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The letter and the spirit

Second of Lent (Year A) St John and St Stephen’s 8 March 2020

Genesis 12:1-4a: The Call of Abram

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

John 3:1-17: Nicodemus Visits Jesus

3Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

A prayer to begin:

Lord, still me.

Let my mind be enquiring, searching,

Let my heart be open.

Save me from mental rust.

Deliver me from spiritual decay.

Keep me alive and alert.

Teach me, that I may teach others.

 

(adapted from Donald Coggan).

 

I wonder what your state of mind is this morning, on this second Sunday in Lent in early 2020? Some of us are fearful about the corona virus, which has caused us to reflect on how connected we are across the globe, for good or ill. It is no doubt our collective responsibility to mitigate the local spread as best we can. So thank you for your understanding and patience.

 

Meanwhile we are faced with what some think of as another ‘collective responsibility’ – towards migrants who have recently crossed from Turkey into Greece, a country that is essentially an opening into the heart of Europe. Each country is having conversations about how few or how many they could take, even though the reality is that the commitment to offer sanctuary to migrants has been very unequally borne by the countries in question.

 

I heard Lord Dubbs on the radio this week begin interviewed about his escape to England via the Kindertransport rescue mission, in the shadow of the impending Nazi holocaust, and how this has been the inspiration for his continued efforts to retain the rights of displaced migrant children to be reunited with family in this country even after Brexit.

 

In the US they’ve been having the Presidential Primaries to see who will run as Democrat candidate against Donald Trump, a process that seems to favour the candidate with the biggest budget. The openly gay Christian and the female candidate are out at this stage and one wonders gloomily if the sitting Incumbent might not in fact be re-elected at the end of the year.

 

And finally, as we face our reality today, many people are still living with the devastating effects of recent flooding after the wettest February in the UK since records began in 1862. On the flip side, plans for the third runway at Heathrow were ruled illegal by the Appeal Court this week as being inconsistent with the government’s commitment to tackle the climate crisis.

 

So perhaps there’s a sense in which we are at last facing our climate reality and realising that it cannot be business as normal with a small nod to climate change; rather we will no doubt have to radically re-think our entire relationship with capitalism.

 

As we attend to our being-in-the-world, it seems we must take deep account of actual human experience, something governments appear to find particularly difficult. When we look at the debate about how many migrants we should take, for instance, we can focus on numbers, social services and budgets, or we can look at an image of a three-year-old Kurdish refugee child lying dead at the water’s edge after drowning in the Mediterranean. Each approach – the ‘doctrine’ of our standpoint, or the powerful human story – will evoke a different response. Perhaps we shouldn’t prioritize either approach but weave them together in all our collective moral decisions.

 

We heard the Ten Commandments this morning as part of our Confession, but we could have equally remembered the times when we have kept the letter of the Law but been found wanting with regards to the spirit of the Law, a distinction that Jesus was prone to making when in conversation with the Pharisees.

 

There’s long been debate in faith circles and in wider society about the relationship between rules, doctrine or dogma on the one hand and on the other, human experience, including the inner life. This tension lies within Christianity too and can be seen in the conversations the Church of England is currently having on the subject of human sexuality. How far to prioritize doctrine over lived experience, and how far to change it in order to accommodate lived experience, is one of the vexed areas of debate.

 

In our readings today we see two characters of faith who are faced with a radical re-think and call to change. And they also epitomize the struggle between obedience to the rule of Faith and a spontaneous grasping of something more nebulous that nonetheless has the power to bring change, transformation and Life. A contrast between the outer laws that structure us, and the inner journey that frees us, and the relationship between them (because you can’t have the second without the first).

 

Abram is called, famously, in Chapter 12 of Genesis, to ‘go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house, to the land that I will show you’. His call might be seen as the mythic call of the hero or heroine to embark on a spiritual journey whereby they must reassess what they have hitherto been taught, and find their own path through life. They will inevitably be wounded on the journey; no one can go through life without it, and eventually they will return, but changed. They are essentially the same person as when they started out, but in many significant ways, they are transformed forever.

 

This archetypal journey, which we all have to make, is charted by Richard Rohr, in his book Falling Upwards, which I would describe as ‘a must read for the over 50s’!

 

The spiritual journey is begun in childhood for many of us, but at some point the journey must be owned by each of us, and although some of us may be able to recall a crisis moment when we ‘decided for ourselves’ to follow Christ (a moment of re-birth, perhaps?) what matters is not so much when you were reborn, but that you are ‘alive’ today.

 

Nicodemus doesn’t know all this yet, and we might try and have some patience with his puzzlement as he comes to Jesus by night. What he’s doing is trying to make sense of what he has seen and heard – his experience of Jesus’ miracles – or as John puts them, signs. He is puzzled because he ‘knows’ the Law, yet he ‘senses’, by looking at Jesus, Life, hope, freedom and some dynamism that doesn’t fit into his existing framework. What is going on? That is his conundrum. He is honest enough to face the uncomfortable dichotomy.

 

Let us pray that this becomes a conundrum for all those people whom we encounter who are stuck in their outer frameworks and haven’t been able to taste the Good News of freedom. Let us ask God that he will graciously give us the chance to be some Good News for them by connecting them to God in our prayers, by offering our own spiritual lives as a sign of the True Life that is available to all.

 

In Nicodemus’s favour he at least recognizes the presence of God in Jesus’ ministry. But he is about to get a surprise. It’s as if, being a Pharisee, Jesus holds him to higher account about the sort of things he’s teaching. If he’s apparently so ignorant of the way real spiritual life works, what hope is there for the ordinary Jew sitting at his feet imbibing the Law?

 

So, to his opening gambit, Jesus comes back with an uncompromising: ‘very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above’. ‘Born again’ is of course another translation, but carries with it more baggage, ironically because it became used in such a way as to suggest a water tight salvation that doesn’t actually work because if you are so called ‘born again’ but palpably not growing in holiness, then your born again status is nothing more than a label that says nothing much about dynamic growth.

 

So Nicodemus has prioritized doctrine over experience and cannot, it seems, really speak about his own spiritual life. He doesn’t understand metaphor and gets stuck on the image of a baby going back inside the womb to be born again.

 

That’s why ‘born from above’ is a better translation – it indicates that the real spiritual life is of a different order to our physical life – and with hindsight, we know this theologically. The ‘Life that will never, never die’ (as the song puts it) is given the Greek term ‘zoe’, whereas our physical life that is mortal, is called ‘bios’. As Rohr puts it: ‘Most people confuse their life situation with their actual life, which is an underlying flow beneath the every day events’ (Falling Upwards, p. 19).

 

We saw this distinction beautifully illustrated in The Two Popes at our first Lent Film Club event this week. Pope Benedict begins the film by holding fast to the outer doctrines of the Church, and when that’s what your first priority is, of course, you are going to be defensive – it is your job to protect the structure. Bergoglio, by contrast, is in tune with the inner flow, the spirit of the Law, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ in him. What is compromise/ what is needed growth? That is their initial question. And many in the Church are still asking it, no matter what denomination. You will have your own position on this!

 

As the film progressed we saw that Benedict was, in fact, able to get in touch with the Spirit as he sought an answer to the apparent silence of God regarding the direction of his life. A sign of his sensitivity to the Spirit is that he ‘sees’ God’s answer in the very man with whom he seems to have the least in common – the one who will become the progressive Pope, and prioritize the Poor, like St Francis did.

 

As the story of Jesus’ Passion unfolds later in this season of Lent, I think we see how Nicodemus had taken on board some of what Jesus said in this nighttime encounter. For example in John Chapter 7, he speaks in favour of a fair trial for Jesus in the presence of the other Pharisees, garnering their withering riposte that he’ll search the Scriptures in vain for a Messiah from Galilee. And finally in Holy Week, he goes with Joseph of Arimathea to take the body of Jesus down from the Cross and give it a decent burial.

 

We see his journey of faith developing therefore, as John’s gospel unfolds. We see the gracious hand of God and God’s patience with him and with our slow growth in understanding and courage, our hesitancy to look outside our framework and embrace the new thing that God is always doing.

 

A predictable church life is one that is perhaps lacking the refreshment of the Spirit or the readiness to take up a new calling. I wonder what the opposite looks like? I don’t know if I can live with unpredictability every single day of my ministry (!) but within a well-ordered church, I do like the idea of us giving the Holy Spirit the space to do what the Spirit wants.

 

If Abram could jump at a new challenge aged 75, there’s probably hope for many of us! ‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

 

What would it mean for the world if our churches were spaces where the Spirit was able to blow? What would it look like for our communities if the people of God were people of the Spirit?

 

The writer Joy Buchanan has said that ‘Nicodemus can speak to an age saturated in information but hungry for spiritual wisdom’ (washingtonpost.com, March 27, 2003).

 

Can we speak about our own spiritual journeys with authenticity to those who might trust us with things on their mind like loneliness, purpose, goodness and justice? I met someone this week who had all these, and more, on her mind, who was trying to find a path after reassessing the one that others had previously laid down, that no longer seemed to be going in the right direction.

 

And as we learn from the journey of Nicodemus (who had a shaky start, let’s face it) maybe we can grasp the challenge to keep in step with the Spirit ourselves, to follow when the Spirit calls, to dance to the tune of our own vocation.

 

“What if you jump and just close your eyes? What if the arms that catch you, catch you by surprise?”

 

(quotation from Willow Creek Community Church: The Story of Nicodemus: Easter 2018, YouTube).

 

 

 

 

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Creation

Genesis 1v1-2v3, Creation

Light 7, 16th February 2020

[1] I am going to be talking today mainly about our first reading in Genesis, rather than the gospel reading in Matthew, though I will touch on that. The lectionary reading in Genesis gives us the whole of the creation story. Or at least the first creation story, because there are two. The first is broad brush, the second concentrates on Adam and Eve.

 

Many of you know that Rachel and I lived in Nepal for a number of years. While there, it often seemed that every other sermon was on creation. Why? I do not know for sure, but I think it is because it gives a firm grounding to Christian faith in a country where Christians were in a minority, and persecuted. It shows God, the Christian God, being ultimately in control, whether people acknowledge it or not. And there is a broad plan, with man given dominion over the earth and all there is in it.

 

[2] Genesis tells us of a God who creates everything, who is Lord of everything, who make things and who sees that they are good. In the creed every week we acknowledge one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth. This is a passage that for us, too, the ground of our faith. We start from an acceptance that the universe, and all that is in it, is God’s, made by him.

 

It is a pity then, that this passage also divides. It divides Christians, between those who see it as a poetic way of describing God creating, and those who see it as literally true. It can also divide Christians from a society that assumes we do not take science seriously, preferring to believe in fairy tales. Genesis becomes a touchstone for a division between faith and science. Creationism is not as prevalent among Christians here as it is, say, in America, but I think there is a growing assumption in the modern world that science is in opposition to faith. That belief is irrational. I do not think this is true, and that is what I would like to think about this morning.

 

[3] The world, the universe, is an amazing place. Our knowledge and understanding of it can fill us with awe, in the immensity of space, the intricacy of life, the variety and beauty around us. It can, and frequently does, point us to God, not away from him. In fact, the vastness of the universe speaks of a Creator who is far beyond our imagining. The scale of the universe is awesome. The galaxy on the screen, like ours, contains a couple of hundred thousand million stars like our sun. Light takes a hundred thousand years to go from one side to the other. I wonder what the writer of Genesis would have made of such scale. God is probably greater than even he imagined. It is a humbling thought, especially when we also believe God loves and cares for us.

 

[4] The church has regularly had battles with science, or ‘natural philosophy’ as it was known before the 19th century. The church defined understandings of the world that did not really come from the faith or the Bible as dogma, and treated anyone who suggested otherwise as heretics.

 

Galileo is the classic example. The accepted worldview up to the 17th century was that the earth was the centre of the universe, and that all the heavenly bodies revolved around it. [5] Galileo, from his astronomical observations, proposed that the earth, and the planets, revolved around the sun. He was indicted for heresy, and only acquitted by Pope John Paul II in 1993.

 

Galileo’s view did come to be accepted, but the church has always had a tendency to keep parts of the world as the reserve of God, separate from the material world. He is a God of the gaps, used to explain what we do not understand. The problem is that, as understanding increases, it puts the church on the back foot. And Christians feel that it is God that is being threatened, rather than our theories.

 

[6] So, the Church believed God was responsible for creating the world basically in the form it is now. The Irish Bishop James Usher worked out from the Bible that creation occurred ‘at the entrance to the night’ on the 22nd October 4004 BC (in the Julian Calendar). When geology pointed to the world being vastly older than this, the church felt threatened. [7] The church, with the world following it, maintained that God had created all the species of living things, and man as the pinnacle of creation. Then came Darwin with his theory that live had evolved from the primitive to the complex, and that man was the (current) end result. The church fought this, but eventually it, and the world, moved on. [8]

 

We still have a tendency to use God to fill gaps. [9] Pope Pius XII celebrated the Big Bang theory as the moment of God’s creation. God must have been the cause of the Big Bang at the start of the universe, because we cannot see back beyond it. ([10] Interestingly, Stephen Hawkings in a Brief History of Time argued that there might be a never-ending cycle of Big Bangs followed by Big Crunches as the universe again collapses to a point under gravity. He ends the chapter on this saying “What place, then, for a creator?” But that is now thought to be wrong as the expansion of the universe is known to be accelerating under the influence of dark energy, so there will not be a Big Crunch. It is not only Christians who get things wrong.)

 

[11] I think the issues coming at us are about consciousness, free will, soul and spirit. Are these things natural, or are some of them supernatural, something given by God that resides alongside our brain, independent of it? The Ghost in the Machine. Is what we are explained by our brains’ chemistry and electrical synapses? My personal view is that we should not look to something supernatural to explain us. If God made the universe and the laws of physics that govern it, why would he need to fiddle with it directly to make it work as he wants. I think we should accept that science reaches into all parts of us.

 

[12] Science is based on a method. You develop a theory, and then you test it with an experiment. If the results of the experiment line up with your predictions, you accept the theory. Quite often results just about line up with the theory, and it gets refined later on. But while the scientific method is objective, scientists are often not. Scientists often find it very difficult to accept new theories, whether it is plate tectonics or solar wind or the expansion of the universe. There is an idea that science develops only as older scientists die off, because they never change their minds. (May that not be said of us.) Scientists are people too, and they tend to pontificate on things not really covered or proven by science, and you see their prejudices just like you see other people’s. Richard Dawkins is quite a good example of this, someone who, to my mind, has a clear emotional antagonism towards faith that he tries to portray as science.

 

Science really cannot tell you ‘why’. It tells you how, cause and effect. Meaning comes from elsewhere. Just as a scientific description of what is going on in your head when you are listening to a moving piece of music or poetry really can never describe it at all. When scientist claim to ‘prove’ there is no God, that the universe is mindless and random, they are guessing as much as anyone else.

 

We do not need to be frightened of science, just as we do not need to be frightened of truth. God is a God of truth. If science discovers something that disagrees with what we think is true, we need to know about it. We believe in God, the creator of all, an objective fact; he is who he is. Our faith should not be so flimsy that it is shaken by an apparent contradiction. Ultimately, if something is true, we have to cope to with, fit it into our understanding. If God is God, nothing anyone discovers will change that. If we are wrong, as Paul says, “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15v19). Let us have confidence in God.

 

[13] I think Genesis is a story, poetry, teaching us about God with great wisdom, but in an age that had no conception of science or natural cause and effect. Genesis points to a universe was not just created as a one-off event and left to run, but as something that is continuously created and upheld by God.

 

Which leads, in conclusion, and very briefly, to our gospel reading, Matthew 6vv25-34. God is the creator and sustainer of all. He can look after all of this universe, so he can look after you. Do not worry.

 

Jeremy Thake,

St. John & St. Stephen

 

 

Genesis 1:1 In the beginning when God created[a] the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God[b] swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

6 And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ 7 So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8 God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

9 And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11 Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

14 And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so. 16 God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

20 And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’ 21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’ 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

24 And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

26 Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind[c] in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth,[d] and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’

27 So God created humankind[e] in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ 29 God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so. 31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

2:1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. 2 And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

Matthew 6:25 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Lament

Lament

Gen 15.1-12, 17-18, Luke 13.31-35

The sermon this week is in the series called 21st Century Anglicanism.  So, just a reminder that for Anglicans, when we consider issues, whether what happened in New Zealand yesterday, or climate change or Brexit or education we look through three different lenses – scripture, reason and tradition.  Other churches may have different emphases.  For the RC church tradition is especially important eg the pope’s encyclicals; for some protestant churches it’s sola scriptura (only Scripture).  We Anglicans, however, try to hold these three strands together.  It’s worth looking out for these when you listen to sermons in an Anglican church.

Today my topic is lament.  I’ve tried to use the three lenses, though with a very light touch.  Tradition – lament has been part for our church history from the start because of our roots in Judaism.  Lament was and continues to be a feature of Jewish faith and practice.  Every year, for example, Jews lament the fall of Jerusalem (586 BC to the Babylonians.  70AD to the Romans).  There is a whole book of Lamentations in the Old Testament.  Traditionally Chritians have included lament in the liturgy on Good Friday.

At café church on Thursdays there is usually some conversation in response to the gospel passage.  The other week we touched on a theme that regularly troubles us- why do some people have more than others, get what they need more than others even though they are clearly not good people?  And, connected with that, what’s the point of being good?  And then, in a flow that happens at café church, and with a connection that I have now lost we moved into a lament over our schools and the way that subjects like music, art and drama have been squeezed out of the curriculum.  There was a noticeable shift in the tone of the conversation.  The talk about the unfairness of life in general was a complaint, a sort of groove we can get into when feeling fed up.  The tone of the lament was different.  Suddenly we were all focussing on something precious that we felt had been lost.  There was a new clarity in our tone.  We’d noticed something together and together we articulated what the shrivelling of the arts in our school meant to us.

Lament – not something we hear very often.  In today’s gospel we see Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem, longing to see Jerusalem move towards life, but knowing that it was heading the other way, and expressing his grief.  As he travels towards Jerusalem we see him getting more and more in touch with his calling to suffer and die for his people.  Nothing deflects him from this, not even Herod’s threats.  Yet at the same time he can see that his own people, will ignore his message, turn away from him.  it’s hard to imagine what that is like.  You’re giving your all to something/someone and continuing to get no response.  One way of dealing with this is to lament, as Jesus does here.  He cries out in the same way as some of the prophets – Hosea 11.1-3 ‘When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.  but the more I called Israel the further they went from me.’  Isaiah 65.1-3 –to a nation that did not ask for me..that did not seek me.. that did not call on my name I said ‘here am I, here am I.  Like the prophets Jesus speaks as though it is God himself addressing his people with yearning, and also despair.

Other laments in the Old Testament, typically in the Psalms, are corporate expressions, lamenting loss of homeland, health, livelihood, or dealing with the impact of conflict.  – Ps 42 ‘all your waves and breakers have swept over me..I say to God, ‘Why have you forgotten me?

Prophets like Jeremiah lamented God’s call to him to be a prophet, (15.10 He laments to his mother, ‘alas, my mother, that you gave me birth, a man with whom the whole land contends!’) as well as lamenting the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians– a whole book – Lamentations.

Lament, unlike mourning and grief always has a sound.  We may mourn and grieve without anyone knowing, holding it inside ourselves.  Lamenting, though, pushes out our inner pain in sound, and is often very noisy.  We may be lamenting a broken promise, the loss of someone dear to us, a deterioration in our health, a missed opportunity, the lack of something, as with Abram who longed for a son and some land to call his own…

Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem is about a missed opportunity.  He is using a image of God found elsewhere in the OT – God rather like a bird protecting her young under her feathers.  It is an image of gathering, as opposed to scattering, which is what an enemy does, and which is what will happen to Jerusalem in the future.  Jesus wants to gather them, to draw them into a way of being with God that is the equivalent of living under the shelter of his wings.  What is described in the OT as living in God’s covenant – the one made with Abram, Jacob, Moses…but they don’t ’notice the invitation, it passes them by, they ignore it, and he laments at that missed opportunity.  They had not seized the favourable moment, had not noticed God’s coming to them in him.

Perhaps Abram stands out because he noticed the vision that came to him, and he believed what God communicated to him through it.  Unlike Jesus’ contemporaries he did not miss the moment when God visited him.  He received a blessing.

Jesus, while lamenting his people’s lack of awareness that in him the time had come, nevertheless sticks to his own sense of timing.  He does live under God’s wings.  He knows he has come from God and is returning to God (John 13).  Secure in this identity nothing, deflects him from the path leading to Jerusalem and his death.

In making a promise to Abram – a covenant- it is God who takes a more costly path, causing himself to be the join, as it were, between the 2 halves of the animals.  What actually happens is a mystery to Abram – he is asleep, in darkness, and afraid – often signs in scripture of God’s awesome presence.  Likewise with Jesus, in sticking to his path towards Jerusalem and the cross he is enabling a new join to be made between God and his people.

Lamenting is an appropriate activity in Lent.  It is very much about being real with God about regrets, missed opportunities, sadness at those things that are wrong whether with ourselves, or our society.  To lament is to be fully human.  As we lament we can get in touch with the cost of putting things right which is obliquely present in our two readings.  It is God who joins the 2 halves of the sacrificial animal to seal the covenant and it is Jesus whose death enables the renewal of that covenant.  As we follow Christ towards Good Friday we too are invited to share some of that cost.  A lament puts us in touch with longings we may have to see things getting better, but first we want to be really honest with God about how painful something may be for us.

It’s ok to call out.  It’s ok to shout our need.  Many of us are like the prophet Elijah – terrorised by Queen Jezebel and disappointed by the lack of progress in what he sees as God’s cause he hides in a cave.  He doesn’t want to talk to anyone about what’s going on for him.  But God gently draws him out (the still, small voice) and then he laments, ‘they’ve been killing all your prophets and now only I am left (a bit of an exaggeration).  God listens and then suggests a way forward. So, in Lent, let’s lament aloud to God.  Get in touch with what’s bugging you most and tell him about it.  then listen.  Let’s get real.

It can help to write your lament as well as speak it. (Or sing, dance, paint it?!)

Tracey Emin at her exhibition "Tracey Emin ‘My Bed’/JMW Turner" at Turner Contemporary, Margate. 13 October 2017 - 14 January 2018. Photo: Stephen White, Turner Contemporary

‘Deny’ … the challenge of giving up the idea of a challenge.

Mark 8:31-38, Genesis 17:1-7 , 15-16

Lent is the season which is all about denial of the self and the mystery of God.

When it comes to the mystery in this challenging text I’m reminded of Mark Twain who said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”
Before we begin let’s set the stage…. ‘lets talk about the Gospel of Mark’ –

Having been side-lined for a long time, more recently there has been a resurgence of interest in Mark’s gospel. What it lacks in detail it gains in intensity. Most scholars put the writing of Mark at or around 60-70 AD/CE, about the time of the Judean revolution (important!) and acknowledge it as the first of the synoptic gospels. Mark’s writing is spare, urgent, and dramatic. Its narrative pacing of ‘straightway’ and ‘immediately’ link one event to another, everyone ‘runs’, ‘shouts’, is ‘amazed’, inflaming Christ’s mission with a dazzling urgency. Mark ‘was not concerned to produce a detailed report of the proceedings but to sketch a course of events significant for the salvation of humankind’. The emphasis of Mark’s text seems to be upon action and discipleship; he makes claims upon his audience, his Jesus leaps from the page – evoking transformation.

Mark’s writing could be described as a narrative of death.. a dramatic story and unfolding drama.. heading to a final moment of destiny. Mark cleverly puts together stories which lead the reader into rising tension.. he knows where the story will end.

An inversion of the world, radical (and open to misinterpretation).

Mark’s gospel is about re-interpreting the world.. his vision is truly apocalyptic – a revelation – that God’s kingdom is coming/has come and everything can change. But can his followers grasp this… can we still grasp this today? Mark is radical, revolutionary and subversive; Mark heralds a gospel of non-violent resistance to the forces of military, economic and religious oppression that the people of Judea were experiencing. (CM)

Blindness. Three predictions. Take up your cross. Blindness

It’s worth noting that this passage is the first of three predictions about Jesus own death…  Mark is a clever writer, piecing together short anecdotes to create a compelling whole story; the three predictions are book-ended by two stories of blindness.. is this an accident or is Mark making a point about how it’s so easy to misunderstand/not-see the good news, how the shift in consciousness (a battle of cultures if you like) is so alien to what we are used to?

What makes sense to us is not what makes sense to God. Mystery.

So Jesus lets the cat out of the bag about his bleak ending, and is ‘rebuked’ (epitiman, ‘shut up’) by Peter, (‘don’t be so foolish Jesus’). In response, Jesus publicly rebukes Peter, (epitemesen ‘shut up’, usually used against demons) the argument is strong and vehement…

God’s kingdom is the inversion of the world; what makes sense to us, self-preservation etc is not the same here. The love and life of God which Jesus speaks of is liberating, risky, going beyond our comfort zones – it relocates our identity with ‘the other’, and the (absurd) logic of this is beginning to loom disturbingly in the disciples minds. Despite the fact that the crowds are following and they are seeing many signs and miracles, the kingdom of Jesus is not like other kingdoms.. the reign of God wont see Jesus enthroned as a new leader (as they might have expected)… instead he announces his own killing? Something is really wrong.. Maybe Jesus is mistaken?

 Life as self (psyche)… a shift in priorities. The other is our life. Humans. Relating.

Today’s sermon is supposed to be about ‘realistic Christianity’, yet the challenge in the next section, (as Jesus draws all his listeners in) is even more bewildering and seems far from realistic.. We are suddenly confronted with talk of giving up your life to find it… this feels like too much, you can imagine the heat rising in the back of the neck, the discomfort, ‘now we are all too deeply involved… is there still a way to get out?’

Whilst it is certainly true that many people have, (and still do today) lose their lives for the sake of the gospel.. and we may remember them in our prayers this morning. But I don’t think this is the first thing Jesus is thinking of…

‘Life’ (psyche) also means soul or self.. what we might see is that Jesus is saying we must give up our selfhood.. our self-reliance, our self-madeness, our strong exterior.. our hope of control.

And if we did dare let go – where do we find ourselves? With ‘the other’.? with other people? with God..? This is about vulnerability and realising it is not us who hold even our own lives together.. we are not islands.. with live in relation .. we become human by being together.. (this church bears witness to such a community) the Eucharist reminds us weekly that we give ourselves away – yet receive our self back as a gift.

Living beyond ourselves. Not masochism.

And as in Judea in 1st century so today there is a clash of cultures between those who perpetuate the dream of self-reliance, protectionism and closed borders – of all kinds; and those who choose to live openly, with the risk of the other and the unknown. We see this from the success-filled messages of social media to politicians who are not allowed to show any weakness etc.. Thank God for the antidote of poets and artists who reveal more subtle images of humankind.

Selfhood and Service

So let us hear this passage afresh… not an injunction to become a masochist, to invite pain or even death.. nor to think we can do things for God. Instead it is about shifting out priorities away from purely ourselves and recognising that we only become ourselves by virtue of others around us; even the stranger… it is from this vulnerable openness that our humanity properly flourishes, the human self becomes a we-self; identity found through intimacy… and it’s from that place of com/passion that all kinds of giving will occur.

The tragic shooting in Florida last week gave us the story of the gym coach Aaron Feis who ran towards the sound of gunfire to protect children and in so doing he lost his own life. He wasn’t seeking to die, he would happily have remained alive if he had the choice.. but his deep instinct was that the children’s lives were of value, and that he naturally, humanly, responded as he did. (There is much more to say of this sordid affair and the sordid response from men in power in American who are already silencing the voices of the voiceless… and yes please do read everything you want to into this!)

Jesus is reminding his followers that the gospel affects everything; upturning our understanding of politics economics education science art and people.

Faith not as construct but as gift.. beyond understanding, towards mystery.

So the kingdom of God is not contained, it defies usual logic, it shifts our priorities. Jesus could not be contained in Mark’s gospel.. and he cannot be contained today, even despite our best attempts to pin him down in theology and worship. Faith today is often neatly packaged.. “Jesus is the answer”, we may have heard, yet Mark shows over and over again that Jesus is far more the question, than the answer…

Scholar Ched Myers echoes the crowds at Golgotha; ‘If only Jesus would come down from the cross so we might believe (15:32)! Who of us’, he asks, ‘is really prepared to accept that by remaining there he shows the way to liberation, to acknowledge that in this moment [of redemptive suffering] the powers are overthrown and the kingdom [of God] is come in power and glory’ [cf. Mk. 13:26] …
Too often our religion appears to reduce this radical message to something neat and contained.. something polite and sanitised, whilst Mark is busily stirring up a revolution!

Embraced in grace. No presentation of good self, but our whole/broken self.

But that doesn’t make this inaccessible… in fact the opposite is true. The point of all this dialogue is that by ‘letting go’ of the self, our self-reliance.. and by letting go of the idea that Christianity is a task to maintain… we instead find ourselves held and loved. The illusion of distance from God becomes apparent. It is those who live openly who will live fully; and those who shore up defences who will shut down their own lives and others around them.

(Funny too that Abraham and Sarah were both deeply flawed people who, yet, still received a blessing; they allowed themselves to be open to a wild notion – though it took a lifetime to learn)

This apocalyptic good news is that God breaks into our worlds with love and grace. We don’t need to pretend.. we don’t need to present only our good self to God… we don’t need to do anything for God, we don’t need to make ourselves out to be something we’re not.. we need instead to let go of the ego, and realise – as difficult as it is – that we are wholly understood and totally loved; we are welcomed, warts and all – unmade bed and all, to feast on Christ, to share supper with him… and within that grace, (not prior to it) we may yet find ourselves – and our world – transformed with hope.

“It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”

Yes. It’s in this strange, terrifying world-shattering presence that we are finally disarmed, and instead find ourselves held in love, grace and a peace which surpasses all understanding. And that might be just fine!

 

Picture Credit – Tracey Emin at her exhibition “Tracey Emin ‘My Bed’/JMW Turner” at Turner Contemporary, Margate. 13 October 2017 – 14 January 2018. Photo: Stephen White, courtesy Turner Contemporary.
RingTheBells

Ring The Bells

Genesis 28:10-19a, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Ring the bells

It’s good to be home. Rosemary and I got back yesterday after nearly 6 weeks covering the leave of absence of 2 Korean doctors at LAMB Hospital, Bangladesh, where we used to work some 30 years ago. Times have moved on, as they do. The project has grown hugely, now employing some 1700 staff in hospital and community activities. Medicine has changed too, and these two retired GPs found themselves frequently out of their depth and it was with relief that their Korean colleagues arrived back from leave and they were free to literally fly away. Thank you so much for your prayers and support over this time, we have needed it.

A couple of weeks in, we came across this short verse from the song ‘Anthem’ by Leonard Cohen. You may know it, you may even think it’s a bit clichéd, but it spoke to us: Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in. It’s funny how a few words can really help, and they did. Instead of being overwhelmed by what we couldn’t do, we did what we could – we rang the bells that still can ring and forgot our ‘perfect offering’. I want to try and tie that in to today’s gospel reading, what is known as the parable of the wheat and weeds.

A parable is a short story that conveys a deeper meaning, often spiritual or moral. Jesus told 46 parables that we know of, and most of his teaching is tied up in them. His stories used images that would have been very easy for his hearers to connect with, even if understanding them was another matter. But the stories stuck with people, as good stories do, and the hearers would mull them over, talk about them, trying to mine the real meaning. Jesus’ disciples often missed the point, and with this parable they couldn’t work it out and asked Jesus directly to explain it to them. I believe that this parable confronts us with a very relevant and up to date question: why is everything such a mess? And what do we do about it?

First though, let’s understand the context. In ancient times, there were often rivalries between farmers. One way of ‘getting back’ at your rival might be to sow weed seeds in his fields. So Jesus is hitting on his hearers’ experience here, and there were probably a few wry smiles and mutterings along the lines of ‘that so-and-so did that to me last year’ and perhaps a few red faces too, of people who had done exactly that. It’s thought that the weeds might have been darnel, and you can see in the picture that they do indeed look like wheat. So, a farmer and his farm hands wouldn’t know until it was too late that this had happened. In the parable, the farm hands report that there are weeds in your fields! Shall we go and pull them up? No, says the master, you’ll uproot the wheat as well. Leave it until the harvest, then we can sort them out. Well, Jesus’ disciples didn’t know what the parable meant, so they asked him to explain it. In a few words, Jesus tells that the one who sows the good seed is Jesus himself; the field is the world and the good seed are the ‘children of the kingdom’; the weeds are the children of the evil one, the one who sowed them was the evil one, and the harvest is the end of the age. He goes on to explain that there will be a fierce and fiery judgement for them. In black and white terms, it’s about how can it be that good and evil exist together, and what do we do about it?

Now I am going to put the judgement bit on the ‘back burner’ for now, and I want to stick with the question, why is everything such a mess? And what do we do about it? First to explain a bit about the ‘children of the kingdom’. The ‘Kingdom of God’ is the dominant theme of Jesus teaching. Despite that, there isn’t universal agreement about what it means. Here’s the explanation, in a nutshell, that at least fits with this story! At that time, the Jews were expecting or hoping for the arrival of the Kingdom to do away with the Roman occupiers and re-establish a King in Israel, a bit like in the times of David and Solomon. That was not what Jesus was about. What the Kingdom, according to Jesus, may mean is that God’s sovereignty and presence was made real in the ministry of Jesus and in those who followed him, the ‘children of the kingdom’. But there’s an ‘already but not yet’ quality to it; although that’s true, the full reality of the kingdom has not dawned. That is still in the future.

So, if the followers of Jesus, the children of the kingdom, are the good seeds, the real wheat, who are the seeds of darnel, the weeds? Everyone else? Other religions? Men with long beards and women with headscarves? Heretics? Islamic terrorists? Climate change deniers? People who don’t agree with us? Atheists?

The first point of this story is that you can’t tell. The wheat and the weeds look the same. The second point is that even when you can, you are not allowed to do anything about it. You simply wait. Who really knows who is a child of the kingdom and who isn’t? Who knows if this person is wheat or weeds? God alone is the judge of that, and the parable tells us that sifting out will happen, just as at the harvest the weeds can safely be separated from the wheat. I used to be so sure who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. And now, I have no idea. Our recent time in Bangladesh, meeting Muslims and Hindus who all ‘walk the talk’ – live lives of sincerity and integrity, who forego considerably higher salaries to do their best for people who have next to nothing – makes me realise that the kingdom may be bigger than I thought.

We Christians – and for that matter, people of other religious traditions as well – we are at our worst when we draw lines, when we say, ‘I’m in, you’re out’. When we make subtle or not-so-subtle judgements like this, and then start to act on them, we fall into the trap of the farmer’s servants who wanted to start ripping up the weeds right away. It’s too soon. We risk our own downfall by failing to behave as children of the Kingdom. And the King, like the farmer in the parable, is patient.

On a large and horrible scale, we can see the folly of drawing lines between people being played out in the Middle East and then across the world in London, Manchester, Paris, Nice, Madrid, Berlin and New York by misguided people who have been overtaken by an ideology that sees the world only in terms of black and white and believes that it is their role to enact the judgement of God on people they deem to be ‘out’, however violent that is. And then there’s the knee-jerk reaction of drawing our own lines. That reaction is behind the travel ban in the US, and closer to home, creates pain amongst communities and individuals who do not share our way of life. This is not the way of the Kingdom. And look, could there possibly be a clearer proof of how destructive pulling up the weeds can be? Just think of what is politely called ‘collateral damage’, the vast numbers of innocent civilian casualties as various military powers – including our own – attempt to ‘root out’ terrorism. ‘Root out’. How ironic.

The Kingdom of God can be an uncomfortable place. The rules we play by are different. In his parables, Jesus lays before us simple stories that paint a different picture. There’s a temptation to think the parables are purely a sort of tale with a moral, a bit like Aesop’s fables. They are much more than that. The parables each have a twist, a point where the story turns towards the unexpected, not at all what the listeners were thinking might happen. In this parable of the weeds and the wheat, it’s at the point where the farmer’s servants come charging in, breathless with the announcement that an enemy has sown weeds in your field and just look! I guess at this point the farmers in the crowd listening to Jesus might have expected him to say something like this, ‘Go and find that enemy and bring him here, I will deal with him! And get to it, get rid of those weeds from my field!!’ In fact we don’t hear a word about the enemy, and the servants are just to do nothing and wait until the harvest, because it was so much the opposite of what they expected. Just what kind of a farmer is Jesus? I wonder if that’s why the disciples couldn’t understand the parable at first. What kind of a doormat is Jesus, letting his enemies walk over him like that? Can we even see here a prefiguring of the cross? For Jesus let the story play out in his own life, he did not fight his enemies back, going to his death which turned out in the end to be not the end.

This is the Kingdom. The sovereignty, the rule of God, manifest in the life and ministry of Jesus, is not played out by going for the enemy, or by drawing lines: ‘I’m in, you’re out’, or by trying to uproot those we perceive to be ‘the enemy’. No, we are to continue doing what wheat is supposed to do: stand straight, grow, and bear fruit. Sometimes we will find that very frustrating and paiful. It is difficult to be faithful, to hang on, in a world with so much mess and violence and pain.

So I come full circle. I know it’s a bit trite, a bit of a cliché, but these words of Leonard Cohen’s contain a profound truth, a message to us, the wheat struggling to grow in a field full of weeds. Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.

 

Richard Croft

 

 

 

series-f

The meaning of the magic hands

Guest Speaker: The Very Revd John Witcombe, Dean of Coventry Cathedral

Gen 21.8-21, Matthew 10.24 – 39

Gary’s First Communion

I’m delighted to be here today, to be part of this awesome occasion – awesome for Gary, for all of us, for God who comes amongst us and becomes present in our midst in a particular, a real (tangible) way in this communion we are soon to share.

Many of us here have been privileged to share with this extraordinary man though many years of journeying to this stage. Some of you will have walked the journey for longer than I have, but my first encounter with Gary was around 1995, over 20 years ago, when a very long haired young man turned up on my doorstep in Uxbridge, West London. We had both been told that we would enjoy meeting, and sitting down together was rather like putting a match to dry kindling as conversation immediately took off into areas of exploration, mystery, wonder, excitement, possibility … out of which some of my most precious and stimulating experiences of creating and leading worship emerged.

Over the years of love and friendship, conversations turned increasingly towards ordination – and the Tiny Tea tent at Greenbelt was witness to increasingly urgent questions of ‘could I’, ‘should I’ – do I really believe enough? That of course was mostly me – Gary’s vocation was never seriously in doubt. And over the years his wonderful and precious family have continued to shape and direct that vocation, and to ground it in its own context.

So here we all are, ready for something new. Gary will speak words of offering and blessing, and those of us who dare will receive the precious life of God afresh into our mortal bodies. All are invited, by the way – there are no barriers imposed upon us here.

What’s going on? What has given Gary ‘magic hands?’ What’s changed since the service yesterday afternoon?

Well, everything and nothing. The ministry that Gary has as a priest is not ‘his’ – it’s Christ’s, and Christ has committed it to the church. The church, in its discernment and wisdom, has recognised that God has called the church to ask Gary to be one of its representatives, to bring that ministry to life – to make it real and present, here and now.

Sometimes we imagine that ordained ministers are God’s special envoys, a bit like mini Terry Waite’s. That a priest is the direct representative of Christ. That’s quite a dangerous idea: it places too much responsibility on the individual, and not enough on the church. It’s the church as a whole that are the body of Christ, the church as a whole which has been given Christ’s authority to absolve, to bless, to break bread in his name. Gary’s task is to speak the words – to move his hands – but they are all our words, all our actions, given us by Jesus Christ himself. And it’s his task to help us never forget that – to lead and enable the church to be the church, the body of Christ.

Sometimes that won’t be easy, Gary. It won’t have escaped your attention that today’s readings reflect the reality of conflict in the human and Godly family. All too often, the conflict we have to bear as ministers is within the Christian family, not outside it. Sometimes we are responsible. How and why is that? How come that the peaceful Jesus, meek and mild, comes out with such extraordinary statements as those in the gospel today – I have not come to bring peace, but a sword?

There are many reasons, and over the coming years you will experience and sometimes suffer many of them. Perhaps the key now is the constant difficulty of keeping God’s family outward facing – welcoming, embracing, including. It’s always a struggle to welcome the person who presents as an outsider, who may become an insider, and through whom we change. The church tries to offer a model of how to live for God and others, and someone who suggests that the way we have learned to live for God, perhaps even the way we have believed, is not, after all, the only way – maybe not even the right way – is never going to be an easy, comfortable thing to hear.

To talk to Gary is often to be disturbed, stretched, embraced, by truths which seem somehow just out of sight. It does appear to be his particular and delightful calling in the life of the church – to bring colour, surprising and different patterns, love and joy into sometimes dusty corners.

When Gary takes the bread in a few minutes, as we gather around this altar, in this holy place, let’s thank God not only for him, and for Rachel and all the family – but for one another, and the word wonder of ourselves and God’s work within us. As he takes the bread, perhaps we can see in it signs of our lives, and all that we have done with them, made of them, offered afresh to God to be broken open again to his light. As he takes the wine, mingled with water, can we see it as signs of all that we have lived through – the joy and the pain – transformed in the love of God to reflect his passion for us and the world. As he has already spoken words of absolution, and as he comes to speak words of blessing, may we know ourselves known and loved and held by God, and filled once more with his life and light for the world.

Above all, may Gary’s ministry help us to be the church that Jesus calls us to be, to the Glory of God and in the life and light of the Holy Spirit.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.

slide03

Faith as a Wager

Genesis 18:20-32
Luke 11:1-13

+ In the name … ( )

 

slide02It may be worth offering—as I begin my ‘campaign’ of speaking within the church—that when I speak ‘in the name’ of the trinity, it is as the trinity is; a relationship, a self-giving openness which invites our participation.

In other words I am not speak to you, I hope my approach is understood as speaking ‘with you’.

The ideas I suggest might be helpful, or they may frustrate; they are offerings, suggestions, different perspectives. I am trying to open a dialogue.

If you find yourself thinking ‘I don’t agree with that’, then that may well be the point when you are hearing God. I don’t mind, I am not trying to convince anyone of anything, rather simply trying to introduce ideas, which help draw us nearer to experiencing God in ways we might understand for our lives.

This is a very Anglican way. Preaching is very important, but its not didactic, this is a discussion; it only works if we all think, respond, disagree and engage.

The word is not a spoken word; it is a word that exists somewhere between the voice and the hearer, between action and contemplation.

slide03In that light I might suggest that today’s thought is that Faith is a wager.

I have to confess this teaching on prayer from Jesus and me have… ‘some previous disagreements’.

Come back with me, some 16 years.

It was New Years Eve, the millennium, and I was in Guys hospital and watching my son struggling to live.

 

We already had experience of Hayden life-threatening neuromuscular condition; disability and most alarmingly breathing problems. Many resuscitations, many interventions. It was a extremely traumatic time for Rachel and me.

On this occasion, half way up Guy’s Tower, he was struggling to breathe even whilst on a ventilator. It was a desperate moment.

slide04 I tried to offer a prayer….

But the darkening clouds of disbelief, which had loomed for a number of years, finally released their full deluge. The prayer was empty, I had lost faith, the universe was silent.

The problem I have with this reading is that it was this verse which rattled around my head as I sat by that hospital bed; fathers? Eggs? Scorpions, ask, receive? home much more would your heavenly father give?

 

“THIS IS NOT TRUE!” was the cry of my heart.

I know I am not alone here, and that many, if not all, people in this church have known moments of pain, doubt and disappointed prayer. we live in a world which has seen terrible atrocities, genocides, cancers, tragedies. Some stay ‘strong’, others do not, others name the pain…

As did Job, or Jeremiah, or the writers of the Psalms. For each of these faith is not an answer; it is a question.

slide08
Jacob Epstein – Jacob and the Angel

It is a struggle to wrestle meaning from a seemingly meaningless universe; as much a complaint against heaven as it is a song of joy. A cry of anguish as much as a prayer of hope.

And as we considered last week sometimes one is another way of expressing the other. The call of doubt is a way of framing hope; for the call of Job telling God he is a liar – is a cry holding God to account, it is a cry that is a cry of faithfulness. A faithfulness that enters relationship, and is therefore open to surprise.

The psalms are full of such disorientation; we thought we had faith in God, but now we doubt it. For me, God was not the refuge from the storm, God was the tempest.

So at this point – beyond belief, at the point where faith has broken – I found myself once more drawing back to thinking about God. Like poor old Richard Dawkins, the issue of God just wouldn’t go away.

The irony tslide09hat losing God helped me to reconsider God again; to find God in conversations, in silence and in that nameless wonder within poetry, art and music.

The simplicity of trite answers had gone, but the struggle to think about God called… to return to ‘faith after faith’ is a process which has * been recently called ‘anatheism‘, the return to God after God.slide10

Anatheism is way of letting go of the metaphysical ‘super-hero-sky-god’ and instead looking for the emergence of G-d in the flesh of earthly existence.

Suffering breaks down our conceptions of God, like the apophatic path we talked of last week; suffering reminds us that our ‘concepts of God’ are inevitably limited. But suffering also connects us to others, there is a solidarity in suffering that connects us to one another – and to God.

Letting go of such ‘God’ images – all images – we find that within the humble, beautiful, fragile and broken body we glimpse something of the G-d whose absence we have faced; and whose presence is revealed in weakness and vulnerability.

The Anglican church is learning to become diverse, broad and eclectic. 21stC Anglicanism might open the space between faith and nonfaith; about taking the risk, the process of negotiating the lines between belief and unbelief.

Like Paul Ricour’s ‘second naïveté’, after all the questions and doubts can we return to faith in the 21st century, a post/modern faith beyond both dogma and doubt.

The question is honest, real, relevant, and vital…

Faith is an impossibility for many people outside of this building and for some inside this building; of course it is, As Keirkegaard says, it’s an absurdity!

slide11It is vital because, as philosopher John Caputo says, ‘religion is for lovers of the impossible.’

But within that absurdity, the wild impossible dream, there is something compelling, engrossing, captivating, entrancing, a dream of God’s kingdom. It is the God who emerges after God. The God who meets us in the vulnerability and wager of relationship.

We heard last week of Abraham encountering three strangers at the Oaks of Mamre. He was faced with the choice, (a wager); hospitality or refusal. In the end hospitality won. It was the act (not the theory) of love, where God was revealed.

And interestingly this week we see Abraham again, this time pleading for Sodom and Gomorrah, negotiating with God, trying to strike a deal. And the interesting note is that God responds. I’m suggesting this is beyond the unchanging immutable ‘sky-God’ of fundamentalism and dogma, the God who is certain, fixed, contained. Negotiation suggests a more realistic wrestling with God.

This God is meeting Abraham in a way which goes beyond belief or even faith, instead meeting God in trust, openness and in the arrival of the ‘the other’.

Like the good Samaritan, meeting God in the stranger, in the risk;

Emmanual Garibay - Emmaus
Emmanual Garibay – Emmaus

or like the Emmaus story, meeting God in the stranger, and revealed in the Eucharistic celebration.

It is like the act of drawing together around a table and saying ‘though we are many we are one body’—despite all our differences—which makes the community become the church.

It is a trust based on desire for God. And as we said last week, desire is borne as much from loss, from absence and silence as it is from presence.

So maybe the way we think about God is changing, maybe that’s what 21 century Anglican offers, a new way of understanding God, beyond the boundaries of belief and non-belief; about meeting God in the everyday and in the sacred in the process of trust and desire, and in the human savoring of life;

‘give us this day our daily bread….’

So to return to Jesus… and this problem text.

(Or is it a problem?)

It too is a negotiation. Our lives echo the hollowness of a promise of fulfillment, and yet Jesus is stressing the importance of prayer, of desire.

What was Jesus thinking when he suggests that these prayers will be answered…?

Right at the end the text might give a clue…

“how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

The gift we receive in prayer is not the sky-God, super-man who is going to change circumstances… our cosmology has changed so much, our views of who God is have changed so much it is hard to hold such a worldview.

But in naming our desire, the love of the impossible, maybe we discover the Holy Spirit, the spirit of life. Prayer remains; as a way to connect, to one another, to needs to hope to desire and to lament. Prayer connects us to ‘the other’; to love; and ultimately to God.

By embodying the act of compassion, taking it into ourselves so that we too are moved by the needs of others, in dwelling on the vast, breathtaking awe of the universe, and in the wonder of the divine beyond naming; so we discover something of God in whom we live and move and have our being.

The Spirit calls from the streets, the Spirit is wild, the Spirit may even lead us into the desert, beyond ‘belief’ into a wild place with God. (as she did with Jesus, and she did with me!)

Prayer is about our desire, not the answer;

prayer is about our being within the ground of being;

prayer is a wager of impossibility, mystery and delight.

Amen

GS Collins 24/07/16

Beginnings – Sunday 22nd February 2015

 

Genesis 9:8-17, Mark 1:9-15

Beginnings

 

In the year 445, St Patrick baptized King Aengus of Munster in Ireland. St Patrick had in his hand a sharp-pointed staff and by mistake, without noticing, he stabbed the King in his foot while he was conducting the baptism. The King made no mention of this, and St Patrick only noticed what he had done when the baptism was over. ‘Why didn’t you tell me what had happened?’ he asked. The King replied, ‘I thought it was part of the ritual’.

 

The gospel reading for this first Sunday in Lent is a very compact 7 verse section of Mark. The 7 verses neatly cover three key events right at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry: his baptism, temptation in the wilderness, and the start of his work of preaching and teaching. Over the next 6 weeks we will travel with Jesus to the cross and then on Easter day to the empty tomb. But today, it’s all about beginnings. Some of you will remember that our previous Vicar, Tony Vigars, encouraged us to follow a series of studies called, ‘His story, our story’. It was based on the idea that somehow, in the story of Jesus, we find our own story. That the story of our life, and that of Jesus’ life, somehow match or mirror each other. Let’s see how we get on as we explore that idea with today’s short passage in Mark.

 

The wilderness experience is at the heart of the gospel reading, framed by the baptism and the start of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. That theme of wilderness is perhaps what Lent is most about. Lent is a period of 40 days – that’s not counting the Sundays – which is the same as the length of time that Jesus spent in the wilderness, being tempted and tested. Why 40? It’s a day for every year that the Israelites spent in the wilderness as they wandered from Egypt to the promised land – read about it in Exodus. That number 40 then connects us with Jesus in the wilderness and then right back to the book of Exodus, and 40 years spent in the wilderness. The word Lent, just in passing, simply means ‘spring’. We start Lent in the cold days of late winter and it takes us into the heart of spring with the re-emergence of the created living order in the bright spring sun. There’s another journey.

 

Before we get to the wilderness, let’s pause at the Baptism. As Jesus arrives on the scene – and in Mark’s gospel he just appears as if from nowhere – he submits to the baptism of John the revivalist preacher, aligning himself with the new movement of repentance and turning back to God. As he comes up from the waters of the Jordan, a dove flies down and lands on him, symbolizing the coming of the Spirit and a voice is heard: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (11). Those words and the presence of the Spirit are gifts to Jesus as he faces testing and trial and the start of his ministry. What more did he need? What more could God the Father give than his love, his assurance, and his very presence through the Spirit? Brothers and sisters, that assurance comes to us also. Here is where these events recorded on paper come alive for us and mirror our own experience. Most of us probably can’t even remember our own baptism – some will be able to – but we too can allow ourselves to hear those same words spoken to us: ‘You are my Daughter or Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’. Let those words rest on you, let them settle on you, like a, I don’t know, a dove. Let that assurance touch you, allow the Spirit to take that right into your heart: know that you are beloved.  The baptismal font is at the door of almost all churches and cathedrals because baptism is the sign of entry into the fellowship of Jesus. There’s a tradition of sprinkling yourself with a few drops of water from it as a reminder, and echo of your baptism and a few weeks ago Christine encouraged us to do that here at St John’s as part of the service. Do it again! Do anything you can to remind yourself of your baptism, and of those words of assurance and love.

 

You might think that after that high point Jesus would go on in triumph to conquer the hearts of his people and perhaps duff up the Romans while he’s at it. Counter-intuitively, the Spirit himself ‘immediately drove him out into the wilderness’ (12). There had to be a testing of Jesus’ calling and commission. He went out into a literal wilderness, a wild place, an empty place in order to confront his demons – the short-cuts to fame and success that would avoid the cross. The temptations of the flesh and and heart which could side-track him from his mission. The account in Mark is literally one verse only – we don’t get the detail that we do in Matthew and Luke. I’m not going to go to the detail, I want to use the barrenness of Mark’s words to reflect a bit around this theme. Firstly, there’s a very real sense in which the testing was necessary, to prove himself. How do any of us know we can do anything until we’ve been tested? Jesus’ mission was a spiritual one, so he faced spiritual testing.

 

Just as we too have been baptized, have received the Spirit and the assurance of God’s love, so too will we have wilderness experiences, times of trial and testing. That doesn’t mean something has gone wrong!  Wilderness times come to all of us – they can come from bereavement, loss of a job, retirement, the pain of mental or physical illness. Anywhere where we feel rootless, emotionally or spiritually alone. Strong temptations can come on us in those times – temptations to kick over the traces, to find solace from somewhere else or someone else. Where is your weak point? How well do you know yourself? We used to talk about temptation coming from the world, the flesh and the devil. Let me bring that up to date and then you’ll know what I mean – money, sex and power. They are, I believe, the root temptations for all of us – the places we are most likely to compromise. Richard Foster wrote a book called exactly that, ‘Money, sex and power’. We studied it in home group several years ago – it’s an excellent book. I bet that if you think about your weak spot, your Achilles heel, it’ll involve at least one of those, if not all three. We should guard ourselves and fight the temptation to succumb, to give in when we are at a low point. That will make us stronger, more ready for what we are called to.

 

For many Christians in the world today, the wilderness experience has a much sharper edge than what I have described. We heard last week of the terrible murder of 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians in Libya who were executed for no other crime than that they were Christians. When I heard about it I texted my friend and work partner George, who is himself a Coptic Christian. ‘My dear friend’ he texted back, ‘The whole world has gone to the devil. Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy’. The church in the Middle East and North Africa is facing terrible hardship at this time. Some of us heard Mona Siddiqui at the University comment a couple of weeks ago that the West seems to have forgotten about the existence of the historical Christian communities in those places. Perhaps during Lent we can remember the wilderness times that they are passing through and pray for them.

 

There’s a silly story about a man who had two dogs, a black one and a white one. Whenever his friend visited, he noticed that the two dogs were fighting. Sometimes the black one was winning, and sometimes the white. He asked them man, ‘why is it that one week the black one is winning, and the next week the white?’ The man replied, ‘It depends which one I feed the most’.

 

Lent provides us with an opportunity to draw on resources to build ourselves up, to feed ourselves. I’m going to suggest a few practical ways we can do that. Personally, I’m using the ‘Daily Prayer’ app on my iPad. It’s brilliant! It gives you prayers and readings for every day for morning, evening and night. I’ve only been using the morning ones but I am finding it really, really good. Then there’s ‘Pray as you go’ – these are 10 minutes of music, reading, reflection and prayer that you can get on your computer, tablet or mobile. You can use earphones and listen while you travel to work on the bus or train, or put it on speaker in the car. Lots of great books – Rosemary and I are getting so much from ‘Finding Sanctuary’ by Abbott Christopher Jamison. Rowan Williams’ book, ‘Finding God in Mark’ has daily readings from the gospel through Lent. And lots more, of course. Carpe diem – seize the day! Take the opportunities that are out there.

 

So Jesus passed the test. After the baptism, the testing; after the testing, the mission. Jesus started his public ministry of teaching, preaching, healing which in three short years would lead to the cross. The phases of calling, assurance and trial were necessary.

 

In the year 445, St Patrick baptized King Aengus of Munster in Ireland. St Patrick had in his hand a sharp-pointed staff and by mistake, without noticing, he stabbed the King in his foot while he was conducting the baptism. The King made no mention of this, and St Patrick only noticed what he had done when the baptism was over. ‘Why didn’t you tell me what had happened?’ he asked. The King replied, ‘I thought it was part of the ritual’.

 

He was right.

 

Richard Croft