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What do you seek?

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

The Lamb of God

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

The First Disciples of Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Place

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

Comfort

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

Breathing

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

Distracting Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The desert shall blossom like the rose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother Julian puts it like this;

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

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

Trinity-2019, by Gary S Collins

Trinity, Creating (a new world) in Community

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31,  John 16:12-15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary-Mother

The Cost of Love – Mothering Sunday

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

May I speak in fear and trembling…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“God Our Mother,” Allison Woodard, 28.9.17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Gary S Collins

 

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Rough Justice

Feast of Christ the King

Daniel 7. 9 – 14 | John 18. 33 – 37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trial of Jesus

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

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

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

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

Another Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The Bread of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeremy Thake

St. John & St. Stephen

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Prayer and the Story of Ignatius

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Christine Bainbridge

13 May 2018

Vincent van Gogh - the-red-vineyard-at-arles

The True Vine

 John 15.1-8

 

Introduction – On the 4th of March 2016 four gunmen entered a home for the elderly, abandoned and fragile run by the Missionary Sisters of Charity (Mother Teresa Sisters) located in a poor suburb of Yemen’s port city, Aden. They killed twelve people, included a local, young lady doctor, a Muslim, who went there regularly as a volunteer and whose young children on the day in question had asked eagerly to accompany her. It was a place of hopefulness, of coughs and groans, strange shouts and noises, smells too, but also laughter and joy. It was a place we too loved to visit when we lived there.

The gunmen also killed four of the five nuns who ran the centre. They were from India, Kenya and Rwanda. Yemen’s press are not squeamish. The front pages of the nation’s newspapers showed the bodies of the Sisters with their aprons on, lying in pools of blood. Said our son on seeing them, “What nobler way to die than serving breakfast to the city’s abandoned and forgotten.” In a city inured to brutality and sudden death, this particular act of savagery provoked widespread grief and indignation for the Sisters and their work were held there in the greatest affection and esteem.

I recount this incident not to shock, though I should do all I can to make Yemen’s shameful and most pitiful plight more widely known, but because the Sisters’ lives so vividly illustrate the import of Jesus’ teaching in our Gospel for today – his insistence on the necessity of abiding, and on the inevitability of good fruit in the lives who submit to his pruning and live in his love. Mother Teresa once wrote, ‘The more we receive in our silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life.’ We shared as often as we could in their prayer and observed with delight and wonder their active lives of cheerful, compassionate service.

The setting, context and background of today’s Gospel – The teaching before us, which includes the last of Jesus’ great I AM sayings, was given on the evening of his betrayal and arrest, perhaps on a rooftop beside the Upper Room beneath a spreading vine. His disciples would have been familiar with the cultivation of vines and with the imagery of the vine in their faith. Israel is described in Psalm 80 as a transplanted vine brought out of Egypt, as a luxuriant vine in Hosea (10.1) and tragically, as a degenerate vine in the 5th chapter of Isaiah. There God speaks of the care he had lavished upon the vine and of his expectation to find on it sweet, full and luscious grapes only to find bitter grapes, wild ones of oppression, bribery, brutality and falsehood. It is against this background that Jesus presents himself as the genuine vine, his followers, (ourselves included) as the branches from whom the Father, the vinedresser, has every expectation of good fruit.

Two further points in this overly long introduction! Firstly ,the introduction imagery of the vine at this point in Jesus life is so poignantly apt. A vine does not have the lofty grandeur of an oak tree nor, I believe, the spring blossom of the cherry. It is a funny, straggly, insignificant thing, but what fruit! It lives to give and when it has, it’s cut right down. As Jesus spoke these words, the tramp of the feet of those sent to take him are almost audible.

Secondly, in the teaching immediately before this, Jesus has taken much time to reassure his anxious disciples that despite all that is to come, he will be with them. Here, Jesus is keen to remind them, through the vine allegory, that proximity even integration with him carries responsibility to go, to live, to be for him. Privilege carries responsibility – to bear fruit. ‘The gracious indwelling of God for his people is not an invitation to settle down and forget the world it is a summons to mission.’ ( Leslie Newbegin )

The fruit God looks for – What then is the fruit God desires and expects? The prophet Isaiah in the passage already referred to told us what it is not – namely cruelty, greed and lying, the opposite of which is surely kindness, generosity and integrity, two if not all three of which are amongst the nine fruits of the Spirit listed by St Paul towards the end of this letter to the Galatians.

As a young undergraduate, I remember being told that being fruitful meant, ‘bringing friends to Christ’. I felt guilty because as far as I was aware I wasn’t doing a lot of that, though I did sincerely wish they shared the faith I held.

In preparation for today, I came across this simple yet comprehensive definition of what it means to be fruitful. ‘It is the life of Jesus himself reproduced in the lives of his followers.’

The life of Jesus expressed indignation in the face of hypocrisy, anger in the face of wickedness, compassion in the face of suffering, lonely obedience to the will of his Father when easier paths beckoned, joy in the Spirit and a ready telling of the good and loving purposes of God for his children.

Illustration – At the home run by the Sisters, a Sister from Tanzania asked me concernedly over a cool bottle of Fanta whether I knew of any Muslims in the city becoming Christians? “Yes,” I replied, truthfully and readily. Her eyes lit up. “Do you know, I pray every day that the people here may come to see the beauty of Jesus.” I was moved. Such passion and love !

Fruit production! – If that be the fruit, how then is it produced?   1) Abiding, or staying in the vine. That’s obvious but essential, and Jesus is extraordinarily blunt about it – ‘Without me you can do nothing.’ Of course, hundreds of millions of us do do lots without him. We do so frequently. We pursue careers, go to Aldi or Waitrose, book holidays, redecorate homes and extend the patio. We can do all that but life lived removed from the vine cannot, Jesus says, produce fruit, the fruit that God looks for. And the opening of this passage carries a sombre warning of the fate of those who professing to be Christians produce no fruit. What then does ‘staying in the vine’ entail?

It will include what we are about today – worship, meditation on the life of Christ – prayer. It also, in the words of a former Bishop of Liverpool – someone of whom a rough working man said once on hearing him preach, “Yon man’s no bishop. I can understand him well”! – means, ‘cling to me, stick fast to me, live the life of close and intimate communion with me, put your whole weight on me . . . never let go your hold for a moment.’ It’s a reciprocal relationship, put well in the lines of a simple hymn, ‘I’ll live in you if you live in me. I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.’

2)  Pruning – Two weeks ago we were visiting an elderly friend in Durham, in the north of England, where we admired the neat pruning of her crab apple tree and just the beginning of new buds breaking out. I recall some time ago walking past vineyards where the vines had been cut back and pruned after harvest. They really looked savaged. They were though the vines of a very good winery. A good vine won’t be left to grow rampant, nor, suggests Jesus, faithful Christians.

On the subject of pruning, here are some gleanings from guidelines drawn up for the care of vines in the Champagne region of France in 1938. ‘Pruning is the most fundamental of vineyard tasks. It’s purpose is to encourage the sap to flow towards the fruit-bearing buds – the main pruning season for grape vines is early winter but they need regular pruning throughout the growing season. Regular pruning is essential for producing quality fruit yields.And what is essential for vines, Jesus taught, is an inevitable and necessary part of the course for his followers, and in his purposes and for our pruning God can use sickness, bereavement, shattered hopes and thwarted ambition, heartbreak, dark long days of depression and helplessness.

Illustration – We once had living with us a delightful young man called, Nicholas, who while living with us learned that he’d failed to gain entrance into Cambridge, something his family members had not  done for generations. His parents were appalled and he, upset, but some months later he said wistfully over breakfast, “I think it’s as well I didn’t get into Cambridge, I would have been such a prick.” (Pardon the language!) I refrained from saying, “Amen, Nicholas.” He had been given bless him, grace to see in his disappointment, the gracious hand of God at work in his life and he has had many opportunities to see it since, both in joy and at moments,of acute suffering. I dare to suggest that sometimes where the pruning has seemed most savage, the resulting fruit has been the most beautiful.

Farshad Fathi, is a young Iranian Christian. He was sentenced to six years in prison for his involvement with the growing Christian congregations that met in homes across his town. He wrote from prison, a poem entitled, ‘My Wilderness’. In conclusion, I quote a few lines.

My wilderness is painful but lovely . . .
My wilderness is like an endless road, but short compared to eternity
My wilderness seems like a lonely trip but I’m not alone
My beloved is on me . . .
My wilderness is dangerous but safe because I dwell between his shoulders
So I love my wilderness because it takes me to the deeper part of you, Lord,
and no one can separate me from your arms, ever.

How is your Theology, Ali ?

I was 18, a medical student at a party in London, glass of wine in hand, and the student pastor Greg sidled up to me and asked, “ How is your theology Ali?”

I was studying medicine, not theology and I suspect what he really wanted to know was how was my relationship with God, in a new place, away from home for the first time,

It was the wrong question on so many counts at the wrong time and in the wrong place, I spluttered something as I choked on my wine and quickly fled to find a safer conversation

Thankfully I do not think anyone has asked me that since. But sometimes it is hardest to talk about the things that matter most to us, I wonder how your relationship with God is just now, are you best friends? Do you talk occasionally? Are you mad with God, disappointed, feel let down or maybe God just feels irrelevant to life? . For many many years I prayed to God calling God Father, a cosy safe relationship, felt like I climbed onto his lap and poured out my heart. In more recent years Pete and I tried to refer to God as She in our prayers, and over time it made a huge difference to how I felt about prayer, I have spoken before about how simply changing the title led to a deepening in my understanding of this sacrament of communion, where Jesus offers us himself, in a way like I did as I breast fed 4 children. In the last couple of years I have moved to calling the divine simply God, leaving for a while the safe intimate relationship of parent to child I feel as if I have become more of an adult in the relationship and am certainly more aware of the mystery, the otherness of God, God is not a tame pet to do my bidding but I am invited into the mystery with less certainty about where that might take me.

Winter-A-Time-of-Roots-Growing-Below-the-Soil-1

I hope you picked up a picture of a tree as you came into church, I want you to look at the picture now for a few minutes and consider whether it can teach you anything about your life and God at the minute, are there ways in which it reflects how you feel, or is perhaps the opposite of where you are just now, what attracted you to this photo instead of all the others? Could this picture be saying anything about who or how you are now?

Nicholas  Mermon was born in the Lorraine in France in 1614, into a poor family. Fighting as a soldier, lonely and despairing, in the cold snows of winter he looked at a tree, branches bare, stripped of leaves and fruit, apparently dead . Gazing at the tree and remembering spring and summers of his childhood he began to grasp the extravagance OF God’s grace and , the promise that the turn of the seasons would bring fullness. He writes that ” leafless tree first flashed upon my soul the fact of God”

An injury forced his retirement from the army, he entered a Carmelite monastery, sadly with no  education  he was  assigned to work in the kitchens for the rest of his life, there amidst the tedious chores of cooking and cleaning at the constant bid of his superiors he developed a way of life. He writes about the simplicity of coming to God, finding God in the ordinary, in  turning out a cake, in preparing vegetables, he speaks of it being enough to sweep up the floor for love of God. He cooked meals and scrubbed pots and wrote ”the time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayers and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen while several persons are at the same time calling for different things I possess God in as great tranquillity as if I were upon my knees receiving the blessed sacrament. He was no good at set prayers, though he tried for 3 hours a day but resolved to give himself to God moment by moment through his busy day, found that he wanted to maintain an ongoing conversation with God no matter what he was doing. “ I make it my business to rest in his holy presence”…the good brother found God everywhere.

We know this man today as Brother Lawrence, author of Practising the presence of God

I had a meaningful encounter with a tree at my ordination retreat,a chestnut tree ,  a  rather poor photo I took of it. A line of trees had been felled by the storms of the mid nineties, the farmer had cleared most of them away but this one, on the edge of field was stripped of useful branches and wood, the stump left fallen on the ground, but now a few years on new life was sprouting amazingly, now 20 feet tall. I had had to give up the career I had been trained for, I could not cope with the demands, I felt dried up and useless, logs on a wood pile  but this tree promised new life , new direction, there were still a few roots deep into the ground, something new could happen

The Ethiopian in our reading from Acts this morning was looking for something, searching scripture and  Philip asked if he understood. He replies How can I without someone to guide me. We all need help. If Eli had not been around Samuel might still be sleeping, without Ananias bravely opening his heart to the blind Saul along the road to Damascus we might never have had the wisdom of Paul. If the stranger had walked on by minding his own business or keen to reach his destination then the two people along the Emmaus road might still be wandering, lost in their grief and misunderstanding.. we all need help along the way, Jesus longed for company in Gethsemane but the disciples did not quite get it and fell asleep. WE know little of Mary but in the midst of that confusing pregnancy she chose to go to her cousin Elizabeth to work together toward understanding and acceptance.

In the muddle of 4 children under 6 Pete gave me a life changing present, 48 hours retreat in the convent of ST Mary’s in Wantage. I sat with the delightful fun loving twinkle in her eyes rotund nun, sister Ann Julian and said I don’t think this spiritual life is for me. The only way I had been taught to pray was on my knees, first thing in the morning, for at least half an hour with a list of people and situations that I needed to inform God about. If I set my alarm to wake up it simply woke all 6 of us, made the day longer and everyone more grouchy.

Of course I know that that way of prayer works for some people, my dad prayed on his knees by his bed every night, read his bible notes, BRF ones I know because I watched him when we all slept in a small caravan for holidays.  I hate daily bible notes, I feel such a failure when within the first week I am a day or two behind, I feel incredibly judged by those little letters and numbers of a date at the top of each page. But AJ nonplussed asked if there was ever a time when I was aware of God, without hesitation I responded yes, when I walk through the woods…could I go for a walk more regularly she asked. I got home, it still felt very selfish to take myself off for a walk, not too much achieved by a walk in the woods but we had children who regularly asked for a puppy, we got KEs , a golden retriever pup and suddenly I had to take a walk every day. Years later training for ordination we were invited to take in a symbol of our relationship with God, I took in the by then two dogs, my prayer partners. And yes these days I still enjoy walking and talking with God but I have also learned to be still and mostly quiet with God often in the early morning.

It is often a struggle to  come to God, it is often a struggle to face myself but the gentle wisdom of that nun encouraged, sometimes challenged me to keep trying. She gave me ideas of new ways of approach, questions lead me to different understanding. She inspired me so much that during a really tough period of my life, off work, in turmoil that I trained in that same ministry of spiritual direction, except that is such a misnomer, the guide does not direct but sits with, offers a safe hospitable space to explore my relationship with God. And that is what is on offer in June this year, here in the parish, for just one week we will have a variety of guides or accompaniers if you would like to give a little attention to how you and God are getting on at the minute. No answers guaranteed but a deep belief that God longs for us to relate to him/her, to ourselves and to one another, to be in community.

There are a few metaphors for this that I enjoy, the first is that I, your guide can be a midwife, a midwife does not make you pregnant but has sat with so many people who are giving birth that they can offer support and suggestions about how you might best live through this that is happening to you. The second is to pan for gold, it is an opportunity to put all the mess and mud of life into a sieve, and allow the Spirit of God to gently wash through then together we will look for the nuggets of gold, the things in our lives that we most value, that we want to hang onto, give space for

If you would like to work with some of these questions, then sign up for the week of accompanied prayer, no qualifications or experience necessary, you will be offered half an hour each day to talk over your life in God with an experienced guide or companion. They will make suggestions for things for you to do, they will listen and together you will seek God in amongst the complexity or your life.

Tomorrow Pete and I are off on the Eurostar to  see daughter Jo, she lives in Paris. We will catch the train at St Pancras station so we will see for ourselves the new art installation by Tracey Emin, you might have a copy of it on the front of your service sheet, as we look toward the clock we will see the huge pink fluorescent writing that says I want my time with you. So many of us struggle to use time in a way that is true to our deepest desires, yet that is where God can be found. The monk  Thomas Merton captures this well, as Lucy WInkett quoted in thought for the day this week, reflecting on this art work, If you want to know me, ask me not where I live or what I like to eat or how I do my hair but ask me what I am living for and what is keeping me from living fully for the things I want to live for….if I am not spending my time with who I want to spend it with, why aren’t I? what is stopping me?

https://ronaldraab.com/2017/04/22/the-second-sunday-of-easter-2017-painting-of-jesus-and-thomas/

Living with the Resurrection; doubts, hopes and all.

+ May I speak …

Quote from Les Miserables: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

It’s been a week, a long week.. and a lot can happen in a week. I wonder how your weeks have been since we last were together celebrating the wonder of Easter’s resurrection… have you lived in the bright glow of hope, or the grey everyday, or under darker clouds of oppression, stress or grief..

One week on.. has Easter made a difference?

One week on… lets be honest, what difference did we expect it to make?

As the excitement of the festival dims, It’s hard to know what difference it actually makes to our lives… is it a marker, a signpost, a symbol of hope built into the everyday?

During last weeks (joyfully chaotic) homily, I spoke of the abrupt mid-sentence ending of Mark; of how the story is left unfinished. How the wordlessness and fear of the visiting women might be the only appropriate and fitting response.

+Andrew asked me several years ago what it means to say ‘Christ is Risen’ before a church; I answered (controversially?) that I wasn’t really interested in trying to get back to what happened 2000 years ago, I was interested in what that meant now; how in people come to church and say ‘yes’ to this impossible claim, that it becomes the very basis of this church and of the lives of its people … how can we say ‘yes’ to a testimony which claims the God has made life come from places of death? How and when does it happen? And how do we celebrate that hope realistically?

Perhaps the clues are found in this week’s connected readings; both rich with layers of meaning.

We have two scenes portrayed; first, the book of Acts, (interesting that the lectionary this year gives it as a post-resurrection narrative, not  the usual post-Pentecost narrative). We get a snapshot of a life totally transformed, people and community transformed, living together and sharing in ways that they could never have imagined before now… a radical, (even today) vision of a re-setting of prime values and priorities..

Why is this a post-resurrection reading? How does this speak of new life, unexpected life coming from places (or habits) of death?

32 The group of believers was one in mind and heart. None of them said that any of their belongings were their own, but they all shared with one another everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God poured rich blessings on them all.

Hold on… ‘great power’, ‘rich blessings’, these are words associated with the Spirit.. by enacting community are they embodying something of the resurrection drama?

It’s a reminder that our whole service this morning makes up the Eucharistic Drama… when we share The Peace we are doing more than simply saying ‘hello’, (and slightly embarrassing ourselves); we are participating in a symbol which is rooted in exactly this resurrection change – a moment of sacramental remembering.

I said last week that the Mark’s resurrection is a story which needs telling again and again, it never ends.. As we greet one another, we confer a blessing to each other , and as we do we re-hearse, re-tell, re-story the endless story. The Acts passage invites us to imagine such moments as defining rather than accidental. The Peace provokes and rehearses our own works of mercy and justice.

“To love another person is to see the face of God.”

The second scene is told by John… is the familiar visitation to the disciples, and the special encounter with Thomas… We hear the story of the disciples locked away, afraid; fearful of the Jewish authorities, (note – ‘Jews’ means authorities, priests, not all Jews; Jesus was a Jew – as were his followers, and John himself!). Other commentators have wondered, were they afraid of Jesus? Maybe they didn’t want to believe the testimony of the women … afraid that it was all too real?

But Jesus appears.. we imagine the shock, the awe… We see the physical interaction; body, wound, touch, seeing, restoration. (Whatever resurrection has done – it has not removed the wounding).

But we also witness the Spirit being given… as breath, and the words ‘Peace be with you’..

This following section was not given in the sermon…

And then this strange line about forgiving.. most strange. or is it…

If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

There are two halves to this sentence; the first concerns this strange word ‘sin’.. but I’m not talking about that today. It’s easy to imagine the second half of the sentence follows the same subject… which means if you do not forgive sin, they are not forgiven..

But that’s not what is being said… let’s be honest, Jesus has just died for or with the sin/(brokenness) of the whole world.. why on earth is he saying then that sins can be left unforgiven? That makes a mockery of the whole Easter event!

Let’s look another way and consider it talking about the people who commit sin, who carry and embody brokenness.. (and yes – that’s all of us!).

if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.

… But if you do, if you forgive the person, hold the person, embrace and welcome the person, the ‘other’– they are held, they are restored, they become like you.

Jesus meets the doubt of his followers; holds them, gives them the Spirit of peace, gives them the ability to share that peace with each other and with the world. So peace, spirit, resurrection, others .. again. The resurrection story becomes a little clearer… it is lived out with others…

“To love another person is to see the face of God.”

And finally we have the story of badly-typecast Thomas. To be honest.. he doesn’t even really ‘doubt’.. it’s more like when someone tells you about a great movie, a great song or a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavour.. hearing about it isn’t enough.. you want to see it or hear or taste it yourself.

That’s not even doubt in my book! .. I can tell you a few things about real doubt.. (but you’d be bored!)… Doubt is not the opposite of faith, but instead it’s part of it. Real doubt is good, necessary sometimes, and once again embraced by the one who cares enough to meet us in doubt.

And I would push further and say that doubt isn’t an in/out thing… we all live questioning; both believing and simultaneously denying all this stuff – all the time! Those whose doubts prevent them from entering church have a gift for us… cause us to be realistic. (Camino program, ‘I’m not sure if I believe’). In the crucible of doubt we lose certainties but are left with faith.

Thomas is where we are.. one week on.. when the glow of celebration subsides and reality knocks at the door. He wasn’t with the first disciples.. (who also didn’t believe what they were told)..  he’s probably had a terrible week.. I think we can give him that.. Maybe he didn’t doubt at all.. Maybe he grieved.. “how can anything be real anymore, how do I even begin to carry on with life?” Maybe we can all share something of that.. when something so devastating rips the ceiling off our lives… tears our worlds apart… Perhaps Thomas is like the psalmists pleading for God’s existence amid our groans, watching for God in the land parched with doubt but no water, looking for the God who bears the marks of our weary world in his own body. * The Psalms juxtapose extravagant faith claims alongside deep doubts.. The tension of now/not-yet. And if we are to be realistic about the resurrection then maybe we can doubt it as much as celebrate it!

Maybe, like Thomas and the Psalmists, we wait – allowing time to pass… we have to – we have no choice. We find ourselves held by others.. exploring silence and then (sometimes) unexpectedly surprised.

Jesus greets Thomas one week on.. offers the same blessing of peace, the same breath of the Spirit.. the same physical interaction. It is a beautiful intimate moment.

 “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

John finishes his story here…. (most scholars believe the other chapter is a later addition)

The story told ‘that you might believe’, is always being told, always without an ending; it requires time, patience understanding and love.. it requires others to help us tell the story, to listen, to share and to grow.

It asks that we dare to imagine something different.. something different to what we face now…

It asks that we embody a future full of wild, unknown and hopeful possibilities.

It asks that we understand that doubt is an inevitable part of that journey.. we cannot love the impossible until we first realise that it is truly impossible.

Yet in the face of death.. even the death of a crucified God .. a gift seems to emerge in our lives and offer something new.. life still overcoming death – over and over again. A new blessing, a new grace.. The Peace we share in this Eucharist reminds us that Easter transforms our lives and will keep on transforming…  always in process, always in hope, always in the face of an/other.

Peace be with you …

 

Featured Image : “My Lord and God” Jesus and Thomas, Painting by: Ronald Raab, CSC
https://ronaldraab.com/2017/04/22/the-second-sunday-of-easter-2017-painting-of-jesus-and-thomas/