ve been on as a church over this last year, haven’t we? Who would have imagined we would all have become experts in using the Zoom machine, not only in muting and unmuting microphones but also using breakout rooms, chat box, Mentimeter and so much more!

I’ve followed the advice Claire suggested last week to ‘press the pause button’ and give ourselves a moment to reflect on some of the experiences we have encountered as a church over this last year. And this will be much more of a reflection than a full-blown sermon. I am also very aware that a sizeable part of our congregation is missing from Zoom, so I do look forward to returning to church to ask them too about their experiences of this last year.

 

It was almost exactly a year ago, on March 29th to be precise, when I last preached. It was one of our first Zoom services and the sermon, based on Psalm 130, was given the title ‘How long shall we sing this song? I’d like to take two of the themes from that sermon, as we look back at our shared experience and look forward to the imminent return to our church building: the themes of waiting and hope.

 

WAITING

I wonder if you are the kind of person, like me, who loves to plan ahead and make lists –  and lists of lists? I looked back at our calendar in January 2020 and all the events we had for that month: a Scamping Rogues gig, baby shower, dental appointments, guys’ drinks, book club, our son Jonny going back to Czech Republic, and this obscure one that says ‘Lorna – sausage casserole at 5pm’. And then comparing it to this year’s calendar where we had two appointments, both of which were cancelled.

This is one of the areas I have found most difficult and painful during this year: the inability to plan ahead, of not knowing when I can see my parents and children again, of when we can meet for a cuppa or a pint in someone’s garden.

 

As Richard reminded us in his sermon last month, waiting is a frequent theme in the Bible. He recounted the story of Abraham and Sarah and the promise of God that he would bless them with a child. And even though they were of a great age, they had to wait over twenty years for this promise to be fulfilled.
Our Old Testament reading today from Jeremiah is full of hope of a new covenant and a new way of life to come, but God’s people were to wait hundreds of years for its fulfilment in Jesus.

 

I’ve often fallen into the trap of considering waiting as being passive, a bit like waiting for a bus into town – that waiting is an act of killing or wasting time between worthwhile activities. It can certainly be very painful and difficult, but it can also lead to a time of growth: of deeper understanding of ourselves, each other and of God. During this last year, the church family has helped me keep going when I have struggled and given a taste of that community that I’ve missed so much. I’d like to thank you all, particularly for three areas that I’ve valued immensely during this time, where I feel we have grown more in our own understanding of God and each other.

 

The first is our Shared creativity. We are so blessed in our church to have people who have offered their creative gifts during this year. Thinking back over the year, we’ve celebrated so much of our God-given spark of creativity. You may remember the Christian Aid and Christmas cabarets, with puppetry, poetry and music. But there have been so many other ways we’ve shared too – through gardening, cooking, acting, film criticism, Peter’s Emmaus blog, and of course the numerous photos and videos on Facebook. How can we encourage this spark of creativity to flourish in our church and community when we return to our church building?

 

The second area is our church’s support and fellowship

I don’t know about you, but I have been constantly surprised by the kindness of strangers during this year: from the warm greetings on walks, letters and messages sent to us asking if we needed support, clapping for the NHS and more.

And in church too this kindness and support has been evident in so many ways: in buying food for those who can’t go to the local shops, going for socially distanced walks together, spending time online listening and caring for others, taking round printed out sermons and notices to those who would otherwise miss out, spending hours cleaning and preparing the church, weeding the courtyard garden, or getting on your bike to deliver ashes for the Ash Wednesday service.

I’ve also valued the breakout rooms in our services. I’m naturally a shy introvert and often hide behind a musical instrument at the end of a church service. I’ve valued being able to meet and chat to so many people before and after our online services. How do we ensure in future we make these opportunities to talk to those we don’t know well, when we return to a church building without social distancing rules?

 

The third area is in our shared spirituality

Another thing I’ve valued in our Zoom services is how we have been able to pray in a different way with and for each other. I’ve found the Chat prayers to be deeply moving and helpful to read and pray during our services and to use them during the week to continue praying for our church. How can we continue this richness of prayer once we return to the church building?

 

But there have been other ways that I feel we have grown spiritually as a church. I’ve valued the sermons that have been shared with us and the way our preachers have worked so hard to engage people through this Zoom machine! We have also adapted to running children’s groups, homegroups, morning prayer and even sharing meals together online, as we will do so again on Maundy Thursday.

I wonder what has been meaningful to you over this last year in our online church worship? And what would you like to see continue as we move back to our church building?

 

This time of waiting as a church certainly hasn’t been one of standing still and killing time. Amongst all the challenges, pain and problems we have encountered this year, there is so much to be thankful for in the creativity we’ve shared, the support given and received and the growing depth in prayer and spirituality.

 

 

HOPE

Alongside the theme of waiting, the other theme from last March’s sermon was on hope.

I’m not sure if you are one of those kinds of people who keeps up to date on all the different world days and festivals, which nowadays seem to cover everything under the sun. To prove this point, this week on Thursday is the world day of waffle making in Sweden. So  if you want an excuse to indulge in a waffle, you have your opportunity! More importantly, this weekend is the celebration of one of the oldest festivals in the world, dating back over three thousand years. This is the Festival of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. It celebrates the beginning of spring, of purification and starting again. During this festival enormous eggs are painted and displayed and homes are spring cleaned in preparation for a fresh start to a new season. Both of our readings today look forward to a new hope and a new season. In Jeremiah we heard of the new covenant, the new start between God and his people. It has emerged after years of suffering, injustice and pain. And in our gospel reading, Jesus hints to his disciples of how through suffering and death there is new life and hope.

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ The hope of Easter is just around the corner for all of us.

 

I wonder what has sustained and given you hope during this last year?  One of the things that helped me were the expertly curated poems that Stephen faithfully sent out to us for much of the year.

One of my work colleagues, Preethi Alice Jacob , runs a poetry website called Find my rest my soul (findrestmysoul.net). Her passion for writing poetry is particularly meaningful for her as it came much later in life, without any formal training. I’d like to finish this reflection by sharing a poem she originally wrote in January for a new year, but perhaps is as relevant now for us as we enter this new season.

 

Lord, as into this new year I step

My heart is heavy, my feet are cold.

I, Lord, tend to worry and to mope

Often finding it difficult to hope.

 

And yet, Lord as I turn and look back

Over the year I have just left behind

I remember your presence ever near

Faithfully through times of joy and tear.

 

Furthermore, this Lord for sure I know

You our Sovereign Lord, you alone

The Grand Weaver, you remain in control, absolutely

Weaving a tapestry of breath-taking beauty.

 

And so Lord, as into this new year I step,

With my questions, fears and doubts.

I choose to trust and, on this truth, I stand

That you hold my world in your loving hand.

 

Preethi Alice Jacob

From https://findrestmysoul.net/2021/01/01/choose-to-stand/

 

 

Hamish Bruce

21/03/21

 

wilderness 2

February 28th 2021, 2nd Sunday in Lent

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16. Mark 8:31-end

A new name for everyone

 

It’s the second Sunday in Lent. Not exactly Christmas day, is it? The ‘fun’ of Ash Wednesday is behind us, Palm Sunday is weeks away when the pace picks up again, and Easter – it’s like, years away. My Lenten resolve is just about holding up but the temptation to replace the water in this wine glass with something that comes out of a bottle with a cork in it is quite strong now.

 

I’m inspired to use our OT reading from Genesis 17 today. It’s about an elderly couple – very elderly, in their nineties! – Abram and his wife Sarai. Old people usually move quite slowly, which seems to fit the pace of Lent.  It’s all about covenant­ – that is, the promise God made to Abram and Sarai, that he would bless them, cause them to have a child despite their great age, and through them, to bless all nations of the world (Genesis 12:3). It’s a promise they had been waiting to be fulfilled for 20 odd years. We too are even included, embraced by that promise of blessing through one of his offspring, born a couple of thousand years down the road from Abram and Sarai, by the name of Jesus. And did you notice, because I didn’t at first, that everyone in this story gets a new name? Abram – exalted father – becomes Abraham – the father of many; Sarai – Princess – becomes Sarah – My Princess; and God, the Lord, is named for the first time in the Bible in verse 1 as El Shaddai – which is often translated as ‘God most high’ but might also mean ‘God of the mountains’. That’s why we sang that beautiful song, El Shaddai, after the passage was read. So, God gains a new name along with his covenant partners. It feels a bit like this… “I, El Shaddai, take you, Abraham and Sarah….”

 

Let’s stick with names for a moment. Often, names in the Bible really mean something like they did here. Abram’s new name, Abraham, father of many, contained the promise that a whole nation was going to come from him. We tend not to think so much about that nowadays, but I wonder if there is anything to discover here? Think about it: our parents gave us the names they did for a reason – however trivial it may seem! And they gave us our names in love. Did they subtly intuit what name would fit us? When we who are parents name our children, do we do that? What moved us? God’s grace is always at work. I was thinking about my own name, the other day. Richard. Never been terribly struck by the name, to be honest, and it’s not in the Bible! It means ‘strong ruler’ and of course people think of Richard the Lionheart. Not much there, I think, for me. Then I remembered while I was just daydreaming a song that my parents sometimes sang around the house, really as a bit of a joke: ‘Open the door, Richard! Open the door, Richard, and let me in!’ It’s practically a quote from that verse in Revelation 3:20, with my name in it, where Jesus says, ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in’. Was that an invitation, waiting for me, hidden inside a popular song of the time? Then I remembered the famous prayer of St Richard of Chichester, immortalized in the musical Godspell: “Day by day, Dear Lord, of thee three things I pray: To see thee more clearly, Love thee more dearly, Follow thee more nearly, Day by Day.An invitation and a prayer hidden in my name: whether this is just random or a subtle God-given gift I don’t know; but it touched me and spoke to me, so what’s not to like? Perhaps you might like to reflect on your name, however much you love it or hate it. What does it say? Is it in the Bible and if so, does the person who shares your name relate to you at all? If it’s not in the Bible, like my name, then do some daydreaming and association. Maybe there’s something there. If you really hate your name, think about that: why? Does it reflect something that you don’t like about you, or you wish you were more like that? Let whatever it is speak to you. It’s just a thought. There might not be much there, but then, there might be!

 

But Abram got a new name. Not quite the name he started with. Sometimes people don’t like their names and take a new one; or choose their middle name, if they have one. If you did that, why did you choose your new name? What did it say about you? There are people who are given or receive new names when they adopt a new role. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio took the name of Francis when he became Pope. Why? Because he wanted to signal his commitment to the poor of the world. I suspect he prayed much over this and felt that this choice was actually God’s leading. His name embodied his mission. It’s not always the case, of course. But consider this, what would you choose to change your name to, if you wanted to? Thinking about that might be a way of getting in touch with your deepest desires about yourself: who would you like to be; or more profoundly, who God wants you to be.

 

When we meet someone, and develop a relationship with them, learning their name might be the first thing we learn, but from there our relationship builds. So it was with Abraham. He had a relationship with God. In fact, God started it and called him by name. This idea of relationship with God: the ability to speak with him, hear him, walk with him, be loved by him and love him in return is central to biblical faith. Of course, it reaches its clearest expression in the gospels where real live ordinary women, men and children met with, talked with, ate with, touched, embraced, loved the human Jesus. A relationship with Jesus – as simple and straightforward as that. We are all invited into that relationship. This period of Lent can be a time to examine that relationship – how’s it doing? Holding up? In need of a reboot? There are tons of resources available to help, and some of those resources are some of us! You might like to speak to Claire if you would like to explore the possibility of meeting with someone to talk about your relationship with God. If you’re looking for something to literally plug in, the Pray as you go app is an absolute winner. You’ll find it in Google Play or the Apple App store for your phone, or on your computer. 12 minutes a day.

 

Interestingly, there’s a couple of bits in Genesis 17 that the compilers of the lectionary left out. Verses 9-14 give a graphic account of the practice of male circumcision, which was Abraham’s part of the bargain. When I was 12, in my first year at secondary school, during an RE class, a boy named Fox asked our very scary headmaster, Mr Eagling, or ‘Crip’ as he was known, “Please sir, what is circumcision?” Mr Eagling drew himself up to his full height and boomed in a voice that brooked no dissent, “It is a cut around the middle!” Which, if anything, implied something much scarier than the reality (or maybe not!). Anyway, the point I’d like to draw out here is that it was a mark on his body. The covenant was literally inscribed on Abraham’s body. There was no imposition of this on Sarah, but she is included in the covenant, signalled by the change of name.  Allow me to spool out the thought of inscription of God’s promise on the body to all of us irrespective of gender. The ‘Christian equivalent’ of circumcision is baptism – it is the sign of entry into the Kingdom, and in the case of children, a name is given – back to the original theme! And baptism is something done to the body.

 

There are many ways that our physical selves can kind of take part in and literally embody this relationship (PS – another word, a synonym for embody is incarnate – think about that!). Raising your hands in worship and dancing are often part of charismatic prayer and worship – they are great examples of bringing the body to God.  So is kneeling to pray: my own experience here is that it actually makes it easier to pray – I like to use a prayer stool. Putting your body in that position, which is one of humility, can help bring the heart and mind into the same place. The practice of crossing yourself can be quite powerful – it’s a prayer acted out by the body as we place the sign of the cross over our hearts. Perhaps sometimes it’s the only prayer we can manage. Pilgrimage is another way that our bodies can engage with God: the act of walking or moving from one place to another with holy intent. Putting ourselves into a physical journey as a way of engaging with the interior, spiritual journey. Abraham and Sarah had plenty of that, journeying around the Middle East from Ur of the Chaldees to the land of Canaan.

 

The other bit that the lectionary missed out was this: ‘I will give you a son by Sarah…then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, can a child be born to a man who is 100 years old?? (verses 15-22). Any of us might well laugh! This is about doubt. If the circumcision reading was left out to spare our blushes, was Abraham falling over with laughter left out because we’re not meant to doubt? All of us have doubts about our faith. It’s not wrong. Abraham had them! The lovely thing here is that God still blessed him. God is bigger, much bigger than our doubts.

 

Well, all of that seems quite a long way from an elderly couple who lived four or five thousand years ago but hey, join the dots, we’re connected with them. We thought about names – what our own names might mean or say to us; and then we considered what name we would choose for ourselves today, and how that might reflect our aspirations. Then we moved from names to relationship, specifically with God, and wondered about taking a rain check on how that’s going at the moment. Finally, moving swiftly on from male circumcision we thought about ways that we could honour God with our bodies, to quote St Paul (1 Corinthians 6:20). And finally we saw how Abraham really doubted what God said would happen. And still got blessed! Here’s a wild thought – we might like to chat about some of this in our breakout groups? Crazy, I know.

 

Richard Croft

 

 

indiana jones

First Sunday in Lent. 21.02.21 by Rev. Claire Jesus’s Temptations

Mark 1:9-15

How can temptation be Good News?

SERMON starts with a video Clip: ‘Only the penitent man’, from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MxPdqbmYi8U

You may have recognised the clip, from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Indiana, aka Harrison Ford, has to pass three tests that others have failed, at the cost of their lives. If he doesn’t pass these tests and get to the Holy Grail his mortally wounded father will die. The way ahead is littered with the corpses of those who have presumed to know how to find the Holy Grail. The first clue from the battered notebook is ‘only the penitent man will pass’. At the last moment, he suddenly falls to his knees and avoids the deadly slicing wheels that would’ve cut ofF his head. The penitent man is humble before God; getting to his knees has, literally, saved him.

Lent is a penitential season and today is the first Sunday in Lent. I don’t know about you but it’s beginning to feel as though we’ve been a whole year in some sort of wilderness, given that we were just into Lent when we went into lockdown last year.

At times like these I’m grateful for the shape of the liturgical year. When days and weeks merge into each other and working from home and being at home don’t feel very different, we can at least look to the church year as a framework for our worship and reflection.

The reason for liturgical seasons, is that by marking the significant events of the life of Jesus Christ, we rehearse the Christ-event over and over again and make ‘chronos’ time into ‘Kairos’ time.

By that I mean that the ordinary passing of time gains some spiritual significance as we remember and rehearse the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. Kairos time is God’s time and it shapes us.

So, we rehearse the incarnation at Christmas and Epiphany. We recall the start of Jesus’ ministry as Epiphany leads us through his baptism and his first miraculous sign. The temptations of Jesus mark the beginning of Lent; his Passion is rehearsed in Holy Week and his resurrection at Easter. Ascension follows, and six weeks later, Pentecost – the outpouring of his Spirit on the first disciples.

So by the passing of liturgical time, we live the life of Jesus from start to finish and beyond. There’s an older liturgy in use in some places for Ash Wednesday, where the congregation pray to God to be delivered, or forgiven, or perhaps even saved. The response is good Lord, deliver us and you may even have prayed this prayer in other Ash Wednesday services.

It’s an interesting prayer because it traces a path through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, just like the liturgical year. It is in four couplets and the first says:

‘By the mystery of your holy incarnation;

By your birth, childhood and obedience;

By your baptism, fasting and temptation,

Good Lord, deliver us’.

 

I’ve always liked the prayer because it suggests that our deliverance (by which I take to mean our forgiveness, or salvation) is achieved, not just through Jesus’ death, as we often sing, but through his life as well. We’re saved as much by his life as by his death. It’s an interesting angle, and one which you might want to sit with for a bit, if it’s not so familiar with you.

 

How has Jesus brought for us salvation, healing and forgiveness? By his incarnation, birth, childhood, obedience, baptism, fasting and temptation, as well as the other, more obvious events of his death and resurrection (which the prayer goes on to mark too).

 

By all his life, we are delivered. It means that the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, which the gospel alludes to this morning (although being Mark, it’s a brief allusion) is fully part of our deliverance.

 

What does this really mean? How can Jesus’ own temptations be part of our salvation? It must have something to do with his humanity. Is it heresy to say we are as much saved by his humanity as we are by his divinity? I’m not entirely sure, but that’s the angle this morning!

 

The idea that we are saved just as much by his temptations as by his death and resurrection I find strangely comforting. His temptations are Good News! If we stay a few moments with this idea, I wonder if we can all catch hold of that comfort too? Can it really be Good News that Jesus was tempted?

 

How can Jesus’ temptations be part of our own healing? Firstly, to clarify terms, we use a lot of religious words in church and there’s often not a single meaning to any of them – they tend to carry multiple meanings. So: sin, salvation, sanctification, repentance, penitence, healing, wholeness. In Lent we traditionally use words like repentance, penitence, confession, fasting. All things that address our fallenness and signpost us towards forgiveness and holiness.

 

But sometimes these words can accuse us in ways that are not appropriate. Yes, we are sinners, and we say the confession every week (and a stiffer one in Lent) but we are also ‘in Christ’ and therefore ‘there is no condemnation’. We find it hard to imagine that even as sinners, we are also beloved children of God. How do you feel when you sit before God in silence? Do you feel his gaze of love, or do you imagine God being rather dissatisfied, or even cross with you?

 

I’ve been having an extended conversation about Christianity with a friend who has stopped going to church. They described to me the images they had picked up from Sunday worship.

 

In this set of images, God is the headmaster; the bible is the book of rules; the vicar is the teacher and the Church Wardens are the prefects. If you believe the wrong things you go to hell; if you believe the right things you go to heaven. If you go off piste to explore different ways to be a healthy human being, you are met with puzzlement.

 

My guess is that she isn’t the only person to have been put off God by an over emphasis on how sinful we all are, and unworthy and full of shame. It’s not a very healthy image to dwell on. The language of sin is difficult to use with wounded people, people who have suffered trauma and people who have mental health problems, which is a large proportion of the young (and a not insignificant number of us).

 

On the other hand, society is interested in concepts of health and wholeness. It’s here that we can meet other people who are seeking these things. Especially after the effects of lockdown become more and more apparent, we might increasingly be involved in thinking with others about health and wholeness. But as Christians we will know that sin and salvation, healing and wholeness CANNOT BE SEPARATED.

 

So what is temptation? To be tempted is to come face to face with the depths of yourself. It’s a lot more subtle than ‘can you give up chocolate for 6 weeks?’ If we fast from something over Lent just for its own sake, all that will happen is that we’ll end up with a little bit of spiritual pride that we didn’t have before (but perhaps a healthier waste line).

 

Our challenge therefore is to know, as Jesus had to, what form our temptations take. There may be several. They probably change over time. It’s much easier to say the general confession and much harder to know explicitly what your areas of wounding are. Because we all have different strengths and weaknesses.

 

It wouldn’t be so hard, for example, for me to give up chocolate for a while – as a child I competitively saved Easter eggs so that I could crow about still having some left when all my siblings had eaten theirs. I got a perverse kick out of self-denial and I wanted to win. There’s a bit of spiritual pride for you. One of my other temptations is to fend for myself – even when the Spirit is saying ‘reach out because I am generous’, I am saying ‘I don’t believe you’re generous so I’m going to hoard my resources because I’m the only person I can really trust’. That would be one of my temptations: trust only myself. There’s a bit of healing needed there.

 

 

To identify where you need healing, think: when you let the Holy Spirit lead you into your alone time with God (as Jesus did) to face the crux of who you are, what happens? Does God look on you and say ‘well, at last this sinner has come clean and realised just how bad they really are’? Or does God look on you as a loving parent would and say: ‘it’s great we’re here together; I’ve been longing to lift off that heavy thing that’s weighed you down for so long’?

 

I wonder if salvation, sanctification and healing are much closer than we imagine? Linguistically they are basically the same thing. That’s why the Good News is more than just a feel- good moment. Christ offers forgiveness when we fall, which is our ongoing sanctification. AND it feels like healing. We are saved by Christ; we are being saved (made whole) by Christ and we will finally be saved (safe) with Christ.

 

So, the Good News this morning is that Jesus faced his temptations so that we can face ours. He faced himself so we can do the same. We are loved, not condemned. And the promise of God is that he draws us into deeper fellowship, especially through Lent, and this is for our salvation and healing and for the healing of everyone we meet.

 

As Mother Julian of Norwich said: First there is the fall, and then there is the recovery from the fall. Both are the mercy of God.’

 

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

valentines

Sermon 14 February

2 Kings 2.1-12, Mark 9.2-9

Today is the last Sunday before Lent starts.  Given the rigours of lockdown and Covid I decided not to talk about giving up things or denying ourselves; just accepting that we are where we are is giving us plenty of opportunities for that this year.

This happens to be a multi tasking Sunday where celebrations are concerned; not only is it the Sunday next before Lent, but it’s Valentine’s Day, it’s the day when friends in our link diocese of Växjö in Sweden celebrate their patron saint – St Sigfrid -, it’s Racial Justice Sunday, and Green Christian would like us to mark Valentine’s Day by expressing some love for planet earth!  We marked Racial Justice Sunday towards the end of last year when Ian spoke to us, and we’ll be marking the need for climate justice on a Sunday early in March, so I won’t be specifically referring to those.  The theme on which I’d like to focus today is friendship which may touch on all these concerns anyway.  Let’s begin with Valentine’s Day (picture).

Valentines day, taking place just as Spring is starting, new life is beginning to appear, yet it’s still pretty dark and cold. Valentine’s Day is partly a distraction from winter, but also ties in with the rhythms of life here in the northern hemisphere.  As we start to emerge from winter, with spring on the horizon, our thoughts may well turn to romantic love, or lust for that matter – ‘in the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love’, as Tennyson puts it.  A young woman’s fancy might as well!  There is a reaching out for relatedness, for something that takes us out of ourselves, out of winter into Spring.  Romantic love may be a great start to a relationship but it’s often friendship that helps it to last, enabling us to see the beloved through ordinary spectacles as well as rose tinted ones.  Friendship between lovers.

Now St Sigfrid (show picture of his statue) – I’ve spoken about him before – an English monk from York who set out with a group of monks and his three nephews in the 11th century to take the gospel to Sweden. He is said to have built the first church in what is now Växjö diocese.  This statue of him stands outside Växjö cathedral in Småland.  The bonds between him and his group of monks and his nephews must have been strong to keep them together through the hardships of travel, climate and the opposition that they would have experienced.  I suspect there was real friendship there.  Friendship between colleagues.  Friendship between family members.

And now what we call the Transfiguration, offering another insight into friendship(Icon)

Our readings this morning are there to encourage us as we enter 40 days of Lent, and start to anticipate the cross.  Immediately before the transfiguration Jesus has been explaining to a group of his disciples that he must suffer death and then rise again – something they failed to understand.  Now he’s taking three of them – Peter, James and John up a mountain, a setting associated with encounters with God.  It’s as though he’s pulling back a curtain so they might see what has led to his understanding of who he is and what he is called to do.  He’s sharing this mystery with his friends.  He wants them to understand.  There’s Elijah on his left who climbed a mountain when he was running away from Queen Jezebel and who heard there the still small voice encouraging him to return and telling him what to do.  Jesus is letting his friends know that he stands in that prophetic tradition and prophets always face opposition.  Moses the law giver is on his right.  Moses, you may remember, spoke with God face to face, after which his own face would shine with light.  Moses went up a mountain to receive the 10 commandments, mediating a covenant between God and Israel.  Like Moses, Jesus will be mediating a covenant, but this will be a new kind of covenant that involves laying down his life.  The voice from heaven makes clear that although Jesus stands in the line of the prophets and of Moses he is greater than both, being God’s Beloved Son.  The dazzling light around Jesus also makes this point.  We see Peter, James and John almost literally blown away by this revelation at the bottom of the icon.  (icon goes down)

And this revelation is offered to us as we face Lent.  In Mark’s account Peter, James and John still don’t get it; not until they look back after the resurrection.  Even though Jesus probably knew that they wouldn’t get it he still shares this experience with them.  He treats them as close friends.

One of the bishops in my last diocese used to talk about the different people around Jesus.  There was the crowd – often mentioned, sometimes of considerable size, but not necessarily committed.  On the edge, as it were.  Turning up whenever Jesus appeared, but not actually following him around.  Then there was another group, a fair size, who were committed enough to follow him much of the time, but did not necessarily share a communal life with him.  They are referred to simply as ‘the disciples’. Then there were the 12 – those closest to Jesus and known to us by name, who ate with him, stayed wherever he stayed.  And then the three closest, Peter, James and John, who feature in our gospel account today.  We might say that the crowd had a passing acquaintance with Jesus, while the groups of disciples were his friends, but in varying degrees of closeness.  He would teach them, explain the parables to them, but only with his closest friends would he share glimpses of his identity as God’s son and also of his human vulnerability.  In so doing he was inviting them into his own intimate relationship with God the Father.

The gospels were written for the encouragement of those, like you and me, who want to follow Jesus.  At the start of Lent we might think of where we would place ourselves at present.  Perhaps in the crowd, an observer, not stepping forward, but drawn to Jesus, curious about him.  Or part of that large group of disciples, hanging out with Christ, following him most of the time but not necessarily sharing his life.  Or one of the 12, those closest to Jesus, with him all of the time.  Then the 3 with whom he shared the most of himself.  Might they be called his soul friends?  Wherever we are Jesus invites us to draw closer.  He wants to draw us into his friendship.  To identify more with him.  Lent can be a time to accept that invitation.  What might it be like to stick with Jesus as with a close friend during his time in the wilderness, or when he raises Jairus’ daughter or prays in Gethsemane?  What experiences of our own might we risk sharing with him as our friend during Lent?

Looking at our reading from the Old Testament we can see some risk taking in the friendship between Elisha and Elijah.  Both know that Elijah is approaching the end of his life.  Elisha is determined to face this moment with his master and follows him on a very roundabout route to do so!  He is present when Elijah dies and is taken up to heaven and as a result he receives a portion of Elijah’s spirit.  This hadn’t just been a relationship between master and servant, but perhaps between soul friends.  It’s a profound insight into how we can influence our friends for good.  As we allow our friendship to develop, sticking with each other through good times and bad, we pass on a part of our spirit to one another, enriching one another.

Jesus invites us to relate to him as our friend – to trust him with our highs and low as we would with a best friend and to allow him to trust us with his deepest experiences, both the glory as in the Transfiguration, the vulnerability as in Gethsemane and the suffering when on the cross.

Friendship with Jesus is connected to our friendship with others.  So I’m wondering if we might remember our friends particularly this Lent.  How are we keeping in touch with them?  How willing are we willing to listen to what is really going on for them, especially if it’s difficult?  Can we risk telling them what is really going on for us?  Do we go beyond the superficial in our conversations?  I was reading an interview with Tyrell Lewis, formerly involved in gang crimes in Brixton and now running the Brixton Street Gym, where he remembers Pastor Mimi on his estate, a true friend, who would ask questions like ‘How’s your heart?’ How’s your mind?’ ‘How’s your spirit?’  She was a friend who helped him turn his life around.  She passed on some of her own spirit.

Friendship between partners, lovers, friendship between colleagues, friendship with family members, friendship with church sisters and brothers, friendship with a kindred spirit (a soul friend)…how are we doing in our friendships?  and where do we stand in our friendship with Christ?

Jesus says to his disciples, ‘I have not called you servants, but friends, for everything I learned from my Father I have made known to you’.  (John 15.15)

Christine Bainbridge

starry sky

St John and St Stephen’s Zoom Church, Reading, February 7th 2021, 2nd Sunday before Lent

Proverbs 8:1,22-34; Psalm 104:26-end; Colossians 1:15-20; John 1:1-14

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free

 

When Claire invited me to preach this Sunday, she asked if I could do something a bit ‘lighter’. I fought back by reminding her of the words of the great 20th Century evangelical, JI Packer: ‘Sermonettes produce Christianettes’ . But then I thought, OK, go for it. Lighter. Then I read the readings for today and wondered if Packer had risen from his eternal rest to wag his finger at me. Today’s readings are absolutely loaded with glorious, weighty content. What do I do with all of that? How do I begin? I’m sure that Packer would have magisterially laid out the great doctrines here for us to understand and grasp. But I’m not Packer, for sure. Then I read the Psalm appointed for today, 104, and began to feel better. We read it together earlier in the service. For the Psalms are prayers. They record a person’s response to this weight of glory. It’s what we do with it all. I can relate to that.

 

Can we take a moment now, and think about this: what gives me joy? What bubbles up as you ask yourself that question? I’ll hazard a guess that for maybe for a lot of people, it has something to do with the natural world: out walking, in the garden, perhaps overlooking a natural space, birds, animals, perhaps watching a David Attenborough, the dog; and then other people – partners, children, friends, – which are of course part of the natural world too. These things have the capacity to make us joyful, to lift our hearts up. Most of us will have stood looking at mountains, at the sea and sky, at magnificent trees and amazing animals and be literally lost for words, to be struck not just with joy but also with awe and wonder. The person who wrote today’s Psalm was just like that. Let me read the first few verses of Psalm 104 which we didn’t read today, where the Psalmist praises the author of all he sees:

 

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honour and majesty,
    wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
    you set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your chariot,
you ride on the wings of the wind,
you make the winds your messengers,
fire and flame your ministers.

 

And it goes on – it’s quite a long Psalm! The thing is, the Psalmist looked at the beauty and grandeur of the creation and saw God at work. This wasn’t just an accident, a random pile of pick-up sticks. Today’s lectionary reading from Colossians (which we didn’t read) puts it like this: ‘In him all things hold together’ (Col 1:17). By him, the writer, Paul, means Christ – the eternal Christ. In today’s Proverbs reading, the author writes about wisdom, wisdom as a Person who ‘was beside Him (God) like a master craftsman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world, and delighting in the human race’ (Prov 8:30,31). In John’s gospel we read of the Word, through whom all things were created, and who took on flesh and became one with us. All four readings refer to the eternal Person, Creator, Wisdom, Master Craftsman, Word, Christ, the One who connects the dots, the invisible thread joining and holding everything together. We know that Christ dwells within us too – unworthy though we may feel – so that when our hearts are lifted up in joy or wonder, it is His work, His gift to us. Let me just say that He is equally present when our hearts are saddened or weighed down. He is there in those moments too.

 

A couple of weeks ago I spoke on the call of Samuel and linked it to the practice of the prayer of ‘Examen’, or review of the day. In this prayer, we take time to review the last period of time and see how we were moved, and then to examine what it was that produced that movement of our spirit. And then to ask, what’s the invitation here? What’s the call? Well, the Psalmist gives us his answer in verses 33,34: ‘I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being. May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord.The invitation for us as we rejoice in creation, in human relationships, in all good gifts, is the same. It is the work of our lives.

 

I would like to share with you a poem, and then a song, and then a suggestion for something to take away. Here’s the poem. It’s one that Stephen shared in his daily emails but it has cropped up before that and I think it’s printed inside one of our service sheets. It’s by Wendell Berry, the American poet, called ‘The peace of wild things’. In it, Wendell reflects on the power that the created order, what he calls ‘the grace of the world’, has to free him. It is the Creator’s touch.

 

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

 

The song I want to share comes, naturally enough, from Taizé. I think it’s my favourite one, and it comes with an absolutely beautiful video which I will share. I’m afraid it’s in French. Here’s the words and then the translation:

 

Ô toi, l’au-delà de tout                   You who are beyond all things

Quel esprit peut te saisir?              what mind can grasp you?

Tous les êtres te célèbrent            All that lives celebrates you

Le désir de tous aspire vers toi.   the desire of all reaches out to you.

 

This song lifts us from creation to worship. The short video takes us through a day at Taizé, from early morning, through worship, to nightfall.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r_4MQtpYC_I  or https://vimeo.com/44097516

 

Thank you for listening to that, I hope you enjoyed it and found that it lifts your heart to God. The YouTube link will be in tomorrow’s MailChimp from Tanya so you can hear it again.

 

And something to do. I invite you, perhaps later today, to find 10 minutes of quiet, perhaps somewhere where you can appreciate the natural order, even if it’s raining or snowing. Sit down and be still for a couple of minutes, appreciating what is before you, leaving behind what has been occupying you. Take your bible, turn to Psalm 104 and read the whole Psalm slowly. Out loud if there’s nobody else around! Pause, and then read it again. Savour the words and enjoy them. And take that quiet moment to thank God from your own heart.

 

Richard Croft

 

 

 

 

 

 

grandma hugging

Sermon for Candlemas 31.01.21

Malachi 3:1-15

The Coming Messenger

3See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. 4Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

5 Then I will draw near to you for judgement; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

Luke 2:22-40

Jesus Is Presented in the Temple

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29 ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31   which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

The Return to Nazareth

39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.

SERMON: Exploring the prophetic

  1. Scripture/Church

We start this morning with an iconic image: someone at the end of their life, with someone at the beginning of theirs. The papery skin of an old person’s hand with the chubby tautness of tiny hands

 

 

 

or, another image that might resonate: grandma and granddaughter.

 

 

 

We’re invited to be present in imagination this morning, as a six-week-old Jesus is brought to the Temple by his parents to be dedicated. The Temple is humming with noise, people praying out loud and bustling about in the open air. As Joseph and Mary come to the Temple steps, bearing their sacrificial gift of two small birds, they encounter Simeon and Anna, two elderly prayerful folks who have been watching, waiting and praying for this moment. Simeon has been told by the Spirit that he won’t see death until he sees the Lord’s Messiah, and prophet, Anna, is also full of God’s good messages. It’s a ‘kairos’ moment (a ‘God’s timing’ moment) a moment when wisdom meets innocence, a moment when what was meant to be, comes to pass. A moment when someone at the end of their life has the most important moment of their life.

We call it The Presentation, also known as Purification or Candlemas. Liturgically it marks roughly half-way between Christmas and Easter. Christmas is 40+ days behind us and Easter 40+ days ahead. Purification because of the need in Jewish Law for the woman to be cleansed from her ritual impurity after childbirth. And Candlemas because the church candles would be blessed at this time, to represent the light still shining in the darkness of winter as people’s attention turned towards the spring.

I suppose the nearest equivalent to Jesus’ presentation today, is the six-week check-up that all babies are required to have with the health visitor (or Doctor). Six weeks, and you’re thought to be up and running as a baby, and as a parent. It’s a kind of signing off time (like after this you can no longer say: ‘I need to return the baby; I’ve changed my mind).

The Book of Common Prayer contains a special liturgy for this moment, called ‘The Churching of Women’, that you can find on the Church of England website. It begins with the rubric: ‘The Woman, at the usual time after her delivery, shall come into the Church decently apparelled, and there shall kneel down in some convenient place, as hath been accustomed (…) And then the Priest shall say unto her,

FORASMUCH as it hath pleased Almighty God of his goodness to give you safe deliverance, and hath preserved you in the great danger of child-birth: You shall therefore give hearty thanks unto God…’

Leaving aside the cultural and theological questions surrounding the churching of women or the purification of the virgin, an abiding image of today’ gospel is of the old and the new together, and the prophetic words that are rather more than most new mothers might want to hear: ‘this child’ (says Simeon) ‘is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too’.

Which is a pretty weighty sort of message to be given 6 weeks after you’ve had your first baby.

The image of age and youth together has perhaps come to the fore a bit during the pandemic. There is a cohort of babies who will have the dubious distinction of having been born during a pandemic. No doubt they didn’t notice at the time, but I have felt for pregnant women and those giving birth in these heightened times of anxiety, and in particular how it must feel to have to go into hospital to give birth. And the elderly have suffered by being separated from their grandchildren, and from being isolated in care homes or alone in hospitals. It’s as if the pandemic has revealed what we already knew; that all lives are infinitely precious, from the cradle to the grave.

The hard message for Mary, delivered by Simeon, was a message of prophecy. The prophetic in the bible encompasses many aspects, including foretelling something that will happen in the future, or more simply, forthtelling what is on God’s heart today, especially in times when God’s people don’t seem to be listening.

The prophetic word was commended by Paul in his Epistles; today in many parts of the Church you could argue the prophetic word has rather a low profile. Has anyone ever shared with you a word from God that cut through the dross and went straight to the point? For sure, the prophetic has been discredited wherever there’s been a lack of wisely weighing what this word might be; and whether it really is from God.

Much harm has been done by the unwise, careless word, purporting to be from God, and being instead from our own ego projection onto someone else’s situation. The prophetic in the US Evangelical charismatic scene has been completely discredited for being tied up with one political party; and no doubt today there are still those who are ‘contending in prayer’ for the disgraced former US President, who, it was ‘prophesied’, would go on to defeat his detractors, and serve a second term.

I still believe in the prophetic word given in the context of worship; whether any of us has the courage to give it is another matter. For a people whose faith grew out of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian Church today, one might say, is remarkably un-steeped in the prophetic. We have webinars, courses and mission initiatives but who in the Church of England is truly prophetic?

Maybe you have your modern-day prophets? People who always seem to put their finger on something that others are blind to. They often sound the clarion call that others take up later, although sometimes it turns out to be too late.

  1. Wider society

So I think we can be alert to the prophetic in a wider sense. There are people in society who seem to be able to see into the future, not because something’s been divinely revealed to them but by some kind of ability to observe the direction the world is going in and warn us where that might lead. They’re often artists – whether musical, literary or involved in the visual arts or film. Theirs is often a lone voice, nearly always ignored by the Church, but still out there to be heard.

Just to whet your appetite for this idea there might be modern (secular) prophets, here’s one quotation and one excerpt from an interview, both of which seem to be prophetic: ‘don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve lost till it’s gone. They paved paradise, put up a parking lot’ (Joni Mitchell, 1970)

And secondly: David Bowie’s prediction about the internet, given as far back as 1999 “I think the potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable,” Bowie told BBC Newsnight at the time. “I think we’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.”

 

 

(see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8tCC9yxUIdw

 

When the host of BBC Newsnight suggested that the Internet was a simple delivery system, Bowie disagreed. He said it would “crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.” How about that for a prophetic word?

Even new mums like Mary know in their heart of hearts that the wonderful arrival of a baby is going to change them for ever, and not all of that experience is going to feel happy or positive. A ‘prophetic’ friend of mine, who’s always saying things that seem a bit outlandish, which then turn out to be true, came to visit me just after Thomas was born, with her 2-year-old who was already growing in independence. I commented innocently that the midwife had visited, and the health visitor, and two sets of grandparents. ‘Oh, as soon as they’re born everyone’s trying to take them away from you’ she said. Whether she meant professionals or experts or the world in general I didn’t know, but I was soon to learn that as soon as you have a child, it’s your main job to make sure one day they won’t need you anymore. So her words often come back to haunt me.

As Mary stands at the foot of the cross Simeon’s words, ‘a sword will pierce your soul also’ will no doubt haunt her.

What of the prophetic is emerging from the pandemic, I wonder?

I’m sure you know this: on our church website there’s a section called ‘What the modern prophets are saying’ and of course, it showcases the thought of Hamish Preston who was able, unlike many, to perceive the global implications of the credal statement Jesus is Lord. In this Hamish was a modern-day prophet. I never had a chance to talk to him about what he thought would emerge from the pandemic, but others, like Naomi Klein, have been speaking about building back better for a while.

As to the way the pandemic will change us as people, I’m indebted to Pete Scazzero, from the Emotionally Healthy Leader podcast. He recently asked, ‘what can we learn from the pit?’ as he explored from the book of Daniel what happens when we are stripped back by suffering. We’ve this week had Holocaust Memorial Day, and someone who wrote about meaning emerging from suffering was Victor Frankl, himself a holocaust survivor. He noticed in Auschwitz that those who could find no meaning to their sufferings died more quickly than those who continued to believe that something could be salvaged from their terrible experiences. We can’t live without meaning, and those who have had to face terrible suffering are in a unique place to be observant to what it is revealing.

As we continue to live through this pandemic, and tentatively look to the future where we might be in a position to build back better, we have the chance to balance hard words to those in power, with compassion for those who have suffered. Hard words about how some things shouldn’t return to what they were, because they were not right in the first place. The pandemic is an epiphany – it’s uncovered things in our society that were like time bombs ticking away – division and inequality, child poverty, lack of investment in all the things that build a strong society. Those bombs are now going off, and it’ll take some radical action to diffuse them.

Simeon and Anna prophesied about the child Jesus. Simeon’s prophetic words contained a hard message and a blessing.

May we grow in our ability to listen to the prophetic, to the ways God is speaking in the church and in society. And may we be open to that special word that the Holy Spirit might land in our hearts through the most unexpected ways and the most unexpected people.

Amen.

goblets

The Wedding in Cana – Sunday 24th January, Epiphany 3

Sermon John 2 v 1-11

 

 

Here we are at the beginning of John’s gospel having set the scene with John the Baptist and the calling of the first disciples. Jesus is starting with his ministry and this is, according to John, the first miraculous sign and the disciples put their faith in him.

You don’t have to look far in the Gospels to find a miracle. Now I don’t know whether you find it easy and are excited by miracles or whether you are sceptical and relegate such things to the past and treat them as stories in the past and of no relevance.

If you are the former then these passages are inspirational a treasure trove of hope. However, you have to deal with one big problem: the hope that is stirred up in the gospel is almost always dashed in people’s lives today.

Think for a moment about some of the miracles; John chapter 6 Jesus feeds the five thousand or John chapter 9 Jesus healing a man born blind; John chapter 11 Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. And this is only flicking on a few pages from our passage today.

But since those days how many people have prayed for food but none came. Many people will have prayed for healing but it did not come. Many will have grieved for people they have loved and lost without a miraculous ending. We are daily reminded of the pain, suffering and grieving that is going on around us in our country in the midst of this pandemic.

Doesn’t the possibility of miracles make the suffering worse because God could grant a miracle but doesn’t. Sometimes we in the church make it worse by suggesting there is a lack of faith.

If you are sceptical about miracles you avoid all these problems but you have another one equally as big because if you are not careful you reduce the world to something that is determined by laws and natural processes that cannot be changed or interfered with. You may judge the miracle stories as silly and childish or in Donald Trump terms “fake news”. But in banishing them and regarding them as superstition you may also be banishing meaning and hope. If you are closing yourself in then you are putting God into a small box and his existence doesn’t seem to make much difference.

Perhaps there is a third alternative that is open to us all believer and sceptic alike. Perhaps there is another way of looking at the question do miracles happen. We might ask ourselves a slightly different question; what happens to us when we imagine miracles happening? Is it not the case that the story is intended to do more than inform us about a supposed event that happened in the past? Is the story meant to shake up our normal assumptions, inspire our imagination about the present and the future and make it possible for us to see something we couldn’t see before?

If we have our imaginations stretched then can we not play our part in co-creating, being a catalyst for those we come into contact with and change their possibilities.

Let’s think a bit more about our gospel passage of today. The story begins. On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee; Jesus mother notices that the wedding host has run out of wine. So, she nudges Jesus to do something about it. Jesus resists, but Mary doubts his resistance. She tells the servants to get ready and do whatever he tells them.

Jesus points them towards some nearby stone containers – six of them used to hold water for ceremonial cleansing. They are huge containers 120 – 180 gallons so the servants get to work filling the containers and then Jesus instructs them to draw out a sample to give to the banquet master. He takes a taste and is amazed and he says you have saved the best wine until last. John says this was the first sign.

Now if we are applying and stretching our imaginations in the here and now. We might ask ourselves and reflect on the meaning of the sign.

  • Perhaps in our lives we might ask in what ways are we running out of wine, what are we running out of and why?
  • Is there something that needs transforming?
  • If we are to do as Jesus says what would that be?
  • What is it that perhaps needs cleansing?
  • What is empty and needs filling? If we were to be filled where would that lead us, what would we do?

I know for me at the moment, and probably like many others, that I am living in a kind of shadow world where day to day routine carries on but not fully. Relationships are possible but on line so full human contact is missing and because it is winter, I do not venture outside much and spend my days on my work laptop starting when it is dark and finishing when it is dark. Preparing this caused me to pause to hope and think about how I can be more courageous and better support family, friends and work colleagues.

If we look at questions like these, we are engaging with this miracle story and it is stirring us to think and imagine new ways of seeing, perhaps changing the way we act and leading us to new ways of being alive and living out our faith.

Even beyond this imagining and reflection on the miracle the story points beyond itself to the bigger story. John is starting to signpost, give clues to his readers of the things to come.  It is a real treasure trove and there are things to be explored both within the text and with the imagery.

There are hints about Jesus mission and ministry and a starting to tell us about the love and generosity of God and his plan for our salvation.

So, let’s change tack and briefly look at some of the clues contained in the passage.

I don’t know whether any of you have been involved in treasure hunts, I suspect some have. Before the pandemic and lockdown, it was a favourite thing to do in the office I work in. You would form up into teams and only be allowed a maximum of four or five in a team, you would pay your entrance fee to commit to it and you would get your clues and tasks and set off. You would not know your destination or even sometimes the route. You needed to follow the clues, answer questions and collect the objects along the way or complete the tasks. You needed to pay attention otherwise you might get lost. There was always the emergency mobile number if things got too sticky. I remember once some of the girls in the office getting very excited because they found out one of the tasks was to have your photo taken with a fireman. It didn’t do anything for me but we’ll not explore that.

Maybe we have lost some of the excitement or the wonder from this story because we know the end, we haven’t got the same perspective as the first disciples but it can still speak to us.

But let’s still go through some of the clues and maybe you might like to do your own exploring about the signs and clues over the coming week.

The first clue is right there in the first verse of the passage. Why did they come to the wedding on the third day? What is the significance of the third day? Sometimes it is always good to start your treasure hunt with a straight forward clue!

Second, why did Jesus address his mother in the way that he did? Where else do we hear Jesus use that phrase “Dear woman”. Within the gospels I believe there are only two other instances (John 19 v26 & John 20 v 15) and when you read them together it may put a different emphasis on the words used in this passage.

Jesus uses the phrase My time has not yet come. Some versions use my hour has not yet come. For us we will understand what Jesus is meaning but for the disciples they will not get the gravity of the statement neither perhaps will Jesus mother Mary. There is a lot bound up in these few words about waiting and timing and how much is shared with others and when.

Why was Jesus mother Mary to the fore and not the disciples? She was the one who told the servants “Do whatever he tells you”. Is it because Mary’s perspective was different to the disciples? It was only in the previous chapter that we hear that Jesus has called Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip and Nathaniel whereas Mary has spent 30 years with Jesus so is this why her faith is so much stronger?

Consider all the clues the sign posts she has seen over that time. Even the few recorded ones shed light and there must have been many more over the years. Think – Jesus presented at the temple (Luke 2 v 21-40 particularly v 33) – Mary marvelling at what was said about him. Or when she sought Jesus out and found him age 12 in the temple (Luke 2 v41 – 52 particularly v51) she treasured all these things in her heart.

So, Mary had joined the clues and better understood what was going on rather than the disciples who experiencing this for the first time.

As I mentioned, we have perhaps lost some of the sense of wonder of this story because we know the ending.  But we don’t know how our own stories and God moving within them will necessarily work out. Perhaps, we should take some time to think back and look at the clues and signs so far. Notice where there have been encounters what have they taught, which direction, what has been good, or bad and invite Jesus into that process to help us be more alive and live out our faith in a new way to affect both ourselves and those around us.

 

Richard Harwood

24.1.21