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mary

Advent 4B St John & St Stephen’s Reading. 20.12.20

 

Romans 16: 25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever! Amen.

 

Luke 1:26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ 35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

 

 

Looking through my sermons from 10 years of ministry I was surprised to discover that I’d never preached before on the Virgin Mary! So this reflection on the mother of Jesus has felt like slightly new ground for me, from a preaching point of view, and has been very fruitful. I’ve also been assisted by Cathy, Ian and Richard Bainbridge, who agreed to share their responses to Mary and to her yes to God, for which I am most grateful. More from them very soon.

 

So we’ve come in our Advent journey to the fourth Sunday and Mary. There are different ways to mark our progress through Advent, Sunday by Sunday, I’m sure you’ve noticed this in church down the years.

 

One way through the colours of the candles (purple, purple, pink, purple) which we have seen as signifying – waiting, waiting, rejoicing, and waiting. And then the Christ light.

 

Another way we mark Advent is through the readings set for each Sunday. Roughly speaking, the Advent story begins with the patriarchs (first Sunday) continues with the prophets (second Sunday) follows onto John the Baptist (third Sunday) and comes today to Mary the mother of Jesus (fourth Sunday).

 

As with all things, you can tell a lot by a name.

 

So how do you refer to Mary the mother of Jesus? How do you feel about her example? What part, if any, does she play in your spirituality?

 

Some of us might have our favourite heroes or heroines from the bible, or from Church history. Devotion to Mary perhaps goes hand in hand with a closer relationship with the saints. I like the way monks and nuns take the name of a saint to be their example and inspiration. And of course, whole Orders do this – the Franciscans follow the particular example of St Francis, for instance; the Benedictines that of St Benedict; the Dominicans that of St Dominic (whom I confess I know little about).

 

As a denomination that has both Catholic and Protestant elements, the Church of England encompasses a broad range of practice concerning Mary. This undoubtedly includes how we refer to her. There is a preponderance of St Mary’s churches in the south – something about all the churches along the Thames route being dedicated to the mother of Christ – so there’s a lot of Saint Marys…

 

It was a surprise to me to discover a day in mid-August in the Lectionary, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was casually referred to at the college where I studied theology as the BVM.

 

She is also known as mother of God, Our Lady, Mother of the Church, the New Eve, Queen of Heaven, mediatrix, and even co-redemptrix with Christ the Redeemer.

 

Some of which might meet with a little resistance, I am guessing, in our largely, though not solely, Protestant congregation. I suppose I must have heard sermons about the Blessed Virgin down the years; the only one I remember was Richard’s last year. However, as a partly Convent educated child, I developed fewer theological hang ups about Mary than some. As an 11-year-old I learnt to say The Hail Mary at the end of each school day and still remember it.

 

It starts: ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus’. And if it sounds strange, it’s no more than the very words of the angel who appeared to the young girl and surprised her in an event we refer to as the Annunciation, and which we reflect on today.

 

The prayer ends with these words: ‘Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen’, And I didn’t need to look that up. I’m sure other things I learnt when I was 11 went in one ear and out the other, but obviously not the Hail Mary. But should Christians be praying to Mary? Or even asking for her prayers (which is not quite the same)?

 

I like the novelist Catherine Fox on this, writing in the Church Times Diary in 2018, around the time her husband became the Bishop of Sheffield. A one-time Baptist, now Anglican, and decidedly Protestant, she writes about an experience of coming into a church and hearing two pieces of music, the second of which was named: ‘Hymn to the Virgin’.

 

“I was disconcerted to hear the organ playing The Lincolnshire Poacher as I arrived last Sunday morning. This soon resolved itself into a hymn to the Virgin. An earlier me would have had to fan herself with The Baptist Hymnal. Fortunately, I have a sister who has gone over to Rome, so I consulted her. She laid about my squeamishness briskly. “For goodness’ sake, it’s only what the angel said to Mary. You’d have no problem asking me to pray for you. You believe in the communion of the saints. Get over yourself.”

https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2018/1-june/regulars/diary/diary-catherine-fox

 

At which point I’m going to turn to Richard for his reflections on honouring Mary.

 

The Blessed Virgin Mary.  Growing up in a context of staunchly protestant evangelicalism almost the first thing to be said about Mary was the worry about those who apparently ‘worshipped’ her.  That was bad because if we worshipped Mary we would have that much less worship left for Jesus. Mmmm.  There was a big flaw here.  Worshipping her may be mistaken, but in the worry about not falling into that trap the idea of honouring Mary somehow got lost. So my understanding of Mary has had to shift.  And, to be fair, mainstream thinking in the Church of England has moved a long way as well.

Another hurdle to face concerns gender roles.  Mary as a model of submission and obedience  and motherhood is not a very comfortable image in a time when women are demanding equality with men.  Does the traditional image of Mary serve to reinforce a tendency to patriarchy?

The Orthodox churches honour Mary with the title ‘theotokos’ or God-bearer.  Mary is the one who at the crucial moment  said YES to God through God’s messenger, the angel Gabriel. Despite the terrifying appearance of the angel bursting in on her domestic life, Mary kept her nerve.  Would she be willing to play her part in God’s plan? Her response was simple and clear.  ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ At the heart of our faith is the Incarnation – God choosing to share our humanity. Jesus shows us what God is like and as Christians we are his followers.  God did not simply zap humanity with his power.  He chose a young woman in an obscure Palestinian town.  Mary was called to play a vital part, a textbook example of the way God uses human beings to achieve his plans.

Mary was a remarkable human being.  She is sometimes considered the first disciple of Christ.  She  was the one who cared for him in his infancy.  She was there at the wedding of Cana of Galilee where Jesus turned the water into wine.  At the end of his earthly life she was a witness at the horrific scene of the crucifixion. How terrible that must have been for her. The words of the aged Simeon when Jesus was presented in the Temple as a baby must have been ringing in Mary’s ears: ‘a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

Mary features in so much of Christian art.  In Western art often with a delicacy and tenderness.  She is also often seen in Russian Icons, more stylised and remote.  Icons are seen as windows onto heaven and in Orthodox Churches the faithful often kiss the icon.  It is a form of giving honour, of tuning into the divine.

This icon, the Virgin of Vladimir is one of Russia’s oldest and most precious treasures. It is even credited with saving Moscow from Tartar invasions no less than three times.   Look at the way Mary  is depicted.  She tenderly holds baby Jesus with her right arm while her left arm points to him as the saviour. It’s a beautiful and deeply spiritual image.

So I have no difficulty in honouring Mary, for her part in the story of the incarnation, for her obedience and for her courageous and faithful discipleship. I honour her for her closeness to Jesus, for the tenderness and love which so much of the art conveys.  The words known as the ‘Hail Mary’ ends with the words, pray for us simmers now and at the hour of our death.’ I am very comfortable with the idea of Mary praying for me.  All this is part of honouring – not worshipping the mother of Jesus.

By Richard Bainbridge

 

 

In Morning Prayer each Monday and Wednesday, we have prayed the words of the Benedictus – ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who has come to his people and set them free’. It’s the hymn that Zechariah sings after the birth of his miracle son, John, who will become the Baptiser.

 

If you remember he too has an Annunciation, and he asked a question of his angel, representing God, but it didn’t go down well. After the angel’s announcement of a son to be born to him and his wife in old age, he asks “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years”. Which sound like a reasonable query. But it’s read as a failure to trust. The angel says: ‘but now, because you didn’t believe my words, you will become mute unable to speak…’. It’s not till the moment of his son’s naming that he receives back his own voice and breaks out in praise.

 

By contrast, Mary’s response, which is also a question, seems to be of a different order. She asks, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ It’s also a reasonable question, but in her case, it elicits further information rather than judgment. After which she says simply, ‘let it be to me according to your word’. It’s reminiscent of Jesus’s ‘your will, not mine, be done’. It might sum up the whole of our Christian lives.

 

So Mary symbolises our yes to God. In fact she’s an archetype of receptiveness to the divine. I agree with Richard: in our Protestant desire to avoid misplaced worship, we have neglected the unique place Mary has in our faith – her willingness brought about our salvation through Christ – that is a theological truth I am very happy to sign up to. How are you saying yes to God at this time?

 

Saying yes can prove very costly, as Mary found out at the foot of the cross. Years before that sorrow, she faced misunderstanding, gossip, hardship, uncertainty, puzzlement and frustration as she fulfilled the role of first mother, then bereaved mother, then devoted disciple of the Saviour of the world.

 

Maybe there are people whose own yes to God greatly impacted the world and have inspired you personally. Ian is going to share some reflections along these lines….then we’re going to end with a song.

 

 

Saying Yes to God

‘The ending’s the same, the world will not change,

The answer is clear, obliteration’.

(By the band Slipknot, Wherein Lies Continue, All Hope is Gone).

I use this quote as a contrast to most of what I am about to say. Much as I love Slipknot (a nine strong band mostly from IOWA), they don’t share an overly positive outlook on life as I am sure you have picked up.

My initial thought about saying yes to God was to remember the missionary Hudson Taylor who went to China, who I heard about when I was 10 or 11, who said yes to God in his 20s to go to China in the 19th Century.

As it is now, it was not an easy thing to say yes to as China was not receptive to having Christianity preached and promoted in China.

I also thought about Doreen & Neville Lawrence whose faith kept them pursuing their fight to bring those responsible for the death of their son Stephen in 1993 to justice. They continued to say Yes to God, despite living their life in the glare of public opinion and all the issues that came with that.

I continue to be impressed and humbled by all three of them who persevered and persevere despite the battles that came and come their way. It encourages me to try to say yes more often than I say no, which let’s face it is the easy way out, and also realise that it is not just about big ticket issues, it is also important to not lose sight of seemingly small things which are equally vital.

By Ian Maynard.

 

Today if you’re hearing God’s call, maybe you need to ask for the courage to say yes, especially if you know that it will prove a hard path.

 

We’re going to end by watching Cathy sing her composition Mary’s Song, the haunting last line of which says: “you didn’t know that it would be this way when you said ‘yes’”. We don’t know what saying our yes to God will ultimately mean, but we do know that when ordinary people say yes to God, what is birthed is joy, justice and peace; three things which our world is badly in need of it right now.

 

May we be given grace to say yes to God today and in the coming year. Amen.

 

Cathy sings (video).

babylon

Sunday 13th December – Advent 3

[opening text] “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoner to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour…”

[Innoculation picture] My brothers and sisters, these words are said to us: this past week, starting with the inoculation in Coventry of 90 year old Maggie Kennan, a global pandemic that has had the world on its knees, is about to be rebuffed.

We stand at the turning of the tide: this is good news. Good news, to those who have lived in the shadow of death worrying about the elderly or the immuno-suppressed; good news to those who have agonised about whether they might transmit the virus to a vulnerable person; good news to those whose economic livelihoods are threatened by the social measures that we have had to take; good news to those whose mental wellbeing has been hit by isolation and fear; good news to those responsible for running public venues who have laboured long under the weight of responsibility of decision-making and risk-balancing. The Spirit of the Lord rests upon us this day with good news.

That ancient oracle which speaks afresh to us today, was first given to an anonymous prophet in the newly re-established state of Judea, whose words were later bound up into the scroll of the earlier Judean prophet Isaiah. Today scholars know the author of this oracle only as ‘Third Isaiah’.

[Stone sculpture 1] In 597 BC under King Nebuchadnezzar II, mighty Babylon’s reach across the fertile crescent had led to the crushing of the little state of Judah. It’s royal family and educated elite had been forcibly deported and resettled; the Temple was destroyed; the nation was wiped out. And for 40 years the exiles in Babylon clung to their traditions, weaving memories, scraps of court rolls and spoken stories together to create what we now call the Old Testament in order to continue their religion in exile, even though they were cut off from the social and physical supports of buildings and places from which their trust in Yahweh had previously been nourished.

[Stone sculpture 2] And suddenly, in the blink of an eye, that period of isolation and desolation came to an end. Cyrus the Great, the Persian king, swept into Babylon and overturned the Babylonian empire.

And then, remarkably, Cyrus instigated a new policy sending back the Judean deportees and allowing them a measure of self-governance. Clutching their newly forged Bible, the people walked back to Judah, to start again: to rebuild. A renewed identity was being forged out of the trauma of exile.

[Rubble] It seems that soon the initial excitement gave way to despair when, stood amidst the rubble, the returnees saw the task ahead of them. But into their midst came words of encouragement and guidance from a prophet whose name we do not know, the words we heard today: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news”.

[Covid sign] The geopolitical context and the timescales are certainly different; but we too know what it has been like to live in a form of captivity; exiled from our normal lives; cut off from family and friends; confused; sad; lost; angry; and tired.

But now things are changing. And like the returning Jews, we too have a second chance: “They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastation of many generations. For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing.”

There are things we need to take stock of during our rebuilding. There are issues of justice to take note of as we begin to move into our new world. The disproportionate effect of this virus on those from ethnic mortalities is one.

[Journal webpage] In our country, 13% of the population is black or minority ethic, yet a recent national review has revealed that a third of those admitted to intensive care were not white; and black and Asian people have been found twice as likely to be infected as white people. A recent British Medical Journal article on the subject begins with this line: “Most of the increased risk of infection and death from covid-19 among people from ethnic minorities is explained by factors such as occupation, where people live, their household composition, and pre-existing health conditions”.[1] I suspect we can probably add occupation to that list, too.

[Parish photo] But we do not need a report to tell us this: none of these markers of our society’s disparities come as a surprise. The walk from the steel and glass office blocks in Reading’s two centre, or the one-bedroom lets for London commuters, to the cramped terraces of this parish takes just a few minutes.

Nor did we need the utter shambles of an expensive out-sourced test and trace scheme to remind us of the consequences of chronic disinvestment in public health. We should be rightly proud to be the first country to roll out a vaccine; we should be rightly proud that a decision has been made that the Oxford vaccine is going to be sold at cost to poorer nations in perpetuity.

[Graph] But we should be shamed by the fact that six times as many people have died in Britain than in Germany, even though Germany’s population is larger. That’s 60,000 as opposed to 10,000.

These statistics point to a deeper sickness in Britain than the virus, a sickness that needs addressing in our tax system, our attitudes to accommodation, our over-reliance on short-term private initiatives instead of long-term investment in public health. It also needs addressing to in our habits of national arrogance, complacency and superiority as when we laughed at the overreaction of Asian countries who told their citizens to wear masks; as in our folly in delaying closing borders, encouraging people to holiday abroad in the summer and subsidising people to eat out to help out.

Advent is the great time for stock-taking; for preparation; for soul-searching. The demands for a just society, and the good news that this is achievable is revisited to each generation.

[Jordan river] In Jesus’s time it was the task of John, who walked out of the city drawing people with him to the far bank of the River Jordan, in the direction of Babylon, and then told them to turn around, to face the river again and to cross it once more, entering the Land and starting afresh.

[Build back better] Today the voice calling us to turn around and start again takes many forms. If you have been stirred by what I have said, one start might be an online search for the organisation “Build Back Better” which represents a coalition of groups proposing a new way ahead. Its call for, amongst other things, a rethinking of our attitudes to food, healthcare, income, housing, and energy has been endorsed by Rowan Williams, among many others.[2] Those behind this organisation remind us not only of the urgency of the tasks ahead, but they also remind us of what we have already achieved by working together.

[Citizens UK] And there are local ways in which this voice is heard, too: like the newly launched Citizens UK forum that Oxford Diocese has granted seed-funding to and which aims to empower the voices of ordinary people in Reading to gain leverage on politicians for change here in our town.

[Final Bible quote] Ahead of us lies the new world; we have glimpsed it now. The end is in sight; we will need a little more courage and a little more patience for the coming months: but the end is coming. As that nameless prophet put it to those returning from exile “as the earth puts forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations”.

[1] https://www.bmj.com/content/371/bmj.m4099.

[2] https://www.buildbackbetteruk.org/

desert

Advent 2B – Sunday 6th December 2020

 

Isaiah 40:1 Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’
6 A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.
9 Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
‘Here is your God!’
10 See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

 

We’re going to be in Isaiah this morning, that wonderful passage in Chapter 40, which begins with the word ‘Comfort’. We’re going to look first at ways in which we’ve been searching for comfort, and then secondly, look at how God’s comfort is at hand; and thirdly, how easy is it to trust that comfort?

  1. Searching for comfort
  2. Comfort is at hand!
  3. Do we trust it?
  4. It’s hard to imagine a better word for our times than ‘comfort’. Not only do we seek comfort during winter – a warming fire, a hot drink, comfy slippers and plenty of mince pies (I know you’ve started eating mince pies already) – we all need comfort more than ever at the end of a very difficult Corona year.

Our society is into comfort. Most of the Christmas ads you will see at this time show a cozy scene with everyone round the table, or someone sinking into a squashy armchair to eat chocolate, with soft lighting and preferably an open fire crackling in the grate. It’s all about ‘hygge’ – for those familiar with the Scandinavian term.

2020 has brought little comfort; instead it’s been a litany of bad news and bad prognoses for the future. At last, as we come towards the end of the year, there are pinpricks of light as we’ve had news of a vaccine. A pinprick of light is perhaps a good image – because it’ll be a pinprick in the arm that no doubt saves us. A pinprick of light is something small that begins to dispel the darkness, and continues until it has triumphed: ‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’.

And comfort is our theme in Isaiah this morning. The whole of Isaiah is conveniently split into two parts – roughly the bad news and the good news. And it’s better that way round, isn’t it! ‘There’s bad news and there’s good news’ seems a more hopeful thing to say than the other way round.

There’s some disagreement about whether the whole of Isaiah was written before Judah went into Exile in Babylon, or, whether this second part was written as the Exile was coming to an end. Whatever the truth, the second part of Isaiah brings us good news and comforting news. And incidentally, since the bible contains 66 books, 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New, this pivot point in Isaiah, mirrors, if you like, the structure of the bible itself – OT style for 39 chapters and NT style Good News for the next 27!

I wonder how you have searched for comfort this last few months? In the first lockdown I unwisely searched for comfort by obsessively checking the news every few hours. There was no comfort there. Maybe, like me, you found comfort in the garden or in the outdoors. There was comfort in calls with friends, and the comfort of knowing that not even lockdown could stop the church family from functioning. There was comfort in sitting quietly and confronting fear, and interrogating it: what is it I am afraid of? Is that a realistic fear? What’s the worse that could happen? Ultimately there was comfort in knowing that anxiety shows we are human and that we love, that even if the worse happened we would still be in the hands of God.

So we’ve been looking for comfort. Some of us have found our mental health really challenged by the pandemic, and we are not alone. The percentage of teachers who feel stressed has risen from 62% to 84% and young people have been particularly adversely affected. It’s not surprising that some have questioned their faith. Some have found they didn’t really miss church in the building and are asking themselves what it was they really did there.

In a year that has felt a bit like a wilderness, it’s interesting to note that one of the famous sentences of this passage that is quoted one way but may have a different resonance if we look at the punctuation, is that phrase we associate with John the Baptist: ‘a voice cries out in the wilderness’. In fact, the quote is this: ‘a voice cries out: “in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord”’. We are asked to prepare for God whilst in the wilderness, not to wait till we’ve come out of it. So let’s turn to that thought and examine the nature of the comfort offered by Isaiah.

  1. Our reading declares that comfort is at hand. ‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God’. You’ll recall the famous ‘Comfort ye’ of Handel’s Messiah, with that long first note of the second ‘comfort’ that builds through a big crescendo until the full word is articulated, more than 8 beats later!

God takes the initiative in offering comfort. Judgment has occurred, brought about by the bad choices of the people themselves, but judgment is not the last word. It reminds me of a Brian McClaren book on hell entitled ‘The Last word, and the word after that’. Judah’s judgment has been harsh – it is always our worst choices that bring the most heartache. Indeed she has ‘received double’ for all her sins. At first sight this hardly looks fair, until we consider that it was the cruel Babylonian empire that was the instrument of judgment here, and it’s as if God’s saying the Babylonians undoubtedly went too far.

But all that is over. Restoration is now beginning. Does this offer us hope perhaps that despite our collective sins of consumerism and over consumption, we now see more clearly the ways to bring about a response to climate breakdown, to inequality and to the culture of power and deference in the Church that led to our shameful cover up of abuse? Because these three issues, among many, are serious collective sins and like Daniel we should be seeking repentance for them, even if we don’t feel directly implicated.

Because God is offering forgiveness here in Isaiah. The comfort offered is a wonderful combination of strength and tenderness. Firstly strength: if you’ve spent any time in the Psalms recently, as we have in Morning Prayer, you’ll know that many are couched in terms that we might find difficult – imagining God as a kind of strong man who can sweep away entire armies: ‘Lord; destroy the wicked; I want nothing to do with them; they are my enemies and yours, O Lord; how I hate them with a perfect hatred’ – that kind of thing.

If I’m honest I’m quite squeamish about these texts. I wonder if this squeamishness (which you might share) has to do with our largely being the ones on top in society (most of us). Imagine yourself instead as a victim of war, or torture, or war-induced famine or a victim of fraud or of disenfranchisement – then you might be quicker to ask the warrior God to intervene.

On the other hand, tenderness. Who do you know that you’d describe as tender? We normally reserve the word for love scenes in films. Although we all love a gentle and tender person, if they’re always trying to make things go smoothly for you, they may be unable to tend to their own needs and could be conflict avoidant and easily duped. So tender alone is not always enough.

Strong AND tender. This is the conundrum that faces us as human beings – how do we be both gentle but wise as serpents? One of the tropes of the Far Right and an observable issue in the Trump administration is this emphasis on being strong, and defending borders against perceived threat. The strongman approach approves weapon carrying as a right and at its worst, despises weakness, and even those people who are weak. Someone trapped in this warped image of masculinity will have trouble speaking tenderly.

But in God we have strength and tenderness combined. It’s a wonderful combination. Can you think of someone (it could be a man, but it doesn’t have to be) in whom strength and tenderness are combined? It’s quite hard to do. On a PCC, you normally get the strong voices and the tender ones. But not often combined in the same person! How wonderful to have someone ‘speak tenderly’ to you. When did that last happen to you? Have you observed how the most normal of people go gooey when they see a baby, or a kitten? Or when they speak to someone frail. Their whole voice changes and they bend low and speak quietly and gently. Tenderly.

I had my first ever flu jab in the week. I’ve not had a flu jab before and I knew there might be some flu-like symptoms afterwards. I entered the very small room (more a cubicle) and sat nervously opposite a man with a facemask and a needle, and rolled down my top so my left shoulder was exposed. I’d seen this man working in the Pharmacy before and he was obviously the boss and very efficient, so I trusted him.

At that point he could’ve spoken harshly, or been offhand, or said nothing at all as he plunged the needle in. But instead he ‘spoke tenderly’. I said ‘I haven’t had one of these before’. He said ‘okay, if you relax your muscle it won’t ache afterwards. If you have some mild flu symptoms, don’t panic. This is normal and you should feel fine by day three. You can take a full day’s dose of paracetamol if you like – for three days – that’ll be fine. And would you like to sit outside for ten minutes afterwards to make sure you feel okay before you leave, because if you have an anaphylactic shock I could give you a shot of adrenaline. But don’t worry, this only happens to one in ten million people’.

It was all very soothing. I went home with a big smile on my face and noted at the end of the day when I did an Examen, that it had been the time of my jab when I felt most consoled. The health and wellbeing of others is directly affected by our way of speaking with them. Strong AND tender.

The image of strong and tender in Isaiah reaches its climax in verse 11: ‘He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them close to his bosom. He will lead those that have young’. It’s such a warm and comforting image of carrying little ones, and even carrying the ones who care for little ones – a reference I’ve always cherished as encouragement for struggling parents. And then there’s the etymology of the word ‘comfort’ – God’s comfort is his presence with us (com) that strengthens us (fort). That’s why we can, I hope, testify to the fact that even though we’ve lived through something very difficult that is still on-going, God has been there in the midst of the worst of circumstances.

  1. Or has he?

Have you felt that God has been there in the difficult times, or has it seemed as though God were absent? Can we trust the divine comfort? Have we heard God speaking tenderly? Returning after Exile proved to be harder than many Israelites thought. As one commentator put it “Second Isaiah was forced to preach to an audience that had experienced trauma and whose relationship with God had been deeply wounded as a result” (Michael J. Chan, Assistant Professor of OT, Luther Seminary). That may apply to a large percentage of the population right now. It might apply to you or someone you know.

For Isaiah’s hearers, God had apparently been absent for 70 years. That’s a long time to feel abandoned, even if it was your own doing. When we feel that God has been absent, that bad things have happened to us that God apparently did nothing to prevent, it can be difficult to return. We might feel resentful or just numb. Or we might make an inner vow that from now on we’re on our own. Life will be hard grind; we basically have to be our own god and do this church thing as best we can, because after all we’ve been doing it for decades – no one will notice if we’re actually doing it without God’s help…

If you think you’re immune from that sort of practical atheism, consider this common occurrence that I’ve noticed in myself (and I’m thinking if I have this, I’m probably not the only one). I pray about something that is very important. I really want God to hear my prayer. I pray about it several times and nothing happens, or at least not the things I thought would happen. Then something happens and it seems my prayer has been answered. And what is my reaction? I am astonished!! If God’s comfort is so here and now, and if he’s carrying the lambs close to his bosom, if he’s strong AND tender, why am I so full of unbelief?

Maybe this pandemic has just rocked our world too much. Maybe we’ve had a number of painful experiences, or watched others go through them, and it’s seemed that God is more absent than present. That’s where Isaiah 40 has a personal challenge for each of us. What is God like? Is it that on the one hand he doles out judgment and then randomly says ‘enough of that; here’s some comfort’? This would make him capricious like the gods of Israel’s neighbours: think of Nebuchadnezzar who blew up into a murderous rage every time anyone came against him. Or is Yahweh kind and compassionate, like the best of parents, grieving when we live as though we were alone in the universe?

We need to be honest, but also not get stuck. As we ponder this, we end with a reminder that today in the second Sunday of Advent when we think about the prophets. Isaiah was writing for his Israelite audience either before or during Exile, and foresaw a joyous return to the promised land. But Isaiah also prefigures the Messiah whose way was prepared by John the Baptist. Mark’s gospel, like Isaiah 40, begins with a longed for announcement. Good news! Comfort is at hand! The saviour is coming!

And for us who come to the reading third hand, as it were, it’s the same proclamation – prepare a way, even if you’re in the wilderness. God is coming amongst us.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

Advent

Advent Sunday – 29th November 2020

Mark 13.24-27

Happy New Year!  Advent marks the start of the church new year.  Our 3 year lectionary covers a different gospel each year.  It’s Year B now and we move to the gospel of Mark.  We’re near the end of that gospel this morning in what is sometimes called ‘the little apocalypse’, or bible-speak for the end times.

At the beginning of chapter 13 from which our gospel reading comes today Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem and it sounds as though the disciples, anyway, are doing some sightseeing.  After all they didn’t get to Jerusalem very often.  Look what massive stones!  What magnificent buildings! they say (Mark 13.1) as they come out of the temple – the equivalent in their day of Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s Cathedral.  Jesus meanwhile is more focused on what lies ahead. Soon it will be Passover and what we now call Holy Week.  He wants to prepare them for his death and all that will signify.  He needs to change their perspective from that of a tourist to…what?  That’s what I’d like to consider this morning.  Shifting perspective is at the heart of Advent, which may be why the church’s year starts with what you might say is the end of the story in order to prepare us for the beginning which is Christmas.

It’s hard to change perspective.  Recently we watched a programme about the ocean going liner The Queen Mary.  She was huge.  Turning her round was a challenge.  There was at least one occasion when the ship was not turned round quickly enough to avoid slicing through a British cruiser, with disastrous consequences.  Jesus needed to turn his disciples’ attention away from their immediate surroundings towards a bigger picture of what lay ahead.  It may well have felt like trying to turn around a large ship.  In Mark’s gospel the disciples are especially slow to catch on.  It wasn’t until after Jesus’ death and resurrection that they really entered into that bigger perspective he wanted them to have.

I want to suggest that Advent invites us to turn around and though it might feel like a slow, laborious process it’s well worth the effort, not just for ourselves, but for our country at a time when we are all working our way through the trauma of a pandemic.

There are some key words associated with Advent, one of which is repent.  To repent means turning around, like that ocean going liner.  If we’re turning around and away from something what are we turning towards? I like to think of repentance as an inward shift –a change in our order of priorities so that some things in life become more important, while others shrink into insignificance.  The shift may be accompanied by sorrow over mistakes we have made or wrong turnings we have taken.  This year, though, I’m more connecting repentance with a shift in how I view what’s going on around me, which is where another Advent word watch comes in.  The disciples were looking at Jerusalem through the lens of a tourist.  I have found myself looking at my surroundings through the lens of my health and the economy.  That seems to be the perspective constantly set before me as I follow the news.

Jesus’ words to his disciples challenge that perspective because, using pictures and language from the Old Testament, he challenges what you might call a one dimensional view of human life.  During Morning Prayer in the weeks leading up to Advent we’ve been reading the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation from the apocalyptic tradition in our scriptures; weird stuff, but essentially about reminding us that there is a bigger, heavenly perspective to events on earth and that since Christ, the key to it is Christ’s death and resurrection.  Advent offers us a heavenly perspective.  If I’m turning away from a fixation on my health and our economy I’m turning towards a far bigger picture of what human life is all about.  To use bible shorthand – it’s also about heaven!  I’m turning towards heaven.

If there really is a bigger dimension to life than what we can experience with our senses, if there is such a reality as heaven (which as I’ve just suggested is shorthand for a fuller dimension to which we have access though Christ’s death and resurrection) then what difference does that make to living right here and now, through a pandemic?  In other words what difference might celebrating Advent make?

Those of you who have visited Iona or perhaps another holy place may have heard it described as a thin place, meaning that it feels as though any moment you might hear heavenly music, or catch a glimpse of Christ in glory, as though there is a very thin divider between earth and heaven, between a one dimensional life and a much fuller dimension of which we may catch the occasional glimmer.

Moving the perspective of our personal ocean going liner towards that larger dimension I’m calling heaven impacts a number of things.  I want to mention just two.  The first is around that word watch again.  Jesus commands us to watch or keep alert, as it’s translated in one place in our reading and to stay awake.  Now staying awake and being alert are things many of us know about at present – they are ways we react when we sense a threat ahead and they are a common response to trauma.  I guess I’m not alone in not sleeping so well and sometimes feeling unhealthily alert too much of the time.  I think it unlikely that Jesus is encouraging us to be alert in this way.  It’s more that he’s saying whatever upheaval we are going through to watch out for where the divine is breaking through.  Look out for it.

The picture that has come to me recently is that I, and perhaps we, are sometimes like blind Bartimaeus, sitting on his mat by the roadside, shouting out, ‘Jesus, help me!’  If I could see, all that would be in front of me would be lots of legs –those of the crowd all around Jesus.  Nothing else.  Then someone says, ‘Get up, stand up, Jesus is calling you’.  This is risky.  Leaving my begging mat, my one cloak, to move towards Jesus.  But as I do so my perspective changes.  Just standing, brings about a shift.  I’m on a level with Jesus. He’s there in front of me, asking what I want.  And now I really want to see.

In order to watch we may have to deal with what you might call spiritual lethargy.  Remember we’re turning a big ship around.  Like Bartimaeus we might need to shift position.  Advent is a time for sharpening some of our spiritual practices, not so much in terms of trying harder, but being more willing to develop openness to what Paul describes as the height, depth and breadth of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3.18-19).  Where might we have experienced that during our day?  Watch can be about taking time to reflect on the day’s events; watching for where God may be breaking through and inviting a new perspective.

The second thing that is impacted by having a heavenly perspective is our attitude to death.  Here I’m greatly indebted to the Venerable Bede.  (Or the Venemous Bede, as he is called in ‘1066 and All That’!)  Yes, Covid does strange things to people…I’ve finally got round to reading Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People!

Reading Bede’s history is one of my ways of dealing with the pandemic.  I find myself wanting to see how, if at all, what’s happening now connects with events in the past and might help me to make sense of them.  The 8th century might seem like rather a long way back, but it does have some resonances with today.

Bede chronicles much of what are sometimes called the Dark Ages during and after the disintegration of the Roman empire and the departure of the Romans from Britain (mainly the 3rd to 8th centuries).  He writes about wars, ethnic clashes, a major eclipse, food shortages, pandemics, splits in the church, and yet he does so with half an eye on that split in the clouds revealing Christ, the Son of Man, in his glory.  Like other notable Northern Christians – Aidan, Hilda, Cuthbert, Columba – for Bede there was a thin veil between earth and that larger, heavenly dimension; whilst grieving over the disintegration of the order and stability provided by the Romans, as he watched and pondered over subsequent events he noted the gradual, but nevertheless inexorable growth of Christianity.  For Bede this was like increasing light gradually consuming the darkness of paganism. The light was shining in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it.  (John 1. 5).  He saw death and destruction, and at the same time more and more resurrection life.  How hard to hold these opposites together!  Yet, theologically, there can be no resurrection without Christ’s death.

Reading an account of Bede’s death in 735 AD written by someone who was with him I am challenged.  Bede viewed death as the portal to a fuller, resurrection life.  I wonder how many of us see death in that light?  Or as ‘rising to the life immortal’ as the collect for Advent Sunday puts it?  When he was close to death Bede was recorded as saying, ‘If it be the will of my Maker, the time has come when I shall be freed from the body and return to him who created me out of nothing when I had no being….the time of my departure is at hand, and my soul longs to see Christ my King in all his beauty’.  Bede used to refer to death as our ‘heavenly birthday’.  Bede had glimpsed that parting of the clouds and Christ’s glory in writing his ecclesiastical history, and in death he anticipates experiencing it fully.

As Christians we are not tourists as we look around our world, but those watching with compassionate alertness for signs of divine love at work.  Eager to share it, and if necessary to suffer for it.

The apocalyptic strand in our tradition, though strange to our ears, offers hope.  It not only reminds us of the bigger  picture, but invites us to trust in the reality of it – of life after death, light not being overcome by darkness, of God’s faithfulness right to the end of our lives.
Christine Bainbridge

goats

Last Sunday before Advent, Christ the King, 22nd November 2020 – Sheep and Goats

Matthew 25vv31-46:

Last week, Claire looked at the Parable of the Talents.  Three slaves are given large amounts of money by their master while he goes away.  This parable has traditionally taken to be about how we should respond to the gifts and talents that God gives us.  Claire was struck by how unsympathetic a character the master seemed, the unrestrained capitalism of requiring the servants to increase their original holdings, how we tend to sympathise with the servant who just buried the money, and how out-of-proportion his punishment seemed.  It is not an easy passage,

 

Neither is today’s parable of the sheep and the goats.  Partly because it seems to say that eternal judgement is based on what we do, and partly because it consigns the unrighteous to eternal punishment.

 

Today’s gospel reading comes at the end of a collection of Jesus’ teaching on the end times, spread over two chapters.  It depicts Jesus (the Son of Man) on a throne in heavenly glory, with all of mankind before him.  Jesus separates the people into two groups as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

 

Shepherds and sheep are quite a common biblical theme, from Psalm 23 – the Lord’s my shepherd, the shepherds coming to the manger, to Jesus’ parable of the Good Shepherd.  Separating sheep and goats may sound a straightforward shepherd’s task.  Sheep and goats here are pretty different here (picture of UK sheep); even we could do it – if we could make them go where we wanted.  In other countries it is more of a challenge (picture of sheep in Israel).  We have lived in both Kenya and Nepal, where the sheep are, like these, a bit scruffy, not always white, and can have horns.  Goats can be many colours, quite shaggy, and do not always have horns.  You can usually work out which is which, but it can be challenging.  Mind you, sometimes the goats make it quite clear what they are (photo of goats in a tree).

 

The Son of Man, who is now referred to as the King, welcomes the sheep people into their inheritance, the kingdom, prepared before the creation of the world.  And he says that this is because they had cared for him when he was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, sick, in need of clothing, or in prison.  The sheep, now called the righteous, have no recollection of ever having looked after the King.  But, he says, whatever you did for the least of one of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.

 

The king then becomes distinctly goatist, and tells them that they had never cared for him when he was hungry, thirsty, sick, a stranger, in need of clothing, or in prison.  They again say, but we never ever saw you in such need.  The King tells them whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me.  The goats are sent into eternal punishment, the eternal fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.

 

We discussed Claire’s sermon and the Parable of the Talents in our homegroup this week, and I found it really helpful.  Two things came out for me.

 

  1. Parables are stories.

 

They are not specific instruction on how to live.  They are imaginative pieces that speak to different people differently.  In our homegroup it was intriguing that some people found the parable spoke to a specific part of their current experience, highly relevant now, while others took it more generally.

 

Not every point in the parables means something.  There is no one-to-one correspondence the details and real life.  Actually, this parable is a bit of a muddle.  How often do you find a king hungry and thirsty, or in prison?  And the terminology is all over the place: is it the Son of Man/the King/the Lord/or Jesus?  Are these people/sheep/goats/righteous/cursed.  (And why is he so down on goats?)

 

The parables are usually making a wider point, but their format allows them to speak to you individually.

  1. You need to take the gospel as a whole.

 

It is dangerous to take one verse from the Bible, one saying of Jesus, and to make it the foundation of our belief.  Particularly when that verse is an imaginative story that we are slightly uncertain about.

 

When we allow the parables to speak to us, the problem is that we often feel inadequate, unworthy, miserable sinners, and think that any warnings within are aimed directly at us.  Resist this!

 

It is not the thrust of Jesus teaching, or the teaching of the rest of the New Testament, or even the Old Testament, that God is watching you in order to judge you and condemn you.  In the parable of the Prodigal Son, forgiveness is given freely to the son, despite his selfishness in running off and squandering his inheritance (Luke 15:11-31).  In his ministry, Jesus offers forgiveness to the sick, to those in trouble.  Jesus says to the penitent thief on the cross, ‘today you will be with me in paradise’, not because of the life he had lived, but because he had turned to Jesus at the end (Luke 29:39-43).

 

You can note that several of the parables about judgement – the Sheep and the Goats (25:31-36), the Ten Virgins (25:1-13), the Wheat and the Tares (13:24-30), the Unforgiving Servant (18:23-35) – are only in Matthew, a gospel which appears to be written with a Jewish readership in mind.  Part of the meaning of these parables follows on from the Old Testament prophets in scolding Israel for its rejection of God.

 

Nevertheless, in any approach to the gospels, we have to take Jesus’ words seriously.  There are parts of the Old Testament that are difficult, and do not seem to reflect the God we see in Jesus.  Paul seems a bit cranky sometimes, and does appear to be speaking to his time and culture in some of his pronouncement.  But we are Christians because we believe in Jesus Christ.  We need to try and understand what Jesus was trying to convey in the parable, and not dismiss it.

 

There is clearly a warning here.  The Kingdom of Heaven is for those who are kind, caring, generous.

 

I notice a couple of other things, though.  The righteousness are not doing good because of a fear of hellfire.  They were not even aware that they were doing good.  When Jesus rewards them for their kindness to him, they have no idea what he is talking about.  This is not forced, grudging charity, only done because they have to do it.  It is a natural, joyful outworking of the Kingdom, a response to God’s great generosity.  It is a sign of the Spirit within, not a requirement.

 

The unrighteous do not get this.  If they had known it was Jesus, of course they would have fed him or given him a glass of water.  Durr.  But that is not what Jesus is getting at.  In the goats, there was no sign that the gospel has touched them.  Their hearts had not been changed.  There was no love.

 

Still, we end up with eternal punishment.  Last week it was darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Here we have the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  How do we reconcile a loving God with this?

 

Well, remember, this is a parable, a story.  What does it mean in reality?  I do not fully know.  I am encouraged by views like that of C.S. Lewis, who in The Great Divorce, has one of the characters say “Hell is a state of mind – ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell.  But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself.  All that is fully real is Heavenly.  For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains.”  Maybe that is it.

 

Today is the festival of Christ the King.  We celebrate Jesus the Christ, who, as the second person of the Trinity, God’s Son, is given all power in heaven and on earth.  But he was not one to stand on the status of his majesty, but was born as a baby to show us the Father.  Yes, there are some warnings in his words, but also a lot of encouragement in his words and his actions.  May his love grow in us.

Jeremy Thake, St. John & St. Stephen

Matthew 25

 

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

 

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

 

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

 

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

 

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

 

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

 

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

 

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

 

hole in the ground

Second Sunday before Advent, November 15th 2020,

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

5Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3When they say, ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

Matthew 25:14-30

The Parable of the Talents

14 ‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” 21His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” 23His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 26But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever read something over and over and ended up being less sure about its meaning the more you read it?

 

I found this happening to me this week with the parable of the talents. I used to think I knew what it meant. Perhaps you know what it means! I’d like us to explore this morning what it feels like to read scripture with an open mind and an open heart.

 

It’s certainly a good little story – easy to remember and retell. It has a familiar fairy tale beginning: a man goes on a journey. Before leaving he summons his three servants and entrusts each of them with a large some of money. Again, the structure is like a fairy tale – we know the drill – the first servant did this; the second one did essentially the same, on a smaller scale, and the third – did something rogue.

 

In some fairy tales, the third person stands out from the others by being the surprising hero. Think Jesse and his sons in the OT: each son came before Samuel but none was right, till the youngest, David, turned up. And against all the odds he was THE ONE. Or take this well-known story: there are two older sisters who are ugly and unkind but the youngest, Cinderella, who sweeps the hearth, emerges as the true princess.

 

I wonder whom you most identify with in this parable. Getting in touch with our gut reactions when we read scripture seems important because it tells us about ourselves and might be a good first step before we engage more cerebrally. The first hearers of Jesus’ parables were often unsettled by what he said. The Samaritan wasn’t supposed to be good; the reckless son wasn’t supposed to be treated generously; the workers in the vineyard weren’t all supposed to receive the same wage. It wasn’t right and it wasn’t fair. There would have been outrage! There would have been post sermon fallout! There would not have been a polite handshake at the church door and the comment: ‘nice sermon, vicar.’

 

It’s much harder for us to come fresh to the parables, because after decades of listening to sermons on them, we’ve been told what they mean, and by and large we read them theologically, not personally.

 

So I invite you to listen to the story again and try and discern whom you most identify with. Try in this exercise to put away what your brain and church training is telling you and focus on the emotional impact. I sometimes worry that listening to a large number of sermons about what this and that means, has inured us to reacting honestly to Jesus’ words and being able to see their force in today’s situations.

(read story out loud)

Here’s what happened when I did this exercise in the week. This is my stream of consciousness, if you like (I would love to know how yours went – were you able to get into one?)

 

The Master

I didn’t much like him. His moods seemed rather changeable. One minute he’s congratulating a servant, the next he’s getting irate. He’s described by the third slave as ‘reaping where he didn’t sow, and gathering where he didn’t scatter seed’, which I take to mean he benefits from others’ hard work without necessarily acknowledging their input. He’s the most unlikely person to say “I stand here today on the shoulders of others who have gone before me”. He puts profit over people, calls another human being ‘worthless’, which Jesus said we shouldn’t do, and casts him out because he’s been ‘unprofitable’. I imagine him shouting when he says ‘give his talent to the one who has five; for to those who have, more will be given…but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away’, which is probably the origin of the unfortunate misquotation: ‘God helps those who help themselves’. I have to be honest – it made me think of the outgoing president of the United States.

 

The first and second slaves

I felt pretty neutral about these two. They were obviously very capable. Like very gifted stockbrokers both somehow managed to double the money entrusted to them, but there’s no information about how this was achieved. Often with very large returns, there has either been a high element of risk (which could’ve backfired) or others might have been treated poorly in the process of maximizing profit – think ‘gig economy’. Because they’ve been successful in their investments, they will be going on to higher things. I want to be generous and say they were faithful; but taking the story at face value, I feel they were being rewarded for being successful. And they were pretty lucky: in the 1980s we took out an endowment mortgage with the suggestion it would return at least triple over 25 years. I can tell you that ours spectacularly underperformed.

 

The third slave.

Even just saying that and I already feel myself to be on the side of the underdog. I mean it’s bad enough being a slave, but ‘third slave’? Did you hear about the research that showed that people who’d played Mary or Joseph in their primary school nativity had gone on to earn more and be more successful than those who were given, like me, ‘third angel’, or ‘third shepherd’, or even ‘back end of donkey’?

 

So – third slave. He’s apparently the least able, and he has a negative view of the Master, whom he calls harsh. But is he right? Being entrusted with money brings him out in a cold sweat. He’s a careful guy. Refusing to join in with the trading scheme, he digs a hole in the ground to keep the money safe. There’s something either pathetic and sad or courageous and prophetic about that digging. When the master comes back, he safely returns the money.

 

We’re all being told to play it safe at the moment: stay home, save lives, protect the NHS, etc. I think the third slave would be seen as a good citizen at this time. Perhaps he knows the banks are corrupt so he’s done the only sensible thing: the equivalent of hiding his savings under the mattress. For which he gets a rollicking, and is not merely sacked, but thrown into outer darkness, whatever that means. It seems a slight over reaction.

 

So that is my emotional response, and the reason I found this talk so difficult to write, is that my emotional response is at odds with my theological intimation. I don’t know if that ever happens to you. If you were able to hear the story straightforwardly and feel nothing but praise for the slaves who invested their master’s money and contempt for the one who was afraid – I kind of envy you! That would have been much simpler, and it’s always easier to go with the flow…

 

But let’s just go with feelings for now. I wonder what comes to mind about the times we live in today, when this parable is brought to bear? We are seeing more and more the limits of unregulated capitalism – this was one of the things we talked about as a group of us looked at Naomi Klein’s book “On Fire” this week. I know this is a political thing to say but it would seem that the trickle down effect hasn’t worked – instead the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and sometimes I feel ashamed to be British.

 

The government tried really hard to resist the call of Marcus Rashford to provide free school meals for the children of poor families over half term, arguing that local councils to whom they’d already given money could provide. They later bowed to intense public pressure and completely changed tack.

 

Wealth creation isn’t wrong in itself; the problem comes at the distribution stage. There is a lot of power in someone famous saying: “I remember what it was like to go to bed hungry”. It helps us imagine what that must do to a person’s view of life, how the world must truly seem like a place of scarcity instead of a place full of  – what? – the generous abundance of God?

 

Maybe we should feel compassion for the third slave because Christ is to be found with those who have nothing, who feel worthless, who hunger and weep in the dark. The parable of the sheep and the goats, immediately following this parable even suggests when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the prisoner; that is when we unknowingly minister to Christ. And not to feed the hungry is seen as worthy of judgment, just as some judged the government for failing to feed children over half term.

 

The very fact that some of us might feel sympathy for the third slave shows the deep effect of the Christian message on the Western imagination; something argued by Tom Holland in his book Dominion, so I make no apologies for feeling this way.

 

On the other hand, am I trying to justify myself? Am I over sentimentalizing the parable and reading my own personal perspective into the text, rather than drawing out the original meaning (eisegesis, not exegesis)? These are all questions of hermeneutics, and they are important.

 

So what is my head telling me about this parable? What is your head telling you? What is significant about this master coming back to settle accounts? What does it mean to be faithful in the lesser things?

 

The best way I can describe what I think it means theologically it is by quoting the poet Mary Oliver in The Summer Day, a poem in which she spends the day contemplating the beautiful outdoors. Everything around her is an abundant gift from the creator, even the grasshopper whom she watches as she ‘lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face’. It’s all a free gift and given for our enjoyment. Therefore, in view of all this grace she asks in the last two lines:

 

‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?’

 

Contrary to the expectations of that child who goes to bed hungry and knows only scarcity, there is in fact a beautiful and plentiful world out there, given us by a prodigious God, for everyone to enjoy. When we know this, when we let that abundance flow freely through us and out to others in a channel of blessing, when we are generous we discover that the more we give, the more we receive – that is the law of abundance – like the law of compound interest, the more you invest, the more you get back, exponentially.

 

So be careful with parables – don’t lose the shock factor! Let yourself be stirred up. A parable means something is ‘thrown down alongside’ something else. It’s a metaphor, like saying ‘God is a rock’. We can all guess what we mean when we say ‘God is a rock’’. At one level this illuminates our understanding of God, but at another level it obscures it. Because God is in fact quite beyond a rock – God is in fact so different from his creation that in many ways he is unknowable (for those of you who like labels, that’s the difference between kataphatic and apophatic spirituality). So I think we have to be careful assuming the master of the parable is God or Jesus, for example.

 

And one last thought: as we move liturgically towards Advent, we can’t escape the idea of the wrapping up of history, particularly the role of judgment. Matthew chapter 24 and 25 is one whole discourse about the question put to Jesus: ‘what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ (Matt. 24:3). Jesus tells this parable at the end of his ministry, shortly before he is handed over to darkness where he will hold nothing back for our deliverance.

 

So we read scripture and scripture reads us. If you have a strong reaction to something in the bible, listen to it! The bible has broad shoulders. Judgment is a difficult topic for us, but judgment is not a bad thing in itself. If you recoil from the idea of judgment, just remember that not a small number of people celebrated the judgment of the American people this week as they voted out Donald Trump by a margin of 5 million.

 

How are you investing today?

 

mountains

Sermon on the Mount /Beatitudes – Sunday 8th November 2020

Matthew 5: 1-16

If you have been connected with the church for any length of time you will be familiar with this gospel passage you will have heard it read and preached on probably a large number of times. This is the start of Jesus discourse of the Sermon on the Mount. The text is very straight forward; there are no hidden meanings, the hearer is not left trying to work out the meaning; it is not like Jesus’s encounter with the pharisees or the religious authorities.

The words maybe straight forward but the implications are not and every time you revisit them you find new depths, new challenges. Today is remembrance Sunday so some will be particularly poignant and as we are approaching advent, the time we use to prepare for God coming into the world you may also want to reflect on them both as a whole or perhaps individually in whatever way you feel led.

First though, take note of Matthew’s first sentence. “Jesus saw the crowds and went up a hill, where he sat down. His disciples gathered round him, and he began to teach them”. So, this is not addressed to the crowd but to those who have already made a commitment, these are the hard yards so to speak.

These eight beatitudes are not singular and separate so it is not like some are called to be merciful whilst others to be peacemakers. They are Jesus’s specification, his expectations of the qualities; the character of Christian people. And this is for all of us not just for those we might look to as “super Christians”.

So, let’s look briefly at them and see what can be teased out for each of us.

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

This means we are to live without a need for our own righteousness. It is inner emptiness; no outer need for reputation. In business the higher up you go the more you have to tow the party line, that’s the price you pay. You have to act in a certain way follow the rules. Jesus is saying avoid this. It is very easy to say and behave in a way that is contrary to ‘the truth’- we do it to survive to be accepted by the group.

You are better off outside the system; you don’t have to play the game.

Blessed are those that mourn for they will be comforted

Claire in the all souls service last week mentioned how tears and grieving are part of remembering. There is salt in our tears and some evidence that it carries away toxins from our bodies. Jesus here is also describing the state of those that weep who have something to mourn about. They feel the pain of the world; those who can grieve and cry understand. Especially today on remembrance Sunday to understand the futility of war and to weep for the hatred that it perpetrates for the dark side of humanity. This is to not look for perpetrators or victims but to weep for the tragedy it is. God’s tears are always for everyone.

Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.  

This Beatitude is a quote from Psalm 37 v 11 “But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace”. Conflicts more often than not is about is about the possession of land or resources and the use of violence to obtain it or hold on to it. So, the powerful win out. Not only in war but in our society, we are bound up in ownership and possession. Jesus is turning this on its head and saying no it is the small that will inherit.

Is not possession an illusion when the light of the kingdom of God is shone onto it? After all what do we truly possess; but this is ridiculous talk unless you understand the story/the gospel and the good news it is.

Francis of Assisi – told us never to own anything so that we can be open to everything.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.

What is the message here? Is it make sure you are never satisfied? Keep yourself in a constant state of dissatisfaction. When we move through layers of prayer past superficial desires, we find out what our real desires are and it is always God

Saint Augustine – “Our hearts are restless until they rest in God”

Even the wealthiest person is never satisfied; that is the character of greed you always want more/a higher dosage to achieve the old satisfaction. Jesus is saying why not go in the opposite direction? Directly and positively choose emptiness until it loses its terror.

Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.

Mercy is like the mystery of forgiveness. By definition, mercy is unearned, undeserved and not owed. If it isn’t all of those it is not experienced as mercy. If you think people have to be merciful, or, on the other hand, try to earn mercy, you’ve lost the mystery of it and with it the heart of the gospel. Don’t we have a gratuitous and generous God who just loves and saves? God has made a covenant which is not broken from his side. It can be broken on our side by clutching to our sins and beating ourselves up instead of surrendering to the divine mercy. By not doing that are we saying we are better than mercy. I’m only going to accept when I’m worthy? Only in humility can we live in and after mercy.

Only when we understand what God has done for us, dying, becoming powerless and not withholding anything can we both receive it and give it away.

Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God

When the heart is right, seeing will be right. If your heart is cold your vision will be distorted. Perhaps you don’t like someone; you want to hurt someone because they hurt you. There may be coldness and unforgiveness or rejection so your heart is not pure. So, Jesus call is for purity of heart and correct seeing will follow.

Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the sons of God.

Again, is this at the heart of things peace making is reconciling. Jesus is not on the side of violence but on the side of the non-violent. We still see all too often that people, nations think they can bring about peace by violence but that only leads to oppression. The peace that Jesus offers is very different and is based around justice and self-sacrifice. It calls on us to sacrifice any false power, prestige and possessions. The peace that Jesus gives is different to that which the world gives.

The beatitudes can be life changing and a blessing if we let them. They will be a blessing to us so that we can be a blessing to others. But here on remembrance Sunday when we think of conflicts and wars both worldwide or in different parts of the world with the powers not listening or hearing this counterintuitive message it all seems beyond us and not something we can affect.

Perhaps this is where the second part of the reading comes into play, the call to be salt and light. Think about salt for a moment small grains, when you put it on your food you cannot see it but you know it is there and it makes a difference.

So, we start where we are with those people we come into contact with every day. For each of us that will be different; and there are as many different life stories as there are people on this call.

As all of you know I work for an insurance company and ultimately, I have 25 people who report to me and who I am responsible for. I spend 8 to 10 hours a day five days a week with them in various groupings. How do I bring what God expects of me to bear in those encounters on a daily basis?

With there being 25 people, I come across a wide range of situations some good and some bad and I want to act with integrity each time. Do I get it right all the time; of course not, far from it. So, I’ve reflected about the past year and share some anonymous situations.

During this time three people have suffered bereavements’, one lost a son and another a father to COVID-19. Because of working in different ways, a lot being from home people have suffered with mental health issues, some genuine and some not. Still others have problems with anger who are not able to vent in the normal way. There are those because of the isolation who have lost confidence in who they are and what they can do.

God expects me to be, do and act in a way that is consistent with the beatitudes. This is a challenge for me. I wonder what is God calling you to at this moment?

Perhaps another way to look at it.

I’m sure we have all heard of IQ – logical intelligence our capacity to process and apply knowledge in a rational fashion. Apparently for a long time this was the only sort of intelligence that was recognised as important and valid. However, other types of intelligence are now recognised. Where I work there is a lot of talk about EQ – emotional intelligence which is considered just as important as it provides the awareness of other people’s feelings, as well as our own. It enables empathy, compassion and the capacity to respond to other people’s pain. It enables us to ‘read’ people at an emotional level. Unlike IQ which is generally thought to be fairly static EQ can be cultivated and grown.

However, when we think about the beatitudes, we are perhaps looking at a third area that of SQ – spiritual intelligence. SQ drives us to explore the big questions: why am I here? What is the purpose of life? Which path should I follow? Spiritual intelligence is about the big picture; it looks for an overarching sense of meaning to life. SQ like EQ, I would suggest, is something that also can be cultivated and grown.

Spiritual intelligence is thinking with the soul looking for the deeper answers. Church should be a place where we can do that. For sure this is a place where beliefs are taught and affirmed but it must also be a place where spiritual intelligence is nurtured. This means creating the space where beliefs can be questioned and doubted and explored in an open fashion. Where we can explore argue and debate and come up with new meanings about what faith today looks like. In other words, SQ prompts us to criticise or question the status quo, allowing us to imagine situations and possibilities that do not yet exist.

So, what does spiritual intelligence look like in practice what are its qualities. Perhaps to name a few but there will be others.

  • Self-awareness – an understanding of what makes us tick, in terms of values and motivations.

 

  • Empathy – the ability to identify with others and share in their feelings.

 

  • Humility – having a measured sense of our place in the wider scheme of things.

 

  • Resilience – remaining positive in the face of adversity and able to learn and grow from mistakes and setbacks.

 

  • Receptivity – staying open and welcoming towards diversity and difference.

We need to continue to cultivate this within our community here to journey with each other to help each other grow to be blessed and to be a blessing. To help with this the diocese have developed a personal discipleship plan which we will be exploring here. This is an accompanied faith journey with a mentor to help us question, grow and feel more confident to live out our lives in all areas of life. More will be shared about this over the coming weeks.

The beatitudes a lot to think about, reflect on and act on. Amen.

 

love

Make sure you get this right! – Sermon October 25th 2020, Trinity 20

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-end

 

We heard read just now from the gospel of Matthew.  Matthew, the hated tax collector who was summoned by Jesus to leave behind his shallow life of avarice and greed, called to his life’s true vocation as a disciple of Jesus with the simple words, ‘Follow me!’ (Matt 9:9). Why did Jesus do that? Out of love, of course. And why did Matthew follow him, share 3 years of his life with him, write a book about him and ultimately give his life for him? Out of love.  It is in his gospel, Matthew’s gospel, that we read of the Pharisees who asked Jesus the question: which is the greatest commandment in the law? And Jesus replies with those words we know so well, quoting from the OT in Deuteronomy and Leviticus: ‘“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”. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets’ (Matt 22:34-40). I wonder how Matthew felt on writing those words as he reflected on his own conversion to love.

 

How do we hear the command to love? How does it sit with us? I feel a bit uncomfortable with the idea of being commanded to love. How does that work? Does it sound a bit like the sergeant major? ‘Pull yourself together, Croft! Stand to attention! Polish those boots of yours and put your cap on straight! And love God and your neighbour!’  This came up in conversation with Hamish Preston one day and he pointed out to me the way that it really does sound quite military and therefore it jars a bit. It’s more like this, to love God and neighbour is the absolute heart of the matter. You cannot, you must not miss this. Jesus said it himself, on this hang all the law and the prophets – that is, everything you know about God in the Bible is focussed here. If you want to live life right, properly ordered, aiming in the right direction, it will begin and end with the love of God. Get this right and the rest will follow. And God isn’t some slave-master, demanding our servitude; he is not insecure, somehow needing our love; no, in fact if we catch the faintest glimpse of God we can’t help ourselves.

 

Every morning an email from Christian Art plops into my inbox and I read it as part of my prayer. Reflecting on the greatest commandment, this is what Philip van der Vorst, who is training for the catholic priesthood in Rome, writes:  Today’s reading goes to the very heart of all Scripture. Jesus tells us what our central duty, responsibility, and even privilege in life is: ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.’ Jesus doesn’t mention the soul, the heart and mind as if they were separate categories of love, it is one love. But by spelling out heart, mind and soul, Jesus stresses that we are to love God with every part of our being. The depth of our love for God should sit in each of these areas. To love God with our heart means that our life revolves around Him. He is the center of our daily life wheel. He is at the forefront of all that we think and do. To love God with our soul means there is genuine emotion and passion towards God. This doesn’t mean that our love for God is to be controlled by our feelings. But it is yet important to find God in our emotional nature. And then to love God with our mind, does not just include the intellectual life, but also a sense determination, active choice and using our free will to seek God. Loving God with all our mind balances out our emotions and steers the direction and path on which we walk, pursuing God. 

 

The love flows both ways, of course and we can only love at all because God loves us. The apostle John put it like this in his first letter: ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). I have a book by Brother Roger of Taizé entitled, ‘God is love alone’; the title says it all! At the very heart of God, in all his awesome power is something that we too share: love. This is true of God since mysteriously, the One God is Three: Father, Son and Spirit: the community of God, the Trinity, bound together by love and in love. Our communities: families, friends, neighbourhoods, churches are all reflections, images of that love that spreads out so generously from God Himself.

 

How do we begin to love God? It must be something that comes from our hearts, although the outworking of it will be in our actions. Coming to love God isn’t so much something we do, as something we allow to happen. What I’m going to say now has been said so often in this church that it almost feels like a cliché! I refer to Jeremy’s sermon of a couple of weeks ago when he spoke of finding time for prayer; and Mark’s sermon on 24th August when he talked about contemplative prayer. It’s about deliberately putting ourself in a place of stillness, gently letting go of worries about yesterday, today and tomorrow and being quietly present with God. Allowing God to slip in gently into our lives. It’s about noticing – noticing the beauty of an autumn day; not just an idle glance, but a long look, and allowing the thought to come in, that this is an expression of the love and beauty of God and allowing that to warm our hearts. It’s about taking precious words of scripture and lingering over them, perhaps even memorising them, repeating them to ourselves, allowing them to soak in and move us. As I said earlier, it’s about allowing ourselves to catch a glimpse of God: once we do that, we can’t help but love him.

 

The outworking of the love of God in our hearts (which is the same as the presence of Christ within us) will, indeed must show itself in love of our neighbour – and indeed, in love of ourselves, for Jesus tells us that we should love our neighbour as ourselves. I’m proud to say that we are pretty aware of this at St John’s and there is a lot of love being shown in various ways: helping with shopping, doing the decorating, giving lifts, delivering prescriptions, visiting, supporting, involvement in Communicare, Hope into Action and so on. I’d like to reference another sermon that was preached recently, a very moving one by Ian Maynard when those of us who have white skins, like me, heard what it can be like not to have a white skin, and felt very uncomfortable in the process. I was powerfully reminded that all forms of prejudice and racism are the opposite of love.

 

I’m guessing here, maybe wildly, that Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is not one of those places that your well-thumbed Bible opens itself to. But I was struck by our first reading today and the way it revealed the tender heart of Paul as he spoke of the way he conducted himself among the men and women of Thessaloniki: ‘…we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.(1 Thess 2:8,9). Isn’t that beautiful? The scary apostle Paul himself knew love.

 

Sir Paul Nurse is a Nobel-prize winning biologist. Recently, on a podcast I was listening to, he described the pot plant sitting on his desk as his relative! In the sense that all living things on the earth, whether plant or animal, insect or fungus, fish or tree, human or pot plant are biologically related. We are all related! Did you know that we share 25% of our genes with plants?? What would it mean to regard the whole created order as our relatives – or perhaps as our neighbours. Because that’s exactly what they are!! And in so doing, love them. In saying this, Sir Paul was, probably without knowing it, echoing the words of St Francis of Assisi, who named all created things as Brother, Sister, Mother or Father and thus related himself to them. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, humanity has increasingly regarded the planet and living things on it as a commodity to be exploited – and we are now reaping the whirlwind of that, quite literally.  Maybe if we, as a human race, can come to regard the creation as a relative, a neighbour, a loved brother or sister, we can begin to turn back the tide of climate change. So let us see our planet and everything on it as our relatives, our neighbours, our friends, gifts, and love them.

 

I’m going to end with a poem. I want to balance the command to love with an invitation to first of all receive love. A child cannot learn to love unless he or she first receives love: then it’s possible to return it. In the same way, we will not be able to love God or our neighbour or indeed even ourselves if we don’t first receive the love of God. So sit back and listen, and maybe even go back to this poem and let it feed you. It’s ‘Love’, by George Herbert. You’ve heard it before. In this poem, think of Love as God.

 

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back

Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

If I lacked any thing.

 

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:

Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,

I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

Who made the eyes but I?

 

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?

My dear, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:

So I did sit and eat.                                                                                                        Richard Croft

healing hands

Sermon for St Luke the Evangelist, Trinity 19 October 18th 2020

 

2 Timothy 4:5-17

5As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

6 As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Personal Instructions

9 Do your best to come to me soon, 10for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. 11Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. 12I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. 13When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. 14Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will pay him back for his deeds. 15You also must beware of him, for he strongly opposed our message.

16 At my first defence no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! 17But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.

Luke 10:1-9

The Mission of the Seventy

10After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. 3Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” 6And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”

FIRST SLIDE: ST LUKE THE EVANGELIST: HEALING IN A PANDEMIC

Today the church remembers St Luke, one of the four evangelists who wrote his account of the life of Jesus. Luke’s gospel emphasizes the universal nature of God’s invitation. His gospel is packed with stories about money, wealth and the importance of generosity. There’s a lot about joy, meals, women and prayer. Jesus is portrayed as a healer and saviour and since the same word in Greek covers both healer and saviour (sozo) we already get a strong hint that when we consider healing as a topic we are looking at something holistic.

A bit like the topic Mission, Healing is far too large a theme to be tackled in one sermon, but I’m hoping to offer some starting points that might be pertinent as we live through this pandemic. Healing, sickness, wholeness, heath and health services are very much on all our minds at the moment. What can the church say about healing? What do we believe about healing? This is also a question about what sort of God do we worship. Is he good? Does he want our good? Does he want our good now? Or to put it another way: when we come in desperation with an illness or condition, often the pressing questions, going on at some deep level are:

Can God heal?

Will God heal?

Will God heal me?

We will all have different experiences of healing, and most of us won’t even agree on how to define the word. I asked two people, whose judgment I trust and who have had a lot of experience of the Christian church, to give me their initial reaction to the word healing. One was in her 40s, one in her 20s. I asked them, if you were going to church and you knew that the theme was healing, what one thing would you want to hear and what would you not want to hear?

That might be a good question to ponder for a moment yourself….

I’m not going to share what they said, but it was clear that they hadn’t always had positive experiences of being prayed for when there was something wrong with them. One had watched a member of the bible study group slowly die of cancer and the other is living with an autoimmune condition that she directly links with church related trauma. Healing is such a difficult topic.

So this is NOT a theologically thorough overview, but a series of reflections on some photographs that have come to mean a lot to me during the pandemic. I hope this methodology might be a better fit to a topic that cannot help but be, not just theological, but personal. So the photos you’ll see are among the 100 finalists of the Hold Still portrait competition. Hosted by the National Gallery and publicised by the Duchess of Cambridge, the photos are a chronicle by ordinary people, all across the UK, of life under lockdown. They show moving shots of healthcare workers, separated relations, children studying at home and parents under strain. I thought they might provide a contemporary backdrop for our reflections on St Luke and the ministry of healing

“THE BELOVED PHYSICIAN”

Luke was known as the beloved physician. What a lovely phrase – we have some beloved physicians amongst us of course at St John and St Stephen’s! Luke probably never met Jesus but in the beginning of his gospel he explains to someone called Theophilus, that ‘since many have undertaken to write an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed onto us by those who were… eyewitnesses… I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you…’ I think we all want our doctors and consultants to be orderly people able to give an orderly account of our diagnoses and prognoses. We might sense the nascent scientist in Luke, if that’s not too much of an anachronism. One thing I find encouraging about Luke is that he practised the art of healing as a physician but wrote about the miraculous healings that Jesus did. It’s a healthy combination and one we can maintain when we pray for those who are ill – we pray just as much that the healing work of Doctors will be inspired – as well as the inner work of peace & wholeness that we seek from God.

After a long week looking after patients, an Orthopaedic Consultant and his Surgical Trainee wanted to lift the mood of not only themselves, but their colleagues and patients on the ward. It’s easy to forget how much we need our mouths to communicate and convey emotion, until there is a mask in front to prevent it. I took this picture to show that our NHS and our nation can still find light in the darkest of times. Keep smiling and be haPPE!

“ONLY LUKE IS WITH ME”

Luke’s story of the Christ spills out into the book of Acts as he chronicles the spread of the gospel across the known world. Paul spearheaded this movement, of course, and it would seem he had a close relationship with the beloved physician. In the Epistle to Timothy we see the elderly Paul in prison and in the last phase of his life. Everyone has either deserted him or left for another city. ‘Only Luke is with me’ is a rather poignant sentence that stuck out for me. It shows us Paul’s very human side. We know that Paul dealt in the miraculous; whether exorcisms, visions or deliverance from deadly snake bites or near death experiences, amazing things happened around him. But here he is, like many today, perhaps simply a bit lonely.

This is a studio portrait of Tendai, a recovery and anaesthetics nurse, who was born in Zimbabwe, and now lives in my local town – Reading, Berkshire. I wanted to portray her caring side as well as a look of concern and uncertainty that many of us have experienced during this pandemic. It’s why I chose a lower than normal angle and asked her to look off camera, placing her half way down in the frame.

 

We are mindful that it has been costly for our health workers to offer themselves for the healing of others; often they have done so while being burdened and stressed themselves.

 

 

“THE LONG NIGHT”

‘Only Luke is with me’. This plaintive sentence made me think about the long nights that Covid sufferers have endured, when the presence of one other person is so vital. The pm spoke of this – it’s the night-time when you most need someone watching over you, and for much more than just medical reasons. Those ‘someones’ were nurses and doctors who often put in 12 hour shifts to care and go beyond for the sick and dying, and who are still doing so as our hospitals fill up once more. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in hospital, dreading the onset of a long night – a dark night of the soul, if you will – if you have, it will have been a doctor, a nurses or perhaps a midwife who sat with you and brought you the comfort you needed. I once waited for nightfall on a bed in the Royal Berks, when I knew that I would go into labour and deliver a stillborn baby. Every four hours another lovely midwife would appear and offer me their presence in that dark room, a presence I so badly needed in that time of fear and desperation. I remember all their names.

During the pandemic, my staff were split into small teams, we worked 12-hour alternate day and night shifts. Early on, I wanted to record my team in action, something to give them at the end to remember our experiences by. I did this and it was popular. On this day, I was leading the day team. I walked in to take handover from the night team that Allen was leading; as I sat opposite him… I thought: ‘There’s a picture’:  a determined healthcare worker at the end of a trying shift. …. I never saw panic at work by anyone – no matter how bad things were, I only saw a calm professionalism. I think this picture captures this. It reminds me of good colleagues and I cannot put into words the feelings towards my team, I don’t need words, this image says it all.

 

“HEALING OR CURE?”

 

Something that has exercised Christians down the years, myself included, and maybe you as well, is the difference between healing and cure. Our reading from Luke specifically says that Jesus sent out the seventy to cure the sick as a sign that the kingdom of God had come near, and this seems to accord with the ministry of Jesus as well. The charismatic movement, birthed in this country in the 60s and 70s, brought miraculous physical healing back on the agenda, and perhaps you have had experience of this kind of instant healing (or cure).

 

Somehow for me, extrapolating directly from Jesus’ day to our own and expecting the miraculous to be our normal fails to take on board the intervening 2000 years when the monasteries and later the hospitals sustained a ministry of healing that still continues today, even if somewhat cut adrift from its Christian roots. I might like to pray for your broken arm, but I would also urge you to go to A&E and get it looked at by a specialist. But God is a holistic God, as this portrait shows.

 

As a photographer, I had the privilege of being given the opportunity to follow a care worker visiting a client during the pandemic. They do an amazing and underrated job and I wanted to highlight this. I felt this image captured the caring and compassionate side… Fabiana, who cares for Jack, was with him in his room. She says: ‘I care for him and he makes me happy in these terrible times. The first thing he says to me, when I open the door, is ‘ I am so glad to see you’ and with that he makes all the hard work we have been doing worthwhile. With the lockdown, there can be no family visits, so we are the only people he sees all day. It is my job to make him feel better even if only for a few minutes, to make sure he is clean, fed and he has taken his medication. I make sure to make a few little jokes to make him laugh a bit. I love what I do, I love my job, I love caring for the elderly.’

 

 

“HEALING AND SUFFERING”

I wonder if you noticed how our first reading mentions suffering in the first line? Interesting for a Sunday when we think about healing. ‘As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully’, writes Paul. He goes onto say he is being poured out like a libation – a drink offering to the gods – except in Paul’s case he’s offering his life to the One God and that life is nearly at an end. I love the mixture of exalted statements of faith “I have fought the good fight” and his very human plea (one which we can all echo in these days of isolation) “Do your best to come to me soon”. Why do we suffer? What might be emerging from our experience of suffering on a global scale? Is it the case, as some argue, that Jesus’ ministry was primarily about being saved, rather than healed? Or is it impossible to disassociate one from the other?

And what about sin? Sometimes, I wish the Lord’s Prayer could be re-written for these times of mental health epidemic, from ‘forgive us our trespasses’, to ‘heal us from our wounds’. If you’ve ever come up close and personal with your own failings, as well as feeling they’re wrong, you might consider how before the wrongs you committed, wrongs were committed against you. The bullies were bullied, the abusers abused. Like in King Lear, sometimes we’re ‘more sinned against than sinning’.

Henri Nouwen wrote about the concept of the wounded healer. This idea saves us, as Christians, from being inwardly focused. We are always made whole in order to offer wholeness to others. We don’t thrive despite our wounds but out of the core of them. That’s why healing is a complex and paradoxical subject, because inner healing and wholeness grow out of facing our most painful experiences and letting God transform them. The world is crying out for people who have brought their own suffering to God in order to stand with others in suffering.

A raw picture of the hopelessness and desperation I feel during this lockdown, as a shielded person with leukaemia. COVID-19 has taken far more from me than leukaemia has. Stuck on statutory sick pay, facing losing everything I worked hard for gets too much sometimes. I was training to be a pharmacy dispenser before the lockdown began and had taken less than a week’s sick leave from work during and after my diagnosis. Then COVID-19 struck and having to shield cost me everything I had worked hard for. I know this is not a positive photograph, but it is reality for many people in my situation. It is my new normal and I felt compelled to photograph myself in that moment, perhaps so that someone would see me.

 

“WHERE IS GOD IN A PANDEMIC?”

So this has been a brief skate through a dense subject. Healing: Can we pray for it? Can we ask to be delivered from Corona Virus on a personal or even global scale? Where is God in it all?

Here are three simple suggestions to that question.

Where is God in the pandemic?

Firstly, God is in the love. As John the Evangelist wrote: “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God”.

A little girl says ‘be safe daddy and hugs him as he goes out to start another shift as a medical worker. he gives her an all encompassing hug.

“WHERE IS GOD?”

Secondly to the question: Where is God?

God is in the suffering.

“WHERE IS GOD?”

And thirdly “Where is God?”

God is in the hope, in the rainbow after the storm. If we lose hope, we lose everything. May the God of all hope fill us with joy and peace in believing, and may God strengthen us wherever we offer ourselves and our healing wounds to a hurting world. Amen.

 

peace

Sermon – Sunday 11th October 2020 – Trinity 18

Philippians 4:1-9: Rejoice Always

 

I am going to be looking at our epistle reading today, from Philippians, rather than at the parable of the wedding banquet.  I really like the letter to the Philippians, in that it is so personal, and Paul clearly likes the church there.  When he wrote the letter, Paul was (most likely) under house arrest in Rome (Acts 28v16).  There had been a Jewish plot in Jerusalem to kill him, which ended up with him being taken into custody by the Romans, and when he appeared before the Roman governor of Caesarea, he had appealed to Caesar, and been taken to Rome (Acts 23-28).  The Philippian church had sent a gift to support him (4vv10-20), and this was a thank you letter, and to let them know how he was.

 

The letter is generally very encouraging, and does have some wonderful bits in it.  In 2vv6-11 there is the marvellous Christian hymn about Jesus that starts: Who, being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…  We have been working our way through Romans in the past few months, and that feels much more like a theological treatise.  It is good stuff, but hard work, quite difficult to follow.  Philippians is much more personal and accessible.

 

Our reading is the final page of the letter: parting greetings and instructions.

 

Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. 

 

This is an extraordinary statement for a Christian leader.  It would, as Sir Humphrey says in Yes, Minister, be “brave”.  You hear people say “Do as I say, not as I do”, but this is “Do as I do”.  It is a challenge, and one that I find humbling as I deliver this sermon.  But it speaks of the way faith should spread into our whole lives, changing us, making us more like the Lord.  We will not always succeed in being like Jesus, be then God’s love and forgiveness is always there to come back to.

 

The church in Philippi was not perfect.  Two women, Euodia and Syntyche are having some sort of dispute.  We do not know what it was about.  Interestingly, Paul does not take sides, but urges them to be of the same mind as the Lord.  And he asks the others in the congregation to help them do this.  Again, there is clear affection there too, as the women have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel.

 

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 

 

This is another glimpse of how a love for Christ can spread into all parts of our lives.  IN EVERYTHING, by prayer and supplication (and in a minute we shall look at Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS).  God is always with us, and we should cultivate an awareness of God with us, and a response to it.

 

We had an interesting discussion with friends last weekend about church: what it should be, and where it will go post COVID.  One point that came out strongly is that Christian life is most definitely not just about church.  Attending church, in church or on Zoom, is one expression of faith, but should not be the only one.  Church may be a starting point for faith, but not the end.

 

For me, there have been some positive features about the coronavirus lockdowns.  I am no longer speed three nights a week in Bristol to work in the office there.  But because I have no commute, either to Bristol or in Bristol, it is easier to fit in some quiet time with God in the morning, before I start work on the computer in the bedroom.  Regular prayer is a good thing.  We can make it into an ought, and sometimes it will feel like an ought, but it can be very precious and sustaining.  It will take different forms for different people.  Within the church, I know of people who take a time to read a devotional book, study the Bible, pray as a couple, spend 15 minutes just being silent, listen to the Pray As You Go podcasts, meditate on a gospel story; and there will be many others.  Hard work sometimes, apparently unfruitful sometimes, but over the long term, a source of strength and a way of letting God in.

 

Rejoice in the Lord, always; again I will say, Rejoice. 

 

I came across an unpublished poem by G.K. Chesterton:

You say grace before meals.

All right.

But I say grace before the play and the opera,

And grace before the concert and the pantomime,

And grace before I open a book,

And grace before sketching, painting,

Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;

And grace before I dip the pen in the ink. 

 

John Stott was an Anglican priest who was, for many years, at All Souls, Langham Place, in London, though with an international ministry.  He was the Queen’s Chaplain for most of his life, and many of you will be familiar with him through his books and talks over many years.  He was also a keen birdwatcher.  In my quiet times this week I have been using a book written by him called, The Birds, Our Teachers.  Since I am also a birdwatcher, this appealed to me on several grounds.

 

In the introduction he says that he considers that Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 6v26, Look at the birds of the air, means that all Christians should be birdwatchers, which seems perfectly reasonable.  The book talks of lessons that we can learn from birds, a study he calls ornitheology.

 

Stott quotes a Ghanaian proverb, Even the chicken, when it drinks, lifts its head to heaven to thank God for the water.  [www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNrijjpkNAE].  This view of chickens is a good reminder of giving thanks in everything.

 

Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 

 

Mark talked in a sermon the other week about deciding not to watch the news because it was so negative.  What you concentrate on will be what your mind is full of.  So consciously turning towards that which is good, which can mean doing good rather than avoid anything upsetting, is another way of turning ourselves towards God.

 

And the reward: And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. 

 

Jeremy Thake,

St. John & St. Stephen