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sailing boat

Walking on Water

Trinity 9, 9th August 2020

Jesus must have been extraordinary.  This week I was reading, not today’s passage, but one from Luke (7:36-50) about the woman who came to Jesus when he was eating at a pharisee’s house.  She wept at his feet, wiping them with her hair and putting precious ointment on them.  The book I was using focused on the woman’s forgetfulness of herself, unembarrassed, lost in her devotion to Jesus.  But it made me wonder just what Jesus must have been like to inspire such devotion.  It is a story we have heard many times, and we know what happens, but suddenly you see it with fresh eyes, and think, this is really unusual.

Today’s gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus walking on water, is similar, familiar from Sunday school onwards, but extraordinary.  It follows the feeding of the five thousand.  Then, it was late in the day when Jesus fed the crowd, and they would have gone home in the last of the daylight.  Jesus sends the disciples off too, and it say that by evening he was there alone.  He went up into the mountains to pray, and must have been there for many hours, because the passage tells us that it was early in the morning when he came walking towards the disciples on the lake.  (And note, this was what he did after teaching the crowd for a whole day.)

These events take place at the north end of the Sea of Galilee.  There are slightly different locations in the different gospels, but the feeding of the five thousand seems to have been on the north-east side of the lake, around Bethsaida (Lk 9:10), and the disciples sailed across to the north-west, around Capernaum (Jn 6:15) or Gennesaret (Mk 6:53).  It is about 5 or 6 miles.  The wind was against them, so it was slow progress, and the boat was fighting against the waves.  This is not a storm, and unlike the story of the calming of the storm, they were not in trouble.  Many of the disciples were fishermen and familiar with the lake and with boats, but they are in a workboat, stable but slow.  John’s gospel says they had gone 3 miles or so when Jesus caught up with them, after rowing much of the night (Jn 6:19), so they could not have been making much headway.

When Jesus approached them in the early hours (the original says it was in the ‘fourth watch of the night’, which is between 3-6am), the disciples could not work out who, or what, he was.  You would not really be expecting someone to be walking on the water, and they thought he was a ghost.  Jesus calls out to let them know it is him, and to tell them not to be afraid.

So what is this about?  Is it just Jesus using his superpowers to take a shortcut?

I am reminded of other improbable abilities.  One I really like comes from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where Arthur Dent, the main character, learns how to fly.  The Guide helpfully explains that, “There is an art to flying, or rather a knack.  The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.  Clearly, it the second part, the missing that presents difficulties.”  Arthur manages it by falling, and then being distracted on seeing his towel, which was lost some time and several planets before.  This causes him to miss the ground, and he finds himself flying.  It is a great bit of invention by Douglas Adams, in that is manages to sound strangely plausible.  But it is not something you should try at home.

The Hitchhikers Guide is fun, but not meant to be taken seriously.  Presented with the story of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee, we need to look for something deeper.  The gospels do not give us magic.  This is not waving a wand to save effort or do the impossible.  And this walking on water is a one-off.  Jesus does not do it again, and we have no record of the disciples or the early church using it as a means of getting about.

In the miracles we generally see some other purpose.  In Jesus’ healing there is both compassion for people, but also signs of God’s presence and power.  There are a few miracles, like the transfiguration (Mt 17:1-8), the coin in the fish’s mouth (Mt 17:24-27), or the cursing the fig tree (Mk 11:12-25), that seem simply to be signs.

What are the signs here?

The sea was seen in Judaism, and by many of the societies around Israel, as a force of chaos, home of monsters.  In Genesis, God creates the heavens and the earth by overcoming this chaos and putting the waters in their place.  Psalm 29 says You rule the raging of the sea, when its waves surge you still them.  In the Old Testament, God alone has the power to subdue the seas.  Here we see Jesus walking on the sea.

When Jesus approaches the terrified disciples, he calls out “Take courage!  It is I.  Don’t be afraid.”  The “It is I” in our translations hides the force of the Greek, which is literally “I am”.  “Take heart, I am; have no fear.”  This points through the Aramaic Jesus spoke to the way God refers to himself in the Old Testament, “I AM”.  Jesus is able to do this because he is God.

This is certainly how the disciples took it.  Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.

Peter joining Jesus on the water is not in the other two gospels that record this miracle (it is not in Luke).  It is often presented as the meaning of the story: keep your eyes fixed on Jesus; have faith; if you feel overwhelmed, call upon Jesus and he will save you.  These are all good lessons, but seem secondary to the main meaning.  Even in Matthew the passage ends with the disciples’ awe at Jesus.  Their response is worship.

At the end of the calming of the storm, which appears a few chapters earlier (Mt 8:23-27), the disciples’ reaction was Who is this man?  Even the wind and the sea obey him.  This time, they have moved on, Truly you are the Son of God.  Again, we are so familiar with these stories that we forget that this is an extraordinary thing to say about, or to, someone you know.  The disciples came to believe, however imperfectly, and through however many misunderstandings, that this man they had spent years with was actually God.

Jeremy Thake,

St. John & St. Stephen

JacobRembrandt1

A masterclass in prayer – Jacob wrestles at Peniel

August 2nd 2020, Trinity 8

I wonder if you have found the last few months a struggle in any way? Struggled with the lockdown, with loneliness perhaps, illness, uncertainty, loss, or struggled with faith? What about struggled with God? This morning we come to one of the most unusual stories of the entire Bible – the story of Jacob wrestling with God – and winning!  The Bible is peppered with stories of direct encounter with God – think Adam and Eve in the garden (Genesis 2,3), Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3), Isaiah before the throne of God (Isaiah 6), the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), The revelation to John in the last book of the Bible. These direct encounters, direct experiences of God shape the course of subsequent faith history – as you might expect. I just heard from God!

 

The story of Jacob’s wrestling-match with a man who turned out to be God is perhaps the most mysterious encounter of all. The story is set early in the Bible, in the first book, Genesis, probably around 1500 BC – 3,500 years ago, long before Jesus. Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebekah, was a cheat, and a bit of a mummy’s boy, unlike his huntin’ shootin’ fishin’ elder brother Esau. Jacob cheated Esau out of his birth right as firstborn for nothing more than a bowl of porridge when he came in hungry after a day’s hunting, and then had to flee Esau’s wrath when the truth dawned. Jacob ran to his uncle Laban, who cheated him back in a long and complicated story involving switching brides on honeymoon night – can you imagine? No lights on, one fancies – so he marries Leah first, the eldest. Poor Jacob works for another 7 years to finally get lovely Rachel too. And as the story goes on, Jacob becomes rich and powerful, eventually leaves Laban and goes on his way – only to find his past catching up with him in the form of his brother Esau, coming to meet him. His worst fear is going to be realised – the wrong he did to his brother is about to return to haunt him. Not only that, 400 men will be with him! (32:6) He fears the worst. He prays for deliverance (32:9-12), sends gifts to Esau to try and appease him, sends his wives and children away to safety, and crosses the Jabbok river on his way to face down his fear in the person of his brother Esau. On the way, he meets a ‘man’ and wrestles with him until daybreak. When the man sees that he cannot prevail against Jacob, he puts Jacob’s hip out and asks to be let go. Jacob refuses, ‘unless you bless me’. The man gives him a new name, ‘Israel’, which means ‘one who strives with God’ but will not give Jacob his own name. Jacob realises that it is God, or his angel, he has been wrestling with. How can this be? How come I am still alive? But he is blessed, and limps on his way as the sun rises. As the story goes on, Jacob’s fears come to nothing and there is reconciliation between the two brothers.

 

What on earth do we understand happened here? An important message in terms of the history of the Bible, is in the change in names – from Jacob to Israel, the one who strives with God. For all their mistakes, the nation that sprang from Jacob, Israel, remained intertwined with God, struggled with Him, wrestled with Him even, but was blessed by Him. In other words, the wrestling-match was a sort of picture of what the relationship would be like between Israel and God. A struggle. With pain.

 

But what do we make of it? What do we do with it? This story is, I believe, given to us because it tells us something profound about the relationship between God and humanity – by humanity, I mean you and me. It is called a ‘mystical’ encounter, where the word ‘mystical’ means that it is a felt experience of encounter with God. It is contained within a story because stories are so much better than mere descriptions, they touch us and stay with us, they have depths that sometimes you can’t even get to the bottom of, and even if you think you have, there’s more. I want to reflect on this for a few minutes and make some suggestions that we could even take into our own lives. In fact, into our lives of prayer, because this story is a masterclass in prayer.

 

I wonder if poor Jacob, scared half to death by the thought of meeting Esau, actually thought to begin with that it was Esau he met and wrestled with? For he did actually face his fear, he was on his way to meeting his fear, personified in Esau. But it turned out to be God he ran into. What is it we fear most? What is it you or I fear most? Illness? Abandonment? Failure? Death? Or what is it we are trying to ignore, to escape from, to run away from, like Jacob running away from Esau? What is the nightmare? For all his weakness, his deceitfulness, Jacob faced his fear and found he was facing God at the same time. I just wonder if in facing our own deepest fear, we would find God there?

 

As I looked at some of the pictures that have been painted about this encounter, I was immediately struck that wrestling – unlike boxing – is an experience of being held! Sometimes our relationship with God might indeed seem like a struggle – so much is happening to us, so much going on, we are wrestling, but we are held. Could there possibly be a safer place?

 

This experience of Jacob’s was intensely physical. Wrestling is perhaps the ultimate contact sport with skin-to-skin, body-to-body full-on contact, every part engaged. There was even physical injury, poor Jacob’s hip was put out, perhaps sprained or even dislocated. We too are physical beings, not disembodied spirits or just minds on legs. Our bodies tell us so much, react and respond in all sorts of ways. This is of course very familiar to us. We walk into a meeting and the pit of our stomach tells us something is wrong. Our throat tightens as we choke with emotion, we weep with sadness or joy, it seems like our heart literally goes out to someone, our heart sinks as we hear bad news, our gut tightens with anxiety. We actually speak of ‘being touched’ when we hear a lovely story. We listen to a beautiful poem and we are stilled, our heart stops as we are gripped by it. Gripped! Look at how physical that word is! If these ordinary, everyday things literally touch us, does not God do this also, as we walk with him?  So, when we come to prayer, when we are still before God, we may perhaps begin to become aware of what is happening in our bodies, of how God is touching me at this moment. What is God saying through this experience? After all, as Paul asks us, ‘Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?’ (1 Corinthians 6:19).

 

The final thing that speaks to me from this story is that Jacob knew what he wanted. He wanted God’s blessing. In fact, it wasn’t the first time he had sought for that. In cheating his elder brother Esau out of his birth right he was seeking all the rights and blessings which came with being the first born in that ancient culture. Now, as he faced Esau again – even perhaps as he thought that to begin with it was Esau he was grappling with – he feared losing that privilege that he knew was rightfully not his. ‘No, don’t take it from me! Bless me! Give me that which I have wanted all my life!’ And God did give it to him, but not without pain. Sometimes, or perhaps often, when we come to prayer, we don’t ask for what we really want. Maybe we don’t even know what it is we want. It is something to think about, to reflect on. What is your desire? Imagine that you answered the front door to Jesus himself. As you welcomed him, he asks you, what do you want?

 

I have taken this encounter of Jacob with God as a picture, a parable of conscious relationship with God – by which I mean prayer. Whenever we move away from our anxious thoughts and preoccupations and acknowledge God – whether in silence, in contemplation, in spoken words, in weeping, in song, in reading, in body posture – kneeling, standing, in gestures like arms raised, dancing, reverently crossing oneself – whenever we do this, we are at prayer. Mysteriously, as we face our fears we can find ourselves facing God. We are held in our struggle with him. Prayer can be physical too, what is God saying through my body experiences? What is it that you want, you desire?

 

I wonder how all this leaves you? You might like to hold on to just one insight from this strange story we have read and explored. Perhaps you can find a moment today to read the story again in a quiet place and find if there is a phrase, a word that touches you – that causes something to happen to you physically – that may be a nudge from God: take note! You may find that there is something about this story that maybe calls you to a deeper place of encounter with God yourself and you want to explore that. Plenty of reading material here – Richard Rohr is always a good place to start, I would suggest his little book ‘Just this’. You may want to find a partner to share with and perhaps spiritual direction is a route you would like to try.

 

Here are Jacob’s words to end with: ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me!’

 

Richard Croft

 

 

 

 

 

seeds

Sermon Sunday 26 July 2020    

I want to consider Jesus’ parables in our gospel today, with a passing reference to that wonderful passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans.

I’ve never found the idea of process very easy.  By that I mean that I struggle sometimes with the idea that things take time.  On the whole I’m more interested in my destination when I’m travelling than in the journey.  I’ve found our present circumstances hard sometimes because I’d like to be there (wherever that is) rather than be in a seemingly endless process of emerging.  I would be the one to say, ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ when I was a child.

So, here we are today with parables that are about slow growth, slow emerging and waiting and hiddenness.  O dear!

This is now the 3rd Sunday that we have followed Jesus’ teaching about what Matthew calls the kingdom of heaven (Kingdom of God in Mark and Luke).  Jesus is teaching about a way of life right now, not after death (Matthew uses ‘heaven’ as a typically Jewish way of avoiding naming God – a sign of respect).  We might paraphrase entering God’s kingdom as being about living a life that is at one with his best desires for humanity and for the whole of creation.  And, Jesus seems to be saying, how this happens takes time, the process might be hidden, it can be costly, and we might mistrust some features of it.

Then at the end of this section Matthew and only Matthew, includes this observation about teachers who are in tune with God’s kingdom bringing out from their store of wisdom what is old and what is new.  This is generally reckoned to be how Matthew the gospel writer understood his task.  But as we approach scripture we too can draw on old and new wisdom in order to better see what is going on around us.

So I thought we might start by looking at some events that might illustrate the wisdom in these parables – the mustard seed growing into a tree, the yeast spreading through a lump of dough, the treasure hidden in a field, the pearl of great price and the net full of fish.

Nearly two years ago Greta Tunberg, age 15, stopped going to school once a week and sat instead outside the Swedish parliament holding a placard saying ‘School strike for the climate’.  It was a very small action, but it started a world wide movement.  It raised awareness of our climate emergency.  Not everyone applauded her.  There were concerns about children’s education as young people in other countries started staying out of school.  Nevertheless she had planted a tiny seed, like the mustard seed Jesus refers to in the first of today’s parables.

As lockdown began Green Christian, a very small environmental charity, recognized that a prolonged period of inactivity could be an opportunity for nurturing a vision of how we might better cherish the earth.  They launched a series of weekly online conversations called ‘Radical Presence’ where Christians and others might engage together on ways forward.  They offered resources to stimulate reflection and action.  Now on its third round of conversations, Radical Presence has reached Christians from every denomination and from all over the British Isles.  It is stimulating a range of actions and further conversations – community gardening, lobbying MPs, opening new forums for discussion on climate change.  Radical Presence is like the yeast in Jesus’ 2nd parable.

In the 1850s a middle aged Jamaican widow, Mary Seacole, volunteered at the London War office to go to the Crimea, to join Florence nightingale’s hospital for soldiers injured in the Crimean war.  She had a particular calling to nurse soldiers, having been brought up in a hotel cum hospital in Kingston run by her mother.  She was experienced in treating cholera and yellow fever, both of them diseases that ravaged military camps at that time.  Mary was persistent, but the War office in London turned her down several times.  She didn’t give up easily.  Rather like the men in the 3rd and 4th parable she sold everything she had in Jamaica and travelled to the Crimea independently where she set up a hotel/hospital similar to the one she had run with her mother in Kingston Jamaica.  She helped 100s of soldiers and was so loved and respected by them that when she eventually came to London virtually destitute after the war they did the equivalent of crowd funding for her so she had something to live on.  Her calling was like the treasure in the field, or the priceless pearl and she had been ready to give up everything for it.

St Peter, having a nap on the roof of Simon the tanner’s house (Acts 10.9-23), dreams of a big net holding all kinds of creatures, many of which would have been considered unclean by Jews like himself, and hears a voice telling him to kill and eat some of them.  ‘No’, he says, ‘some of those are not ok for us’, and God (it is after all his voice)tells him that it’s God, rather than Peter, who determines what is clean or unclean.  I wonder if Peter’s dream took him back to the story of the net in Jesus’ 5th parable today?

We might perhaps imagine Peter looking back to those days when he and the other disciples were with Jesus on the road and at the end of a long day where they’ve been alongside Jesus as he taught and as people followed them round, one of them says to Jesus, ‘Have you noticed some of the people in the crowd following you?  I’m not too happy about some of them.  There are tax collectors, for a start, certainly some prostitutes and other dubious characters who might give us all a bad name.  There’s danger too; what about those two who look like spies from the Jewish authorities?  Shall we ease them out?  And Jesus tells the story of the net.  In effect he’s saying, ‘You are called to fish for people (remember my calling you by the lake?) you just get on and do that.  You know how to sort fish, but people are a different matter. Leave God to sort out that catch’.

Or another evening after a long day mainly taken up with vigorous arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees which seem to lead nowhere and a visit to a small village where there was little interest one of the disciples says, ‘I’m wondering if we should try something a bit more ambitious, a sort of Jesus roadshow, sending some of us ahead announcing your arrival, with suitable publicity, perhaps arranging a flotilla of our boats on the lake and some music.  Let’s go large’.  And Jesus tells the stories of the mustard seed and the yeast as a way of saying they don’t have to try so hard.  The kingdom of God is a given.  It’s actually woven into the way creation works.  It’s a natural outworking of God’s grace.  It will happen, however small its beginnings might be.  ‘Fear not, little flock, it’s your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’, Jesus says to them in Luke’s gospel.  ‘You just do what I called you to do and leave the rest to God.  Or as Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, written some time before Matthew’s gospel, ‘We know that everything works together for good for those who love God….If God is for us, who can be against us’?

In these parables, as in so much of Jesus’ teaching, there is an implied invitation to trust in God’s good purposes for ourselves and our world; a trust that the working out of these purposes can take time, just as nature takes time, that responding to God’s call to us to share in working out those purposes will involve taking a risk, however small, and might be costly in other ways, and that we may well find ourselves co operating with people we wouldn’t usually associate with.  And yet, as we do so, we find what is for us the equivalent of the pearl of great price or the treasure in the field.

I was wondering what mustard seeds might have been sown in our church during the last few months.  Perhaps one might be the 30 minutes with the children before the main zoom service?  But there will be others.  In the week ahead I invite you to look back over lockdown, holding up perhaps two (or more, if you like) of today’s parables and seeing where they might be illustrated in your life and the life of our church.  Sit with the parable.  Express gratitude.  It may be too, that there is a calling somewhere in there for you.  Like Mary Seacole you get in touch with something you really want to do.  Stay with that desire, voicing it to God in prayer.  We are all in the process of becoming.  We haven’t yet arrived and as we ponder the events around us in the light of wisdom old and new, turning to God in prayer, we can trust, St Paul says, that the Spirit helps us in our weakness..the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.  Again, that invitation to trust.

 

Christine Bainbridge July 2020

wheat

A Timely Parable – Sunday 19th July 2020

 

Background

Just when I thought this week that I could hear no more tales of misery and grief from poor, wretched, starving, bombed and disease-wracked Yemen – where cholera is rampant and Covid 19 claims the lives of a quarter of all those that contract it, I did.

 

Incredibly, this year already some one hundred thousand desperate Ethiopians fleeing famine and fighting in their own country have crossed by boat to Yemen hoping from there to travel into Saudi Arabia and find work. But in recent months, gangs of Yemeni thugs and traffickers have rounded up exhausted Ethiopians as they have stumbled on to Yemen’s shores, imprisoned, abused and tortured them, releasing them only on payment of money from their families back in impoverished Ethiopia. The cruelty is mind-numbing.

 

Last week, in his most helpful and beautifully illustrated talk, Mark cautioned us against listening too often to the news. I have tried to heed his counsel but did watch a documentary about elections in Kenya and of the courageous attempt of a young Kenyan of great integrity running for Parliament. He was not elected – the bribes of the bullies won the day – and thirty or more who had threatened their election chances were murdered. ‘For how much longer must we endure this?’ shouted a disappointed supporter of the young man who was not elected.

 

And it is out of a background similar to this, charged with the same emotion that prompted Jesus to tell the three parables which are before us today. Each deals with growth and all emphasize the need for patience.

 

Let me explain! Jesus was hugely popular. The crowds enormous. His teaching riveting, while his touch brought sight, help and hope to thousands. It was a time of great excitement and expectancy.

 

But if his hearers were travelling a road in Palestine, they had to get off it to make way for Roman soldiers, the greed of the empire’s hated, quisling tax collectors knew no bounds, while at many crossroads there hung on crosses the moaning bodies of their fellow countrymen who had offended Rome.

 

In the hearts of many of his hearers and on the lips of some, would have been the anguished cry, ‘How much longer?’ And there would have been some, even among his own immediate followers, urging him to ‘go for it, rout the Romans and bring in your kingdom.’

 

Parable of the Tares

The Parable of the tares sounds strange to our ears and with its later detailed explanation some may feel uncomfortable. But apparently, the practice of deliberately sowing weeds – and the text here actually indicates poisonous weeds in a rival’s corn field – was common. Roman law actually covered such an eventuality. The farm labourers – so keen to uproot immediately the weeds and cautioned against doing so, represent perhaps, the hot heads, the up and at ‘ems among Jesus’ followers.

 

The message of the parable is simple – there will come a day when all people will be called by God to account, and while for some that will be glorious – for others it will be bleak. It is a message that runs throughout Jesus’ teaching and is especially prominent in the parables. It is not a topic often spoken of or addressed. Graphic medieval pictures featuring the torments of the occupants of hell and, the threat of hell sometimes held over congregations by fervent preachers hoping to persuade their people to opt for heaven have caused many to jettison judgement from their thoughts of God altogether. Many opt instead for an indulgent, genial God of their own making, ready to overlook our prejudices, infidelities and cherished grudges and their consequences. But that’s not an option Jesus leaves us, nor do I really think is one we would want him to.

 

There comes to mind that challenging refrain about Aslan, in several of CS Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, namely, ‘He’s not a tame lion!’ And some words in a similar vein come in that wonderful book The Go-Between-God: ‘We are looking for a sensible family-size God dispensing pep pills or tranquilizers as required with the Holy Spirit who is a baby’s comforter; no wonder the Lord of terrible aspect is too much for us.’ The theme of judgement is inescapably there in the teaching of Jesus and I have suggested we would not want it any other way.

 

What otherwise of the murderers of Srebrenica, the tyrants and despots who strut the world’s stage causing misery to millions of their own, or those who from the comfort of luxurious, air-conditioned offices can do the same through manipulating the world’s money markets? But lest we grow smug, we would be wise to remember Jesus’ caution that we will be called to account for every reckless word we utter. (Matthew 12.36)

 

Consider the source

This is a popular saying in our family, especially after hearing a particularly outrageous statement. They are good to ponder when thinking about Jesus and his solemn words on judgement, for the one who spoke them was the same one who with infinite tenderness said to a frightened woman in a jostling crowd, ‘Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.’ And who, standing on a hillside, wept for a city whose destruction he so accurately foresaw. There is about Jesus both an aching tenderness and compassion but also at times a terrible severity.

 

The example of Pope Francis

There is much speculation today on, ‘What after Covid 19? – globally, nationally and in our churches and I don’t think we have even begun to see the extent of the fallout from it. Pope Francis has spoken of the need now for conversion in our care for the planet, urging us ‘not to go back to where we were’, and John Bell of the Iona Community recently asked, ‘Will we continue to live so irresponsibly that we will have to take our grandchildren to see the insects and animals we once enjoyed in the wild?’

 

I have, over the past months of lockdown, spent many long nights at the Samaritans listening to calls – fearful, bewildered, frustrated, angry and desperate – cries growing more shrill with each passing week.

 

One day after one such night, I read some other words of Pope Francis; they seemed so timely. ‘I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and clinging to its own security. If there is something which should rightly disturb and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation borne of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life… My hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security… within habits which make us feel safe while at our door people are starving while Jesus does not tire of saying to us; ‘Give them something to eat.’ (Evangelii Gaudium, Joy of the Gospel)

 

May God give us the grace, faith and courage with the Pope to both embrace and help heal a gasping planet and , to point its anxious and desperate people gladly to Jesus Christ our Saviour and our Judge.

mark sermon

The Parable of the Sower.

 This week’s gospel gives us perhaps the most famous parable of all time. I recall it being the first reading I ever had to preach on as a curate. My heart fell: what more could you possibly say that hadn’t been said before about the sower!

Sometimes, though, perhaps all a preacher needs to do is just to restate the obvious, which is what I’ll do this morning (although as I do it, perhaps something I say might jog some new thoughts and responses).

Today’s story is called the parable of the sower – but this isn’t its title. You could just as well call it the parable of the four soils. The sower casts the seed far and wide, and it has variable results depending on the nature of the soil. Matthew’s gospel goes on to explain that the parable describes Jesus’ experience of the different responses people had to his ministry.

Let’s take the parable apart piece by piece and let me invite you to notice whether there are particular moments of connection for you.

We start first of all with the image of the sower casting wide the precious seed gathered and set aside from the previous year’s valuable harvest. Of course, the sower is God the Creator who makes life so abundantly, spreading it across the world; and it is God in Jesus who gave flesh to God’s presence in such boundary-pushing ways that grace was spread way beyond the conventionally righteous; and it is God the Spirit at work today continually bubbling up in creative goodness throughout the world spreading goodness is beyond any boundary of culture, creed or colour.

And, what’s not said, but implied, is that this happens every year: what the sower does is not a one-off: the broadcasting of grace is always what God does.

So, the parable begins with an image of abundant, even foolhardy generosity and, naturally, this gives rise to a question for us: is our experience of God a continually generous, risk-taking, profligate God, or do we start with a somewhat miserly, careful controlling image…?

Next there is the seed: what is this? Well, obviously it is the good news of God’s Kingdom. Put simply, this is the message of God’s ideal vision for individuals and for the earth. One summary of it is found in the Beatitudes which you could call the headlines of God’s manisfesto.

If I might paraphrase, according to the Beatitudes, God’s kingdom is found where the poor are placed front and centre; where those who grieve and are broken by loss are bound up;  where humility rather than arrogance is rewarded; where those who are hungry, and hungry for justice, are fed; where peace-making and acting mercifully to one another are the default; where humans are motivated by goodness rather than evil. This is the vision of the kingdom, the message, the invitation, the seed that God spreads. It is of a world being transformed by humans living in new divine ways.

If the sower casting the seed is about the invitation to this new way of living, the parable then goes on to explore in the symbols of the three soils why humans might respond differently, or perhaps, even, respond in different ways at different times in their lives. Each of the soils describes a disposition of the heart.

Why does the invitation to a different way of living not always take root? Well, says the parable, some seed falls on hard, compacted, soil. This suggests to me that the human heart might need to be broken open and made receptive to the invitation to live differently. Sometimes life will do this to people anyway: an experience of personal suffering or exposure to another’s hardship might cause the heart to be dug over, to break open, and to yearn for a better way of living, to be receptive to the vision of a new way of living, to act with compassion. But sometimes we may need to be reminded, for the heart can harden over again. It is possible to be insulated from the urgent call to live differently.

I was reminded of this recently when I heard again the story of the young Buddha. The story goes that before his enlightenment the Buddha’s father did all he could to shield his son from any sight or experience of suffering. It was well-intentioned but this insulation would have kept the young prince ignorant in the protective bubble of the family’s palace. It when only he was being driven outside the palace in a chariot that the young prince was accidentally exposed to human aging, to suffering, and to death, and only then did the young prince feel the pull to enlightenment, to live differently.

From time to time, then, a certain re-breaking of the hardened heart might need to occur to receive the invitation to live divinely. I notice in myself the understandable temptation to hide away from discomfort (I’ll say more of that later, for this is not an altogether mistaken thing to do). Jo and I in our parenting try to carefully expose our boys to films and plays that show them what life is like outside of their mainly comfortable life, hoping to crack open their hearts just a bit, to allow the seed of the vision of the kingdom to take root.

Of course, it might also be, that the soil of the heart has been compacted by being trodden down: oppression, abuse, mistreatment can also cause the heart to harden up in defence. Its breaking open to dare to receive good news can be a long and difficult process. But it can happen, good news can take root even then.

So: it seems to me that the heart must be receptive to the vision… here is another moment to pause and take stock: does the image of the hardened heart say anything to us?

Next in the parable, some seed falls on rocky soil. It springs up but it doesn’t last long for the sun scorches it. This suggests, I suppose, that sometimes we might show an initial enthusiasm for the message of the kingdom (after all, who doesn’t want humans to change for the better?). But for that message to be really transformative, it can’t be superficial, it needs to go deep into our identity because otherwise when difficulties arise – and they will – the hopeful message will shrivel up.

Perhaps this part of the parable speaks of our responsibility, our need to take the vision seriously and make it part of our identity. But we might add that the image also suggests that there might be times when shade is needed lest the vulnerable seed is scorched by life. That shade might be to protect another person from financial hardship; from the heat of life; to give respite and rest.

Let’s pause for a moment with this question of shallow roots and scorching heat.

The third type of soil speaks of weeds that choke up the vision of the kingdom growing is us. The interpretation describes these as ‘the cares of the world and the lure of wealth’. I shan’t say anything more about the latter, for I’ve already suggested that being too comfortable can dull us to the demands of the kingdom. But about the ‘cares of the world’ it seems to me that the vision of the kingdom might not bear fruit because there can be too much care, or concern, or anxiety. It is possible to be distracted by too much need. Perhaps, as I hinted earlier, this is the flip-side of the metaphor of the hard heart. I remarked to Joanna recently that I noticed that I had stopped listening to the news on the radio in the morning. It was just too much. I was still aware of what was going on because I read the news regularly, but instinctively I realised that too much information can be paralysing. Too much care or worry would be like weeds that choke up that gentle, vulnerable vision. We need enough care but not too much.

I realise I might sound like an old conservative now, but increasingly I find the need simply to sit down and be still: prayer, as self-care, is like clearing the ground of those things that choke the good news in us and stop it growing. Making this a habit might be as boring as weeding, but for the vision of the kingdom to bear fruit within us it needs time and space.

Do weeds of care choke the seed in us?

The 4th soil is the good soil: the heart in which the vision of the kingdom takes root. What does a fruitful life look like? I cannot but help think of the list of fruits of the spirit that Saint Paul gives us.

When the seed takes root in a life, its fruit is seen where:

people are loving to one another; where joyfulness is cultivated; where people act peacefully; where there are habits of patience, acts of kindness and generosity; where we learn to be more trusting and less suspicious of God and others; where there is gentleness in our relationships and self-restraint.

When the seed of the Kingdom vision takes roots these qualities, and many others will grow, in us and around us, and through us…

The sower sows the word. Let everyone with ears to hear listen. Amen.

welcome

Welcoming – Matthew 10:40-42: Trinity 3, 28th June 2020

We have been looking at Matthew 10 for a few weeks now.  It is Jesus’ commission to the twelve disciples before he sent them out.  He tells them to preach that the kingdom of heaven is near, to heal the sick, to raise the dead, to drive out demons.  It quite some apprenticeship and, I imagine, a somewhat terrifying prospect for the disciples.

 

And it is not made easier by Jesus’ words.  This is no pep talk to the team before a match, or a rousing speech to send the troops into battle.  Jesus starts by giving them instructions on who to go to, what to say, how to behave.  But most of chapter 10 is Jesus telling the disciples how tough it is going to be.  They will experience opposition from the powerful, be arrested, be brought before kings and governors.  Relationships will be broken by the message, brother against brother, children against parents…  “All men will hate you because of me.”  When you are persecuted in one place, move to another.

 

So, off you go, then.  (Some of this clearly looking forward to the time after Jesus ascension, because we do not know of serious opposition to the disciples during Jesus’ ministry.)  There is some comfort from Jesus, with promises that the Spirit will give them the words to say, that God the Father knows them and values them, that with God on their side, they have nothing to fear from men.

 

Then we come to today’s three verses.  “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me”.  And those who did welcome them, in however small a way, would be rewarded.

 

We get the impression that disciples were a somewhat ragged crew.  We know remarkably little about most of them.  We do know that four or five of them were fishermen, one was a tax collector; we do not know about the rest.  The gospels are remarkably honest about their failings, but do not say a lot that is positive.  We know of their arguments, of Jesus chiding them for their lack of understanding, of them sleeping when Jesus needed them most, or them running away after Jesus’ arrest, of Peter’s denial.  This cannot be the whole story.

 

Jesus chose the disciples, relied on them enough to send them out in his name.  Relied on them enough, humanly speaking, to put the whole spread of the gospel in their hands.  During Jesus ministry they did go out and preach “everywhere”.  Without them, there would be no church; we would not be meeting this morning.  He saw in them goodness, faithfulness, character that he could work with.  They stayed with Jesus for three years, got to know him well, and he also got to know them well.  They were, it seems, normal people, without privileged or promising backgrounds.  Yet they became friends with the Son of God, and he trusted them.

 

What was the message they preached?  “The kingdom of God is here”, but then what did they say?  Luke says they were preaching the gospel [9v6], which does not help much either.  It is tantalising.  I wish Matthew had written down a bit more.  Like Jesus’ conversation on the road to Emmaus; I would really appreciate it if Luke had it verbatim.  I suppose the disciples’ message would have been based on Jesus’ preaching, some of which we do have recorded.  But it would have been good to know more.

 

So, back to our three verses.  “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.”  It was Jewish tradition that you treated an emissary as if they were the person they represent.  There was apparently a saying that “He who receives a learned man, or an elder, into his house, is the same as if he had received the glory of God.”

 

Jesus is sharing his authority with them.  It is a good example of delegation.  No micro-management here.  They go off in all directions, without Jesus to check on them.  This is trust, and Jesus’ reliance on the Spirit to be working in them too.  It is a message to us to allow people to do things, to take responsibility.  Jesus gave them plenty of time with him to learn, both from what he told them but also from being with him.  But then he let them go.  It is a message to us, too, to be open to doing things for God.  I very much doubt the disciples would have felt confident, ready, qualified, or able, but they went.

 

The last verse is “if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward” (using the NIV version as it is a bit clearer).  Calling the disciples “little ones” may sound a bit pejorative to our ears, but it seems to be a term of endearment.  These were not, at least at this stage, great prophets, well known righteous men.  They were humble people with open hearts.

 

Doing something as simple as giving those serving God a drink of water will not be forgotten.  While the disciples could expect opposition, they could also expect support.  There would be those who would recognise what they were doing, recognise God in them and respond.  God will recognise even that small response.

 

Jesus’ words reflect the generosity of God.  Not judgemental, demanding total perfection from us before we are accepted.  Any movement toward him is welcome.  Of course, he wants more, our full hearts given to him, but any movement towards him is graciously accepted.

 

Jesus’ words here remind me of some more later in Matthew.  The chosen stand before Jesus at the end of time and say ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  He replies, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these [little ones] who are members of my family, you did it to me.’  [Matt. 25vv37-40].

 

So, be welcoming to those doing God’s work, to those who you see doing what is right, to those who need it.  In a time of coronavirus, this may not mean opening your home, but a welcome may be a kindness, words of support, a gift, a meal given, even a thought.

 

Do it out of love, and the God of love will love you for it.

 

 

 

Jeremy Thake,

St. John & St. Stephen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matthew 10:40-42 (NRSV)

 

40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

heart

Love Actually – June 21st, 2020, Trinity 2

Matthew 10:24-39

‘Love, actually’

 We are living through tumultuous and difficult times. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, racial justice protests gripping the world, poverty, the climate emergency, and just in the last 24 hours, here in Reading, 3 people killed while they enjoyed an afternoon sitting with friends in the sun. Suddenly Reading doesn’t feel so safe any more. The world is a dangerous place on so many levels. I mention all of this because, in today’s gospel reading, there is a focus specifically on the troubles that Christians may face as a result of our commitment to Jesus, and I want to honour this. It’s important, too, because how we live, what makes us tick, what makes us the people we are will colour our reaction to all of these problems that face us.

 

I found it interesting to just review where we are in Matthew’s gospel to help us understand the reading we heard today. The gospel starts with Jesus’ genealogy, his heritage; then goes on to his birth, the flight to Egypt and his return; John the Baptist; Jesus’ temptation by Satan, and then the beginning of his ministry. It starts with the Sermon on the Mount with Jesus’ grand manifesto of the Kingdom of God – how to live, how to love, how to pray. Then there are a series of stories about some of the things Jesus did. I’ll run them past you, notice the sort of people he chose to love and to heal and to call: a leper, a Roman soldier’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, two fierce men possessed by evil spirits, a paralysed man, Matthew himself, the despised tax collector, a dead girl and a woman with a haemorrhage that made her untouchable, two blind men, and a man who was mute. Then, in Matthew 10, Jesus turns around to his disciples and tells them, ‘Now it’s your turn. But don’t imagine it will be easy! The disciple is not above his master!’. At the time the gospel was written, towards the end of the 1st century, indeed it was not easy at all to be a follower of Jesus. Matthew 10 is split roughly speaking in 3 parts: go and do what I am doing (1-15), it is going to be tough (16-25), but don’t fear (26-42). There’s always an edge in Matthew, he doesn’t let us off the hook: you will be flogged, dragged before governors, betrayed and hated. Then the message of don’t fear: even the hairs on your head are counted, you are worth more than many sparrows.

 

Well, thankfully I don’t think any of us have to face that kind of reckoning today, in this country. But the followers of Jesus really did face exactly what is described here for the first 300 years, until the Emperor Constantine made Christianity an approved state religion. Many people in the world today face persecution for their faith. The question that faces us is this: why then, would anyone follow Jesus if it means that much trouble??

 

I am risking a return to Narnia to try and find an answer. In Prince Caspian, Peter, Susan, Edmund, Lucy and Trumpkin the Dwarf are on a mission to confront the evil powers who have taken over Narnia, put Prince Caspian on the throne. They have all got lost on the way, but Lucy, the youngest, meets Aslan in an enchanted wood while the others are asleep. ‘Aslan said, “If you go back to the others now, and wake them up; and tell them you have seen me again; and that you must get up at once and follow me – what will happen? There is only one way of finding out.” “Do you mean that is what you want me to do?” gasped Lucy. “Yes, little one,” said Aslan. “Will the others see you too?’ asked Lucy. “Certainly not at first,” said Aslan. “Later on, it depends.” “But they won’t believe me!” said Lucy. “It doesn’t matter,” said Aslan. “Oh dear, oh dear,” said Lucy. “And I was so pleased at finding you again. And I thought you’d let me stay. And I thought you’d come roaring in and frighten all the enemies away – like last time. And now everything is going to be horrid.” “It is hard for you, little one,” said Aslan…Lucy buried her head in his mane to hide from his face. But there must have been magic in his mane. She could feel lion-strength going into her. Quite suddenly she sat up. “I’m sorry, Aslan,” she said. “I’m ready now.” “Now you are a lioness,” said Aslan. “And now all Narnia will be renewed.”’

 

Why was Lucy prepared to do what was very difficult for her? Simply, because she loved and trusted Aslan, despite her fears. It was the same for those early Christians that Matthew wrote his gospel for: they loved and trusted Jesus. In those first 9 chapters of his gospel, before he gets to the tough bit, Matthew tells the story of the Jesus that he himself fell in love with as he sat at his table collecting taxes and Jesus came into the room, looked at him and just said, ‘Follow me’ (9:9). And he did. 30 years later, writing his gospel after Jesus had ended his ministry on a Roman cross, as Matthew was facing the end of his own life, he makes sure that we understand why we love Jesus, but at the same time what the cost of that love is going to be.

 

Christianity is, above everything else, a religion, a way of life, founded on and expressed in love. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he replied, ‘”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”’ (Matthew 22:34-39). St Paul, speaking of his own life of faith, put it like this, ‘The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). Love is at the root, the heart of our faith. Love of God for us; our love of God; and the overflow of that love to our fellow human beings and indeed to all of creation.

 

The passage we are looking at today in Matthew 10 does express this, and puts it pretty bluntly at the end: ‘Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.’ (10:37). Again, Matthew is writing against a background of persecution and hardship. Without love of Jesus, you simply won’t be able to face the hardships. Why would you?

 

I think some of us struggle a bit with the idea of love of God as a command. How does that work? What kind of love is that, if I’m ordered to do it? I kind of feel that command is the last reason we should love God; perhaps it’s put like that as a statement of last resort so we can’t say we didn’t know! In fact, most of us love God or Jesus not because he insists on it, but because if we catch the faintest glimpse of God, we cannot help ourselves. We praise and love him in as instinctive a way as we would love a human being who impressed us by their beauty or skill, reverence him as we would reverence a person who is shiningly good, serve him because we feel driven to it, because we want to, because it is a pleasure. It is like rising to our feet and clapping like mad because the orchestra has taken wings. It is only that that will give us the energy, the persistence to face the hard times that may come as a result of our decision to love and serve God. Incidentally, this is why Paul faced such troubles which led to his sufferings, that Claire referred to last week. He chose that way to live because of his love for Jesus. His sufferings were a badge of honour for him, which is why he boasted of them – but I admit, it’s still an odd thing to boast of.

 

We know this is true because we all know what love is. Even those of us who have been through great struggles and pain in human relationships will know the power of love, both given and received. Love motivates us and gives us energy, a reason for living, for giving, for facing hardship, like nothing else. Since God is love (1 John 4:8), all love springs from him anyway.

 

Many years ago, when I became a Christian, one of the illustrations of the life of faith was that it was a bit like a train with an engine and two coaches. The engine was called ‘fact’, the first carriage was called ‘faith’, and the last carriage was called ‘feeling’. It’s all about the facts! Get them straight and faith and feeling will follow along! Sounds a bit like a spot of DIY – measure everything and get it straight, the shelf will stay on the wall – nowadays, I take a different view about the train of faith. Without the love of Jesus to fill our hearts, what we’re left with is duty and obligation, and somehow that doesn’t have enough energy to base your life on when difficulty faces us. Seems to me that the love of Jesus, which comes from the heart, is what makes the engine go. It’s not to say that facts aren’t important, they are, but they don’t really have the motive power that love does.

 

How do we cause our love of God to grow, to blossom in us? We need to give time and space first of all to receive that love, to dwell with it. The other week in our home group meeting, we started using an ancient practice of reading scripture called ‘Lectio divina’. A passage is read slowly 3 times, with a period of silence in the middle (we did 7 minutes) to allow it to soak in. In the passage we read in John 15, Jesus addresses us as friends, and tells us that we do not choose him, rather, he chooses us. And we let that sink down inside us in silence. As people shared their reflections afterwards, it was clear that the privilege of being Jesus’ friends, of knowing we are chosen, was indeed touching our hearts. It was a lovely moment.

 

‘Lucy buried her head in his mane to hide from Aslan’s face. But there must have been magic in his mane. She could feel lion-strength going into her. Quite suddenly she sat up. “I’m sorry, Aslan,” she said. “I’m ready now.” “Now you are a lioness,” said Aslan. “And now all Narnia will be renewed.”’

 

Richard Croft

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Boasting in suffering?

Sermon for Zoom Church, June 14, 2020, St John and St Stephen, Reading.

Rev. Claire Alcock

Romans 5:1-8

5Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

Matthew 9:35-10:8

The Harvest Is Great, the Labourers Few

35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’

The Twelve Apostles

10Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

The Mission of the Twelve

5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.

 

Recently my husband lent me a book about listening. Now, I don’t quite know what I should make of that – is he trying to tell me something?! I don’t know if you’ve thought much about listening recently? The book is called “You’re not Listening”, subtitled: “what you’re missing and why it matters”.

I wonder if you can think of a time when you had to listen to somebody. There are some relationships, aren’t there, where you always find yourself as the listening one. In other relationships perhaps you’re the talker. In any mutual relationship one might hope for a balance of listening and talking.

People often talk about their troubles to a minister, which is fine; that’s what we’re here for. People talk about the ways in which life has been tough for them. And life is often tough. Sometimes they talk about how suffering has prevented them from believing in a loving God.

How can there be a God in a world where there’s so much suffering? This is often a question put to Christian people.

And it’s a very good question. A lot of Ministers are asking themselves that at the moment (I’m guessing).

Our sense of suffering has without doubt heightened in the global pandemic. I have had to limit my uptake of news stories because they have been so very painful. There’s only so much we can take. We can indeed feel ‘harassed and helpless’, as Jesus says of the crowds in today’s gospel.

No one likes thinking about suffering, but, surprisingly in our reading today, St Paul wants not only to remember his sufferings, but to boast in them.

To boast in his sufferings? It seems like a bizarre concept, doesn’t it? He writes about boasting of the hope we have of sharing in the glory of God (that’s a bit more understandable) but to boast in his sufferings?

I can understand boasting about hope: ‘We’re going to be grandparents!!!!’ (that’s not actually true of us, I hasten to add). ‘I can go on holiday this summer after all!!!’ (I’d like to boast of that hope but I’m not sure if I can yet).

We all boast of our hopes, but why would anyone want to boast of their sufferings? Normally people either hide their sufferings, offload them onto a good listener, or try to forget them. In our society sadly too, we self medicate to numb our sufferings, in addiction to alcohol, or in digital addiction, the late night mindless scrolling to try and forget the present or past suffering.

So in this short passage in Romans we are faced with an unusual concept – boasting in one’s sufferings. It’s not something we have done in this country during the Covid-19 pandemic either. We have reported our sufferings, in endless graphs of outbreaks and deaths; we have cried over our sufferings and the sufferings of others dear to us; we have been ashamed of our sufferings in our high number of deaths, and bemoaned the fact that they could’ve been lower if we’d done things differently.

But we have not boasted of our sufferings. At Church level, we have panicked about the surge in funerals, panicked over the bleak financial outlook, and moaned over the closing of church buildings, and now we’re stressing about their re-opening. But we haven’t boasted about our sufferings.

As far as we know, as a society we hide or repress our sufferings. I don’t know if you watched the programme where Prince William met some men who’d started a special football team for dads who’d lost children at or around the time of birth. It was on the back of statistics about the death of men age 16-45, where the biggest single killer is suicide. When we don’t share our sufferings because we are ashamed, or can’t think of who to turn to, they can drag us right down.

But I still don’t know anyone who boasts of their sufferings.

Why does Paul do this? Is he, as I’ve often suspected, just in a different league to us more banal Christians?

Well, on the plus side, he writes about suffering in a way that is eventually hopeful. Suffering, he says, produces endurance (that’s the first link in the chain). We know this to be true, even if we resist it. I have wanted to strongly resist the idea that the suffering I’ve experienced due to the lockdown will produce endurance. I don’t really want suffering; I don’t want to be told I can’t go to work, or that work re-starting will never feel the same again and will be full of risk and confusion.

I mean I like the sound of endurance, but unfortunately you can’t buy it and stick it on you like a plaster; to get it you have to suffer. Endurance means I become resilient despite suffering. Most days, if I’m honest, I’d just rather not have either, because suffering is hard and everything in me wants to resist it, even if it does bring a gift in its wake.

But Paul ploughs on. Endurance produces character. Deep down, we know this to be true. When you’ve come through something hard, or are learning ways to live with something hard, you are often in a position to become more patient, more grounded, more humble, and more able to receive help from others.

These are all Christ like qualities and tend not to develop when we’re rushing through life from one successful enterprise to another without a backward look. I’ve noticed in church life that it’s often the people who have endured the most suffering that are the most sensitive to others’ suffering and the ones who intercede for others meaningfully. They have a depth and a steadiness about them that is most attractive.

So, suffering produces endurance; endurance produces character; and character, according to Paul, produces hope. It’s less clear to me how this one works: character produces hope. It must be something perhaps to do with how we’re being changed into the likeness of God. If we’re becoming more like God, we are heading towards God, and will be fully united with him eventually. The hope in our hearts is poured in first by God, Paul says, and so we are sustained in our suffering because God has taken the initiative.

God doesn’t just save us from our sins (although he obviously does that) but he saves us for himself. This is the theological concept of theosis, or divinisation. By grace, we human become like God. We are made in God’s image, but we must grow into his likeness. God made us for himself and that’s to do with so much more than saving us from our sin. In fact the NRSV in this Romans passage seems to use ‘sinners’ and ‘weak’ interchangeably which is interesting. ‘While we were still weak at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly’ (verse 6).

I’ve often felt in our liturgy that we beat ourselves up too much about sin. There, I’ve said it now. We are always getting it wrong, of course, but that is often because we are weak, not BAD. Some of us are bad, of course, but in my experience generally, Church people are trying pretty hard to be good.

As salvation and wholeness and healing are the same word in Greek, it seems we are in danger of putting people off when we over stress the sin bit, because it’s just as true that we’re people who need healing. We need forgiveness AND healing! We need saving in order to be made into the likeness of God. That’s a two-fold process.

Whenever people cut it off at the ‘thank God I’m saved, I can do what I like’ side, and don’t progress to the much harder work of becoming holy – the world knows that’s phony. (My mind is drawn to footage of a world leader scowling and brandishing a bible on camera for no apparent reason while behind him police fire rubber bullets into a crowd peacefully protesting about racial injustice). Nobody is going to buy that. It’s about the worst advert for the Christian faith you could possibly imagine.

I don’t know what this last three months of extraordinary living has brought you in the way of suffering. I don’t know if I’ve yet got to boasting about my disturbed nights, general fatigue and occasional anxiety. I don’t know if you could boast about yours either

But as we try and make sense of Paul’s extraordinary thesis about how suffering brings endurance, character and thence hope, I pray we can be strengthened today and have the assurance that we have obtained access to ‘this grace in which we stand’.

Amen.

 

 

pentecost

Sermon for Pentecost: St John and St Stephen’s Zoom Church May 31 2020.

pentecost sermon slides

AND so we come to Pentecost – the Feast that the Jews kept to celebrate the final coming in of the harvest. In the book of Acts Luke writes that the disciples were gathered in one place awaiting the gift of the Holy Spirit.

It’s doubtful they even had an inkling of what to expect when the Spirit came, but they were at least being obedient – Jesus had said ‘stay in Jerusalem until you are clothed with power from on high’, and that’s what they were doing.

By this stage some commentators think there were about 120 disciples. Although Peter addresses the ‘men of Galilee’ in his subsequent speech we know that apart from the Twelve, there were several women, including Mary his mother and others who had supported Jesus from their own resources, plus those to whom Jesus had appeared after his resurrection.

Paul mentions a collective resurrection appearance to at least 50, so as we imagine the upper room at Pentecost we can probably feel free to imagine a few more than the 11 who’d followed Jesus closely to the end.

I asked for images of the Holy Spirit, and was grateful that so many people responded – thank you. In this Acts account, as the followers of Jesus experienced the Spirit in a new way, they heard the sound of rushing wind, they saw what looked like fire appearing amongst them and they spoke in new languages, which seemed to be represented by the way that each had a fiery tongue rest upon them.

So that’s three images or experiences already – a rushing wind, fire and tongues, or new languages, that enabled other people to hear messages from God in their own language as the disciples spilled out into the open spaces where so many had gathered for the festival.

The crowd included Jews from all over the known world: from Greece, from Arabia, from Rome, from Africa and from Asia.

When I asked for images of the Holy Spirit, the question was, really, what is God the Spirit like for you? Which is really the question, what is God like, for you?

It’s a very important question: maybe the most important question about you: how do you imagine God?

How we see God may determine how we see a lot of other things as well.

One of our problems is that we have imbibed all sorts of unhelpful images of God, which can lead to unfruitful spiritual lives.

We cannot just make up what God is like – nor can we hope to pin down entirely what God is like (that wouldn’t be a very transcendent God) but we can try and piece together some pointers from the bible and from the life of Jesus and from our own lives as we explore what God is like (or what God the Spirit is like).

One intellectual blockage to a healthy God-image is the sacred-secular divide.

At some point in the 18th Century, during a period ironically named The Enlightenment, we separated out the sacred and the secular in a way that is never apparent in the bible, and relegated God to the side-lines.

Everything that could be empirically proven we labelled ‘objective’ knowledge and everything else, including religion, was seen as ‘subjective’ and pertaining only to the narrow field of ‘what happens for a small number of people in church plus some other odd beliefs’.

This was handy, because it meant you could decide that God didn’t exist.

Making God an object (that you might or might not believe in the existence of) is a category mistake. God is primarily relational; God can only be known in relationship. God is personal and God is relationship. You cannot know God unless you are saying yes to God.

Saying ‘God is relationship’ may sound rather peculiar to us, but we are Westerners who have become attuned to a high degree of individualism that is unknown in the fellowship of God’s followers wherever we read about them in the bible.

Western individualism with its competitiveness and disconnectedness means it’s hard for us to imagine God as a community of persons who love and serve each other, but this is what modern Trinitarian theology (which is actually not that modern, but Patristic) is increasingly discovering.

SLIDE 1. This is Rublev’s icon – shared by Richard Bainbridge. In it we have an imaginative representation of God in three persons. Left to right we see Father, Son and Spirit. They are gentle, still, contemplative and seem to be deferential to each other in the stance of their bodies. It is also perhaps evocative of the OT story where Abraham and Sarah receive three angelic visitors and offer them hospitality. Or were they in fact visited by God?

In the icon, the cup of the Eucharist is recalled and in the centre of the image, a space, where we are welcomed in to join the fellowship. The Trinity offers us relationship.

It’s an expansive image that has many layers but it’s perhaps a helpful one to start with.

Richard Rohr, in The Divine Dance, suggests that starting with the One (One God) and trying to get to the Three (three persons) is problematic when thinking about the Trinity.

Rather, if we begin with the biblical evidence for the three ‘persons’ it may be easier to then unify them to find The One.

We have a lot of scriptural evidence to suggest God is community: Jesus referred to himself as being in relationship with God, as a father is with his son. Furthermore the Scriptures tell of the Spirit of God who hovered over creation, and was given at Pentecost, who indwells God’s people and empowers them to share the Good News.

With three persons (Father, Son and Spirit) but only one God, we can now say God is Three-in-One. But in what kind of relationship are the persons of the Trinity? Is it equal or hierarchical, and where do we fit in? This too is an important question that our church architecture often answers by suggesting there’s a boss (God) and He’s pretty far away from us most of the time.

However at St John and St Stephen’s we’re lucky – we’re in the round! I like to imagine our circle at the Eucharist as like the circle of the Trinity where God the Father, Son and Spirit serve and love each other and open up to let us in too, whenever we say our halting yes.

So it turns out it’s rather difficult to ask ‘what is the Holy Spirit like?’ without asking the question ‘what is God like?’ (Apologies for straying a bit into next Sunday’s theme of the Trinity).

Thinking about the icon that Rublev painted is a far cry, I’m sure you’ll agree, from the sort of Old Man in the Sky images of God that some of us have had to shed (or maybe we haven’t yet been able to?)

Healthy ideas of God were radically warped through the course of history by, among other things: Monarchy, Patriarchy and Empire. This kind of God was modelled on an absolute Monarch who dishes out rules and punishes those who break them.

“History has so long operated with a static and imperial image of God – as a supreme Monarch who is mostly living in splendid isolation from what he – and God is always and exclusively envisioned as male in this model – created (Rohr and Morrell, The Divine Dance, pp.35-6).

If God is a monad (not a triad) then God is self-sufficient and there’s no room in God for me or anything else from creation.

‘The principle of one is lonely; the principle of two is oppositional; the principle of three is inherently moving, dynamic and generative’ (as before, p. 42).

So our images of God are terribly important. Even the idea of God as Father is very problematic in our days because of absent or abusive fathers. Father images need to be balanced by the female metaphors of God as giving birth to a people; nurturing a people, feeding a people and even missing a people but always remembering them.

Some of the contributions sent to me underlined this – God perceived of as feminine was thought of as very positive, if surprising: ‘that’s the part of God I can feel at ease and safe with’ (like a kindly grandma who always watched over you). Sue Oates.

 

Powerful images of God as overwhelming us, needed to be re-imagined as not macho, but full of an energy that animates, and gives us the strength to carry on in life situations which are tough and for the log haul: ‘it’s the power to endure, to suffer for others, to keep going however hard the road, not to become hard and bitter but continue to love – these are the ways the spirit speaks to my heart’ (Liz B.)

What are some other images that have been shared?

I wonder if any will resonate with you?

SEE SLIDES for contributions from others: the Holy Spirit as the inspiration for different types of praise in the bible: (slide 2)

Hullah – to rave about God

Yahah – to worship with open hands

Barak – the privilege of blessing the Lord

Tehillah – sing to the Lord

Toddah and Shabach – to shout, or address with a loud voice, confident that all is well before victory comes

Zamah – to pluck the strings of an instrument in praise of God

Hallelujah – spontaneous cry from one who is excited about God (from Judy)

 

  1. A painting of Hannah at prayer, the shaft of light coming from the top left, God hearing our distress and mounting a cherubim and soaring across the sky (Psalm 18) – imagining the pray-er as her sister who went through a difficult time some years ago (from Julie).

 

  1. The infinite nature, peace, welcoming, protection, love, wonder and more that the HS brings to us (plus image – Alan D.)

 

  1. The Holy Spirit brings us together (Taize picture, Cathy)

 

  1. ‘Perplexing’ and ‘elusive’ – Genesis: the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters; empowering key OT individuals and hovering over Jesus at his baptism, then sending him out to the wilderness. Offering ‘life in al its fullness’ (John 10) Richard B.

 

  1. The dove at Jesus’ baptism (Richard B.)

 

Looking at other images and experiences that were shared by St John’s people: they roughly fall into the following categories:

 

A.The Spirit as experienced like the elements, e.g. fire, wind, water

 

E.g. A candle, giving light, comfort and peace, glory and splendour, warmth and peace. ‘It shines inside and helps me to trust, and gives me hope. I wait for the Lord and he gives me his Holy Spirit. It is enough’ (Carol M.)

 

During a difficult time, one evening the Spirit was perhaps in ‘the billowing of curtains, and an invitation to ‘reach out towards whatever it was’ (Chris Jupp).

 

Like a mighty wind that you cannot see but you can see the effects of it on others – in changed lives, fruits of the Spirit and people using their gifts (Chris A).

Relaxing on the patio with a beer, nothing urgent to do, being at one with nature, attending to creation, the Holy Spirit in the air, always at work (Spence).

 

Like water going through a colander – we’re the colander and we keep close to God the water (the Holy Spirit) continually passes through us, washing, cleansing, reviving. There’s a need to be fully immersed all the time – so the colander needs to be in flowing water so to speak (Paul Oates).

 

  1. The Spirit affecting people and encounters, calling us into relationship: e.g. the Holy Spirit as a friend, Helper and Comforter; also the AA Milne poem about “Binker” – ‘Binker is the reason why I never feel alone’: Sue Bruce.

 

Encounters brought about by the Spirit – the ‘coincidences’ that happen, the joy in worship of a new believer and the joy exhibited by Yemeni Christian refugees, despite going through real hardships (Peter C.)

 

  1. Other images for the Spirit: ‘The Divine artist deep inside you. “We’re called to paint our life’s picture in the image of Christ” quote from video clip: “A Prayer Video for Pentecost” featuring Patrick Van der Voorst) shared by Rachel T.

 

The Holy Spirit is a person, not an ‘It’, otherwise it wouldn’t be trinitarianism, it would be binitarianism’ (Kit Alcock).

 

Thoughts on planting out seedlings. ‘My prayers are like seedlings. I don’t have to find the energy and ideas to will them to grow and develop. I can just plant them and leave the rest to him/her’ (Chris M.)

 

And lastly we have the beautiful, peaceful image of Jesus simply breathing on his disciples when they were in the room where the door locked for fear of the Jews which we had as the gospel today (this is going back in time to a few weeks before Pentecost). He says ‘receive the Holy Spirit’ and he gives them his peace (the word for breath and spirit being the same in Hebrew).

 

There are of course an infinite variety of images and experiences of the Spirit, of God, because we are all so varied in our understanding and our character, our life experiences and God knows what we need, how we best hear God’s voice.

 

It is interesting at this time of year when we have a chance to focus on the third person of the Trinity, to ponder how our own images of God might be changing and developing, perhaps even to ditch some unhelpful ones and embrace new ones.

 

As we have seen, our images of God tend to direct our spiritual lives and in fact our entire life in the world. They affect how we see others, how we relate to the environment, and how we relate in this world of extreme conflict, in how we deal with ‘the other’ – the person who is different from me.

 

The trinity shows us how diversity can thrive within unity, how there is room for all, a message we badly need to hear in this week when we have all been appalled at another needless death of an African American at the hands of a white American police officer who showed no mercy. Is it so hard for us to relate to each other mercifully, as God has related to us in Jesus?

 

How will the pandemic change our view of God? Will we, I wonder, find a new emphasis on the ‘weakness’ of a divine Saviour who didn’t count equality with God something to be grasped, but who emptied himself and was obedient to death, even the death of the cross?

 

Will we find a God who is willing to be divested of power because of the ultimate importance of waiting for a beloved world to turn back, a God who knows just how impossible it is to force love?

 

Conscious of the huge amount of suffering in the world, I have felt perhaps a new tenderness in God, which has gone hand in hand with being tender towards myself when I have been, not strong and faithful, but weak, fearful, feeling a bit hopeless and being tired a lot of the time!

 

An image of God that I will share, finally, comes from a Big Sing meeting that John Bell led in about 2004 or 5, in a big evangelical church in Reading. I took a friend from Shiplake who was really musical and we both loved it nbecause we both loved singing.

 

Standing up on the dais to address the 100s of people there, John Bell began by announcing ‘let us pray’. Everyone’s heads went down, and we went onto auto pilot (you know how this can happen in church…) and then John, in his very Scottish and deliberately provocative way, addressed God loudly as ‘Midwife of change’.

 

You could have heard a pin drop! I was thinking about ordination at the time, and I felt a huge shiver go down my spine at that very moment: the Holy Spirit?

 

If your images of God are shifting, that could be a sign that you’re growing spiritually, or are entering a new season in your walk with God. Are your images shifting?

 

My prayer this Pentecost, is that we all experience something new in the air when it comes to the Holy Spirit, and may we as a church fellowship have the courage to proclaim by word and deed, that God is community, and therefore we are community and in this ever growing, ever changing community, there is indeed room for all.

 

 

PRAY TO END:

 

Lord, immerse us in the ocean of your love

Bathe us in your cleansing rivers

Soak us in your healing waters

Drench us in your powerful downfalls

Cool us in your bracing baths

Refresh us in your sparkling streams

Master us in your mighty seas

Calm us by your quiet pools.

Amen.

 

(from Sue Bruce, from The Community of Aidan and Hilda)

Additional slides for Claire’s sermon can be found here

tango

Sermon – Sunday 24th May, Easter 7

My sermon on Sunday was interrupted by a young macaw called Tango, stuck in our garden during lockdown (usually to be found in Chris Smith’s props box.  Thank you, Chris!)

Hello.  The Lord be with you.  I want to talk about the ascension this morning.  (Tango arrives, scattering nesting material everywhere.  What follows is my side of the conversation))

Oops, sorry about that.

Tango!  What’s all this about?!  You’ll have to speak in English.  I don’t understand Spanish.  What emergency?  You’ve run out of sunflower seeds?  What kind of emergency is that when we’re in the middle of a pandemic?!

You’ll just have to wait till I’ve finished my sermon.  No, it won’t be too long.

This is Tango.  She’s a young, rather rare orange macaw from Latin America and of course not able to get back there at present so she’s in lockdown with us.

You’re being watched by about 50 people, Tango.

Some of us haven’t had a haircut for 2 months.  You’re not looking very tidy, yourself.

I don’t need to know who is picking their nose!

You need to go back in the garden until I’ve finished my sermon.  No, I won’t tell them about the bedroom floor incident and who stepped in it.  Nor about the Easter eggs, though really by now I’d have thought you’d know what would happen if you sit on chocolate eggs when you feel broody. (Tango disappears)

So, back to the Ascension.  Perhaps Tango’s interruption was helpful.  Tango can only fly in a very confined space during lockdown.  Once we’re through this, though she’ll be able to fly high and free.  She’ll be able to fly home.  That’s rather like the disciples after the resurrection.  They were still earth bound.  Delighted but also puzzled in seeing Jesus risen, continuing meeting together, in some cases fishing together, and often a little fearful about their own futures.  Some of them had begun to move back to their own villages and away from Jerusalem.  Back to their old way of life.  They were in a kind of lockdown.  Then the ascension happens.

Luke describes Jesus’ ascension twice – at the end of his gospel, and as here today, at the beginning of Acts.  It’s his means of preparing his readers (us) for Pentecost.  Luke’s second book, the book of Acts, has sometimes been called the Acts of the Holy Spirit.  The Ascension lays the ground for the extraordinary events of Pentecost.  It helps explain all that follows afterwards in the book of Acts.

The account of the Ascension has some similarities with the description in the Old Testament of the prophet Elijah being swept up to heaven, leaving a portion of his spirit for his disciple Elisha.  After the Ascension Jesus’ appearances stopped.  His followers no longer saw his resurrection body.  But it’s clear at Pentecost that they received more than a portion of his spirit and were then able to do some of the things he had done.  There was a spectacular outpouring of his spirit.  More of that next week.

However, something even more profound took place at the Ascension which isn’t captured in traditional paintings of the event, but which John in his gospel, and in the passage today tries to convey using the language of glory.  After the Ascension something changed inside Jesus’ followers which burst out at Pentecost.  Strangely, they felt closer to him than before.  It was as though they were inside him, or was it that he was inside them?  To use John’s language, they were at one with him.  If that was the case, then they were at one with God the Father too because as Jesus says many times in John’s gospel, he and the Father are one.  Jesus’ glory is to do with his perfectly expressing what God is like and his disciples were those who, however imperfectly, had recognized that glory.  So, here’s the thing; if Jesus had ascended to heaven, then so too had his followers.  They were now at home with God in a new way.  If Jesus had flown home, then so had they.  They had entered fully into their true human identity, made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection  – their identity as sons and daughters of the living God, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.  They, we, are still creatures of earth, yet we have this hidden, heavenly identity as well.

Once lockdown is over Tango will be able to fly back home.  I’m just hoping she remembers how to fly!  All she’s done here is flutter.  I think we may be a bit like that sometimes.  We were given wings at our baptism, but we may not use them much or at all.  We limit our flying to the occasional nervous flutter!  As we look ahead to Pentecost let’s ask that we might enter more deeply into that identity we now share with Christ as a beloved son or daughter of God.  He is us and we in him.  Let’s fly!

Now, I’d better find those sunflower seeds for Tango.

 

Christine Bainbridge