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pentecost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

What are some other images that have been shared?

I wonder if any will resonate with you?

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

Hullah – to rave about God

Yahah – to worship with open hands

Barak – the privilege of blessing the Lord

Tehillah – sing to the Lord

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

PRAY TO END:

 

Lord, immerse us in the ocean of your love

Bathe us in your cleansing rivers

Soak us in your healing waters

Drench us in your powerful downfalls

Cool us in your bracing baths

Refresh us in your sparkling streams

Master us in your mighty seas

Calm us by your quiet pools.

Amen.

 

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

 

tango

Sermon – Sunday 24th May, Easter 7

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

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

Oops, sorry about that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Christine Bainbridge

 

lion

May 17th 2020, Easter 6 ‘In him we live and move and have our being’

In CS Lewis’s ‘Narnia’ books, four children – Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy explore a different world called Narnia, and encounter Aslan, the giant Lion who stands, in Lewis’s stories, for Christ. In ‘The Dawn Treader’, Lucy and Edmund have been stranded on a strange island. There’s a moment where Lucy, the youngest, is waiting for the Magician to arrive. She has just read out a magic spell to make hidden things visible. ‘At that moment she heard soft, heavy footfalls coming along the corridor behind her; and of course, she remembered what she had been told about the Magician walking in his bare feet and making no more noise than a cat. It is always better to turn round than to have anything creeping up behind your back. Lucy did so. Then her face lit up…and she ran forward with a little cry of delight with her arms stretched out. For what stood in the doorway was Aslan himself, The Lion, the highest of all the High Kings. And he was solid and real and warm, and he let her kiss him and bury herself in his shining mane. And from the low, earthquake-like sound that came from inside him, Lucy even dared to think that he was purring.

“Oh, Aslan,” said she, “it was kind of you to come.”

“I have been here all the time,” said he, “but you have just made me visible.”

“Aslan!” said Lucy almost a little reproachfully. “Don’t make fun of me. As if anything I could do would make you visible!”

“It did,” said Aslan. “Do you think I wouldn’t obey my own rules?”

 

All of us have a group of people with whom we are completely familiar. Maybe more than one group! Maybe family, or a friendship group, home group, church even!, a club, a neighbourhood. Take a moment just to think who it is you are completely familiar with, at ease with, yourself with. For some of us, at this time, that’s a bit of a distant memory, of course.

 

That universal experience of familiarity was shared by the group of men and women who became the intimate friends of the man Jesus, especially for the inner circle of 12 disciples who literally lived with him for 3 unforgettable years. They were his friends, his companions. They shared the same space, ate with him, talked with him, got grumpy with him, had arguments amongst themselves, said the wrong thing, said the right thing, jostled with him in crowds, woke up in the morning in his company and had their first cup of tea with him. In so many ways it was completely ordinary. Jesus in many ways was completely ordinary: he was a human being who walked, talked, ate, slept, was born, lived and died. Of course, he was also magnetic, controversial, a riveting public speaker, insightful, wise, a healer. I have one friend who is on the world stage in his field, gets to meet with people of global importance. He is clever, original, a thinker, an entrepreneur. But when we meet, he’s just my friend: it’s what happens when you know people really well: no matter how important they are, to you, they’re your friend. Jesus even said to his disciples, ‘I have called you friends’ (John 15:15). In another place, we get to know that he calls us his ‘brothers and sisters’ (Hebrews 2:12). After the death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus’ friends came to know the other side of Him: that he was in some way so closely bound up with God that He was actually one with Him. In fact, he actually said that earlier on, ‘The Father and I are one’, (John 10:30). But that wasn’t how it all started for them. He was, and remained, their friend.

 

In todays’ gospel reading, Jesus begins to broach the painful subject of his coming departure, his death. But look, he says, when that happens I will send you someone else who will be with you for ever. This will be the Spirit. Then the language gets really mixed up – quite deliberately – as he talks about himself, and the Father coming to make their home with the disciples (v.23). Because God, Father, Son and Spirit are so intertwined with each other, so inseparable, you can’t have One without the Others. But how painful this must have been for the disciples. To realise that their wonderful 3 years was going to end, they were going to lose this most amazing friend. His words promising the Spirit must have seemed like pie-in-the-sky, empty promises, maybe even madness. But as we know, it came true. His awful, cruel, public death took place, and the horror of a world, a life, without Jesus any more became their new reality. But not for long. 3 days later the literally unbelievable happened as Jesus was spotted in a garden, in an upper room, on a road, by a lake, and 6 weeks later the Spirit came sweeping through and they found their strength again as this unseen reality, the Spirit of God, the Presence of God, Jesus’ other self, came to inhabit them in such a profound way that they were prepared to take the good news to the ends of the earth even if it cost them their lives. As for many of them, it did. In fact, although Jesus wasn’t with them in the way he had been – physically that is – he was with them. He was in them, among them, and between them.

 

Last week I had the privilege of taking part in the University annual retreat, acting myself as a spiritual guide to 3 people – all done virtually by Zoom of course! Each of the total of 24 retreatants committed to a half-hour of prayer a day, as well as another half-hour with their guide and at the end, all of us were invited to share something of our experience. It was just wonderful to listen to expressions of joy, surprise, wonder because, in one way or another, God showed up for everyone. This is the Holy Spirit’s work, and it is exactly what Jesus promised. We can draw a straight line from Jesus’ words to his disciples – ‘I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth.’ (Jn 15:16,17) – and this was the experience of every one of the retreatants, and, I can confidently say, of the guides too. For some of the people doing the retreat, this was pretty much the first time they had ever prayed on their own. We don’t have to wait, like too-devout Anglicans, for the day of Pentecost to come in the liturgical calendar, because the real Pentecost has already happened and the doors are open. The Spirit is here.  And you know what? She, the Spirit of God (who IS God), had always been present for each one of us. Yes! But maybe not realised, not encountered. The prayer, the time given, the waiting was what brought the felt sense of God to the surface. In prayer, we can speak to Jesus exactly as ‘one friend to another’. (This is the advice that Ignatius gives).

 

There’s a wonderful connection between all of this, the gospel reading in John, and the reading we heard in Acts 17. Paul was in Athens, preaching to Greeks – that is, non-Jews who did not know about God from the Bible. Paul was able to reference God by quoting not the scriptures, but a Greek poet, known to them, Aratus: ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). Paul was able to quote that, not only so that he could connect with his Greek audience, but because also it’s true. The Bible is full of references to the fact that God is everywhere to be found: ‘Where can I go from your spirit?’ asks David of God in Psalm 139; ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord’ (Jeremiah 23:24); ‘The whole earth is full of his glory’, (Isaiah 6:3) and so on. We do, quite literally, live and move and have our being in God, whether we know it or not, even in these strange days we are passing through. And when we make the space in our lives for him, we will find him.

 

‘At that moment she heard soft, heavy footfalls coming along the corridor behind her; and of course, she remembered what she had been told about the Magician walking in his bare feet and making no more noise than a cat. It is always better to turn round than to have anything creeping up behind your back. Lucy did so. Then her face lit up…and she ran forward with a little cry of delight with her arms stretched out. For what stood in the doorway was Aslan himself, The Lion, the highest of all the High Kings. And he was solid and real and warm, and he let her kiss him and bury herself in his shining mane. And from the low, earthquake-like sound that came from inside him, Lucy even dared to think that he was purring.

“Oh, Aslan,” said she, “it was kind of you to come.”

“I have been here all the time,” said he, “but you have just made me visible.”

“Aslan!” said Lucy almost a little reproachfully. “Don’t make fun of me. As if anything I could do would make you visible!”

“It did,” said Aslan. “Do you think I wouldn’t obey my own rules?”

 

 

 

 

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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