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Living water

St John and St Stephen’s Church, Reading, March 15th 2020, Lent 3

Psalm 46, John 4:5-42

Living water

 

What a strange time. We can’t go anywhere, talk to anyone, turn on the TV, radio, internet or look at your smartphone without a blaring mention of coronavirus. Now let’s add to that the now visible effects of global heating – flooding, Antarctic melt, rising sea levels, and then the uncertain impact of Brexit (which we’ve almost forgotten now!). I’m feeling a bit like I’m on a ship going through very choppy waters: the ship has been sailing pretty steadily, got a bit rocky in the last couple of years, now it’s going crazy, the deck is shifting under my feet. Where are we going? Which coastline are we sailing to? We have got used to safety and security in our little island for years. But it’s changing. I want to acknowledge all of this, as we are, I am sure, all feeling and thinking it. What do we do? Well, we do the right things – handwashing, reducing physical contact and so on. We also continue to trust in God, that’s why we are here this morning. Not just a pie-in-the-sky hope but trust in his presence here and now.

 

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. (Psalm 46)

 

This Psalm reminds us that the sensation of uncertainty and fear is not a new one – in fact, it is normal. The Psalm directs us to God. That is exactly where we need to go. To find him, let us go to a small corner of the near East, to a country under a brutal occupation, whose kingdom has indeed tottered and fallen, to Samaria, whose people were neither Jewish nor pagan, but a mixture of the two; to a well at midday; where we can find a woman in her middle age or maybe a bit more, who has lived perhaps a bit too much. She’s feisty, spirited, ordinary, and she has come to draw water: but not at the usual time, in the morning, but at midday, because she’s a bit of an outcast, a pariah, so she has to come when the other women aren’t there. She is a bit socially isolated. She’s ritually unclean to observant Jews: they wouldn’t touch her. Ring any bells? She finds a man sitting on top of the well, a Jewish man, without a bucket, who speaks to her and says, simply, ‘Give me a drink’. She’s amazed. Jewish men don’t talk to Samaritan women, especially women like her. In shock, she blurts out, ‘What? You’re talking to me, a woman from Samaria, and you’re a Jew?’ Then the strange man begins talking about living water, if you knew who it was that asks you for a drink, you would ask him for one! She’s lost. Confused. Thrown off balance. She begins to babble that you haven’t a bucket, it’s a deep well, what are you talking about? where do you get that living water? But the man, (BTW it’s Jesus) goes on – he’s raving now – about how if you drink the water I will give you, you will never thirst again. What, can that be true? Surely not. Well, now I think about it, that would be handy, I’d like some of that! Then, out of nowhere, he asks me to call my husband. I haven’t one just at the moment of speaking. And he goes, no, you haven’t, you’ve had 5 husbands, and the man you live with now isn’t your husband. How did he know that? This is getting embarrassing. Seems like he’s some sort of prophet. Let’s change the subject. We have a bit of a back-and-forth about where the best place is to worship God. At least it stopped him talking about my crap life. To cap it all, finally, he claims to be the Messiah, the Christ. Can that be true? My head is spinning!

 

Last week Claire spoke about Nicodemus the Pharisee, who came to Jesus by night to try and understand him. He ended up being more confused than when he started, when Jesus told him that he needed to be born again, and poor Nicodemus, this learned teacher, took it all too literally and just couldn’t get his head around the idea of entering into his mother’s womb a second time. Who could? He could not comprehend the metaphor, the idea of re-birth. Jesus was talking, as Claire reminded us, of the inner life. This story of the woman at the well, which immediately follows the Nicodemus story, is also one of confusion. Only this time the character is an unnamed, ordinary woman, not an important man with a name; a Samaritan not a Jew; it’s daytime, not night; and instead of Nicodemus, who came to Jesus deliberately, this woman comes to Jesus ‘by chance’. But the confusion is the same. The woman cannot understand what Jesus is talking about when he offers her ‘living water’. Only when Jesus touched on the matter of all the men she had lived with in her life, she got that pretty quickly, and tried to change the subject.

 

There is so much that could be said about this wonderful encounter. I am struck by how Jesus asks for help because he is in need – he is thirsty. It is very human. It’s midday, it’s hot, his disciples have gone off to find food and taken with them the leather bucket that you would need to get water. Wells in that part of the world didn’t have a bucket attached to them, you had to have your own. So Jesus asks this woman for help. Quite often, we Christians in an effort to do good like to give help – which puts us, subtly or not-so-subtly, in a position of power; we have something for you. Your job is to receive. In this story, it’s the other way around. The unnamed, socially outcast Samaritan woman holds the cards: or more accurately, the bucket. She has the power to help Jesus. The dynamic of the encounter is inverted.

 

And what happens? How does this apparently chance meeting play out, in its essence? An unnamed person with a messy life, a social outsider, receives, in exchange for a bucket of water and some conversation, an offer of a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. It’s no wonder she had trouble understanding. Whoever spoke of anything like that to her before? She could not understand the metaphor, the symbol. Why did Jesus use this kind of language? Why couldn’t he be more literal, more concrete, black-and-white, easier to understand? Well, how could he? This is heart language, it’s about something that takes place in the heart, the soul, the inner life: the springing up of living water, gushing up to eternal life, refreshing the spirit, cleansing the soul, bringing joy. When the Spirit of God moves in our hearts, there will be some kind of felt experience. The mind doesn’t really get this, and our Samaritan lady was stuck firmly in her mind with literal thinking about water that you put in buckets and drink. Then, perhaps surprisingly, Jesus asks her to call her husband and she’s on the spot. Her personal life is a wee bit messy. She changes the subject, opening a theological conversation about where the best place to worship God is – this mountain or Jerusalem? Again, this is all in the mind, and she is resisting where Jesus is going. I wonder whether Jesus, in saying what he did, was trying to open up her heart by going directly to an uncomfortable area of her life. A bit of self-examination. Did it work? Maybe it did! He goes on to answer her theological question by telling her that ‘God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth’ (24). Again, this is heart language. Then in response to the question about the Messiah, Jesus tells her straight, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you’ (26). Wow. Well, something has moved her, quite literally. The woman who came to draw water actually leaves her own water-jar behind (28), in her excitement to get back to the city of Sychar and tell people she has ‘met a man who told me everything I have ever done! He can’t be the Messiah, can he?’ (29). Seems like something touched her quite deeply. She becomes the first female evangelist – the story tells us that ‘many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony’ (39).

 

This encounter is one of sheer, undeserved, unsought-for, unexpected grace. It is so like God. Here are some lovely words written by St Ignatius in his spiritual exercises that ring very true, considering all of this: ‘It is characteristic of God and His Angels, when they act upon the soul, to give true happiness and spiritual joy, and to banish all the sadness and disturbances which are caused by the enemy. God alone can give consolation to the soul without any previous cause…It belongs solely to the Creator to come into a soul, to leave it, to act upon it, to draw it wholly to the love of His Divine Majesty’[1] These moments come to us often when we are off-balance, surprised. Something catches us – a piece of music, poetry, a beautiful sunset or a plant, a word of scripture – and we are touched, moved and drawn to God.

 

Much to ponder on here. Jesus speaking across so many barriers to this woman. Jesus in need, thirsty, asking for help. The promise of living water to quench another kind of thirst. The awkward question. Her messy life. Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. The move from the mind to the heart. Her excitement. Leaving behind the water-jar. Rushing to tell people.

 

Are you thirsty?

 

Richard Croft

 

[1] The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, #329, 330

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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).

 

 

 

 

christine

Ash Wednesday sermon 26 February 2020

John 8.1-11, Isaiah 58.1-12

One evening when I was in Sweden, two of the art students from my college said hello to me in the street and said they were going to an art exhibition and would I like to go with them?  It was the launch of the exhibition so there was a jazz group, lights, food – all very inviting on a winter’s evening- so off I went.  The art itself was intriguing; it was what I think would be called mixed media; there was paper and pencil, paper and ink, canvas and paint and an assortment of fabrics, most of them faded or torn, and on each surface whether paper or textile was written or embroidered the words ‘förbarma dig’, and nothing else.(See example pinned to the lectern – no screen tonight)  The words mean ‘have mercy on yourself’, or compassion or pity.  When I asked the artist about her work she said that as a child she heard the words regularly in church as, ‘Lord, have mercy on us’, and she wanted to claim them for everyone, not only for the shrinking number of people who go to church.  They can reach our roots she explained, transforming us.  I was struck by the power she attributed to these words and recalled the conversation with her as I prepared for this evening.

It can be reassuring to say to someone, or to ourselves, ‘Be kind to yourself’, the modern version of ‘Have mercy on yourself’, and perhaps missing out the reference to God (‘Lord’), makes it more inclusive; but at the start of Lent I’d like us to consider how including God in this invitation can lead us into a deeper understanding of who we are before God, and therefore of who we are in relation to one another, and to the earth.  This can indeed be transformative, and perhaps at an even deeper level than that anticipated by the artist.

So, it’s mercy that I’d like us to consider this evening.  Lent is a time to strip away illusions, to earth our faith, and we can see Isaiah doing that as he addresses his people – ‘Being a Christian is about more than going to church’, he might have said, if he was speaking today.  ‘Demonstrate mercy in what you do, and not only in what you say’.  It’s a wonderful legacy of the Jewish roots of our faith that for us worship of God is not only about singing hymns and praying but also about merciful action; they are two sides of the same coin.

Now to our gospel; the scribes and Pharisees want to engage Jesus in a discussion about the interpretation of the law.  They want to pin him down, catch him out.  The woman in this encounter is simply being used to score points.  Jesus might have engaged in the kind of dialogue we see elsewhere in the gospels when tackled by the scribes and Pharisees.  God is ‘gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing’, he might have said, quoting from another prophet, and setting off a rabbinical discussion about mercy.  Instead, he literally earths the conversation by drawing their attention to the ground in front of them by writing on it.  Inevitably their attention is also drawn to the woman lying on the ground, a flesh and blood human being like themselves and one on whom they are contemplating a brutal assault.  They need to see that.  They have to look down, and that simple physical movement makes possible a move from what’s going on in their heads to something deeper down in themselves.  Already they are better placed to hear what Jesus says; ‘Let anyone who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her’.  Jesus is stripping away illusions, helping them to face the identity of not only the woman (they had already defined her as a sinner), but also their own identity, and that of God himself in relation to the woman and to themselves.  Without using the word mercy Jesus puts them in touch with the desire we all have to be treated mercifully when we are at fault.  This insight leads to being able to receive mercy and then pass it on to others.  As if to demonstrate what that might look like Jesus finally turns to the woman herself and tells her she is no longer condemned and that she should sin no more.

There is a close link between sin and mercy throughout scripture.  Our Swedish artist invites us to have mercy on ourselves and perhaps somewhere in that is a sense of the weight we bear as human beings for things that are not necessarily our personal fault, but which are part of belonging to the human race.  Where do we get the mercy to offer to ourselves, though?  We can’t give ourselves or others what we haven’t received.  The gospel message is that when we get in touch with our own sinfulness, as we see the scribes and Pharisees doing in our reading, we can then find ourselves turning to something/someone greater than ourselves to help us.  Remember Jesus saying, ‘I have not come to call righteous people, but sinners to repentance….it’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick’.  (Mark 2.17)

Acknowledging that I am a sinner is not popular.  It’s seen as bad psychology.  It’s vital that we are all confident, have a positive self image, and don’t run ourselves down.  I’m strongly in favour of all those things, yet I believe that getting in touch with our identity as a sinner, turning to Christ for help opens us up to his mercy and to that healing grace that gradually frees us to be ourselves, human beings made in his image, beloved and yet also ‘frail creatures of dust, and feeble as frail’, as one of the old hymns puts it, and as we will be reminded when we receive the ashing tonight.  As we receive the ash cross we can acknowledge that frailty and the more we do so the more we receive mercy and grace, and the more space there is inside us for grace and mercy to grow.  There are numerous self help books, blogs, U tube clips on how to become a more flourishing human being.  There’s lots of wisdom there, but at the end of the day it all seems to depend on us, and that’s hard work.  Perhaps during Lent we can turn to the riches in our faith for dealing with our human condition, and practise bringing God’s mercy to our sinfulness.

There’s one simple way I’d recommend you try during Lent to encourage this.  I’m sure you will have encountered this before and perhaps some of you already do it.  It’s saying what is known as the Jesus Prayer – ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’.  This comes from the Eastern Orthodox church and is traditionally a means of enabling prayer to move from our head to our hearts – ‘heart’ here meaning that deepest part of ourselves, that part where we are closest to God, rather than heart in the western understanding as the seat of our emotions.  Its origins lie in the desire of the desert fathers and mothers to pray constantly and in the later history of the Orthodox church it was taken up by lay people as a daily discipline, described most famously in a book called ‘The way of a Pilgrim’, which relates the experience of a 19th century Russian pilgrim.  He practised saying Jesus Christ, Son of God…..’ throughout the day and as time went on it was rather as though the prayer said itself, it was so rooted in his being.

If you are starting off with saying this prayer I suggest you consciously practise it during times when you are doing something routine, like washing up, or when you are on a familiar journey – walking to the bus stop for example, or exercising the dog, or when you are waiting for something – waiting to see someone, waiting for the train, waiting for an appointment.  Some people find it helpful to have something to carry in their pocket, like a small stone, for example, that serves as a reminder and that they can hold while saying the prayer.  The other good times to do it are as you settle down to sleep, or if you wake in the night, and when you wake in the morning.  If you’re out walking somewhere on your own you can try saying it to yourself or aloud to the rhythm of your walking.  You can also say it in rhythm with your breathing – Breathing in, ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God’, breathing out, ‘Have mercy on me, a sinner’.

Let’s try it now…..

So förbarma dig, have mercy on yourself, have mercy on others, and before all that know that you are a loved sinner as you acknowledge your sinfulness and thus open yourself to receive God’s mercy.                         Christine Bainbridge

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What do you seek?

Epiphany 2A: John 1:29-42 (& Isaiah 49:1-7)

The Lamb of God

29 The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ 32And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

The First Disciples of Jesus

35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ 39He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).

Today in our reading from John, we get to follow Jesus into a house. It’s not often perhaps that we imagine Jesus in a house. He famously said: “foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”. But clearly he was staying somewhere in this passage, from John 1.

I did a fair bit of pastoral visiting when I was priest in Whitchurch and especially if there was a problem or someone was in trouble, or if there was some conflict. After the visit I always came away thinking: “Now I understand what is going on, where that person is coming from, what life is really like for them”, because in someone’s house you get a much more complete picture of that person than meeting them in a public space, like a church.

Whenever you go inside someone’s house, your relationship goes to another level. I don’t know if you’ve ever imagined Jesus as being indoors; we are perhaps more likely to think of him wandering outdoors, through fields, on dusty tracks, talking about what he sees around him: wheat, seeds, the way, the birds of the air.

So how do you imagine this event where two of John’s disciples follow Jesus into the house where he’s staying? And as we’re still in Epiphany, another question might be: why is this reading set, coming as it does in the Lectionary after the journey of the Magi and the baptism of Christ?

It could be that it has something to do with the continued revealing of the light of Christ, which is the main theme of Epiphany – the uncovering of the Light.

So here we have this encounter where John’s disciples, (and we know that one of them was Andrew) turn away from John and start to follow Jesus We read that the day before the ‘home visit’, John had testified to Jesus being ‘the Lamb of God, that takes away the sin of the world’, a phrase deeply embedded in our Eucharist. On mentioning the Lamb of God the next day too, the disciples of John take the hint and start following Jesus, literally walking along behind him.

And then Jesus turns. If you are able to use your imagination when you read Scripture, there are a lot of directional things going on in this part of John’s gospel. People are coming and going and criss-crossing. John the Baptist and Jesus are at different tipping points of their ministries: John’s is coming to a close; Jesus’s is just beginning. The two are linked. John is circling Jesus, getting closer and closer, signposting his disciples to Jesus, and away from himself..

So two of John’s followers literally start walking behind Jesus. He turns, sees them and asks a question. It could perhaps describe what happens for us in prayer. We are trying to follow Jesus. We want to be in his company. He turns towards us, sees us and asks a question.

I wonder if that’s anything like your experience of prayer?

When Jesus turns and sees us, we can know that something significant is going on in that moment. It appears to be the template for many of his encounters with people. When he turns towards us, he’s making himself wholly available. When he sees us, we can know that we are fully known, and loved. To be known and not loved, is uncomfortable. To be loved but not really known is… sentimental. But to be known AND loved; that’s what we all crave.

But I wonder how do you like being asked a question by Jesus? Because he turns, sees the disciples following, and asks, literally, ‘what do you seek?’ It’s a well-known emphasis in Ignatian prayer; the pray-er is asked: what do you seek? Much as I am a fan of intercessory prayer, it was years before I met with the idea that prayer is getting in touch with your inner desire, what you seek. Desire was not a word I readily associated with what I saw as the self-denial of being a Christian.

I’m sure that Andrew and the other un-named disciple had no clue at this stage what they were seeking, but they were about to find out, as they followed Jesus back to the house. To the question ‘what do you seek?’ they simply say, ‘where are you staying?’ It’s the most obvious thing to ask. You meet someone, you get chatting; the next thing is you say, ‘where do you live?’ They’re trying to place Jesus. And the idea that Jesus is staying in a house is intriguing. They’re invited to ‘come and see’ where he is: ‘They came and saw where he was staying and they remained with him that day.’ Wouldn’t we love to know what they talked about?

I was at Greenbelt one year, when it was still at Cheltenham Racecourse, and took part (in the lovely upstairs viewing area) in an Ignatian reflection on this very passage, led by someone from Loyola Hall, the one time Jesuit retreat centre. We were invited to imagine ourselves following Jesus and approaching the house where he was staying, and then to see what happened. In those days I was nervous of this sort of free-fall approach to prayer; I think I worried I might ‘get it wrong’. Imagination can be a very powerful thing.

But I plunged in. In my imagination, Jesus was already in the house and standing at the kitchen sink with his head turned towards the open back door as I approached from his left. In the moment when he looked at me, I felt unable to enter the house. There was a step at the back door, and I looked into the room, but didn’t get further than that. I just looked into the kitchen where he was, and he looked at me, but for some reason I could not enter and I didn’t particularly feel that he was welcoming me – he was just still.

It was so powerful I knew I hadn’t forced the imaginative moment, but rather that it revealed something important about my state then. In good Ignatian fashion, we were asked to reflect on the experience of meeting Jesus in this passage of scripture. ‘What was going on for you?’ was the question.

As I tried to untangle why I didn’t feel able to enter fully in to be with Jesus, the conversations with fellow priests from earlier in the day wafted back into my mind. So I did an Examen. There was definitely a feeling of desolation there, a feeling of heaviness, of not being known and loved. I recalled that I was struggling with issues of identity as an ordained woman, and I had felt left out when I found myself in conversation with two or three male priests who would refer to each other as ‘Father’. It was that simple. ‘What did I seek?’ To be fully included. What did I feel? I felt excluded because I wasn’t ‘Father’.

How would Jesus deal with this (if you like) chip on my shoulder? Well, Jesus took my feelings seriously. He did not force the issue; he simply waited for me to be fully honest. He gave me space to notice what was going on. He didn’t judge; he waited for me to discover my desire – which was to feel fully included in the Church as a female priest.

So being with Jesus is one (perhaps the best?) definition of prayer and it is a living encounter. But how do we achieve it? I think most of the teaching I received on prayer failed to deal with what to do physically when you pray – what to do with your actual body – how it can help or hinder. My teaching on prayer was too ‘spiritual’, and generally not practical enough.

So if we want to emulate the disciples and be with Jesus, how do we do it? Here are a few things I’ve found helpful. And after that we’ll look at why we do it.

Place

Where you pray matters. If you can find the same place each day it helps because if you’ve got a notebook or bible nearby it’s just a hassle to keep moving them as you find yourself in a different place. And you get into a rhythm, knowing you’ll be there the next day and the next day. The Russian Orthodox have the concept of ‘poustinia’ – or desert – a special place where you’re going to meet God each day. It will become a holy place. I am presuming you are sitting down to pray for a few minutes every day, at least once a day. If you don’t know how long to sit, and can’t keep at it, do what I did 7 years ago and buy a ten minute egg timer. Don’t move till the sand runs through.

Comfort

You’ve got to be at least basically comfortable as you settle to pray in your special place – you’ve got to feel relaxed as well as open to being challenged – but generally I find bed is not the best place, a sofa is better – but if my head lolls back I’m likely to fall asleep (especially if praying in the late afternoon) so the advice I’ve found helpful is to sit straight up but in a relaxed manner with your feet firmly on the floor.

Breathing

It might sound odd but breathing is really important in prayer. You can use the most natural human rhythm – the rhythm of the heart – to help you pray. I’m thinking here of wordless prayer, or at least prayer that is just you waiting before God with no agenda. Praying for others can come at some other time – this is being before God in silence kind of prayer. Breathing in and out can be combined with saying or thinking the name of Jesus, or a short phrase like Jesus Christ, or Lord Jesus, and your breathing in and out the name of Jesus centres you and helps you to bring your whole being in prayer.

Distracting Thoughts

It is 100% certain that as soon as you start doing this, your mind will go off on one – on the automatic film roll of what just happened a few hours ago: how annoying so-and-so was; why didn’t I say anything? Why did I say that thing? We’ve run out of milk; I haven’t done my tax return… how am I going to finish the sermon in time? etc. etc. (you’ll have your own inner monologue and it’ll be tailored just to your own head, and as soon as you start to pray it’ll kick off). The practice of centring is that we notice we’ve switched to internal monologue and we come back to Jesus with our attention. Attention is a like a muscle – if you exercise it regularly it will become stronger. You are not your thoughts; you are something else besides (otherwise you wouldn’t be able to observe yourself looking at your thoughts). What you really are is ‘hidden with Christ in God’ and that real you is what is being called forth in prayer.

This way, little by little, as we practice, and harness the body in prayer, like the disciples we are being with Jesus.

But finally, what is the result of being with Jesus? What is the point of it?

Andrew is our clue. After being with Jesus for one afternoon, he is convinced. He gets it! Jesus is it!! His very first, completely unconsidered and spontaneous reaction is to go and tell someone else about him. He brings his brother to Jesus and Simon receives his calling to be Peter, the rock on which the Church is built.

Our great temptation as a people who love the Church is to look inward and forget our calling to be salt and light in the community. What are we called to do and to be for Newtown?

As with prayer, so with mission. We find it harder to talk about the practical details of outreach. What shall we do? What is the plan? These are big questions and only discerned together. We grow in contemplative practice in order to spill out into action, but this balance of contemplation and action is the hardest to achieve. But we can be sure that when we have truly met Jesus in prayer, there will be a calling. Focus on Jesus and look outwards might be a good motto. What are the doors that Jesus will open that are currently waiting to be opened? What are the things he wants us to notice in Newtown? Who are the people he wants us to notice? Have you recently walked round Newtown pondering this? Have you ever walked round the community, praying and listening?

And, finally, if you live in Newtown, when can you invite me to your house?

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The desert shall blossom like the rose

Isaiah 52.7-10, John 1.1-14 Sermon Christmas Eve 2019

The opening words of tonight’s gospel are from John the evangelist, our John, as I like to call him. They echo the very first words in the bible, ‘In the beginning…’ where a lyrical description of how God created the universe follows. The power of God’s word stands out; he simply speaks and it happens…the earth, the sea, human beings…, and now John announces that most powerful of God’s words; his very self in Jesus Christ; that perfect expression of who God is…the Word has arrived.

Words are indeed powerful. The saying ‘Sticks and stones can hurt my bones, but words can never harm me’ is simply not true. Words stick, especially ones that are negative, and we human beings are usually better at remembering those than the more positive ones. Before I went to Sweden I was talking with someone who had gone to the same church college a few years before and who, though, encouraging me, also remembered being homesick. ‘The homesickness was visceral’, he said. Those words stuck with me, especially the word ‘visceral’. During my first month in Sweden, if I was feeling a bit under the weather I would think, ‘Oh no, is this the start of visceral homesickness?!’

Spoken words are powerful, and Jesus is God’s spoken word, but written words also have power and it wasn’t long before those early disciples decided that those words about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection must be written down. Before this they would have talked about Jesus, and those memories of him, especially of his death and resurrection, gave them courage and hope during times of hardship. Do you remember when he healed Jairus’ daughter? Do you remember the huge catch of fish? His words on the cross? Mary seeing him in the garden? It’s through the written word that we so often encounter Jesus the living word. Those words we hear tonight from our scriptures speak about peace, about light shining in the darkness, about a God who comes to live next door to us. We need to feed on those words when more negative words gnaw away at us (like ‘visceral homesickness!).

On one of those exceedingly wet days we were having before Christmas I was sitting at a bus stop with 2 other women, all of us with bags of shopping, effortlessly weaving together one of those dreary conversations about the state of the weather, crowded shops, just missing the bus…one of the women was standing and suddenly the expression on her face changed, a distant look came over her, and she said, ‘it’s all too much, all this (waving her arm)’… Her face softened…’years ago we were in the desert..the desert’, she repeated (and I sensed this was in a similar category to visceral homesickness). ‘It was Christmas and we were in the desert; our first Christmas away from home. The others were nearly all single, many of them Americans. What would we do? I remembered carol singing at home, I asked around and soon there was a group of us and someone said we could ask for donations for an orphanage they knew about in the next village. So we went round singing carols, the words all so familiar, so homey somehow, and we raised a good amount for the orphanage and then I said, Come back to our place for some eats and they did and we sang again…and that was one of my best Christmasses ever’.

The two of us sitting were caught up in this word picture she was drawing (in fact, I nearly missed the next bus!) and, speaking for myself, I was no longer so conscious of the rain, the shopping and ‘all this’ (waving my arm). I was hearing what I would call a gospel memory, put into words that, as John would put it, shine in the darkness.

Christmas resounds with gospel memories. New words are spoken into places where negative words have been holding sway. Listen to these negative messages; ‘We’re too old’ – Zechariah and Elizabeth when they’re told that they will have a son. ‘You can’t marry her’, Joseph on discovering that Mary is pregnant. ‘There’s no room’, when Joseph and Mary are seeking somewhere to stay and for Jesus to be born. ‘You can’t leave the sheep’ (what some of us might have wanted to say to the shepherds). Now there are new words; ‘with God all things are possible’ (Luke 1.37), Immanuel, ‘God with us’, ‘Peace on earth’, challenging all those old messages.

The other evening we watched the film ‘Paddington’ again. Very enjoyable! One of Paddington’s characteristics is that he always tells the truth (the result of a strict upbringing by his aunt Lucy!), even when what he says can sound very unlikely, such as something looking like an elephant dropping in through the skylight while he was in the house on his own (the baddie in the story of course). Gradually the Brown family realise that he really does always speak the truth and learn to trust and accept him.

I wonder how often we think to ourselves ‘I wonder where the truth lies’ when hearing a report of something that has happened, or listening to what one or other political party is promising to do. Might their words just be telling us what they think we want to hear? Supposed truth can so often be more to do with expediency or a desire for popularity or worse still, used as a smoke screen, than as a description of reality.

Our John and the other evangelists wrote down what Jesus had said and done to convey the truth about him, and to give us words with which to challenge all those negatives in our world – what he calls darkness. John doesn’t say that the darkness disappears with Jesus’ arrival; he says Jesus the light shines and the darkness can’t overcome it. The darkness can’t overcome it because we’re dealing with solid truth, the truth out of which the universe was spoken into being, the truth embodied in Jesus Christ (whom we have seen, John says, in verse 14), God with us, ‘full of grace and truth’.

Because the accounts of Jesus’ birth include angels, dreams, babies, (2, counting John Baptist), a manger, a star and mysterious visitors from the East we can too easily hear them simply as stories, and good ones at that, and then not sit with them long enough to see and hear the truth being expressed through them. They ring out with joy (especially Luke’s gospel), light (John) and presence (Matthew). Together they open a window on God’s glory seen in a person, like one of us, an actual historical person, not a fictional super hero. The darkness in the world may continue as before – wars, betrayals, lies and so on, but the truth about us is plain for us all to see in Jesus. He has baptised our humanity, if you like; like him we are beloved, God delights in us, longs for us to share that bubbling joy, to cling to his goodness, to trust in it. The invitation is always there. And when the enemy of human nature whispers words like ‘visceral homesickness’, or ‘desert’, or ‘its hopeless’, or ‘you’ve failed again’ – whatever are his weasel words to you – we can come back with some of those words we hear in our Christmas gospel – God is with us (Immanuel), Do not be afraid (words to Mary and the shepherds), I bring you good news of great joy.

Mother Julian puts it like this;

It is God’s will that we should rejoice with him in our salvation and that we should be cheered and strengthened by it…He loves us and enjoys us, and so he wills that we love him and enjoy him, and firmly trust him; and all shall be well’.

May we know that more and more in the core of our being.                 Christine Bainbridge

Trinity-2019, by Gary S Collins

Trinity, Creating (a new world) in Community

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31,  John 16:12-15

It’s a double whammy today. As well as the church celebrating Trinity Sunday.. that apparently fearsome preaching Sunday for wary (or over-zealous) curates. It’s also Father’s Day… (happy father’s day!)

So to first wish you a happy Father’s Day I’ll begin with a suitable ‘Dad Joke’….

  • I think I want to quit my priestly job. I’d rather clean mirrors for a living.
    It’s just something I can see myself doing.
  • I did have another joke about a stone. But don’t worry, I’ll just skip that one.

Terrible aren’t they?
How about this then ‘I still have many things to say, but you cannot bear them now..’
(ok I grant you, not so funny or groan-worthy – but it does put a smile on my face. Jesus saying to the disciples, “you cannot bear this”… I mean what’s he getting at, how much have they borne already? They’ve followed this guy around for three years, they been perplexed, confused, mocked, struggled to make sense of almost anything that has come from his Galilean mouth..
I mean, “now your telling us we cant bear it?”, “we couldn’t bear it three years ago!!!”

But maybe ‘bear’ isn’t really about what the disciples can take in terms of thoughts and ideas – they’ve clearly had their fill of that. It appears that ‘bearing’ is more to do with time and context, ‘you cannot bear this now.’ (it’s not the right time)

In these two readings we catch a glimpse of the Trinity in two different ways, but in both we are invited to think about experience and not an abstract concept.
The lectionary places us back with the disciples and Jesus at the last supper, and , for the fifth time, (14:16-17, 14:26, 15:26, 16:7-11, 16:12-15), Jesus is explaining that he is to leave them…
Hold that thought for a moment, imagine yourself there, (you don’t have the full script), how do you think the disciples would have been feeling? What was the body language and mood? Would there have been tears, hurt, fear, betrayal even?

And Jesus foretells of the ‘paraclete’, the advocate, the along-side one, the Spirit.
If you want Trinity Sunday without the egg, or the clover leaf, or the ice illustration (all heresies anyway!) then this passage offers a little window on the Trinity.
Here Jesus speaks of himself, and of the Father, and the Holy Spirit. Although ‘trinity’ is not mentioned anywhere explicitly in scripture – the growing church comes to understand this in both text and in experience. (Although it would take the another 300 years to fully identify what this relationship actually meant… the same words we’ll say later in our creed)

Jesus in this instant, sitting with his anxious friends, (women and men), is trying to offer a reassurance. The advocate will come, and guide them to truth… the same truth that is ‘the way’ and ‘the life’ that Jesus has already described himself as…

Maybe through tears of his own, Jesus is pointing to the coming advocate and explaining that which cannot be understood, cannot be borne… ‘it is better that I should go’ (v.7). Then, he suggests, the Spirit will point to all truth…the truth that he is…It seems that when Jesus speaks of the paraclete; he means the things which cannot be borne until the time is right, until the need is there…

And that time will come – there will be moments when the apostles in the following years will doubt, struggle, wrestle and look for reassurance; and others times when they will discover the truth which the Holy Spirit will guide them into. In some of these moments we could imagine them remembering back to this night of tears and confusion. and begin to understand just what it was that Jesus was on about – they couldn’t bear those things then… because they didn’t need to then.. But now, as they continue in the absence of Christ in flesh and blood they do see that the love of God, the love of Christ, the love of the Spirit comes to them… so they can bear these things now; in prison, in shipwreck, in martyrdom, and in the act of co-creating a new reality.

You may find yourself this morning looking for reassurance… asking yourself can I bear my load any longer? You may find yourself—like many of us—looking fearfully into the future, with economic uncertainty, political instability and fear, and asking, ‘can I bear this?’.

We may well imagine Jesus tears too as he speaks of leaving his friends. And within those tears comes something hopeful – but also realistic.. it isn’t pie in the sky, it isn’t a denial of our present struggles, it isn’t ‘Jesus making it alright’..

Instead a simple, insistent, message is uttered about the coming helper; from the dawn of creation, (Proverbs tells us) and echoed in the words of Jesus; a rumour of hope emerges from the heart of the Godhead of love; ‘you will not be alone. You are not alone!’
Because the very foundation of all being and all time and all things – is a holy and divine relationship; a dance of loving and giving. And that love is not exclusive – but forever inclusive; it reaches out, meets us at the point where we cannot bear any more, it dances at the edges of the sea like the gloriously female wisdom in Proverbs and delights in God’s creation (Common English Bible), “I was having fun, smiling before him all the time, frolicking with his inhabited earth and delighting in the human race” (v. 30b-31).

We need to stop thinking of the Trinity as a concept to understand – we cannot! Instead we encounter that life-giving relationship within our experiences; in hope and in suffering in the tears of Christ mingling with our own tears in the passion of the Spirit in the wonder of creation and in the quest for justice. (different translations speak of architect, craftsman and even little child). The Trinity reaches out, invites us, dares us, to dance before a new creation, to be part of a new creation. How many times have you considered, fun, creativity and play to be part of God’s mission?

Well this is nice Gary, very poetic, very enticing – but how does this land? what about the millions of people suffering- what about climate change? maybe that’s what you or I feel is more than we can bear… Are we ‘dancing’, as Bruce Cockburn sang, ‘in the Dragon’s Jaws’.

Which is exactly why we dare to say that the Trinity is a deeply political revelation too. What is going on in Jesus words here, and in the experience of the early church, and in the church throughout the world and in the enticing vision of Wisdom at the beginning of a creative act .. takes Trinity from an abstract concept to a lived experience; an encounter with relationship… and relationships with real people cause us to think differently about the world.

The Trinity reminds us that the event of God—the communion of God—comes towards us. So politically, if we can say that divine love holds all together in communion, then God is in the stranger and the outsider as much as in that which we know. Divine creativity is found in art, in thought, in community, education, and in politics. Divine creativity is world-making.

God’s creative communion is insistent, but not oppressive. Wisdom calls from the streets, proverbs tells us, she ‘cries out’ to be heard… She calls for discernment.
Reflect for a moment our world of social media, fake news, infotainment, propaganda and spin… (a world our young people encounter daily). Competing narratives of how the world works.. the dominating demands of capitalism, and so on.
Yet Wisdom still calls… evokes, provokes, nudges and cajoles us into a different way of being in the world. The way of God, the way of communion.

The Trinity who comes towards us, always now, opening new ways of seeing, inviting us all to a different dance.. The invitation is for all time, not just this Sunday!

The Trinity reminds us of a God found in the one, the three and the many; God’s very being is communion, and communion with us. As wisdom dances on the shores of our uncreated futures, she reminds us, calls to us; dares us to ‘dance in the dragons jaws.’ In a world of fractures, divisions, fear and suspicion, wisdom prompts us to heal our own communities and to do so with a deep abiding joy, “delighting in the world and the people that God created”
GS Collins, June 2019

Mary-Mother

The Cost of Love – Mothering Sunday

Exodus 2:1-10, John 19.25b-27

May I speak in fear and trembling…

It’s hard to know the right thing to say on Mothering Sunday.. knowing full well the complexities of such an unusual day… (even more so as a man speaking!). We know and recognise that the word Mother evokes so many mixed feelings.. feelings of joy, hope, disappointment, pain, anger, sadness, grief, comfort, confusion.. I could go on and on…

Mothering Sunday always falls on the fourth Sunday of lent, the origin (as you may already know) is not about Mothers.. but actually mother church, the tradition of returning on Laetare (Rejoice) Sunday to your mother church.. a chance to return to family towns, neighbours, friends etc, a refreshment during the rigours of Lent.

Other names given to the fourth Sunday include Laetare Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, Mid-Lent Sunday, Pudding Pie Sunday, Simnel Sunday and Rose Sunday. (Simnel Sunday is named after the practice of baking simnel cakes to celebrate the reuniting of families during the austerity of Lent)

But that’s not how we think mostly now… the meaning has become much more focussed on mothers, (a habit from America!) but that’s ok.. Because how we think about mothers still concerns God – God is, of course, written in to the script of mothering..

I want to hold to the complexities of this day and I want to truly acknowledge the mixed feelings… and in our desire to acknowledge the mothering traits in all people and in society it’s easy to slip the phrase “we are all mothers really..”

.. but that’s actually not true….  like we are not “all disabled”, nor are we “all a bit gay really”.. no these are unique experiences, stories written deep in heart and bodies and minds of individuals, which no one else can ever really experience and which say something so rich about the diversity and wonder of people on this planet…

Some people are mothers. Full stop. And this day we give thanks for them, and for what mothers mean to us for how they hold communities, societies, how they give and comfort and care and give and care and give again..  and we think about what we all learn and give within the name ‘mother’.

And now having said that, we can begin to acknowledge that mother-ing.. is a characteristic that does become universal.

The alternative reading for today was from Luke, Simeon speaking to the new mother Mary  “a sword will pierce your heart” Words so sobering.. (and so familiar to all of us who in one way or another have been exposed to the pain that comes with love)

Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand … a mother to a nation… grieving, sharing, leading, inspiring, being open, vulnerable, caring, showing strength within tears.

At the foot of the cross, four grieving women (two relatives, two disciples)… and one man. All beloved and loving… all exposed to the pain of love… and in this site of horror, in the sharing of grief.. something comes forth.. a new life, and new love, a new community. “Woman, Jesus says “here is your son” and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’

We might imagine this one man, alongside four weeping women, suddenly feels something break open within him.. the same sword piercing his own heart.. for a moment, he understands. Through the pain and the tears, this beloved disciple enters the same community of pain known by these women, these mothers. The disciple has a new family, formed in tears..

Love costs.. but love is worth everything; that’s the truth in these vivid stories. Love costs. Love gives, love costs, love gives…

To know the ache of love will never leave you, (but it does, in fact, complete you).

As I said at the beginning, the task of motherhood has the story of God woven though it… these are not just my word, witness Anselm of Canterbury (Archbishop 1093);

1    Jesus, like a mother you gather your people to you; you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.
2    Often you weep over our sins and our pride, tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgement
3    You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds, in sickness you nurse us, and with pure milk you feed us.

Anselm saw it, many mystics see it, modern saints and mothers and father and children see it too; that mothering and the holy.. are drawn together in an intricate flow of love…. Giving sharing and making a new world one moment at a time…

And here I’ll end with this powerful poem by Allison Woodard

“God Our Mother,” Allison Woodard, 28.9.17

To be a Mother is to suffer;
To travail in the dark,
stretched and torn,
exposed in half-naked humiliation,
subjected to indignities
for the sake of new life.

To be a Mother is to say,
“This is my body, broken for you,”
And, in the next instant, in response to the created’s primal hunger,
“This is my body, take and eat.”

To be a Mother is to self-empty,
To neither slumber nor sleep,
so attuned You are to cries in the night—
Offering the comfort of Yourself,
and assurances of “I’m here.”

To be a Mother is to weep
over the fighting and exclusions and wounds
your children inflict on one another;
To long for reconciliation and brotherly love
and—when all is said and done—
To gather all parties, the offender and the offended,
into the folds of your embrace
and to whisper in their ears
that they are Beloved.

To be a mother is to be vulnerable—
To be misunderstood,
Railed against,
Blamed
For the heartaches of the bewildered children
who don’t know where else to cast
the angst they feel
over their own existence
in this perplexing universe

To be a mother is to hoist onto your hips those on whom your image is imprinted,
bearing the burden of their weight,
rejoicing in their returned affection,
delighting in their wonder,
bleeding in the presence of their pain.

To be a mother is to be accused of sentimentality one moment,
And injustice the next.
To be the Receiver of endless demands,
Absorber of perpetual complaints,
Reckoner of bottomless needs.

To be a mother is to be an artist;
A keeper of memories past,
Weaver of stories untold,
Visionary of lives looming ahead.

To be a mother is to be the first voice listened to,
And the first disregarded;
To be a Mender of broken creations,
And Comforter of the distraught children
whose hands wrought them.

To be a mother is to be a Touchstone
and the Source,
Bestower of names,
Influencer of identities;
Life giver,
Life shaper,
Empath,
Healer,
and
Original Love.

 

Gary S Collins

 

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Rough Justice

Feast of Christ the King

Daniel 7. 9 – 14 | John 18. 33 – 37

I expect that Matthew Bridges, the young academic from Durham, tried a few days ago on charges of spying in the UAE, and there sentenced to life imprisonment, will soon be released and allowed home.

Whatever the story – his treatment was rough – and his hearing and sentencing, all conducted in Arabic in the space of five minutes without the presence of his lawyer was shocking to say the least.

But shabby treatment, if I can put it as mildly as that, has not been unknown in our courts either. Remember the Birmingham Six, convicted and sentenced in 1975 to what was to be a 16-year stint in prison on the basis of brutally forced confessions, circumstantial evidence, blatantly fabricated police statements and the forensic evidence of one later assessed as incompetent.

In prison, one of the men, Paddy Hill, had written more than 1000 detailed letters appealing to lawyers, MPs and journalists, most of whom never replied. Of the few who did, almost all wrote, ‘I fear the odds against you are overwhelming.’

But in the end, all were pronounced totally innocent and on 14 March 1991 walked free.

If I had wanted, I could have tracked down the name of the judge who, on what proved to be the flimsiest of grounds, had sentenced the six. Few, except those immediately caught up in the trial will recall it today, but week by week, year by year, century after century, the name of the undistinguished, sometime Roman Governor of Palestine, Pontius Pilate, who sent Jesus to his death in an atmosphere and under circumstances every bit as corrupt, rotten, dark and devious as those that surrounded the trial of the six – is remembered.

The higher Jewish religious authorities loathed Jesus. The ordinary people loved him and his teaching, especially when it exposed the hypocrisy of the ‘religious’. His generosity of spirit, reckless compassion and unfortunate association with the dregs of society troubled and appalled them. In their minds he had to go. He was a threat to all that they most cherished – their traditions, their status and their carefully maintained position with Rome, whose assistance was vital if their plans to do away with Jesus properly were to be accomplished.

The Trial of Jesus

We are familiar with the details of Jesus’ trial but perhaps so familiar that its conduct ceases to shock us. A disciple was turned, Roman soldiers were borrowed from the governor, disreputable characters enlisted to invent charges against Jesus, the inner council of Jewish leaders were summoned from their beds and all was carried out under cover of darkness – which a Jewish scholar has pointed out was only one of numerous reasons why the proceedings were illegal.

Today’s gospel begins with the delivery of Jesus by the Jewish authorities to Pilate. He had loaned them soldiers for the arrest and must have expected their return in the early hours with the prisoner, but the text makes clear he was hardly thrilled to see them. Occupier and occupied, then as now on the same land live in an uneasy state of mutual suspicion and mistrust – and as here – scarcely concealed contempt.

Immediately before our gospel, comes this sentence, ‘The Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman Governor . . . and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness, the Jews did not enter the palace, they wanted to eat the Passover’ (John 18.23) on which Archbishop William Temple commented long ago, ‘They were demanding the crucifixion of the Lord of glory but no one thought of that as defilement.’ And yet ironically in the Jews later effective blackmailing of Pilate – ‘Let this man go and you are no friend of Caesar’s’ (John 19.12) they unwittingly ensured that Jesus’ death got maximum publicity and Jesus’ prediction – ‘I when I am lifted up will draw all people to myself,’ (John12.32) – fulfilment.

Throughout John’s long, dramatic and carefully recorded account of the exchanges that followed between Jesus and Pilate, which minute the steps by which Pilate was persuaded to condemn one whom he believed to be innocent – Jesus, bound, bruised and very likely bloodied too – remains poised, quietly confident and in control – even playful. Asked by Pilate if he was King of the Jews, he replied, ‘Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me?’ This drew forth the sharp riposte, ‘Am I a Jew?!’ Jesus did not deny he was a king but told his questioner that his kingdom was, ‘from another place.’

Another Kingdom

Pilate thought of kingdoms and of empire in terms of legions and law. The kingdom of which Christ spoke was ruled by the constraining love of God and active in the hearts of all who gave their allegiance to its king. Earlier in the evening, Jesus before the Sanhedrin, quoted to their horror from the book of Daniel and spoke calmly and confidently of the day when he would come on the clouds of heaven. (Matthew 26.64)

Our Old Testament reading today, also from Daniel, Jesus would similarly have taken to himself. ‘His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom one that will never be destroyed.’ (Daniel 7.14)

Those words are carved in Greek on the wall of the great and beautiful Umayyid mosque, once a cathedral in the centre of Damascus. Sometimes Christ’s kingdom makes its greatest strides, if that’s the right word, in the hardest places. I think of the priest from Maalula, a largely Christian town in Syria, who worked tirelessly through the past years to care for and keep together both Christian and Muslim, till he was kidnapped and brutally killed by ISIS. Two days ago, I received a report from Syria describing how so many of the churches there today are full, both Christian and Muslim finding within their walls friendship, courage and hope.

On New Year’s Eve 1944, in the German city of Stuttgart, German pastor and theologian Helmut Thieleke addressed an anxious and fearful congregation as bombs fell and said, ‘We know not what will come but in the end, we know who will come, and if the last hour belongs to him, we shall not care what the next minute brings.’

We live in uncertain, and some would say, dangerous times but that glorious conviction in Christ’s return and ultimate victory is no reason for us to opt out and abdicate responsibility for engaging with the sufferings and struggles of our time, rather it is a moment to ask individually and as a Christian community with humble devotion as subjects of our King, ‘Lord Jesus, what would you have us do for you today?’

‘Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.’ (1 Timothy 1. 17)

 

 

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The Bread of Life

Today’s gospel reading is part of a series on five consecutive Sundays from John 6.  Richard began last week with vv1-21, the feeding of the 5,000 and one of the stories of Jesus walking on water.  We then skip a couple of verses (22-23), and continue on today.  We should have stopped at verse 35, but we continue on to verse 40 to get the complete passage.  The next three weeks have recursive, overlapping readings, starting with today’s last verse and going on v69.

Clearly those who composed our lectionary think John 6 is important.

After the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus had gone up on the Golan Heights on the east of the Sea of Galilee to pray and to escape from the people – who wanted to make him king, and the disciples had, rather strangely, set off by themselves back across the lake by boat to Capernaum on the Northwest corner of Galilee.  Presumably Jesus had told them not to wait for him, but this is not recorded.  Jesus then catches up with them, walking across the lake.  Our reading starts next morning when the crowd realises Jesus and the disciples have left.

The first part of John 6 sets the scene for the rest of the chapter.  Jesus has performed the miracle of multiplying bread and fish, and this leads on to todays theme: I am the bread of life.

Jesus ignores the crowd’s question about when he arrived (they had not seen him leave), and he confronts them, saying that they are not even following him because of miracles, but simply because he had fed them.  When we were looking at children’s services here a few years back, I remember one parent saying that all you needed to keep kids engaged in worship was food, so perhaps we are not that different.  But the crowd with Jesus were, at least, adults.

Jesus has been trying to engage with them spiritually.  Work for food that lasts for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.  When they ask what that means, Jesus replies, What God wants you to do is to believe in the one he sent.  Surprisingly, the crowd then says, What miracle will you perform so that we may see it and believe you? What will you do?  Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, just as the scripture says, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.  It seems that they had forgotten what happened the day before.

But, there is more going on here.  Jesus is claiming that he can give eternal life, something no-one before him, not the prophets or the kings, had claimed before.  The Jews were waiting for a Messiah as God promised Moses Deuteronomy 1815: I will send them a prophet like you from among their own people.  Like Moses, they expected the Messiah both to lead and provide for them.  What Jesus had done in multiplying food was small beer compared with Moses, who had fed the people from nothing in a desert for 40 years.  If Jesus was claiming to be the greater than Moses, the people wanted a sign.

Which Jesus does not give them.  Manna came from God, not Moses, but now the people have the true bread from heaven.  For the bread that God gives is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

So the people ask for this bread, still probably thinking in terms of their stomachs.  Jesus replies with the famous verse, I am the bread of life, those who come to me will never be hungry; those who believe in me will never be thirsty.  And, like a cliff hanger at the end of a television episode, you will have to wait till next week to find out what else he said.  (Or pick up a Bible.)

I have long been puzzled by John 6.  Jesus seems deliberately to antagonise, first the crowd, then the wider group of his followers.  It ends with lots of his followers leaving him, at the end of Chapter 6 (not the 12 disciples, of course).  If only he would say, look, this is a metaphor; I am not really talking about bread, it might have solved the problem.  But he does not.

Why is he being obtuse?  From all we know of Jesus, from the Bible, from personal experience, from the experience of others, you cannot just say he was having an off day, that he had lost patience with people, and he might have said it differently if he had had a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast.  This must be what he meant.

So we need to see spiritually to come to God.  Those who are intent purely on the physical, who do not lift their eyes above this world to the wonder and meaning and love behind it will not hear the message.  Jesus hints at this: All those that the Father gives me will come to me (v37), and later People cannot come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me (v44).  This seems strange to us, as from other passages we take it that God’s acceptance is open to anyone who comes to him.  But there do seem to be times when people are blind, where no amount of reasoning will help them see, when they are closed off in themselves.  There is an element to conversion that relies on the Spirit’s touch, and without that we can do nothing.  Which is disturbing in some ways, and freeing in others.

Just this week, I saw something that struck me in Prayer Notes for INF, International Nepal Fellowship, the organisation the Galpins worked with, for August/September: “It has been estimated that three-quarters of Nepalis who have become Christians have done so as a result of witnessing healing or another form of miracle.”  It reminded me of a time in our church homegroup in Butwal, Nepal, when people shared how they had become Christians.  For by far the majority, it was because they had seen someone healed.  And in their cases, they had not just seen the physical healing, but had been pointed by it to Jesus.

What is on offer from Jesus in John 6 is extraordinary.  Six times in the chapter, Jesus says that he had come down from heaven.  It is the first of the I AM passages in John, I am the bread of life, in which Jesus links himself to the name I AM WHO I AM that God used of himself to Moses.  He claims that he will give eternal life to those who believe in him, that those who believe in him will never hunger or thirst; he will satisfy all your spiritual needs.  He will never turn anyone away, nor will he lose them.

Jeremy Thake

St. John & St. Stephen

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Prayer and the Story of Ignatius

Ascension. Acts 1.15-17, 21-26, John 17.6-19

In our church year we are in an in between time – between the Ascension (last Thursday) and Pentecost (next Sunday).  Traditionally in the church this is marked as a time of waiting in prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

There are many different kinds of prayer and in our readings today we encounter just two of them; in the gospel reading Jesus’ prayer for his disciples where his focus is on their relationship with God, with him and with each other.  This prayer is the expression of Jesus’ longing that his friends might know that same oneness with God that is central to his own identity – v11 and v 21 onwards.  The other kind of prayer, in our reading from Acts, is where discernment is being sought.  Who do we chose to take Judas’ place as one of the 12?  How can we tell who is the right person?

Keep these two kinds of prayer in mind as I talk to you this morning.  This is the second of three sermons where Mark, Ali and myself alert you to the week of Accompanied Prayer (WAP) that is being held here at St Johns 10-15 June.

There are times in our lives when the pieces of the personal jigsaw that make up who we think we are get thrown up in the air and we don’t know quite how they will fit together, if at all, when they land.  We may experience this kind of thing during adolescence or, if we are parents, when our first child appears, or in mid life, or retirement.  Whenever we face major change.  Sometimes that includes loss, or dealing with a crisis such as serious illness in a loved one.  At these times our skin is a bit thinner, so to speak, and we may find ourselves asking questions about what you might call the bigger picture of human life.

For me it was mid life.  I felt stuck in some way.  It was as though I could only ever get so far and then there I was in the same groove.  I have inherited a worry gene.  I can even point to exactly where I feel it.  Over the years I have found it helpful to befriend it, but back then that little gremlin could morph into a monster of fear causing acute anxiety and occasionally panic attacks.  In mid life I suddenly found I couldn’t travel on the Tube – really inconvenient as we lived in London then.  So I prayed about it.  What will help? I prayed, and the answer always was ‘prayer’.  This really puzzled me.  I belonged to a church that prayed on Sundays and had a prayer group.  I would say a prayer when I read my bible.  What more was there?  Anxiety is a powerful driver so I set off on my personal quest to learn more about prayer and see if I could shake off the gremlin.

What I am discovering over the years is that prayer is as much about being as doing.  I was used to the action of praying for people, for things, for freedom from my gremlin, but I had little awareness of prayer as being drawn into an ever deeper relationship with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  As I explored this new aspect of prayer my gremlin sent out strong alarm signals.  Some sort of divine invitation to let go was on offer, a surrender to this mysterious Other.  ‘But you might get overwhelmed, you might sort of disintegrate, it will all be too much, and who knows where it might lead’, shrieked my gremlin.

I read books about prayer, and attended talks, but would have found it most helpful if there had been someone with whom I could talk about these things.  It wasn’t till some time later that I discovered that there were people called spiritual directors (an old fashioned title, but no one seems to have come up with anything better) with whom you could have this kind of one to one conversation.  And that you didn’t need to be a priest (which I wasn’t then) in order to do so.  Then it wasn’t till about 4 years ago that I heard about weeks of accompanied prayer where you can have this kind of one to one conversation for just a week, for half an hour each day, in your own church, and find out for yourself if this is something you find helpful.

Behind the Week of Accompanied Prayer lies the wisdom of what are known as the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, a 16th century Spanish soldier.  The time for him when all the pieces of his life were thrown up in the air was in his 20s after he was wounded in battle and had to spend weeks convalescing.  During this period about the only thing he could do was read.  There was a limited choice of books.  One was about lives of the saints.  He found this very energising, more so than a book about courtly romance which was very popular in those days.  He felt drawn towards a career change.  He decided he wanted to lead the same kind of adventurous, costly life as those saints.  But how would he do it?  What might his path be?  He prayed for guidance.

For many saints the call to a life of adventure for Christ had started with giving away possessions and spending a period alone in a desert place.  So this is what Ignatius did.  He came from a fairly wealthy family which meant he had a 16th century Porsche – a horse – which he gave away, good clothes and an excellent sword.  Leaving all this behind he went off on foot to find a lonely place where he could listen to where God might be leading him. This place was a cave near Manresa.

Although aspects of this were good he soon became dangerously caught up in his own inner world, neglecting himself (long hair, nails, little food) and not surprisingly had some strange visions.  He also became obsessively worried about whether or not he had been forgiven for his sins. Nor was he any clearer about where his path lay.  He didn’t feel drawn towards the monastic life, nor at that time towards being a priest, (in those days the main ways open to those wanting to take their faith more seriously).  How could he find the way forward?  Where might God be leading him?  He began writing down what was happening to him.  He found someone whom he could talk to about his struggles – a wise priest who helped him look outwards and assured him, finally, of God’s forgiveness.  He emerged from the cave.

He set off walking, still not knowing the way ahead, and he kept writing.  The walking is really important.  Perhaps, like me, you can identify with how when we are walking creative thinking is triggered in a way that doesn’t necessarily happen with other kinds of exercise.  This happened with Ignatius, but for him walking was his means of getting from one place to another, it also reflected a way of life that was about being on the move.  Whether or not he realised it he was searching for a way of relating to God that would suit the life of someone like him who would be mobile for much of the time, sniffing the wind, as it were, to see which direction to take.  The kind of prayer routines that worked for monks or nuns, or for parish priests relied on buildings, books and bells.  They were not portable enough.  Ignatius needed to travel light.  He walked with a limp because of his war injury.  That too, reminded him of the need for flexibility.  Like him, most of us have some sort of thorn in the flesh that affects our walk with God.

So he continued writing and it seemed that the walking and the writing were the main things he was called to do at that time.  How did he know that?  Well, he noted the effect on him of different activities and how some seemed to give him more of a sense of being drawn towards what was good and true and loving – towards God – than others and that these feelings were more energising and led to more creative action than others – they spurred him on to further adventuring in Christ.  So he noted that down.  He also noted that it required a little reflection to get in touch with how certain activities had impacted on him.  So he noted that down.  He would go over events in the gospels in his imagination and then note what he saw, heard, experienced as he did so.  He would reflect on that and note that down.  He also noticed what held him back; he learnt to spot his gremlins, to name them and in so doing reduce their power over him.  And all the time he was developing what he called friendship with Christ.  He discovered that having a conversation out loud with Christ as though with a friend after he had prayed and reflected also helped.  He was doing all this whilst walking, and in those stops along the way when he stayed in a place, and worked in a local hospital for lepers or taught children to read and write.  Whatever the activity he discovered that by being attentive to it and reflecting on it he discovered more about who God is and how he is at work in us and in the world.  So he wrote that down.

Out of all this writing emerged the Spiritual Exercises.  Later on, when Ignatius was joined by companions (he seems to have had a gift for friendship) he would take them one by one through the exercises, enabling them to carry deep within themselves their own prayer app, if you like, as they continued on whatever path they felt called to follow.

The spiritual exercises have become more popular and more widely available over the last 30 years or so.  You can go to a retreat house for a month to do them, seeing a prayer guide daily during that period, or you can see a guide weekly whilst living at home to do them, and you can get a good flavour of them by doing a WAP where you meet with your prayer guide for 30 minutes each day for a week and commit to praying at home for half an hour every day during that period.  The one to one approach of the spiritual exercises is at the heart of the WAP and is a main reason for my recommending it to you.  If you’re feeling a bit stuck, as I was, or you sense there is something more but you don’t know what, or you’re dealing with a gremlin or two, or facing decisions of some kind, it can be a real help to talk to someone who listens attentively.  Through it, too, you may acquire ways of developing more inner resources for your journey as you follow the suggestions made by your prayer guide.  You gradually build your own inner prayer app.

Going back to those 2 kinds of prayer I mentioned at the beginning, Ignatius prayed for guidance as he walked, just like those disciples in Jerusalem.  He so wanted to know he was on the right lines.  As he went on, though, it became clearer to him that what was most important to him was a deepening friendship with Christ.  He longed for that union with Christ that Jesus prayed for his friends.  And really, that’s the gift within the exercises, within the WAP – Christ answering that prayer of his for us, within us.  What is happening is his work, not ours or the guide’s.

Just some details – the guides are experienced spiritual directors who are coming from outside our church, except for Ali.  You’ll be paired up with someone you don’t know, unless you specifically ask to see someone you already know.  You’ll be meeting your guide in this building at a time convenient to you both.  We ask for a donation of £20 for the week.  If that’s difficult please speak to one of us and we’ll sort something out.

For many of you there will be good reasons why you can’t do the WAP this year.  If I come up to you enthusiastically waving a flier just tell me to back off!  However, perhaps you can hold the week in your prayers.  Or you might try the Pray as you Go app which draws on Ignatian wisdom.  Or you might like to attend one of the workshops that will be taking place in the evenings.  These are free and you don’t have to take part in the WAP to come along.  It may be that home groups would like to attend the Thursday workshop instead of having their group that evening.  If you do want to sign up for the week please give your details to Mark afterwards.  If you want to know more, ask questions or discuss what I’ve said, do join in the sermon discussion group after the service over coffee.

I’d like you to imagine it’s one of those nights we occasionally have in Reading when you are outside and, looking up, see the sky full of stars.  A vast, starry expanse, infinite space, galaxy after galaxy, a universe stretching far beyond the bounds of your mind or imagination.  Glittering, mysteriously beautiful and somehow ‘other’.  Then you go inside your home and start putting together the packed lunch for school tomorrow, catching up on your emails, peeling potatoes, or whatever.

Being human is a disconcerting mixture of the sublime and the mundane and our Christian faith calls us to dwell fully in this mix.  We acknowledge the divine heritage we have through Jesus Christ our Saviour and we live out that heritage amongst the potato peelings and emails of our everyday lives.  Ignatius understood this.  He loved the night sky and when he was an old man living in a stuffy room in Rome dealing with the tedious task of revising the guidelines for the Society of the Friends of Jesus he would go out on to the roof at night and gaze at the stars as if to remind himself of the heavenly beauty that can light up even the most humdrum features of our live.  Everything, he would say, can be for the greater glory of God.

 

Christine Bainbridge

13 May 2018